Global Economic Crisis and the Need for an International Critical Geography
The final revised version of the keynote speech originally delivered at the First meeting of the East Asian Regional Conference in Alternative Geography (EARCAG), held in Kyongju, the Republic of Korea, 24-26 January, 1999.

Global Economic Crisis and the Need for an International Critical Geography

Neil Smith (Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA)

Since the 1970s, the relatively stable geography of postwar capitalism has been thrown in the air and has fallen about like so many pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. Most if not all of our assumptions about the geographical ordering of the world, from the local to the global scale, are now obsolete, and we find ourselves in a period where theory and political organization have to be reinvented together in order to match new circumstances. The most urgent task today, and one that broadly occupies most human geographers, is trying to put the pieces of the global jigsaw puzzle back together, both conceptually and in practice -- trying to discern the geographical coherence (or lack thereof) of an emerging political and economic order.

We are not alone. The rhetoric of globalization attempts a very specific ideological ordering of precisely the same signs of transformation, and as the very language suggests, this is an intensely geographical project. What the language of 'globalization' opens up discursively, neo-liberalism fills in practically. The new economic order is rightly described as 'neo-liberal' because its deregulated and increasingly denationalized markets harken back to seventeenth and eighteenth century origins of liberalism which stressed individual self interest and corporate rights over authoritarian power, and as such lionized the pursuit of private property. Liberalism not conservatism was the ideological doctrine of early capitalism. According to this historical perspective, what came to be know as liberalism in the US in the twentieth century is an anomaly. Twentieth century liberalism emerged after World War I as a specifically US antidote to a rising socialist movement. It remained viable only as long as that threat lingered, whether at home or abroad, and lies now in ashes.

Geography occupies an awkward if axial position in this globally restructuring political economy. During the postwar period, economic expansion was disconnected to an unprecedented extent from direct geographical expansion and political control of territory. Preparing the ground for its successor, economic power became the purer and purer expression of the market itself. This led to a very powerful if ultimately idle flattery, best developed in the United States, that the global economy was somehow "beyond geography." 1 The economic crises, political movements and global restructurings of the last three decades, however, have led to a powerful and often visceral reassertion of geography in the global economy. The unprecedented fluidity of capital and labour in the global economy comes at an extraordinary cost, namely the necessary fixation of massive amounts of capital, immobilized in the structures and infrastructures of production and circulation. A whole new built environment is currently being fixed in place, a new geography constructed, in order to fix the possibility of economic and global flexibility -- a new geography of uneven development.

There have been notable successes in the 1990s by political movements opposed to neo-liberalism. In Mexico the combination of a Zapitista uprising and worker-led opposition to NAFTA has destabilized that government to an unprecedented extent. In South Korea, student revolts and worker's struggles have been sufficiently powerful to democratize, to a significant degree, a government that was, until 1987, a military dictatorship. In South Africa, an internationally supported anti-apartheid struggle finally overthrew centuries of white colonially implanted rule. Suharto, one of the world's deadliest dictators, was overthrown in 1998. We should also unequivocally celebrate the implosion of the repressive Soviet regime and its satellite governments after 1989 even while condemning the quintessential excesses of the new capitalism that have, at least in the short term, taken their place.

But many of the political movements of the postwar years have also suffered considerable defeats, few more profound than the US labour movement, the defeat of which has been central in opening the space for a US-led turn-of-the century neoliberalism. Broad domestic opposition figured strongly in the defeat of the US in Vietnam, but shrank thereafter. The lack of sustained opposition, not just to assaults on working class wage, work and living conditions at home but to US imperial intervention abroad, from Chile to Guatamala to Iraq. Internationally, labour defeats in the late 1970s and 1980s far outweighed the victories. New social movements have in some ways filled in the void, powerfully broadening the definition of political opposition. Feminist and environmental activists were among the leaders of movements against NAFTA and European integration; anti-racist movements have spearheaded struggles against the new European racism and police brutality in the US; lesbian and gay activists have led AIDS activism in Europe and North America if not in Africa. And indeed even the US labour movement in the late 1990s seems to have reawakened with a re-energized and broader international vision.

The political prospects at the end of the century, however, are still heavily coloured by the array of reactionary movements that have burgeoned since the 1960s: religious fundamentalism of all sorts, retrograde nationalisms, racism masquerading as cultural regionalism, and a broad social revanchism ― a politics of reactionary revenge aimed at cultural, political and economic competitors. In some places these are responses to and revenge against the revolts of the 1960s (successful as well as failed) -- environmentalism, feminism, civil rights, anti-war and momentarily successful national liberation struggles. In other places they are just as much responses to the new capitalism. They comprise an extensive political backlash from the right against both socialist political movements in the traditional sense and newer political movements of the left, and this backlash is identifiable locally, nationally and at the global scale (IMF and US Department of Treasury). Elsewhere, successful political campaigns, for example in South Africa, now seem circumscribed by a conservatism bred amidst their success.

