The global city:
strategic site/new frontier
THE master images in the currently dominant account about economic
globalization emphasize hypermobility, global communications, the neutralization of place
and distance. There is a tendency in that account to take the existence of a global
economic system as a given, a function of the power of transnational corporations and
But the capabilities for global operation, coordination and control
contained in the new information technologies and in the power of transnational
corporations need to be produced. By focusing on the production of these capabilities we
add a neglected dimension to the familiar issue of the power of large corporations and the
new technologies. The emphasis shifts to the practices that constitute what we call
economic globalization and global control: the work of producing and reproducing the
organization and management of a global production system and a global marketplace for
finance, both under conditions of economic concentration.
A focus on practices draws the categories of place and production
process into the analysis of economic globalization. These are two categories easily
overlooked in accounts centred on the hypermobility of capital and the power of
transnationals. Developing categories such as place and production process does not negate
the centrality of hypermobility and power. Rather, it foregrounds the fact that many of
the resources necessary for global economic activities are not hypermobile and are,
indeed, deeply embedded in place, notably places such as global cities and export
Why does it matter to recover place and production in analyses of
the global economy, particularly as these are constituted in major cities? Because it
allows us to see the multiplicity of economies and work cultures in which the global
information economy is embedded. It also allows us to recover the concrete, localized
processes through which globalization exists and to argue that much of the
multi-culturalism in large cities is as much a part of globalization as is international
finance. Finally, focusing on cities allows us to specify a geography of strategic places
at the global scale, places bound to each other by the dynamics of economic globalization.
I refer to this as a new geography of centrality, and one of the
questions it engenders is whether this new transnational geography is also the space for a
new transnational politics. Insofar as my economic analysis of the global city recovers
the broad array of jobs and work cultures that are part of the global economy, though
typically not marked as such, it allows me to examine the possibility of a new politics of
traditionally disadvantaged actors operating in this new transnational economic geography.
This is a politics that lies at the intersection of economic participation in the global
economy and the politics of the disadvantaged, and in that sense would add an economic
dimension, specifically through those who hold the other jobs in the global economy
whether factory workers in export processing zones in Asia, garment sweatshop workers in
Los Angeles or cleaners on Wall Street.
These are the subjects addressed in this paper. The first section
examines the role of production and place in analyses of the global economy. The second
section posits the formation of new geographies of centrality and marginality constituted
by these processes of globalization. The third section discusses some of the elements that
suggest the formation of a new socio-spatial order in global cities. The fourth section
discusses some of the localizations of the global by focusing particularly on immigrant
women in global cities. In the final section I discuss the global city as a nexus where
these various trends come together and produce new political alignments.
Place and production in the global economy: Globalization can be
deconstructed in terms of the strategic sites where global processes materialize and the
linkages that bind them. Among these sites are export processing zones, off-shore banking
centres, and, on a far more complex level, global cities. This produces a specific
geography of globalization and underlines the extent to which it is not a planetary event
encompassing all of the world.1 It is, furthermore, a changing geography, one
that has changed over the last few centuries and over the last few decades.2
Most recently, this changing geography has come to include electronic space.
The geography of globalization contains both a dynamic of dispersal
and of centralization, a condition that is only now beginning to receive recognition.3
The massive trends towards the spatial dispersal of economic activities at the
metropolitan, national and global levels which we associate with globalization have
contributed to a demand for new forms of territorial centralization of top level
management and control operations. The spatial dispersal of economic activity made
possible by telematics contributes to an expansion of central functions if this
dispersal is to take place under the continuing concentration in control, ownership and
profit appropriation that characterizes the current economic system.4
National and global markets as well as globally integrated
organizations require central places where the work of globalization gets done.5
In addition, information industries require a vast physical infrastructure containing
strategic nodes with hyperconcentration of facilities; we need to distinguish between the
capacity for global transmission/communication and the material conditions that make this
possible. Finally, even the most advanced information industries have a production process
that is at least partly place bound because of the combination of resources it requires
even when the outputs are hypermobile.
Further, the vast new economic topography that is being implemented
through electronic space is one moment, one fragment, of an even vaster economic chain
that is in good part embedded in non-electronic spaces. There is no fully dematerialized
firm or industry. Even the most advanced information industries, such as finance, are
installed only partly in electronic space. And so are industries that produce digital
products, such as software designers. The growing digitalization of economic activities
has not eliminated the need for major international business and financial centres and all
the material resources they concentrate, from state of the art telematics infrastructure
to brain talent (Castells 1989; Graham and Marvin 1996; Sassen 1998: chapter 9).6
In my research I have conceptualized cities as production sites for
the leading information industries of our time in order to recover the infrastructure of
activities, firms and jobs that is necessary to run the advanced corporate economy,
including its globalized sectors.7 These industries are typically
conceptualized in terms of the hypermobility of their outputs and the high levels of
expertise of their professionals rather than in terms of the production process involved
and the requisite infrastructure of facilities and non-expert jobs that are also part of
these industries. A detailed analysis of service based urban economies shows that there is
considerable articulation of firms, sectors, and workers who may appear as though they
have little connection to an urban economy dominated by finance and specialized services,
but in fact fulfil a series of functions that are an integral part of that economy. They
do so, however, under conditions of sharp social, earnings, and often racial/ethnic
segmentation (Sassen 2000a: chapters 8 and 9).
