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Milton Santos: space, technique, and globalization

Theory & ResearchThe relationships between the local and the global in the shaping of space comprise a set of fundamental categories of Milton Almeida dos Santos, one of the greatest Brazilian thinkers in the second half of the twentieth century. He was a geographer who produced a critical and totalizing theory that permeates different areas of knowledge, such as philosophy, sociology, and political economy. In this text, I will present some of his main concepts, due to their relevance and accuracy. His notions of space, technique, place, and territory are fundamental for the understanding of contemporary political, social, and economic dynamics in the Global South and North.

Milton Santos was born in the Brazilian state of Bahia, in 1926, and died in 2001, in São Paulo. He is internationally recognized for his intellectual production on cities, space, and territory, which led him to receive the Vautrin Lud Prize in 1994, considered by many the most important in Geography. He distinguished himself by works in several areas, with emphasis on studies about urbanization in the Global South and gained renown for his critical reflection about globalization in the 1990s, in a strong counterpoint to the dissemination of the “Washington Consensus”, widely accepted at the time.

In his view, labor today has a double reference, local and global. It is related to the “technical existence of a place,” to the local, regional, or global, “private or public, national or international” norms that affect the place. This definition of the relations between labor and space in contemporaneity, proposed by Milton Santos at the V Meeting of Latin American Geographers in Havana in 1995, is at the core of his analysis, and from it we can “discover the world we are, our role in it”. Through this scope, it is also necessary to discover “the possibilities of the future”, with a perspective towards another globalization.

The circuits of the urban economy

His book O Espaço Dividido (1979) is today considered a classic in Geography. Milton Santos develops a theory about the composition of two circuits in the urban economy: an upper, or modern, capital-intensive, high-tech circuit; and a lower, non-modern, or archaic circuit, consisting of traditional, labor-intensive, low-tech services. The relations of super-exploitation of labor and the contemporary pattern of capitalist accumulation result from the combination of these two circuits. Cities are systems that include the upper circuit, of globalized political-economic relations, and the lower circuit, an economy produced from the needs of the place.

This theoretical formulation repositioned, in the field of geography, a debate that was then current in Brazilian sociology and political economy, and that is still extremely vibrant. In the 1960s-70s, a critical production emerged in Brazil, on the theories of modernization in vogue in the main centers of intellectual production in the world. Authors such as Francisco de Oliveira (1972) and Roberto Schwarz (1992), to mention just two examples, debated the ways in which in dependent economies the “modern” and the “archaic” mutually reproduce each other. Contrary to what the developmentalist theory propagated, both authors establish no contradiction between the traditional and the innovative, the archaic and the modern, but rather their combination in the incompleteness of our dependent capitalism: the “modernization” of the country advances by replacing the “backwardness”. The reproduction of a surplus overpopulation allows the most advanced sectors of the economy to reach high profitability rates and an accumulation pattern based on the overexploitation of labor (Oliveira, 2003). For Milton Santos (1979), such relations conform a spatial system that conjugates distinct “circuits of production and accumulation”, so that the analysis of urban dynamics, of cities, must combine the spatial configuration, the social organization and the flows of people, goods, money, and information, the local and the global.

We can use a contemporary example of how the upper and lower circuits combine in the production of space and the urban economy: the transport apps, such as Uber, and the food delivery apps, like iFood in the Brazilian case. These are high-tech companies that, in their administrative offices, employ highly qualified labor, with advanced technical production, but that, at the same time, are structured on the overexploitation of precarious labor from the territories, in informal working conditions. This is a technical and material expression of a spatial system that includes both circuits: a modern, globalized one, in which large national and multinational companies participate, exogenous forces that influence the places‘ economic and social conformation; and an archaic one, founded on informal labor relations and on endogenous economic forces of the places, reproducing overexploitation.

Thus, based on the thought of Milton Santos, we can understand that the logic of modernization in the twenty-first century brings together new technical, organizational, and normative arrangements that restore the backwardness, in vertical articulations that deepen the subordination of the lower circuit to the higher, of the local to the global. Hence the need, in the analysis of space, to identify the power relations of agents who occupy different positions in the economic structure, in a dynamic present in both the global South and the global North (Santos, 1986: 125-126).

The notion of space

In the 1980-90s, Milton Santos developed these reflections into the construction of a theory of space, consolidated in his 1996 work A Natureza do Espaço [The Nature of Space]. Space is defined as “an inseparable set of systems of objects and systems of actions,” composed by “the landscape, the territorial configuration, the territorial division of labor, the produced or productive space,” among other categories. “On the one hand, the systems of objects condition the way in which actions take place and, on the other hand, the system of actions leads to the creation of new objects or takes place on preexisting objects. This is how space finds its dynamics and transforms itself” (Santos, 1996, p. 22).