Geography as an academic discipline and intellectual pursuit is not immune from these shifts. Like most of the social sciences, it was infused by the political inspiration in the late 1960s and 1970s leading to the establishment of significant radical currents in and across various national traditions. In some places this radical insurgency has had considerable success ― most paradoxically, perhaps, in the United States ― and has been able to spawn successive generations of critical geographical theory, research, and political activism. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the human geographical research frontier in the English speaking world was dominated by marxist research while in the late 1980s and 1990s, the baton has passed to a broader amalgam of social theory in which feminist and poststructuralist theory and cultural rather than political economic analyses held political and intellectual authority.

At the end of the century, however, this broad left hegemony over the small pond of human geographical ideas finds itself under sustained political attack, even at a time when the sequence of crisis, globalization and crisis again in the global economy, and the new contours of a selectively globalized cultural economy cry out for a critical analysis of the new landscapes being etched. The global economic crisis that began in 1997 in Asia combined with the conservative retrenchment of national geography associations across the world have accentuated as never before the need to build a critical geography across international boundaries.

Globalization as Response to Crisis

The last three decades has been marked by three distinct phases of global economic change:

  1. 1969-early 1980s: Crisis and Industrialization. The leading economies of North America, Europe and Japan experienced major economic crisis while east and south-east Asia especially experienced dramatic industrialization.
  2. Early 1980s - 1997: Globalization and Industrialization. While Asian industrialization boomed the borders of national states became increasingly porous to economic circulation and migration.
  3. Post-1997. Globalization and Crisis. The crisis that first emerged in the Thai currency and finance markets in the summer of 1997 spread with unprecedented speed to the global production system.

The first of these three phases is now widely written up and well understood in the geography and related literature.2 Less clearly established is the extent to which so-called 'globalization'after the 1970s represented the increasingly apparent solution to the economic downturn and crisis gripping the leading economies. Traditional explanations of so-called globalization focus on the role of new communication technologies: computers, satellites, electronic data and capital transfer. The implicit assumption is that globalization has been a phenomenon primarily of the financial markets. While this is an important part of the story, it simultaneously forgets the high levels of global integration that already pertained to the economy -- Marx after all took a world market as axiomatic by the middle of the nineteenth century ― and at the same time it ignores the impetus toward global integration that comes from the production system. In the first place, the long downturn in economic production beginning in the late 1960s in the countries of the advanced capitalist world, while serious and global in extent, did not engulf all economies. Despite the often disastrous effects of higher oil prices, the fastest industrialization ever seen occurred in East and South Asia during the same period. In Indonesia, to take just one example, investment in manufacturing which accounted for only 0.6% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1969 represented 25.2% of a much larger economy by 1996. The overall figures for the region are broadly parallel with East and South-east Asia now accounting for between 20% and 25% of the global GDP.

The Asian industrial revolution since the 1960s was initially focused on production for export, built on wage rates that were dramatically lower than in Europe, North America and Japan. But as these production systems became established, they became increasingly attractive as production locations for capitalist firms hitherto based in the core, and through a flood of foreign direct investment and a web of integrated production, assembly and marketing arrangements between firms, the dramatically expanding production systems of South and East Asia became increasingly integral to the world economy by the early 1990s.3

However partial, the globalization of production after the 1970s can therefore be understood as a partial solution to the economic crises affecting the old core after the late 1960s. The balance of global manufacturing tilted to an unprecedented extent away from the old manufacturing centers, a process augmented after 1979 by the cautious introduction of explicitly capitalist development policies in China. Increasingly integrated global systems of production ― within single firms, between firms, across national boundaries ― provided a vital basis for the processes later popularized under the label 'globalization.' None of this is to deny the globalization that has taken place so dramatically in the financial markets, especially in the 1990s, with major stock markets emerging from Hong Kong to Seoul, Moscow to Sao Paulo, and with the national currencies of the expanding economies increasingly convertible on the global currency markets. Rather it is to argue that the globalization of production provided the impetus for much of this financial globalization insofar as unprecedented levels of trade and capital movements required a global system for rationalizing the accounts. In much the same way state political regulation of the economy has also become more directly integrated with global financial markets.

But there is a second, more ideological sense in which globalization represented a response to crisis after the 1970s. For much of the world beyond Europe and North America, the promise of postwar capitalism was presented as the promise of modernization or development. In the ashes of World War II a phalanx of international organizations headed by the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, were most vocal in promoting "development" for those national economies that comprised (in the emerging language of the time) the "Third World". If "development" defined the agenda for global economic change, the nomenclature of the "Third World" territorialized the problem.

The paragon of modern development theory may well have been provided by right wing American economist, W. W. Rostow who argued that all modern industrial societies had undergone an established sequence of stages, leading to "economic takeoff" and culminating in stable levels of economic growth at high levels of production, consumption and prosperity. First published in 1960, Rostow's book The Stages of Economic Growth, established a conservative pillar of the postwar ideology of Third World development, and its subtitle -- A Non-Communist Manifesto -- made explicit the politics behind modernization discourse.4 Rostow's vision incorporated all of the major strands of postwar development theory:

  1. Development is an economic question, and social development is largely subsumed under economic development.
  2. Economic development is synonymous with capitalist development.
  3. The development of the 'Third World' required adherence to 'western'market-centred models; no independent path ― marxist or national liberation struggles, for example -- was viable.