In the day-to-day work of any leading services complex dominated by
finance, a large share of the jobs involved are lowly paid and manual, many held by women
and immigrants. Although these types of workers and jobs are never represented as part of
the global economy, they are in fact part of the infrastructure of jobs involved in
running and implementing the global economic system, including such an advanced form of it
as is international finance.8 The top end of the corporate economy the
corporate towers that project engineering expertise, precision, techne
is far easier to mark as necessary for an advanced economic system than are truckers and
other industrial service workers, even though these are a necessary ingredient.9
We see here at work a dynamic of valorization that has sharply
increased the distance between the devalorized and the valorized, indeed overvalorized,
sectors of the economy.
For me as a political economist, addressing these issues has meant
working in several systems of representation and constructing spaces of intersection.
There are analytic moments when two systems of representation intersect. Such analytic
moments are easily experienced as spaces of silence, of absence. One challenge is to see
what happens in those spaces, what operations (analytic, of power, of meaning) take place
One version of these spaces of intersection is what I have called
analytic borderlands (Sassen 1998: chapter 1). Why borderlands? Because they are spaces
that are constituted in terms of discontinuities; in them discontinuities are given a
terrain rather than reduced to a dividing line. Much of my work on economic globalization
and cities has focused on these discontinuities and has sought to reconstitute them
analytically as borderlands rather than dividing lines. This produces a terrain within
which these discontinuities can be reconstituted in terms of economic operations whose
properties are not merely a function of the spaces on each side (i.e., a reduction to the
condition of dividing line) but also, and most centrally, of the discontinuity itself, the
argument being that discontinuities are an integral part, a component, of the economic
A new geography of centres and margins: The ascendance of
information industries and the growth of a global economy, both inextricably linked, have
contributed to a new geography of centrality and marginality. This new geography partly
reproduces existing inequalities but is also the outcome of a dynamic specific to the
current forms of economic growth. It assumes many forms and operates in many arenas, from
the distribution of telecommunications facilities to the structure of the economy and of
employment. Global cities accumulate immense concentrations of economic power while cities
that were once major manufacturing centres suffer inordinate declines; the down-towns of
cities and business centres in metropolitan areas receive massive investments in real
estate and telecommunications while low income urban and metropolitan areas are starved
for resources; highly educated workers in the corporate sector see their incomes rise to
unusually high levels while low or medium skilled workers see theirs sink. Financial
services produce superprofits while industrial services barely survive.10
The most powerful of these new geographies of centrality at the
global level binds the major international financial and business centres: New York,
London, Tokyo, Paris, Frankfurt, Zurich, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Sydney, Hong Kong, among
others. But this geography now also includes cities such as Bangkok, Taipei, Sao Paulo and
Mexico City (Sassen 2000b). The intensity of transactions among these cities, particularly
through the financial markets, trade in services and investment has increased sharply, and
so have the orders of magnitude involved (e.g. Noyelle and Dutka 1988; Knox 1995).11
At the same time, there has been a sharpening inequality in the concentration of strategic
resources and activities between each of these cities and others in the same country.12
Alongside these new global and regional hierarchies of cities is a
vast territory that has become increasingly peripheral, increasingly excluded from the
major economic processes that are seen as fuelling economic growth in the new global
economy. Formerly important manufacturing centres and port cities have lost functions and
are in decline, not only in the less developed countries but also in the most advanced
economies. Similarly in the valuation of labour inputs: the overvalorization of
specialized services and professional workers has marked many of the other
types of economic activities and workers as unnecessary or irrelevant to an advanced
There are other forms of this segmented marking of what is and what is
not an instance of the new global economy. For instance, the mainstream account about
globalization recognizes that there is an international professional class of workers and
highly internationalized business environments due to the presence of foreign firms and
personnel. What has not been recognized is the possibility that we are seeing an
internationalized labour market for low wage manual and service workers; or that there is
an internationalized business environment in many immigrant communities. These processes
continue to be couched in terms of immigration, a narrative rooted in an earlier
This signals that there are representations of the global or the
transnational which have not been recognized as such or are contested representations.
Among these is the question of immigration, as well as the multiplicity of work
environments it contributes in large cities, often subsumed under the notion of the ethnic
economy and the informal economy. Much of what we still narrate in the language of
immigration and ethnicity I would argue is actually a series of processes having to do
with (a) the globalization of economic activity, of cultural activity, of identity
formation, and (b) the increasingly marked racialization of labour market
segmentation so that the components of the production process in the advanced global
information economy taking place in immigrant work environments are components not
recognized as part of that global information economy.
