IMF, EU elites ignore those swept aside by austerity measures
Interview of Saskia Sassen by Sophie Shevardnadze – July 3, 2015
The European Union is burning with a fever: Greece is to decide on whether it really wants to go on with austerity, or if it’s really going to stay within the EU. The decision in Athens will definitely rock the bloc’s foundations, and no one really knows what’s going to come out of this political and financial earthquake. Is throwing away austerity the right option for the Greeks? Actually, is there any other way to handle the financial crisis? We ask a sociologist and Columbia University professor, the author of the world-famous book “Expulsions.” Saskia Sassen is on Sophie&Co today.
SS: Sociologist, Columbia university professor, Saskia Sassen, author of “Expulsions”, translated into 23 languages, published around the world, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. Now, in big cities, illegal immigration is typically linked with poverty, crime, cheap untaxed labor, and ghettoization. Ought we not to be worried of illegal immigrants?
Saskia Sassen: No, we should not. Because, if there are immigrants, even if they are undocumented, they will try to make an economy in their neighborhoods: this is what history both in Europe and in the U.S. shows, that immigrants come to make something. The fact that some of them are registered as criminals often has to do with the fact that they are actually involved in criminal sectors, like the sex trade, or slave labor – but those are not quite immigrants, they just happen to be foreigners who are operating in very dubious sectors. The final point I would add is that at some point, if you are an undocumented immigrant, and you cannot get a job, you may engage in sort of low-level criminality for survival, but most immigrants come to make, to actually make a little economy of their own, wherever the neighborhoods where they are concentrated.
SS: Sure, but what about worries of cultural assimilation? I mean, there are areas in the UK, in France, where no British or French culture thrives at all, where only the immigrant culture exists – what’s good about that?
Saskia Sassen: Today, we’re often dealing… the most intense critique and fear is about Muslims, and we think that because they are so different in terms of religion, that they are somehow different from past immigrants. But let me tell you a little story: when baron Haussmann was rebuilding Paris, he needed more workers. He was very careful. He brought in catholic workers from Germany and Belgium – because most workers in France were Catholics. Guess what? The French catholic workers said: “Oh my God, no, they are the wrong Catholics!” – that just gives you an idea as even if the foreigner, the immigrant, is your cousin, there is some kind of distance that needs to be overcome. Some societies overcome that distance well, others have a very hard time. Today, we have a very hard time, partly because transversal dynamics, ISIS and such things are entering the picture.
SS: But what is your idea, that immigration should be streamlined, borders opened, immigrants given status? Is that what you are hinting?
Saskia Sassen: No, because it’s a very complex landscape. A lot of people who are coming, crossing the Mediterranean into Europe… you can hardly call them immigrants. They are refugees, they are displaced people. Going back home often means going back to a warzone. That is why they are so desperate to leave. A few years ago, before these wars emerged – that are now pushing a lot of people out, partly when we bombed Libya, when we bombed… you know what I’m talking about – but a few years ago, there was a meeting, where many governments from sending countries in Africa, and some of the Middle East and Asia, and receiving counties of Europe, where the leadership of all of this mix of countries got together. They didn’t get very far, and it’s a pity that that effort was somehow suspended, that it didn’t continue.
SS: For instance, you’re speaking about the countries that are in turmoil and, like you’ve said, there’s a fine line between refugees and immigrants, and what we’re really talking about right now is refugees, but let me give an example of migrants, for instance, Obama is trying to legalize millions of migrants in the U.S… Probably most of these people are going to vote Democrat after they get their passports – is this just a happy coincidence for him, what do you think?