If modernization and development thereby became for many a mission, much as "christianization" had been for European colonists of the previous century, it included 'liberals' alongside conservatives. But by the 1970s, despite emerging Asian industrialization, the mission of development and modernization was increasingly recognized as a failure. The 1960s uprisings, from Tokyo to Paris, Newark to Prague, questioned the development models from the inside. African decolonization and the utter failure of development agendas on that continent provided a second broad challenge. US defeat by communists in Vietnam, by religious fundamentalists (given their opportunity by a strike of oil workers) in Iran, and by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua all suggested not only that there were ample alternatives to the inevitability of western-style global capitalism, but that these alternatives were alive and well precisely at the time when the capitalist core suffered its deepest postwar economic crisis. Working classes from Osaka to the Ruhr but especially in Detroit were being disciplined by unemployment, reduced wages, work speed-ups, cuts in social services. After the 1970s the US confronted an altered globalism, at home as much as abroad, above which it could no longer hold itself, and the new rhetoric of globalization emerged in part as a means of re-establishing ideological hegemony.

The cautious 1979 marketization of the Chinese economy, leading eventually to the repatriation of Hong Kong, significantly broadened the territorial promise of global economic integration.5 The implosion after 1989 of the Soviet and East European regimes served up these economies as would-be full participants in the global capitalist economy, and claims about the defeat of communism, allied with the apparent survival of North American and European capital despite the long downturn, encouraged the effusive popularization of 'globalization' as the new harbinger economic of modernization and development. This global economic ambition came with a revival of Woodrow Wilson's dream of a US-defined political globalism ― the New World Order ―woven through it. And indeed, by the end of the 1980s, many of the symptoms of 'globalization' were very much in evidence:

  1. the postwar geo-economic distinctions between First, Second and Third worlds no longer made any sense.

  2. the production systems in many erstwhile "Third World" economies, especially in Asia and Latin America, together with their financial systems operated fully within the framework of global capital.
  3. The "hypermobility of capital"6 increasingly eroded established national boundaries as barriers to economic circulation (North American Free Trade Agreement, the European Union, and the South American Free Trade Agreement all appeared in the early 1990s).
  4. a virtual revolution in transport and communications such that commodities, money, messages, images -- and most important, people -- are more readily and cheaply transportable over space.
  5. a parallel if contested globalization of culture.7

The most optimistic proponents of globalization make two kinds of central claims reminiscent of Rostow. In the first place, globalization is treated by many in the capitalist class as an outright triumph of capitalism. "Make no mistake," writes an ex-Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan: "a capitalist revolution is sweeping the world".8 A global gentrification, we might even say, as undesirables are displaced in favor of capital, rendered homeless to the global economy. The confidence of this globalization rhetoric is such that even in the United States, where the public discourse was previously allergic to such language, the language of "capitalism" is being reclaimed not as epithet but as emblem. It is also worth pointing out that this vision of a globalized politics and economy is very strongly bound up with a resuscitated sense that finally, the global economy really is 'beyond geography.' Thus on the left as much as the right, globalization is widely conceived in terms of virtually spaceless flows or as "space-time compression."9 As the Chief financial Officer for American Express stated it, "The end of geography ... refers to a state of economic development where geographical location no longer matters."10 Quite literally, globalization is the capitalist utopia.

Crisis as Response to Globalization

But globalization does not in any way represent the fruition of Rostow's capitalist modernization dream from the 1960s. In the first place the export driven economic explosion in Asia is the diametrical opposite from the self-contained 'take-off' envisaged by Rostow. It was dependent on massive transfers into the Asian economies of foreign direct investment from economies (North America, Japan, Europe)where profitable investments in traditional industries was waning and there was an oversupply of capital. And it was dependent on global markets as the destination for the exports. Second, the end-of-geography argument that is implicit in Rostow and explicit among globalization afficionados is belied by the increasingly fragmented geography of global expansion. And third, the accretion of Asian and Latin American capital to the core of the global capitalist system has been accompanied by a continued crisis in the old core. Globalization has not yet succeeded as a solution to crisis, except perhaps in the United States, but since 1997 the reverse seems to be true: economic crisis represents a response to globalization.

