Justice in the Global City

Our world is globalising; it seems we all know and accept this, but increasingly it is suggested that this globalising world is a cause of injustice. Our contemporary moment is defined by a sense that the injustices we face are profound, multidimensional and global, including political discrimination, racist oppression, gender inequality, a neo-imperial international order and profound lack of economic fairness.

The need for some form of global justice seems obvious, yet the path towards it is much less clear. Despite our recognition that we need to find a more justice social arrangement with global scope, contemporary literature on global justice struggles to comprehend our present reality and existing debates are characterised by excessively idealised approaches. On one side there are attempts to redeem the nation-state as a site of justice, focused on how nationalism can be constrained and community rights balanced against minimal global duties within the state system (Miller 2007, Moore 2001, Rawls 2001). While on the other side we have a growing number of appeals for a cosmopolitan conception of justice, rooted in individualism, liberal rights and global institutions (Brock 2009, Hassoun 2012, Jones 1999, Miller 2010, Scheffler 2002). Most work in political theory is not grounded in the contemporary contexts of injustice, but rather draws on idealised national and cosmopolitan accounts of political community that do not actually exist, leaving academic work abstracted from our most pressing problems. However, this need not be the case and this project addresses the limits of contemporary global justice literature by arguing that we need not begin with idealised national and cosmopolitan visions, but rather that we should start with the lived experience of injustice and build upon existing struggles for justice.

 Justice and the Global City addresses this gap in the literature, as I explore the question of justice in the context of the global process of urbanisation and the globalisation of cities. I argue for the centrality of the Right to the City in making urban life more democratic and egalitarian for the diverse denizens of global cities. In order to consider the question of justice in context the project focuses on the global city as a distinctive and contemporary political space in which changes in the capacity and nature of the state, alongside the partial and disruptive force of globalised economic flows and transnational institutions, contribute to profound social problems for urban communities, which do not map onto idealised conceptions of the polis. Along with the distinctiveness of the global city as a political space, it is also vital to understand its centrality as a contemporary political space, as the world is increasingly urbanised and cities are ever more independent of national governance structures. This project contributes to and builds upon an important dissident strand of justice theorising that rejects excessive idealism and abstraction, particularly by feminist theorists (Fraser 2009, Jaggar 2014, Young 2011). It will also contribute to existing literature on urban justice, which has tended to apply existing theories of justice to the urban space rather than theorising justice from contemporary urban experiences (Fainstein 2010, Marcuse et al 2009, Oomen et al 2016).


My project develops a critique of the existing theoretical literature on global justice, focusing on the way in which dominant approaches makes use of excessively abstract and universalising method of theorising, which in turn leads to a misreading of the geography of global injustice. This means that dominant approaches to global justice theory obscure the implicit politics of their normative prescriptions by presenting them as necessary and rational moral principles. Two importance consequences follow: 1) global just theory adopts a geographic frame in which the key levels of analysis are national and global, which leads to principles intended to either reform the national state or justify a move to a cosmopolitan institutional order; 2) this framing, and attendant idealised geography of injustice, misidentifies the nature of contemporary global injustices while perpetuating a hierarchical politics of global justice, justified in terms of the rationality, expertise, and competency of powerful actors and institutions.

In place of this approach to global justice, I argue for what I call a situationist global justice theory, which begins from concrete experiences of injustice—particularly those with global causes and dynamics. This method of justice theorising aims to assist efforts to address specific global injustices, adopting what I term a consummatory approach, rather than the architectonic approach dominant in the existing literature. As a consequence of this alternative approach to justice theorising, the geography of injustice is not determined by idealised attachments to either the national level or presumptions of the necessity of global level cosmopolitan institutions. While the method developed in the work could be applied to injustice in many different geographical contexts, a central claim of this project is that contemporary injustice is closely linked to global processes of urbanisation, which are altering social life across the world and increasingly tying urban spaces together through increasing numbers of economic and social relationships. This framing, I argue, gives greater specificity and critical leverage on global injustices by both engaging with specific processes and practices that cause injustice, as well as rejecting a hierarchical global justice framing in which rich countries must address injustices in poor countries, whether through aid, reform of their own practices, or innovating new global institutions. On my alternative framing, many key global injustices are found in globally connected cities—in both rich and poor countries—and that addressing these injustices involves reforming political institutions and social processes in ways that directly challenge the existing distribution of political power.

