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Contemporary Globalisation and the Politics of Space

Since place is the arena where social structure and social relations interact, all praxis are grounded in specific places, giving rise to relations of power, domination and resistance. Underlying the spatialities one finds the material framework of social relations, power structure and discursive methodologies of the common people. A look at the dynamics of "space" and "spatiality" as reflected in the research in globalisation studies.


Contemporary Globalisation and the Politics of Space

Swapna Banerjee-Guha

or forestlands or mineral-rich areas that had long remained objects of imagination and material practices of communities having organic links with the latter, are systematically getting exposed to a process of contrasting imagination, constructed by the state through projects of neo-liberal

Since place is the arena where social structure and social relations interact, all praxis are grounded in specific places, giving rise to relations of power, domination and resistance. Underlying the spatialities one finds the material framework of social relations, power structure and discursive methodologies of the common people. A look at the dynamics of “space” and “spatiality” as reflected in the research in globalisation studies.

Swapna Banerjee-Guha (sbanerjeeguha@ is with the School of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Economic & Political Weekly

december 24, 2011

Space and Spatiality

n current time, an increasing number of researches in social science are found to use “space” and “spatiality” as key theoretical constructs to articulate the link between social and political theories, between State and people and the issues of their everyday life. The understanding of “space” as a material, social and political construct, for the same reason, is becoming more and more significant in the current discourses on neo-imperialist strategies for controlling world regions and global resources. Several contemporary researches are found to have taken up issues of spatiality, intermixed with uneven development, contemporary globalisation and geopolitics to explain the problematic of state, space, territoriality of production and governance. Hence, the need for a socio-spatial approach in understanding the presentday social and political processes is not only important for the analysis of the changing geopolitical framework, but also for reflecting on the ways people organise their lives, livelihoods and struggles against various power structures.

Understanding the spatial ontology of social and political processes (Soja 1989) is, however, a complex issue. After having written on space and spatiality for years, David Harvey (2006b) states that “space”, included in the updated version of Raymond William’s (1985) Keywords, should simultaneously have an identity of “one of the most complicated words” in use, in its variety (Banerjee-Guha 1997; Brenner 1999; Harvey 2006a), positioned in diverse regional conjectures.

Space can be absolute, relative or relational, or all together, depending on the ongoing process. There is no ontological answer to the question on the nature of space; the answer essentially lies in human practice. For example, in India in current times, several absolute spaces of agriculture

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capitalist territorialisation. A fusion is found to have occurred between the quest of capital for individual advantages and the state imperatives towards augmentation of power of its territory vis-à-vis other territories in the emerging neo-liberal framework of “competition” that has gone to use the inherent instability of regional structures leading to space-specific devalorisation of selected spaces and associated human praxis. Buttressed by institutional rationality, the capitalist and statist logics in the above cases are found to have overextended themselves to subjugate the indigenous discourses emerging out of the organic practices from below.

The inherent contradiction of capitalist and statist logics in such cases is getting internalised within the process of capitalist accumulation in the given tensions between regionality, territorial class alliance and free geographical movement of capital. The process is wrought with “epistemic violence” leading to deformation and discontinuity (Ahmed 2009) of the absolute space and the local community. The primary/absolute space of private property in such situations, located in different regional settings and bounded by various territorial designations, functions as absolute (representing regionality and territorial class formations), relative and relational (representing a more continuous surface suited to the operation of capital) all three together, remaining in dialectical tension and in interplay between each other (Banerjee-Guha 2009).

All these suggest that social processes are constructed and reproduced according to the spatiality of factors, involving complexities of politics and history that permeate all the aspects of everyday life, moulding the contours and topologies of dynamic spaces that again (re)produce subjective imaginations about spatiality through interactions as well as encounters (Jazeel and Brun 2009). The diversified aspects of “the spatial”, in tandem, become


extremely important in the construction, functioning and reproduction of society, polity and economy, in a given time, engulfing the daily life practices of individuals located at diverse situations.

Spatialisation of politics (Agnew and Corbridge 1995) and theorisation of political economy hence become intensely material, unfolding the relationships between spatialities, peoples, institutions and the lived praxis that do not involve only one territory, but a highly differentiated and varied geography and many spatialities through which the nation states are contested and controlled. Take the case of the US war on Vietnam in the 1960s. It is a glaring example of a subjective imagination of a world power about a distant region “wrought with dangers of communism” that it decided to control in the name of “helping the primitive peoples to understand the true basis of a civilised existence” (Lawrence 1966). The innumerable relative spaces of brutality and torture opened up much later by the US since the second half of the 20th century in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Base and many other regions are all beset with the imagination of a new empire and its desire to subjugate space for political and economic reasons (Chomsky 2007).

