Why the middle class is revolting

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:18 pm IST

Published - January 12, 2013 12:15 am IST

Sakia Sassen

Sakia Sassen

Saskia Sassenspeaks with a formidable energy. She engages her audience with her extensive research as she takes you through the “architecture” of globalization, the Global Street, cities and financialization. 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. Author of several path breaking books on Globalisation, her five-year project with UNESCO on sustainable human settlements was published as a volume in the Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems.

In an interview to The Hindu, Prof Sassen spoke on wide ranging issues related to her deep study of globalization, cities, the disconnect between the Liberal state and the middle class, the movements that are taking place in the world and the concept of the Global Street with which she seeks to capture links between power and powerlessness in urban space. The global corporate system has engaged in what she describes as a sort of grand larceny through bailouts and other ways of accessing the resources of states and people’s taxes. “I think of it as grand larceny because it goes well beyond the privileges enjoyed by rich firms and rich families in all our countries. This partly explains why middle class people everywhere, from Chile to Egypt to India were taking to the streets to protest this in different ways. The protests are not just about the particular issue that might ignite a street protest or an occupation but about a larger mix of injustices,” she says. She senses there is something happening across countries that is mobilizing the modest middle classes of all possible groups. Ironically it is the middle classes which potentially execute the role of the revolutionary force. She says the middle classes are the ones that have benefited the most from the modern state and its support of public transport, public schools, public health, public housing programs, public sector jobs. And this is falling apart.


How do you view the recent massive protests in New Delhi? What is your view of this- vis a 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 100,000 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 gotten 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 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. Certainly not all parts and officials in the state are innocent in this process.

The resources of states have gone disproportionately to the global corporate sector (and to war!). This is not a new story, but it takes on an extreme form since the 80s with the rise of a globalized corporate and financial system. So global South countries see this at their sharpest in the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s, and now this extraction is hitting rich countries-- the Euro zone and the US begin to extract resources from the state and citizens to pay banks –the language is to “rescue” banks. This reorienting of a country’s resources to rescue banks don’t fall from the sky. Partly, the governments have allowed enormous tax evasions by big corporations even as they raise taxes for small modest enterprises. Some of this hits the news—the recent law suits against Amazon, Starbucks and other respectable corporations which have tried to avoid paying billions in taxes to the US, to the UK. The estimate of tax evasion by corporate firms and finance is in the trillions in the case of the US.

In short, something is happening. But we don’t have a language that captures this mix of conditions. Particularly acute events organize our political moves. The price of apartments in Tel Aviv, the food riots in South America, extreme unemployment of middle class youth in Spain and Greece, and so on. One very general reason is that the social contract with the liberal state is not working any more. The elite are not affected and the super poor never got any benefits. It is the middle classes which got so many benefits. Now when there is talk of austerity, the middle classes are the ones most immediately affected. The liberal state with all its problems had a social contract with the middle classes. - it’s broken now and it’s broken in China, in the United States, South Africa --no matter that apartheid is ended.

Do you think a new world order is in the making? And what is the role of the various players in it? How does the Global Street figure as a catalyst in these developments?

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. Being an elite is more than just a collection of rich people, or rich firms. The global corporate and financial elite have developed a project – you don’t need a conspiracy: it is a mix of aims and instruments along with a globally networked political economy. And the poor have had to make –an economy, their own housing, their social support systems—in order to survive! That is why a working slum is something to respect...and admire. Against all odds they made an economy and a social order and support networks.

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 outs of banks and luxury projects... and that is why the social contract between the liberal state and the middle classes is broken.

In the US thousands have started to live in tent cities since 2010. These are tent cities set up by municipal governments. But there are also encampments in the desert, often referred to as slab-cities—because they are often old buses and cars made into housing and you need some heavy rocks to keep them from shifting given strong winds in the desert. Over 9 million households have lost their homes in the US since the late 2000s –that could be up to 30 million people (one household can have one, two, five,..people). Most find some sort of temporary living arrangement. But increasing numbers have nothing left. Now these are mostly modest middle class families, who at one point owned or expected to own a house! I show a video when I teach—which shows one of these tent cities. One segment of the film has a well dressed blond man (not a traditional minority, in other words) stepping out of his little tent and saying, see, I try to keep myself clean and well dressed, I am waiting to be asked to go to work. In other words, he is ready for a job. This is a middle class man against all odds taking good care of himself, dressed as a middle class person –with label t-shirt and khaki pants, etc. And he is waiting for the system to call him back. And there is little chance this will happen. This is the difference with the slums they don’t wait, they make.

