#13 post-2015
Saskia Sassen

Interview: “We Need To Bring Down 'The' Economy Into The Community”

When we talk about a global agenda, are we really focusing on excluded populations? In her latest book “Expulsions. Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy”, sociologist Saskia Sassen argues that expulsions are often invisible and that current trends in global restructuring have worsened these expulsions.

In spite of a highly complex division of labour and efficient production processes, a large percentage of people worldwide is still mired in poverty. According to Sassen, highly complex structures lead to simple brutalities that are often not visible in the academic and political debates. Sassen has worked on globalization for several years. Her new book addresses a larger audience and pleads for a new political agenda that brings the economy back to the people instead of shutting them out. DDD had an opportunity to talk to her about her book, political institutions, environmentally beneficial bacteria, and the Post-2015 Agenda.

DDD: While your previous books focused on one particular phenomenon, such as cities, your new book is more of a general explanation of global economic restructuring. What was your motivation for moving towards such a comprehensive analysis?

I am neither an immigration expert really, nor a cities expert; I just find the two complex worlds of immigration and cities very useful windows for understanding larger conditions. I think that the city is an extraordinarily interesting space in which to look at all kinds of issues. If you want to develop new categories of analysis for environmental questions, you need to move beyond the interstate framework. We might understand all these issues better if we went back to the ground level, de-theorized in order to re-theorize. My aim was to tell a story that was not overburdened by intellectual issues and, instead, could sort of capture where we are at with a whole variety of issues. I am really addressing a larger audience, and not necessarily an academic one.

DDD: Your book touches a lot of issues: land grabbing, financial speculation, economic restructuring, and the destruction of land. Where do you see the connections between these processes, and what is the common logic driving these processes in the North as well as in the South?

What started in the 1980s in the global South in a very brutal way is framed in the language of economic restructuring, and did not work for most countries. I argue that the processes in the North, what we now call austerity politics, is the same thing, only it plays out through slightly different institutions with slightly different types of economies and politics. It is as if we have not learned anything from the global South and the so-called economic restructuring that took place, the austerity politics. It all sounds so good but it did not work in the global South, and now we are trying it in the global North. It tells me that we are not working towards a policy that enables countries to have solid economies that incorporate more and more neighbourhoods, more and more households, more and more workers. No, this is about a different logic. In the case of the global South it was a banking logic and in the case of the global North today, it is a financial logic.

“There is a whole lively debate, which argues that austerity does not work. It works, but only for the financial system.”

They had to make cuts to health, cuts to education, cuts to infrastructure building, cuts to all kinds of things that amounted to robust development in those economies, and we are asking more or less the same today; we’re cutting and cutting and cutting. There is a whole lively debate, which argues that austerity does not work. It works, but only for the financial system. It simply does not work for economies. We need to make the distinction that financial logic is not the same as the logic of a national economy or even a global economy.

DDD: You argue against the notion that the nation state is the victim of global processes. You write that the executive branch of government is increasingly becoming aligned with global corporate capital, both in the South and the North. Do you think the nation state is still the principal actor, the place where citizens should seek to exert their influence and participate?

For the past thirty years, the making of this global economy has been based on two instruments: deregulation and privatization. This process has hollowed out the liberal state. The parliament and legislative branch were weakened the most and left without much power. Traditionally the legislative branch and the parliament are the components of the liberal state – the functioning liberal state – where we, the citizens, have most standing and can make demands. It is far more difficult for us to make demands on the executive branch of government and on the judiciary.
This is devastating; it really hits the heart of democracy. We are now confronted by a weakened, a hollowed out legislator in parliament in our kind of Western democracies. We are also confronted by an empowered executive branch of government that cannot be easily controlled by the legislator, and one that has gained a kind of unaccountable private power. The executive branch of government is aligning with great comfort, with whatever the International Monetary Fund says. The image that I use is that it has one foot firmly planted in the camp of global corporate logic. It interprets things very much along the lines of the corporate and financial sectors.

