Globalisation as geometries of power

By Doreen Massey

Delivered at the Signs of the Times Seminar, 30th September 2002.

Perhaps we could begin from some points on which I suspect there is considerable agreement. First, that as "counter-globalisation" protests become more global one thing is certainly clear: that we are not anti-global, and most certainly that is the case if it means a retreat to the local. Neither "local" nor "global" are politically progressive or regressive in themselves. Rather what is at issue is not whether or not we are going to have a more interconnected world, but what will be the form of that interconnectivity. Neither local nor global but the form and nature of the geography of power-relations which weave the two together. What, elsewhere, I have termed "power-geometries".

Second, a lot of political struggle is about capturing words. And the neoliberal right has captured the word "globalisation". It has done so, I think, by a duplicitous manoeuvre where the word "globalisation" is taken to mean both increasing interconnectedness in general and the particular neo-liberal form which that interconnectedness is dominantly taking at the moment. So, if we object to the current globalisation the reply comes in the form of "oh come on, you can't turn the clock back, the world is inevitably becoming more interconnected".

That kind of response is designed to do two things:

  • First it obscures the issue. What is in the question (what should be in question) is not whether we are going to have a more interconnected world in some general sense. I am sure we are - I hope we are. But the nature and form of that interconnection. A globalisation that is not neoliberal.

  • Second, by eliding globalisation-in-general with neoliberal globalisation, the latter is made to seem inevitable. (It is not, of course.) And the real effect of this in turn is to take it out of the realm of the political. This taking of economics out of politics is both widespread and of great importance, and must be resisted (see "I'm not an economist but ..." in Soundings no.10, pp.7-10).

    If we accept these propositions then a number of things follow.

    First: we must not cede the global level to the Right, to the neoliberals, either by retreating to the local level only or by calling for the abolition of the WTO/IMF/WB but with nothing to offer in their place. We do need bodies, and mechanisms, and fora for debate, at that level or else we really shall see the rule of the powerful. The questions are the democratic structure, and what they are called upon to do.

    Second: if we think "local-global" as co-constituted within power geometries, then there are considerable implications for politics (see Red Pepper July 2000). At global level there is the question of what "global bodies" are called upon to do. Take the WTO. At the moment its mission is the implementation of "rules" (the rules of free trade etc.). Now, in tune with earlier arguments, one might argue that the application of "equal abstract rules" in a world of such gross inequality as this one can not lead to progressive outcomes. That kind of apparent evenhandedness will never produce egalitarian results. So, arguing for "free trade" to be applied equally and fairly (eg that the EU abandon quotas on textiles, the USA subsidies to cotton, etc.) is right (because at the moment the rules are bent in favour of the powerful), but it is not enough. Neither, though, should we be arguing "against" trade. "Protection" may be "good" or "bad" depending on the power relations of the particular situation (protecting EU and USA farmers may not be so justifiable, if an equal world is the aim, as protecting Mexican corn growers or a nascent Brazilian high-tech industry). "Protection" is another word which has been captured (and made to sound universally negative). Just as with "the local" and "the global", opening up borders to trade can sometimes be progressive and sometimes not from our political perspective. It depends on the situation.

    What we need, then, is global bodies that can respond in a situated way: not a one-rule-suits-everywhere procedure. But that means in turn that, as hinted in the discussion above, it will be necessary to have a debate and an agreement, even if it is an ever-provisional mobile agreement, on what are the aims of globalisation. "Free trade", for instance, is usually justified to its critics as a means not an end (it will pull poorer countries out of poverty). So we might take the proponents of the current form of globalisation at their word, and argue for fora at global level which genuinely debate purposes, which debate the aims of globalisation, the criteria against which individual judgements may be evaluated.One obvious, and probably derisive, response to this from the Right will be that it will lead to endless debate and disagreement. And it will. But debate and disagreement are, or should be, precisely the stuff of politics and democracy. Indeed, another effect of the strategy of only applying "rules" is precisely that, once again, it takes the politics out of the debate; it treats globalisation as a technical matter. In contrast, insisting on a situated response to, for instance, questions of trade, would help politicise the debate around globalisation beyond the terms of for it or against it and around the terms of what it's for and what form it is going to take.

    Third: if, again, we conceptualise the spaces and places of globalisation as being constituted in and through power-geometries then it may also be possible to develop a different understanding, and politics, of nations and localities.

    In this formulation, any "place" (which may be a nation, a region, a city, ...) can be imagined as a unique node, or constellation, of social relations. Moreover, since power is constitutive of the social, these social relations are power relations.

    Now, I think it is most common in our political imaginaries to understand "places" as the product of the operation of globalising forces. The place is seen in this way as an outcome; it is also often seen as a victim. From the local place one might fight to resist the wider global forces. Here much work has been done. However, the point about thinking in terms of power-geometries is that places (nations, cities, ...) are differentially located within those geometries. Chad is in a very different position from the UK; Oldham in a very different position from London. And in thinking in this way of the UK and London, in these two comparisons, it becomes evident that it is inadequate simply to analyse all places as "victims" (on the receiving end) of globalisation for some of them are also the loci of the production of globalisation. This is especially important to note when those places are powerful nodes within global geometries.

    In such places a different local politics is required in relation to globalisation. We need a politics at national level actively to contest the role of the British state, and the New Labour government, in the encouragement and enabling of neoliberal globalisation. But the reason I wanted to raise this issue here this evening concerns London (see City 5.1: 101-105). London is one of the most powerful nodes within neoliberal power-geometries. It has considerable room for manoeuvre. It also has a mayor and a government with claims to be radical and progressive. And yet the proposed London Plan has as its central aim the further promotion of London as a "World City" and a definition of being a World City which is based solely on the financial sectors. The Plan's "analysis" of London's international economic role represents that role as totally benign. The tensions within London (in terms, for instance, of land and housing costs - and the consequences in poverty for many Londoners) are barely recognised. The politics is one solely of competing with other World Cities (Frankfurt being brandished, in classic fashion, as a threat).

    This is a gross distortion of the situation. London is in a powerful position and many elements of that power should be challenged. At minimum we need a definition of World Citydom which goes well beyond finance. Better, there should be active support for globalisation from below. A politics based so overwhelmingly on competition with other cities should (and easily could) be rejected out of hand. And the mayor, rather than backing the City uncritically, should be stimulating a metropolitan-wide debate on London's role (what it is and what it might be) within the production of (what kind of?) globalisation. We should be pushing for this. If it's not possible in London, then where?

    By Doreen Massey