Socialist Worker

Doreen Massey interview: London - living for the City

New Labour lauds London as a 'wealth creating centre' – but Doreen Massey argues that an elite is enriching itself at the expense of the rest of the city. She spoke to Matthew Cookson about her new book, World City

Issue No. 2076

Justice for Cleaners hold a Halloween protest at CitiBank in Canary Wharf. They are demanding a pay rise for cleaners working in the city (Pic:» Guy Smallman )</s

Justice for Cleaners hold a Halloween protest at CitiBank in Canary Wharf. They are demanding a pay rise for cleaners working in the city (Pic: » Guy Smallman)

London is presented as a global city. What does this mean?

When governments, newspapers and most social scientists speak about “global cities” or “world cities” it is normally in relation to cities that are crucial to the world economy.

People like the geographer and economist Saskia Sassen have described how certain cities function as big nodes in the modern world economy.

That means they are central to the organisation of neoliberal globalisation. London is one of those cities and has become central to the reorganisation of the international economy.

That understanding of a world city is important.

What I’m trying to get away from is the bland story of London – one in which manufacturing industry goes into decline, and other sectors, such as finance, grow up to replace it. While finance is important it’s not the whole of the London economy.

And there are other ways in which we can talk about London as a world city. One of those is London’s multi-ethnic nature. When people are asked about why they like living in London, it’s often one of the things they respond with.

And although he is in favour of finance, this is also something London mayor Ken Livingstone has been very positive about. My book starts with his response to the bombings in London in July 2005.

He said, “This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at presidents or prime ministers.

“It was aimed at ordinary, working class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever.”

Livingstone made this statement after a general election in which New Labour had kow-towed to racist forces – it was great to hear him speaking out in a way that celebrated London’s multi-ethnic population.

But there are threats to this vision of a global city.

There is a danger that a burgeoning group around finance can create a dynamic that makes the multi-ethnic side of being a world city much more difficult to sustain.

This can be seen in the way that all the main political parties have chosen to ignore the problems of the multi-ethnic working class, while the rise of the super-rich is taking place – that abandonment is creating problems in places like the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, to the east of the city.

One possible outcome is that one side of being a world city could smash into the other.

London is politically and economically geared towards the City – its financial centre – and neoliberalism. What impact has this had on equality?

Policy documents from institutions in the City are regularly produced to justify its existence.

They stress the enormous production of wealth that goes on within that small part of London. But finance – and all its associated sectors – have been buying up land for expansion in areas that surround the City.

This process has made it harder for the bits of manufacturing industry, which remain as the city’s heartbeat, to cling on in areas that are close to the centre of London.

The growth of finance is not compensating for this decline – It’s part of what’s producing it, and is increasing unemployment in other sectors.

Or again, the existence of people with so much money causes house prices to spiral, making life more difficult for those that don’t have access to that sort of money. So, in a sense, the existence of the super-rich makes the poor poorer.

That process makes it more difficult to socially reproduce the city – the majority of public sector workers, and all those in the private sector who do essential jobs but are desperately low paid, are finding it difficult to make ends meet.

The presence of the super-rich produces dynamics that make that worse.

Obviously it increases inflation in London, and that has a knock-on effect on the national economy, occasionally causing the government to have to “cool it down” when the north still needs growth.

That makes the issue of a “world city” a complex process and a political issue.

London was not always this way. How did it get to be one of the hubs of the world economy?

London has been fairly dominant within Britain for a long time. Even during the Industrial Revolution, when a lot of capital ownership was still in other regions, London was the main focus of the national economy and the seat of political power.

But neoliberalism has exaggerated this and, for London, the 1980s was the crucial decade. The post-Second World War social democratic settlement collapsed from the 1960s onwards, leaving a question as to what would take its place.

Margaret Thatcher and neoliberalism presented a way out to the right. A model of municipal socialism promoted by the Greater London Council (GLC) and other cities, which I was involved in, presented one possible way out to the left. The Labour Party itself was empty of ideas.

The battle between left and right was fought out between the cities and Thatcher. The miners in the regions were defending the old settlement, and quite rightly, but they weren’t presenting a new vision for the economy.

Some of the cities were trying to think differently. Although I am not uncritical of it, there was another option on the table.

But Thatcher’s annihilation of both the miners and the cities changed everything.

The outcome of that battle was crucial to London as it gave free reign to the finance-led eastward expansion of city and the redevelopment of Canary Wharf.

What is the impact of the dominance of London over the rest of the country?

There are a lot of ways that the dominance of London is problematic for the rest of the country. We are often told that there is a golden goose in the national economy represented by the City and the financial sector.

There’s a huge amount of effort put into propagating this view, and my book is in part an attempt to undermine it.

They say that the national economy is dependent on finance, but this is not true in London, and it’s even less true of the country as a whole.

Yet our democratic institutions are scared of not giving the City everything it wants. For example, the City is always saying that if the government puts up taxes that it will leave London. But I don’t think that is true and we should face them down. Where would they go, and would we care if they left?

The dominance of the finance sector does a lot of damage to the structure of the economy and society. It creates divisions and widens the north-south divide. The particular way in which London has been growing is harming the economic prospects of the north.

One of the biggest of those is London’s voracious demand for professional labour, sucking it in from the rest of the country, while the government accuses the north of not having enough professional labour.

Another area is rising house prices in London – many people in London make more from housing than they make in their salaries.

This helps contribute to national inequality as house price rises are nothing like as big in Liverpool or Rotherham as in the south east of England.

There is also a total concentration of economic power in London that has the effect of concentrating social, cultural and political power here too.

In the book you talk about the responsibilities London has in the world. What are these?

We rarely ask about the effects of our places beyond our places – what our places consume, the impacts of their activities on the rest of the world.

There’s a rhetoric we all use, especially on the left – “defend the local against the global”.

When you say local it usually evokes something good to be defended. I sit in London and look at my local place and think I can’t defend its role in the world and I can’t defend it against globalisation because globalisation is made here.

I wanted to think not just about the way the global impacts on the local, but how the local impacts on the global. This applies to everywhere. I wanted to think about how we can have a locally based politics that is about our wider responsibilities.

I call this a politics of place beyond place. There are lots of small initiatives going on around the country. Liverpool has a new slavery museum. That’s about Liverpool’s role in the world in the past.

What I’m saying is let’s think about our place’s role in the present. It would be brilliant if we could get the tax justice campaign up and running in London. This city is a kind of tax haven and an offshore centre.

Another example is the oil and advice agreement between London and Caracas in Venezuela.

Ken Livingstone is saying that he can’t do anything about the presence of finance capital in London but he can build wider links that will in other ways challenge the neoliberalism of the so-called Washington Consensus.

That openness to the wider world is a very positive thing. But there are other things that we, as organised political activists, can do, such as the fair trade movement or international trade unionism.

There could be ways that grassroots movements could take up the issues of London’s impact on the world.

London is a multicultural city. We’re quite good at being welcoming when the rest of the world comes to us, but we should look out more.

Nurses and doctors from the Global South come to work here, so the fate of a health centre in West Africa is implicated in the social reproduction of this city. There’s a subsidy from a poor country to one of the richest cities in the world.

I’m trying to change the way we look at our city so that we look outwards, as well as in.

Doreen Massey is professor of geography at the Open University. Her book World City is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »

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Tue 6 Nov 2007, 18:49 GMT
Issue No. 2076
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