In Theory | Global Cities: Too Big to Last

Andrew Robinson concludes his critical examination of the structural inequalities of Global Cities, the dynamics of their relationships with the rest, and their ultimately fatal vulnerabilities.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, December 2, 2011 13:47 - 5 Comments

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(Photo: joshushund)

Growth coalitions

Global cities are usually run by growth coalitions. The idea of growth coalitions comes from Clarence N. Stone’s work on city government in Atlanta. It has since been applied worldwide. Growth coalitions are the usual force behind global city formation. They typically consist of ‘entrepreneurial’ city-leaders such as mayors, local business leaders, members of the permanent state bureaucracy, and other local elite figures. Worryingly, growth coalitions seem largely immune to electoral competition. They stay in place and carry on as usual even when the party in power changes. Growth coalitions usually aspire to create a certain kind of global city or city-node.

The power arising from global cities does not easily diffuse from these cities. Rather, it is usually held mainly by actors within the cities. Far from using global city growth to help the hinterland, political elites are often ‘captured’ by growth coalitions. They end up further dispossessing the hinterland to help the global city. They also end up spending all their money and getting unsustainably into debt. It is commonly observed that global cities are prone to ‘fiscal crises’ – situations where the city can’t cover its expenses.

Global cities and the rest

There are only a handful of ‘true’ global cities, and a few more major regional hubs, perhaps a dozen or so in total (the list varies between sources). Yet for every one ‘true’ global city, there are a dozen more which either claim or aspire to have that title, and a dozen below them who claim or aspire to regional, functional or gateway roles.

A city such as Dubai cannot really claim global city status, as its share of corporate headquarters and trade flows is low (most Middle Eastern regional headquarters are, bizarrely, in London). Yet this does not stop Dubai from presenting itself as a global city, pursuing global city-like development projects such as Burj Dubai, or taking all the repressive measures needed to appear to be a global city (e.g. hyperexploitation of migrant workers without labour rights).

We see pathetic parallels of this model even in a city like Nottingham in the UK: the attempt to create a cluster of biotechnology companies, the big office-building projects near the city-centre, the plan to redevelop Sneinton Market, the immense overspending on redeveloping the city square. Of course, these developments largely failed: the city is now littered with empty offices. Nottingham is never going to be a global city. Yet the appeal of acting like a global city seems infectious to politicians and bosses everywhere.

With the model come the oppressive effects: the social cleansing of poverty and deviance, the hostile attitude to protest and to truly public spaces, the focus on appearance over substance, the policy emphasis on servicing capitalism instead of meeting social needs, the speculative borrowing and overspending by governments and councils, the corrupt or borderline-corrupt closure of elite coalitions.

Global cities and the decline of nation-states

Global cities have a big geopolitical impact, on two levels. Firstly, states seeking economic growth through global cities don’t have the independence that old nation-states had. They’re dependent on the whims of transnational capitalists. It’s therefore difficult for states to use their wealth to fund other objectives – for instance, to turn the economy over to total war. The state’s spatial insertion in global capitalism is different today. As a result, the state’s capabilities are altered. A state which faced war in its heartland would lose its trade advantages very quickly. It would be massively disrupted by enemy attacks.

The nature of global cities also impacts on more benevolent uses of state power. Global cities tend not to be used to generate revenue for things like welfare states, wage increases and development of other regions. Some of them run a deficit model to compete for advantages in attracting capital. Many spend their revenue mainly on infrastructure designed to attract capital (e.g. roads and policing).

Hence, now more than ever, economic growth does not translate into development. Wealth polarisation is noticeable in all global cities. While it is sometimes offset by high growth rates, the poor often become poorer, and are hardest-hit by crises.

It is no surprise, therefore, that financial and economic power have ‘bifurcated’ or diverged. Emerging economic powers such as China have difficulty turning economic power into military strength. This is very different from the imperial or Fordist era, when city power depended on state power. This is ironic, because states usually pursue growth for precisely these reasons. They want growth as a means to military strength, or as a means to development.

The result is that nationalist ideology is becoming less and less rooted in material conditions. The nation-state model is becoming increasingly distant from the real structure of the economy. Most nation-states are now hegemonised by global-city coalitions. State leaders come to represent the global city rather than the national economy. The UK is about London, the US is about New York and California, China is about the three zones around Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Groupings such as the G20 bring together representatives of these states, who barter on behalf of global cities. In identity terms, global cities are often closer to each other than to their own peripheries. Yet many of these governments rule a huge hinterland much larger than their developmental areas. As in the days of classic colonialism, the rural poor of countries like China, India and Russia are largely unrepresented. So too are states without global cities, which have been pushed into a second-class status, excluded from international decision-making.

Of course, this process corresponds to growing nationalisms, which can also be explained as reactions to globalisation. Formerly included groups often want to restore an extended form of state nationalism to counteract globalisation.

This nationalist impulse is seriously weakening global resistance, since it pulls such resistance to the right. It is easily channelled into hostility to minorities and support for neoliberal governments. Over time, its socioeconomic basis may be being corroded. Nationalism may come to seem a fantasy to people growing up within neoliberalism, as it bears so little relation to their actual social conditions. Hinterlands may cease to identify with cities which exploit rather than support them. This may be already happening, but disguised beneath nationalist and populist language.

