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Holger Rossow

Time-space compression, flexible accumulation and the problem of political agency in the age of globalisation


Central to various globalisation theories is the assertion of an intensification of social relations on a global scale that is accompanied by a spatio-temporal compression mainly as a consequence of technological progress, especially in the areas of transport and communication. The overcoming of spatio-temporal limitations supposedly leads to a global social space. The Human Development Report 1999 argues that globalisation is not a new phenomenon but also emphasises that the current period is characterised by distinctive characteristics: "Shrinking space, shrinking time and disappearing borders are linking people's lives more deeply, more intensely, more immediately than ever before" (HDR 1999: 2). Lenz refers to changes of our notions of spatial definitions of communities and cultures when he writes that "the multiple interactions of the new communication networks, global migrations, and spatial and cultural de- and reterritorializations have made the notion of spatially defined communities and cultures obsolete, or at least highly questionable (Lenz 1999: 8). This may or may not be the case, but one possibly more important question seems to be whether the evolution of this global social space is considered to be merely one characteristic of a particular historical type of social relations or whether the spatio-temporal aspect is understood as the central cause of and key to the comprehension of social processes.

Statement of the problem

The world economic recession in the early 1970s not only marked the collapse of the post-war economic boom but also the onset of a radical restructuring of the world capitalist system. This restructuring could be conceptualised as the change from Fordist regimes of accumulation (based on a social contract of business, labour and the state, and organised along the lines of Keynesian economics with a strong emphasis on state interventionism) to new and more 'flexible' systems of production, distribution, marketing and consumption. This system of flexible accumulation (Harvey 1990) is interpreted as a response to the crisis of the Fordist mode of accumulation and closely interwoven (but not to be equated) with those processes commonly described as globalisation. Among many other developments, it has entailed a new phase of time–space compression: a shortening of time and a shrinking of space. Time-space compression is undoubtedly a real process, but what needs to be challenged is the claim that it will produce a homogeneous global social, economic, cultural or political space and the assumption that it is the decisive or even the only cause for the current changes. What needs to be asked is how political agency can be reclaimed or needs to be redefined in a world in which the "technological annulment of temporal/spatial distances tends to polarize [the human condition]" (Baumann 1998: 18) rather than to homogenise it, in which capital continues to dominate not least because of its command over space and time. A world in which the physical presence of the managers, let alone the owners, of capital is no longer essential and in which the consequences of the system of flexible accumulation undermine traditional forms of political agency.


Any attempt to (re-)gain political agency especially for those who are disadvantageously affected by certain aspects of globalisation necessitates to inquire into the causal nexus between flexible modes of accumulation and newly emerging distributive patterns of power and agency. Such an inquiry requires to embed the current changes into a longer-term historical framework in order to work out not only discontinuities but also continuities between Fordist and post-Fordist regimes of accumulation.

Historical background: Fordism

In contrast to the situation during the great depression in the 1930s, the post-war period in the industrialised countries of the West was marked by a great deal of economic, social and political stability. However, the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system and the conflicts of interest between capital and labour had not been solved, but only temporarily contained. They became exposed again in the late 1960s and early 1970s against the backdrop of completed post-war recoveries of Western European and Japanese economies, excess production capacities, inflation, saturated national markets in most industrialised countries and under pressures of increasing international competition. Harvey argues that the period from 1965 to 1973 "was one in which the inability of Fordism and Keynesianism to contain the inherent contradictions of capitalism became more and more apparent. On the surface, these difficulties could best be captured by one word: rigidity" (Harvey 1990: 141-2). One solution to the problems, or "rigidities", seemed to be offered by a more flexible regime of accumulation.

Characteristics of the flexible regime of accumulation since the early 1970s

Flexible accumulation, according to Harvey, "is marked by a direct confrontation with the rigidities of Fordism. It rests on flexibility with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products, and patterns of consumption. It is characterized by the emergence of entirely new sectors of production, new ways of providing financial services, new markets, and, above all, greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation" (Harvey 1990: 147). The more immediate results of these changes included a radical restructuring of the global economy, a period of deindustrialisation (USA, Japan, Western Europe) and corporations that were taking advantage of cheaper labour, weaker regulations, and hence lower production costs through the relocation of manufacturing jobs to Third World countries and, after the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, also Eastern Europe. In the wake of the restructuring of the international division of labour, territorial competition among different nations, regions and local communities for new investments or the maintenance of existing investment has increased dramatically. This increased competition has often resulted in a race to the bottom (lowering of standards and wages, reduced labour protection, fewer benefits, etc.) which now also affects the core capitalist countries ever more strongly. The location of individual production sites and conditions of investment and production have become 'negotiable'; the increased transnational mobility of capital, labour and production sites is being used to dismantle the remains of national capital-labour-state contracts of the postwar Fordist economy.

