Saskia Sassen is a Dutch-American sociologist noted for her analyses of globalization and international human migration. She is currently Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. Her books include Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (2008), A Sociology of Globalization (2007) and Cities in a World Economy (2011).

She spoke to Nick Holdstock in April 2012 whilst at the Subversive Forum in Zagreb.

First published on [April 2012] in webmagazine 'Citizenship in Southeast Europe'

urban city 2N.H:    Can you tell us how you came up with the idea of the ‘global city’?

S.S:      That project of mine did not start with cities.  It started with global markets, global trading patterns, global circuits for transmitting standards. My question was, basically, what are the geographies of all these mobilities – or, another image that I use: does this stuff ever hit the ground? I was trying to understand a part of the story that was territorial, and so I examined the actual geographies of insurance, financial firms, the global control of export processing zones, global manufacturing firms. I looked at so much.  It took me years.  I was trying to understand that territorial moment of processes that are typically thought of as non-material. In my mind I was going to do a study of New York and Los Angeles – two very different cities that are important nodes for some of these sectors.  They are caught up in very different insurance circuits, accounting circuits, manufacturing.  But what I was picking up through the data and the methodology that I developed, was New York, London and Tokyo.  It was a devastating moment for me, because it meant that I had to add years of research.  The whole project took me nine years.  I discovered a systemic demand, on the part of global actors, mostly economic actors, for a certain kind of place —what I began to call global cities. A global city is an analytic construct. It’s not the whole of New York City we’re dealing with here- it’s a global city function in New York, and in London, and so on.

As I began to work with that type of global multi-sited (all those cities!!) space I saw that the global city has both an economic production function and a political production function. It’s a place of production for the making of complex organisational capabilities, in the case of its economic function and for the making of a life and emancipatory project for the minoritized, discriminated, outsiders. It is not about headquarters and it is not about the organized working class.  It’s about conflicts — between a financial machine for super-profits and an older modest profit-making economy, and between disadvantaged communities and the forces of gentrification and policing to “cleanse” the city.

The global production function is enacted by the mixture of accountants, financiers, lawyers, and more. They produce the inputs that firms, museums, governments need for their global operations.  It’s not just narrowly economic, by the way, it is also political work: the neoliberalizing of Keynesian political economies. So the high level corporate sector also develops a political production function: neoliberalizing meant changing the norms that governed economies radically.  This work happened in cities like New York and London.  It didn’t happen in the space of government.  It happens actually in the economic space of these advanced capitalisms.

But then I argued that it is also a space where those who are minoritised, whether they are citizens, foreign immigrants, also find in the space of the global city a space where they can execute their project. The powerless do make histories, but they make it in ways that they do not necessarily become empowered, because I must say that, whether it is gays, queers, immigrants, you know, they constitute a city like New York or London. And civil society also uses these complex organisational setups.

N.H:    And where do the global cities develop the most nowadays? 

S.S:      They are all over the world because they are a frontier space, a bridge between a national economy that – to a very large extent, even just as material practice – is embedded in its own thick national and local norms.  So the global city is that space where global capital circuits (it could be financial firms, it could be whatever, manufacturers) — can actually access the wealth of a country, liquefy it (that is, financialise it), and take it out and then it can go global. The global city is a process space.

As the global economy expands in the 1990s several cities in the global south become global cities: it becomes an articulating of the whole world economy.  The other thing that comes out in this kind of analysis is that there is no such thing as ‘the global economy’.  What there is are thousands of specialised circuits that connect particular economies, mostly through global cities. This is partly the result of liquefying more and more parts of economies. For instance, New York is one of the main centres for the selling and buying of coffee beans.  Clearly, New York doesn’t grow a single bean of coffee, and the actual coffee beans are not moved to NY in order to trade them –who knows where they are stored. All that happens in NY is global trading of a commodity (which is once removed from the actual coffee beans), and increasingly the commodity is further financialized (complex instruments increasingly distant from the original commodity). Buenos Aires does this for sunflower seeds –but it sells not only the local sunflower seeds, but also from a larger region.  When it comes to copper, go to Shanghai.  Shanghai doesn’t have any copper, but you know it is a major trader in the commodity.

