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political geography of genevaArrow vol 7 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 7 number 1, 2008


A Political Geography of Geneva: Mapping Globalization and its Discontents

Debora Halbert
Otterbein College



This essay is a political geography of Geneva as a site of globalization and resistance. It begins with the local – the political geography of the city and moves to the global – the political geography of the international organizations and NGOs that constitute what has come to be called global civil society. It concludes with the argument that Geneva is a façade – an illusion of a future that will not be, at least for billions of people. While an example of the best globalization has to offer, Geneva conceals the dark side of globalization and the intrinsic lack of access the people have to an international structure organized from the top down.


1. ‘Geneva is boring,’ the Italian artist who earns his living painting portraits with toothpaste tells me as we walk the boardwalk along Lac Léman. ‘There is no revolution here,’ he states. I want to challenge his statement, but am not sure what evidence to muster. It is a beautiful July day and the city seems to be on vacation. I suggest to my newly made artist friend that perhaps one must dig a bit deeper to find revolution in Geneva; after all, the city hosts the United Nations, its various sub-organizations, and the World Trade Organization. It seems likely there are sites of discord in the city, despite the well-ordered streets, the beautiful promenades, the feeling of safety, and the invisibility (or lack of) poverty and homelessness. After all, no city is perfect.

2. My artist friend, an Italian citizen who has lived in Geneva for 15 years, yearns to move to Paris where portraiture out of toothpaste may be in higher demand. However, for family reasons he stays in Geneva, a place where he sees no cutting edge, no avant-garde, no intensity or, as he put it, no revolution. I came to Geneva looking for revolution and resistance; in fact, I anticipated it given the central role Geneva plays in hosting international organizations. However, on this bright sunny summer day, revolution is difficult to find, as is the World Trade Organization, the building I was searching for when I fell into conversation with the Italian artist.

3. When walking through Geneva, instead of seeing a simple placid city, I see a complex political geography where my presence is made possible by a vision of international cosmopolitanism which seems central to Geneva’s understanding of itself. My artist friend, a permanent resident, but not a Swiss citizen, and I, a ‘transnational intellectual’ (Lloyd, 2002: para 35), are symbolic of the global flows that constitute the city of Geneva. It is a cosmopolitan city like that sought by contemporary democratic theorists (Held, 1995; Archibugi et. al., 1998). It is a city of flows – of people and ideas. As one guidebook proclaims, over one-third of Geneva’s population comes from over 200 different countries (Geneva Explorer, 2005: 14). Many of these individuals work for one of the 200 diplomatic organizations that are located in the city (9). The concentration of foreign nationals and their embassies and diplomatic missions make Geneva a city at the centre of a global system of governance and global civil society.

4. While perhaps not as vibrant as London, New York, or Paris, Geneva meets the criteria of a ‘world city’ articulated by Hannerz, though perhaps a secondary world city. It is a centre for transnational business with a significant banking industry, it can claim a variety of populations from the global south; while not as avant-garde as some global cities, my encounter with an artist whose medium is toothpaste suggests an expressive core, and finally, it is a tourist destination (Hannerz, 1996: 129-131; Castells, 2000). Despite its placid veneer, Geneva participates in the cultural flows of the transnational world.

5. According to world city theorists, the demise of the nation-state, or at least its new positioning in the context of regional and international organizations, elevates the role of the city in the global economy (Sassen, 2006; Nijman, 2000). This ‘world-city hypothesis’ positions cities ‘in a global network of cities that form the essential nodes in the world-economy, ordered in a global hierarchy’ (Nijman, 2000: 21). Thus, the city takes on heightened importance as a node in the new network of globalization and capital cities are often the most visible of these world cities because of their ability to set standards the rest of the nation-state tend to follow (Claval, 2000: 19). Furthermore, as Sassen argues, despite the language of deindustrialization and an information economy, the actual material processes of globalization are visible within the city (2006: 4).

6. Warren Magnussen notes that ‘the advantage of a city-centred perspective is that it forces us to think simultaneously of the local and the global, the universal and the particular (1996: 286). Given the visibility of the nexus between the local and the global in Geneva, this city can teach an important lesson about globalization and the political economy of development. It is a city that offers us a view of the winners in a globalized world – an internationalized citizenry (though perhaps not citizens), a clean, safe and prosperous environment, and the trappings of a global civil society. Geneva symbolizes prosperity, neutrality and global peace. At the same time, I argue, the very image of Geneva as the success of globalization conceals and helps to render invisible the dark side of globalization – the terrorism, poverty, desperation, environmental destruction and ethnic tension that constitutes the living conditions for many people in the world. This view of globalization is simply not visible from the promenade along Lac Léman.

7. My place in Geneva was constrained and enabled by my home citizenship, the language I speak, and the privilege I can assume as a global traveler. However, even for someone as privileged as myself, it became increasingly clear that access to global institutions was limited and without the appropriate credentials, my only opportunity to enter most sites of power was under the guise of tourism. These initial encounters made me wonder what such a place had to offer a citizen of the world, one that was not a state representative or affiliated with an NGO. If Geneva is an adequate representation of a cosmopolitan future where the needs of global citizens will be met, what type of future governance exists? How can I seek change? Who will listen?