After criticising existing global justice theory and offering an alliterative theoretical approach, the project then proceeds to examine how global urbanism is a central cause of injustice. This involves looking both at how urbanism has spread globally, in particular how it has become intertwined with neo-liberalism as an ideology and a dominant policy approach, as well as how the emergence of globally connected urban spaces challenges the conventional focus on states and international organisations in discussions on global injustice. The fundamental claim is that the world is increasingly urban, therefore injustice arise out of the transition to, and problems of urban social life, and that the global interlinking of urban spaces creates distinctive injustices that are particularly pressing given how they contribute to the continue massive growth of inequality and the ongoing deterioration of democratic institutions and culture.

To substantiate this more general claim, the project then looks at the process of gentrification as a distinctive global urban injustice, which contributes to rising inequality and undermines democratic institutions and cultures. The argument for gentrification as a global injustice is based on specific harms caused by gentrification, which I identify as: i) exploitation, ii) dispossession, iii) marginalisation, iv) displacement, v) powerlessness, and vi) violence. These harms, I argue, must be understood to arise both out of (i) the normal everyday operation of urban redevelopment process, and (ii) drivers for, and modes of, urban development that are global in their origin and motivation. The examination of gentrification as a global injustice, then provides a starting point for thinking about how we might think about global justice starting with the injustices of contemporary globalised urban life.

The third, and final, aspect of the project then focuses on articulating what justice in the global city would look like. The first aspect of this positive articulation requires rethinking global justice in terms of reforming urban life in order to support more cooperative economic practices and institutions, combined with democratising the culture and political institutions of urban life. Following on from this, the political geography of global justice is rethought in terms of globally linked urban spaces, such that global justice addresses processes of urbanisation at local, national, and global levels, suggesting that the reform of urban life needs to focus on institutional changes that link local urban spaces in regional and federated units, which can then connect to and influence global networks. A final element of the required shift in understanding is to move away from the citizens, either national or cosmopolitan, as the privileged political subject, to a focus on the denizen. The denizen, identified by their dwelling in a place, non-exclusively and non-permanently, should be seen as the key political subject of global justice for whom urban life must be made more cooperative and democratic.

The second aspect of the final section of the project involves thinking about how the suggested account of global justice might be realised as part of existing struggles for justice in contemporary cities. I argue for the potential of the right to the city movement to take forward such a project, as claiming a right to the city politicises urban space in an important way. Making more cooperative and democratic cities first requires reclaiming the city as a public political space, which the right to the city helps us conceptualise. In sum, the denizen of the urban space, in claiming a right to the city is claiming the grounds for such a demand to be realised, which requires that cities be reclaimed as common and inclusive spaces with public control over government and economic institutions. Yet, the reclaiming of the city must guard against the temptation of localism, with its tendency towards exclusive identities and restrictions on membership. The privileging of the denizen over the citizen is important move in this regard, but more is necessary. A right to the city, then, needs to be a claim that is made within a political imaginary that is global in scope without reaffirming the power of boundaries to determine exclusive memberships, it requires, therefore, a nonexclusive form of democratic sovereignty.

For further work on this project please see:

“Performative Rights and Situationist Ethics,” Contemporary Pragmatism (forthcoming). (Open access version here)

“The Political Movement for a Human Right to the City,” in Critical Perspectives on Human Rights, Birgit Schippers ed. (London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2018). (Open access version here)

“Democratic Moral Agency: altering unjust conditions in practices of responsibility,” in Moral Agency and the Politics of Responsibility, Tobias Debiel et al., eds. (London: Routledge, 2017), 21-35. (Open access version here.)

Is there a human right to the city? Rethinking the politics of rights,’ OUPblog, 9 June 2016.


Brock, G. (2009) Global Justice: a cosmopolitan account, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fainstein, S. (2010) The Just City, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Fraser, N. (2009) Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World, New York: Columbia University Press.

Hassoun, N. (2012) Globalization and Global Justice: Shrinking Distance, Expanding Obligations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jagger, A.M., ed. (2014) Gender and Global Justice, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Jones, C. (1999) Global Justice: Defending Cosmopolitanism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, P. et al, eds. (2009) Searching for the Just City: Debates in urban theory and practice, London: Routeldge.

Miller, D. (2007) National Responsibility and Global Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miller, R.W. (2010) Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moore, M. (2001) The Ethics of Nationalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oomen, B. et al, eds. (2016) Global Urban Justice: The Rise of Human Rights Cities, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rawls, J. (2001) The Law of Peoples, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scheffler, S. (2002) Boundaries and Allegiances: Problems of Justice and Responsibility in Liberal Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Young, I.M. (2011) Responsibility for Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.