Workshop 2 “Political Economy” Report

Report on Workshop 2: Political Economy

The Global City, Past and Present

The second workshop of the Global City, Past and Present international research network was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa, on November 9 and 10, 2015. The theme of the second workshop was Political Economy.

The workshop was designed to attract a combination of scholars of the contemporary city, interested in the interplay between international power and finance and the micro geographies and politics of globally relevant cities, and historians of the early modern colonial and imperial city studying the dynamic between envoys of imperial authority and economy and local economic agents. By bringing together scholars working in both areas of inquiry, our goal was to explore intersections in their scholarships and pursue a better understanding of the effect interactions between local and global political and economic forces have had on the trajectory of urban settings across time and space and within global processes.

The eleven papers and keynote address fully met the goals of the workshop. Their subject matter included seventeenth-century Rio de Janeiro, Port Royal (Jamaica), Charleston, Jamestown, and New York; eighteenth-century Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, the mining towns of Minas Gerais, Brazil, and colonial urban settlements within the Dutch empire; nineteenth-century Saint-Louis, Senegal; and twentieth- and twentieth-first-century Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta, and New York. Paper topics included the global actors and context that have shaped the centrality of the city’s space and character to the political, cultural, and technological authority of an imperial or postcolonial state. Another topic tying together workshop papers was the port economies of the Atlantic world and the formation of networks of commercial trade and investment that supported the emergence of various economically influential classes of people. The papers also explored political protesting through the occupation and subversive uses of urban spaces to highlight the incongruity and unfairness of existing economic policies and practices in both the seventeenth and twenty-first century. Finally, one panel examined the connection between British and Dutch imperial efforts to promoted and regulate the development of urban spaces and the expansion of imperial economic ambitious in the American hinterland and the West and East Indies, respectively.

The workshop opened with some introductory remarks by the principal investigator and co-investigator of the Global City, Past and Present AHRC grant, which helped to familiarize all participants with the main intellectual goals and expected outcomes for the international research network. Namely, the network proposes to engage critically the concept of the global city developed by Saskia Sassen and other scholars whose work tends to locate cities’ globality in contemporary practices and realities. As historians who study early modern cities in their global context, we view the intersection between the urban and the global as a long-standing dynamic. One of our goals, therefore, is to bridge the analytical gap between scholars of the contemporary global city and of cities that have served as imperial and global hubs since 1450. Moreover, reflecting concerns that emerged during the network’s first workshop, it has also become a goal of our project to challenge the notion of the global city as a developmental model and aspiration. Sassen’s work highlights the urban inequality and marginalization that transnational financial and labor markets centered in the global city have created worldwide. Yet urban planners, policy makers, financial institutions, and governments often, and uncritically, embrace the idea of the global city as a developmental aspiration instead of an analytical category. In an effort to address the pitfalls of this trend, we hope to facilitate and mediate a public discussion of a) cities as places with rich pasts that have bearing on their present; and b) urban development as a non-linear historical process that should not aim to reproduce the trajectory towards global connectivity of a few, mainly western, cities.

The first panel, “Crafting the Global City”, included papers by Maria Fernanda Bicalho, Rachel Thompson, and Adriana Abdenur and Anelise Gondar. Bicalho discussed the role eighteenth-century Rio de Janeiro played in building a politically and economically linked center-south in colonial Brazil and, in this manner, securing the region for the Portuguese empire. By focusing on this local, instead of imperial, process of territorial consolidation, her work de-emphasizes metropolitan actions and actors to highlight instead the colonial city and its elites as the center of economic and political networks that sustained imperial authority. Thompson similarly challenged commonly accepted notions of center and periphery in her discussion of Jakarta’s plans to develop the city’s waterfront and claim land from the sea. By critically examining Dutch bids to design and develop the project, which rely heavily on claims of technological expertise and historical experience with water and tidal control, she illustrates a postcolonial relationship in which the former colonial city becomes the center of Dutch global technological authority. Abdenur and Gondar, in their discussion of urban reform in Rio de Janeiro, develop further the argument about the globalized and globalizing character of cities commonly seen as peripheral or second-tiered within a global hierarchy of cities. Their comparative examination of city planners’ efforts to modernize Rio at different moments in the twentieth century, and more recent re-urbanization projects in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games, remind us of ways in which global events and developments can project certain cities to a center stage position. Moreover, they argue, these efforts are both a response to global influences and a constructed attempts to craft a globalizing agency for Rio.