8. This paper is part travelogue and part attempt to uncover the politics of space in Geneva. As a travelogue, I set out to uncover the possibilities of a relatively privileged academic to penetrate the international institutions that constitute the developing global civil society. As a work of critical geography, I seek to highlight that even seemingly ‘neutral’ spaces are politically constructed in a way that determines the types of politics made possible. Arturo Escobar (2001) challenges us to consider the local in our constructions of globalization. Thus, this paper begins with the local – the political geography of the city and moves to the global – the political geography of the international organizations and NGOs that constitute what has come to be called global civil society. The first section of the essay looks to the local politics of Geneva and how the city tells a story of itself both to its inhabitants, but also for the tourist gaze. The second section looks more deliberately at the political geography of the many international institutions that call Geneva home. The third section looks to the politics of protest and how they are related to the geography of Geneva. In the end, understanding the political geography of Geneva and the ways in which power flows through the city makes me wonder about the possibility of a global participatory politics.

A Travelogue: Geneva Telling a Story of Itself

9. Lloyd suggests that border crossings divide people into the ‘hypermobile class,’ knowledge workers who transgress borders as if they were not there, and the ‘incompletely global person’ who becomes trapped by the surveillance architecture of the airport and are often denied access (2002: para 35). Within the new cosmopolitan urbanism that marks the global citizen, ‘it is a sign of parochialism – or poverty – if one fails to inhabit the whole world (Magnussen, 1996: 289). Entering Switzerland at the Geneva airport, at least for a member of the ‘hypermobile class,’ is easy. My passport was not opened, I got no stamp to prove I had been there, the immigration officer did not even look at me, and I was not asked a single question. I imagine this treatment was associated with my American passport and my blonde hair and blue eyes. As a result, I left the airport feeling like a citizen of the world.

10. The ease with which I was given access to Geneva helps make a critique of the city more difficult. When one is greeted with surveillance and overt suspicion, power becomes evident and clear. When one smoothly crosses the border, the shape of transnational power becomes much more difficult to locate. In fact, it is often assumed that ‘space is either natural or neutral,’ that geography merely provides the container within which politics can happen, instead of constructing the possibilities of politics (Shapiro, 1992: 88). However, as Shapiro warns, ‘there are good reasons to resist the naturalizing of space’ (88). This warning applies to the seemingly innocuous tourist experience in Geneva. In this first section, I seek to render less neutral the tourist experience by reading its parks, public art, and memorials as the production of a specific story of Geneva, one that is far from neutral or even the only story that can be told.

11. The central part of Geneva is beautiful and is located on Lac Léman with a wide promenade that makes it pedestrian friendly. Throughout my stay, the promenade was always crowded with a multicultural assortment of people walking along the water’s edge and enjoying the outside cafés. Music and dancers entertained the watching crowd at night. This central area was filled with tourists and guest workers, though it was difficult to tell who might be living in Geneva, who might be a tourist, and who might be an actual Swiss citizen.

12. The central city is designed with tourists in mind. Swiss army watches, knives and chocolate are readily available, though as with any item offered for sale in a globalized world, the origin of these ‘Swiss’ goods was suspect. If one is not interested in acquiring something Swiss through a commercial exchange, then it is possible to walk the city in an effort to understand the place. The city’s vibrant public spaces are filled with memorials that help tell the story of Geneva.

13. Thomas Hawley notes that memorials ‘form part of the ensemble of stories a society tells about itself’ (Hawley, 2005: 160). These memorials function as a ‘cultural memory’ that is ‘not concerned with factual representations of the past, but rather must be seen as one among many strategies for the production and maintenance of the identity of a people’ (160). With the exception of dozens of brightly painted cows scattered about the city landscape, the public art in Geneva tended to memorialize people or events and was designed to provide the city with an historical memory.

14. The memorials in Geneva provided the viewer with historical context – grounding Geneva in its rich history. Intellectuals featured prominently in the memorializing process. Interestingly, while Calvin is considered a central figure in the formation of Geneva as an autonomous state (Cranston, 1984: 10), he shares a sculpture with three others -- Guillaume Farel, Theodore de Beze, and John Knox on the ‘Reformation Wall’ in the Parc des Bastions. Ironically, and in contrast, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was not welcome in Geneva and whose books were burned, has his own island and café (Figure 1). It is Rousseau and not Calvin that the city has elevated to a central figure in their historical narrative. Rousseau serves as an important metaphor for contemporary Geneva and the process of globalization more generally – he signed his works ‘a citizen of Geneva’ and was a patriot, though disappointed that his books were burned there (Trachtenberg, 1993: 176-177; Matravers, 1998: ix).

