Between Centre and Periphery

Sandro Mezzadra September 15, 2010

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Text previously published in Europa Magazine Issue 7, October 2009.  

The categories of centre and periphery, of north and south, are increasingly unable to photograph contemporary economic, political, and cultural inderdependence. The transnational experience of contemporary migrations points to the necessity of a new interpretative paradigm.

Between North and South Centre and periphery are “spatial” categories; they refer, as much in historiography as in the social sciences, to the hierarchical organisation of the relation between social, cultural, economic, and political units differently collocated in a given space. This reminds one of the image of a geographical map, on which these relations would be visualised. In recent years, however, the modern “cartographic reason” has been radically critiqued from a variety of standpoints, which have questioned its capacity to reflect the most significant processes modifying the configuration of contemporary global space. At the centre of these critiques we do not simply find, as has been the case for a long time in the critical studies on geography and the “production of space”, the accusation of the implication of the “cartographic reason” in the projects of exploitation and domination that have characterised the history of modern capitalism and the system of states. What is rather pointed out today is a deficit of representation, an inability of the traditional cartographic instruments in registering the main coordinates of what increasingly appears like a real spatial revolution.


One of the chief protagonists of Italian geography, Franco Farinelli, has proposed the image of the labyrinth to represent the dilemmas faced today by his discipline. The labyrinth is a particularly suitable image to account for a situation in which the increasing difficulty to organise the representation of space around a centre, or a plurality of centres, is matched by the continuous multiplication of the scale and dimension on which the processes of connection and division of the different spaces are articulated, adding a new “profundity” to contemporary global space.


This is a question that finds a direct counterpart in the field of traditional “international relations”. In an important article on “Foreign Affairs”, Richard R. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has traced a merciless assessment of the defeat of American unilateralism, that is to say of the project of “unipolar” order followed by the Bush administration. Haass, however, does not expect for the future years the coming to be of a “multipolar” variant, but instead, what he calls a “telluric movement with respects to the past”: the progressive installment of a real “non-polarity”, of “a world dominated neither by one or two, nor by a certain number of states, but instead by dozens of actors possesing and exercising different kinds of power”. The “non-polarity” corresponds not only to the obvious difficulty to isolate the “centres” around which international relations would be organised, but also, coherently with our discussion, to the multiplication of the actors of the system. The non-polar order is in fact characterised, Haass explicitely affirms, by the loss of the monopoly of states as exclusive protagonists of international politics. Regional and global organisations, large multinationals, “global cities” and NGOs, networks and “guerrilla” organisations are some of the new subjects that have entered as determining actors in the system of international relations, profoundly complicating its structure. “Power”, Haass comments, “is currently in many hands and in many places”. Randomness and “turbulence”, in the specific sense given to this concept by James Resenau, seems to be destined to characterise such a system, affecting the very concepts of centre and periphery.


We find a similar situation in trying to analyse the geography of contemporary capitalism, which is also characterised – as many analysts have pointed out – by a series of processes directly challenging the consolidated analytical models of the “international division of labour”and any attempt to offer a precise cartography of the relations between centre and periphery. In other words, the spational hierarchies around which contemporary global capitalism is structured have also assumed a “random” character unknown in previous historical moments. Structurally unstable, the hierarchical relations between the different spaces on which the global circuits of capitalist accumulation are articulated have ceased to connect relatively homogeneous areas according to the classical modalities of imperialism, unequal exchange, and dependence. What once were called “developing countries” are today far from forming a homogeneous “periphery” or a compact “third world”; now increasingly differentiating one from the other, they have often known within their own boundaries the creation of areas and sectors perfectly integrated in global networks living next to other areas and sectors suffering great difficulty when not risking downright “exclusion”. This finds a relatively precise correspondance in the evolution of the economic geography of the main “Western” countries. Instead of imagining a spatial organisation of capitalism according to which the most “advanced”(productive, financial, managerial...) functions would be condensed in certain “central” areas, and the most “backwards” functions in others (“peripheric” and “dependent” on the first), it is worth taking seriously the hypothesis that we are currently faced with the affirmation in large part of the world of a hybrid economic and social structure, in which what makes the difference is the proportion between the different functions, all of which are however tendentially present at the same time.