The continuity of such practices in overpowering the organic relation of space and people is interesting. The 2010 announcement of the Pentagon to convert Afghanistan into a prosperous global mining region using the latter’s lithium reserve worth $1 trillion, is nothing but a contemporary geopolitical ambition of a neo-imperialist power to establish hegemony through co-option and coercion (Gramsci 1971) and thus be in command of regions having crucial resources. From the point of view of economic globalisation, capital’s increasing use of cheap labour in recent time in discrete locations of several countries, outsourcing services and production in locations far and near, is again a reflection of a distinct spatiality of its contemporary accumulation strategy leading to penury and impoverishment of the working class. In India, the current fast track industrialisation and mining activities in different parts of the country – displacing and dispossessing a huge num ber of the locals – exposits, in a similar fashion, spatial imaginations of capital and a neo-liberal state as its ally leading to reconstitution of the fundamental elements of relation, power and control. At city levels, fast track gentrification and anti-poor beautification projects to make cities more investment friendly and congenial to the needs and aspirations of a powerful global community who actually constitute a minuscule proportion of the total city population reflect similar imaginations about space for the purpose of control and accumulation. Spaces of oppression and marginalisation, in all the above situations, remain calculable, measurable and absolute, but also tend to become relative by getting negotiated and by directly entering into the realm of global economic activities.

Tension and conflict may arise (Lefebvre 1974) over the use of space for individual or social purposes and its domination by state and other forms of class power. Such conflicts can give rise to social movements that aim at liberating space from the process of domination. From Dantewada in Chhattisgarh to Orissa, Jharkhand, and Lalgarh in West Bengal right up to Jammu and Kashmir and the north-east and in many other places and cities in India and other countries, definite patterns of praxis that are being generated out of such conflicts and resistances, are an integral part of the socio-spatial dialectics of those regions. Since place is the arena where social structure and social relations interact, all praxis are grounded in specific places, giving rise to relations of power, domination and resistance. Thus, underlying the spatialities one finds the material framework of social relations, power structure and discursive methodologies of the common people.

Politics of Production of Space

The last 100 years of capitalist development have focused on production and reproduction of space at an unprecedented scale. The renewed importance of geographical space is reflected in the drastic redrawing of economic and political boundaries, based on newer global political-economic relations. Grandiose phrases like the “shrinking of the world” or “global village” need to be under stood in the light of the specific necessity of a mode of production, based on the relation between capital and labour expressing time-space compression

december 24, 2011

(Harvey 1982). The latter, a globalisation project of all time, primarily concerns the goal of equalisation of profit with unhindered movement of goods, services, technology and selective labour power for the need of a constantly expanding market that essentially represents levelling of the globe at the behest of capital, exacting equality in the conditions of exploitation of labour (Marx 1967 edition) in every sphere of production. It projects a onedimensional geography of sameness in which essentially all facets of human experiences are degraded and equalised downward (Smith 1986), hiding the fact that the premise of this equalisation rests on a strategy of dividing relative space into many absolute spaces of differential development (Banerjee-Guha 2009), tuned to the requirement of global capital.

Poor, backward regions and modern territorial production complexes then become equally important components of a global framework. Brenner (1999) argues that the current round of globalisation has significantly reconfigured the inherited model of territorially self-enclosed societies and brought in new modes of analysis that do not naturalise the territoriality of state, but focus on a variety of heterodox and interdisciplinary methodologies, challenging the rigidity of the nation state and its social imaginations. It is important to mention, however, that in spite of largescale transcendence of state-centric configuration by the new capitalist territorial organisations in recent times, at both suband supranational geographical scales, it has not in any way entailed an irrelevance of the state as a major locus of social power. Rather it has generated a rethinking of the transformed role of the state from a provider to a condescending player of diversified global operations.

Formation of a transnationally operated space by global capital within the boundaries of the nation state in the contemporary era has to be considered in the light of the above. Consequently, globalisation needs to be theorised as a reconfiguration of superimposed social spaces that operates on multiple geographical scales. Striking an integral accord with regional attributes of various space economies, capital in the current time is interconnecting societies and economies of a large number of nation

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states within the network of an anomalously developed interdependence involving not only space- specific production processes, but, more importantly, the dynamics of political economy and social relations.

Instead of eliminating absolute space – which, anyway, is not its agenda – global capital (Banerjee-Guha 2008) creates and recreates innumerable absolute spaces as a part of a largely produced framework of relative space (Smith 1984) by building, fragmenting and carving out newer spatial configurations with specific human practice and circumstances (Harvey 2006b). This leads to “annihilation of space by time” – a drive famously described by Marx (1973 edition) as capital’s globalising dynamic – abolishing all spatial barriers to capital’s accumulation process, in search of cheaper raw materials, fresh sources of labour power, new markets and new investment opportunities, to essentially create disintegration of space and marginalisation of peoples based on disparate levels of development in respective regions. The spatiality of the above process is further shaped by the geographies of cultural forms and practices of countries and regions and hence may vary from one spatial framework to the other (Banerjee-Guha 2002). In this sense, globalisation emerges as both spatial and temporal: spatial, featuring continual expansion or restructuring of capitalist territorial organisation, and temporal, featuring continual acceleration of capital’s socially average turnover time.