The period from 1970 to 1993, spanning the shift from crisis to globalization, has registered a dramatically weaker economic performance in the core capitalist economy compared with the preceding period (table 1). Output, labour productivity and wage rates have increased at much lower rates while unemployment has risen more rapidly. A comparison of profit rates is especially telling. Increases in profit rates in all of the G-7 economies between 1970 and 1993 were significantly lower than in the preceding 20 years. Overall the figure declined from 17.6% to 13.3% but the decline was sharper in Germany (23.2% to 13,8%) and in Japan (21.6% to 17.2%). In manufacturing the drop in profit rates was even sharper.11

Insofar as high profits in the Asian and South American economies in the two decades prior to 1997 have sustained global economic expansion despite languid growth at the center, globalization may well have warded off more or deeper crises in the 1980s and 1990s. But the cost of this was dramatically evident by 1997 when more than a quarter century of virtually uninterrupted economic expansion in Asia hit the wall of overproduction. The first serious signs of crisis came with the sudden devaluation of the Thai baht beginning in July. Foreign capital had precipitously disinvested from the Bangkok stock market and the baht was quickly devalued following unsuccessful attempts to shore it up. Behind the 40% devaluation of the baht in only several weeks, lay a classic overproduction crisis in the semi-conductor and related industries in Thailand which had first provoked the evacuation of the stock market. Deep price discounts and layoffs did not stem the crisis but helped to transmit it more deeply into the regional financial and currency markets and the manufacturing sector.

When the crisis struck the Hong Kong financial and currency markets in October 1997, long a powerful splice of Asian and Euro-American capitals, a highly localized economic crisis with regional repercussions went global. Following the crash of the Hong Kong stock market, on 27 October 1997, the Dow Jones index of the New York stock exchange suffered its largest ever absolute loss (554 points: 7.2%), and it would have been considerably larger without the suspension first of computerized trading and then of all trading. An extraordinary one-day global devalorization ranged from 4% in the long depressed Japanese market to between 9 and 12% in Europe to 20-30% in Russia and Latin America.

South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia probably suffered the worst but almost no national economy escaped unscathed. The pivotal South Korean economy was immediately bailed out to the tune of $65 billion dollars by an IMF-headed coalition including the US government. In Indonesia overproduction was just as acute and the economy just as vulnerable, and plummeting export prices made it more so. With private corporations owing $80 billion to foreign banks and governments, debt payment was in jeopardy, and between June 1997 and January 1998, the Rupiah went from 2,100 to US$1 to 10,500, rising to 14,500 by June 1998. A $43 billion bailout was hurriedly arranged but by April 1998, stringent neo-liberal policies demanded by the IMF and US Department of the Treasury had aroused large scale student led revolts. An estimated 1200 people were killed in the revolts, most of them by riot police. The Chinese business class, broadly sympathetic to the ruling regime, was also targeted. Only in the final days of the revolt, which led to Suharto's abdication, were political links galvanized between students and some sectors of the working class.

The ravaging of East and South Asian economies through the global market provides some evidence of the extent to which national boundaries are indeed increasingly superfluous for some financial functions. Throughout the region, national governments and currency boards found themselves more or less helpless in efforts to stabilize the value of national currencies on the global market. Currencies have been subject to speculation and wild oscillation before, of course, but the speed, scale and completeness of concerted currency devaluation at the end of 1997 is wholly new. It is symptomatic that of all the major Asian stock markets only the heavily protected Chinese market escaped the financial carnage in October 1997. So un-integrated was the tiny Mongolian stock market that it actually rose by 6% on 27 October!

The 1997 stock market crash represents the global market working with least friction and greatest efficiency. Investors moved feverishly to 'evacuate their positions' ― move capital out by any means possible. The transmission of economic crisis from overproduction on the shop floor into the national stock, financial and currency markets and from one state to another was almost instantaneous. This was not an unfortunate side effect of deregulation and globalization but its precise intent; a financial system designed to guarantee rapid and efficient capital entry into 'emerging markets’ simultaneously provides the means for equally efficient exit.12 The result was 'structural adjustment' with a vengeance, organized through the logic and transactions of the global financial market, and with an efficiency that humbles the comparative plodding of the IMF's institutional policies. The economic crisis initiated in 1997 gives us a glimpse of a world in which Marx's critique of capitalism is dramatically more relevant not less so.

Under these conditions, it is hardly surprising that national governments, whether out of aggressive national economic policy or utter defensiveness, have adopted currency regulation and control as a central means of national state policy in the 1990s.13 The erosion of state power is therefore highly uneven. To the extent that a state such as the US can use its position as domicile of the global market's convertible currency to manipulate market conditions and exchange rates to the benefit of capitals still based within its boundaries, it can actually be strengthened by globalization. From this position, the rhetoric of capitalist utopia makes considerable sense. The powerful state can tap into the expanded veins of global economic power that are considerably of its own making; state economic policy becomes an increasingly pure instrument of political power. The Bretton Woods agreement disintegrated not so much because of the failure of the gold standard to keep currencies together but because its entire architecture was appropriate for a world globalizing on the basis of discrete national states and currencies. Today the priority is reversed. States are scrambling to find avenues of political power in the interstices of globalism.