Figure 1: d’Ile Rousseau

However, despite his feelings of affinity with Geneva, he lived much of his life outside the city (Gay, 1987: vii-xvii). Thus, he is the reverse of today’s citizen. Geneva is today the city of global transients, but Rousseau, one of its most popular philosophers and citizens, was divided from the city which inspired much of his work and ‘forced to wander Europe seeking an elusive happiness’ (Cranston: front cover).

15. Aside from public figures telling the formal history of the city, the process of memorialization includes sculptures associated with the numerous United Nations agencies housed in Geneva. As part of their presence, these agencies either commissioned or had donated to them a variety of sculptures. These sculptures constitute a form of public art, an issue of interest to critical geographers and urban planners (Hubbard et. al, 2003: 150). Traditional forms of public art create a specific type of socio-spatial relation where there is an attempt to ‘fix public memory’ (150). These artistic works are consciously designed to construct an image of the city. They become a ‘visible representation of a specific type of city (and hence a particular type of social order)’ (150).

16. Geneva’s construction of a specific type of social order, and Switzerland’s vision more generally, is told through the institutions it houses. Geneva tells the story of Switzerland as a neutral place engaged in peacekeeping. When one leaves the lake and heads inland, the city changes from a shopping and entertainment district to a conglomeration of international agencies and massive buildings dedicated to housing the important work of the UN and its organizations. This international district architecturally pays tribute to a form of alienating modernism which relies upon concrete uniformity of style. Behind these bland exteriors is concealed the wealth of ‘geographical knowledge’ produced internally (Harvey, 2001: 214). Organizations such as theWorld Trade Organization (WTO), the United Nations (UN) and its many affiliated organizations, the International labor Organization (ILO), the Worold Intellectual property organization (WIPO) and many more, help produce knowledge of the world.

17. While the production of knowledge within these bland exteriors is not visible to the tourist, the narrative designed for the public in the international district is told by the public art. The memorials are not war memorials, but anti-war memorials. Prominent in Geneva’s anti-war narrative is the Red Cross museum, which takes the Swiss flag and inverts the colors, suggesting a close affinity between the values espoused by the Red Cross and those of Switzerland (Figure 2). When one investigates the narrative told through the memorialization and public art, Geneva situates itself as a city integrated into global society through structures of peacefulness and volunteerism.

Figure 2: Red Cross Museum

18. Despite the efforts by those who produce and commission public art and control the interpretations of memorials, over time these sites become prone to new interpretations. An example is the framing of James Vibert’s L’effort Humain, commissioned in 1935 (Figure 3).

Figure 3: L’effort Humain in front of the former ILO building

This sculpture depicts a scene of human labour and stands outside the William Rappard Centre, the former home of the ILO. However, the ILO moved out of the William Rappard Centre to a new facility several miles from the lake and the WTO became the new resident of part of the building. Thus, a tension is created between the current residents of the building and the sculpture on the lawn.

19. The Declaration of Philadelphia, adopted in 1944 and central to the ILO mission, states that ‘labor is not a commodity’ and seeks to establish principles of social justice internationally (ILO at a Glance: 2). The ILO supports trade unions, seeks to eliminate child and forced labour, and end discrimination (2). Member states to the ILO want ‘fair globalization’ and ‘decent work’ for all people in the world.

20. The irony of L’effort Humain is that as global attention has shifted away from labour and towards trade, the sculpture and its position by the WTO takes on new meaning. Human effort while the ILO was there could represent the triumph of the worker and the benefits wrought by their labour as well as hope for a future where labour would be seen as more than a commodity and poverty would be eliminated. This same sculpture can be read quite differently now that it is in the shadow of the WTO. Instead of celebrating human labour, the WTO celebrates free trade and what many call a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions. In this context, the human effort depicted by this sculpture can be read as the eternal toil of the exploited and oppressed.

21. Edward Soja suggests it is important to find the ‘hidden geographies’ of a place (1989: 2). Soja argues that modernity as conceptualized spatially has been restructured to meet the demands of capitalism in crisis, ‘to open up new opportunities for super-profits, to find new ways to maintain social control, to stimulate increased production and consumption’ (34). Within this context, then, the symbolic ordering of trade over labour illuminates important political shifts written across the political geography of Geneva. It also places the sculpture, L’effort Humain in a new context of global trade and increased human toil – a very different future vision than existed when the ILO was located closer to the heart of Geneva. Soja says of critical geography that it, ‘must be attuned to the emancipatory struggles of all those who are peripheralized and oppressed by the specific geography of capitalism (and existing socialism as well) – exploited workers, tyrannized peoples, dominated women’ (74). To that end, the relocation of the ILO is symbolic of the marginalization of those struggling within the geography of capitalism. The location of the WTO next to L’effort Humain allows the critical viewer to reread the meaning. Seeing the irony in the placement of public art and reading it in ways not originally intended is important in a critical geography of Geneva.

22. Geneva isn’t simply a city narrating its ‘Swissness,’ but also stands as an emblem of international peace and cooperation. While it may be possible to avoid major entanglement with the United Nations and its organizations if one confines oneself to the shopping district, the city is filled with embassies, NGO’s, and the remnants of the League of Nations. At least some contact with Geneva’s position within the larger history of the world seems inevitable. Thus, examining the political geography of Geneva as an international node is also important.

