Saskia Sassen is a Sociology Professor at Columbia University in New York and Co-chair of the Committee for Global Thought at the same University. She is one of the leading scholars on topics related to globalisation and the cities. She is a guest lecturer at the London School of Economics. Her last book from 2014 is ‘Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy’, and her famous theory for the global city appeared in 1991 in the book ‘The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo’, which has been translated in Bulgarian. In the book, she is exploring the socio-economic industrial change of the economy and the transformation of cities like New York, Tokyo and London into headquarters of the global economy, the old forms of manufacturing, the establishment of new financial activities resulting in new financial crises, new professional class and new minorities. Saskia Sassen was born in Amsterdam and today she lives in New York. Interviewed by Julia Vladimirova.
Originally appeared at A-specto, translated by Valentina Tzoneva exclusively for SouthFront
Mrs. Sassen, we are in Vienna where you are participating in an event of DiEM25. Why did you decide to participate in this movement?
I think that project DiEM25 is very interesting. I like its format; this is an open platform. It’s not necessary to be connected in a specific way. It’s not like being a member of a party; there is a big difference with the parties. I think that the liberal democratic system is in a process of decline. From a historical perspective, there is no system which has lasted forever and why should this one exist and we persist for its continuation. When I think about DiEM25, I visualise a project which is directed towards something new and not towards enforcing the decline. So really, every citizen should work on this huge political project, which we urgently need, in order to have a civilised world. This political project can take place on a wide scale. There is plenty of work in it, which must be completed. That’s why I got involved. I can see a point.
Do you believe that such pan-European movements would bring in real change? Are the resisting leftist parties on the national level weak and must we look for these opportunities in international unions?
We need both in order to achieve some change – the resisting forces on a national level in governance and international movements even beyond Europe. If the national parties can not mobilize people, I don’t think we would be able to achieve anything only by means of a pan-European movement. There is a critical dimension which is missing at the moment and it is very important. At the moment, many citizens don’t really know what are the options and what to expect in the coming years and if they only look at their own countries, they start developing a defensive position in regard to extreme right parties and movements, which means the foreigners must be expelled and the borders closed because we feel that our security is minimal. What the pan-European movements can do is to show that controlling the limits on crossing the borders must affect certain sectors. In this context, these are people who really want a strong Europe; people who demand social justice. So instead of narrowing down further a small world, which as you know is very limiting, we must open this world; an opening through many specific multilateral insertions like open pathways which will facilitate learning from one another and interaction. I have written excessively about the importance of these sources being open in certain situations. For example, being open towards your neighbour because the neighbours can learn from each other and this is much better than turning always to the so-called centre: the experts, the authority. In this context, the question is not to learn from the political classes but from those who see and who can say that we are in a situation in which nothing works as it should. The situtaion is different in Greece, in France, in Bulgaria.
And who would hear these voices which are marking the problems and saying that the system does not function democratically? After all, Yanis Varoufakis, resigned because in ‘democratic’ Europe, the elite did not hear his plan for action and in an authoritative manner suppressed this way of thinking.
This is a struggle but I also think that the plan for tightening the belts or the so-called politics of austerity is not only a catastrophe but also a lie. We are talking about some 20% of people who are getting richer and richer. In this context, what exactly does ‘austerity’ mean when such a percentage becomes richer? This means cutting of social help, elimination of state support, and they in fact, help the poorest stratum of society. Namely, it is a cheating system. So the appeals for austerity are fraudulent in the case of having 20% getting richer and richer. The system is supporting them. The states are also supporting them in all possible indirect ways. All the states must take an example from those who have already revealed the insufficiencies of this system. But as I said, I think that the liberal democracy and the way it functions today is not very charming. I really think that this is a rotten system and as I already mentioned, there is no political format that has continued its existence forever. Then why must exactly this format continue its existence? The arrival of the new system does not necessarily mean that everything that has existed before must be destroyed. In one of my books, which I consider to be one of my best, I am asking the question: “how do intertwined systems change?” It’s not compulsory to change by erasing everything which has been there before, but by methods which will re-direct into a different logic. In other words, many of the good things can be preserved in the same way but they have to be replaced with a new logic. The logic that I am opposing today is the logic of extraction. It does not redistribute, it does not need the children of the middle class to live better than their parents; it simply sucks just like in a mine. The finances are radically different from the traditional banking system and in my opinion, they are also a sector for extracting. They’ve got the role of extraction sector. I know that no one talks in this way about it, but for me, to a certain degree this is a provocation. This system is extracting and this is the way for it to be destroyed. So we have to protect the good things and to position them in a different logical frame because the dominant logic today is the logic of extraction.