“We need to truly reshape the state according to a different set of logical principles.“

I make a kind of a tricky argument when I say that we need to reoccupy the state; we need to reoccupy the executive branch of government. It has gained power and it has gained a kind of international perspective. We need to use whatever capabilities for internationalism and for enabling economic actors that have developed over the last thirty years and re-gear them to larger questions of economic structures, global hunger, global ecology, and global environmental aspects. We need to truly reshape the state according to a different set of logical principles.

DDD: Can the debate around the post-2015 development goals serve to promote new logical principles?

This time I think that it may have a better chance than last time, when it really went not very far at all, because we are in such a critical situation. We have recognized that the climate change question is far more severe than we thought.
We have had this growth of inequality that - as I read it - began thirty years ago. In the last ten years, it has reached such extreme forms that it has become visible to a much larger audience.

“This time the debate around the MDGs and SDGs might be a bit more forceful and of interest to a larger audience.“

We are well positioned to have a slightly more aggressive mode of intervening. The fact that big financial firms and banks have broken the law time after time has become quite visible. Nobody dared to face these banks before. In the United States, which has been a key source of aggressive actions against banks, the Attorney General had to hire two hundred people specialized in finance and financial law in order to prosecute these banks. Swiss banks, German banks and especially American banks were said to have paid seven billion dollars in fines, that's quite a bit. Frankly though, it is still just a Band-Aid, but it clarified that the most important thing is not so much the money, as the fact that it demonstrates how these big financial firms have violated the law time after time in order to secure what they wanted.
This time the debate around the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) might be a bit more forceful and of interest to a larger audience.

DDD: In terms of the content of the debate: What do you see as the most important issue?

I think we have to be far more radical. I don’t mean radical as in lefty radicals, I mean it in the sense of going to the source, of asking what the root causes are. Then you get a totally different configuration.
The challenge is to aim at generating distributed economic dynamics. Today we are moving in the opposite direction. You capture winnings at the top, while you eliminate whole neighbourhoods, whole sub-economies. A lot of privileges go towards small sectors that generate enormous profit. At the same time, the rest of the economy is left slightly dead or in stasis.
The environmental question is linked to this. We have to find a way of solving environmental issues at the grassroots level and involve a distribution of economic activity. Let me explain: I think the interstate framework is useless for finding a solution today. Kyoto had some good elements, but carbon trading, for example, is useless. You either sell those rights to those who want to pollute more, or you buy more rights, but that is basically what it comes down to. And even if we were to implement the whole variety of little measures that have come out of the interstate debate, we would make very little difference.

“We have to find a way of solving environmental issues at the grassroots level and involve a distribution of economic activity.”

My argument is to delegate functions to the base. We have to transform every element in a city into a positive one when it comes to the environment. Let me give you two examples: There is a bacterium Danish environmentalists found that produces a molecule of plastic if you put it in waste water. The plastic is resistant, durable, but bio-degradable. Plastic is needed in an incredible range of areas in our daily lives and in industry. The problem is that it is not biodegradable. At the same time cities have a major problem of disposing their waste water. These bacteria could make every city a source for biodegradable plastic.
The other example is a bacteria found by Dutch scientists. You can incorporate it in paint used to cover concrete. Including these bacteria means the paint seals off greenhouse gas emissions, and over time it begins to actively purify the air immediately surrounding that concrete surface. One good side effect of the use of such bacteria is that it mobilizes people and makes them aware of environmental issues. People think: “If we can do this, we can take the next step.” The next step is how to bring down THE economy, in capital letters. There is one economy up there; we need to bring it down into your community. No matter which part of it, you can bring down into your community.
I taught my students at Columbia University: If you need a table, if you need bookshelf: Why go to IKEA, where they import it from China? Go twenty blocks up to the immigrant community and commission the local carpenter and they'll do it. This doesn't solve the big problem, but I think there is a kind of return to the notion, that I feel is critical of: We can make it. It is extremely important because we really have become consumers.