Now the Occupy movement worldwide is, I think, a movement that is about making social capabilities among vast strata of our societies—the impoverished middle classes. For example, Occupy Wall Street is now “occupying” the restoration of a mostly lower-middle class area destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast of the US- they are making sure the $ 50 billion of tax payers money the US government has promised will go to the right people and places. Or -Tahrir square- they are occupying the emergent democratic system to make sure that it will take off and be democratic. In India, where the state is putting so much tax payers money into luxury projects and helping big multinationals move into retail commerce….not a bad idea for an Occupy movement that checks how taxpayer’s money is used in critical or new projects. For instance the projects of transferring help to the poor via individual accounts –a good project! But what about the poor who have no access to electronic accounts—this is something where middle class activists can really help and construct themselves as a movement…There are hundreds of good issues for such focused movements to work on.

All of this is also part of my notion of the Global Street. It is one of the places to meet, recognize each other, strategize, and 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. But rather, am saying that this diversifying of the occupy movements world wide is about “making” –making social justice , something we can make without also having a political platform, making a political party, having funds for organizing elections. There are many strategies. I think India has some very significant movements of this sort –by women, by farmers, by environmentalists.

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 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 lays its capacity to go down.

One of the most important aspects of your work is your analysis of how contemporary globalization is distinctive. Can you say a little about how you understand globalization and its complex impact on how it is reorganizing society today?

I have a doctorate in economics and sociology and I think of myself as a political economist so when I started my work on the city, I did not approach it as an urban sociologist. Not at all. I was looking at global markets in insurance, finances, accounting, taxation, international commodities trading my driving question at the time was-- does all this stuff ever hit the ground. I had that question for a very specific reason which was that most people talking about globalization in the 1980s and still today is a notion of space time compression, we are all connected, place no longer matters ...a flat world etc.

So back to my question --When you are trading non-material financial instruments do you ever hit the ground, do you need a city? I was looking at macro level data about diverse electronic flows. Let me clarify: this is the time when NY and other cities became global, not simply nodes for inter-nation flows, but nodes in a global corporate economy. In the 1990s the network of global cities broadens out into a hundred or so cities. So in tracking these flows I found that particular cities are key sites for producing the complex legal, financial, accounting, insurance, etc. instruments that allow firms to operate globally. Specific cities matter for specific flows, with a limited number becoming major global cities. In the 1980s it was New York, London and Tokyo. In the 1990s, the global corporate economy became more globalized, and it added many other cities as countries and areas of the world were incorporated into this new type of global system –not simply inter-national trade and such.

Further, when I entered the actual space of the city-- my next question was can I actually see all of this? The extreme rebuilding of the centre, extreme expansion using high-end architecture and urban design to expand the space of the “centre” of the city so that what may have been a marginal space, for instance Times Square, becomes part of “the” centre of New York. And one can literally measure it- I checked out Frankfurt and other cities to measure the new expanded space of the centre, with its luxury spaces of consumption, hotels and offices. When you expand the spaces for the financial services or corporate headquarters, and more, you must ask: what you have expelled? More than three million people from their homes in the old center of Shanghai, hundreds of thousands of poor who became homeless when their neighbourhoods—housing and shops—were replaced by high-end housing and shops…. And you saw this in London and Paris, and gradually this mode of remaking spaces of the center in more and more cities. I recall in Tokyo when it was gentrifying the old centers, I was doing my research and the experts would say we don’t have homeless people but they did. So entering the city, as opposed to tracking global networks, means entering the thicket of the urban condition, and that’s where it becomes interesting for me because a larger story becomes visible, one that includes all of that which is left out when we just describe the new spatial upgrading of a city.

To understand the urban, you also need to understand the non urban, such as the global electronic networks I was tracking. That was one of my contributions, though I shouldn’t be saying this. I got criticized by urbanists for doing this. I was interested in the connection between a global complex reality and the territorial, the city, and then, as a second step, how does it alter and become visible in urban space.

How does the city mirror its diverse groups and how do you approach studying a city?

One of the things that interests me about a city is that it can be a critical moment for something digitized. It is the moment when global finance hits the ground, it makes itself visible and reachable in that it has to employ people, needs suppliers, needs housing and restaurants and shops for its employees, and so on. It is, in principle, also a vulnerable moment. It is dependent on infrastructure and connectivity, with key elements of those infrastructures physically concentrated in cities. When September 11 happened, many firms left making visible that they did not need to be in a city. But some left and had to come back, making visible that they need the city for this then was also a way of documenting that these powerful global firms need cities, and hence cities can negotiate much harder with these global firms, ask for more. Still today when this is so evident, many city leaderships act as if these global firms are doing us a favour and hence we have to be nice with them. In brief, these were some of the issues that interested me, questions of power and the limits of power… so yes, many urbanists saw me as not quite an urbanist!