Saskia Sassen: No, let’s remember that Obama’s father was born in Africa. I think many of… I am also an immigrant in the U.S. – many of us on the one hand are very grateful to the U.S. for taking us in, but secondly, we’re also extremely concerned about the kinds of tactics that a lot of, say, the Republican party, wants to adopt vis-à-vis immigrants, as if they were criminals. Further, let’s remember, that, again, many of the people who are coming from Central America are in a way refugees. There’s incredible gang warfare happening in Honduras and in El Salvador. They are destroying communities, they are killing family members of people who want to come. We have a lot of parents who have sent their children, alone, just to protect their children – can you believe it? As young as 9 years old, in the hope, that somehow, because they’re children, they would be taken in. These are people who are acting out of despair. There are not many options. And I stand back and say: “Does the U.S. bear some responsibility for the horrible things that are happening in Central America?” And my answer is “Yes, it does, there’s a problem”. In the case of Africa, you know, it’s very complicated story, but we have enabled very dubious regimes to stay in power; regimes that are eliminating the chances of reasonable lives for many of their people, and now we ‘re paying the price. We cannot pretend that these horrors are not happening – they’ve been happening in some countries for the last 20 years – and then sort of complain. So we have to take in some. That’s not a solution, you know, because many more will have to leave because they’re desperate – so we’ve got to establish some mode of living even if it is marginal…
SS: What exactly is that mode? Because, I understand that an act of mass legalization is something very humane and certainly, like you’ve said, America is obliged to do something like that and so is Europe, because these people are coming from the countries that America and Europe have messed up in the first place; but, wouldn’t something like that also encourage the flow of illegals into the U.S., which could be unstoppable at some point…
Saskia Sassen: Of course. These are very complex issues and on the one hand, and I want to put that on the table – we should never have allowed the desperation to take on such extreme forms. When we militarized the drug war in Mexico and in Central America, we set up the beginning of what is happening now – which is gangs dominating a lot of the national territory, and that becomes a form of extreme violence that affects women, man, children, everybody. But now, looking at the present, I think we need to go back to some sort of established UN and international law options, which is setting places that are protected, like refugee camps and displaced people camps, so that some of those who are escaping war, but are not really ready, completely, to leave their countries and to go across the Mediterranean illegally in a dubious boat, and then to Europe, in a very-very dubious adventure, so to say – that those people have a choice, that there are certain parts in certain countries in the regions where they are, where they will be protected. Now, we don’t have a good track record. Look at the blue helmets in Africa, for instance, the UN military: dubious operations, but we’ve got to do it; we’ve got to do it seriously. The UN has the capabilities to handle displaced people. Some of these people should be recognized as refugees and displaced people.
SS: What you’re proposing is something very sensible, but obviously, it would take some time for people to actually think about that in a larger picture and take it in. But I am talking about the immediate future, and immediate present, and the problems that Europe’s facing right now: I mean, the inflow of immigrants, or refugees, as you call them, is really unprecedented, and these people, these immigrants or refugees, are really more than Europe can take. But you still see these immigrants – thousands of them, risking their lives, traveling to Europe, all while Europe is trying to shut its borders: Italy has shut down its sea rescue operations in Mediterranean, other states are refusing to share the cause, investing instead in heavily fortified borders with Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria… Can these policies stop this massive flow? What do you think? For the immediate future, I am talking, at least.
Saskia Sassen: Look, the current policies are really sort of stopping the biggest flows, reducing the number of those who drown in Mediterranean, reducing some of the horrors of it all. But, we have to go further. Let’s just take Brussels. There are enough smart people there, with all kinds of backgrounds – from engineers to medical doctors, to lawyers. They can begin to work at designing a policy that is realistic. For instance, one thing that could be done right away is an index of places that need people. North-Eastern Germany has a lot of what they call “Schrumpfende Städte“, there are cities that are half-dead or totally dead. They need people. There’s agricultural land that could be grown. Check Bulgaria…we have a lot of countries that are actually underpopulated; but use them intelligently, make them work. Lampedusa and some of the other little places in Italy which are first, sort of, arrival point – some of those abandoned villages in the South of Italy have now been partly enabled by good catholic priests, you know, the bishops of here and there, probably inspired by the current Pope, they have actually enabled these immigrants, who come mostly from Africa, to take over all kinds of activities that have been abandoned because local Italians left. There are many options; we just need to think broadly.