You deal with questions on globalization. You have many books on this theme. Why did globalization fail in ideal to create an equal world with open borders where all live well?
Opening of the borders is a big and substantial question. Opening of the borders is not a precondition for generating of redistribution of the common wealth. Secondly, and probably more important, is that opening the borders is very partial and it has come with a real goal and I am going to give you an example to explain what was the goal. The goal is for the big corporations to enter into very poor countries and develop their projects there. This in many cases, leads to the failure of local projects in these countries. In other words, their own business, agriculture etc. For example, a construction company might not have been as good as an international company in this sphere; maybe the local cafe does not offer Starbucks or McDonalds. The result is that in a very limited number of very rich and strong international corporations benefit from the markets all over the world by weakening them and they can really describe this as: “yes, we benefit from the open borders.” However, this also means that many countries, for example in Africa, which had a middle class, are now divided. They’ve got an extremely rich elite and a middle class that is getting poorer because of losing its economy. They can trade, they have all the Western elements, but they have lost their own economy and their own capability. So this is one of the elements related to open borders. Yes, we do have open borders! The question is how are they used? And here comes the next question: to what extent are the borders open because from a glance, this is right, but after all, we have tourist visas, visas for migrants. So this is a very partial project and it has nothing in common with how to make all the people participant in one thing. The goal was invasion and extraction of the little money with which these states have maintained their own local economy.
Do you think that the new class transformation is a problem for social politics?
You see, if there is a living ‘left’, it should be able to recognise the new processes which are existing. The concept of class today is the least shaken and inconsistent. It has lost its clear differentiation in the national liberal state but not in the new liberal, as such. Before there was a strategic field for action; opportunities inside your own country which you can work with. The miners have always been needed. They have been able to get organized. The transport workers have been able to get organized and to act. When you open this and eliminate parts of the production, this background disappears. Some characteristics which we relate with democracy belong to the time of the liberal state and not of the new neo-liberal age.
How do you explain the success of the right populist parties in Europe? Can we say that the refugee wave made them popular?
Of course not. The refugees are a material event. This is not an idea, this is not politics, this is, in fact, real people and they are guilty of it, because my life is not as good as it used to be. The second important element: the system that manufactures inequality. This system extracts what has at one stage belonged to these people. I am talking about the middle class, about the workers. Before these people owned something, but it has been taken away from them and it has started benefitting someone else. Third, the expectations still remain to be such as my sons and daughters will be better than me because this exactly was implanted in the conscious minds of our parents during World War 2 and even before it. Fourth, our political classes failed in a pitiful way and we are describing today exactly this era. Each of these voters have got some twisted feeling, which has not been thought or planned but their children must have a better job than their parents and these migrants are coming and this is the easiest explanation of the problems which we have in depth. And this situation doesn’t happen for the first time. In Great Britain, for example, after the second World War, people from the sub-continent arrived and along with them, the fear that they will take what we are not taking. From here, the reasoning began to lose its way and sink all sorts of theories and fears and the laborists also sank. What one of the most critical elements, which we must name, is the structural transformation. It is partial, it inhabits old situations, old expectations of what the instutions must be. The abilities switch from one logic to another. Most of the things, on their own, look the same, but they have been entered into another logic which acts differently. It has different goals, different results, the effects deriving from it are different. But at first glance, everything looks the same. Here is one example: if you go to a suburb inhabited by a middle class, you will see that the faces are the same and the question is what happens behind the faces? So the material momentum looks the same but the non-material – how do the people feel about the fact that they do not have the desired job; this has changed but it is invisible behind the face. It inhibits a new logic. Our political classes instead of confessing that they are failing in the analysis of what does the financial dictatorship in the economy mean for the normal person; they don’t do it. This is what they say: let’s leave these for the financials because it is too complicated and the financials will say: yes, we are making a capital and they are making it too. but the question is what is the use of it. So, step by step, it follows