Immigration and ethnicity are constituted as otherness. Understanding
them as a set of processes whereby global elements are localized, international
labour markets are constituted, and cultures from all over the world are de- and
re-territorialized, puts them right there at the centre along with the
internationalization of capital as a fundamental aspect of globalization.13
How have these new processes of valorization and devalorization and the
inequalities they produce come about? This is the subject addressed in the next section.
Elements of a new socio-spatial order: The implantation of global
processes and markets in major cities has meant that the internationalized sector of the
urban economy has expanded sharply and has imposed a new set of criteria for valuing or
pricing various economic activites and outcomes. This has had devastating effects on large
sectors of the urban economy. It is not simply a quantitative transformation; we see here
the elements for a new economic regime.
These tendencies towards polarization assume distinct forms in (a)
the spatial organization of the urban economy, (b) the structures for social
reproduction, and (c) the organization of the labour process. In these trends
towards multiple forms of polarization lie conditions for the creation of employment
centred urban poverty and marginality, and for new class formations.
The ascendance of the specialized services led economy, particularly
the new finance and services complex, engenders what may be regarded as a new economic
regime because although this sector may account for only a fraction of the economy of a
city, it imposes itself on that larger economy. One of these pressures is towards
polarization, as is the case with the possibility for superprofits in finance which
contributes to devalorize manufacturing and low value added services insofar as these
sectors cannot generate the superprofits typical in much financial activity.
The superprofit making capacity of many of the leading industries is
embedded in a complex combination of new trends: technologies that make possible the
hypermobility of capital at a global scale and the deregulation of multiple markets that
allows for implementing that hypermobility; financial inventions such as securitization
which liquify hitherto unliquid capital and allow it to circulate and hence make
additional profits, the growing demand for services in all industries along with the
increasing complexity and specialization of many of these inputs which has contributed to
their valorization and often over-valorization, as illustrated in the unusually high
salary increases beginning in the 1980s for top level professionals and CEOs.
Globalization further adds to the complexity of these services, their strategic character,
their glamour and therewith to their over-valorization.
The presence of a critical mass of firms with extremely high profit
making capabilities contributes to bid up the prices of commercial space, industrial
services and other business needs, and thereby make survival for firms with moderate
profit making capabilities increasingly precarious. And while the latter are essential to
the operation of the urban economy and the daily needs of residents, their economic
viability is threatened in a situation where finance and specialized services can earn
superprofits. High prices and profit levels in the internationalized sector and its
ancillary activities, such as top-of-the-line restaurants and hotels, make it increasingly
difficult for other sectors to compete for space and investments.
Many of these other sectors have experienced considerable downgrading
and/or displacement, for example, the replacement of neighbourhood shops tailored to local
needs by upscale boutiques and restaurants catering to new high income urban elites.
Inequality in the profit making capabilities of different sectors of
the economy has always existed. But what we see happening today takes place on another
order of magnitude and is engendering massive distortions in the operations of various
markets, from housing to labour. For instance, the polarization among firms and households
and in the spatial organization of the economy contributes, in my reading, towards the
informalization of a growing array of economic activities in advanced urban economies.
When firms with low or modest profit making capacities experience an ongoing if not
increasing demand for their goods and services from households and other firms in a
context where a significant sector of the economy makes superprofits, they often cannot
compete even though there is an effective demand for what they produce.
Operating informally is often one of the few ways in which such firms
can survive: for example, using spaces not zoned for commercial or manufacturing uses,
such as basements in residential areas, or space that is not up to code in terms of
health, fire and other such standards. Similarly, new firms in low profit industries
entering a strong market for their goods and services may only be able to do so
informally. Another option for firms with limited profit making capabilities is to
subcontract part of their work to informal operations.14
The recomposition of the sources of growth and of profit making
entailed by these transformations also contribute to a reorganization of some components
of social reproduction or consumption. While the middle strata still constitute the
majority, the conditions that contributed to their expansion and politico-economic power
in the post war decades the centrality of mass production and mass consumption in
economic growth and profit realization have been displaced by new sources of
The rapid growth of industries with strong concentration of high and
low income jobs has assumed distinct forms in the consumption structure which in turn has
a feedback effect on the organization of work and the types of jobs being created. The
expansion of the high income work force in conjunction with the emergence of new cultural
forms have led to a process of high income gentrification that rests, in the last
analysis, on the availability of a vast supply of low wage workers.
In good part the consumption needs of the low income population in
large cities are met by manufacturing and retail establishments which are small, rely on
family labour, and often fall below minimum safety and health standards. Cheap, locally
produced sweatshop garments, for example, can compete with low cost Asian imports. A
growing range of products and services, from low cost furniture made in basements to
gypsy cabs and family daycare is available to meet the demand for the growing
low income population.
One way of conceptualizing informalization in advanced urban economies
today is to posit it as the systemic equivalent of what we call deregulation at the top of
the economy (see Sassen 1998: chapter 8). Both the deregulation of a growing number of
leading information industries and the informalization of a growing number of sectors with
low profit making capacities can be conceptualized as adjustments under conditions where
new economic developments and old regulations enter in growing tension.15
Regulatory fractures is one concept I have used to capture this condition.
