The Making of Transnationalisms by Localized People and Organisations

Sign "Global City"

by Saskia Sassen

Globalisation, the new digital network technologies, and the international human rights regime have each contributed to the creation of operational and legal openings for non-state actors to enter international arenas that were once the exclusive domain of national states. Various, often as yet very minor, developments signal that the state is no longer the exclusive subject of international law or the only actor in international relations. Other actors—from NGOs and indigenous peoples to immigrants and refugees who become objects of adjudications in human rights decisions—are increasingly emerging as subjects of international law and actors in international relations. That is to say, these non-state actors can gain visibility in international fora as individuals and as collectivities, emerging from the invisibility of aggregate membership in a nation-state exclusively represented by the sovereign.

One way of interpreting this is in terms of an incipient unbundling of the exclusive authority over territory and people that we have long associated with the national state. The most strategic instantiation of this unbundling is probably the global city, which operates as a partly denationalised platform for global capital and, at the same time, is emerging as a key site for the most astounding mix of people from all over the world and of causes. The growing intensity of transactions among major cities is creating a strategic cross-border geography that partly bypasses national states. The new network technologies further strengthen these transactions, whether they are electronic transfers of specialised services among firms or Internet-based communications among the members of globally dispersed diasporas and interest groups.

Do these developments contribute to the expansion of a global civil society? These cities and the new strategic geographies that connect them and bypass national states can be seen as constituting part of the infrastructure for global civil society. They do so from the bottom up, through multiple microsites and microtransactions. Among them are a variety of organisations focused on trans-boundary issues concerning immigration, asylum, international women’s agendas, anti-globalisation struggles, and many others. While these are not necessarily urban in their orientation or genesis, they tend to converge in cities. The new network technologies, especially the Internet, ironically have strengthened the urban map of these trans-boundary networks. It does not have to be that way, but at this time cities and the networks that bind them function as an anchor and an enabler of cross-border struggles. These same developments and conditions also facilitate the internationalising of terrorist and trafficking networks; it is not clear how these fit into global civil society.

Global cities are, then, thick enabling environments for these types of activities, even though the networks themselves are not urban per se. In this regard, these cities help people experience themselves as part of global non-state networks as they live their daily lives. They enact global civil society in the micro-spaces of daily life rather than on some putative global stage.

The Ascendance of Sub- and Transnational Spaces and Actors

The key nexus in this configuration is that the weakening of the exclusive formal authority of states over national territory facilitates the ascendance of sub- and transnational spaces and actors in politico-civic processes. These are spaces that tended to be confined to the national domain or that have evolved as novel types in the context of globalisation and digitisation. This loss of power at the national level produces the possibility of new forms of power and politics at the sub-national level and at the supra-national level. The national as container of social process and power is cracked. This cracked casing opens up a geography of politics and civics that links subnational spaces. Cities are foremost in this new geography. The density of political and civic cultures in large cities localises global civil society in people’s lives. We can think of these as multiple localisations of civil society that are global in that they are part of global circuits and trans-boundary networks.

The organisational side of the global economy materialises in a worldwide grid of strategic places, uppermost among which are major international business and financial centres. We can think of this global grid as constituting a new economic geography of centrality, one that cuts across national boundaries and increasingly across the old North-South divide. It has emerged as a transnational space for the formation of new claims by global capital but also by other types of actors. The most powerful of these new geographies of centrality at the inter-urban level bind 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 Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Bangkok, Taipei, and Mexico City. The intensity of transactions among these cities, particularly through the financial markets, transactions in services, and investment, has increased sharply, and so have the orders of magnitude involved.