23. As I began moving from thinking about the local – how Geneva tells a story about itself to the global – how international organizations portray themselves here, I began to wonder what type of access is possible for a global citizen without any credentials to enter the myriad organizations sited in Geneva. As a symbol of cosmopolitan democracy and a city hosting the most important international bodies in the world, it seems important to assess the way in which a citizen of the world might access global power in Geneva. The international organizations and NGOs housed here constitute a form of global civil society that defines the future daily through meetings, treaties, and conventions. What does a political geography of Geneva and the organizations it hosts tell us about this global civil society?

Geneva for a Citizen of the World

24. A tour of the over 190 international organizations that call Geneva home might begin at the Place des Nations, the central hub of the international district. Perhaps symbolizing the current upheaval and restructuring in the world, in the summer of 2005, the Place des Nations was under construction. The Place des Nations in its present state is no more than a traffic roundabout with various bodies of the United Nations surrounding the different sides. The struggle to define an international future is at the heart of this renovation and the public sign providing information to visitors regarding the construction highlights the importance of the symbolism of this space. Entitled ‘A Project for Geneva,’ the text states that,

The city of Geneva is redesigning the symbolic heart of the international organizations, the Place des Nations. The new space will be called the Promenade of Nations. Its elegant design will bring harmony to a site that has contained various different constructions. The Promenade will join a central square with the ITU garden and will create a perspective in the direction of the United Nations. Priority will be given to pedestrians.Underfoot, different types of granite coming from United Nations member countries will alternate with gray paving stones, Geneva’s traditional material.

The Promenade will be enhanced with benches and fountains placed to allow plenty of room for gatherings and public events. New lighting and additional greenery will be installed. The Promenade will offer members of the International Community, the public and passer-by a new public space to enjoy … one that is worthy of Geneva’s international vocation.

The description implies that this new public space, operating as both a place for meetings and for UN employees, will only have a ‘perspective in the direction of the United Nations,’ not provide direct access. As Hubbard et al. point out, such a conscious design helps define urban order and seeks to impose ‘an official way of seeing on the citizenry’ (2003: 151).

25. While the designers have considered public protest as one possible use of the promenade, it is unclear from the construction if it will be possible to gain access to the United Nations from the newly improved Place des Nations. One might have thought that accessing the United Nations central building through the main gate would be the starting point of any tour of international organizations in Geneva. However, the many colored flags from around the world that grace the main entrance could be seen only through bars in 2005 (Figure 4), though a small sign taped to the gate suggests a tour is available by walking further up the hill. Entering through the main gate is possible. A guard watches over a small entrance, but turns tourists away. The qualifications necessary to enter are not explicit, but include possessing one of the ubiquitous identity badges worn by UN employees and delegates.

Figure 4: United Nations

26. The barriers were also visible at the UN High Commission on Human Rights, concealed from the main promenade by the Palais Wilson. Of all possible UN agencies I had thought this one would be easily accessible to the public, but instead its gated entrance starkly illustrated the demarcation of space between insiders and outsiders that seems the norm for international organizations in Geneva (Figure 5). While security concerns are certainly relevant, the distinct lack of any welcome for a general public placed UN agencies, including those interested in human rights, outside the easy access of any single person.

Figure 5: UN High Commission on Human Rights

27. The WTO offered both the easiest public access and the most significant display of force. UN agencies tended to have a single guard at a key access point, but the WTO had multiple black-clad guards at the gated (but open) entrance. These guards regulated both foot and auto traffic in and out of the area. Despite the display of force at the front of the building, the placement of the building along the public lake promenade made it virtually impossible to control access from the rear (Figure 6).

Figure 6: View of the WTO from the Lake side

The large lawn is available to any passerby, and a park bench invites walkers to sit and view the lake. While electronic surveillance surrounds the building, the lake-side view of the WTO does not give any hint to the powerful organization within – it is in fact hidden from view while staying in plain sight.

28. The original intent of my trip to Geneva was to visit the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Having no legitimate business at the WTO, I did not attempt to enter it. However, I did seek entrance to WIPO. The WIPO building sits across the Place des Nations from the UN. Unlike other UN buildings, there is no gated entrance, but rather a circular driveway with a fountain in the centre. The website states that visitors are welcome at WIPO:

WIPO welcomes visitors to its Geneva headquarters throughout the week. The WIPO Information Center is open to the public weekdays from 9:30 am to 13:00 pm and from 2.00 pm to 5:00 pm and offers visitors a first-hand opportunity to discover through interactive exhibitions the world of intellectual property and the role it plays in our daily lives (Visits to WIPO).

However, despite the welcoming tone of the website, entering WIPO is intimidating.

29. The front door opens into the large foyer. In the foyer a security guard directs you to the information booth where other security guards sit. Without a reason to visit, one is quickly turned away. There are no tours for individuals, only for school groups, and while WIPO hosts educational conferences and workshops as well as international meetings of member states, it does not consider the general public a primary constituent. Unless you belong to a constituent group, your access is strictly limited to the visitor’s centre which hosts a display highlighting the importance of intellectual property and a few souvenirs.