The first panel was followed by Claudia Damasceno’s keynote address “Senhorios e enfiteutas: passado e presente das concessões coloniais nas cidades brasileiras” – delivered in Portuguese and translated simultaneously by Fabrício Prado and Mariana Dantas. Damasceno’s fascinating talk focused on Portuguese colonial land concessions and their role in creating towns in Brazil. Land use was granted to municipal councils, religious convents and monasteries, and military coastal outposts, and was often used by these institutions to generate revenue through tenancy. Property rights relative to these lands remained the same until the ratification of Brazil’s most recent constitution in 1988, to the surprise of occupants who were not always aware that their status was that of a tenant and not land owner. But more interestingly, she argued, urban investors in cities like Rio de Janeiro have found that potentially valuable sections of the city are not accessible through the real estate market but rather still under the control of the government or religious institutions. This reality, a legacy of the colonial period and Portuguese imperial efforts to occupy and develop its overseas possession, has now created a potential obstacle for global capital to acquire portions of Rio and other Brazilian coastal cities, while also creating an opportunity for urban populations to stake a claim to future uses and development of those urban areas.

The second day of the workshop opened with the panel “Global Ports and Atlantic Connections”, which included presentations by Jesus Bohorquez, Fabrício Prado, and Hilary Jones. Bohorquez opened the panel with a discussion of the eighteenth-century global commercial and financial intercontinental networks within the Portuguese empire which intersected in Rio de Janeiro. While using that city as a base for his broader analysis, his work challenges depictions of Portugal’s imperial trade that focus narrowly on Rio de Janeiro’s large trading houses and wealthy merchants. Instead, he reveals the important role played by a variety of smalltime investors and traders in Asian and African ports, and argues for a polycentric approach to the study of imperial networks – one in which peripheral port towns and their economic agents also participate in the globalized processes that sustained early modern trade. Prado’s presentation illustrated further the complex and long-standing commercial networks that sustained trade within the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, emphasizing as well, through his focus on Montevideo, the centrality of less studied cities to the formation and workings of that commercial world. Moreover, his discussion of the imperial political and economic context that propelled Montevideo to a position of commercial relevance was balanced with an analysis of the interpersonal connections between Montevideo and Brazilian’s merchants. He demonstrated in this manner the relevance of individual actions and pursuits – and not only imperial policy – to the formation of an Atlantic economy. Jones’s presentation shifted the focus of the discussion to the other side of the Atlantic through its examination of St. Louis, Senegal. Employing the theory of extraversion, which explains the rise of political and economic elites as a function of their access to and control of external goods and resources, she emphasized the impact of the slave trade on the rise of merchant networks and port towns in West Africa. She explored as well the broader influence of the movement of unfree people between Africa and the Americas on the fortunes of African cities and elites, paying particular attention to groups of women who rose to prominence.