DDD: The subtitle of your book is: “brutality and complexity in the global economy”. What is the link between these two aspects?

In our current epoch enormously complex forms of knowledge that we admire and respect, like the advanced mathematics that physicists use in order to understand the interplanetary world, often produce elementarily simple brutalities. Let me give an example: In terms of logistics, the work involved in outsourcing is amazing. You need brilliant lawyers, brilliant accountants, brilliant engineers, brilliant transport experts, etc. What you have in the end are millions of super-exploited workers, who suffer severe damage, depending on what sector they work in.

“I call this economic cleansing. You narrow the space of the economy and then you can say: Aha, we are back on track.”

The other argument I make is that most of these brutalities are not counted. This is especially the case in economies in crisis, like Greece. When people commit suicide because they lost their factories or shops, it does not get counted. Long-term unemployment is often not counted and disappears from the statistics. People who become homeless, whole neighbourhoods that are wrecked – all of this is invisible. I call this economic cleansing. You narrow the space of the economy and then you can say: Aha, we are back on track.
Now we know how many Greek people are in despair. Still, in January 2013, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank said: “Ok! Greece is back on track.” Moody also raised the rating of the Greek government’s debt. The bonds - the financial instrument that represent the debt of the Greek government - were the hottest bonds. This may have lasted a week, but there you see the push towards an economic cleansing to eliminate all the bad stuff, so that the financial driver of profit making etc. can re-enter the picture. They just needed two days of good values so they could make a lot of profit. These are brilliant mathematical interventions. And for what? To produce more profit for some and to keep on destroying parts of the economy in the meantime.

DDD: Is expulsion a new phenomenon?

I think expulsions always have existed, but today they are sort of crawling into the mainstream economy, as we can see with the impoverishment of the middle classes, for example. Until around twenty or thirty years ago we had unionized workers who earned good wages. They had good lives, they had good salaries, and their children could go to university. All of that is failing. You have many professionals in the United States, in Greece, in Germany, in the Netherlands who are losing ground. And they're out, out of the job market.
What I wanted to point out is that we have an economic space that can be sufficiently cleansed so it can be measured, so we have good growth indicators. Yet at the same time, huge chunks of the workforce, parts of cities, of sub-economies are losing ground very fast within that economy. And some of them are basically done for. I wanted to capture how there are really two very different dynamics at play here. It's not just the super exploitation of workers. All kinds of negatives are being rendered statistically invisible, and I say that is a form of expulsion.

“What we now need to understand is what we find on the other side of the systemic brink. What are the spaces of the expelled?”

I am not saying that this is new. What I'm arguing is that at the current moment, it is not enough to use a language that simply represents the image of more inequality, more poverty, more unemployment. It is not enough when some people have never had had a job, like young black men, for example, who reach their thirties never having had a job. That is not simply more unemployment when you have so many mid-level professionals losing everything, their homes, their jobs etc. You cannot just say: more inequality and more poverty.
We have understood the dynamics of the system, how it generates both these expulsions and growth. What we now need to understand is what we find on the other side of the systemic brink. What are the spaces of the expelled? Because we do not know a lot, but I think it is simply capitalism at its worst. My argument is that the financializing of economies has gradually brought us to this point. Finance is not banking. The bank sells money it has; finance sells something it does not have. And in selling what it does not have, it is both creative and destructive. It has to invent instruments that are often very complex in order to invade other sectors. It needs grist for its mill. Financializing has truly been destructive and it has enabled this capture of wealth at the top and the hollowing out of political institutions. Therefore we must find a new measure for the economy – one that is aimed more towards a distributed economy and leads to the question: How can we bring down the economy back to the people?

Interview: Frederik Caselitz

Photo: “After Christmas sale” by Kevin Dooley
2011 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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