What impact has the globilisation and privatisation of trade, laws and eoxonomis had on our understanding of territory?
I don’t think I would put the bit on corporations in those terms. For one, they have a state – ‘our’ states, so to speak. Why bother with the hard work of inventing and running one. Our states have been key handmaidens in the current transformation. As for your question on territory, I see the current era as including a type of imperialism that is quite different from the earlier Western imperial modes and from the post WWII Keynesian driven capitalism which existed well into the 1980s. I see new systemic logics arising from the decaying political economy of the twentieth century…and these include expulsion logics to a far larger and more extreme extent than the preceding Keynesian period, which also had some of this, but not as widespread. This decay began in the 1980s. By then the strong welfare states and workers’ syndicates established in much of the West, including several Latin American countries, had either been devastated or were under severe pressure. To some extent, state projects, with people-oriented welfare programs, had also been strong features in other parts of the world, including, in their own ways, communist countries and those with varieties of socialist nationalism, as illustrated by Nasser’s welfare-state policies in Egypt, systems developed in several post-independence African countries, and in India’s brand of state socialism. In these countries too, decay began in the 1980s and 1990s.
To talk of this decay is not to romanticize the twentieth century, a period marked by devastating wars, genocides, and starvation, and by extreme ideologies of both left and right. When I speak of traditional capitalism it is to shorthand the era dominated by mass consumption, when this is the sector that is the key organizer of capitalism (and hence the higher the consumption capacity of individuals, households, governments, and firms) the better for the system overall. This sector brought on a vast expansion of those who were incorporated into the system. This was an economic phase where the broad middle—from the working class to the modest middle class— expanded rapidly. The construction of suburban housing and infrastructure meant a sharp increase in the demand for an enormous range of goods. The expansion of the demand for automobiles meant the vast expansion of road, tunnel, and bridge building. The U.S. is the most extreme case certainly, partly given the very physical fact of its vast territory, but we see this dynamic also in Europe and Latin America and in parts of Africa, as well as in Communist Russia.
So where does that leave traditional governance?
The space of traditional governance is shrinking, even though it remains the most strategically important and powerful. What is expanding is a vast new zone of ambiguous rules and ‘ruling orders’. The rules range widely – from private formal arrangements, such as international commercial arbitration, which bypasses national courts, to the agreements among a growing number of international criminal syndicates. And the ‘ruling orders’ range from terrorists organisations to large global firms with the power to shape much of the global economy.
The overall outcome of this redrawing of global inter-state space is a multiplication of systemic edges – and these do not correspond to national borders or the formal interstate system. The most extreme case is probably ISIS and its ‘Caliphate’.
But we can see many less extreme and less belligerent formations if our aim is to identify new kinds of enclosures that partly disassemble national sovereign territory and thereby unsettle the traditional inter-state system. In my own work I have focused on a range of such enclosures. Among them are commercial land grabs – shorthand for massive land acquisitions by firms and governments in countries not their own; these have reached well over 200 million hectares from 2006 to 2011. Another instance is the so-called ‘black pools of finance’ (as described by Bernanke, the former head of the US central bank1); these are mostly electronic spaces that cut across national borders, and have territorial insertions in key countries and global cities. They are run by major established banks, and account for a growing share of financial transactions but fall outside the standard regulatory frame.
Finally, and more diffuse, the rise of inter-city relations across national borders will keep on expanding, which I explored in my piece on emergent urban geopolitics, ‘The Future of the City’2. Elsewhere I have examined how this is in good part, and perhaps ironically, a result of governments implementing economic deregulation and privatisation policies (see my Cities in a World Economy, 4th updated edition, Sage 2012). These took off in the Global North in the 1980s and have now spread in one version or another to much of the world.
What do you see as the social or local impact of this?
Devastating, brutal, unacceptable.
The dominant logic is one of extraction. This is what I examine and elaborate on in Expulsions, and why I found that only looking at inequality is not enough. Thus I find that even finance, which looks so very non-extractive, is actually marked by a logic of extraction. This is quite different from traditional banking, more dominated by the logic of mass consumption: the more the better, and the better the sons and daughters do, the better. Today this is quite secondary to the system, even though not to the ongoing mass consumption bit. But it does also contribute to explain why the ‘system’ has allowed so much of the prosperous working class and modest middle classes to become poorer.