SS: Another form of expulsion that you write about is the economic cleansing, which is really when (statistics don’t reflect the reality of things, so what happens to these aspects of expulsion? Excluded from the global economy, the unemployed, not present in any statistics, they don’t…what, they don’t just disappear, so where do they go?
Saskia Sassen: I mean, again, if you take Greece as an extreme case in a continent like Europe where everything is pretty well regulated – when the IMF and European Central Bank declare in January 2013 that “Greece is back on track, it has 0.8% growth”, what they are actually measuring is, I think, “cleansed space” of the economy, where they have expelled 30% of the unemployed, of the workers that are now unemployed – they don’t count them, because they would bring the positive figure down. They are expelling the fact that many small firm owners committed suicide. So, you economically cleanse this space, so you get good indicators.
SS: What I am asking is what happens to these spaces or people that are cleansed and expelled – I mean, what, they just don’t exist anymore?
Saskia Sassen: Well, of course they exist, but what I argue is that our statistical categories, and our concept – the way we think: the unemployed, the poor, the rich – actually, they fall out of those measures. Just continuing with prior point, because it explains partly why we’re getting rid of so many people: in Athens, many of the valuable properties are being bought up by foreign capital. Athens is going to return. Athens and Istanbul are two of the few big, significant cities left in that whole Eastern region of the Mediterranean, because the rest is in war, and Cairo is very peculiar – so, Athens will come back, but it will come back without the “burden”, so to speak, I say it in quotation marks, of all those unemployed, of all those little shopkeepers. It will become a smaller, corporate city. That is sort of vision that I have for the future, and that’s not good. So they are there but they fall out of the picture, you know, they don’t matter anymore.
SS: But, when you say that they don’t matter anymore – they still somehow exist and they are part of the society. So where are they in statistics? They are not part of the statistics, are they still part of the society, functioning part of the society?….
Saskia Sassen: Well, at the extreme, we have lost track of them. We know of parents who have become so poor that they have left their children in churches, because they can’t feed them, and the parents disappear. I imagine that some people are going back to rural areas – this we have seen in Spain – they’re going back to rural areas, inhabiting abandoned villages, because everybody had left for the cities, and starting from scratch. I think some of them, if Tsipras’ government succeeds, they will bring back some of those people into the job market, but it’s getting very desperate, it’s truly getting very desperate. Now, remember, at the same time, there are elites that still are pretty rich. When you go certain parts of Athens, you wouldn’t know that there’s a crisis, because you have a rich elite that lives partly in London, partly in Monaco, and partly in Athens.
SS: This in large part, from what I understand, is because of austerity that is not working, or austerity that works only on paper, but doesn’t actually mean that a better economic situation is around us. So then, why are they being used, these austerity measures – who benefits from them?
Saskia Sassen: What we’re seeing is a real dramatic shift away from a government that has a social contract with its people and provides for medical care, education, etc. – shrink that bill, it’s the same thing in the U.S. I am afraid; this is going to stay with us. You know, there’s a large middle class that is benefiting enormously from the current arrangement and getting richer, there’s an elite that is benefiting and getting rich, and then there’s a bunch of people who have simply fallen out of the safety networks. Those are the expelled. They are difficult to see because another part of the society is very prosperous, doing very well, buying beautiful homes, buying fancy cars – and that creates a shadow where those who have been expelled really become invisible. They are not lying on our streets, they are removed from them – so we don’t see them, even.
SS: But then, there are nations, for instance, who don’t have to agree with austerity measures, they have a choice – and let’s stick with the Greek example, because we’ve been using it for so long – why does Athens agree for austerity measures? If it left the Eurozone, will the end result be better?