Human actions and the objects historically produced by human action interact reciprocally in the production of space, and constantly determine each other. Therefore, they are inseparable in a geographic analysis. “The landscape would be the system of objects,” the phenomena we perceive. “What is given to our senses is the landscape, not space. The landscape offers itself to our body, as another body. Space is more than a body, because it is the result of this indissoluble union between systems of objects and systems of actions. What can be said is that this territorial reality would have to be examined according to these two faces” (Santos, in a conference available here).

With this notion of space, Milton Santos supports us in analyzing the relationship between technique, the accumulation regime and the social network. The exploitation of the labor, for example, operates through the alienation between these two systems – of actions and of objects – which, in reality, are totally intertwined. To illustrate this, we resort again to the example cited above, of the transport or delivery food apps. The separation between technology – a system of objects owned by companies – and delivery drivers – a system of actions that concretely performs the exchange between consumer and seller – reproduces the relationship of exploitation and is the foundation of the urban economy and the space. For this reason, Milton Santos adds: “today, the so-called productive forces are also relations of production. And vice-versa. The interdependence between productive forces and relations of production expands, their influences are more mutual, one defines the other increasingly, one is the other ever more” (Santos, 1996).

If we understand territory as a set of equipment, institutions, practices and norms that simultaneously move and are moved by society, people living in the modern global city must respond to its governance imperatives, which reproduce consumption and exploitation in a conjugated and permanent way. Urban governance, in this sense, operates by logics that are “distant, external to the area of action; but these logics are internal to the global sectors and companies that mobilize them. This relationship explains the creation of situations of alienation that escape local or national regulations” but, at the same time, determine local, regional, and national behaviors in all areas of life. These are exogenous logics that interfere in currency, credit, public spending, employment, and consumption at all levels: from housing to food, from renting an apartment in New York to buying a pizza by app in São Paulo.

From this logic derives what Milton Santos categorizes as “territorial alienation”: the fragmentation of territory is produced by distant forces that are far from the space of action in hand, and by its nonconformity with the preexisting meaning of lives in the area, whether urban or rural. One example in the countryside is globalized scientific agriculture, due to the introduction, deepening, and diffusion of rationalization processes governed by the logic of financialized accumulation. It is a new rationality that crosses territory and society and leads to the homogenization of consumption combined with the overexploitation of labor.

Therefore, according to Milton Santos, the notions of center and periphery, and colony-metropolis, no longer apply. In every geographical space, in the South and in the North, we find varied combinations of systems of actions and systems of objects, and an interdependence between the local and the global. Hence the correlation between space and globalization, a historical goal of the holders of political and economic power, but which only became possible with technological progress at the turn of the century. “The so-called global market imposes itself as the main reason for the constitution of these spaces of fluidity and, therefore, of their utilization. Through these places, the global market imposes an operation that reproduces its own base.” Territory, in this context, “constitutes an instrument for the exercise of these differences of power” (Santos, 1996).

Technique, territory and globalization

The idea that such processes were made possible by technological progress is grounded in the “relations of complementarity and subordination among the circuits of the urban economy derived from the technical unicity that characterizes the present epoch” (Santos, 1996). The systems of objects composed of technologies such as “hydroelectric stations, factories, modern farms, ports, highways, railroads” among others, gave space “an extremely technical content”. Space has, as a system, increasingly artificial objects, and is populated by “actions equally imbued with artificiality, and increasingly tending to ends unrelated to the place and its inhabitants”. In the era of globalization, there has been an evolution of this tendency that was already technical to the “technical-scientific-informational medium,” which characterizes contemporary space. “In a situation of extreme competitiveness like the one we live in, places reflect the clashes between the various actors, and territory as a whole reveals the background movements of society. Globalization, with the prominence of technical systems and information, subverts the ancient set of territorial evolution and imposes new logics” (Santos, 1996).