30. The limited sense of public beyond the front doors of the building speaks to whom WIPO sees as its primary constituent. WIPO for all intents and purposes is hermetically sealed from the general population, with only diplomats and employees having access. WIPO’s audience includes states and commercial entities, not individual citizens and there is no space available for an individual to gain access, view debates, or do anything but purchase a few items from the gift shop. If anything, the individual from WIPO’s view is a threat because they are engaged in intellectual property violations.

31. David Harvey reminds us that a critical geography must be informed by Michel Foucault’s observations on discipline, surveillance and punishment (Harvey, 2001: 217). Much as the prison, the educational institution, and the workplace are designed to create ‘docile bodies,’ (Foucault, 1979), so too are docile bodies created on the streets of Geneva, where guards, fences, barriers, and surveillance cameras work to impose social order. This ‘carceral network’ visibly demarcates the line between the powerful and the powerless; it highlights who can speak to power and regulates access to the institutions where decision making takes place. As Foucault notes, disciplinary space is partitioned space (143) and his observations on the monastic cell or the prison can apply also to the partitioning of space to manage bodies within a city. If one protests too loudly, as will be seen in the next section, then one faces the disciplinary forces of the state.

32. Clearly for security reasons, international organizations overseeing global civil society put a high priority on surveillance. The critique offered here is not that these organizations should avoid security, or that the presence of such security measures is unwarranted. In an age of terrorism and insecurity such measures seem understandable. My argument is that these identifiers of disciplinary power create literal boundaries between citizens and international organizations and thus help define the type of relationship to the world that can be had by citizens seeking access to power; a relationship where power and knowledge is managed to mitigate external access. The gates function as a symbol for the way power circulates at the global level. The threat of discipline implied by the gates and guards discourages visitors and visibly constructs barriers between citizens and these organizations. While I may indeed be a ‘transnational intellectual,’ with some sort of privilege associated with my ability to cross borders relatively freely, the structures of international institutions made visible by their security measures highlight that political representation is so abstracted at the international level as to be nonexistent.

33. Generally speaking, gaining access to these international organizations is possible, but premised upon possessing the appropriate credentials. There is no room in these international circles for a random citizen. At the international level, democracy is mitigated by states and the individual cannot travel to Geneva to voice their views to a representative. This is the privilege of states. International structures of government are buffered from the masses – they are removed from the citizenry in ways democratically elected officials are less likely to be. This removal is reflected in the social spaces available (or absent) in Geneva. The public at large is not welcome, but if allowed to enter, they can only do so under the auspices of tourism. A tourist has a very different relationship to political spaces than a citizen. A tourist is a passive viewer and a possible consumer, taking in the message that the city provides. A citizen may seek access, but in Geneva it is difficult to tell if access would ever be granted.

34. If access to international bodies is limited, then perhaps one could turn to the NGOs for support. After all, NGOs claim to represent the people – certainly they would be more inclined to meet with specific people who have concerns. However, this venue for possible participation is limited by the structure of the organizations and whom they see as their constituents, which does not include random individual scholars or people walking in from off the street. My efforts to meet with NGO actors failed, despite trying to arrange meetings well in advance of my trip, introductions by mutual colleagues, and initial emails from those working in these organizations that they would be willing to meet with me and to set up times once I arrived. However, after initial contact, emails and calls were not returned.

35. While most NGOs have a vibrant web-presence that suggests an office teaming with workers, the web page is a façade that masks the realities of NGO life in a small office with lack of sufficient funding, and too many duties to make meeting with random people a priority. When one considers that these small NGOs are taking on the largest multinational lobbyists and their partner states, it becomes clear why they cannot find the time to meet with people who are not members of a very narrowly defined constituency.

36. Davis critiques NGOs for what he calls their ‘soft imperialism’ (Davis, 2006: 76). For Davis, NGOs, many of whom have headquarters in Geneva, have ‘deradicalized urban social movements’ by integrating themselves into the international lending system and perpetuating a system much like ‘traditional clientelism’ (76). NGOs, according to Davis, are conservative because they tend to be staffed by former civil servants and businessmen, making them part of the system they seek to critique instead of having developed from the bottom up with the much more radical approach that would come from the grassroots (77). While Davis is especially interested in NGOs related to poverty and urban slums, his critique and that of other critics of NGOs, applies more generally to what can be seen in Geneva. Arundhati Roy notes that NGOs ‘end up functioning like the whistle on a pressure cooker. They divert and sublimate political rage, and make sure it does not build to a head’ (quoted in Davis, 79). Thus, the offices of NGOs throughout Geneva remain closed to ‘the people’ at large and instead circulate in the relatively abstract world of civil society, member states, and international organizations. They acquire funding to speak for the underprivileged around the world but, at least in Geneva, are quite removed from those people. NGOs look upwards, towards the governing bodies they seek to influence and outwards towards the states and multinationals they seek to either resist or aid. NGOs suggest that they speak for ‘the people’ who have been harmed by globalization, but those people remain as abstract for NGOs in Geneva as they do for the states that also ostensibly represent ‘the people’ in a globalized world.