Economic globalisation and telecommunications have contributed to produce a space for the urban which pivots on de-territorialised cross-border networks and territorial locations with massive concentrations of resources. This is not a completely new feature. Over the centuries cities have been at the intersection of processes with supra-urban and even intercontinental scaling. Ancient Athens and Rome, the cities of the Hanseatic League, Genoa, Venice, Bagdad, Cairo, Istanbul, all were at the crossroads of major dynamics in their time (Braudel 1984). What is different today is the coexistence of multiple networks and the intensity, complexity, and global span of these networks. Another marking feature of the contemporary period, especially when it comes to the economy, is the extent to which significant portions of economies are now de-materialised and digitised and hence can travel at great speeds through these networks. Also new is the growing use of digital networks by a broad range of often resource-poor organisations to pursue a variety of cross-border initiatives. All of this has increased the number of cities that are part of cross-border networks operating on often vast geographic scales. Under these conditions, much of what we experience and represent as the local level turns out to be a micro-environment with global span.

The new urban spatiality thus produced is partial in a double sense: it accounts for only part of what happens in cities and what cities are about, and it inhabits only part of what we might think of as the space of the city, whether this be understood in terms as diverse as those of a city’s administrative boundaries or in the sense of the public life of a city’s people. But it is nonetheless one way in which cities can become part of the live infrastructure of global civil society.

The space constituted by the worldwide grid of global cities, a space with new economic and political potentialities, is perhaps one of the most strategic spaces for the formation of transnational identities and communities. This is a space that is both place-centred in that it is embedded in particular and strategic cities, and trans-territorial because it connects sites that are not geographically proximate yet are 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 re-territorialisation 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 while likely to remain at least partly embedded in it. One of the most radical forms assumed today by the linkage of people to territory is the loosening of identities from their traditional sources, such as the nation or the village. This unmooring in the process of identity formation engenders new notions of community of membership and of entitlement.

Immigration is one major process through which a new transnational political economy is being constituted, one which is largely embedded in major cities in so far as most immigrants are concentrated in major cities. It is, on my reading, one of the constitutive processes of globalisation today, even though not recognised or represented as such in mainstream accounts of the global economy. It becomes in more and more cities part of a massive demographic transition towards a growing presence of women, native minorities, and immigrants in the population.

Global capital and immigrants are two major instances of transnationalised actors that have cross-border unifying properties internally and find themselves in conflict with each other inside global cities. The leading sectors of corporate capital are now global in their organisation and operations. And many of the disadvantaged workers in global cities are women, immigrants, people of colour—men and women whose sense of membership is not necessarily adequately captured in terms of the national, and who indeed often evince cross-border solidarities around issues of substance. Both types of actors find in the global city a strategic site for their economic and political operations. We see here an interesting correspondence between great concentrations of corporate power and large concentrations of ‘others’.

Large cities in both the global South and the global North are the terrain where a multiplicity of globalisation processes assume concrete, localised forms. A focus on cities allows us to capture, further, not only the upper but also the lower circuits of globalisation. These localised forms are, in good part, what globalisation is about. Further, the thickening transactions that bind cities across borders signal the possibility of a new politics of traditionally disadvantaged actors operating in this new transnational economic geography. This is a politics that arises out of actual participation by workers in the global economy, but under conditions of disadvantage and lack of recognition, whether as factory workers in export-processing zones or as cleaners on Wall Street.

Peoples’ Networks: Micro-Politics for Global Civil Society

The cross-border network of global cities is a space where we are seeing the formation of new types of ‘global’ politics of place which contest corporate globalisation. The demonstrations by the anti-globalisation movement signal the potential for developing a politics centred on places understood as locations on global networks. This is a place-specific politics with a global span. It is a type of political work deeply embedded in people’s actions and activities but made possible partly by the existence of global digital linkages. These are mostly organisations operating through networks of cities and involving informal political actors –that is, actors who are not necessarily engaging in politics as citizens narrowly defined, where voting is the most formalized type of citizen politics. Among such informal political actors are women who engage in political struggles in their capacity as mothers, anti-globalization activists who go to a foreign country as tourists but to do citizen politics, and undocumented immigrants who join protests against police brutality.

