Learning from Globalization-Era Las Vegas

By Ventura, Patricia | Southern Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Learning from Globalization-Era Las Vegas


Ventura, Patricia, Southern Quarterly


OSCAR GOODMAN, a former lawyer to such mob clients as Meyer Lansky and Anthony Spilotro and current mayor of Las Vegas has said of his city, "Las Vegas is either the most unreal place in the world or the most real place." Trite as the statement is, maybe because it is so trite, the mayor's description captures one of the many paradoxes of Las Vegas.

Considering these paradoxes in the context of this collection, the most important one centers on the legitimacy of seeing Las Vegas as the South. But what I posit here is Las Vegas as a focal point of a new kind of South-one that embodies the South in both its US framework and in the global context-while also arguing that the separations between the South and the North are evaporating in the wake of globalization. Thus, "the South" exists in "the North" just as surely as "the North" exists in "the South." Differences which seemed so intractable in earlier times are proving no longer to be so, for both in the national and the global contexts, the differences between regions are ones of quantity, not of kind.

Putting it differently, the disparities do not fall along borders of region or nation but along protean lines that cross-cut the old divisions. The decline of nation-state sovereignty and the dissolution of the Cold War international arrangements in the wake of what George Bush called the New World Order, bring with them the end of the division of the globe into a First World of liberal capitalism, a Second World of socialist economies closed off to capitalism, and a Third World that the other two Worlds saw as the frontier. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire summarizes this contemporary situation:

If the First World and the Third World, center and periphery, North and South were ever really separated along national lines, today they clearly infuse one another, distributing inequalities and barriers along multiple and fractured lines. This is not to say that the United States and Brazil, Britain and India are now identical territories in terms of capitalist production and circulation, but rather that between them are no differences of nature, only differences of degree. The various nations and regions contain different proportions of what was thought of as First World and Third, center and periphery, North and South. (335)

It is not that these divisions and vast inequalities have been eliminated; it is that they do not fall along the codified lines. We can see these inequalities by tracing the well-worn trails marked by the movements of the world's people, who more often than not shift with the movements of global economics.1

Yet, having said all this, we still speak meaningfully of "the South": we often take the term for granted because it remains hugely useful and descriptive. Trying to negotiate the idea and ideology of the South within a variety of circulating discourses-including one that maintains there is no more "South"-becomes a tremendous challenge. It is one that this paper works to meet by exploring Las Vegas in relation to its population, labor history and practices, and architecture. The goals are to understand just what the South is becoming in a globalized world that challenges the whole notion of regionalism itself and, then, to make this tension between regionalism and globalization productive.

Introducing the New Vegas

Sitting unassumingly in a desert valley in the Southwest USA, Las Vegas has become the heart of what some demographers are calling the New Sunbelt as retirees fleeing the colder climes of the North or the hotter housing markets of the West mix with down-and-out workers hoping to escape the economic stagnation that pervades service employment in high cost of living regions such as the Northeast and California. These migrants are joined by the surging population of Latino immigrants who have played a key role in turning the region into what many demographers are calling the "New Detroit"-that is, they have helped make the region an organized labor stronghold. …

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