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<nettime> [n5m3-debates] Sassen: A New Geography of Power?
Andreas Broeckmann on Mon, 22 Feb 1999 19:24:42 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> [n5m3-debates] Sassen: A New Geography of Power?

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Saskia Sassen
Professor of Sociology
University of Chicago
Chicago, USA


The formal political system today faces a new geography of power.
Globalization and the new technologies have contributed to the shrinking
of state authority and the explosion of a whole series of new actors
engaged in governance activities. 

The current phase of the world economy is characterized by significant
discontinuities with the preceding periods and radically new arrangements.
This becomes particularly evident in the impact of globalization on the
geography of economic activity and on the organization of political power.
There is an incipient unbundling of the exclusive authority over its
territory we have long associated with the nation-state. 

The most strategic instantiations of this unbundling are probably a) the
global city, which operates as a partly de-nationalized zone for economic,
political and cultural activities, and b) the Internet as a space for
civil society that escapes all conventional jurisdictions and is also
incipiently de-nationalized. At a lower order of complexity, the
transnational corporation and global markets in finance can also be seen
as such instantiations through their cross-border activities and the new
semi-private transnational legal regimes which frame these activities. 

The privatizing of public power and the rise of new actors. 

 Briefly, the major dynamics leading to these new conditions are the
following. Privatization and deregulation --two key features of economic
globalization-- have shifted power away from public bureaucracies and onto
the world of private corporations and markets. Shrinking state functions
linked to social welfare broadly understood have relocated a growing range
of responsibilities in this domain onto civil society. The weakening of
international public law and the strengthening of market forces in the
international system have produced growing inequalities in the
socio-economic situation of people worldwide and a diminished will and
fewer resources in the formal political system to address these. A growing
number of international and non governmental organizations have stepped
in. Finally, the enormous growth of the Internet represents an expanding
zone where most established jurisdictions (i.e. various state authorities)
are neutralized. 

In my reading, the impact of globalization on state authority or
sovereignty has been significant in creating operational and conceptual
openings for other actors and subjects (See Sassen 1997).  At the limit
this means that the state is no longer the only site for sovereignty and
the normativity that comes with it, and further, that the state is no
longer the exclusive subject for international law and the only actor in
international relations. Other actors, from NGOs and minority populations
to supranational organizations, are increasingly emerging as subjects of
international law and actors in international relations. The growth of the
Internet keeps strengthening the options of non-state actors (both good
and bad!). 

The ascendance of a large variety of non-state actors in the international
arena signals the expansion of an international civil society. This is
clearly a contested space, particularly when we consider the logic of the
capital market --profitability at all costs-- against that of the human
rights regime.  But it does represent a space where other actors can gain
visibility as individuals and as collective actors, and come out of the
invisibility of aggregate membership in a nation-state exclusively
represented by the sovereign. 

A de-nationalizing of politics?

 There are two strategic dynamics I am isolating here: a) the formation of
conceptual (including rhetorical) and operational openings for actors
other than the national state in cross-border political dynamics,
particularly the new global corporate actors, NGOS, and those
collectivities whose experience of membership has not been subsumed fully
under nationhood in its modern conception, e.g. minorities, immigrants,
first-nation people, and many feminists. And b) the fact that this dynamic
brings with it an incipient de-nationalizing of specific types of power
that used to be embedded in the national state and have now been
relocated, at least partially to global corporations and markets, NGOs,
international organizations and sub-national structures, particularly
global cities, and transnational spaces, particularly the Internet. 

The large city of today emerges as a strategic site for these new types of
operations. It is one of the nexi where the formation of new claims
materializes and assumes concrete forms. The loss of power at the national
level produces the possibility for new forms of power and politics at the
subnational level. The national as container of social process and power
is cracked. This cracked casing opens up possibilities for a geography of
politics that links subnational spaces. Cities are foremost in this new

One question this engenders is how and whether we are seeing the formation
of a new type of transnational politics that localizes in these cities but
is part of a transnational network of such localizations. The local is
today part of cross-border networks rather than simply the bottom or
smallest level in the conventional spatial hierarchies that have dominated
formal political systems, i.e. local-national-international. The Internet
plays a strategic role in this re-positioning of the local. 