What matters for my analysis here is that these activists engage in ‘non-cosmopolitan’ forms of global politics. The distinction brings to the fore a range of types of politics that are global but not necessarily cosmopolitan –they are embedded in thick local realities and struggles. Partly enabled by the Internet, activists can develop global networks for circulating not only information (about environmental, housing, political issues, etc.) but also political work and strategies. Yet they remain grounded in very specific issues and are often focused on their localities even as they operate as part of global networks. There are many examples of such a new type of cross-border political work. For instance, the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), started by and centred on women, began as an effort to organise slum dwellers in Bombay to get housing. Now it has a network of such groups throughout Asia and some cities in Latin America and Africa. This is one of the key forms of critical politics that the Internet can make possible: a politics of the local with the big difference in that these are localities connected with each other across a region, a country, or the world. Although the network is global, this does not mean that it all has to happen at the global level.

The Forging of New Political Subjects

The mix of focused activism and local/global networks creates conditions for the emergence of at least partly transnational identities. The possibility of identifying with larger communities of practice or membership can bring about the partial unmooring of national identity. While this does not necessarily neutralise attachments to a country or national cause, it does shift this attachment to include trans-local communities of practice and/or membership. This is a crucial building block for a global civil society that can incorporate the micro-practices and micro-objectives of people’s daily lives as well as their political passions. The possibility of transnational identities emerging as a consequence of this thickness of micro-politics is important for strengthening global civil society; the risk of nationalisms and fundamentalisms is, clearly, present in these dynamics as well.

The affective connections that people establish and maintain with one another in the context of a growing transnational civil society is a kind of citizenship, in the sense of membership. It shapes identities and commitments that arise out of cross-border affiliations, especially those associated with oppositional politics; but it also can include the corporate professional circuits that are increasingly forms of partly de-territorialised global cultures. These identities and commitments can be of an elite and cosmopolitan nature or they can be very focused and with specific objectives. Many aspects of the global environmental movement as well as the human rights movement are actually rather focused and illustrate these emergent cross-border identities in that these activists tend to identify more strongly with the global movement than with their national state. There are elements of this also in many women’s organisations; MADRE and its affiliates in Central America is a good example..

Yet another type of trend is the  emergence of transnational social and political communities constituted through trans-border migration. These begin to function as bases for new forms of citizenship identity to the extent that members maintain identification and solidarities with one another across state territorial divides. These are, then, identities that arise out of networks, activities, ideologies that span the home and the host societies. A key dynamic becoming evident among some of the organisations we studied is a shift away from the type of bi-national experience that most of the migration literature on the subject describes, towards a more diffuse condition of globally constituted diasporic networks. The orientation ceases to be confined to one’s community of residence and one’s community of origin, and shifts towards multiple immigrant communities of the same nationality or ethnicity wherever they might be located. The Internet has played a crucial role in making this possible. It is, perhaps, this type of network that best captures the notion of diasporic networks as enabling participation in and contribution to global civil society Though of a very different sort from those that concern me here, diasporic networks can also enable the formation of international organised terrorism and certain types of ethnic-based cross-border trafficking networks.

Some of these organizations and networks begin to generate  a global sense of solidarity and identification, partly out of humanitarian convictions. Notions of the ultimate unity of human experience are part of a long tradition. Today there are also more practical considerations at work, as in global ecological interdependence, economic globalisation, global media and commercial culture, all of which create structural interdependencies and senses of global responsibility.

Towards Denationalised Citizenship, Practices, and Identities

How do we interpret these types of developments in ways that help us understand their implications for global civil society? One way is to explore what they tell us about modern nation-based citizenship in so far as the existence of a global civil society requires the possibility of an at least partial reorientation towards objectives that are not exclusively geared towards one’s nation-state. Yet global civil society would be severely weakened if it were to become completely disconnected from the substantive notion of citizenship as a complex condition predicated on formal rights and obligations configured in ways that negotiate individual and shared interests and needs.

Most of the scholarship on citizenship has claimed a necessary and exclusive connection to the national state, thereby neutralising the meaning and significance of the types of citizenship practices and emergent identities discusses earlier. The transformations afoot today alter the conditions which in the past fed that connection and thereby weaken  the proposition of a necessary connection of citizenship to the national state. If this is indeed the case, then we need to ask whether national conceptions of citizenship exhaust the possible range of experiences and aspirations that today denote citizenship. It is becoming evident that, far from being unitary, the institution of citizenship has multiple dimensions, only some of which might be inextricably linked to the national state.

