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Public Culture 14.1 (2002) 21-47
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Urban Governmentality and the Horizon of Politics
Globalization from Below
Post-1989, the world seems marked by the global victory of some version of neoliberalism, backed by the ubiquitous presence of the United States and sustained by the common openness to market processes of regimes otherwise varied in their political, religious, and historical traditions. At the same time, more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet order, it is clearer than ever that global inequality has widened, intranational warfare has vastly outpaced international [End Page 21] warfare (thus leading some observers to suggest the image of a Cold Peace), and various forms of violent ethnicization seem to erode the possibilities of sustainable pluralism. All this in a period that has also witnessed increased flows of financial capital across national boundaries and innovations in electronic communications and information storage technologies--the paradoxes abound, and have led to the proliferation of new theories of civilizational clash and of global gaps between safe and unsafe physical zones and geographical spheres. Fears of cyberapartheid mix with hopes for new opportunities for inclusion and participation.
In this confusion, now exacerbated by the knowledge that neither the most recent innovations in communications nor the defeat of the Soviet Union has created the conditions for global peace or equity, two great paradigms for enlightenment and equity seem to have become exhausted. One is the Marxist vision, in all its global variants, which promised some sort of politics of class-based internationalism premised on class struggle and the transformation of bourgeois politics by proletarian will. This is an internationalist vision that nevertheless requires the architecture of the nation-state as the site of effective struggle against capital and its agents. In this sense Marxism was, politically speaking, realist. The other grand vision, salient after 1945, was that of modernization and development, with its associated machinery of Western lending, technical expertise, and universalist discourses of education and technology transfer, and its target polity of the nationally based electoral democracy. This vision, born in such experiments as the Marshall Plan, has been subjected to intense criticism on numerous scores, but the starkest challenge to it is presented by the fact that today, over half a century after the Bretton Woods accords, more than half of the world's population lives in severe poverty.
In this context, a variety of other visions of emancipation and equity now circulate globally, often at odds with the nationalist imagination. Some are culturalist and religious, some diasporic and nonterritorial, some bureaucratic and managerial. Almost all of these recognize that nongovernmental actors are here to stay and somehow need to be made part of new models of global governance and local democracy.
The alliances and divisions in this new global political economy are not always easy to predict or understand. But among the many varieties of grassroots political movements, at least one broad distinction can be made. On the one hand are groups that have opted for armed, militarized solutions to their problems of inclusion, recognition, and participation. On the other are those that have opted for a politics of partnership--partnership, that is, between traditionally opposed groups, such as states, corporations, and workers. The alliance of housing activists [End Page 22] whose story occupies the bulk of this essay belongs to the latter group and is part of the emergent process through which the physics of globalization is being creatively redeployed.
What follows is a preliminary analysis of an urban activist movement with global links. The setting is the city of Mumbai, in the state of Maharashtra, in western India. The movement consists of three partners and its history as an alliance goes back to 1987. The three partners have different histories. The Society for the Protection of Area Resource Centres, or SPARC, is an NGO formed by social work professionals in 1984 to work with problems of urban poverty in Mumbai. NSDF, the National Slum Dwellers' Federation, is a powerful grassroots organization established in 1974 and is a CBO, or...