37. While Davis’ critique is compelling, I would also suggest that NGOs have served an important function at the global level by raising issues of social justice central to alleviating some of the worst aspects of globalization and thus should not be entirely discounted. When speaking to power, one needs often to put on the suit and take off the clothing of social protest. However, my argument aligns with Davis in that at the international level, NGOs begin to take on the appearance of the system they resist and in the process circulate outside the world of everyday life. These NGOs are indicative of transnational struggles that are not understandable within the context of a nation-state centred geography. Rather, they speak to the local and the global simultaneously. However, finding the people within this context remains difficult.

38. Given the general lay of the land, my search for access was not bearing fruit. The UN commissions and agencies were designed to speak to states, not individuals. The NGOs, who have made change in the WTO and the UN a primary goal, claim to speak for ‘the people,’ but clearly an abstract people, not individuals who might show up at their doorstep. NGO constituents, they would argue, are those marginalized by the process of globalization, not a western researcher who is not a donor. In Geneva, neither NGOs nor the international bodies they interact with turn their gaze towards the outside – towards the citizens of the world as anything other than an abstract concept to be used as a point of reference. This places debate in Geneva in a hermetically sealed world where everyone claims to represent the people, but exactly which people and how they are represented is not transparent. Those engaged in the protests and negotiations in Seattle in 1999 expressed similar concerns (Batliwala, 2002; Weissman, 2003).

Where is the Revolution?

39. So, if one cannot access international bodies or non-governmental organizations without the appropriate credentials, then where can one voice opinions? If ‘the people’ is an abstract category appropriated by institutions in order to justify their existence, who are these people? What if ‘the people’ exist outside the organizational structure of an NGO or a UN governing body? Are ‘the people’ a site of possible revolution?

40. ‘The people,’ as a disorganized body with interests opposed to the path of globalization, are in Geneva as well. These people are widely disseminated (though they have ties to the more radical NGOs) and are only loosely organized against what has come to be the culmination of global capital in our time – the process of globalization. The UN has remained relatively immune from criticism by the army of counter-globalization warriors, the WTO, the G8 and capitalism in general are their focus. It is to these forms of political expression I wish to turn.

41. As Foucault notes in an interview on the function of resistance in a spatialized politics, ‘no matter how terrifying a given system may be, there always remain the possibilities of resistance, disobedience, and oppositional groupings’ (1984: 245). I would like to describe two forms of political resistance found on the streets of Geneva. The first is the disorganized social protest of political graffiti; the second is the organized social protest against the WTO and globalization generally. These forms of political resistance help illustrate Hardt and Negri’s concept of the multitude. In Empire, Hardt and Negri suggest that the creation of empire also brings forth its opposite – the multitude.

Empire creates a greater potential for revolution than did the modern regimes of power because it presents us, alongside the machine of command, with an alternative: the set of all the exploited and the subjugated, a multitude that is directly opposed to Empire, with no mediation between them (2000: 393).

The multitude stakes out a new form of geography opposed to empire – the multitude circulates across borders, they are mass movement (397). While Hardt and Negri are discussing much more radical forms of movement – humans forced by poverty, destitution and environmental destruction to leave their homes – this same conceptualization of space is important for understanding the political geography of Geneva. The resistance of the multitude is not the organized resistance of NGOs, but more like that found in the streets of Geneva.

42. Graffiti is one expression of the multitude. Rob Cover (2002) discusses political graffiti in the context of a ‘right of reply’ for those who have been otherwise left out of the discussion. He states, ‘without the possibility for contestation and reply, the actions stemming from recent protest culture attempt to change the liberal protectorate of ‘owned’ space and make the reply where and when possible, with whatever resources available’ (274). Graffiti as political expression is an ideal medium for the multitude – it is not organized, it re-orders space by focusing the passerby on the text, it stands without an author, but represents the views of many, it references the locally specific but also the global.

43. Roland Bleiker notes that obscenities written on a bathroom wall can be an act of subversion (2000: 202). Furthermore, according to Bleiker, ‘Anonymity provided the security necessary to scream out what cannot even be whispered in the face of the oppressors. There is a clear target, but no visible author, no agitator that could be prosecuted. The audience is potentially limitless’ (202-203). These acts are markers of everyday forms of resistance, evidence that those without power are not simply accepting the status quo without question.