If faced with these processes the traditional concepts of “centre” and “periphery” seem to lose much of their explanatory potential, this does not mean, obviously, that global space is about to become “smooth”, homogeneous. Over the last years, in fact, attempting to integrate and correct an image of globalisation constructed around the metaphor of “fluxes”, a series of ethnographic analyses have underlined the different shades and cracks characterising global space. Particular attention has been paid to the crafting of the “channels” that make determinate fluxes possible while obstructing others, focussing on the processes that continuously reproduce “enclaves” and open “lateral spaces” for the production and circulation of goods, in the context of a globalisation tha proceeds discontinuously, in “jumps”, connecting and disconnecting at the same time spaces and subjects, economics, cultures, and societies.


It is no longer a paradox, in this sense, that the processes of globalisation be accompanied by a continuous multiplication of borders, but with a fundamental transformation in their nature: borders themselves, while still catastrophically closing everyday on the bodies of women and men in transit, in the Mediteranean as in the deserts between the United States and Mexico, seem to assume new characteristics of instability and randomness. Many scholars, consequently, have proposed to assume precisely the figure of the border as a fundamental point of view, empirically as much as epistemologically, to analyse the processes of globalisation and the spatial revolution these determine. And so extremely violent tensions, lines of conflict, relations of power and exploitation, scandalous inequalities in the distribution of wealth, come to the light exhibiting a growing complexity that makes it increasingly difficult to interpret the spatial coordinates of these global processes making use of rigid, fixed categories such as centre and periphery, North and South.


The spaces of migrations


All the problems briefly discussed in the preceeding section assume a particular relevance for what concerns the reality of contemporary migrations. Still in the after-war period, for example it was relatively easy to isolate the dominant fluxes of migrations, with stable areas of departure and arrival that defined specific “migratory systems”. Today, on the contrary, “the fluxes go in all directions”, and, as has recently been noted by two Italian sociologists, Pugliese and Macioti, every attempt to “give a graphic representation” of the migratory phenomenon is doomed since the start, “unless one wanted to represent something like a plate of spaghetti”.


The difficulty in producing stable and coherent maps of the routes followed by migrants in their voyage to Europe is, afterall, explicitely recognised by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), one of the most influential and authorative think tanks researching policies of border control and migration in Europe. In the context of the so-called “Dialogue on Mediterranean Transit-Migration” (MTM), an informal process coordinated by the ICMP with a plirality of countries from the two shores of the Mediterranean (with the participation of the UNHCR, the European Commission, Europol, Frontex, as well as, to underline the “global” relevance of the project, Australia as an observing country), one of the fundamental objectives was represented presicely by the production of a continuously updated “interactive map” of migratory fluxes crossing the Mediterranean. The unpredictability and randomness of the movements of the migrations are explicitely assumed as central challenges by the cartographers of the ICMPD, who in turn are attempting to lay down new instruments of knowledge suited to the definition of a new model of migration governance, more accurately corresponding to the needs of the “flexible” labour market. And they seem to actively make us of the numerous experiments of “counter-cartography” born in the last few years from the confluence of political activism and artistic practices in anti-racist and migrant movements.


The concept of “turbulence”, which we have previously recalled in the context of international relations, has been used a few years ago by an Australian scholar, Nikos Papastergiadis. At the centre of his analysis lies the continuous multiplication and growing unpredictability of migratory circuits, which challenged the whole idea of a “migratory system”, as well as an analysis of the transformations that affect the more slippery planes of “belonging” and “identity”. These two planes cannot, of course, be separated with any rigid, clear-cut division: one of the most significant developments in the literature on migrations of the last few years has been precisely the development of the concept of “transnationalism”. This concept efficiently underlines how the sense of belonging, the symbolic universe that gives meaning to the life and experience of migrants, increasingly tends to be distributed between a plurality of spaces, setting up unpredictable connections between places that can be easily identified on a geoprahical map, while at the same time producing truly innovative social, cultural, and political spaces. Already in 1991, working on Mexican migrations to the United States, the anthropologist Roger Rouse had indicated the necessity to attentively explore the “alternative cartography of social space” of the transnational migratory circuits. It is evident how this cartography is once again irreducible to the rigid relation bewteen centre and periphery: even where, for example precisely in the case of Mexican migration to the United States, some “migratory systems” seems to channel movement from a “periphery” towards a “centre”, the daily experience of migrants rewrite that movement, giving it a novel meaning – and making of Chicago, for example, an extreme Northern appendix, a “periphery”, of Mexico.