Less powerful states, find themselves the objects of ravage and structural adjustment by currency traders, foreign stock speculators, or IMF policy, amounting to an externally imposed restructuring. Exchange rates have become the economic proxies of war. And yet even weak states are not entirely devoid of choices as the national scale is reconstructed. Thus in response to the 1997 crisis, Malaysia adopted an entirely opposite strategy from Indonesia and most other south and east Asian economies. As the value of the Malay ringgit was decimated during the crisis, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad complained bitterly that his national government found itself suddenly powerless to prevent large scale social and economic destruction at the hands of international exchange dealers. At times xenophobic in his anti-foreign posture, Mahathir has nonetheless reimposed strong national controls on financial movements in and out of Malaysia, largely ceased currency trading, and established stringent controls over transnational capital flows across their national borders. They have effectively closed their borders and slammed the door on the global economy. In the short term this seems to have stabilized the Malaysian economy, highlighting the role of globalization in provoking the current global economic crisis, and suggesting that there are alternatives.

In the longer term such a strategy may avoid some of the more explosive revolts as in Indonesia but there are costs: in a global capitalist economy it will also miss more rapid expansion in periods of growth, and the tight national boundaries of the economy will only be maintained through some degree of social and political repression at home, albeit with lesser extremes of wealth and poverty. Without having ever been so exposed to the global market, China is in a parallel position, largely having avoided the volatility of the 1997 crisis. Ironically, with clear evidence that doctrinal IMF and US free market policies exacerbated the 1997 crisis and its aftermath, the World Bank at the beginning of the twenty first century has begun to champion the reimposition of moderate regulation over currency and financial transfers. The divergent fates of Indonesia and Malaysia will say a lot about how the crisis of globalization is to be resolved.

Marx expected that the geographical spread of capitalism would inevitably lead toward a more even spatial pattern of economic development which would be part of the downfall of capital. That is, he embraced his own version of the capitalist utopia, albeit in the negative. He also expected that the so-called underdeveloped world would be integrated into the global economy as markets. On both counts he was demonstrably wrong. The integration of South and East Asia into the global economy since the 1970s has been on the basis of comparatively cheap labour power in the manufacturing sector. And the expansion of capitalism throughout the twentieth century has deepened the geographical unevenness of wealth and poverty. Far from the capitalist utopia, globalization as response to crisis has brought about a brutal expulsion of many places from the global economy. From the global -- sub-Saharan Africa -- to the local -- South-central Los Angeles or the shanties of Bombay ― whole swaths of humanity are summarily redlined from the global economy in a kind of satanic geography of globalization: the wretchedness and poverty wrought by globalization are already inscribed in the ideological message of its utopianism.14

Globalization, therefore, is the embodiment and source of crisis rather than its solution. The dramatic collapse of the Asian economies since 1997 has had a major global effect insofar as demand for producer and consumer commodities has plummeted. Although there were significant short term signs of economic stabilization and even recovery in the financial markets of Asia by early 1999, unemployment and poverty rates have soared. Geographically, the crisis spread outward, first to Russia which by late 1998 had gone into economic default, and then in Brazil where a massive IMF infusion of capital combined with a 30% currency devaluation in early 1999 prevented default. Indulging a bio-epidemiological metaphor and a thinly disguised racism, the North American language-of-choice to describe this global economic geography -- 'contagion', or worse, 'Asian flu' -- betrays the one-dimensional simplicity of popular US geographical syntax in general and the geographical backwardness of economists in particular. Beyond-geography ideologies have materially hindered comprehension of the economic geography of global crisis.

As of March 1999, only the US economy escaped the effects of the global economic crisis. The Japanese economy remained stagnant as it had since 1991, while despite low growth rates the European economy has found fresh economic room to expand with the expansion of the European Union and the instigation of the common currency Euro. In the US, by contrast, profits from around the world flood into the seemingly safe haven of an impossibly high New York Stock Exchange, while the national economy boomed throughout most off the 1990s. Even on the left there are those who now feel that the economic downturn since the 1960s has run its course and that by the 1990s, the US economy may have devalued sufficient capital to establish the economic and technical basis for a new long cycle of economic expansion.

This is the position taken most recently and forcefully by Robert Brenner.15 But I do not think it is sustainable. There is no doubt that weak labour organization, depressed wages, and rising profit rates in the early 1990s, not to mention the ability of the US to withstand the effects of the 1997 crisis, suggest a genuine economic resilience. But labour is again organizing,16 profit rates since the 1997 crash have been very erratic with some major losses, and a new wave of highly defensive mergers commenced. The last such wave in the late 1980s culminated in a major recession. Nor is there much doubt that the US economy has more effectively renovated its fixed capital since the 1960s than Japan has done, and perhaps also Europe.17

While these conditions could conceivably be sufficient to re-establish the US economy as the global salvation of capitalism in the early twenty-first century, there is also powerful reason to doubt this. In effect, the US has not yet digested the effects of the 1997 crash. It has had this luxury because the New York stock markets is artificially maintained by the global syphoning of capital toward Wall Street. But with intense pressure to invest and yet with low interest rates and diminished global markets for US goods, it is difficult to see how the US economy can continue expanding. Its own overproduction crisis now seems impossible to avoid. This is doubly crucial insofar as the crisis of then late 1990s resulted to a significant degree from Asian overproduction fueled by foreign direct investment policies of US based capitals. The converse of the syphoning of global capital toward Wall Street is that the US economy has the power of displacing a crisis (and the massive capital devaluation that goes with it) which is significantly of its own making, onto the rest of the world. But it would be a mistake either to misread this political economic power as a sign of internal economic strength or to assume, as Brenner seems to do, that power in the global economy still lies almost exclusively with the powerhouse national economies of the US, Japan and Germany. If the flood of capital gives US financiers every reason to praise the miracle of globalization, the converse is equally true: the economic boundaries of the US economy are highly porous and stupendous production figures in the last months of the century are no guarantee against the erosion of global markets. The 1997 crisis could yet register the centrality of the Asian economies precisely to the extent that it also brings down the US economy.