the footsteps of the reasons for which our political classes are totally failed with a few exceptions, of course, like the critics from the type of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But this is a complex question. We cannot simply say “look at these horrible, extremely right-wing citizens.” If we look at their ideas and fears as well as the method for projection of their enemy, this is projected over them. We can not say that these people have been born like this. I have a book about the migration. It’s called ‘Guests and Aliens’, which offers a historical view of the European migration, which has started 200 years ago. I am asking myself, when the external in this case is your cousin, having the same religion, same phenotype and he comes to town for a visit, what are you going to tell him? “Oh welcome, come in, you’re my cousin.” Or: “we don’t want you, you’re different.” I tell this story quite often when I mention the case with Baron von Hausman, who said we need more workers when he had to renovate Paris. He knew that the French Catholic workers did not like the Italians, and that’s why very carefully, he selected the German and Belgian Catholics to make the French Catholic workers happy and satisfied and to prevent them from saying that he has taken the wrong Catholics. Now we can ask why is this necessary. This is the question. There are many elements to this question, which are related, but our politicians continue to talk about nationalism instead of saying directly: “people, we failed. We did not manage to recognise the inequalities. Your sons and daughters will not be better than you.” They don’t do it. The politicians who would confess that they have failed are an exception, so at the moment they direct the dissatisfaction towards the migrants and this solves the problem. They pointed in the direction of the migrants instead of pointing to themselves. This is how they avoid any responsibility. They fix the enemy, they show it on TV and then they fall asleep quietly. I think that the liberal state in this format today is absolutely ruined. After the second World War, there was capitalism, there was exploitation, and this produced many rich people. But the differences were not such as today. Schools, roads, public transport, health care were built. Why? Not because at that time, capitalism has been ‘nicer’, but because the dominant ecnonomic logic has been encouraging mass consumption and the state was able to help the students graduate and receive their diplomas. The students, the elders – this is again capitalism. In other words, the state pressed by strong actors, gives the man access to consumption.
Because you mentioned the good and the bad capitalism, don’t you think capitalism has the ability to adapt to every situation, even in time of crisis, for example, Wall Street in 2008, it again managed to fit in comfortably?
I agree, this is true. But it transformed itself in a shrunken shape. Yes, we can say that it survives somehow. But one of the things which keeps me busy is the idea of the so-called relocalisation or the relocation of capitalism from one place to many places. One of my favourite phrases is: “do we really need a multinational company in order to have a cup of coffee?” This is exactly the relocalisation. And the more we do it today, the better. That’s what everyone says. We constantly relocalise parts of the economy. This, at one stage, starts producing a common net of these locations and eliminates what they have started, they have had and achieved. Here I see an opportunity for a nice comparison, because DiEM25 has such elements. It works with local organisations, unions, which can exist in the big city as opponents of authoritarian parties, coalitions and networks. They also have their own problems and their own capabilities, which are repeated again from location to location, regardless of the different regimes, politics, religions. To get out of the franchise, that’s another word which I like to use, to keep the franchise aside, because it always extracts from the opportunities for consumption of the location and its economy. Yes, we all need banks. But do we really need global branches to do our banking? Better not. Let’s use, for example, a local bank. I will give you an example from the early stage of capitalism in England: the factories and the exploitation and everything for which Marx wrote. Imagine that you see a sheep on a green English hill and you tell yourself “this sheep looks very rural. What a nice rural economy they have here.” But you do not know that this sheep is already in the sphere of the factories and industry. This sheep looks the same but here I mean, exactly that the logic has been changed. It functions in a different mode. Instead of being part of the survival of the local farmers, this sheep has nothing in common with them. It looks like a part of the agriculture of the region but as a matter of fact, it is not. The sheep is part of a strongly industrialised economy, not the local economy. So the farmers have less already. So it is very imporant what logic we follow.
One of your main theories is the one for the global city. ‘The Global City’ (1991) is the title of one of your most popular books. In it, you speak about New York, London and Tokyo as points which produce the financial and manufacturing services, determining the tempo of the global economy. According to you, the economic fate of these cities distances them from their peripheral territories and their national economy. Information, financial dictatorship, control of the global markets – how do you see the future of this world? Where to from here?
