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Urban Legends

Global street is for anybody

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A social scientist and urbanist, Sassen talks about the complexities of globalisation within the context of cities like Mumbai.

Saskia Sassen first entered the US as an 18-year-old undocumented worker with just $50 in her pocket. Her first job was that of a cleaning worker. Today at 64, she is one of the most prolific and game changing thinkers and writers on globalization, citizenship and migration. But a great deal of her scholarly work revolves around subaltern urbanism.

Sassen was in Mumbai recently where she lectured on the eminently timely subject: The City and the Street: Where Those Without Power Can Make. Sassen's public lecture, followed by a moderated discussion with ArjunAppadurai hosted by the Columbia Global Centers.

What drew you to focusing specifically on the urban situation?


I wasn't an urbanist to begin with but over time I was drawn to the large processes that one encounters in cities. The space of the city is a zone busy with different actors. It is a thick complex situation with multiple diverse actors - such as displaced people and the middle class - executing their projects. Cities like New York, Mumbai and Sao Paulo are windows into acute issues. City tells you many stories and these are often in contradiction with each other. The urban situation is a complex system that is incomplete;this incompleteness is its critical feature.
In plantations, where one was faced with perhaps somewhat similar exigencies, there was a great deal of uniformity, but the city has too many exits. In a complex city your powerlessness becomes complex. The street cannot be controlled, the powerless are making history and will continue to do so.

Could you tell us a bit about your notion of the global city?


People keep saying I coined the term the global city but I haven't really. I discovered a dynamic and named it. The city is a subnational space where the local neighbourhood encounters the global. These local spaces have the capacity to subvert the global and play a significant role in the tempering of power because power is not absolute. The cityness of cities can outlive multinationals and what-have-you.

The revolutions of 2011 and 2012 in India were led


predominantly by the middle classes, not the working classes. How do read this in the context of the ongoing protests against the Delhi gangrape?

The social contract between middle class and the government has collapsed;by middle class I mean the modest and lower middle class. The middle class played it by the rules and the system has failed them. The poor never got much but the middle class feels woefully let down. Their revolution is not always a heroic revolution because they just want their jobs, their lives and their safety back, but the middle class wants what they don't have and that is an interesting revolt.
Is it really rape that's bringing these people out on the streets? Or is rape the absolute occasion? These are people who've maintained their end of the bargain but there's nothing there for them. Rape is just a catalyst.

How do you relate your idea of the global street with the ongoing protests in Delhi, Mumbai and other Indian cities?


I think the global street is for anybody;it is a space for making by those who lack access to the formal instruments for making. A lot of what you have in Mumbai is street and not piazza;this amorphous space of the street is not for ritualised practices. The power of the multitude in urban space is one of the reasons Mumbai is the biggest global street around.

In a recent piece titled, 'The Connection Between Global Economic Policy and Violence Against Women', Dr Vandana Shiva, feminist and environmental activist, writes: "And while we intensify our struggle for justice for women, we need to also ask why rape cases have increased 240 percent since 1990s when the new economic policies were introduced. "


I appreciate Vandana's work and the fact that she's always put herself out there. A lot of people working on globalisation have been looking at multinationals and the power they exercise. These people, however, fail to realise that the city messes up any power equation. I can't comment at length on the situation because I'm not familiar with it but the provided data can only be the result of a complicated story of abuses. I read someplace recently that statistics state that of the acts of sexual violence that occur in India, the majority are carried out by members of the victim's family. That said, women are also finding new venues and languages for communication. I can't help wonder if globalisation is increasing insecurity among people? We're experiencing a paucity of category making and consequently we can't seem to locate new frames through which we can read these new situations. Now is the time for new ways of interpreting.

How do you understand the Mumbai slum vis-a-vis the global city/street?


The space of a city includes a lot of networks which contain things other than the city, these conflicting forces of making, ensure the city is an unstable place today. The ubiquity of slums in the midst of our spectacular time has ensured that slum become a site of intervention. Mumbai has never had to be fearful of its slums but what if the rape case is the tipping point for the unleashing of favela like violence?

What happens when power balance shifts and yet history repeats itself - the second scramble for Africa, the neocolonialism project led by emerging superpowers such as China and India?


There is no single evil actor;there is an assemblage of reasons at work. When I think of these land grabs in Africa I can't also help thinking of the predatory nationalist elites and the eventual degradation of leaders, like Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, who start off as heroes. Then there's the IMF restructuring of these countries which leads to another kind of colonialism. When compared to Britain, China is a different colonial power. This is not the 1800s, we are faced with an indelibly complicated process, this is a new trajectory and we're not sure where it will lead us.

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