We can think of these developments as constituting new geographies of
centrality and marginality that cut across the old divide of poor/rich countries and new
geographies of marginality that have become increasingly evident not only in the less
developed world but inside highly developed countries. Inside major cities in both the
developed and developing world we see a new geography of centres and margins that not only
contributes to strengthening existing inequalities but sets in motion a whole series of
new dynamics of inequality.
The localizations of the global: Economic globalization, then, needs
to be understood also in its multiple localizations, rather than only in terms of the
broad, overarching macro level processes that dominate the mainstream account. Further, we
need to see that some of these localizations do not generally get coded as having anything
to do with the global economy. The global city can be seen as one strategic instantiation
of such multiple localizations.
Here I want to focus on localizations of the global which are marked by
those two features. Many of these localizations are embedded in the demographic transition
evident in such cities, where a majority of resident workers are today immigrants and
women, often women of colour. These cities are seeing an expansion of low wage jobs that
do not fit the master images about globalization yet are part of it. Their embeddedness in
the demographic transition evident in all these cities, and their consequent invisibility,
contribute to the devalorization of these types of workers and work cultures and to the
legitimacy of that devalorization.
This can be read as a rupture of the traditional dynamic whereby
membership in leading economic sectors contributes conditions towards the formation of a
labour aristocracy a process long evident in western industrialized economies.
Women and immmigrants come to replace the Fordist/family wage category of
women and children (Sassen 1998: chapter 5).16 One of the
localizations of the dynamics of globalization is the process of economic restructuring in
global cities. The associated socio-economic polarisation has generated a large growth in
the demand for low wage workers and for jobs that offer few advancement possibilities.
This, amidst an explosion in the wealth and power concentrated in these cities, that is to
say, in conditions where there is also a visible expansion in high income jobs and high
priced urban space.
Women and immigrants emerge as the labour supply that
facilitates the imposition of low wages and powerlessness under conditions of high demand
for those workers and the location of those jobs in high growth sectors. It breaks the
historic nexus that would have led to empowering workers and legitimates this break
Another localization which is rarely associated with globalization,
informalization, re-introduces the community and the household as an important economic
space in global cities. I see informalization in this setting as the low cost (and often
feminized) equivalent of deregulation at the top of the system. As with deregulation (e.g.
as in financial deregulation), informalization introduces flexibility, reduces the
burdens of regulation, and lowers costs, in this case especially the costs of
Informalization in major cities of highly developed countries
whether New York, London, Paris or Berlin can be seen as a downgrading of a variety
of activities for which there is an effective demand in these cities, but also a devaluing
and enormous competition given low entry costs and few alternative forms of employment.
Going informal is one way of producing and distributing goods and services at a lower cost
and with greater flexibility. This further devalues these types of activities. Immigrants
and women are important actors in the new informal economies of these cities. They absorb
the costs of informalizing these activities (see Sassen 1998: chapter 8).
The reconfiguration of economic spaces associated with globalization in
major cities has had differential impacts on women and men, on male-typed and female-typed
work cultures, on male and female centred forms of power and empowerment. The
restructuring of the labour market brings with it a shift of labour market functions to
the household or community. Women and households emerge as sites that should be part of
the theorization of the particular forms that these elements in labour market dynamics
These transformations contain possibilities, even if limited, for
womens autonomy and empowerment. For instance, we might ask whether the growth of
informalization in advanced urban economies reconfigures some types of economic relations
between men and women? With informalization, the neighbourhood and the house-hold
re-emerge as sites for economic activity. This condition has its own dynamic possibilities
for women. Economic downgrading through informalization, creates opportunities
for low income women entrepreneurs and workers, and therewith reconfigures some of the
work and household hierarchies that women find themselves in. This becomes particularly
clear in the case of immigrant women who come from countries with rather traditional male
There is a large literature showing that immigrant womens
regular wage work and improved access to other public realms has an impact on their gender
relations. Women gain greater personal autonomy and independence while men lose ground.
Women gain more control over budgeting and other domestic decisions, and greater leverage
in requesting help from men in domestic chores. Also, their access to public services and
other public resources gives them a chance to become incorporated in the mainstream
society; they are often the ones in the household who mediate in this process.
It is likely that some women benefit more than others from these
circumstances; we need more research to establish the impact of class, education, and
income on these gendered outcomes. Besides the relatively greater empowerment of women in
the household associated with waged employment, there is a second important outcome: their
greater participation in the public sphere and their possible emergence as public actors.
There are two arenas where immigrant women are active: institutions
for public and private assistance, and the immigrant/ethnic community. The incorporation
of women in the migration process strengthens the settlement likelihood and contributes to
greater immigrant participation in their communities and vis-a-vis the state. For
instance, Hondagneu-Sotelo (1995) found immigrant women come to assume more active public
and social roles which further reinforces their status in the household and the settlement
process. Women are more active in community building and community activism and they are
positioned differently from men regarding the broader economy and the state. They are the
ones that are likely to have to handle the legal vulnerability of their families in the
process of seeking public and social services for their families.
