Recently, Robert Fenton and I have been reconsidering theories of international labor migration. We find that much of the literature on this subject (see Sassen 2001; Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002; Alba and Nee 2003; Portes and Rumbaut 2006; Saxenian 2006; Smith and Bakker 2008) has analyzed migration between countries. Typically, these studies cite the social and economic conditions of host and sending countries when explaining international migration, with individuals emigrating from underdeveloped countries in order to find better economic opportunities in developed host countries.
These studies also suggest that individuals who decide to emigrate from their less economically-developed homelands are engaging the logic of rational-choice, which dictates that emigration—whether permanent or temporary—is the only way to realize a higher quality of life. But the vast majority of literature analyzing international migration fails to ask why the decision to emigrate is rational. Or to state the problem in a different way, the literature discussing international migration does not ask why the conditions of a particular country are more desirable than others. This is the question that Robert and I are investigating, and one we think can only be answered by tackling migration through the prism of global capitalism.
Part of the problem lies in the way data is managed and collected. For one, we tend to only look at migration through the lens of people living and working (for specified periods of time) in another country. This tends to overlook massive internal and circular migrations that are difficult to capture when our objective is to understand the structures of migration. The second issue, related to the first, is that of “informal” migration, of which the vast majority the world over continues to be. It is almost impossible to get accurate information about these populations. These problems make understanding the structures of global migration difficult, but not impossible—we must create theoretical positions that cannot be reduced to empirical facts, especially if the empirics are trapped in an historical method of data collection which may not correspond to the contemporary reality.
This leads us to project from current trends: the global enclosures movement on agricultural land, “modernization” of agricultural production in the Global South, and increased global urbanization. As land has been privatized and cordoned off in the Global South, the people that once worked it are forced to leave, typically arriving in (semi)urban areas and living in “informal” conditions—some call them slums. We know a billion people—and the fastest growing group on the planet—live in these conditions (as per numerous sources). But we also know that cities across the globe, through communications, networking, transportation, etc., are now the primary sites of producing and exchanging surplus value. Our theory is derived from these assumptions, which in turn spatialize the findings we have derived: old theories of migration are inept when grasping the push-pull factors of global migration in global capitalism as they fail to highlight the urban dimensions (see Neil Brenner’s fabulous work on globalization as rescaling) of our contemporary ensemble.
Plenty of contemporary research captures, on a city by city basis, this sweeping trend, but few have put forth more general theories of this process. This means moving beyond the city, which, as Lefebvre tells us in The Urban Revolution, is an historical term that no longer holds much utility in an age of global capitalism. What we need is the concept of the urban, as a sort of planetary and general force at work in global capitalism. Forty plus years after Lefebvre, however, his call largely goes unheard beyond urban studies—but even sometimes within. However, our methods, our concepts, and our epistemologies need to catch up to practice. Our current research into global migration, we feel, is one of the ways by which we can begin this process.
Cities are, by the very nature, entities deeply riven with conflict. The very organization of any cityscape the world over easily illustrates this fact. However, and this is the important point for social theorists, we must envision the city as a sort of totality—albeit one nestled within the confines of others—that transcends and sutures together the various conflictive fragments of which it consists; cities are always more than just the sums of their component parts.
On what grounds can we think about cities as both parts and wholes? I argue that we must actually think through those dialectical moments by envisioning the myriad ways in which everyday life in cities brings different parts together through everyday social relations and collective interaction. And, with that said, we must also grasp how the symbolic and real barriers that separate groups contribute to the functioning of the whole, not merely as a functional necessity, but as points of contestation along the contours of which change occurs. The unruly elements of cities, those people and places that the rich and powerful try to hide and banish from public view, have creative ways of reemerging and contesting such occlusion. Full-blown strategies of urban redevelopment have aimed at squashing and squeezing out these elements, or controlling them to such a degree that the spaces and people lose their sense of identity and transform completely. And yet, in other instances, these redevelopmental policies can enhance and reinforce the identities of the people and places they transform. The resiliency of traditional Guayaquil blares on through the speakers of the Metrovia, patriotic songs celebrating the city’s past can be heard on the bus if you listen closely enough; and yet times are changing, as they must. We see both continuity and discontinuity in the same fragment.