It would be a mistake to reduce to the “cultural” plane of identity and belonging the relevance of transnational social spaces produced by contemporary migrations. These are spaces that have an enormous economic impact, evident, for example, when we take into account the volume of migrants’ remittances. But even beyond this aspect, and beyond the controversial question on the role played by remittances in stimulating or depressing development in the countries of origin of the migrants, the economical aspects of networks, circuits, and transnational spaces are such as to make problematic, again, analytical instruments such as those discussed of centre and periphery.


Anybody wanting to study the transnationalism of Bolivian migrants in Buenos Aires, for example, could not limit himself to investigating the processes of economic marginalisation, cultural stigmatisation, and territorial segregation that are extremely evident in, for example, a villa such as Bajo Flores. He should instead push to the suburbs and visit a place like “La Salada”, in Lomas de Zamora, where a couple of nights each week a gigantic informal market takes place – the largest in Latin America, according to an article published on “La Nación”, with a weekly turnover estimated around 9 million dollars. Here one does not really feel in the “periphery” of Buenos Aires, but rather in the “centre” of El Alto, in Bolivia. Even better: one feels to be at the centre, a totally random centre given the informality of the place, of one of those “alternative cartographies” that Rouse mentioned back in 1991. While public buses incessantly drop ever more buyers from the most remote Argentinean provinces and even from beyond the national border, the ethnographer could observe that to the nucleus of Bolivian merchants who originally “founded” the market of “La Salada” a whole set of migrants from other Latin American countries has been added. And the same ethnographer could have fun drawing the labyrinth of the routes followed by the foods on sale on the stands and carts, discovering at the same time that inside of “La Salada” real homegrown “brands” have been born, a phenomenon definitely more interesting than the usual copying of the most celebrated global brands.


Clearly, we should not take a naively apologetic attitude towards the dynamics sustaining a space such as the one here briefly analysed. Reconstructing the paths followed by the goods on sale in “La Salada”, as I was just suggesting, would undoubtably unveil terrible stories of exploitation in clandestine workshops (which, after all, even many large brands often do not disdain to use), stories of violence and labour conditions close to slavery. The point, however, is that “La Salada” can be taken as a symptom of a whole series of processes that are materially reconfiguring, through practices of mobility and migration, the Latin American space, decentreing it and complicating its structure and constitution. Once more, we are faced with formidable conflicts and tensions, but also with the opening of a field of opportunity that should be taken into account by any project of regional intregration.


Similar processes can be found in other parts of the planet, for example in relation to the Chinese diaspora or the role played by the so-called system of “bodyshopping” in the management of the transnational mobility of the Indian workforce, employed in the topend sectors of information economy and communications in Sydney as in Singapore, in the United States and in many European countries. Each with its own specificities, these and other examples that could be brought up show that contemporary migrations are a fundamental factor in producing that multiplication of levels, of scales, and of dimensions that makes global space profoundly heterogeneous. And they show that it is precisely through migrations that this heterogeneity marks the transformations of citizenship and labour markets in the very “national” spaces themeslves. It is worth repeating that there is nothing idyllic in this representation: on each plane opeate mechanisms of control and systems of hierarchies, relations of domination and exploitation. The condition of migrants, in Buenos Aires as in Milan, in Los Angeles as in Beijing or Johannesburg, shows how much violence is daily unleashed in the functioning of these mechanisms and the reorganisation of these relations. But the concepts of “centre” and “periphery” are everyday less able to read this reality, extrapolating the crucial challenges we are facing today.