ILW.COM - the immigration portal Immigration Daily

< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly

Emergent Global Classes And What They Mean For Immigration Politics

by Saskia Sassen

Transnational professionals, government officials working on cross-border issues, civil society activists, and specific segments of the immigrant population are each beginning to emerge as groupings that are simultaneously national and global. For shorthand we might think of these as global classes, even though it stretches the standard meaning of the concept of class.

Relevant to the immigration question as we enter the 21st century is that the formation of these global classes has begun to denationalize particular aspects of the nation-state. This is significant at a time of intensifying nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment.

In my reading, insufficient attention has been paid to the fact that critical components of globalization actually are happening inside the nation-state itself, including in the economy, society, and the polity. The broad mix of processes involved begins to partly denationalize the nation-state from the inside out. This denationalization is far less visible, and often more specialized and partial, than today's overarching nationalism. But it is no less real. I think it is part of the future and can coexist with old-fashioned nationalism. Global classes are part of this larger process of denationalization.

The particular feature of these classes I want to focus on here is their ambiguous position between the global and the national, and the fact that government officials, powerful professionals, and powerless immigrant workers are all in this ambiguous position. In fact, this ambiguity is a window into a reality-in-the-making, a reality that will have to be factored into policymaking in a whole range of domains, each with its own specifics, including immigration policy.

Transnational Professionals: Migrant Workers with Rights

National attachments and identities are becoming weaker for global firms and their customers. This is particularly strong in the West now, but it is spreading to other parts of the world as well.

The products and services of global firms are available in just about all national markets, and national investors can access global markets. Further, most major firms now boast vast worldwide networks of affiliates (of about one million in 2005) as well as other types of collaborative arrangements with local firms.

At the same time, top-level managerial functions tend to be concentrated in a network of about 40 global cities worldwide. Within this geography, we see even sharper concentrations of those functions. For instance, major US, Japanese, and Continental European firms are using London as their platform for launching Europe-wide operations. It all amounts to a complex architecture with a broad base of affiliates and other arrangements spread over the globe, along with a limited number of global city locations for the most strategic operations.

One result is that corporate globalization requires vast numbers of highly mobile professionals, managers, executives, and technical staff. They are a distinct stratum, often quite separate from the managers and professionals of national firms.

These transnational professionals make cross-border transactions commonplace, reinforce new global standards, and generate new economic cultures. But their work requires a vast physical infrastructure of state-of-the-art office buildings, residential districts, airports, and hotels, much of it concentrated in a growing number of global cities.

This network of cities functions as an organizational infrastructure for the management side of the global corporate economy. The new transnational professional workforce both navigates through, and contributes to the construction of, this cross-border, corporate economic space.

But this also means that this most global of classes and their work are partially embedded in national terrains — most conspicuously the network of global cities. To be global and hypermobile, transnational elites need national states to provide or at least authorize a variety of conditions, from physical to legal. Consequently, transnational elites are somewhat dependent on national states, a fact easily obscured by the language of the new cosmopolitanism and hypermobile capital. In this process, the network of global cities functions as one key dynamic for denationalizing segments of the national corporate economy and its legal and regulatory framings.

This global professional class is not necessarily a cosmopolitan class. The profit-making force that creates this cross-border domain has few resemblances to the forces driving and constituting cosmopolitanism in the rich sense of the word. While this new transnational professional class may become open to diverse cuisines, cultures, and urban landscapes, it is the drive for profits that actually defines them.

The fact that the global corporate economy is partly embedded in national territories brings with it the need for rights of admission to those countries. National states have provided new visas and renovated old types of visas for global firms and professionals. Insufficiently noted is the fact that all the major free trade agreements also provide such rights of access to professionals.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), among others, give transnational professionals mobility rights. These rights constitute a new legal "infrastructure." Professionals in each of the specific sectors, which include finance, business services, and telecommunications, can reside in any signatory country for at least three years and enjoy various rights and protections. This runs in the face of the explicit position of free-trade agreements, which do not deal with immigration.

The mobility rights free-trade agreements give professionals are buried under such headings as "the internationalization of trade and investment in business services." This language obscures the fact that these are mobility rights given to what are ultimately migrant workers.

A global regime for "migrant workers" with rights is unlikely to become a model that can be extended to low-wage migrants. The new transnational professional class is generally considered economically beneficial and therefore unproblematic. It seems far-fetched that national governments would agree to trade treaties that provide the same rights to less-skilled migrant workers.