There is little doubt that the Internet is an enormously important tool
and space for democratic participation at all levels, the strengthening of
civil society, and the formation of a whole new world of transnational
political and civic projects. notably some of the struggles around the
Bosnian-Serb conflict. But it has also become clear over the last few
years that the Internet is no longer what it was in the 1970s or 1980s; it
has become a contested space with considerable possibilities for
segmentation and privatisation. We cannot take its democratic potential as
a given simply because of its interconnectivity. We cannot take its
"seamlessness" as a given simply because of its technical properties. And
we cannot take its bandwidth availability as a given simply because of the
putative exponential growth in network capacity with each added network. 

This is a particular moment in the history of digital networks, one when
powerful corporate actors and high performance networks are strenghtening
the role of private digital space and altering the structure of public
digital space. Digital space has emerged not simply as a means for
communicating, but as a major new theater for capital accumulation and the
operations of global capital. But civil society --in all its various
incarnations-- is also an increasingly energetic presence in cyberspace.
The greater the diversity of cultures and groups the better for this
larger political and civic inhabitation of the Internet, the more
effective the resistance to the risk that the corporate world might set
the standards.  From struggles around human rights, the environment and
workers strikes around the world to genuinely trivial pursuits, the
Internet has emerged as a powerful medium for non-elites to communicate,
support each other's struggles and create the equivalent of insider groups
at scales going from the local to the global. 

     The political and civic potential of these trends is enormous. It
offers the possibility for interested citizens to act in concert across
the globe. It signals the possibility of a new form of politics: local
politics with a difference -- simultaneous action in multiple localities
or local action with an awareness of many other localities struggling
around similar issues. We are seeing the formation of a whole new world of
transnational political and civic projects. 

These developments in the transnational networks that connect cities and
in the digital space of the Internet bring with them a series of new
interactions between what has been constituted as the private and the
public, the domestic and the international. The public can now operate
through the private and the private through the public (Aman, Jr. 1998).
For instance, markets are taking over many of the functions that used to
be in public bureaucracies and so are NGOs. On the other hand, market
forces and corporations can now influence public agendas to a much larger
extent than was the case twenty years ago (powerful corporations always
did influence public policy, but what we are seeing today is on another
scale). Similarly, NGOs have grown in number and in influence. The large
international organizations such as the World Bank now are expected to
consult with (the well-established) NGOs and large western funders now
often prefer to fund NGOs in Africa to do development and public work
rather than governments. 

Some Notes on NGOs.

 NGOs have been around for a long time.  What is different today? It is
their diversity, breadth of coverage, and, perhaps most interestingly,
that they are forming transnational networks among each other--indeed many
NGOs today are transnational networks. 

Further, the larger context within which NGOs are operating has changed
significantly: there is today a whole discourse about NGOs which has
exploded onto the scene and has given the notion of NGOs (often more so
than the actual NGOs) much greater visibility. Further, there is today a
massive interest by Western governments in NGOs and the large western
private funders are putting enormous resources into some NGOs. In fact,
some NGOs function as subcontractors to governments: for instance, the
U.S. Wildwlife Fund gets over half of its budget from USAID, to do work
that a government could do. Finally, many governments are now "mandated"
to consult with NGOs, and so are the World Bank and the IMF. 

One issue that has emerged forcefully in recent years is that of NGO
influence on states. In his research, Pter Uven has found that it is only
a small minority of mostly the very large western NGOs that lobby states.
Some of the lobbying has a global circuit: to get back to one's state a
NGO may go through various organizations in different countries, e.g.
influence international organizations so that these put pressure on the
home state of an NGO. Further, we also see innovative strategies for
influencing governments that go beyond western style lobbying. For
instance, one large Indian NGO delegated part of its staff to the Indian
gov't and tried to change the government position on specific issues from
the inside. Finally, we are also seeing joint venturing with state
agencies, which is another way of shaping a government's agenda on
specific issues. These cases also represent the increasginly ambiguous
distinction private/public discussed above. 