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N.H:    You introduced the concept of the ‘global street’ to analyse different movements that occur on the planet. Can you say more about that?

S.S:      I emphasise two things with the concept of the global street, and by the way it does not have to be a street literally.  One is that it is a space for making (the public, a history, a politics, presence) by those who lack access to the formal instruments for making. This contrasts with the European tradition of the piazza – a space for ritualised practices. If you want to constitute a public domain you need both the piazza and the global street. Where there are routinised practices, you know the code.  The public domain needs sociability among people who don’t know each other – who may not care about each other.  The public domain rests on a thin sociality, not on the thickness of shared experiences of the neighborhood.  When I bring in the global street I am trying to capture a space that really takes many different forms and shapes, from Occupy movements and Tahrir Square to urban agriculture and squatting buildings to make a cultural center. What happened in Tahrir Square is an extraordinary example of that.  But there are many milder versions happening all the time.  Immigrants coming to a city are often pushed into the less valued areas, areas which have dilapidated buildings that need to be rebuilt, and they collectively make neighborhood upgrading– even if they are very selfish and did not intend to do something for the neighborhood, but just for themselves. They open a little store to make a living for their family, but collectively they make a neighbourhood economy.  Even this kind of making can have a kind of global street effect, a making of a collective project. All kinds of possibilities and what I think of as urban capabilities arise out of these processes and interactions.  There is no formula, no central leadership, no clear set of definitions of what you ought to be doing.  This is not about the ritualized practices of the European piazza.

N.H:    Many European countries try to restrain their immigration quotas and they do it in a very nationalistic manner. I read in one of your interviews that you said,  ‘We are becoming consumers of diversity rather than artisans of incorporation.’

S.S:      Democracy and citizenship have to be made. So does justice or injustice, equality, and so on. I want to emphasize this making to contrast it with consuming something ready-made.  But in the case of democracy, I think the ground is shifting.  We “have” a democracy, we go to vote, and then accept the results. This is all fine. But it is only one little element of democracy and citizenship. And if we do only this we are basically consuming our citizenship, our democracy, not making them.  In contrast, when immigrants come, they have to make their membership, they have to be good citizens by engaging in the same practices as citizens –take their children to school and for vaccinations, support local efforts and charities, keep their houses and front yards neat, and so on.  There is an informal contract that is gradually made between immigrants and citizens in the local community.

When I speak of artisans for incorporation I am referring to the fact that any period in the turbulent history of migrations in our diverse countries, there were always some members of the host community who believed in the project of incorporating the outsider. This was not just for charity but mostly to make membership more expansive.  And whenever the outsiders were included, the host community benefited. This is a bit of an indirect argument that comes out of some historical analysis that I have done in my book Guests and Aliens, about the European experience.  But let me give you a very simple example, public systems – public transport, public health, public education. These are predicated on a very thin notion of membership.  You pay your ticket, you are in.  Nobody is going to ask ‘what is your religion?  Did you just murder somebody?’ The result is a genuine public good that benefits all, rather than select members which would make goods such as public transport practically speaking unviable. This is a practical example of how an expanded membership – I’m not saying citizenship but membership – enables a good to become genuinely public.  I argue that you add to the notion of membership when you support incorporation of the outsider. But note that the outsider here is not just any outsider, but one who has already participated in the rituals and the practices of the daily life of a society.  Allowing them in is not a zero sum — what they get, we the insiders lose — but a mechanism that expands the rights of everyone.

N.H:    Do you think that the economic crises in Europe at the moment are producing different expressions of citizenship, in particular ones that are not tied to belonging to a nation state?