This greater participation by women suggests the possibility that they
may emerge as more forceful and visible actors and make their role in the labour market
more visible as well. There is, to some extent, a joining of two different dynamics in the
condition of women in global cities described above. On the one hand they are constituted
as an invisible and disempowered class of workers in the service of the strategic sectors
constituting the global economy. This invisibility keeps them from emerging as whatever
would be the contemporary equivalent of the labour aristocracy of earlier
forms of economic organization, when a low wage workers position in leading sectors
had the effect of empowering that worker, i.e. the possibility of unionizing. On the other
hand, the access to (albeit low) wages and salaries, the growing feminization of the job
supply, and the growing feminization of business opportunities brought about with
informalization, do alter the gender hierachies in which they find themselves.17
The global city a nexus for new politico-economic alignments:
What makes the localization of the above described processes strategic, even though they
involve powerless and often invisible workers, and potentially constitutive of a new kind
of transnational politics is that these same cities are also the strategic sites for the
valorization of the new forms of global corporate capital as described in the first
section of this article.
Typically the analysis about the globalization of the economy
privileges the reconstitution of capital as an internationalized presence; it emphasizes
the vanguard character of this reconstitution. At the same time it remains absolutely
silent about another crucial element of this transnationalization, one that some, like
myself, see as the counterpart of that of capital: this is the transnationalization of
labour. We are still using the language of immigration to describe this process.18
Second, that analysis overlooks the transnationalization in the formation of identities
and loyalties among various population segments that explicitly reject the imagined
community of the nation. With this come new solidarities and notions of membership. Major
cities have emerged as a strategic site for both the transnationalization of labour and
the formation of transnational identities. In this regard they are a site for new types of
Cities are the terrain where people from many different countries
are most likely to meet and a multiplicity of cultures come together. The international
character of major cities lies not only in their telecommunication infrastructure and
international firms: it lies also in the many different cultural environments in which
these workers exist. One can no longer think of centres for international business and
finance simply in terms of the corporate towers and corporate culture at its centre.
Todays global cities are in part the spaces of post-colonialism and indeed contain
conditions for the formation of a postcolonialist discourse (see Hall 1991; King 1990).19
The large western city of today concentrates diversity. Its spaces are
inscribed with the dominant corporate culture but also with a multiplicity of other
cultures and identities. The slippage is evident: the dominant culture can encompass only
part of the city.20 And while corporate power inscribes these cultures and
identities with otherness thereby devaluing them, they are present everywhere.
For instance, through immigration a proliferation of originally highly localized cultures
now have become presences in many large cities, cities whose elites think of themselves as
cosmopolitan, that is transcending any locality. An immense array of cultures from around
the world, each rooted in a particular country or village, now are reterritorialized in a
few single places, places such as New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, and most recently
Immigration and ethnicity are too often constituted as
otherness. Understanding them as a set of processes whereby global elements
are localized, international labour markets are constituted, and cultures from all over
the world are deterritorialized, puts them right there at the centre of the stage along
with the internationalization of capital as a fundamental aspect of globalization today.
Further, this way of narrating the migration events of the post war era captures the
ongoing weight of colonialism and post-colonial forms of empire on major processes of
globalization today, and specifically those binding emigration and immigration countries.22
While the specific genesis and contents of their responsibility will
vary from case to case and period to period, none of the major immigration countries are
The centrality of place in a context of global processes engenders a
transnational economic and political opening in the formation of new claims and hence in
the constitution of entitlements, notably rights to place, and, at the limit, in the
constitution of citizenship. The city has indeed emerged as a site for new
claims: by global capital which uses the city as an organizational commodity,
but also by disadvantaged sectors of the urban population, frequently as internationalized
a presence in large cities as capital.
I see this as a type of political opening that contains unifying
capacities across national boundaries and sharpening conflicts within such boundaries.
Global capital and the new immigrant workforce are two major instances of
transnationalized categories that have unifying properties internally and find themselves
in contestation with each other inside global cities. Global cities are the sites for the
overvalorization of corporate capital and the devalorization of disadvantaged workers. The
leading sectors of corporate capital are now global, in their organization and operations.
And many of the disadvantaged workers in global cities are women, immigrants, people of
colour. Both find in the global city a strategic site for their economic and political
The linkage of people to territory as constituted in global cities is
far less likely to be intermediated by the national state or national culture.
We are seeing a loosening of identities from what have been traditional sources of
identity, such as the nation or the village (Yaeger 1996). This unmooring in the process
of identity formation engenders new notions of community of membership and of entitlement.
Yet another way of thinking about the political implications of this
strategic transnational space is the notion of the formation of new claims on that space.
