Saturday, 7 March 2009

Third Spaces

World's Third Spaces: Neither Global Nor National?

Saskia Sassen
25 February 2009

I attended this lecture a while ago and, have my notes in front of me, ready to summarise this lecture and reflect on it. It's one of the more tricky lectures to do.

First of all, she was such a lively, 'knowing' and compelling speaker. There was something even more to her - she was very sensual and witty. It was really something to hear her talk. Haha, I am in love with her, but then again, I seem to fall in love with every speaker that comes to SOAS. There is nothing sexier than an intellectual, a thinker, or someone who is remotely intelligent.

The reason why I feel a bit hindered in trying to remember what exactly she said was probably because of the topic itself. Before the lecture, I was trying to guess what the title actually meant. I thought perhaps it was the idea that there were some spaces in the Third World which were between the developing and developed world which were neither national nor global. It turns out her lecture is broadly about globalisation, probably one of the most complex and contradictory concepts we have come across during the year in our courses. It is so difficult to define and wrap one's head around it.

She was introduced by Gilbert Achar, who has been hosting the Globalisation Lectures in the 2008-2009 academic year, as the author of Global Cities (1991), a major thinker of globalisation, someone who brought the concept from the economic realm into a larger picture of social processes. 'Demolition of truths'

The lecture

Saskia started off by saying that the starting point for her was the dissatisfaction with the language and vocabulary of globalisation. 'We know something is happening' and there are some 'foundational changes.' The language only captures some of these emergent processes.

For instance, there is no such thing as a 'global firm,' no such legal persona as a global firm. There are 277,000 such 'global firms' but all firms are national. In this financial crisis, government after government has produced regulatory, legal changes to produce space for firms as if they were global. She said she was 'recovering the participation of states' in this globalisation process which has to be problematised. Globalisation takes places 'deep inside the national space.' Such a problematisation 'de-nationalises' (not an 'elegant' word according to her) the process of globalisation.

She gave a few examples of instances where the global and national are interchangeable:

i) US - Mexico border is the heaviest militarised border between two countries not at war. She called it the 'weaponisation' of the border. The annual INS budget increased from US $ 200 million in 1996 to US $ 1.6 billion in 2005 under Clinton. The number of officers increased from 2,500 in the 80s to 12,000. Despite this, there is an all-time high in unauthorised immigration to the US as well increase in arrests. In the 80s, there was a 50% rate of return of Mexicans back to the US; today it is 25%. The rate of return of Mexicans was 50% in the 80s and now, it is about 25%. There are one million Americans who live in the Mexico, some of these are 'artists and like' which she said in a very amusing manner evoking laughs from the audience. She said the movements across the border demonstrate that the project of controlling these movements is said to fail. There was a 'social ecology' of the border. Wall street made US $ 2 billion in handling remittances alone. *
ii) Hizbollah - a group with multiple spaces - national? Lebanese? global?
iii) Mexico's former president meeting with illegal migrants/farmers in the US midwest. An extra territorial meeting while the US Congress was considering criminalising the workers.
iv) Havez distributing oil to poor people in the US.

These were examples meant to demonstrate that the national and global can be blurred and take on new meanings. At the same, these examples are not new. We have always lived in such a world haven't we? Apart from the kind of global financialisation that has happened that Samir Amin talked about as well as the reach of corporations and multinationals, in all other senses, globalisation that is cultural, human, intellectual has always existed. Even economic globalisation existed - one can take the Silk Route. There are theories that the Egyptians traveled to South America. Forget material globalisation, the biographies of 'medieval' greats - be they European or Arab or African - are exhilirating stories of figures who were truly international, born in one country, studied in another, served and worked further in another court of another country and so on. Let's see, who do we have? Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Khayyam, Thomas Aquinas and, Ibn Sina. In fact it seems that life under empires was probably less visa-hassle free than it is today. If ideas were never constrained - if the Arabs had not preserved Greek knowledge, Europeans would not have had access to all that classical knowledge - then it is easier to imagine that the world has been much more of a globalised place than we think it is.

Clearly, though, the concept of globalisation in my course of study is its problematisation with regards to the nation state construct which is needless to say a modern one.

