Sassen: “We have entered a new era that the language of inequality cannot capture”

By JTW Interview – February 6, 2015

Turkish Weekly

Addressing a wide spectrum of issues ranging from migration to the effect of war on cities, we have conducted an extensive interview with Prof. Saskia Sassen based on her latest book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Released to widespread acclaim, the book has so far been translated into ten languages, with Éditions Gallimard publishing the most recent translation in French

Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and chairs The Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University ( Her books have been translated into over 20 languages and she is the recipient of diverse awards and mentions, including multiple doctor honoris causa. She has delivered many named lectures, and has been selected as one of the top global thinkers on various lists. Most recently she was awarded the Principe de Asturias 2013 Prize in the Social Sciences and made a member of the Royal Academy of the Sciences of the Netherlands.

In your latest book “Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the World Economy” you take a deep look into the global economy and discuss how it transforms the world in different ways. Why and how did you decide to name your book “Expulsions”, what is the reason you chose that specific word?

The language of inequality is not enough to seize the transformation that has been taking place starting from the 1980s. More so than in the preceding phase, the economic sectors that have dominated growth over the past three decades mark a new era. Capitalism has never been benign, but the current phase is endangering a growing number of people and places all around the world. At the edges of the system – whether the system be a society, an economy, or the biosphere – familiar conditions are becoming so extreme that we cannot capture them with our usual language. Further yet, the need to bring in the larger biosphere also led me to think that inequality is insufficient as an explanation, no matter how important it is to recognize this growing inequality. So I opted for a more brutal, more radical term: expulsions.  Let me add that in my analysis, expulsions not only affect human beings and their societies and economies, but also the larger environment.

So, in the book my point of inquiry is not the distribution we call “inequality,” but the systemic edge. The key dynamic at this edge is expulsion from the diverse systems in play – economic, social, biospheric. This edge is foundationally different from the geographic border in the interstate system. The core hypothesis is that we are seeing a proliferation of systemic edges originating partly in the decaying western-style political economy of the 20th century, the escalation of environmental destruction, and the rise of complex forms of knowledge that far too often produce elementary brutalities. The expulsion logics I focus on are just a few of the many that might exist; they are, generally, more extreme than whatever expulsion logics existed, for instance, in the preceding Keynesian period. Further, these expulsion logics are also evident beyond the West, as I argue particularly in the long chapter on environmental destruction, “Dead Land Dead Water.”

The places where people are expelled could be an interesting laboratory for new ways of developing an economy or other forms of living together. I see it as a set of very diverse spaces that we need to understand, that we need to study: in short, we need to engage the expelled and the spaces of that which is expelled, including dead land. That is all… a first step in a process that can generate elements for change.

When did expulsion start? Is this a newly emerging phenomenon?

Expulsions have long existed. What I am trying to mark is that our current economic logic in the West is dominated by extraction – I argue that even high finance is an economy of extraction (unlike traditional banking, which simply sells money at an interest rate). And this then also expresses itself in the vast escalation of dead land and dead water.

My entry point into the subject of expulsions is a bit transversal. The core fact for western style economies, which nowadays is most economies, is the move away from an economy where mass consumption was the key sector: this meant that the spending capacity of each person and household mattered, and therefore so did the desirability of good incomes for as many people as possible. The new economy is dominated by the financializing of everything: finance becomes the key sector, the one that can make new orderings… not change everything, but make new orderings.

Finance is very different from traditional banking. We all need traditional banking. But we should minimize the use of financial instruments. In my view, to give it a sharp extreme version, the most negative version: finance is a sort of economy of extraction because it develops complex instruments that allow financial firms to extract value from even modest assets or forms of capital. Once extraction has happened, finance is unaffected by what happens to that from where extraction has been done. This is the opposite of mass consumption: where the system needs to ensure ongoing consumption by more and more individuals and households.

In the financialized global economy many extreme situations are invisible. The financialized economy can be extremely brutal because it uses whatever it can use to build up a financial instrument, a source of profits. Nor is it about making cars and baby strollers – highly visible products which if they are imperfect will get a vast amount of attention. Financial instruments have a capacity to make their effects/products quite invisible because they use elements (mortgage on a home, student loans, investment pools) to build up a new instrument that can maximize profits. In so doing, the original destructive instrument itself becomes invisible and often irrelevant. The destructions it can produce (for instance, all those millions of households thrown out of their homes) become invisible because what is destroyed often becomes invisible, no matter its materiality and hence supposed visibility.

One contrast I am interested in is this tension between the materiality of the resources used to construct a financial instrument and the potential of the material to become invisible. But it is not only the economy that is in play and that is why I do not use the term neoliberalism in this book. I also am focused on how we have destroyed land and water…. My last and longest chapter is called Dead Land Dead Water.

Who are “the expelled” in this global system?

The expelled are more and more people in most places in the world – with some exceptions, notably China. Instead of a broad prosperous middle band of working class and middle class people, we have more and more at the extreme of one side or the other: impoverishment for the 60%, so to speak, and unusually sharp enrichment for the top 40%, or at least the top 20% – these rates vary by country and region. And also land and water are expelled from their life space. Water and land are poisoned and hence die. To put it very, very sharply: what dominates today is the extraction of value from more and more sectors rather than enablement of a reasonable growth pattern. And finance has played an important role in this shift towards extreme extraction: anything that can be financialized becomes a site for extraction, from fancy complex instruments to used-car loans. Once extraction has happened the rest is left behind, no longer of use, dead, exhausted…. The sectors that were once dominant – mass consumption of all sorts – still exist today but do not define the key economic logic of this period.

How do you define brutality and how is it produced?

In the settings that I focused on, brutality is a form of extraction that is highly destructive. Let me give you a simple example: small holder agriculture aims at protecting the land it uses (via crop rotation and no or very little use of chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers), it wants to ensure that the land has a long healthy life. Much of this type of agriculture has been replaced by plantations, and these are highly destructive of the land, planting monocrops and using very strong pesticides and fertilizers, too strong for the earth to have a long life.  A second aspect of the concept of expulsions, as I use it in the book, is that too often in today’s economy, very complex and admirable forms of knowledge generate simple, elementary (not grand!) brutalities. I see a disturbing asymmetry here….

Could you please explain the shrinking of economic spaces?

Basically, I mean to emphasize that the economy benefits fewer people; more and more of those who work hard stay poor, the large middle sectors are getting poorer and facing more and more unemployment, and there is a growing concentration of benefits for less than half of the population in many developed countries. Moreover, this chasm can often be even more extreme in less developed countries, where elites get richer from economies based on extractive sectors (mining, plantations) rather than aiming to develop sectors such as manufacturing, strong educational systems, construction of housing for people with modest-incomes, among others – all of which could contribute to the creation of prosperous working classes and middle classes.

Each major domain has its own distinctive systemic edge – this edge is constituted differently for the economy than it is for the biosphere. One of the organizing assumptions in this book is that the systemic edge is the site where general conditions take extreme forms precisely because it is the site for expulsion or incorporation. Further, the extreme character of conditions at the edge makes visible larger 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 – thus the importance of positioning my inquiry at the systemic edge.

Today, 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 in 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 war, genocide, and starvation, of extreme ideologies of both left and right.

Is expulsion a threat to government?

It should be, but increasingly governments are accepting the policies that lead to expulsion… it is very disturbing when our governments begin to see with the same eye as the large corporate sectors, from mining to finance.

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