In my more contemplative moments, my take for now is that we need the complex apparatus that is a working state. In principle the state should contain the major conflictive alignments: the labor department should combat the finance department for social justice to workers; the national economic department should contest the global affairs department so that the country does not lose too much – say via the new types of trade agreements (which are really investment agreements: they give investors all kinds of securities and capacity to sue states if something goes wrong). I have dealt with a lot of this in my book Territory, Authority, Rights.
A working state is a complex capability that can factor in multiple interests and perspectives – it has multiple vectors or sectors – some are disastrous, truly evil, others are great for activists who want justice, for the environmental struggle, etc. It should help us to bring into the political discussion a whole range of perspectives that are critical, often very concrete, generated by the specifics of a region, a labor union’s struggle, claims by poor students, a local economy – for instance, a local economy dominated by large international mining companies is going to be very different from one controlled by a small middle class business sector.
A very different case of added knowledge that a working state can enable is represented by the critical literature that emerged in India under the name of the subaltern. It added a lot to our understanding of the old empires of the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. I am sure that in countries such as Iran and Pakistan, where there are major scholars and schools of thought, you have yet other contributions to a critical analysis. I see this also as a very specific vector that enables us to make visible in a region, in a country, across countries, a whole variety of the very specifically located issues. That is good. We (those without power) can use this, it becomes a capability in our hands. The question then becomes, what do we do with it?
In ‘Visible Formations and Formally Visible Facticities’ you state that ‘…the twentieth century saw the strengthening of alignment between territory and territoriality. But the past two decades have once again brought about more misalignments, some recognized and some not.’ Would you care to expand on this in our current global setting?
I am so glad you found this article since it is in a law journal, quite removed from the social sciences. I have found myself giving quite a few talks in law schools and writing pieces in law journals.
What I described in that article is a first little step towards the current project ‘Ungoverned Territories?’ The focus is on the territorial…moving away from the standard category ‘national sovereign territory’. I ask questions such as ‘are the vast stretches of dead land the terrae nullius of our epoch?’
There is a more recent, far more developed version that was part of my Storrs Lectures in Philosophy and Jurisprudence, at the Yale University Law School. It is called ‘When Territory De-borders Territoriality.’ I wonder whether this title is clear to you. It represents an inversion of the common notion that often the authority (territoriality) of the state seeks to go beyond its territorial borders – with powerful countries such as the US and Russia the most dramatic examples.
In Expulsions you talk about foreign land ownership as an ‘invisible’ conquest of national territory. A ‘partial denationalization deep inside nation-states’. Do you see the acquisition of land by foreign nations and multinational corporations as being as dangerous in diminishing sovereign authority of the state over its own territory, as say, imperial conquests of the past?
I see it as a radically different mode: one key difference is that there is no superstructural project. As the project, for instance of the Brits in India to generate a proper bureaucratic professional class, the subaltern, or the project of the French, the mission civilisatrice, teaching all members of the empire French, proper French. Today, the land grabs are just an instance of extraction. The Chinese have made this the clearest because when they acquire land or mines (or whatever) they bring their workers, build hospitals (since their workers cannot handle the climate), build roads, harbours, bridges to secure the outcome. And when they are done extracting, they leave, and they leave it all behind. This is what I mean by the absence of a super-structural project. Whether it is better or worse for the countries involved…I don’t know, but it certainly also includes a lot of devastated land and water. It is not benign. It is just different. For me the language of extraction works better than the so much used ‘imperial’.
What is the role of the nation-state in all of this?
One brief observation that I have researched in my work on global cities is the following: when a government deregulates and privatises economic sectors (once under the direct management of the state), these managerial and regulatory functions do not disappear. They are transferred to private firms: they reappear as specialised financial, accounting, legal, advisory services for corporations. And these types of activities tend to be in cities, and in global cities if they are complex because a firm’s market is global.