The context of this possible transformation is defined by the two major, partly interconnected conditions. One is the change in the position and institutional features of national states since the 1980s resulting from various forms of globalisation, ranging from economic privatisation and deregulation to the increased prominence of the international human rights regime. Among the consequences of these developments is the ascendance of sub-national and transnational spaces for politics. The second is the emergence of multiple actors, groups, and communities partly strengthened by these transformations in the state and increasingly unwilling to automatically identify with a nation as represented by the state. Key elements in this shift are the issues discussed in the preceding section which shows how the growth of the Internet and linked technologies has facilitated and often enabled the formation of cross-border networks. These networks can be among individuals and groups with shared interests that may be highly specialised, as in professional networks, or involve particularised political projects, as in human rights and environmental struggles or the diasporic networks and immigrant organisations. This has engendered or strengthened alternative notions of community of membership. These experiences and orientations of citizenship may not necessarily be new; in some cases they may well be the result of long gestations or features that were there since the beginning of the formation of citizenship as a national institution, but are only now evident because strengthened and rendered legible by current developments.

One of the implications of these developments is the possibility of post-national forms of citizenship. The emphasis in that formulation is on the emergence of locations for citizenship outside the confines of the national state. The European passport is, perhaps, the most formalised of these. But the emergence of a re-invigorated cosmopolitanism and of a proliferation of trans-nationalisms have been key sources for notions of post-national citizenship. Whether it is the organisation of formal status, the protection of rights, citizenship practices, or the experience of collective identities and solidarities, the nation state is not the exclusive site for their enactment. It remains by far the most important site, but the transformations in its exclusivity signal a possibly important new dynamic.

There is a second dynamic becoming evident that, while sharing aspects with post-national citizenship, is usefully distinguished from it in that it concerns specific transformations inside the national state which directly and indirectly alter specific aspects of the institution of citizenship (Sassen 2008: chs 6, 7 and 8). These transformations are not necessarily predicated on a relocating of citizenship components outside the national state, as is key to conceptions of post-national citizenship. Two instances are changes in the law of nationality entailing a shift from exclusive allegiance to one nation-state to dual nationality, and enabling legislation allowing national courts to use international instruments, notably from the human rights regime. These are transformations inside the national state. More encompassing changes, captured in notions of privatisation and shrinking welfare states, signal a shift in the relationship of citizens to the state that can be desc ribed as a growing distance between the citizen and the state. Similarly, the widespread constitutionalising of the right to take one’s government to court for failure to fulfil its obligations has also changed the relationship of citizens to their national states in the sense that they create a legally sanctioned possibility of separation of interests. All of these micro-shifts begin to weaken the foundational proposition of liberal democracy that the state is the people and the people are the state.

These and other developments all point to impacts on citizenship that take place inside formal institutions of the national state. It is useful to distinguish this second dynamic of transformation inside the national state from post-national dynamics because most of the scholarship on citizenship has failed to make this distinction. The focus has almost exclusively been on post-national citizenship, either by opposing or accepting it or by interpreting these trends as post-national (for a full discussion of the literature please see Sassen 2008: ch 6). In my own work I have conceptualised these trends as a de-nationalising of particular aspects of citizenship to be distinguished from post-national developments.

The materials presented here on global cities and activist/diasporic networks fall into this second type of conception of changes in the institution of citizenship. These are mostly not post-national in their orientation: they are either sub-national, or they are about third issues where shared nationality, as in immigrant organisations, is the bonding element even though the objective of the organization or struggle may have little to do with nationality per se but rather with work, exploitation and so on. Further, they do not scale at the national level: these are micro-politics or micro-initiatives enacted in sub-national spaces that are part of cross-border networks connecting multiple such sub-national spaces.