I have elaborated, previously, on urban redevelopment schemes in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and I intend to develop that analysis further, here. First of all, I would like to highlight the ways in which transportation solidifies and unifies the city as a specific level of practice, or as an identifiable scale of collective activity. Transportation in Guayaquil, as I have discussed previously, remains both a principle branch of urban redevelopment in the city as well as a cultural entity in its own right. The massive reorganization of city space, both achieved and in process, in constructing and implanting the Metrovia Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has entailed both a reconfiguration of the city as an economic space (with Guayaquil being the center of Ecuador’s global economic interconnection) as well as a space for play and leisure—in other words, a reorganization of everyday urban life. The extent of this redevelopment is monumental, at least for this city (of roughly 2.4 million people). Two main BRT corridors transect its ciudadelas and avenidas, with two hubs into which various feeder buses connect. The entirety of the bus system, including all of its various routes, were completely reorganized to direct traffic into the BRT corridors. Old connections were lost and new connections were made; old routes destroyed as new ones take their place. As such, there are now two “centers” towards which people move every day when they enter the Metrovia system (which costs $0.25 for each trip, including transfers), a new everyday routine with its own centers of gravity.
But these centers are the located in the traditional centro, with its skyscrapers, tightly-packed streets, ornate and baroque churches, and architectural relics of a bygone era (surrounded by the structures of “modernity”). These centers bookend the traditional city center, to the north and the south, and send out their feeders to the suburban centers dotting the north, south, and west. The BRT lines that crisscross the city, fed by the other, more traditional buses, are the cheapest and most effective way of getting from one side of the city to the other. But due to the centralizing focus of the system, traveling in directions opposite of the centers becomes a chore (for people that live in Washington, DC, this is somewhat akin to riding on the DC Metro, which favors the center at the expense of the periphery). While private operations exist to fill in this gap (personal vehicles, busetas, and taxis), they feel woefully neglected by the central authorities that planned the BRT system. The heavily rationalized routes (dedicated lanes and elevated platform stops) of the BRT work for those who shuffle in and out of the center(s) on a daily basis, and they liberate their passengers from the vicissitudes of the hellish traffic of the city, but the price of admission is a system that functions primarily for those who need to get in and out, for work and play, but not one that could be a singular source to satisfy transportation needs.
While the BRT is the most rationalized form of transportation in the city, it is not free from issues of informality. Buses, while on fixed routes, do not have schedules on which they run, rather they have average times between them depending on the hour of the day. Catching a feeder bus from a northern neighborhood requires you to go out to the main street, stand near a specified stop, and wait for the next bus (the frequency of which changes, but since these are feeder buses they are subject to normal traffic). This takes you to the central terminal where you transfer to the articulated BRT buses. Transferring means standing in a line and waiting for the next bus to come. These lines can be over a hundred people long, especially for buses heading into the city center during the mornings. There is always a chance that you could catch the next bus and be relatively comfortable, but, because the frequency of bus arrivals and departures is so irregular, one can never know—this typically means sucking it up and getting on a jam-packed bus. No words can describe how the infernal heat of the tropics turns those buses into furnaces, but your sweat-drenched clothes will surely recount the story better than your parched mouth could. Depending on how full the bus is, getting off at your stop could, likewise, be problematic. Standing next to the door of a packed bus might also get you stampeded if you are not keen enough to get out the way; hopefully you can find your way back on if that is the case. The general point is that even in the midst of such a structured environment—that of a rationally planned transportation system—etched into the fabric of another system (the city), informality finds a way; no system is total in the sense of functioning perfectly according to a plan.