The discussion of global ports was followed by a panel focused on urban protests and local assertions of alternative visions of a political economy more representative of the interests of colonial or non-elite interests. Entitled “Dissent and Opposition in the City”, the panel included presentations by Luciano Figueiredo, Andrew Wells, and Maria Fanis. Figueiredo compared the 1660 uprising in Rio de Janeiro to Bacon’s rebellion in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1676. Both political protests were a response to imperial policies that attempted to limit colonists’ access to indigenous slave labor and commercial and economic autonomy, and both used the city to stage their protest and subvert the physical symbols of metropolitan authority which had been imprinted onto the urban space. Yet, whereas Virginians attacked and destroyed Jamestown, protestors in Rio de Janeiro took over and appropriated urban buildings and spaces, their acts reflecting each group’s recognition (or not) of the city as a useful site for colonial-metropolitan political and economic negotiation. Shifting the focus from Rio de Janeiro and Virginia to eighteenth-century New York, Wells demonstrated that, despite the events in Jamestown, cities became important spaces for the renegotiation of the colonial-metropolitan relationship with the British Empire. Focusing his discussion on the activities of seamen, merchants, and other New Yorkers involved in the transatlantic trade, Wells argues that these historical actors used the port city and its global commercial connections to construct their own interpretation of their rights as British subjects. In an attempt to subvert the strict regulations imposed by the navigation acts, New Yorkers engaged in smuggling, piracy, and trading with the enemy; in the process they reframed the imperial political economy so as to ensure their ability to exercise their British liberties. New York was also the focus of Fanis’s presentation, which examined the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 and the use of urban space as a site for protestation and the collective imagination of alternative political economies. Fanis claimed, however, that while early modern protests and movements – such as the ones discussed by Figueiredo – carried transformative possibilities, the Occupy movement was more performative than effective. She raised the question of whether modern day urban protests, which often engage with global processes rather than regional or national policies, have lost their ability to be deliberative and to promote tangible reforms to a particular political economic context.

The final panel of the workshop, “Cities and their hinterland”, included presentations by Lodewijk Wagenaar and Paul Musselwhite. Both presentations brought the discussion back to considerations about the strong interplay between imperial political and economic goals and regional developments and colonial interests; they also stressed British and Dutch efforts to make colonial cities into tools for the promotion of a desired political economy. Wagenaar offered an overview of urban ordinances from various corners of the Dutch imperial world to illustrate attempts to construct spaces of Dutch-ness in the East and West Indies. These ordinances, through their effort to mold colonial cities, reveal Dutch imperial attempts to shape colonial political and economic culture in ways that ensured the reproduction of Dutch economic power and capital. Musselwhite’s presentation, on the other hand, revealed colonial British cities to be more contentious spaces. While the British pushed to create urban spaces in which their vision of trade and imperial economic relations would be regulated and upheld, colonists, and more specifically plantation owners, strove to use or avoid urban spaces based upon their own understandings of a desirable political and economic relationship with the metropole. According to Musselwhite, regions of the British Empire that were able to support autonomous local markets and networks of economic exchange were better suited to resist metropolitan regulations and impositions and, consequently, more willing to embrace cities. On the other hand, plantation economies that relied more narrowly on a transatlantic market strongly regulated by metropolitan policies attempted to avoid excessive metropolitan control by rejecting the political and economic authority of urban centers and, ultimately, by undermining local urban development.

The workshop closed with a concluding discussion, in which all participants were invited to reflect on the common issues and considerations that emerged from the workshop presentations. We agreed that the workshop presentations and discussions highlighted a few important themes, as well as questions and approaches that still require attention, which overlap nicely with the intellectual goals of this AHRC international research network:

  • the need to interrogate the present reality and history of globally relevant cities through the careful consideration of their past;
  • the necessity of challenging accepted hierarchies of cities, in which global cities are assumed to be at the apex, and of adopting a more polycentric approach that does not assume unilateral relationships of dependency or influence among different urban centers – and which critically reassesses the idea of a global south;
  • the analytical potential of investigating the city as the site in which historical and political actors, by challenging or constructing the global power of capital, frame notions of citizenship and political belonging that do not necessarily conform to imperial or national political identities;
  • and, finally, the urgency of seeking definitions of cities that investigate the ontology of the city and its utility as an analytical category to understand human action that is both connected to global processes but grounded in spatial terms.

As a group, we also discussed possible future collaborations and options for future dissemination of our work through: a) additional contributions from members of the research network to the Global City, Past and Present blog “On Cities & Globalization”; b) future contributions to our planned edited volume and special academic journal issue; c) and organization of panels and workshops in large international conferences and academic meetings such as the Latin American Studies Association annual meeting, the American Historical Association annual meeting, and others.