44. The political graffiti in Geneva is the disembodied voice of the multitude. These are people who will never be present in the conference rooms of the organizations designed to run the world. Shapiro notes in the context of gangs and delinquency in Los Angeles that, ‘one can view delinquency not simply as a behavior of marginal types but rather as precisely a function of marginalization, of the positive, administratively driven aspect of what constitutes the spatial practices of the city’ (1992: 102). The voices of these marginalized groups are best seen on the walls outside the central halls of power. Political graffiti expressed opposition to international institutions (the G8 had just finished meeting in Scotland) and offered a more general critique of capitalism (Figures 7-9). As Cover points out, within the context of globalization, graffiti such as that seen in Figures 7-9 is a struggle ‘over the ownership of the signification, the ‘right to discuss’ and the ‘right to reply’ to corporate globalisation and its effects’ (2002: 286). He states,

Disruption, violence and graffiti can then be understood as the necessary weapons in the face of the inaccessibility of economic and ‘political’ arsenals – a necessary weapon in order to draw attention to the non-democratised nature of the discussion of globalisation and its significations (286).

The presence of such political graffiti marks the denial of access to democratic decision making to the multitude, many of whom will bear the burdens of globalization directly.

Figure 8: The G8 is a symptom of a sickness called capitalism
Figure 9: Smash the G8
Figure 10: Fuck Bush

While political messages did not make up the majority of graffiti, the proximity of these texts to the WTO and the UN suggests an attempt to redefine the political space of the international district and write the message of the multitude on the walls. These markings are indicators of what Bleiker calls tactical resistance, which is a form of discursive dissent. He states, ‘tactic must always seize the moment and explore cracks that open up within existing discursive orders. It must constantly manipulate its environment in order to create opportunities for social change’ (Bleiker, 2000: 213). While the protests that generated these statements were over and the streets were eerily silent, the voices of dissent remained visible and identified the counter-globalization undercurrent that the spatial organization of power in Geneva seeks to ignore.

45. A second type of political resistance, more organized than graffiti, but still representative of the more disorganized masses, was also evident in Geneva. Sassen argues that the space created by cities offers a more concrete atmosphere for political action than the space created by the nation (2005: 153). She states that, ‘street level politics makes possible the formation of new types of political subjects that do not have to go through the formal political system’ (153). In Geneva, political resistance within the space created by cities took the form of political protest. However, political protest constrained by the public spaces in which it was to occur. Harvey notes that, ‘[o]ne of the principle tasks of the capitalist state is to locate power in the spaces which the bourgeoisie controls, and disempower those spaces which oppositional movements have the greatest potentiality to command’ (Harvey, 1989: 237). Such an organization of space was clearly evident in the structuring of protest outside the walls of the WTO.

46. I had assumed protest would accompany the WTO at all times, given its controversial status as a harbinger of globalization. The political space for protest in response to the WTO is designed in such a way that limited resistance is possible – there is only a small sidewalk fronting a busy 4-lane road. Without shutting down one of the main thoroughfares into the city, large public protests can simply not be made against the WTO. While the back lawn would be a possible alternative, if one protests to render a cause visible, then this space is also not useful and is depoliticized.

47. The problems of staging an effective protest outside the WTO did not stop people from trying. The first protest I encountered was July 26, 2005 when a group of Norwegian farmers brought their petition regarding the negative impact of trade liberalization on the Norwegian family farm to the WTO. They had traveled cross-country from Norway and brought their tractors and a display of pictures of rural farming life. The public space was simply not sufficient for them to truly communicate their message and while a few pedestrians expressed interest, the delegates to the WTO, all of whom could be identified by badges worn around their necks, ignored the display. As I left, the Norwegian farmers were being issued a citation (Figure 10). While this type of protest is often the only mechanism open to the multitude, whom have been shut out by their ‘representatives,’ it is also the type most clearly subject to the disciplinary powers of the state.

Figure 10: Norwegian protestor being cited by police

48. The next day a different protestor had taken up residence on the sidewalk outside the WTO. This woman worked alone, with home-made signs and brochures in French, German and English (Figure 11).

Figure 11: WTO Protestor

This small protest was ignored by the police; this lone voice of protest did not carry far.

49. A third protest was also underway and advertised all over town. The purpose of this three-day event, which included debates, music, and speakers, was to demand access to the negotiations as observers and an opportunity to participate in the discussions over agriculture and services. This event would speak for the multitude and help solidify the demands of those who are not represented. Interestingly, the event took place at a park far removed from the city centre. The fact this protest was difficult to reach from the city centre suggests how removed from real political power these social activists are.

50. While social protest and collective action still represent perhaps the best hope for those disenfranchised by globalization to be heard, they remain marginalized in the larger international political debate. It may be the case that after the construction of the new Place des Nations there will be a public space for political protest in the heart of the international district. However, even if such a space is created, it is unclear that the powers of the state will allow such protests to take place. Certainly, such a space will be strictly regulated by the authorities.

51. So where is the revolution in Geneva? Geneva is a city that offers a highly institutionalized vision of the future – an orderly future where the multitude remains marginalized and unseen. What can we learn about the future by understanding the political geography of Geneva?

