13.06.2013, 17:44
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Saskia Sassen is a famous American sociologist and economist, who coined the terms “global city” and “centralities”. She is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. On June 17th, Saskia talked about large complex cities and their frontier zones at Strelka.

The large complex city, especially if global, is a new frontier zone. Actors from different worlds meet there, but there are no clear rules of engagement. Where the historic frontier, as seen from imperial centers, was in the far stretches of the ‘colonies,’ today it is deep inside those imperial centers. These cities, whether in the global north or south have become a strategic frontier zone for global corporate capital. Much of the work of forcing deregulation, privatization, and new fiscal and monetary policies on the host governments had to do with creating the formal instruments to construct their equivalent of the old military “fort” of the historic frontier: the regulatory environment they need in city after city worldwide to ensure a global space of operations.

But these cities have also become a strategic frontier zone for those who lack power, those who are disadvantaged, outsiders, discriminated minorities. The disadvantaged and excluded can gain presence in such cities, presence vis a vis power and presence vis a vis each other. This signals the possibility of a new type of politics, centered in new types of political actors. It is not simply a matter of having or not having power. These are new hybrid bases from which to act, spaces where the powerless can make history even when they do not get empowered.

One outcome we are seeing in city after city is the making of informal politics by actors-with-a-project –whether these actors are with power or without. It is particularly the work of making the public and making the political in urban space that become critical at a time when national political space is increasingly dominated by powerful actors, both private and public, that are basically not accountable to the larger public. There is a kind of public-making work that can produce disruptive narratives, and make legible the local and the silenced. The large complex global cities are one key space for this making.[2] It is I argue, one of the few frontier spaces with all the inequities, conflicts and potentials for making such a space entails. It is the possibility of making that concerns me here, given the ascendance of increasingly parallell bordered spaces for respectively those whose advantage grows and those who lose ground.


This emergent frontier-space function arises in a context of increasingly hardwired borderings inside cities and across cities. Gated communities are but the most visible moment of these borderings. The uses that global corporate capital makes of ‘our’ cities are part of that hard bordering. The common assertion that we are a far less bordered world than 30 years ago only holds if we consider the traditional borders of the interstate system, and then only for the cross border flow of capital, information and particular population groups. Far from moving towards a borderless world, let me argue that even as we lift some of these barriers for some sectors of our economies and society, these same sectors are actively making new types of borderings that are transversal and impenetrable. It is in this context that the complex global city becomes a frontier space with political consequences.

Today the border is a mix of regimes with variable contents and locations. Borders always have been that in some way (2008: ch 2). But each epoch has its specifics, and my focus here is on the current global epoch that takes off in the 1980s. Different flows, of capital, information, professionals, undocumented, each constitutes bordering through a particular sequence of interventions, with diverse institutional and geographic locations. The actual geographic border is part of the cross-border flow of goods if they come by ground transport, but not of capital, except if actual cash is being transported. Each border-control intervention can be conceived of as one point in a chain of locations. In the case of traded goods these might involve a pre-border inspection or certification site. In the case of capital flows the chain of locations will involve banks, stock markets, and electronic networks. The geographic borderline is but one point in the chain; institutional points of border control intervention can form long chains moving deep inside a country.

The sites for the enforcement of border regimes range from banks to bodies; this is one image we might use to capture the multiple locations that constitute “the” border. When a bank executes the most elementary money transfer to another country, the bank is one of the sites for border-regime enforcement. A certified good represents a case where the object itself crossing the border is one of the sites for enforcement: the emblematic case is a certified agricultural product. But it also encompasses the case of the tourist carrying a tourist visa and the immigrant carrying the requisite certification. Indeed, in the case of immigration, it is the body of the immigrant herself which is both the carrier of much of the regime and the crucial site for enforcement; and in the case of an unauthorized immigrant, it is, again, the body of the immigrant that is the carrier of the violation of the law and of the corresponding punishment (i.e. detention or expulsion).

Let me elaborate on this mix of themes.


