Cosmopolitan cities serve as laboratories for the social developments and global trends of the future. They are dynamic and in constant flux, due in large part to the international societies they facilitate. Their people, who come from all backgrounds and corners of the world, arrive in search of opportunities and happiness, but also deserve to settle in a harmonious city.
Uli Hellweg asks: How can metropolises ensure that natives and newcomers will live well together?
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Saskia Sassen answers: They cannot ensure it. A city is a complex but incomplete system. Histories are made under such conditions. Today’s large complex city, especially if global, is a new frontier zone. Actors from different worlds meet there, but there are no clear rules of engagement. Where the historic frontier, as seen from imperial cities, was in the far stretches of the ‘colonies’, today it is deep inside those cities. These cities, whether in the global north or south, have become a strategic frontier zone for global corporate capital.
But these cities have also become a strategic frontier zone for those who lack power, those who are disadvantaged, outsiders, discriminated minorities. The disadvantaged and excluded can gain presence in such cities, presence vis-à-vis power and presence vis-à-vis each other. This signals the possibility of a new type of politics, centered in new types of political actors. It is not simply a matter of having or not having power. These are new hybrid bases from which to act, spaces where the powerless can make history, even when they do not get empowered.
How that frontier will evolve, what combats and solidarities will be generated are unknowns. Governments, citizens, organizations can and must help make that frontier a productive space of discoveries, cooperations, new urban histories.
The history of Europe shows that when minoritized citizens, asylum seekers, immigrants, made claims to be included they actually contributed to expand also the rights of all citizens. They may not have gained much power in this process, but their powerlessness became complex –they made a history, a politics. When their demands for expanded inclusions succeeded, they strengthened the institution of citizenship.
In the past, the reasons for migrants coming in and their origins differed from today’s, but the fact remains that all of the current major European countries have taken in immigrants for centuries. And historical demography, notwithstanding its limitations, makes it clear that most European nation-states have historically incorporated foreigners. Today’s French or Dutch, Viennese or Berliners, have a significant incidence of foreign-born parents and grandparents.
How did European nations handle this as societies in the recent and in the remote past? Can we learn something from this history of multiple micro-integrations alongside often murderous hatred of the outsider.
It is a fact that the immigrant groups of the past are today reasonably well absorbed, though there are important differences. These older immigrant groups, dating three or four generations back or centuries back, have given
us many of today’s citizens. They are not at issue in today’s debates. But in their time, the picture was very different. They were the issue.
Anti-immigrant sentiment and attacks happened in each of the major immigration phases in all these countries. No labour-receiving country survives close investigation with a spotless record — not Switzerland, with its long admirable history of international neutrality and not even France, the most open to immigration, refugees and exiles. French workers killed Italian workers in the salt mines in the 1800s and objected to German and Belgian workers hired for Hausman’s rebuilding of Paris, in both cases invoking that they were the wrong types of Catholics.
History and demography suggests that those fighting for incorporation in the long run won, even though only partly. And the “wrong Catholic” of yesterday’s Europe still lives on dressed in a variety of new identities. But what the past does tell us is that we fool ourselves if we think that identity is the issue. Today the ‘other’ is stereotyped by difference of race, religion and culture. Migration hinges on a move between two worlds, even if within a single region or country – such as East Germans moving to West Germany who were seen as a different ethnic group and one with undesirable traits.
Header image: visualization Wilhelmsburg Mitte, credits: IBA Hamburg GmbH / bloomimages