Thus, territories tend to “a generalized compartmentalization” in which “the general movement of planetary society and the particular movement of each fraction” permanently collide and associate themselves, promoting a dissolution of the social tissue by the technical-scientific-informational unicity controlled by a hegemonic center and spread over all places, subverting their own logic. The combination of technique and political power promotes the strengthening of some companies to the detriment of others, “a competitiveness that aggravates the differences in power and disparities, while territory, through its organization, becomes an instrument for the exercise of these differences in power”. Under such conditions, there is no public regulation possible. Some actors globally produce an order that is favorable to them and disorder to the entire social structure. “Since this disorderly order is global, inherent in the very productive process of current globalization, it has no limits,” says Milton Santos, pointing out that the “new power of large corporations, blindly exercised, is by nature disaggregating, excluding, fragmenting, sequestering autonomy from the rest of the actors” (Santos, 1996: 86).

Under these circumstances, cities- regardless of their size or location- come to the forefront of political, economic, and social analysis, because that is where the “relations of people, companies, activities, and ‘fragments’ of the territory with the country and with the ‘world’” are located and better defined. It is the city produced globally, whatever its location. It is the city as a place of active production of discourses and social-political relations that claim to be unitary. “However, in the long run and even in the medium term, such policies end up revealing their weakness, their relativity, their ineffectiveness, their non-operationality,” resulting in the profound urban crises that we experience in the twenty-first century.

In this way, the process of capitalist globalization corresponds to the production of new totalitarianisms and a single thought, which transforms consumption into ideology, massifying and standardizing culture. “An overwhelming so-called global market is presented as capable of homogenizing the planet when, in fact, local differences are deepened. There is a search for uniformity, in the service of hegemonic actors, but the world becomes less united,” and an alleged universal citizenship becomes increasingly distant (Santos, 2000: 19). The new totalitarianisms produce the “tyranny of money” and the “tyranny of information”, two pillars of contemporary capitalism, which conform a new ethos of social and interpersonal relations, of extreme competitiveness in production and consumption. “Without the control of spirits, regulation by finance would be impossible. Hence the overwhelming role of the financial system and the permissive behavior of the hegemonic actors, who act without counterpart, leading to the deepening of the situation, that is, of the crisis.” In this globalized world, summarizes Milton Santos, “competitiveness commands our forms of action. Consumption commands our forms of inaction. And the confusion of spirits obstructs our understanding of the world, of the country, of the place, of society, and of ourselves” (Santos, 2000: 35).

Toward an Other Globalization

Milton Santos’ strong critical stance was always accompanied by an optimism that led him to foresee possibilities of transformation. In his view, while the totalitarianisms described above became widespread, cities reaffirmed themselves as a space of freedom for popular culture, in opposition to mass media culture, and as a space of solidarity in the struggle of those “from below” against the scarcity produced by those “above”.

Milton Santos was not a Marxist thinker, even though he produced a totalizing critical social theory. Perhaps the lack of concepts such as class struggle in his work presents a problem to his understanding of the possibilities of transformation, in my view idealized and based on an ethereal (and Hegelian) conception of the human being and of history. Despite that, it is important to highlight his beliefs that we are entering a new era, “demographic and popular,” in which technical progress would no longer serve capitalism, but be suited to the needs of people and places. “Existence is the creator of its own pedagogy,” Milton Santos asserted. Therefore, we must build a pedagogy of existence, recovering Paulo Freire’s logic of thinking about change. “There is a whirlwind, there is an effervescence from below that we are not able to capture completely or fully, but there is, and one day it will converge with the production of ideas to force another path”, he synthesizes, during an interview in 1997.

This transformation is founded, necessarily, on a thought produced from the Global South, Milton Santos said. “As Marx suggested that he would turn Hegel’s ideas upside down, we must do the same thing with the current ideas of globalization”. Thus, to produce a new globalization, we must engage in the construction of a knowledge that has as its basis and raison d’être people and places, human needs as opposed to capital. “We have to be aware that possibilities exist. That is where the key to facing the future lies.”


OLIVEIRA, Francisco. Crítica à razão dualista. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2003 [1972]

SANTOS, Milton. A natureza do espaço. Técnica e tempo – razão e emoção. São Paulo: Hucitec, 1996.

SANTOS, Milton. O espaço do cidadão. São Paulo: Edusp, 2007 [1987].

SANTOS, Milton. Circuitos espaciais de produção: um comentário. In: BARRIOS, Soniaet al. (Orgs.). A construção do espaço. São Paulo: Nobel, 1986, p. 121-134.

SANTOS, Milton. O Espaço Dividido. Os dois circuitos da economia urbana dos países subdesenvolvidos. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves, 1979.

SANTOS, Milton. Toward an Other Globalization: From the Single Thought to Universal Conscience. Springer International Publishing, 2017 [2000]

SCHWARZ, Roberto. Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture. Verso Books, 1992.

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