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The world’s third spaces

About the author
Saskia Sassen is professor of sociology at Columbia University, New York, and at the London School of Economics.

A key yet much overlooked feature of the current period is the proliferation of partial, often highly specialised, global assemblages of bits of territory, authority and rights once firmly ensconced in national institutional frames. These assemblages cut across the binary of "national vs global" - this being the usual way of attempting to understand what is in fact genuinely new.

Saskia Sassen is professor in the department of sociology at Columbia University and at the London School of Economics. Her books include Losing Control? Sovereignty in the Age of Globalization (Columbia University Press, 1996), The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton University Press, 2001), and Territory, Authority, and Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press 2006)

Also by Saskia Sassen in openDemocracy:

▪ "A universal harm: making criminals of migrants" (20 August 2003)

▪ "Fear and camouflage: the end of the liberal state?" (22 December 2005)

▪ "Free speech in the frontier-zone" (20 February 2006)

▪ "A state of decay" (2 May 2006)

▪ "Migration policy: from control to governance" (13 July 2006)

▪ "Globalisation, the state and the democratic deficit" (18 July 2007)

▪ "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)

These emergent assemblages inhabit both national and global institutional and territorial settings. They span the globe in the form of trans-local geographies connecting multiple, often thick, sub-national spaces - institutional, territorial, subjective. One aspect that matters here is that these often thick, sub-national settings are building-blocks for new global geographies. They do not run through supranational institutions that take out that thickness and generalise across differences.

They vary enormously in their scope and in their aims, from greed to the common good. At one end there are private, often very narrow, frameworks such as the lex constructionis - a private agreement paraded as "law" - developed by the major construction companies in the world to establish a common mode of dealing with the strengthening of environmental standards in a growing number of countries, in most of which these firms are building. At the other end there are complex entities, such as the first ever global public court - the International Criminal Court - which is not part of the established supranational system and has universal jurisdiction among signatory countries. This court is, potentially, a revolutionary innovation: for instance, it means that citizens can launch global judiciary action without recurring to a supranational body - they can just go to a national court.

Beyond the fact of the diversity of these assemblages, there is the increasingly weighty fact of their numbers - over 125 according to the best recent count. The proliferation of these systems does not represent the end of national states, but it does begin to disassemble bits and pieces of the national. Nor does it represent simply the expansion of the global. It produces a kind of "third space" for a growing range of operations, from economic to cultural to political.

The fragments of a new reality

If you see through the eye of the national state, these assemblages look inchoate, disorderly, arbitrary. But they are actually the bits of a new reality that is coming into being.

If this lens is used to look at some current, often minor and barely visible, developments, it opens up some interesting vistas (see "Women on the move", Frieze 105, March 2007). Here are three kinds of instances which mix territory, authority and rights in novel ways.

The first example involves networks. Hizbollah in Lebanon can be seen as having shaped a very specific assemblage of territory, authority, and rights, one that cannot be easily reduced to any of the familiar containers - nation-state, internal minority-controlled region (such as the Kurdish region in Iraq), or a quasi-separatist area such as the Basque region in Spain. Similarly, the emerging roles of major gangs in cities such as Sao Paulo contribute to produce and/or strengthen types of territorial fractures that the project of building a nation-state sought to eliminate or dilute. Besides their local criminal activities, they now often run segments of global drug- and arms-dealing netowrks; and, importantly, they are also increasingly taking over "government" functions: "policing", providing social services and welfare assistance, jobs, and a new element of rights and authority in the areas they control.

