What Comes After the End of the Global City?

The current global order is under threat. But what happens to cities if globalization unravels? The end of globalism must also mean the end of the global city.

A longer and modified version of this article first appeared in the special issue “The De-Globalized City” of the journal New Global Studies. Read the whole issue here. 

Today’s global cities are a product of globalization – the process that began to take shape in the 1970s, as a group of powerful states led by the United States redesigned the international political economy along neoliberal principles.

There are many signs that this global order is now under threat: the rise of protectionist and nationalist sentiments, a shift towards authoritarian leadership, the rise of right wing political parties and movements, the roll back of support for the international institutions that have underpinned the liberal order, and the ongoing instabilities of global capitalism.

While there may not be quite enough evidence to say that liberal order and contemporary globalization are unraveling or in terminal decline, there are sufficient logical and historical grounds to expect that the imbrication of neoliberal capitalism is generating unsustainable contradictions, tensions and instabilities that can only be resolved by the emergence of a new model.

“The end of contemporary forms of globalism must also mean the end of the global city.”

The end of at least four decades of globalization would not only mean a very profound shift in the nature of the international system, a distinctive shift in the mode of capitalist regulation, and a reassessment of the merits of the neoliberal form. The end of contemporary forms of globalism must also mean the end of the global city.

This shift in the nature of the global city is inevitable: Because global cities draw their nature and form from the wider forms of political and economic order that have generated the global free market, they also partake in the inherent contradictions and instabilities of that order. The global city must transform into something new.

Sources of Instability: Transforming our Cities

Several factors are already transforming our global cities. The 2008 financial crisis has made it clear that the neoliberal mode of capitalist regulation is inherently volatile and unstable, and that its real world performance has failed to match up to the hopes of its ideologues.

A lack of real reform to the system that produced the crisis has meant that such instabilities will not go away, and will reappear in some new form. At the same time, there has been a growing perception of the inherent injustices and inequalities of a form of political economy that fails to deliver even on its most basic promises.

While the rise of the right across Europe, and of anti-globalist tendencies in the British decision to leave the European Union, are expressions of this tendency, more progressive forms of resistance can also be found in examples such as the Occupy movements.

Conflicts Between the City and the Nation-State

The global city has become a central stage on which these political and economic tensions can play out. In particular, we see conflicts arising around the relationship between the city and the state, and the relationship between the city and the market. We should expect these tensions to rise in future years, as the reactions against market society increase, and as the city begins to realize that its new found political and governance capacities offer an alternative source of power and influence to the nation-state.

Indeed, we now appear to be living through a distinct shift in the relationship between city and state as a result of the new capacities and capabilities that cities have gained. These not only exist in the sphere of economic governance. Cities are also exhibiting novel forms of political governance capacity that have begun to bypass the state in several instances.

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Cities have been using their newfound reach at the transnational level to generate a growing range of transnational municipal governance networks. Empirical investigations by the City Leadership Laboratory at University College London have mapped over 200 city-to-city networks, many founded in the last few decades.

City-to-City Networks and Sanctuary Cities

The most prominent example here has been the C40 Climate Leadership Initiative, but urban governance networks encompass security, health, public safety and many other areas, and cities are an increasingly important part of the UN system. Such transnational reach exhibits a specific form of city power: the ability to convene and coordinate networks in the pursuit of particular goals.

Cities increasingly offer a parallel system to states, continuing to deepen transnational networks that often bypass central government. The power of this form of networking, legitimated by the ability of cities to operate at multiple scales, from the mundane, everyday and local, up through to the largest planetary forms of governance, poses questions about the future of global order.

A few recent examples have begun to highlight the diverging interests of certain global cities and their host states. In the US there have also been several high profile clashes between the Trump administration, with its tendencies towards nativism and isolationism, and major cities, who view their fortunes as tied to global networks and openness.

Perhaps the most telling example here has been the dispute over immigration policy between the federal government and “sanctuary cities.” The executive decision to strip such cities of federal funding has brought forth a show of strength from those cities, and demonstrated their capacity to resist executive power. Mayors in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago know that openness to migration and cultural diversity has long been a feature of successful and dynamic cities, and are loathe to go along with a direction of travel by the national executive that will damage that.

Similar dynamics were in evidence at the moment the Trump administration decided to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Major cities immediately signaled that they would continue to be bound by the Paris targets, regardless of the decision of the federal government. And, despite the overall national decision to leave the European Union in the United Kingdom’s referendum on membership, there was a strong preference for retaining membership in British cities such as London.

If such tensions between city and state are to be found in those parts of the world with the most developed form of the Westphalian state, then problems of another degree altogether are to be seen in the Global South. Here, in the sprawling mega-cities and informal settlements, there seems to be a glaring tension between the concept of the territorial state and the vast urban formations over which the state often has incomplete knowledge and control.