The evidence does show that NGOs can effect power redistribution even
though they do so slowly and often at micro scales: e.g. micro-credit
extended to women has done more to empower them than government
legislation and Bureaus of Women's Affairs. More generally, today NGOs
often directly engage questions of democracy, empowerment and
redistribution in a way that they did not in the past. 

 There is an emergent hyper-critique of NGOs today, focused particularly
on the large western NGOs that are well financed, operate globally and
have basically technocratic organizational standards. According to james
Ron, they are basically depoliticising the motivations and objectives of
NGO activists and, more broadly, depoliticizing international political
movements. The large, well-funded NGOs have developed multiple standards
that they implement in their work and expect compliance with on the part
of workers and beneficiary communities all over the world --and embedded
in specific cultures. They have the effect of westernizing what they get
engaged with; they do so through the implementation of organizational
standards and codes across borders and through imposition on people who
may have a very different experience or perspective on an event or notion
of politics. This leads to the formation of an elite stratum of NGOs that
become the favorites of large Western funders and set the standards for
other NGOs if they are to be funded. They then emerge as the "good NGOs." 

Further this world of NGOs is seen as a part of the West's hegemonic
project: by instituting standards and aiming at strengthening western
style liberal democracy they have the effect of making places safe for
western-style capitalism. These elite NGOs often by-pass national
governments in developing countries arguing that they want to institute
standards and western style democracy in places where the national and
local governments are not oriented this way. James Ron finds this to be
especially the case in Africa. At the same time, Peter Uven notes that
many NGOs act the western, neutral role while dealing with funders
--mostly from the west-- but when that phase is over and they have the
funds they re-enter their society and can turn out to be very political. 

A lot of NGOs may have started in opposition to the state, but have become
mutually constitutive with it (Lipschutz 1996).  Today they wind up
augmenting the capacities of states, providing the equivalent of welfare
services, generally subcontracting "state work." This is not always bad.
On the contrary, as the case of ISO-14000 (the environmenal protection
series of standards in the International Satandards Organization)
illustrates. In the US, it deploys more inspectors going from factory to
factory checking on compliance with standards than the EPA (the
government's Environmental Protection Agency).  But one question is
whether there is capture of national environmental agendas by speficic
interests, notably corporate interests embedded in the state. By acting as
enforcer of national law, ISO does not function as a critic, potentially
in opposition to the state, but merely as an entity augmenting the
inspection capacities of the state (Lipschutz 1996). 

 In sum, some of the depoliticisation of NGOs evident in the above series
of examples is emblematic of a broader pattern of depoliticisation of
power generally as discussed in the first part of this paper, e.g. the
privatization of public bureaucracy functions and relocation of these
functions onto the world of corporate agendas. 

But some of these developments may also be pointing to new forms of the
political, forms which are not embedded in state forms or privatized
forms. The distributed power made possible by the Internet and the types
of NGOs that can benefit from this do represent, it seems to me a new
world of the political. Securing distributed power, its reproduction, its
diversification, its growth and multiplication will mean we need to invent
new forms. There are crucial examples of this inventing that will be
discussed in tis conference, notably open-source operating systems and
"insurgent technologies."  This line of thinking does also raise a
question about the need to find new ways of naming what it is that we are
describing when we speak today of the world of NGOs, with their enormous
diversity, resources and relations to the formal political apparatus. In
this regard, the concept of Post-governmental Organizations is an
intriguing one, which I hope we will be discussing at this meeting. It is
clear that simply saying NGOs has become inadequate because we are
grouping many different political projects, some related to exisitng power
and others in opposition to it. 

Saskia Sassen is Professor of Sociology at The University of Chicago. Her
most recent book is Globalization and its Discontents (New York: New Press
1998) which will be published in Dutch by Van Genep (May 1999, Amsterdam)
Her books are translated into ten languages.  She directs the project
"Cities and their Crossborder Networks" for the United Nations University

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