The second example relates to a number of less noticed settings where this fresh combination of elements is also apparent. In some ways the European Union in its latest decade can be seen as a complex and well-achieved third space - neither fully national, nor fully transnational, with a multiplication of specialised trans-local orders that crisscross the old borders.

openDemocracy writers seek to make sense of long-term shifts in global politics, economics and the environment:

Avinash D Persaud, "The dollar standard: (only the) beginning of the end" (5 December 2007)

Tom Burke, "The world and climate change: all together now" (7 December 2007)

Ann Pettifor, "Globalisation: sleepwalking to disaster" (11 December 2007)

, "The world in 2008: a year and an era" (21 December 2007) - reflections from twenty authors, including Rajeev Bhargava, Mary Kaldor, Ivan Krastev, and Michel Thieren

Paul Rogers, "A century on the edge: 1945-2045" (29 December 2007)

David Hayes, "A world in contraflow" (3 January 2008)

Another fascinating such setting is the meeting in May 2006 of Mexico's then president, Vicente Fox, with undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States. His initiative could be said to amount to the making of a new informal jurisdiction, for it does not fit into existing legal forms that give sovereign states specific types of extraterritorial authority.

Fox's actions were not seen as particularly objectionable; no Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) or other police came to arrest the individuals thus exposed, and the media barely reacted, even though the meeting took place at a time when Congress was debating whether to criminalise illegal immigrants. Yet his interlocutors were, after all, unauthorised immigrants subject to deportation if detected, in a country that is now spending almost $2 billion a year to secure border control.

A comparable phenomenon is the project of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez - seen as an "enemy" of sorts by the United States government - to forge agreements with several major US cities to provide their poorest residents with oil from the resources of the state-owned oil enterprise, PdVSA.

Vicente Fox's and Hugo Chávez's actions are in themselves relatively minor, but they were not somehow acceptable or customary even a short time ago. They can be seen as producing novel types of mostly informal jurisdictions.

The third example is where this proliferation of specialised orders extends even inside the state apparatus (see "A state of decay", 2 May 2006). I argue that we can no longer speak of "the" state, and hence of "the" national state versus "the" global order. A fresh type of segmentation is occurring inside the state apparatus, characterised by a growing and increasingly privatised executive branch of government aligned with specific global actors (notwithstanding nationalist speeches), alongside a hollowing out of the legislature whose effectiveness is at risk of becoming confined to fewer - and more domestic - matters (see Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Princeton University Press 2006).

A weak and domesticated legislature in turn weakens the political capacity of citizens to demand accountability from an increasingly powerful and private executive, since the legislature gives citizens stronger standing in these matters than the executive. Further, the privatising of the executive partly brings with it an eroding of the privacy rights of citizens - a historic shift of the private-public division (even if always an imperfect one in practice) at the heart of the liberal state (see "Globalisation, the state and the democratic deficit", 18 July 2007).

Neither global nor national

An emphasis on this multiplication of partial assemblages contrasts with much of the globalisation literature, with its own concentration on the global vs national binary and the powerful global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). My focus here opens up the analysis to a far broader range of components, including powerless actors, in what we describe as globalisation; and it repositions the powerful global regulators, such as the IMF or the WTO as bridging events for an epochal transformation, rather than as the transformation itself.

The actual dynamics being shaped are far deeper and more radical than such entities; no matter how masterly they appear to be, they are merely footsoldiers. These institutions should rather be conceived of as powerful capabilities for the making of a new order: instruments, not the new order itself.

This proliferation of partial assemblages disaggregates constitutive rules once solidly lodged in the nation-state project with its strong unitary tendencies. Since these novel assemblages are partial and often highly specialised, they tend to be centred in particular utilities and purposes. The normative character of this landscape is multivalent - it ranges from some very good utilities and purposes to some very bad ones, depending on the normative stance adopted.

The development of these assemblages, no matter how partial, carries consequences. It is potentially profoundly unsettling of what are still the prevalent institutional arrangements (nation-states and the supranational system) for governing questions of war and peace, for establishing what are and what are not legitimate claims, for enforcing the rule of law (see "Denationalised states and global assemblages", Eurozine, 20 November 2006).

A different matter is whether these older established arrangements are effective in addressing these tasks, and in securing justice. The point here is that their decomposition would partly undo established ways of handling complex national and international matters. The emergent landscape I am describing promotes a multiplication of diverse spatio-temporal framings and diverse normative (mini)-orders, where once the dominant logic was toward producing (grand)-unitary and nation-based spatio-temporal framings and single normative orders. It may look messy, but it is part of a new reality in the making.

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