The city then becomes a window on the vulnerabilities and needs of Power. Entering the space of the city became very interesting, not just the urbanism (the visual order) but also because of it making visible power, powerlessness, and how powerlessness can become complex. Also how the minoritised of a society are not just the poor - gays and queers are also minoritised- it’s not just a division between the rich and the poor. The city is also a space where they can execute a life project, make a politics for their aims. It is not only the space for finance, the powerful, etc. It is a transversal terrain. So I don’t see “the city” as an object of study that I will examine as such..”the” city. I enter a complex space . Global cities are today’s frontiers, in the sense of the wild west. This is an argument I have developed in some of my writing. The frontier in the European colonial period is at the edges of the empire. Today, the frontier is deep inside our global cities. By frontier, whether the historic or today’s I mean a space where actors from different worlds encounter each other and there are no established rules. It can evolve into a predatory space, or a cosmopolitan space. The frontier is deep inside such cities, it is not at the edge. And that opens a research agenda that is a bit unusual.

What about your study on the Global Street and the link between power and the powerless.

The question that concerns me is whether the powerless also make history. In my territory book I examined various histories, completed histories which tell us that they do, but they do so under particular conditions. One of them is that it often takes a long time, many generations of invisible work and suffering. Think of the civil rights movement in the USA: it took many generations and then suddenly one day the political system goes “Oh! Let’s give them some rights.” And the actual making of this possibility is lost—all that is visible is that formalizing moment. So it took historians and activists to get the full history of making the civil rights laws into our record. When the formalizing moment does not happen, we can lose track of it all. Secondly, it takes a particular type of space for the powerless to make history. Today one such space is the city.

It is a real issue that when the powerless do not achieve power in some visible way, that is become empowered, we do not see the hard work of powerless actors that may also have contributed to a major event that happens much later.So that’s why I was interested in discovering whether there is an in-between zone between powerlessness in the typical sense, and becoming empowered, also in the traditional sense. The Anglo way of looking at this is a bit too dualistic for my understanding of history: if you are powerless and something good happens to you, then you are empowered. This means that many struggles by the powerless that did make history but did not lead to empowerment become invisible—we bury them deep beneath the ground. I tried to identify spaces where those without power have made history, even if they never became empowered. Of course I wound up in the city as one of those spaces. 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.

A piazza is a space that can be the destination –you go there to do something--sit and read, wander, play with your kid. And, more deeply perhaps, it is one key space in the European tradition for the making of a public sphere, where the piazza is a place for ritualized practices—there is an embedded code as to how to conduct yourself. Embedded codes make publicness, the contribute to a public sphere. But the street is also such a space for making a public sphere, though, and this matters, with less ritualized practices, more anarchic, where people bump each other as they rush by. So I think of the Global Street also as a space for making a different type of publicness, that comes from the powerless, and it not catalogued immediately or recognised as such. Think of all the practices and codes developed during the occupations of Tahrir Square, Wall Street, and the big piazzas in Spain.

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 middle class and the liberal state has broken down. Privatization 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 Arab Spring and the Occupy movements are about the social question. This is an indication then also of this break down. This is not about party politics, and it is not about power. It is about the breakdown of the social contract with the state. So the Old Left says the Occupy movements don’t have a plan and no leadership. But this is not what Tahrir Square and the Occupy movements are about. Systemic change undermining the connection between state and middle class is already in process. One of my concerns is the new geographies of centrality that cut across the old divisions of national borders and North versus South, developed versus underdeveloped countries. I argue and document in my book ‘Cities in A World Economy’ the emergence of a new global class whose spaces include all kinds of cities of the global South as well as North –but only parts of those cities –the spaces of power. For instance the new global class in Sao Paolo, or New York , or Joburg, connects with the elites in many cities of the Global South and North much more than they connect with their own hinterland. New alignments are getting made, even as many aspects of the old divide still carry enormous weight –hunger, disease, housing all are still much worse in poor countries than in rich countries, no doubt.

But the network of global and other key cities is a new geography of centrality, and of power that is not marked in any conventional map but is nonetheless very real, And the members are denationalised and connect across the old traditional borders with enormous ease. But this geography has its own borders, and they are not very permeable. It is easier for a poor worker to cross the border into a rich country than to cross into this new geography of power.

The point that I am trying to make is that there might be far more radical change than is evident. The French revolution took ten 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.


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