Notably, in the most recent free-trade negotiations, the US Congress made it clear that the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) could not include migration provisions for any type of worker. And yet, global firms might call for such provisions in new types of agreements in the near future. Several multinationals already are beginning to supply firms anywhere in the world with lower-level workers and, most recently, professional households with "standardized" nannies and housekeepers.

Transnational Networks of Government Officials

Transgovernmental networks have existed for a long time. New types of networks that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s are clearly connected to corporate globalization and the globalizing of other governmental responsibilities and aims, e.g. regarding human rights, the environment, money laundering, and now the fight against terrorism.

The key actors are government officials from the pertinent national ministries or agencies. They include trade ministers in the WTO, finance ministers in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), defense and foreign ministers in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and central bankers in the Bank for International Settlements. Regional organizations, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the EU Council of Ministers, also have specialized networks composed of various government officials.

These are often enormously powerful networks in charge of critical work in the development of a global corporate economy. In some cases, the secretariats of diverse international institutions set up networks of officials from specific governments to act as a negotiating vanguard in developing new rules that will apply eventually to all members; examples of this are the negotiations for the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS), for the WTO, for the governance of the Internet, and so on.

This is no longer the post-World War II Bretton Woods era, when the aim was intergovernmental or international communication and collaboration. It is, rather, a deregulatory project that aims to denationalize those components of national states necessary for corporate globalization. In the early Bretton Woods period, the project was one of global governance to protect national economies from excess international fluctuations. By the 1980s, the goal was to open up national economies and create hospitable environments for global firms and markets.

A similar dynamic is evident in networks with very different aims, such as implementing global environmental standards, protecting human rights, fighting terrorism, and other noneconomic efforts.

Most recently there has been a proliferation of agreements between domestic regulatory agencies of two or more countries; they have seen a far sharper growth than traditional treaty negotiations. These are agreements that can be instituted by the domestic regulators themselves and, in this sense, are an interesting instance of denationalized state work; they do not require approval by national legislators. In my reading, their growth is yet another indicator of the increasing power of the executive branch of government and its frequent alignment with global projects.

A new development is the growth of informal networks that operate outside formal intergovernmental treaties and executive agreements. Examples are various networks of private and government sector experts working on all sorts of international standards, antiterrorism initiatives, and so on. The results are not legally binding on member states, but they are often preparatory work for eventual formal arrangements.

In the case of immigration, we see the formation of such an informal network in the July 2006 meeting in Rabat of over 50 leaders from countries sending and receiving immigrants into the EU. This was a historic first. Sending countries all over the world for decades have resisted the idea of meeting with receiving countries to develop immigration policy.

Also notable is that one reason for the meeting was a recognition by EU receiving countries that current policy aimed almost exclusively at border control on the EU perimeter is not serving anyone's interest.

Finally, also important was the meeting's relatively narrow focus on migration from western Sub-Saharan African countries to the EU. It involved the governments of 27 African and 30 European countries. It was not a global event. It was a working session with a transnational agenda. The US-Mexico Binational Commission, launched in the 1980s, is another example of an informal network of government officials who work on immigration issues.

The work of the pertinent, typically highly specialized, government officials in these networks begins to get oriented towards a global project. One consequence is an increased camaraderie among officials within each transnational network and often a growing distance with colleagues from the national bureaucracies back home. In this sense, then, we can speak of an incipient global class that occupies an ambiguous position between the national and the global.

The New Global Class of Disadvantaged

Most of the people touched by globalization are quite immobile. They are not part of a traveling transnational professional class or of international government elites. They lack the means or permissions to travel, and perhaps even the disposition.

Yet, despite being thus "disadvantaged," they are often either objectively or subjectively part of specific forms of globality. They do so as (poor) consumers, as (low-wage) workers, and as members of nonelite, transnational migrant families and communities. In fact, they can also do so as political activists. Even if immobile, they can construct and join cross-border networks.

The key here is that localized activist struggles can be global even if completely engaged locally. That does not mean all local struggles are global. But compared with the recent past, today a growing number are, even though they are still a minority of all such local struggles.

The mobile disadvantaged, a very small minority of all disadvantaged, include low-income migrants — notably the women who make up the global care chain of nannies and cleaners — refugees, and a variety of cross-border activists. Major cities, especially global ones, are a critical destination. Cities are a complex space that concentrates a wide variety of these groups. Global cities are home to multiple diasporic and activist networks and organizations.

Under these conditions, what may be seen as provincial immigrant communities and nationalist exiles can actually become globalized. What matters is that this process of becoming globalized includes a variety of groupings and organizations that have limited resources and little or no power. They often lack proper documentation, are usually invisible to national politics and national civil society, and are unrecognized as politico/civic actors or are unauthorized to be such by the formal political system.

