Saskia Sassen speaks with a formidable energy as she takes her audience through the “architecture” of globalisation, the Global Street, cities and financialisation. You may not make all the right connections at once but you are riveted. She was in Mumbai recently to inaugurate a workshop on Subaltern Urbanism, hosted by Columbia University’s Mumbai Global Centre, with support from the Women Creating Change Project. She is the Robert S. Lynd professor of Sociology at Columbia University, and co-chair of the Committee on Global Thought.
Prof. Sassen spoke to Meena Menon about what she calls the “grand larceny” of the global corporate system through its access to state resources and people’s taxes in the form of bailouts, and how this has led to a rupture between the state and the people across the globe. Excerpts.
How do you view the recent massive protests in New Delhi? What is your view of this vis-à-vis the Global Street? How would you interpret this?
In reality, these kinds of protests are happening all over the world, around specific issues in each country. It becomes the occasion for actually enacting a much larger project than is indicated by whatever issue is the immediately visible complaint in a city, a country. For instance in Tel Aviv, the starting point was the high prices of apartments. About 1,00,000 people set up tents in central areas to protest, the first time this happened in Israel. The second point to make here is that there is a lot of suffering and impoverishment and degradation of conditions of life today that is invisible. The people might be living in the same houses, but inside the houses there is growing poverty and impoverishment. If you are on the outside, literally, you don’t know what’s happening inside. But inside there might be a crisis developing. We now know in Latin America, we have had professors and housewives — imagine, two very respectable sections of society — do food riots. They went to get food. That is pretty basic. How has it got to this behind the facades of middle class neighbourhoods?
In my new book, I am looking at so-called rich governments in rich countries. They don’t have the money to develop some of the basic infrastructure. I have a fantastic little table that shows the incredibly sharp growth since the 1980s in the deficit of the governments in rich countries. Greece and Spain are simply the vanguard. At the same time, corporate profits have risen sharply over the same period. The middle classes, modest enterprises, and the state are growing their debts and the corporate sector, including finance, is growing its wealth. So my extreme way of putting it — this is grand larceny, where you go with a truck, you don’t just steal a few things but you steal the whole house. In its relationship to citizens, modest enterprises (including small farmers), and to the state, the global corporate sector has committed a form of grand larceny.
Do you think a new world order is in the making? How does the concept of Global Street link with the new changes?
I don’t know if a new world order is in the making but there is a new geography of privilege and disempowerment that cuts across the old divide of rich and poor countries, or North and South. And the ones that are emerging as the contesting actors are young men and women of the middle classes. They are the ones losing the most, who feel the social contract with the state is broken. They are also largely a consuming class. Their parents and they themselves have largely consumed their democracy, their citizenship. I like to ask: who knows how to make in this world, make the social, make an economy, make the civic? Mostly it is elites and the very poor, because they have had to.
But we the middle classes were converted into consumers and the main beneficiaries of much of the resources of the state, from schools and hospitals to roads and electricity, and we paid for it through our taxes. But too much of our taxes now goes to bail out banks and luxury projects... and that is why the social contract between the liberal state and the middle classes is broken.
All of this is also part of my notion of the Global Street. It is one of the places to meet, recognise each other, strategise, become witnesses to historical processes, including small, specific initiatives of powerful actors that can have negative effects on some social sectors. I am not making the argument that this is a historic vanguard. It might or not.
You are a key figure in a long and distinguished tradition of urban sociology. Can you say why the city is a key space of research for you?
In many ways I am not an urbanist. I am interested in studying complex but open conditions or systems. And there are few conditions that are as complex and as open and mutating as a city. So the city is an extraordinary window into all kinds of missions and never more than today, because today, one of the interesting developments is that many non urban processes and actors now have also an urban moment in their trajectories. So being in a city, being alert to its complexity and its incompleteness is a way of understanding more than the urban. Also interesting is the city’s incompleteness — it gives it a capacity to mutate. Think about it.
The city has outlived empires, republics, corporations and financial firms. Why? Because cities are complex but incomplete. A financial firm might be complex but it’s closed and therein lies its capacity to go down.
What about your study on the Global Street and the link between power and the powerless.
The Global Street in my work is such a space where those without access to the formal instruments for making — a building, a history, a politics, a difference — can get to make. I think the Occupy Movements, the Arab Spring, and others made history even if they did not become empowered. The Global Street does not have to be a street. It can be an empty parking place, or whatever.
You spoke of the rise of the middle class and the disconnect with the liberal state. Can you elaborate.
The liberal state is in deep decay. And the social contract of the liberal state is with the middle class, much more so than the very poor and the very rich. Today we see a first generation in the middle classes since World War II which is poorer and more hopeless than their parents and grandparents. One way of putting it is that the deal between the middle class and the liberal state has broken down.
Privatisation of everything is one manifestation. Reduction of social benefits of all sorts is another. It is happening everywhere where you have this kind of state, which, of course can also be a military state such as Egypt insofar as it has developed a range of state supports for a vast share of the population; public schools, public hospitals, housing, retirement benefits, etc.
The point that I am trying to make is that there might be far more radical change than is evident. The French revolution took 10 years, it was not just the storming of the Bastille, the most visible moment of a long process. Before that visible moment, the elites might have known about the complaints of the masses but felt that nothing serious was going to happen even though their world was falling apart.
‘I don’t know if a new world order is in the making but there is a new geography of privilege and disempowerment that cuts across the old divide of rich and poor countries …’