The Future of Global Civil Society

52. Geneva illustrates that gaining access to the international discourse on globalization means entering the debate on already existing terms. As I have attempted to show in this essay, space only appears ‘natural’ and politically neutral. The geography of Geneva illustrates the structure of power written into the city itself. Protest exists outside the walls of the WTO, but remains detached and relatively unimportant to the decisions that will be made within the gates. The disorganized masses of the multitude are far from gaining access, in the terms of the city, they cannot even hold mass demonstrations in close proximity to the object of their resistance. Despite the alienation of the multitude from the transnational organizations claiming to serve them, the existence of some social protest suggests that there remain demands for access and transparency.

53. Despite the attempts of actors standing outside the main forces of global capital, access available in Geneva is only top-down. There is no grass-roots point of entry, but only layers of global institutions. States speak to other states and organizations representing civil society wait in the halls to have their voices heard. Outside the building altogether lies the rest of humanity and it is unclear if the goals, desires and intents of the multitude are heard within the walls of international institutions.

54. Everyday life becomes increasingly submerged under the convenience of capitalism – shopping, entertainment, and scenery. Everyday life obscures the political and keeps the multitude happy, at least in Geneva. Geneva does offer a different kind of capitalism than that found in the US and so it is possible that the protests of the counter-globalization crowd do not resonate as clearly here. In Geneva, everything closes on Sundays and early on weekdays. Additionally, Geneva is a tolerant city. Despite being home to Calvin, Geneva is also home to a (small) red-light district where prostitution is legal. Small local stores continue to thrive and, while big conglomerates like Ikea haunt the suburbs, suburbs in Geneva seem less overwhelming than those in the US. Geneva is boring in its well-being and lack of social strife – it is pastoral.

55. But the future of the world is not as serene as the future of Geneva. We are in the midst of massive social upheaval. The global city will not, generally speaking, mirror life in Geneva. As Mike Davis points out,

[T]he cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay (2006: 19).

Geneva masks the future of the global city, a future where mass immigration caused by environmental destruction, natural disasters, political strife and poverty will be primary causes of instability (Speth, 2005; Anthanasiou, 1998). The bulk of the world lives where wars, starvation, famine, and destitution define daily life. The World Bank is fond of announcing that over half the world’s people live on less than $2 a day, even as they mandate structural adjustment and trade liberalization policies on the countries where these people live (Shah, 2006). Furthermore, despite the fact Geneva has been immune from the terrorism experienced elsewhere in Europe, the world remains in the grip of the Bush-administration’s ‘war on terror’ and the corresponding reduction in civil liberties this war has caused, including the disturbing debate over the use of torture.

56. At one level, what the UN and many international organizations provide are important middle-class (and elite) jobs for people from countries around the world – the creation of a globalized middle-class citizenry that work in the offices of the primary international organizations. If only this view of Geneva were symbolic of the future, there would be hope – a multicultural city where nations meet in peace; a place that embraces Kant’s vision of cosmopolitanism and perpetual peace. But Geneva is a façade – it is an illusion of a future that will not be, at least for the billions of people the UN is dedicated to helping. The façade perpetuates the inherent flaw in international relations organized from above. Instead, the future is one that belongs to the multitude, and the reconstitution of a new geography. Hardt and Negri note,

A new geography is established by the multitude as the productive flows of bodies define new rivers and ports. The cities of the earth will become at once great deposits of cooperating humanity and locomotives for circulation, temporary residences and networks of the mass distribution of living humanity (2000: 397).

Additionally, Geneva itself is more than the placid façade. It has problems that surface upon closer inspection. While there is relatively little crime and low unemployment, there has been an increase in psychiatric hospitalizations in recent years (Guimón, 2002). Until we come to grips with the depth of chaos that lies behind the façade of a city like Geneva, we march into the future with our heads buried in the sand.

57. One last story of the political geography of Geneva highlights this point. The politics of rich and poor, access and lack of access is told compellingly through the location of the Medecines Sans Frontier’s (MSF) building. MSF won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for their work providing the poor and destitute in the world with healthcare and treatment. They have been instrumental in the global fight against HIV/AIDS and seek to provide affordable treatment to everyone. Across the street from MSF is a Ferrari dealership. Such a stark contrast in mission, wealth, and approach to the world is a symbol for what Geneva conceals as well as reveals.

58. Giving voice to the multitude is not simply important, it is essential. However, what the multitude has to say may not be a message those of us living comfortable middle-class lives want to hear. It is the voice of revolution and one that has transcended the nation-state to take on global capital. While it may be too late to harness these forces in a positive manner, the mass movements thriving around the globe today will do more in the future than paint graffiti on the walls of international power – it will be their goal to tear those walls down. As McKenzie Wark puts it, the masses see the good life and ‘the rest of the world is coming to get it, ready or not’ (2004: para 240). What replaces those walls is something that we must all participate in creating. Geneva provides great promise for what the good life might look like, but until that life can be shared by all, we must consider how our international institutions can be (de)constructed to address the concerns of a globalized world.


Debora Halbert is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Otterbein College, and will be moving to the University of Hawai'i at Manoa to take a position in the Department of Political Science in the second half of 2008. She is the author of Intellectual Property in the Information Age: The Politics of Expanding Property Rights (Quorum 1999) and Resisting Intellectual Property (Routledge 2005).


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