This variety of bordering sites and instruments tends to aggregate into a stark bipolar differentiation.[3] A large segment of actors, from firms to professionals, move in protected transversal bordered spaces. These bordered spaces are impenetrable. No coyote can take you across those novel borderings. At the other extreme, are the less protected, those who need to justify their claim to entry, whether tourists from particular countries and ethnicities or migrant workers. At its most extreme, this aggregates into a less protected, more persecuted mix of people for whom the crossing of the border has degraded into an operation marked by the violation of their most basic rights as human beings.

Two distinct bordered spaces are taking shape: both cut across traditional borders, but they do so in very different ways. The cross-border space of corporations and high-level professionals enhances protection and opportunity. The cross-border space of migrants, whether documented or not, is marked by a shift from opportunity to confinements of all sorts; at its sharpest this becomes a space of capture and detention. In this context, the city can become a refuge, and even more important, a space where powerlessness becomes complex and in so doing enables the powerless to make a history and to make the political.

A direct effect of globalization, especially corporate economic globalization, has been to create increasing divergence among different border regimes. Thus the lifting of border controls on a growing variety of capital, services and information flows has taken place even as other border regimes maintain closure, and impediments to cross-border flows are made stronger, e.g., the migration of low-wage workers. We are also seeing the construction of specific “borderings” to contain and govern emerging, often strategic or specialized, flows that cut across traditional national borders, as is the case, for instance, with the new regimes in NAFTA and WTO, especially the GATTS, for the cross-border circulation of high-level professionals. Where in the past these professionals may have been part of a country’s general immigration regime, now we have an increasing divergence between the latter and the specialized global, rather than national, regime governing these professionals.

The multiple regimes that constitute the border as an institution can be grouped, on the one hand, into a formalized apparatus that is part of the interstate system and, on the other, into an as yet far less formalized array of novel types of borderings lying largely outside the framing of the inter-state system. The first has at its core the body of regulations covering a variety of international flows — flows of different types of commodities, capital, people, services, and information. No matter their variety, these multiple regimes tend to cohere around a) the state’s unilateral authority to define and enforce regulations, and b) the state’s obligation to respect and uphold the regulations coming out of the international treaty system or out of bilateral arrangements.

The second major component, the new type of bordering dynamics arising outside the framing of the interstate system, does not necessarily entail a self-evident crossing of borders; it includes a range of dynamics arising out of specific contemporary developments, notably emergent global law systems and a growing range of globally networked digital interactive domains. It also includes, and this is pertinent to the question of cities, the recurrent instantiation of the global in a certain type of space, with the global city only the most familiar and strategic of these spaces. This is a type of space that mixes critical elements enabling some of the most powerful and some of the least powerful to execute their “projects.” Power enhancement and legitimating for the former, and “making presence” for the latter, where making presence includes a range of contradictory dynamics, such as the making of their space partly enabled by racism and segregation, e.g. the immigrant community, and the fact that many become key workers in the maintenance of the former, the powerful, who would have a bit of a crisis without these types of low-wage and often oppressed workers. In this dynamic contradiction, the powerless make presence.

The claim to a national bordered territory as a parameter for authority and rights has today entered a new phase.[4] State exclusive authority over its territory remains the prevalent mode of final authority in the global political economy; in that sense, then, state centered border regimes—whether open or closed—remain as foundational elements in our geopolity. But these regimes are today less absolute formally than they were once meant to be. Critical components of this territorial authority that may still have a national institutional form and location are actually no longer national in the historically constructed sense of that term; they are, I argue denationalized components of state authority: they look national but they are actually geared towards global agendas, some good (e.g. global civics, some not so good at all, e.g. global high-finance).
[1] This is based on the author’s Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[2] Elsewhere (“The Global Street: Making the Political” Globalizations October 2011, Vol. 8, No. 5, pp. 565–571) I have examined a particular angle of this disjuncture by focusing on everyday life in cities at a time of growing velocities, the ascendance of process and flow over artifacts and permanence, massive structures that are not at a human scale, and branding as the basic mediation between individuals and markets. The work of design produces narratives that add to the value of existing contexts, and at its narrowest, to the utility logics of the economic corporate world.

[3] I have developed this at length in Territory, op.cit, chapters 5 and 8.

[4] For a more detailed development of this issue see “Neither Global nor National: Novel Assemblages of Territory, Authority, and Rights,” Ethics & Global Politics, 2008 vol. 1, nr. 1-2. Pp. 1-19