While these issues of informality certainly bring culture into the technocratic system (I guess we can add the margin for human error that comes with human drivers in the mix as well), perhaps the biggest menace plaguing riders of Metrovia remains security, or to be more specific, insecurity. Petty crime runs rampant: pickpockets and stick-up kids are the norm, with people dressing accordingly, guarding their bags, or refusing to be out on the street during the hora boba (literally the stupid hour, but occurs throughout the day when the streets are generally vacant and crime rates shoot up). Would the criminal element be one of informality? We could say both yes and no, as it appears to be essential to the planning and functioning of both the city and Metrovia; armed guards are everywhere. Passengers, similarly, plan for crime in both their behavior, rhythms of riding, and in what they keep on their person. Metrovia buses are not places to bring luggage or grocery bags, beyond the limited space on these buses, these items would just scream “take me!” to wayward hands. While most of the crime is physically harmless, guns and knives do find their way into buses and, in those tightly packed recess, can be influential in getting people to run their jewelry, cell phones, and wallets. Getting off in the middle of a street also exposes people to random acts of criminality, depending on the time and place. As with informality, the criminal element is fused into the culture of riding the Metrovia. This is not to say that riding is unsafe, just that the system, which attracts a certain ridership also attracts criminals who feed off of them, which in response these riders have developed means of protecting themselves from certain types of criminals. As a general rule, crime is very normal in Ecuador and siege architecture is ubiquitous in the city, security bars cover windows and doors of most buildings, electric fences and broken shards of glass adorn the tops walls, and armed guards stand watch on many corners and in certain buildings, but this is an element of everyday culture in the developing cities of Latin America.
The Metrovia signifies many things for Guayaquil: It is a marker of modernization and development, a new means of traversing the city, a more general component of Latin American urbanization, an image of a city redeveloping itself to attract both foreign tourists and investment, and an alteration of how the city reproduces itself both in time and space. It fuses the various parts into a networked whole, even if the city itself is bigger than this, and its reach extends far beyond this specific system of transportation (Guayaquil’s urban fabric must at least include the various agricultural lands that surround the city, which continue to link the port with various markets for banana, cacao, coffee, and more). But this system of transport is one of the most visible ways in which the city is brought together as a whole, and represents a specific moment in which the world-system inscribes its logic into the city itself—for all cities react to global economic forces in specific ways, with Latin American cities tending to adapt to neoliberalization by developing cheaper transportation alternatives and developing tourism to attract foreign capital. The BRT system is not a Latin American invention, but it is one of the primary methods that cities and states in the global South, particularly Central and South America, have responded to the dictates of the “spaces of flows” so central to the current capitalist ensemble that shapes and is shaped by the world we live in. And yet these local cultures do not die out, nor do they remain distinctively local: hybridization, when we dissociate it from the specific problematic of postcolonial theory, appears to be the norm globalizing society (and we must recognize that not all of the planet’s societies are globalizing), even if we know that this is an unevenly developed phenomenon. We might even speculate that while capitalistic inventions and expansions feed off and necessitate this hybridization, that counterhegemonic social movements might similarly latch onto these energies as well (in Latin America see indigenous movements and the creation of the mestizo as a cultural category).
While technology may make the Earth flat, only a few can and do perceive it as such. Everyday material culture and tradition still weigh on the minds of the living like a warm, comforting blanket in which one can find a bit of respite from the hectic and vertiginous cycles of global capital and geopolitics. However, this is exactly the level at which capitalism benignly operates, the realm of ideology, as Henri Lefebvre puts it in The Survival of Capitalism (1976), in practice, in the reproduction of the relations of production. What remains is grasping how the level of everyday life and global capitalism coincide. What I have been proposing is that things like everyday mobility at least indicate how this is so (elsewhere in my other research projects, food is another prism through which we see this process). The basis of a sociological analysis of social change can either look at power through its specific articulation in the commanding heights and so on, or it can look at how power is articulated in everyday life; this is not Foucault contra Marx, but a dialectical materialist analysis of power as it is experienced, obscured, lived, and modified. By looking at everyday cultural artifacts (the city, transportation, food, and so on) I propose that we can better understand these articulations of power in order to change them…
I spent several years of my life studying and working in the American rural south, specifically southeastern North Carolina. I worked as a graduate assistant on a project could be characterized as sociologically-driven activist research, which attempted to combat rural poverty, food insecurities, and the destruction of local agricultural economies. We (my colleagues and myself) knew that the disintegration of small farming operations in the region (and those sprinkled throughout other parts of the US) was a result of several global processes: the centralization and industrialization of agricultural production, the migration from rural to urban centers that accompanied the industrialization process, and neoliberal structures that aggravated processes of economic and social disintegration occurring in rural and urban communities alike. Armed with this knowledge, we thought we could work to improve these deleterious social and economic conditions.