Saskia Sassen: Well, I think that if we would have had the current government in place when the crisis started, they would have fought austerity in the same way that this government won the election because they were saying “We’re done with austerity” – I mean, the way the current government in Greece sees it, that austerity politics means cutting off more and more, if you want, the hand, the arm, the whole arm from the economy, shrinking that economic space so that only certain things would continue to operate – and this government is having a very hard time succeeding in implementing its politics. You know, most of the money that supposedly Greece is paying, it’s going to banks, it’s going to rich banks. When EU puts money into Greece, it never comes to Greece; it doesn’t go to people of Greece: it goes to the banks. So that to me is seriously problematic. There is hunger and illness. The doctors in Athens are saying “we have never seen such big tumors”, because these people simply have not gone to medical care at all. So this is a very ugly story that is playing out…
SS: What we’re seeing right now is an acute social injustice, obviously, and people are unhappy with it…
Saskia Sassen: Extreme.
SS: But does it seem like people can do anything about it? I mean, anti-austerity demos come and go: the Occupy Wall Street movement, it never really went beyond protests. Are people powerless to influence the system?
Saskia Sassen: I think Tsipras, and in Spain, if we want to pursue that, Podemos – they come….there’s possibility that Podemos might win in Spain. They come out of those Occupy movements a bit. You can only “occupy” for so long and then eventually that disappears and another mode comes up – and we’ve seen that in Greece, and we are seeing that in Spain, potentially. But back to your core question, when I speak about expulsions, I’m very keen on capturing the kind of putting away, putting out of that, which the system doesn’t need anymore; they don’t want to deal with that. We have too many people who are never going to have a job again, and they have to become… my politics is to for them to become makers, go occupy an abandoned village in the hills and start from scratch: rebuild, do agriculture, do something, but don’t just be a beggar – be a maker.
SS: But there’s certainly a middle ground between being a beggar and going to occupy a village that has been abandoned – I mean, there must be some midway in between, right?
Saskia Sassen: Of course.
SS: I mean, don’t these people have a voice? Or are they completely powerless in the face of the system?
Saskia Sassen: Well, I mean, they are hungry, they are weak, they are ill. It’s a very bad landscape. But, I think, the government in Greece is trying to keep them in, to bring them back in, like it said it will re-hire some of the unemployed government workers. So, it is struggling to do something. It begged for 3 billion out of 65 billion loan – “Three billion, let me take them to Greece, so I can do something for Greece rather than just paying the banks!” – That was the single and only victory that the new government has had with the EU. Three billion – out of 260 billion there… This is a desperate situation. They are desperately trying to find that intermediate zone that you’re talking about, so that they are not totally, completely out or in a village. Right now, it looks very bad, and if I take the past in Africa – I do this juxtaposition of the restructuring programs in poor African countries, where the IMF… it was sort of the same policy as what we call austerity in the North, but at one point the IMF said: “Okay. This has not worked” – in 2001 – “we are going to cancel 46 contracts that we have made with these countries, they are never going to pay back the debt, and we’re just going to start from scratch.” You know, and I think that Europe, right now, the European Central Bank and the IMF, and Mr. Schäuble in Germany should recognize: they have to break the contract. This notion of Schäuble says: “We cannot break a contract” – I say, look at the IMF. It broke 46 contracts and set up a new program called “the Hyper-Indebted Poor Countries” and gave money to those countries, reduced their debt. That is what Europe needs to do now. But that will not take care of everything, but it is at least a beginning so that the current in Greece, to take it as an example, can actually bring in some of those people who are still hanging in there. Some of them are gone. They have committed suicide; they are dying of terrible diseases, because there is no healthcare. They are gone, we’ve lost them.
SS: Saskia, thank you very much for this wonderful interview. Unfortunately, we’re out of time, but it was a wonderful insight into the world of “expulsions” as you call it. We were talking to Columbia University professor, sociologist, Saskia Sassen, author of “Expulsions” – talking about why an increasingly globalized world means excluding people from global economic and social landscape, and who benefits from such actions. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.
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