National Geography Associations and Political Backlash

Whether this anticipation of a more completely global economic depression proves accurate or not, these events are already highly significant for a contemporary research agenda in geography. Most obviously the shape of the economic, cultural and political geography of the globe has already been altered dramatically. Less obviously, perhaps, this brings with it a range of intense restructurings at other scales. In addition to restructuring the national scale, and in some places dissolving the regional scale as a sub-national entity, the new globalism also brings with it a neo-liberal urbanism.18 The development of critical geographical theory since the 1960s ought to be a comparative advantage as we attempt to diagnose the shape and direction of geographical change, and at the same time these changes present extraordinary opportunities -- indeed the necessity -- for the generation of further geographical theory.

But the new neo-liberal globalism, and struggles against it, also establish a very different ideological context within which we operate. National Geography Associations, long dominated by conservatives for whom the highest ambition was to place the discipline in the service of the national state, have been forced since the 1970s to accommodate, more or less, to at least two generations of geographers with a much more critical ambition for the discipline. In some places, marxists, feminists and other critical geographers have been surprisingly successful in redirecting disciplinary research agendas. In the US, for example, marxist work largely framed the research agenda in human geography from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s, and it was superceded by feminist work, and to a lesser extent postmodernism and poststructuralism. In Germany, by contrast, efforts by "68ers," the generation of scholars radicalized as a direct result of involvement in the 1968 uprisings, to penetrate the extremely conservative power structure of academic geography have largely been rebuffed. In South Africa, a good number of young, political geographers, like other social scientists, rode to power in consort with the African National Congress and other opponents of apartheid, but are now increasingly absorbed into an emerging political establishment that has had little success, in the face of powerful international neo-liberalism, in changing many of the social, economic and political conditions which incited them in the first place.

What is extraordinary, perhaps, is that the national schools of geography, for all that geographers claim to have international perspectives, remain largely national in a globalized world. For many geographers, the most important conference of the year is that held by their national associations, and these are heavily dominated by national members. The International Geographical Congresses, while certainly international, are dominated by more conservative senior geographers with available travel funds and have not become an attractive venue for younger, more critical scholars. The explosion of international conferences on specific themes in the last two decades, even when geared to more critical or political issues, has only slightly eroded the significance of the annual national conference. The reason for this seems to be that in most countries, to the extent that the academic job market for graduate students has shaken loose from highly specific old-boy networks, is still organized or even controlled through the national meetings and associations. These are also the bodies which publish the so-called flagship journals.

In all of this, the Nordic geographers are a very important exception. The political and intellectual momentum there seems to have shifted toward international meetings that combine geographers from several countries and which encourage attendance by scholars from beyond Scandinavia and Finland. The Nordic Critical Human Geography meetings exemplify this shift.

But in the context of economic globalization since the 1980s, and political neo-liberalism, all translated in different ways into the national schools of geography, the national associations in a number of countries are moving significantly to the right, and no longer represent as conducive a point of scholarly and political organization and research as they once did. In some cases this shift is induced by a resigned acceptance of the new political and economic ground rules of neo-liberalism. Elsewhere it represents a more active embrace of wider political and economic shifts as a means for retaking a political initiative lost to the left. The backlash is explicit in some places, implicit in others. Let me give three examples.

In Britain, the Institute of British Geographers (IBG) voted to merge with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS)in 1995. The IBG had originally been formed in 1933 as an alternative to the aristocratic stuffiness of the RGS, a body most closely associated with an unrelenting pursuit of a British Empire. Such was hardly a workable career venue for middle class geographers who established their own, more liberal and more professionally oriented institute. If it staunchly resisted the radicalization of the 1970s, by the 1980s the IBG found itself inevitably swayed, even partly captured, by the pressures of generational succession and tacked strongly to the left in a period of sharp Thatcherite corporatization of British higher education. By the early 1990s, the backlash, premised largely on financial grounds and a strive for greater public 'influence,' pointed strongly toward a re-amalgamation with the RGS, a move which would simultaneously remove red ink from the books and effectively swamp the growing radical voice in the Institute. Part of the package involved direct corporate sponsorship of the RGS-IBG by Royal Dutch Shell. The multinational oil company donated L40,000 annually to the new RGS-IBG and had its corporate emblem emblazoned on IBG membership cards. But at the same time Shell was under international attack by environmental and human rights activists who indicted its environmental despoliation of South-eastern Nigeria and its craven support for the Nigerian dictatorship's murder of nine Ogoni activists including Ken Saro-Wiwa. Consequently, having failed to pressure the RGS-IBG to drop its sponsorship by Shell, several dozen IBG members resigned in disgust. This broad disaffection from the national geographical association has given rise to an internet forum, the 'Critical Geography Forum' (

