“Urban geopolitics” and the attack to democracy

Letters to #Ammerica is a weekly letter “sent” from Europe to the US in the aftermaths of November 8, 2016. It’s a personal take, based on my research experience in the South of US and Southern Europe, on cities, their policies, politics and institutional systems. Because the making of (urban) America shapes the making of Europe and beyond; and we are all involved.


What is “urban geopolitics”?

The concept of “urban geopolitics” is quite recent. At first impression, putting together “urban” and “geopolitics” may sound self-contradictory. So let me start by way of defining what “urban geopolitics” is (or, better, what I mean by it) and why it offers a privileged perspective to understand the contemporary juncture.

“Urban” is obviously about the “city” or, more precisely, about the spaces transformed by mankind for its own living (“urbanization”).

“Geopolitics” is “a method of studying foreign policy to understand, explain and predict international political behavior through geographical variables. These include area studies, climate, topography, demography, natural resources, and applied science of the region being evaluated” (Wikipedia). There is no space for the urban or for the local scale normally associated with the urban, in this definition.

The idea behind the use of “urban geopolitics” is exactly that, in the contemporary globalized world, the local and the global are more and more interconnected; and that many phenomena experienced at the urban scale are in fact part of wider global trends. It is not by chance that terrorist violence, at least in the Western countries, is primarily an urban phenomenon – its targets being systematically urban nodal places of labor and economics (e.g. the World Trade Center in New York), mobility (e.g. the Atocha station in Madrid) or leisure (e.g. the Bataclan in Paris). At the same time, the security response to terrorist risk is predominantly urban: think of the use of video-surveillance over urban space, the militarization of potential “target” areas such the ones surrounding the new World Trade Center in New York.

Militarized urban space in New York

Militarized urban space in New York

Urban geopolitics and post-democracy

What is the specific objective of authors such as Saskia Sassen, Ugo Rossi, Alberto Vanolo, or Stephen Graham when they use the concept of “urban geopolitics”? They want to convey the idea that there is a geopolitical dimension in many urban transformations of recent times; and that these transformations are reducing the space for democratic participation in cities all around the world.

This is particularly evident in relation to the measures implemented by many governments in the aftermaths of terrorist events. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has commented the declaration of the state of emergency in France after November 13, 2015, highlighting the risk of creating a permanent lawlessness: the State, in the name of security and urgency, curtails the rights of its citizens, at the same time as it disavows its own laws. The state of emergency has a crucial urban dimension, which is evident, for instance, in the prohibition of protests during the COP21 meeting about world climate. The urban state of emergency, then, has the ultimate effect of putting under the same umbrella (that of “security”) radically distinct, and politically opposite, phenomena: e.g. terrorist violence and peaceful protests calling for climate action. In name of the prevention of terrorism, a crucial expression of democracy and citizenship – protest – is banned.

Advocates of the state of emergency, such as President Bush and President Hollande, insist that the curtailing of rights is, first, only “temporary” and, second, justified by specific risks – that the state of emergency is a necessary evil to “save” democracy. However, there are good reasons to doubt. First, the Patriot Act of 2001, which has curtailed the rights of US citizens, has been renewed systematically and is still in force, though under a different name (Freedom Act), after 15 years. Second, such extreme measures are always put in place after terrorist acts – while addressing specific risks would mean acting before an event (I will discuss more in-depth the way new practices of security conceptualize future and risk). There are, in short, reasons to believe that these practices are reducing the space for democracy in the urban space (and beyond) and that they are a goal rather than a means to an end (preventing terrorism). Many believe that reducing the democratic space is a longstanding political goal integral to what is called the “neoliberal” project (another topic I will discuss in this series).

For the time being, let me emphasize one dimension of what we could call the “post-democratic” (“anti-democratic” may sound too blunt an interpretation at this stage) of recent security policies and, more in general, of contemporary urban geopolitics. One crucial dimension of democracy in the Western world, that is, of the liberal democratic model, is the alternation, in power, of different political projects – free elections among parties being the way to “evaluate” those projects.

The politics of security, in the way they have become global since (at the very least) 2001, have tended to become post-political, in the sense that no meaningful political alternation existed in this field. For instance, the Patriot Act by (conservative) Bush was renewed by (progressive) Obama and is basically identical to the state of emergency declared by (socialist) Hollande. And beyond, video-surveillance is nowadays an omnipresent instrument implemented by parties of all sides (I will discuss surveillance in the next post). In this field, in short, there seems to be no space to critique and imagine alternative possibilities, at least among those “mainstream”, “establishment” parties – Republican and Democratic in the US, popular and social-democratic in European countries. This is to say, the traditional alternation of mainstream parties doesn’t permit voters to “evaluate” security policies – voting the opponent means endorsing the same policy. At least in this field, the democratic value of elections is curtailed by the impossibility to choose among different options.

In short, the contemporary politics of security

  • reduce the physical space for political contestation (e.g. banning urban protests);
  • and, at the same time, have become a field where traditional political practices (e.g. voting mainstream parties) are ineffective means of democratic action.

In conclusion: new and old threats to democracy

The post-democratic nature of recent policies of security makes urban geopolitics a privileged perspective to understand the transformations of contemporary politics.

Citizens are faced with a political and media environment that keeps emphasizing the threat of terrorism (and crime, and violence…), at the same time as it endorses the same answers, irrespective of who is in power. Let me insist on this point: all mainstream media and parties have supported the same policies at the same time as they were emphasizing (and misrepresenting) the problem that those policies were supposed to deal with. The political discourses on terrorism have long been used to justify urban militarization and “war on terror”, but after decades they end up suggesting that those very policies are not working – otherwise, how come is the threat (represented as) a growing one? (Despite the fact that terrorism, in the West, is much less threatening than in past decades).

Can we be surprised by the fact that citizens, faced by the uselessness of political alternation among mainstream parties, look for alternative interpretations or proposals? I don’t think we can.

And what political parties and leaders have been offering different interpretations or proposals? Only those parties that are considered “radical”, “extremist” or “populist”. Indeed, their proposals are the most different:

  • on the one side are the likes of Donald Trump, who advertise themselves as anti-establishment but basically advocate more of the same (“I will build a wall”, “ban the Muslims”, “zero tolerance on crime”);
  • on the other side are left-wing parties advocating for policies that would prevent alienation and marginalization, which are the deep causes of terrorism, crime and violence, in the first place.

The problem is that the proposals of Donald Trump and his likes are simpler and appealing. And, at the same time, they are framed in the conceptual field of mainstream proposals – that it is through “security” measures that terrorism, crime and violence can be prevented.

Is it then possible that Donald Trump is, rather than a novel threat to democracy, the latest, and purest, version of a threat to democracy that is decades old?

The core objective of the Letters from #Ammerica is showing that it may be, and that we need to address old problems to fight the new threats of the likes of Trump.

In the next post, I’ll use the topic of surveillance to further this discussion.


Informazioni su Simone Tulumello

Researcher in Planning and Geography at ULisboa, Institute of Social Sciences. Keen in cities, politics, photography and electronic music. Lover of cities, especially Palermo and Lisbon, in a complicated relationship with Memphis TN.
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