Book Review (Massey 2007)
Polity, Cambridge (2007), 262pp., £50.00 (hbk), ISBN 978-0-7456-4059-4 and £14.99 (pbk) ISBN 978-0-7456-4060-0 (pbk).
Reviewed by Henry Yeung, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore (07 January 2008)
This is a world city book with many differences! To begin with, this is a world city book written with a rather unusual discursive strategy. Crafted skilfully by an informed author who is a leading intellectual figure in human geography, it comes surprisingly with no grand social theory and extensive literature review. Instead, previous work by the author and others is superbly woven into the book’s prose and arguments so much so that the book resembles a non-fiction storytelling prompted by a strong personal conviction on the part of the author. Moreover, this is a world city book that gives a strong flavour of social justice (issues of inequality and responsibility), politics (power play and the class question), and frustration (author’s deep involvement in London politics). It reads as much as an analysis of world city processes as the author’s personal take on the present and future of London as a world city. Last but not least, it is the first world city book I have read that comes with no figures, maps, and (league) tables. This does not mean the book has no numbers; there are indeed many numbers cited and some of them (e.g. executive pay differentials and social inequality in London) are truly shocking.
I can go on with more differences but I’d better get on with the review. The book has a simple aim that is really quite hard to achieve. It seeks to answer the seemingly straightforward question “what does a world city such as London stand for?”. As aptly recognized by the author, this is a normative question hardly tackled in the two decades of previous research on world cities. Still, the author makes an ambitious attempt to locate a answer grounded in the context of London as a world city. This book is written for the public audience encompassing politicians, planners, development specialists, interested citizens, and so on. Where it can be relevant to students, I think graduate students in urban studies, political economy, and regional studies will find much value in this book.
The book starts with the July 2005 London bombing and its immediate aftermath. This introduction leaves a deep impression confronting any reader with the material reality of London as a world city. Massey unpacks carefully the dense discourses of London as a place for everyone best encapsulated in its mayor’s claim that “London is the whole world in one city”. She then moves on to outline her vision for understanding London in all its outward relations and constitution. The book is about a politics of place beyond place; it is all about London not in itself, but in its relational constructs with other cities and regions in the UK and the world. To accomplish this apparently simple but practically difficult aim, Massey divides the book into three parts. Part I has to do with London itself, Part II with London in relation to the UK, and Part III with London in relation to the world. In Part I, Massey mobilizes a wide range of secondary materials to demonstrate the sheer fact that London comes to dominate the UK economy through finance and related business services. She calls this dominance “capital delight”. These high value activities are particularly concentrated in the City or the Square Mile that in turn comes to dominate the Greater London region and the South East of England. The three chapters in this Part bring out very serious issues of excessive concentration and congestion, over-dependence on finance and related activities, and severe inequalities within London.
In Part II, Massey connects the rise of London to regional issues within the UK. She devotes four chapters to unpacking the discursive myth that London is “the golden goose” too important for the UK to be “killed” via alternative redistributive regional policies. Chapters in this Part offer the strongest connection to her recent work on relational geographies and power geometries. These chapters also connect nicely back to her early work on regional development in the late 1970s. In particular, she offers a strong relational critique of the Euclidean views of space widely practised in the policy circles in the UK. After a critical review of policy documents by the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the Corporation of London, Massey critically notes that “The imagination here is of space as a simply surface across which the benefits of the golden goose of London spread out to the regions” (p.112). Through this critical deconstruction of public discourses on the role of London in relation to the UK economy, Massey makes a strong case for an alternative geographical imagination of the regional development problem in the UK. She argues strongly for a politics of not “blaming the victims” such as weaker regions that are asked to stand on their own feet. Instead, she champions a more balanced regional development policy in the UK, certainly one that goes well beyond the so-called “London deficit”. For example, she is highly critical of “the assertion of a London constructed as a spatial unity through opposition to an outside constructed as an ‘external enemy’. In truth, ‘enemy’ is here the wrong term; the attitude is rather one of condescension towards the rest of the UK” (p.136).
In Part III, Massey projects London’s politics of place to the wider world economy and questions the ways in which the local has been romanticized in the debate on globalization. In this debate, the local is also seen as a victim of uncontrollable global forces. Instead, Massey argues that “the local is not simply a product of the global, but that the global itself is produced in local places… In a place like London it is plain that a serious politics cannot restrict itself to a defence of the local against the global” (p.167). In this relational conception of the local (again connected to her earlier work), we are told that a place like London serves as a specific node within a wider power-geometry that articulates different practices, flows, connections and engagements. Using London as a primary case study, she showcases how the global can be grounded in a local place like London and how the identity of such a place can be intertwined with its evolving global responsibility. In this sense, the book comes to a full circle in its argument for “an outward-looking politics of place” (p.188) that requires a very different kind of geographical imaginations of the local and the global.
Overall, I find this book a fascinating read, not least because I have never thought so much and deeply about the politics of London as a global place. Through her distinctive analytical lens, Massey has produced a masterpiece on the politics of what it means to be a “world city”. The book also connects very well with the recent relational turn in human geography. More specifically, she has analyzed London’s success and purpose in relation to local, national, and global processes. Her continual interest in the relational turn is best summarized in the following theoretical exposé: “Urban space is relational, not a mosaic of simply juxtaposed differences. This place, as many places, has to be conceptualised, not as a simply diversity, but as a meeting-place, of jostling, potentially conflicting, trajectories. It is set within, and internally constituted through, complex geometries of differential power” (p.89). Furthermore, the book weaves together seamlessly several important strands of the geographical literature on world cities, neoliberalism and neoliberalization, and feminist geography.
While the book works well as a conceptually grounded critique of the politics of London for a general audience, I do have several quibbles that are by no means obligatory criticisms. At times, I feel a little bewildered by Massey’s critique of neoliberalism as a major contributor to inequality in London and, for that matter, the UK as a whole. More specifically, she seems to equate neoliberalism to the wholesale import of the American greed: “The importation of the US model of astronomical remuneration packages is at the heart of London’s problems of poverty and inequality” (p.92). I thought surely there are other complex socio-economic forces at work such as pre-existing conditions so well analyzed in her own earlier work on spatial divisions of labour. To me, the US greed is probably the latest contingent factor that aggravates further a historical-geographical reality of inequality. In another instance, I am not so sure that London’s inequality can be simply blamed on the “top ten percent full time white male earners”. I take the point that for a book of this nature, there is the inevitable need for targeting a particular “culprit”. But I am not convinced by the end result that appears to be a little mono-causal and narrow in focus. Another point to note is that the author is sometimes a bit too celebratory and/or too apologetic for the London government under Ken Livingstone (with whom Massey is closely associated). On p.85, we are told that “the range and reach of the ideas, plans and studies that have been produced under his tenure is impressive indeed”, and yet in footnote 6 on pp.225-226, she prefers to elaborate on the plans rather than to assess their implementation. One would have thought that the politics of implementation is just as, if not more, important than the official plans. A final but no less crucial point is that for a book focusing almost exclusively on London, it might be fair to have the word “London” somehow appearing in the book’s title. Not knowing the book’s geographically specific content, I was certainly led into this review with a belief that it is just another book on world cities! Clearly it is a rather different kind of world city book.