Concept of time-space compression

The emergence of the mode of flexible accumulation has been closely related to a new phase of time-space compression that has been based very much on technological changes: globally connected communication networks, global electronic financial systems with floating exchange rates and flexible work forces. For Harvey, the concept of time-space compression is to signal "processes that so revolutionize the objective qualities of space and time that we are forced to alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves." The general effect of capitalist modernisation is "to be very much about speed-up and acceleration in the pace of economic processes and, hence, social life" (Harvey 1990: 240, 230). Throughout the history of capitalism innovations have been dedicated to the removal of spatial barriers, to the reorganisation of the constraints of space and time. Spatial barriers have been overcome largely through increases in the speed of the flow of objects, goods, personnel, services, and data.

New distributive patterns of agency

The reorganisation of spatial and temporal relations has led to new problems of anchoring social relations, social formations and political agency. The diffusion of the flexible mode of accumulation as part of and alongside other processes of globalisation and the new round of time-space compression have led to an increasing concentration not only of economic but also of political power in the hands of transnational corporations that are not bound by the limits of time and space in the same way and to the same degree as in the past. This process has been accompanied by an even further erosion of modernist ideals of participatory democracy. National standards, regulations, protective structures and entitlements which had been created through centuries of democratic struggle are coming increasingly under pressure in the name of the alleged necessities of globalised markets and supply-side economics. An analysis of the problematic of new distributive patterns of agency would have to consider at least four different dimensions:

(1) Post-sovereign nation-states: The nation-state – which had been a less than perfect framework for the protection of the interests of the majority of its inhabitants and as a host to democracy before the shift to flexible accumulation – has come under increasing pressure to preserve its sovereignty in many respects. The state in its territorial form has lost its previous role as "the geographical frame of reference for both economic organization and political citizenship rights" (Agnew 2001).

(2) Lack of political alternatives within nation-states: The perceived (or real) meaninglessness of elections and the declining degree of party-political participation reflects the widespread feeling that the political parties do not offer real alternatives anymore – at least not when in power (Hutton 1996: 17). The real loss of national sovereignty and autonomy to the agents of a seemingly faceless and placeless global economy has only served to intensify this feeling. For those who would like to turn to the state in response to perceived or real threats of economic globalisation, there is little hope, because "[m]ore than the 'enemies' of economic globalization […] powerful states have been its best friends […] partly because of the capture of governments by advocates of an ideology of economic globalization [and] also as a result of territorial competition between states for the increasingly footloose capital they helped liberate in the first place" (Agnew 2001: n.a.).

(3) Strategies of local mobilisation: In view of the global reach of increasingly mobile capital, globally operating corporations and the lack of national alternatives, communities might turn to local strategies both in their search for protection against the onslaught of globalisation and in their attempt to exploit relative locational advantages over other competitors to attract investments. But any such strategy would have to be responsive to intensified global competition – corporations can choose from thousands of communities competing in a 'race to the bottom' and being devoted to supply-side economics. The local problems cannot be solved locally on a permanent basis and would need to be integrated into a global macro-economic system. Any realistic approach to local problems would therefore have to reach for the translocal and transnational level at which the global economy operates.

(4) Crisis of global governance: On the one hand, the existing institutions and structures of the nation-state cannot simply be scaled up in the hope to regulate increasingly worldwide processes and transactions along the lines of well-tried national policies. This is particularly problematic because national identities continue to be a very important source of extra-local political mobilization. On the other hand, the existing institutions with a global reach (UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO) are dominated by a small number of the most powerful states and the business interests they represent and can therefore not be expected to work in the interest of some global weal.


Concluding, it could be argued that the global economic system and the mode of flexible accumulation on which it currently rests tend to disempower both the national and the local, and to undermine increasingly what there had been in terms of political agency and democratic accountability. What seems to be needed in view of progressive globalisation and as a result of a new round of time-space compression is an increased awareness of local particularities to avoid over-generalizations, simultaneously an acceptance of the global context and a sharper historical awareness of the continuities between past, present and possible future configurations of local place and global space. Territorial or place-based patterns will not lose their relevance for the distribution of agency but it cannot be denied that capital "continues to dominate, and it does so in part through superior command over space and time, even when opposition movements gain control over a particular place for a time. The 'otherness' and 'regional resistances' that postmodernist politics emphasize can flourish in a particular place. But they are all too often subject to the power of capital over the co-ordination of universal fragmented space and the march of capitalism's global historical time that lies outside the purview of any particular one of them" (Harvey 1990: 238-39).