In Japan, the Japan Association of Economic Geographers (JAEG)founded in the early 1950s can perhaps claim to be the longest standing organization devoted to building a critical geography. Formed by academic geographers critical of Japan's fascist period, it has been the primary body through which marxist and other critical geographers built a radical presence in Japanese geography. Over nearly half a century, however, the analyses of the JAEG and its leading theorists has been increasingly co-opted into state planning policy, losing its critical political edge.19 In the absence of a new generation of radical scholars effectively challenging this conservative shift from the inside, the JAEG has recently restructured its election procedures in a way that encourages a conservative perpetuation of its executive council and existing leadership.

In the United States, where the corporatization of universities since the 1980s has been almost as stark as in the UK, the Association of American Geographers (AAG) has increasingly sought to recruit corporate 'members' and has focused its membership drive on private sector employees, often those working with Geographical Information Systems (GIS). In addition to the powerful means of data analysis and presentation they afford, GIS, GPS and other computer mapping technologies have been boosted in part as a means to displace a highly influential generation of young scholars with broad interests in social theory and critical geography. Yet it is precisely this latter group -- feminists, poststructuralists, marxists, postmodernists -- that publishes most in the Association's publications, often to the embarrassment of more conservative disciplinary leaders bent on attracting corporate members. In late 1998 the AAG leadership launched an attempt to 'take back' the journals -- 'something like a revolution,' according to the AAG Secretary. This backlash against social theory and critical geography is explicitly designed to clear room for more articles in, GIS, techniques, and physical geography.20

In a letter from the National Geographical Society (NGS) bestowing Honorary Membership on President William McKinley exactly a century ago, the NGS cited 'the beneficent changes of the modification of the civil geography of the world ― that McKinley's leadership had brought about.21 McKinley's greatest modification of the world map was his 1898 imperial war against Spain as a result of which Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam were possessed as US colonies. From Strabo to Pinochet, geographers have traditionally aspired to become influential servants of state power and their local ruling classes, and the fact that McKinley's 'modification of the civil geography of the world' was a quite uncivil imperialism costing tens of thousands of lives was of little consequence to the NGS geographers who feted him.

Much the same is true today even if the new imperialism has a neo-liberal rather than colonial countenance. The ambition of statecraft is occasionally explicit. The constitution of the AAG describes that organization's objective as: "to further professional investigations in geography and to encourage the application of geographic findings in education, government, and business." Political activism oriented to grassroots organizations outside the government and business sectors is excluded. From Indonesia to Central Africa, Iraq to Los Angeles, globalization is costing the lives of hundreds of people each day through starvation, the dangers of work and home, military repression and reprisal. Instead of standing squarely against such systematic exploitation and oppression, national geography associations are more and more boldly restating the traditional ambition of serving state and class power.

It is not that this ambition concerning statecraft was lost in the last two decades. Rather, in many places, the emergence of a radical geography after the 1960s and the increasing influence of that radicalism severely circumscribed expressions of that ambition into the 1980s. By the end of the twentieth century, however, things changed dramatically. The rightward shift in Europe and North America in the 1980s brought commensurate pressure on academic politics, with only some countervailing pressure from the democratization of previously authoritarian societies in Asia, Europe and Central America. Innovations in GIS and related technologies revivified positivist self-understandings of the discipline while bending the academic job market toward more and more technical and applied research rather than critical theory and providing an entre for 'business geography.' The initial generation of radicals aged and became more institutionalized while younger generations turned to cultural politics more than political economy and all have been affected by lower levels of political struggle into the 1990s.

If a political backlash against radical insurgency has sprouted in various national contexts, the increasingly competitive economic conditions governing national associations provides a contributory economic rationale. Restricted to the national scale, many geography associations still play a central role in funneling graduate students into jobs, but they are increasingly irrelevant as venues for political activism. The time is ripe for building an International Critical Geography group that can nurture that activism.

International Critical Geography

In August 1997 approximately 300 geographers from 30 countries (5 continents) met in Vancouver, British Columbia for the Inaugural International Conference in Critical Geography. It was an inspiring event, comprising three days of conference, political discussion and activism. Amidst papers on a range of issues from local to global concerns, there was a powerful sense of the political organizing that had to be done and an enthusiastic commitment of the necessary energy. In addition to learning about the work of critical geographers and political struggles across the globe, many geographers also participated in a community organizing forum against displacement and the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, which featured local poet and writer activists. We also participated in a community-organized spray-painting protest against the conversion of an abandoned department store building. Local activists demand that the building be developed for local social housing not upper middle class condominium apartments.22 An International Critical Geography Group (ICGG) steering committee was formed at that conference, an ICGG e-mail list has been established (, and a statement of purpose agreed upon (see appendix). Plans are underway for a Second ICG conference in Seoul in August 2000, and Korean comrades and colleagues organized an East Asian conference in January 1999 launching a regional affiliate to the ICG group: the East Asian Conference in Alternative Geography.23

The drive to create an International Critical Geography is motivated by the conviction that the world's geography is an intricate expression of its politics and that a critique of geographical landscape forms and processes at all scales dramatically reveals the outlines of economic exploitation and social oppression ― geography as vivid social indictment. Nor can analysis be divorced from prescription, critique from political action -- except in the service of perpetuating social, economic, and political wrongs -- and political activism is as pivotal as academic critique in an International Critical Geography.