The presence of immigrant communities produces specific transnational forms of engagement, including the formation of globalized diasporas. For instance, a growing number of immigrant networks are concerned with specific struggles, such as exposing illegal trafficking groups and mail-order brides organizations. Such actions can partly reorient these communities away from a one-to-one orientation to their home countries and towards other immigrant communities in the city, or coethnics in other immigration countries.

The public-access Internet and other global electronic networks increasingly play an important role. The Internet allows easy, low-cost communication, distribution of information, and, crucially, the formation of electronic communities with participants from multiple localities.

Internet access allows and induces various types of groups — women's organizations, environmental activists, human rights activists — to become part of transnational networks, no matter how locally focused their work. Many of these groups have begun to connect with similar groups in other countries, which they never did in the past. The global bond comes through shared objectives rather than through travel and meetings.

The large numbers of people from all over the world who encounter each other for the first time in the streets, workplaces, and neighborhoods of today's global cities produce a kind of transnationalism by virtue of their meeting. These encounters can include those between coethnics from different economic classes. The global city also allows for engagement between the disadvantaged and global corporate power. These include antigentrification struggles or fights against transforming industrial districts into luxury office districts.

Knowledge of recurrent struggles and inequities in cities around the world — enabled by both global media and the rapidly spreading use of the Internet — functions both as fact and as a global sense of solidarity and connection. This subjective dimension increasingly enables the disadvantaged and the localized to recognize the presence of the global in these cities and their own participation in it. The global becomes visible and part of daily life.

As a result, these types of disadvantaged individuals also find themselves in an ambiguous position between the national and the global.


Diverse economic, political, and subjective conditions feed into the formation of these global classes. Global networks, variably formalized and institutionalized, are wired into each of them.

Yet global networks, including these class networks, are not seamless, as is often thought. They are lumpy. It is in these lumps (global cities, major supranational institutions, particular occasions for activist deployment) where much of the global action takes place. The global corporate economy, the social infrastructure of global civil society, the institutions of the international human rights regime, the portable rights allocated to transnational professionals as part of free-trade agreements — all play critical roles in the proliferation of these global networks and in their lumpiness.

The formation of these global classes has implications for a variety of policy fields. For the specific case of immigration, at least three features are worth mentioning.

A first feature concerns the relation of these classes to national settings. The new transnational professional class has far more exit options than international government elites or the disadvantaged. But this class is ultimately far more place-bound than one might think.

The reverse is the case with the amalgamated class of disadvantaged workers: here it becomes important to recognize that a good part of this class is far more embedded in the global workplace and transnational politics than the prevailing imagery suggests. Public opinion and policy frameworks tend to classify these low-wage, low-skilled workers as belonging to backward economic sectors.

Secondly, these two classes get filtered through distinct policies and political cultures. This is most clearly exemplified in the case of professionals and immigrant workers: one gets filtered through policies that open a country to outsiders, while the other is filtered through policies that close a country to outsiders.

What marks the need for new policy is that these two global classes are part of a deep economic restructuring that has contributed to a growing demand for both high-level professionals and low-wage service and production workers. Nowhere does this become clearer — both on the street and in statistical data sets— than in the rapidly growing number of global cities. This is just one type of instance; there are many others, each with its specific characteristics and contents.

In this regard, current forms of economic globalization add to inequality and indeed produce new types of inequalities. One challenge for analysis is to recognize the interconnections of social forms and outcomes that we usually think of as unconnected.

Thirdly, filtering these novel processes through older policy frames can obscure the place-boundedness of the new global professional classes and the globality of the new disadvantaged workforce.

In this context, the new specialized networks of government officials signal the possibility of innovations in the link between national and international policymaking. Though part of national institutions, this new class is emerging as a sort of global infrastructure for state work — specifically for the denationalized components of state work linked to various global regimes and conditions. They can be seen as building international social capital for the national governments involved.

However, the gap between international and national policy has to be bridged before national governments can "cash in." This requires recognizing that at least some national questions actually pertain to the global because they are partly played out within national settings, as is recognized in the granting of rights in free trade agreements to transnational professionals. This type of recognition could be critical to the possibility of a radical rethinking of the meaning of low-wage immigration in a global political economy.

For further reading see "The Bits of a New Immigration Reality: A Bad Fit with Current Policy" (Social Science Research Council, July 2006). Available online.

This article originally appeared on Migration Information Source on November 1, 2006.

About The Author

Saskia Sassen is Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. She has written extensively on immigration, cities, global capitalism, and electronic markets. This article is based on a chapter in her most recent book, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press 2006).

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.