Has economic globalization at least partly shaped the formation of claims?23
There are indeed major new actors making claims on these cities, notably foreign firms who
have been increasingly entitled to do business through progressive deregulation of
national economies, and the large increase over the last decade in international business
people. These are among the new city users. They have profoundly marked the urban
landscape. Perhaps at the other extreme are those who use urban political violence to make
their claims on the city, claims that lack the de facto legitimacy enjoyed by the new
city users. These are claims made by actors struggling for recognition,
entitlement, claiming their rights to the city.24
There is something to be captured here a distinction between
powerlessness and a condition of being an actor or political subject even though lacking
power. I use the term presence to name this condition. In the context of a strategic space
such as the global city, the types of disadvantaged people described here are not simply
marginal; they acquire presence in a broader political process that escapes the boundaries
of the formal polity. This presence signals the possibility of a politics. What this
politics will be will depend on the specific projects and practices of various
communities. Insofar as the sense of membership of these communities is not subsumed under
the national, it may well signal the possibility of a transnational politics centred in
Large cities around the world are the terrain where a multiplicity
of globalization processes assume concrete, localized forms. These localized forms are, in
good part, what globalization is about. If we consider, further, that large cities also
concentrate a growing share of disadvantaged populations immigrants in Europe and
the United States, African-Americans and Latinos in the United States, masses of shanty
dwellers in the megacities of the developing world then we can see that cities have
become a strategic terrain for a series of conflicts and contradictions.
We can then think of cities also as one of the sites for the
contradictions of the globalization of capital. On one hand they concentrate a
disproportionate share of corporate power and are one of the key sites for the
overvalorization of the corporate economy; on the other, they concentrate a
disproportionate share of the disadvantaged and are one of the key sites for their
devalorization. This joint presence happens in a context where (i) the
transnationalization of economies has grown sharply and cities have become increasingly
strategic for global capital; and (ii) marginalized people have found their voice
and are making claims on the city as well. This joint presence is further brought into
focus by the sharpening of the distance between the two.
These joint presences have made cities a contested terrain. The
global city concentrates diversity. Its spaces are inscribed with the dominant corporate
culture but also with a multiplicity of other cultures and identities, notably through
immigration. The slippage is evident: the dominant culture can encompass only part of the
city. And while corporate power inscribes noncorporate cultures and identities with
otherness, thereby devaluing them, they are present everywhere. The immigrant
communities and informal economy in cities such as New York and Los Angeles are only two
The space constituted by the global grid of global cities, a space with
new economic and political potentialities, is perhaps one of the most strategic spaces for
the formation of new types, including transnational, identities and communities. This is a
space that is both place centred in that it is embedded in particular and strategic sites;
and it is transterritorial because it connects sites that are not geographically proximate
yet intensely connected to each other.
It is not only the transmigration of capital that takes place in this
global grid, but also that of people, both rich, i.e. the new transnational professional
workforce, and poor, i.e. most migrant workers; and it is a space for the transmigration
of cultural forms, for the reterritorialization of local subcultures. An
important question is whether it is also a space for a new politics, one going beyond the
politics of culture and identity, though at least partly likely to be embedded in these.
The analysis presented in this article suggests that it is.
The centrality of place in a context of global processes engenders a
transnational economic and political opening in the formation of new claims and hence in
the constitution of entitlements, notably rights to place, and, at the limit, in the
constitution of new forms of citizenship and a diversity of citizenship
practices. The global city has emerged as a site for new claims: by global capital which
uses the city as an organizational commodity, but also by disadvantaged
sectors of the urban population, frequently as internationalized a presence in large
cities as capital. The denationalizing of urban space and the formation of new claims
centred in transnational actors and involving contestation constitute the global city as a
frontier zone for a new type of engagement.
1. Globalization is also a process that produces differentiation;
only the alignment of differences is of a very different kind from that associated with
such differentiating notions as national character, national culture, national society.
For example, the corporate world today has a global geography, but it isnt
everywhere in the world: in fact it has highly defined and structured spaces; second, it
also is increasingly sharply differentiated from non-corporate segments in the economies
of the particular locations (a city such as New York) or countries where it operates.
There is homogenization along certain lines that cross national boundaries and sharp
differentiation inside these boundaries.
2. We need to recognize the specific historical conditions for
different conceptions of the international or the global. There is a tendency to see the
internationalization of the economy as a process operating at the centre, embedded in the
power of the multinational corporations today and colonial enterprises in the past. One
could note that the economies of many peripheral countries are thoroughly
internationalized due to high levels of foreign investments in all economic sectors, and
of heavy dependence on world markets for hard currency. What centre countries
have is strategic concentrations of firms and markets that operate globally, the
capability for global control and coordination, and power. This is a very different form
of the international from that which we find in peripheral countries.
3. This proposition lies at the heart of my model of the global city
(see Sassen 2000a: chapter 1).
4. More conceptually, we can ask whether an economic system with strong
tendencies towards such concentration can have a space economy that lacks points of
physical agglomeration. That is to say, does power, in this case economic power, have
5. I see the producer services, and most especially finance and
advanced corporate services, as industries producing the organizational commodities
necessary for the implementation and management of global economic systems (Sassen 2000:
chapters 2-5). Producer services are intermediate outputs, that is, services bought by
firms. They cover financial, legal and general management matters, innovation,
development, design, administration, personnel, production technology, maintenance,
transport, communications, wholesale distribution, advertising, cleaning services for
firms, security and storage. Central components of the producer services category are a
range of industries with mixed business and consumer markets; they are insurance, banking,
financial services, real estate, legal services, accounting and professional associations.