None of this eliminates the ongoing role of the inter-state system and its multiple institutions. Indeed, some of these have become more important and are entering new domains. Let me illustrate this with what is an obscure event, the so-called ‘vulture funds’ issue in the Argentine sovereign default. What had been the domain of narrow court procedures became a matter of interest and active engagement for the General Assembly of the United Nations in the Fall of 2014, a process that continues3, and yet, none of this can obliterate the fact of that expanding global space of ambivalent new rules and new ruling orders.
You speak of your point of inquiry in Expulsions as being the systemic edge, how do you define this edge condition?
The key dynamic at this edge is expulsion from the diverse systems in play – economic, social, biospheric. This edge is foundationally different from notions such as social exclusion: these happen inside the system and supposedly proper policy could change or reduce the damage. It is also foundationally different from the geographic border in the interstate system. The focus on the edge comes from one of the core hypotheses organising this book: that the move from Keynesianism to the global era of privatisations, deregulation, and open borders for some, entailed a switch from dynamics that brought people into the economic system (via mass consumption, hence the interest of economic sectors to have the state enable the middle classes with various supports) to dynamics that push people out.
These expulsion logics are also evident beyond the West, as I argue particularly in the long chapter on environmental destruction, ‘Dead Land Dead Water’. Determining whether such a switch from incorporation to expulsion might also be emerging in countries that have had high growth rates (even if now falling), such as China and India, requires expertise I lack. China, especially, has seen a massive incorporation of people into monetised economies, but now many of these are among the growing masses of ‘monetised’ poor! China is also experiencing sharpening inequality and new forms of economic concentration at the top, not to mention corporate bullying.
Each major domain has its own distinctive systemic edge (constituted differently for say the economy than for the biosphere). One of the organising assumptions in this book is that the systemic edge is the site where general, familiar (not monstrous or weird, but the usual, the familiar!) conditions take extreme forms precisely because it is the site for expulsion. Further, the extreme character of conditions at the edge helps us detect more encompassing trends that are less extreme and hence more difficult to capture. I conceive of these larger trends as conceptually subterranean because we cannot easily make them visible through our current categories of meaning.
Would you say that international borders still matter?
Yes, for some…especially that which is made by flesh and bones. But not for many cross-border flows. Let me elaborate, as this is one of my pet subjects… I have been working on this alternative understanding about the role for borders for the last ten years. So let me indulge…
State sovereignty is usually understood as the state’s monopoly of authority over a particular territory, demarcated by reasonably established geographic borders. Today, it is becoming evident that even as national territories remain bounded by traditional geographic borderlines, globalisation is causing novel types of ‘borderings’ to multiply; these borderings range from regimes protecting firms’ trading rights (even when incompatible with domestic law in signatory countries) to emerging forms of protections for threatened species whose habitats comprise more than one country. These novel borderings cut across traditional borders and become evident both globally and inside national territory. Sovereignty remains a systemic property; that is to say, the interstate and supranational systems remain dependent on the presence and recognition of the mutually exclusive authority of national states over their territories, even when the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organization (WTO) law, or the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) have chipped away at that exclusivity.
The institutional space for sovereignty now includes specific functions and authorities of these global institutions. This, in turn, chips away at the State’s capacity to legitimate –through the legislature, the courts and executive decree, or by signing on to international treaties. Although weak, these diverse emergent regimes cut into the foundational proposition of the exclusive authority of the State over its territory. The politics of sovereignty now include claims for sovereignty on the part of Indigenous people, today recognised by at least some states (notably Canada), as well as claims by global regulators seeking to override particular aspects of state sovereignty, notably through WTO law and IMF conditionality in the 1980s and 1990s. The outcomes are more complex than notions of mutually exclusive territorial authority can capture.
- Sassen, S. (2014). Expulsions : Brutality and complexity in the global economy. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. Chaper 3↩
- Sassen, S. (2013). The Future of the City: Ephemeral Kingdoms, Eternal Cities. The European Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.theeuropean-magazine.com/saskia-sassen—3/6573-the-future-ofthe-city↩
- Sassen, S., Owens, L. (2014). The Vultures of Wall Street: The Financial Firms that Prey on Sovereign Debt. Boston Review. Retrieved from http://bostonreview.net/world/lisa-lucileowens-saskia-sassen-vulture-funds↩