The ICGG is a means of collective defense against the creeping corporatism and neo-liberalism of national geography associations. But it is much more than that. It is a progressive and ambitious effort to provide a political venue for challenging global capital, patriarchy, racism, imperialism and all forms of social oppression, and for organizing critical geographers in a way that we can join with other oppositional groups. The ICGG Statement of Purpose speaks for itself and represents a collective document.24 I append it here.

A World to Win!



1. See my "The Lost Geography of the American Century,"Scottish Geographical Journal 115, 199, 1-18.

2. Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1975; Joyce Kolko, Restructuring the World Economy. New York: Pantheon, 1988; Robert Brenner, "Uneven Development and the Long Downturn,"New Left Review 229, 1998.

3. This single most important fact of global political economy since the 1960s is precisely what Brenner op. cit. ignores in his recent analysis of global boom and bust since the 1950s.

4. W.W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960. See also the critique by J. M. Blaut, The Colonizer's Model of the World. New York: Guilford, 1993, 53-59.

5. Richard Smith, "The Chinese Road to Capitalism," New Left Review 199 (1993), 55-99.

6. This term came to public prominence following the publication and discussion around Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison's Deindustrialization. New York: Random House, 1982.

7. See the discussion in Michael Featherstone (ed.) Global Culture. Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity. London: Sage, 1990; and Manuel Castells, The Informational City. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989; Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large. Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1996.

8. Paul Craig Roberts, "The G.O.P. Contract is too mild," New York Times, December 3, 1994.

9. Manuel Castells, The Information Age. 3 volumes, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996-1998; David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

10. Richard O'Brien, Global Financial Integration: the End of Geography. New York: Royal Institute of International Affairs and Council on Foreign Relations, 1992, 1. See also Kenichi Ohmae, The End of the Nation State. New York: Free Press, 1995.

11. Robert Brenner, "Uneven Development and the Long Downturn: The Advanced capitalist Economies from Boom to Stagnation, 1950-1998," New Left Review 29, 1998, 5.

12. C.f. the comments on rape and globalization in J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as we knew it). New York: Basil Blackwell, 1996, 120-126.

13. Jeff Frieden "Exchange Rate Politics: Contemporary Lessons from American History," Review of International Political Economy 1, 194, 81-103.

14. Neil Smith, "Satanic Geographies of Globalization," Public Culture 10.1, 1997, 169-189.

15. Brenner, 1998, op. cit.

16. Stanley Aronowitz, From the Ashes of the Old: American Labor and America's Future. 1998.

17. Brenner uses Germany as a symptomatic of Europe, but Germany's fixed capital base in the early days of crisis in the 1970s represented the most modern in Europe and its renovation in the 1980s and 1990s and displacement has consequently been slower than in Britain, France or Ireland.

18. See my "Retro Modern or Revolutionary: Scale shifts and Political Reaction in Twenty First Century Urbanism," City and Society, Annual Review 1997, 35-52.

19. Fujio Mizuoka, "The Disciplinary Dialectics that has Played Eternal pendulum Swings," Geographical Review of Japan 69 (ser. B) 95-112; Mizuoka, "The Development and Demise of an Institution of Critical Geography: A case of the Japan Association of Economic Geographers," in Byung-doo Choi, ed., Socio-spatial Issues for east Asian Countries in the 21st Century. Papers of the First Meeting of the East Asian Regional Conference in Alternative Geography. Taegu: Korean Association for Spatial Environmental Research, 1999, 93-100.

20. Richard Marston, post to geomorphology list (, 25 November 1998.

21. Quoted in Susan Schultern, The Transformation of World Geography in American Life, 1880-1950. Ph.D dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1995, 16-17.

22. For the poem see Bud Osborn, "raise shit", (including introduction by Nick Blomley), Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 16, 1998, 279-288. For discussion of the conference see Cindi Katz, et. al., "Lost and Found in the Posts: Addressing Critical Human Geography," Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 16, 1998, 257-278.

23. Byung-doo Choi, ed., Socio-spatial Issues for East Asian Countries in the 21st Century. Papers of the First Meeting of the East Asian Regional Conference in Alternative Geography. Taegu: Korean Association for Spatial Environmental Research, 1999.

24. Many critical geographers contributed to the wording of this statement, but Caroline Desbiens was primarily responsible for initiating it and for the first draft.



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