Understanding the significance of space in the post-Fordist era, however, requires a deeper deconstruction and reconstruction of social theories. This is especially because the strategy of post-Fordist flexible accumulation has ushered in a more intense phase of time-space compression having a disorienting impact on the entire gamut of political, economic and social practices. This can be viewed as a “moment” that is continually moulding, differentiating, deconstructing and reworking capitalism’s geographical landscape. It is true that it is through the production of relatively fixed and immobile configurations of territorial organisations that capital’s circulation process used to get accelerated and spatially expanded for a long time in the Fordist era. The current process of restructuring space, a double-edged process allowing

Economic & Political Weekly

december 24, 2011

free movement of capital, goods and commodities and limited movement of labour (power), has, however entailed a unique dialectical interplay (Emmanuel 1978) between the endemic drive towards spacetime compression (the moment of de-territorialisation) and the continual production of relatively fixed, stabilised configurations of territorial organisation on multiple geographical scales (the moment of re-territorialisation). In the above process, profit rates are equalised internationally by competition while wages are not. As workers of diffe rent countries are not equally mobile like goods and capital, they are not in competition with each other. At the same time, based on the differential development status of the countries, variations occur in national-level wages between one country and the other. This wage differential goes to form the basis of competition between countries in which workers in situ (remaining in the moment of re-territorialisation) are incorporated in the network of capital’s international economic operation underpinning a highly strategised capitalist spatiality. The Chinese state’s using its own uneven development by means of its incredibly low-wage (Banerjee-Guha 2011) labour advantages as a competitive edge over other countries, is a pertinent example.

Globalisation and the Politics of Space

The contemporary process of neo-liberal globalisation that uses the prevailing spatiality of unevenness and inequality as a premise of an ensuing social order is a case in point. It concentrates on an arena of struggle over social production and reproduction, maintains as well as reinforces the existing spatiality and at times, restructures it according to the given need of the market. Its transition to flexible accumulation through disaggregation and fragmentation of single production processes in different modes is essentially accomplished through new organisational forms and new technologies in production and communication.

The related strategy of a “partial” production process, labelled by Ettlinger (1990) as non-Fordist is essentially nothing but global capital’s non-traditional manipulation of production functions for the purpose

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of maximising profit. It bypasses the rigidities of Fordism, involving simultaneous large-scale and small batch productions (run at times in pre-capitalist modes) and is distributed in discrete absolute spaces having cheap resource and labour

– for achieving efficiency by externalising economies of scale (in complete contrast to large-scale factory-based mass production that achieves efficiency by internalising the economy of scale). The success lies in subcontracting and outsourcing, using unskilled labour along with modern production systems without getting replaced by a unilinear, evolutionary progression of production and technology of a post-Fordist system (Banerjee-Guha 2008). The presentday territorial dispersal of industrial and economic activities on a global scale, contributing to the emergence of a changed order of centralised functions, goes to reconstruct this new capitalist spatiality that has not only made the production of space crucial, but brought in the most powerful and less developed countries face to face on an unequal competitive framework.

By this, the entrenched geopolitical and geo-economic structures of contemporary capitalism have got radically reconfigured at once on global, national, regional and urban scales. I have discussed elsewhere (Banerjee-Guha 2004; 2009) how on a global scale, internationalisation of production and the new international division of labour are consolidated by reorganising space at global levels. On national scales, not only territorial borders have become more porous to international capital (Brenner 1999), the role of national entity has also got decentred by creating a wide range of sub- and supra-national forms of territorial organisations. On regional scales, as in India, this can be exemplified by the special economic zones that have been recently created at the behest of capital dispossessing communities and are destroying livelihoods. This new wave of multiscalar exploitation is fashioned in a way that not only reflects (Harvey 2006b; Chomsky 2007) the control of space by various forms of institutional and state power but also the import of a collective praxis of spatial struggles arising therefrom.

A detailed theoretical-historical-empirical account of the ongoing multiscalar transformation of space lies beyond the scope


of this article. My concern here has been to elaborate the dynamics of “space” and “spatiality” that is found in use in numerous researches in different disciplines of social science, more particularly in globalisation studies. I will conclude by invoking Lefebvre (1976) on his understanding of “space” that essentially marked a major beginning in recognising the nuances of “space” and “spatiality” in understanding capitalism’s expansionist strategy. Lefebvre argued that socially produced spaces are where the dominant relations of production are reproduced, concretised and progressively get occupied by an advancing capitalism. The above understanding logically links up all de- and re-territorialised production and human-resource complexes of the present time with the struggles that are being organised against the infamous strategy of “creative destruction” initiated by a belligerent capitalism.


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