Gentrification and Housing Crises: Conflicts Between City and Market 

Just as there are tensions in the relationship between city and state, so too is the relation between the city and the market increasingly problematic under neoliberalism. Rampant privatization and the role of financialization in housing markets has led to housing crises around the world.

Recent activism in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles is but one manifestation of a reaction against gentrification. More broadly, there is a growing tension between two conflicting impulses in the global city: the ability of the market to generate wealth and dynamism, and the desire for a more socially just and sustainable city.

Nowhere is this tension more visible than in the United Nation’s New Urban Agenda introduced in 2016. While it places its primary emphasis upon the role of markets as a mechanism for solving the problems that mass urbanization throws up, bringing together knowledge, entrepreneurship and innovation, the New Urban Agenda also incorporates the discourse of the “right to the city,” reflecting a desire to create cities that solve widespread social exclusion, inequality and environmental degradation.

The paradox at the heart of the UN’s New Urban Agenda is that many of these social problems are generated by market externalities and market failures under neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberal market ideology – in particular, extensive privatization of public assets – has tended to systematically undermine many urbanites’ “right to the city” over the last four decades, while at the same time generating inequality.

As the tensions between the state, market and city are only likely to increase over the course of the twenty-first century, solving the paradoxical relationship between the market and the city will be key to the political life in the century of the city.

Jumping Tracks: Global City Futures

Despite the prominence of de-globalization rhetoric, we cannot go back to the nationally bounded system of the post-war period. For sociologist Saskia Sassen, it is apparent that a tipping-point threshold has been crossed: The emerging form of global order is well developed, and the technologies of space/time compression that tie global cities together are not a genie that can be put back in the bottle. The national has been partially unbundled, and will not be re-assembled on the old models.

According to Sassen, capabilities built up in one historical period can “jump tracks,” as they are reoriented and repurposed to form a different assemblage with new characteristics: The economic, political and technological capacities developed by the global city become the capabilities that could be reoriented to a new political assemblage with different logics to the system of territorial nation states.

We stand at a moment of potential crisis for global cities, but also one of opportunity. We must look not to the past, or to the continuation of the present form of globalization, but to a future with different logics. It is here that the immense changes in urban life over the last forty years offer the prospect of real transformation; a prospect yet to be fully appreciated. We might come to see the current form of the global city as a form of chrysalis in which new governance capacities are being developed. Such capacities can be reoriented, with potentially transformative impacts on cities, states and the wider international system.

Multiple Futures Struggling to be Born

Marrying density to information technology might generate transnational networks of smart-cities that can work to reduce urban environmental footprints. The Internet of Things, smart grids, sensors and big data form an array of interlinked technologies that offer the potential for greater control over the dynamics of urban development, while networked governance and city diplomacy offer the possibility to replicate and extend their impact.

Political attempts to re-embed the market in society today must run through global cities, because they are its primary driving and coordinating force. This is where the importance of redesigning and repurposing cities and their technological and governance components becomes an opportunity to create a new basis for the system.

The question of how and where global city capacities can be reoriented and reconfigured will be an object of political struggle over the coming decades. The actual future emerging from the possibility space of various socio-technical assemblages is not guaranteed to be a progressive one.

“In the contemporary global city we see multiple futures struggling to be born.”

In the contemporary global city we see multiple futures struggling to be born. One set offers a more progressive vision, grouped under the moniker of “the right to the city,” and emphasizing social justice, environmental sustainability, the protection of ecosystems, poverty reduction, equality and livability.

Sharing Economies Or Authoritarianism? The Future is Unwritten

Technological capacities offer possibilities to develop sustainable and resilient forms of urban life, or to develop efficient sharing economies. Of course, because technologies develop within social systems, not independently of them, such technologies would need to be repurposed, beyond the form of free market capitalism in which they have developed, if they are to push the system to “jump tracks.”

Alternatively, a purely technocratic and authoritarian inflected valence for these emerging capacities would mean an extension and intensification of the forms of structural violence inherent to the neoliberal city. Authoritarian responses to the instabilities accompanying global capitalism offer an alternative set of possibilities for the emergence of new assemblages, including the intensified securitization of privatized spaces, the continuing secession of elites from the urban commons, and the further entrenchment of inequality.

Whatever the outcome of such struggles, the future frameworks for modern societies –technological, political, and economic – will be something new. A new iteration of the city will be at the heart of any new system.

[Title image by Farzaan Kassam on Unsplash]

Simon Curtis

Simon Curtis

Simon Curtis is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of East Anglia, and a non-resident Senior Fellow on Global Cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. His latest book is Global Cities and Global Order, published by the Oxford University Press.

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