S.S:      Yes, I think it is a condition, an experience that cannot simply be subsumed under that very familiar notion of post-national citizenship. It is not post-national – it is more of a de-nationalised citizenship. I began to argue this point in my little book Losing Control: Sovereignty in a Global Age, and then developed at great length in chapter 6 of Territory, Authority, Rights. I think we are seeing the making of many little ruptures with the core notion of Western citizenship as inevitably attached to a national state. What made this core notion work for a good part of the 19th and 20th century was the negation that the Sovereign ruler — the king — was divine. The revolution was the assertion that the Sovereign is the people, and the people are the Sovereign. The Keynesian economy with its emphasis on distributed benefits, the growth of a middle class, strong unions was one outcome. Yes, there was racism and injustice but it also brought prosperity and hope and political voice to masses of people. It was the beginning of a democratic project. But now we have entered a new phase, and these benefits are getting diluted and disappearing. The project of the neoliberal state is a very different one.

There is another history that begins when neoliberalism rises. I have cared about it but it is not very visible. It concerns the new constitutions written in the 1980s – after the fall of Apartheid in South Africa, the fall of the military dictatorships in Latin America, the fall of the Soviet regime in Eastern and central Europe. These new constitutions all contain a clause that says that the Sovereign, even if legitimate or democratically elected, cannot presume to be the exclusive representative of its people in the international forum. This is a fundamental rupture with the French and American Revolutions, which are, as you know, the main model for a democracy, and say: The State is the people and the people are the state. As the State becomes more and more remote, and redistributes less and less of the national wealth, and gives less to the citizenry, that distance between the state and the citizen grows. All kinds of other subjective dimensions of membership begin to gain ground. And those constitutions of the 1980s coming out of major crises, capture this shift: the state can no longer presume that it is the exclusive representative of its people.  So civil society organizations and activist networks begin to engage in their own transnational politics. Such as when, during the invasion of Iraq, we in the US all mobilized against this invasion under the banner: Not in my Name.– that is: state: you do not represent me!)

N.H:    Do you think that is particularly true of weak states or fragile or broken states in some way?

S.S:      No, I don’t, because I see this very strongly in the US, and that is not a weak state. It’s a state that is a mess, it’s a decaying liberal state, but it is not a weak state. And I see it in all Western European states, even though in milder forms than in the US. The other aspect in our current global modernity that I am interested in is informal citizenship, the informal social contract. This holds for citizens and for immigrants. For example, long-term undocumented immigrants, who have routinised their lives into the routines of the larger society. Citizenship is a window into these emergent developments that destabilize the old national and nationalist state. When citizens begin to experience a kind of denationalized citizenship we know that the old notion of a necessary connection to the national state is becoming unstable. I find this interesting, more interesting than post-national, which is in the realm of ‘ought’ rather than actual practice and actual emergent subjectivity that find the possibility of deep transformations inside the national.

N.H:    It sounds to me that when you are saying ‘citizenship’ it can just mean how one lives, how one acts. So that one can be a citizen of a country by how one is living, even if illegally, in terms of one’s constitutional practices.

S.S:      Yes, absolutely in the case of those who are not formally recognized as members.  I believe that. It is precisely these very material practices of daily life that accumulate over time, plus of course not having a criminal record, that gives the law a substantive ground for amnesty of undocumented immigrants.

N.H:    Without getting too far away from the Balkans, are we talking and thinking of the work of Asef Bayat? The notion of how one lives in one’s urban environment can be, in itself, a subversive act if you like, because there are these repeated practices that essentially erode the State’s authority.  Now his argument is that this can sometimes scale up to actually truly undermine a regime. He writes about things like the way that when people steal electricity in informal communities, you know, this is an act of subversion, whether or not they intend it that way.  And the way that it sets a precedent.  If you like, it takes territory in terms of authority, because they are breaking the law but they are not being punished.

S.S:      Yes, some of what you describe here I agree with completely. But what I want to emphasize is not that they are breaking the law and not getting punished,. What I want to emphasize is the material practices that support people’s daily lives in terms of needs, and that can generate the legitimacy of a claim. For instance, the claim to have access to electricity. If the oil feeding the electricity comes out of our land, I as a citizen have a right to this shared national resource. So I am going in the opposite direction for the state’s definition of this as robbery or crime.  I’m always interested in expanding the ground for making a claim by the disadvantaged members of a polity and society. There is an old rule in much of the world: that possession makes ownership. Possession here derives from occupy/using the house or the land for a prolonged period of time—typically 20 years. In the Roman Code, which underlies the law in much of continental Europe, it is called “diritto per usucapione.” –the right to own (land or a house) through its occupation and use. I am very interested in understanding how some types of informal citizenship practices over time (whereby they share the daily routines of the average citizen’s life), can be constructed as a right to membership. If I wanted to be complicated I would say, as a systemic equivalent of the right to “possession through use”, only here, the right to membership via daily practices over time.