What’s wrong with global cities?

The global city model is the logical effect of a set of political priorities which place the wishes of capitalists above real social needs. While ‘investors’ are catered to like never before, the rest of the social landscape is in crisis.

Ultimately, the global cities model is short-term and unsustainable. In the rush to lure investment, global cities often sacrifice forward planning, ecological sustainability, sometimes even economic functioning. Successful cities like Shanghai and Beijing become overwhelmed by the symptoms of their success.

Workers can’t afford housing in the centre because of soaring prices, a direct result of global city status. But companies need workers. So millions of people trek for hours by car, bus, train, bicycle. Congestion and pollution follow. People are late for work; efficiency falls. Pollution puts off investors. Health problems raise local costs. Services like postage and education are overwhelmed.

Keeping the marginal poor at bay costs a fortune, in repression if nothing else. Eventually, workers start demanding a share of the wealth. And this is without considering the wider context of dispossession, impoverishment, climate change, and global discontent at an exclusionary, insecure and inegalitarian world order.

In addition, the reliance on external investments in a world of speculative and unpredictable capitalism leads to vulnerability. A booming city can suddenly be hit by an unanticipated crisis. Global city growth often comes from self-reinforcing bubbles. People buy land because they see land prices rising. Eventually, these bubbles burst. Many wannabe global cities have been left as economic wastelands by failed strategies or crashes.

All global cities have a sizeable number of precarians living either in or near them. Often, such people have been forced out of the central areas of cities by gentrification, as in Berlin, London and New York. In some countries such as China, entire regions around cities have become low-income suburbs. Global cities and related ideas are sometimes seen as a kind of self-colonisation.

This is emotionally and socially disruptive in relation to people’s lives. A paper by Tsung-Hyi Huang looks at experiences of global city formation as refracted in fiction. Effects include the demolition of traditional structures, widespread alienation, and a gap between sensory expectations and actual input. Stephen Flusty writes of the creation of increasingly hostile, use-specific forms of space designed to deter alternative uses. Class divisions have become increasingly visible with the rise of gated communities.

To create optimum conditions for capital flows, global cities are cleared of ‘noise’ or interference – often by repressive means. In virtually every global city, there is a continuing onslaught on the right to protest in global cities, on the presence of the urban poor, on everyday survival strategies such as street trading and begging, on shanty-towns and squatting, and on activities not conducive to a pro-capitalist image. The importance of image leads this process of closure in almost totalitarian directions: the existence of dissent and deviance must be concealed lest the appearance be falsified.

Virtually every global city has sharp income polarisation. Usually, there is a class of people who are dispossessed of legal status and all recognition of rights to the city. They might be undocumented migrants from outside the nation-state, unregistered internal migrants from other zones of the country, demonised ethnic groups, or shanty-town residents living on occupied land. Global cities often need this class to some degree, to provide subsidiary services and cheap labour. But the elite also fear them as a source of unrest and disruption. Global cities pull in more of the globally excluded than the elite are comfortable with, because of the way they concentrate money and resources.

The right to the city

The struggle for a ‘right to the city’ has long been theorised by authors such as Lefebvre. Cities have always been created largely to serve state or capitalist means. They have always been contested by residents, who seek to turn them into something more conducive to human life. Today this struggle seems to have been won by capital. Yet it continues to be waged in the incursions of protesters such as Occupy and summit protests into the heart of global cities.

It also continues to be waged in the day-to-day struggle in the ghettos and banlieues. These areas are in many ways colonies of the marginal within or near global cities. They are typically something in between autonomous zones off-limits to the state and occupied territories ruled by a constant paramilitary police presence.

In countries such as South Africa and India, slum-dwellers can bring cities to a standstill by blocking strategic roads which pass through the hinterlands. In less politicised contexts, informal economic actors, from ‘criminal’ gangs to street traders, seek to survive by taking part in the concentrations in global cities. States may have to make deals with gangs or social movements to avoid disruption.

The great vulnerability of global cities is their outward orientation. Heavily reliant on imported supplies, drawing on flows which have to be kept up at breakneck speed, and often using “just-in-time” production models (which leave little space to compensate for breakdowns), global cities become increasingly vulnerable to disruptions and shutdowns. They can be ransacked from the inside or blockaded from without. They grind to a standstill all too easily.

It is not only protests, strikes, revolts, and ‘terror’ attacks which have this effect. A road accident, an unexpected snowfall, volcanic ash, a fire along a motorway can be enough to cause gridlock. The disruption of supplies from half a world away by a foreign war or disaster can see high-speed flows impeded, with huge knock-on effects. And this is without considering economic crises, which since the 1980s, have occurred every few years.

An entire obsession with risk-management has emerged to handle the insecurity arising from these vulnerabilities. Yet it is often not enough to head off unforeseen problems. The system just doesn’t have the ‘redundancy’ or slack to handle small disruptions.

This is why global cities continue to suffer shocks like the current financial crisis. It is also their achilles’ heel, the point at which the neoliberal regime can most effectively be challenged.

You can also read part one of this essay: “Global Cities: the Rise and Rise of Capitalism’s Behemoths”.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

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Bobby
Dec 5, 2011 23:06

Fantastic article as always Andrew. Incredibly comprehensive and striking.

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