06 Feb

Cities in Global Capitalism

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Cities in Global Capitalism explores what is called here the city-capitalism nexus and its political, economic and cultural significance in times of advanced globalization. Today, cities are at the centre of debates over capitalist globalization and everyday life. The professional news outlets as well as the multitudinous social media are literally overwhelmed by accounts of contemporary capitalist economies and societies that base their evidence on what happens in cities and their living environments. Cities are omnipresent in today’s public discourse concerning the present and future of global societies, in positive or negative terms: as places of innovation for some (inspiring new technological applications, creative lifestyles, business experiments, etc.); of exploitation for others (reproducing income and wealth imbalances, phenomena of ethno-racial discrimination, etc.). Ambivalent attitudes towards the urban phenomenon reflect those towards capitalism itself, which is a socio-economic system historically vacillating between hope and despair, between a promise of prosperity and development and an experience of inequity and injustice. As a result, in the current ‘urban age’, as it is customarily defined, cities are no longer viewed merely in relation to, but within capitalism, as its constitutive element.

Why have the fates of cities and capitalism become so inextricable in times of globalization? The present book revolves around this key question. The economic crisis of 2008, in which the interlinkage of housing and finance played a central role, brought about a revival of interest in the long-term and strategic interconnectedness of capital accumulation and financialized urbanization, and particularly in its contradictory manifestations. Is it, therefore, a recurrence of history, a return, in a socio-spatially expanded form, to the pre-industrial age when cities became strongholds of trade and financial power? Or are financialization and the recent financial crisis only a symptom, a crucial manifestation of a deeper involvement of cities in global capitalism? Put briefly, the primary purpose of this book is to accomplish the difficult task of disentangling the city–capitalism nexus in the global age, helping the reader to find satisfactory answers to the aforementioned questions.

This book adopts a wide-ranging perspective in the study of ‘cities in global capitalism’. Empirical evidence is drawn from a variety of socio-economic sectors, notably housing, technology, entrepreneurship, entertainment and consumption as pillars of the city-capitalism nexus in the biopolitical age. I particularly dwell on the emerging phenomena of sharing economy, start-up urbanism and related technology-based economies, as an illustration of capitalism’s ability to reinvent itself but also of its tendency to reproduce longstanding social contradictions.

The main argument of the book is that, in an increasingly troubled global economy, cities are shifting from the entrepreneurialisation of governance as was theorized by David Harvey in the late 1980s to an entrepreneurialisation of society and life in its entirety. I draw on academic scholarship as well as on newspaper articles and other mass media sources. My work deals a lot with cities in the United States (particularly those at the centre of the ‘tech boom’ of the post-recession era) and Europe but also looks at what happens in today’s increasingly turbulent times within emerging economies such as China, Brazil, India, amongst others.

I have written this book within the space of approximately one year, between the spring of 2015 and the early summer of 2016. In this short period of time, world politics have witnessed a series of disturbing developments epitomised by the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. While my book was completed before the US Presidential election of 2016, in the conclusion of the book I provide an interpretation of the political ascendancy of Trump and the larger populist wave sweeping through the West and beyond, which is understood as a ‘new form of fascism’. I am inspired here by two sources: Karl Polanyi’s idea of fascism as an instantaneous ‘move’, rather than as a ‘movement’, taking shape in response to the failure of self-regulating market economies; a collective essay – with the title ‘Theses on new European fascism’ evocative of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the concept of history’ – published in Luogo Comune, a short-lived but key outlet of radical Italian thought in the early 1990s, presciently diagnosing the transmutation of fascism from the state-centred project of the 1930s into a societal phenomenon capitalizing on the ambivalence of contemporary metropolitan forms of life.

Following the US presidential election of November 2016 there has been a lot of talk within the mass media about the urban-rural divide as a determinant of the electoral vote, given Trump’s overwhelming support in rural, geographically peripheral areas. Commenting on this situation, liberal pundits and political analysts like Benjamin Barber who is author of If Mayors Ruled the World (Yale UP, 2013) underline the role of cities as a ‘powerful antidote’ to the new populist wave. The recent, spectacular women’s march in Washington DC and other major cities in the US and across the world powerfully reinforces this idea. However, this view on the one hand overlooks Trump’s urban roots as a real-estate tycoon whose fortunes have been intimately linked to the exploitation of cities’ built environment and communicative capital. On the other hand, it ignores the fact that a recurring motif in Trump’s campaign has been his crusade against ‘inner cities’ and their living conditions conducive to crime and social deviance, thus reviving a long-term, bipartisan tradition of US Presidents criminalizing urban environments and their racial minorities (see Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, Harvard UP, 2016). In Europe, large cities attract international migrants and refugees but witness also inimical reactions to this inflow, particularly within disenfranchised low-income neighbourhoods. This means that contemporary cities, far from being happy enclaves for democracy and the ideal of an open society, are integral to the ambivalence of contemporary societies: their social hostilities, on the one hand, and their potential politics of coexistence and social justice, on the other hand. I hope this book will help the reader achieve a better understanding of the contradictory role of contemporary cities within today’s capitalist societies.

Ugo Rossi is Senior Researcher in Political and Economic Geography at the University of Turin.

His book, Cities in Global Capitalism, is now available from Polity.