Though often talked about as a single concept and experienced as a unitary institution, citizenship actually describes a number of discrete but related aspects in the relation between the individual and the polity. Current developments are bringing to light and accentuating the distinctiveness of these various aspects, from formal rights to psychological dimensions. These developments also bring to the fore the tension between citizenship as a formal legal status and as a normative project or an aspiration. Again, current conditions have led to a growing emphasis on claims and aspirations that go beyond the formal legal definition of rights and obligations. The last few years have witnessed a renewed determination by multiple organisations and individuals to play a role in this changed world. Many of the groups mentioned here do not necessarily have a particularly strong sense of gratitude to either their country of origin or that of immigration. Others have a generalised critical stance towards the major trends evident in the world, including their countries of origin, which also reorients their sense of attachment. It suggests that the building blocks for Global Civil Society are to a considerable extent micro-sites in people’s daily lives.

For the development of notions of citizenship that can strengthen global civil society directly, it is important to question the assumption that people’s sense of citizenship in liberal democratic states is fundamentally and exclusively characterised by nation-based frames. Non-formal identities and practices need to be taken into account along with formal developments such as European Union citizenship and the growth of the international human rights regime. In so far as legal and formal developments have not gone very far, we cannot disregard experiences of identity and of citizens’ practices which partly re-map the geography of citizenship. This deconstruction of citizenship feeds notions of citizenship not based on the nation-state, whether understood in narrow political terms or broader sociological and psychological terms. The growing prominence of the international human rights regime has played an important theoretical and political role in strengthening these conceptions even as it has underlined the differences between citizenship rights and human rights.

In my research I find two elements that further feed these developments. One is the strengthening, including the constitutionalising, of civil rights which allow citizens to make claims against their states and allow them to invoke a measure of autonomy in the formal political arena that can be read as a growing distance between the formal apparatus of the state and the institution of citizenship. Instances that capture this are lawsuits filed by citizens against particular state agencies, notably the police and the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the case of the U.S. The implications, both political and theoretical, of this dimension are complex and in the making: we cannot tell what will be the practices and rhetorics that might be invented.

The other is the granting, by national states, of a whole range of ‘rights’ to foreign actors, largely and especially economic actors—foreign firms, foreign investors, international markets, foreign business people (see Sassen 1996: Ch. 2; 2008: ch 5). Admittedly, this is not a common way of framing the issue. It comes out of my particular perspective about the impact of globalisation and denationalisation on the national state, including the impact on the relation between the state and its own citizens, and between the state and foreign actors. I see this as a significant, though not widely recognised development in the history of claim-making. For me the question as to how citizens should handle these new concentrations of power and ‘legitimacy’ that attach to global firms and markets is a key to the future of a democratic transnationalism. My efforts to detect the extent to which the global is embedded and filtered through the national (e.g. the concept of the global city) is one way of understanding whether this can enable citizens, still largely confined to national institutions, to demand transnational accountability –for instance, to demand accountability of multinational corporations through national institutional channels rather than having to wait for a ‘global’ state. Herein would also lie a key element for participation in and the further constituting of global civil society through sub-national initiatives that are part of cross-border dynamics or issue-oriented global networks.

These new conditions may well signal the possibility of new forms of citizenship practices and identities that can allow large numbers of localised people and organisations to become part of global civil society. Through these practices new understandings of what citizenship is about and can aspire to are being constituted. Cities and cross-border networks are two key sites for this type of engagement. After the long historical phase that saw the ascendancy of the national state and the scaling of key economic dynamics at the national level, we now see the ascendancy of sub- and transnational spaces. The city is once again today a scale for strategic economic and political dynamics. Many of the disadvantaged concentrated in cities can become part of this global civil society even as they remain confined to their localities and to some extent absorbed by problems and struggles that are not cosmopolitan.

This essay is based on Sassen Territory, Authority, Rights (Princeton Univ Press 2008, chapters 5, 7 and 8); German translation: Das Paradox des Nationalen (Suhrkamp 2008)


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Saskia Sassen is Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Her research focuses on globalization, immigration, global cities, the new technologies, and changes within the liberal state that result from current transnational conditions.