6. Telematics and globalization have emerged as fundamental forces
reshaping the organization of economic space.
This reshaping ranges from the spatial virtualization of a growing
number of economic activities to the reconfiguration of the geography of the built
environment for economic activity. Whether in electronic space or in the geography of the
built environment, this reshaping involves organizational and structural changes.
7. Methodologically speaking, this is one way of addressing the
question of the unit of analysis in studies of contemporary economic processes.
National economy is a problematic category when there are high levels of
internationalization. And world economy is a problematic category because of
the impossibility of engaging in detailed empirical study at that scale. Highly
internationalized cities such as New York or London offer the possibility of examining
globalization processes in great detail, within a bounded setting, and with all their
multiple, often contradictory aspects. King (1990) notes the need to differentiate the
international and the global. In many ways the concept of the global city does that.
8. A methodological tool I find useful for this type of examination is
what I call circuits for the distribution and installation of economic operations. These
circuits allow me to follow economic activities into terrains that escape the increasingly
narrow borders of mainstream representations of the advanced economy and to
negotiate the crossing of socio-culturally discontinuous spaces.
9. This is illustrated by the following event. When the first acute
stock market crisis happened in 1987 after years of enormous growth, there were numerous
press reports about the sudden and massive unemployment crisis among high income
professionals on Wall Street. The other unemployment crisis on Wall Street, affecting
secretaries and blue collar workers was never noticed nor reported upon. And yet, the
stock market crash created a very concentrated unemployment crisis, for instance, in the
Dominican immigrant community in Northern Manhattan where a lot of the Wall Street
10. There is by now a vast literature documenting one or another of
these various aspects. (See generally Fainstein et al. 1993; see Abu-Lughod 1999 on New
York, Chicago and Los Angeles, which she defines as the three U.S. global cities).
11. Whether this has contributed to the formation of transnational
urban systems is subject to debate. The growth of global markets for finance and
specialized services, the need for transnational servicing networks due to sharp increases
in international investment, the reduced role of the government in the regulation of
international economic activity and the corresponding ascendance of other institutional
arenas, notably global markets and corporate headquarters all these point to the
existence of transnational economic arrangements with locations in more than one country.
These cities are not merely competing with each other for market share as is often
asserted or assumed; there is a division of labour which incorporates cities of multiple
countries, and in this regard we can speak of a global system (e.g. in finance) as opposed
to simply an international system (see Sassen 2000a: chapters 1-4, 7). We can see here the
formation, at least incipient, of a transnational urban system.
12. Further, the pronounced orientation to the world markets evident in
such cities raises questions about the articulation with their nation states, their
regions, and the larger economic and social structure in such cities. Cities have
typically been deeply embedded in the economies of their region, indeed often reflecting
the characteristics of the latter; and they still do. But cities that are strategic sites
in the global economy tend, in part, to disconnect from their region. This conflicts with
a key proposition in traditional scholarship about urban systems, namely, that these
systems promote the territorial integration of regional and national economies.
13. Elsewhere I have tried to argue that the current post-1945 period
has distinct conditions for the formation and continuation of international flows of
immigrants and refugees. I have sought to show that the specific forms of
internationalization of capital we see over this period have contributed to mobilizing
people into migration streams and building bridges between countries of origin and the US.
The implantation of western development strategies, from the replacement of small holder
agriculture with export oriented commercial agriculture to the westernization of
educational systems, has contributed to mobilize people into migration streams
regional, national, transnational. At the same time the administrative, commercial and
development networks of the former European empires and the newer forms these networks
assumed under the Pax Americana (international direct foreign investment, export
processing zones, wars for democracy) have not only created bridges for the flow of
capital, information and high level personnel from the centre to the periphery but, I
argue, also for the flow of migrants (Sassen, 1988). See also Halls account of the
post-war influx of people from the Commonwealth into Britain and his description of how
England and Englishness were so present in his native Jamaica as to make people feel that
London was the capital where they were all headed to sooner or later (1991). This way of
narrating the migration events of the post-war era captures the ongoing weight of
colonialism and post-colonial forms of empire on major processes of globalization today,
and specifically those binding emigration and immigration countries. The major immigration
countries are not innocent bystanders; the specific genesis and contents of their
responsibility will vary from case to case and period to period.
14. More generally, we are seeing the formation of new types of labour
market segmentation. Two characteristics stand out. One is the weakening role of the firm
in structuring the employment relation. More is left to the market. A second form in this
restructuring of the labour market is what could be described as the shift of labour
market functions to the household or community.
15. Linking informalization and growth takes the analysis beyond the
notion that the emergence of informal sectors in cities like New York and Los Angeles is
caused by the presence of immigrants and their propensities to replicate survival
strategies typical of Third World countries. Linking informalization and growth also takes
the analysis beyond the notion that unemployment and recession generally may be the key
factors promoting informalization in the current phase of highly industrialized economies.
