The Capitalist City
The world city is said to be a spatial representation of global capitalism, a city in which “quite a disproportionate part of the of the world’s most important business is conducted.” It houses the headquarters of transnational corporations, major banks, insurance companies, and investment houses, and is noted for its large population size. Since it is a center of very specialized goods and services, an increasing share of its international labor force is employed in the service — as opposed to the industrial — sector.
Not all world cities are of equal importance. Three — New York, London, and Tokyo — are the undisputed leaders, command and control centers of world affairs. Yet cities in the less developed world — Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, Hong Kong, Cairo, and Taipei — are also classified by some as world cities.
Taipei’s status as a world city is based on “its status vis-a-vis the economic development of the Republic of China . . . . [when Taipei] became synonymous with access to decision makers and those individuals and institutions best placed to direct and oversee foreign trade. The city thus became a magnet for services as well as industry.”
It is important to note, however, that in the case of the world city, the penetration of capitalism and the integration of the city into the world capitalist system does not necessarily imply the adoption of Western models of land use. Taipei, for instance,
does not fit any of these models because of historical, cultural, and economic reasons. The commercial, military, and administrative origins of Taipei have left an imprint which includes many of the elements of a traditional planned Chinese city. These elements would include a grid street pattern, the inclusion of agriculturally productive lands, and the dispersion of economic activities . . . . Culturally, the continued merging of the location of work and residence produces a juxtaposition of land uses not readily amenable to Western models.
Consequently, while Taipei has, indeed, developed into a capitalist city, its built environment doesn’t explicitly imitate the Western land use model. In fact, as previously mentioned, the city continues to reflect some Leninist influences. Nevertheless, the three principal groups which are argued to have established the infrastructure for the emergence of the world city do play a primary role in Taipei’s urban activities as they do in other world cities. These groups are multinational companies, banks, and state governments. The multinational role is thought to have been particularly significant.
It has been asserted that, as these firms changed the nature of production worldwide, they also changed the nature of cities, acquiring greater control over the world’s raw materials, penetrating foreign markets through expansion of production, and exploring cheap labor abroad to produce goods for exports to overseas markets.
Multinationals became increasingly dominant during the 1980s, displacing firms with chiefly national or regional concerns, and subsequently accounting for 70-80% of world trade outside of the centrally planned socialist economies.
the world-economy is not now simply based on a single economic pole (the United States) but has become multipolar, with the borders of capitalist production moved much further out, and encompassing an increasing number of newly industrializing countries. It is on the growth of these (especially Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico) that Harris predicts The End of the Third World (1987).
Those concurring with this explanation note that the globalization of production was accompanied by the internationalization of finance, banking, and domestic currency.
Internationalization is not necessarily new. Cities like Havana were sites for the international banking system headquartered in Canada and New York as early as the 1930s when the National City Bank of New York and the Royal Canadian Bank each had about 26 branches in Cuba. At that time, in Havana, “apart from the local and expatriate representative of these banking firms, other forerunners of today’s producer-services community included estate agents, insurance firms, shipping and air agents, advertising firms, real-estate firms, managing agents, and others.”
As a consequence of the more recent shifts, however, it is now argued that the most notable characteristic (and the principal geopolitical characteristic) of world cities is their enhanced function as ‘command and control centres’ in the capitalist world-economy . . . .”
I realize that this discussion has been somewhat theoretical. So the next time we talk about Cold War Cities we’ll focus on the more complex urban problems at play during the early Cold War timeframe.