This week’s theme: Failures of the Liberal State and responses on the ground

In thinking through the issues we were struck by how often failures happen at the level of the national state nowadays and remedies, responses, the making of solutions… all tend to happen at more local levels, from cities and villages to translocal networks and neighbourhoods.
Richard Sennett Saskia Sassen
11 February 2011

Failures and responses can happen at any level. But once you enter these more local levels, the details matter enormously.  We have brought together researchers and activists whose fieldwork addresses some of the more intractable challenges we face: organizing cleaners in powerful global cities, the trafficking of women for the sex industry, what villagers in Afghanistan see as the fatal flaw of the invasion, making a difference through the use of network technologies, and the power of urban space to enable the powerless.

But we cannot give up on the state. Our liberal, neoliberal, and illiberal states are complex capabilities. Any working state is a more complex capability than the most powerful multinational corporation, in that it can handle multiple competing interests and, though not often enough, can generate good outcomes for a majority of people. The current period is a dark one when it comes to state action. But we cannot give up on the work of re-gearing this complex capability to address the major challenges we face in each of our countries and in the world – inequality, unemployment, health, the environment, and so many others. We have selected contributors who can address the question of the state and state politics from a critical perspective that comes out of working with the state, rather than its arm-chair critics.

We begin our special section with two pieces that illuminate each of our two angles into the subject. One is an examination of the crisis of social democracy and what is next, by Neal Lawson, head of Compass, and a long-time member of the UK Labour Party. The other is by Valery Alzaga, a long time organizer and brilliant strategist in the struggle to organize powerless workers; her work with US based Justice for Janitors led to invitations from major European labor unions to come and work with them – in London, in Amsterdam, in Frankfurt, and the work goes on.

Giuliano Battiston, an Italian journalist who has covered the Middle East and Central Asia, is now on his fifth fieldwork trip to Afghanistan. He has travelled through and talked with villagers from half of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. This is the story of the military invasion from the ground up; he is writing a book on his Afghan interviews. Rhacel Parreñas is one of the top researchers on Filipina migrants and their many lives. The article is based on her fieldwork research into Filipinas in the sex industries in Japan. She became a cocktail bar hostess to do the research for the forthcoming, Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo (Stanford University Press, 2011). In her article she examines the traps and contradictions government regulators encounter in their attempt to control trafficking.

Wednesday's two articles came from different parts of the world (Lahore in Pakistan and Paris in Europe) but both describe experiences that make visible how urban space becomes an actor in certain types of confrontations.  Sophie Body-Gendrot has long worked on the meanings of urban violence in western cities, and here presents its contestation/mobilization as a bridging between today’s isolated elites in global cities and the forgotten disadvantaged. Attiq Ahmed and Sarah Ahmad, both from families with generations in Lahore are deeply involved with civil society initiatives in the city that confronts some of the catastrophic events that have hit Lahore and Pakistan generally, from the murder of the Governor of Punjab to the disappearing public domain, given fear and fanaticisms. 

The two articles presented here on Thursday focus on two very different states and two very different modes of intervention. Swapna Banerjee-Guha, one of the great geographers and politically active academics of India, gives us an account of  the developmentalist programmes of the Indian state. This short article is based on her long-time research and observations, all fully developed in a long list of articles and books.  Ann Brooks and Lionel Wee, meanwhile, capture a moment of change in Singapore’s state policy on the regulating of what the authors call “sexual citizenship”.  The relationship of the state to the private lives of citizens is always a charged domain, but perhaps never so much as in the domain of sex and family.

These last two articles deal with radically different processes.  Mario Santucho, from Buenos Aires (Argentina), finds that what we still easily refer to as the irregular economy is now becoming a new type of formation: it is more akin to an assemblage of social and economic worlds which weave themselves into diverse institutional settings.

Florian Schneider, from Munich (Germany) is a filmmaker with a long history of mixing digital technologies with on-the-ground activism. He has developed several major platforms which combine machines and people into vast networks – some aimed at fighting abuse, notably of immigrants in Europe, others aimed at building alternative worlds, such as the projects Dictionary of War and Making Worlds.  

Saskia adds:

As Mubarak resigns, the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and (partly) in other countries are a powerful reminder of the limits of superior military power.  The US, with its militarized concept of what it is to be a major actor in the world has experienced that over and over – but they are not learning. And all those peoples’ uprisings, each with its own specifics and results – some decisive, others mixed: the Philippines, the fall of the Soviet Regime, the fall of the Latin American dictatorships in the early 1980s… in none of these did superior military power play the key role. It was people’s power. In the 2009 celebrations of 1989, the Mayor of Leipzig headed a people’s march, with all of us holding candles. That was how the 1989 uprisings started.  It was an unforgettable event for me. In his article today, David Held brings us back to 1989.

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