There is a temporal and communal dimension built into this.  So your example of “stealing” the oil from the pipelines of oil companies, for me is a practice that can become routinised. If this goes on for a long time and the community is aware of that and participates in it, I would argue they have constructed, they have made, a communal right to that oil, and the government should recognize it and not punish them. One way of saying it is, since the state failed to provide the residents of a country to have oil for basic survival—cooking, light, heat—and oil is a national good, then the state cannot punish citizens for doing it themselves (with all the difficulties and risks this entails for the citizens). If the citizens take care of this, then it should be recognized as citizens doing what the state is not doing. It ceases being illegal, in the narrow sense. It escapes those boundaries and it becomes a platform for something else.  I think that is how histories are made.  This is one way in which the disadvantaged make history through the routinizing of daily practices for survival. But if the oil is stolen by criminals who then want to sell it for profit, that is different. There is no making of a communal right there. .

N.H:    How do movements like ‘Occupy’ change society?

S.S:      Well, I think that they tell a story that is more than just the movement itself.  The current occupation practices capture this break in the relationship between the middle classes and the state, a state that is failing them.  And they make a critique of the new type of super-rich middle class, a class that grabs all there is, with the associated sharp growth in inequality.  These occupy movements can start with fairly concrete politics: a critique of inequality. To many observers it looks like it’s all so fuzzy. But these movements have some very specific claims that they bring to the table.  But they are not a new political party. Theirs is a far more foundational, deeper, critique of what is happening. Other actors have joined in, e.g. in the United States, especially in New York – the homeless, the war veterans who have been abused by the system, the unemployed, and more…  But at the heart of it is a kind of claim for social justice by the middle classes: they all studied, they all played the game and suddenly, hey, the game has changed and they are out.  That is very significant. It is different from the left political movements of the 1960s, or today’s labour unions struggles (see the piece I did in Art Forum, Imminent Domain).

N.H:    Last night Slavoj Žižek and Tariq Ali were talking about how Thessaloniki could be occupied. What do you think about that?

S.S:      Sounds good to me! The ‘Occupy’ movement thrives in cities; it cannot happen easily in a suburb and have an impact, I think … I am not sure. The city is this particular space, complex and open, that enables possibilities. As social scientists, we cannot do experiments the way chemists can.  But history gives us “natural experiments”.  So the ‘Occupy’ movement, the financial crisis, and others, each can actually be seen as natural experiments: they show us a possibility, what can happen.

Greece has become a natural experiment: how a middle class can be completely destroyed in a very short period of time—almost a kind of unbelievable speed of destruction.  Greece today is one step in a potentially complex trajectory. There are tragic stories that are happening. Parents leaving their children with churches because they can’t feed them. Greece is Exhibit No. 1 for the neoliberal model –I mean not only Angela Merkel and the European Bank, but perhaps more importantly, the global financial system, with its insistence on austerity, which really means in all countries (also Germany and the US): take taxpayers money, destroy the notion that citizens can expect their states to provide basic services; and emphasize the importance of rescuing the banks. The EU is the intermediary, the servant, taking the taxes of citizens from richer countries in the EU…not to help citizens in the impoverished EU countries, but to give it to the banks. Your readers might be interested in my article “A Savage sorting of winners and Losers.” (Globalizations 2010). They can find it on my website.

An important item is that nobody in those world debates about the EU crisis mentioned the fact that the banks to whom Greece owed money wanted to make sure that Greece would not default before 2013. Why? Not to be nice to the Greek people. But because in 2013 the European Central Bank would take on the debt and pay 100% of the debt to the banks – again, taxpayers’ money going to the banks. What Greece has made visible is the extreme to which this system will go to get its profits. It is an extreme version of highway robbery.

Updated on: 17 December 2012