She said one way of understanding this micro processes which 'worm themselves' into it is to seem them as partial, highly specialised global assemblages of bits of territory, authority and rights once firmly enconced in national institutional frames. Saskia said that 'when territory exits the national.' it becomes 'nomadic.'

For instance, the UK, an 'enlightened' state, she said it with so much sarcasm, only integrated human rights law in 2001. Human rights law is a 'de-nationalised instance of law' where the source of the law is not the state.

There are only two global laws which can be considered supra-national institutions:

i) International Criminal Court (ICC)
ii) World Trade Organisation (WTO)

So how we study the global? She gave another example of where many Latin American countries and South Africa have made clauses in their consitutions which are a 'rupture' with the French/American notions of the state which say 'state is not the exclusive representative of people.' This is another territorial exit. Who uses this exit? Indigenous peoples who can then become direct representatives. These new consitutions represent the beginning of something in her opinion.

Most of the literature on globalisation focuses on the IMF, WTO and such supranational entities. However, there are other spaces which also perform the what she called it, 'political production functions.'

She made reference to her work in 1991, Global Cities, which she said was frowned upon because a city could not be global. Global cities she said are frontier space where actors encounter each other from different backgrounds and, there are no rules for this interaction. It makes it possible for actors who are not otherwise represented to make politics. From multinational corporations making informal lobbies to disadvantaged persons such as 'queers,' (yes she used the word queers which was a bit unexpected given how concerned she was with language and play, I imagine she would have said gay and lesbian but perhaps she was trying to make a point?), immigrants, etc. She said politics in such a space can be cultural - gay pride parades, carnivals. Therefore, urban space becomes an actor.

She made another example of what she said are two extremes: tex constructionis and the ICC. Construction companies have colluded to find a common procedure when dealing with any environmental issue that may be raised. They put the onus on governments to demonstrate that they are in violation of environmental law. And, many governments are too poor to enter into that kind of litigation. As for the ICC, I guess she was trying to make the point that the ICC is completely useless? That's the other extreme? (Man, I have no idea where she was going with all of this, it was a very intuitive lecture.)

She said she had been doing research and had come across 125 assemblages. She's begun to disassemble bits and pieces of the national. Nor does this mean the expansion of the 'global.' These assemblages produce a third space for a growing range of operations (economic, cultural and political).

She does not believe we are moving towards a global state.

If we look at history, even the colonial empires were trying to create nation states which has become the basis of the world order. However, over time it was a de-nationalised nation-state which was to deal with environmental issues, issues of poverty and global justice. Today, a lot of national states are rescuing banks. The executive branch of governments is rescuing banks. Executive branches working together to rescue a global system.


So that was that. What was the lecture about? That globalisation is not about de-nationalisation but is very much rooted in the nation-states. There is no such a thing as global law firms, they're national, where ever they come from. The recent financial crisis and the rush to restore it/rescue it is being done by national governments. Therefore, we have to look at globalisation again and 'recapture', 'retrieve' the national aspects of it. Furthermore, there are third spaces today which are neither global nor national, borders, global cities, coming together of national actors in third spaces, presidents meeting their nationals in a second country where they are illegal**, etc.


Why can't these spaces be both national and global? Because it is not easy to describe them as such. These spaces have one foot in the national and one foot in the global. And, her interest is to deconstruct these 'master categories,' which can to a certain extent be illuminating but also blinding.

There was a question on regional bodies such as the EU. When talking about it, she said that she really believed Turkey should be admitted to the EU. The EU does not have enough 'obstacles,' that will create diversity and creativity and growth. Even Russia should be made part of the EU.

Saskia said everyone must learn the following statistic: The global GDP is US $ 54 trillion. The credit default of 2008 was US $ 62 trillion.

* This is our border and borderlands topic within the VCD course.
** This reminds me, when my father was posted to Greece, he helped to legalise about 35,000 illegal Pakistani workers. So was that a third space too? :-)


My blog is a third space! Ha! Between lectures and essays and headaches and Liberia and London and Pakistan and me and people and my head....

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