It may point to characteristics of advanced capitalism that are not typically noted. For
an excellent collection of recent work focusing on the informal economy in many different
countries see Parnreiter et al. (1997).
16. This newer case brings out more brutally than did the Fordist
contract, the economic significance of these types of actors, a significance veiled or
softened in the case of the Fordist contract through the provision of the family wage.
17. Another important localization of the dynamics of globalization is
that of the new professional women stratum. Elsewhere I have examined the impact of the
growth of top-level professional women in high income gentrification in these cities
both residential and commercial as well as in the reurbanization of middle
class family life (see Sassen: chapter 9).
18. This language is increasingly constructing immigration as a
devalued process in so far as it describes the entry of people from generally poorer,
disadvantaged countries, in search of better lives that the receiving country can offer;
it contains an implicit valorization of the receiving country and a devalorization of the
19. An interesting question concerns the nature of internationalization
today in ex-colonial cities. Kings (1990b: 78) analysis about the distinctive
historical and unequal conditions in which the notion of the international was
constructed is extremely important. King shows us how during the time of empire, some of
the major old colonial centres were far more internationalized than the metropolitan
centres. Internationalization as used today is assumed to be rooted in the experience of
the centre. This brings up a parallel contemporary blind spot well captured in Halls
observation that contemporary post-colonial and post- imperialist critiques have emerged
in the former centres of empires and they are silent about a range of conditions evident
today in ex-colonial cities or countries. Yet another such blind spot is the idea that the
international migrations now directed largely to the centre from former colonial
territories, and neo-colonial territories in the case of the US, and most recently Japan
(1994), might be the correlate of the internationalization of capital that began with
20. There are many different forms such contestation and
slippage can assume. Global mass culture homogenizes and is capable of
absorbing an immense variety of local cultural elements. But this process is never
complete. The opposite is the case in my analysis of data on electronic manufacturing
shows that employment in lead sectors no longer inevitably constitutes membership in a
labour aristocracy. Thus Third World women working in export processing zones are not
empowered: capitalism can work through difference. Yet another case is that of
illegal immigrants; here we see that national boundaries have the effect of
creating and criminalizing difference. These kinds of differentiations are central to the
formation of a world economic system (Wallerstein, 1990).
21. Tokyo now has several, mostly working-class concentrations of legal
and illegal immigrants coming from China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Philippines. This is
quite remarkable in view of Japans legal and cultural closure to immigrants. Is this
simply a function of poverty in those countries? By itself it is not enough of an
explanation, since they have long had poverty. I posit that the internationalization of
the Japanese economy, including specific forms of investment in those countries and
Japans growing cultural influence there have created bridges between those countries
and Japan, and have reduced the subjective distance with Japan (see Sassen, 2000:
22. The specific forms of the internationalization of capital we see
over the last 20 years have contributed to mobilize people into migration streams. (Sassen
1998: part one) They have done so principally through the implantation of western
development strategies, from the replacement of smallholder agriculture with export
oriented commercial agriculture and export manufacturing, to the westernization of
educational systems. At the same time the administrative, commercial and development
networks of the former European empires and the newer forms these networks assumed under
the Pax Americana (international direct foreign investment, export processing zones, wars
for democracy) have not only created bridges for the flow of capital, information and high
level personnel from the centre to the periphery but, I argue, also for the flow of
migrants from the periphery to the centre.
The renewal of mass immigration into the U.S. in the 1960s, after five
decades of little or no immigration, took place in a context of expanded U.S. economic and
military activity in Asia and the Caribbean Basin. Today, the United States is at the
heart of an international system of investment and production that has incorporated not
only Mexico but also areas in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. In the 1960s and 1970s,
the United States played a crucial role in the development of a world economic system. It
passed legislation aimed at opening its own and other countries economies to the
flow of capital, goods, services and information. The central military, political and
economic role the United States played in the emergence of a global economy contributed, I
argue, both to the creation of conditions that mobilized people into migrations, whether
local or international, and to the formation of links between the United States and other
countries that subsequently were to serve as bridges for international migration. Measures
commonly thought to deter emigration foreign investment and the promotion of
export-oriented growth in developing countries seem to have had precisely the
opposite effect. Among the leading senders of immigrants to the United States in the 1970s
and 1980s have been several of the newly industrialized countries of South and Southeast
Asia whose extremely high growth rates are generally recognized to be a result of foreign
direct investment in export manufacturing.
23. For a different combination of these elements see, e.g. Dunn
24. Body-Gendrot (1999) shows how the city remains a terrain for
contest, characterized by the emergence of new actors, often younger and younger. It is a
terrain where the constraints placed upon, and the institutional limitations of
governments to address the demands for equity engenders social disorders. She argues that
urban political violence should not be interpreted as a coherent ideology but rather as an
element of temporary political tactics, which permits vulnerable actors to enter in
interaction with the holders of power on terms that will be somewhat more favourable to
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