In order to fight the rampant poverty, food insecurity and economic stagnation in southeastern NC, my colleagues and I partnered with “small farmers” (those typically making <$10,000 a year in farm income), local food buyers (such as restaurants, grocers, and local schools), and private consumers. Through this partnership we coordinated a massive local food movement that connected small farmers with those who were most interested in buying their products, which effectively created new local food economies and revitalized many dilapidated or disenfranchised rural communities in southeastern NC. This was assumed to be good for everyone involved, and seemed to be a good way to push against the juggernaut of global neoliberalism, agricultural industrialization and urban centralization. All of the empirical evidence we collected seemed to support these assumptions – money was staying in the region, farmers were increasing their income and growing their businesses, and local buyers were consuming nutritious, organic food at a decent price.
I left this project several years ago to continue my studies in Virginia, but I recently returned to North Carolina to visit family and friends. During this visit we stopped at a local “foodie” restaurant. They were selling locally produced food – meats and vegetables – at a premium in relation to the cost of living in the area, and almost everyone in the restaurant was young, white, and displaying the cultural capital associated with liberal progressivism. I didn’t think much about the setting while we finished our meals, but as we left the restaurant I began to think about the downtown area in which the restaurant was located, and the economic and social history of that area. If we had visited the same area 10 or 15 years ago, we would have seen a downtown completely devastated by the processes I outlined above. Now the downtown area had been revitalized as a hub of local commerce and public activity.
But revitalized for whom? From my perspective, there were very clear class and color-lines dividing the downtown area and the “peripheries” of the community. For instance, the local black community was almost completely absent from the downtown scene, and working-class participation also seemed to be minimal, even though both working-class and black neighborhoods were located only a few blocks away from the downtown area. Those who were benefiting from the local food movement and rural revitalization were those who were relatively affluent to begin with (the white middle class) while the relatively disadvantaged were excluded. Suddenly the local food movement was starting to seem like a pretext for gentrification.
Of course, this wasn’t the intention of any of the players in the local food movement. I hadn’t even considered gentrification as a possible outcome when working with other activists and community members, and I’m sure the thought hadn’t crossed their minds either. After all, we were a local group working against a global neoliberal discourse that encouraged gentrification in urban areas. And yet here it was, in the rural south, staring me in the face.
This experience has stuck with me since my visit, and having pondered it for several weeks I’ve come to a few preliminary conclusions. First, I think this is entire experience is a practical example of why the local-global dichotomy is most certainly false. I say this because – in this particular instance – the empowerment of disadvantaged workers at the local level did nothing to disrupt power structures at a global level. Instead, this local empowerment was absorbed by the neoliberal power structures already in place. Thus it is more appropriate to understand the local and the global as dialectically related, as equal parts of a larger totality. What occurs in the “local” will most certainly occur in the “global” as well – and it may itself in unpredicted or unexpected ways.
Second, gentrification is not only occurring in urban environments, as is commonly suggested. It is also occurring in rural environments. Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that the urban form seems to have penetrated the rural? This is a concept that I think deserves more discussion.
Third, and finally, it has become obvious to me that scholarly activist needs to develop a reflexive component. As the popular adage goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.