You see, the globalisation coincided with the multiplying of the borders. But these are different from the state borders. For example, in the book ‘Expulsion: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy’, I firmly state that inside the national territories, we see extreme conditions and borders. I call it a systematic edge. When the normal conditions become so extreme that we start losing them, this is really like dead soil or dead water. When the soil is dead, who would go there? No one. We have thrown it down the drain. The permanently unemployed, we don’t even count how many they are, we have thrown them out from all the lists. Yes, some systems are better than others but if a man has never had a job, this is invisible in our statistics. So it is very interesting to me to follow how in an internal national sovereign territory, two things happen: one is making a very strange geography with sharp edges, I am talking about geography of the privileges, geography of prosperity and material success; secondly, that this geography has been scaled lightly in the international borders. What I see is the dismantling of the national territory. This is all geography – geography of the power, geography of the centre, geography of the periphery. I like giving Luanda, the capital of Angola, as an example, which is included in this geography. Why? You know that in Angola, there was a war for a long time. After that, it lost its socialist leadership and today, it has an absolutely vulturous and predatory elite. And now the things are set so that an access to all natural wealth must be given. Angola is one of these countries where the natural wealth in the past has not been overly-exploited. In this way, Luanda has the projection of a platform of a global city in which you have everything that you need in order to extract. Here’s the logic for extracting of resources again. But if we think about the big financial centres, for example, the financial centres in Hong Kong, New York, Shanghai – they all have their own elements and specific geography, which are crossed on the north-south-east and west between communism, capitalism…. I am examining the most extreme cases in my new book, which I am wrting at the moment. It is about the expulsion, about the black-betting in financing. Up to 70% of the financial trade takes place in these ‘privately-hired’ networks, hired by banks and a huge number of other banks need access to them. When Ben Bernanke, the ex Chairman of the Federal Reserve, retired he mentioned the peculiar situation. The black financial bets are reaching up to 70% of the whole financial trade and this is not about the stock markets. There is no smuggler who can take us to the border of this private market and financial network. These are some of the most protected borders existing and this is inside our geography and these strongly-developed countries. When I think about edges and borders for the globalisation of the globe, I mean a brief observation. When a government topples the control and privatises economic sectors which have been under direct state management, these managerial and regulatory functions do not disappear. They are transferred to private firms. They appear again as specialised financial accounting, judicial consultant services, for the corporations. In my book ‘Expulsion: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy’, I highlight the systematic logic of this expulsion. The changed image of the financial tools created for us today looks like a technical expertise, which allows the exploitation of the environment and judicial expertise, which allows accumulation of huge parts of territories from those who don’t have. From the wealth divided between ultra rich and poor, to the creation of a dead soil, with fracking, and poisoned waters, the trade of biosphere can bring horrifying consequences in the next 50 years.
As you live and work in New York, what do you think about the presidential campaign in the United States; about the Trump-isation of politics and Hillary Clinton? Is the political debate in danger?
I think that we must not only allow the end of the political debate, but also, that the system does not function. It is interesting that many young people support Bernie Sanders. Imagine, however, that Sanders is a very young man and all the young men are against an elder woman, Hillary. They will all say that his success is due to his youth and not his ideas. And I am really very happy that Sanders is old and he is older than Hillary, so there is no space for such turn. In this way, no one can say that Bernie Sanders is liked only because he is young. No, the reason for Sanders to be supported by young people in the USA is different and I am happy that there is no way that he will be accused of agesim. Simply, Sanders has something to say and at the same time he is very charming. But in the USA, they comment on something strange. Some of the followers of Bernie Sanders would rather vote for Trump than for HIllary. Obviously they haven’t heard about the horror and absurdity of the speeches of this type that he will chase away 12 million immigrants. For me, he is a marker for the visible decline of the liberal state. I cannot stand behind Hillary Clinton, but if we get to that point, I would vote for her. But really, I don’t respect her anymore. She has got no courage, determination or bravery. Hillary Clinton always plays secure. She supported so many wrong wars, so many wrong causes. I’m not talking about Benghazi because this is a manufactured question. You know how she ‘criticised’ Benghazi. This is how I see this woman: she tells herself, “to be a president, this is a very good position for me.” I simply don’t see absolutely anything political in her. There isn’t. Apart from careerism, there is nothing else and it is obvious. And in Trump, I see too much extremism.