Interview with Saskia Sassen

Publication Date
October 8, 2015

Interview with Saskia Sassen

A recurring theme in your recent book, Expulsions, is the importance of “making visible” the processes of expulsion – deregulation, financialization, “predatory formations” – which are allowed to thrive, thanks in great part to their impenetrably complex, “subterranean” nature. How might such visibilization be achieved? What role can art and architecture play in its achievement, if any?

I use the term “expelled” to describe a diversity of conditions. They include the growing numbers of the abjectly poor, of the displaced in poor countries who are warehoused in formal and informal refugee camps, of the minoritized and persecuted in rich countries who are warehoused in prisons, of workers whose bodies are destroyed on the job and rendered useless at far too young an age, of able-bodied surplus populations warehoused in ghettoes and slums. But I also include the fact that pieces of the biosphere are being expelled from their life space — and I insist that the tame language of climate change does not quite capture the fact, at ground level, of vast expanses of dead land and dead water.

My argument is that this massive and very diverse set of expulsions is actually signaling a deeper systemic transformation, one documented in bits and pieces in multiple specialized studies but not quite narrated as an overarching dynamic that is taking us into a new phase of global capitalism –and global destruction. As an analytic category, “expulsions” is to be distinguished from the more common “social exclusion”: the latter happens inside a system and in that sense can be reduced, ameliorated, and even eliminated. Expulsions, as I conceive of them, happen at the systemic edge. In the types of complex systems that are the focus of the larger research project, there are multiple systemic edges partly reflecting the multiplicity of diverse domains in such systems, from prisons and refugee camps to financial exploitations and environmental destructions.

Current crises, most notably the one in Syria, have attracted the world’s attention to violent processes of expulsion, but their narrative still seems to be largely event-based, despite the fact that expelled populations are at their highest level since the end of World War II. How can designers go about not just visualizing, but reconstructing narratives in the public consciousness that tie singular events to larger themes of expulsion?

This is a critical issue. As you may know, quite a few refugee camps and displaced people camps are third or more generation, and have become cities, of a sort. It is important that they be recognized as cities and have the autonomy to make decisions about building, economy, etc. But the humanitarian system does not allow them to be cities: if they start building they lose their rights to payments from the humanitarian system. [We see the] same situation in the Palestinian territories. The older generations warn the younger ones: do not build, because if we build we lose our benefits form the international refugee system. But the young are beginning to build – building is making a claim, a claim built in stone.

Michel Agier has a very large international project on refugees and their habitats, [and] held a major conference in November last year. It was very moving, with several researchers working on diverse refugee and displaced people camps. As you know, refugees are recognized as such – [the term refers to] people who have left their home countries due to extreme conditions – and they have a formal status in the international system. Displaced people are internal refugees, housed in camps inside their home country; they have little recognition internationally, mostly informal, and are often forgotten in the general discussions about refugees. The camps, whether internal or in a foreign country, come in many shapes and sizes. Some camps are small and almost invisible to [local] residents…, some are unstable, or improvised, but are [nonetheless] camps. Calais is one such example [of an improvised camp]. Then we have large ones that can be quite developed…..

From where I look at current histories I think we are dealing, yes, with logics that are familiar, but we are [also] witnessing an emergent, deeper history. And for this emergent history the language of migrants and refugees might not be enough. I think the deeper level is one we might capture with the language of massive loss of habitat for more and more people across the world. War is only one [contributing factor here], though it has escalated, and today there are forty countries which are home to militarized conflicts. But there is also dead land and dead water—due to mining, the replacement of small holder farms by a plantation economy – desertification, flooding, etc.

One of the most alarming sections of your book covers the rise of for-profit, private prisons, which architects help to make tangible in the most literal way: by designing them. In light of Zaha Hadid’s recent comments regarding the mounting death toll among construction workers on her stadium project in Qatar – in which she suggested that an architect’s only responsibility should be to the client, and that dangerous job-site conditions were not her concern – and of the apparent complicity of design professionals in the construction of prisons, refugee camps, etc., what role do you see architects playing in the proliferation of expulsionist regimes?

This is a complicated question. While architecture is a nexus between the architect’s role, the materials, the place, and a larger world of consequences good and bad…, what happens on a construction site, with all its dangers and high risk situations, is very much central to governments’ obligations to protect all those on their territory.
A key trend is the privatizing of advantages, profits, and success, on the one hand; and on the other, holding local and national governments responsible for everything that goes wrong, or entails a repair cost. This is not right. This is an extreme format, [wherein] benefits go to the big firms, costs go to the governments, and … citizens pay for the losses of corporations. Corporations know this and are willing to speculate wildly, …[while] our ‘democratic’ political systems collaborate in enabling [them].

You emphasize the historical importance of spatial proximity between oppressors and the oppressed to the viability of past uprisings or revolutions, noting the radical separation of these two groups from one another in the 21st century. Do digital networking tools – widely touted as playing influential roles is the Syrian, Egyptian, and Turkish uprisings— narrow the divide between oppressors and oppressed? Or do such tools only offer the appearance of agency?

I am grateful that you bring up this question of proximity between power and powerlessness, and, more generally, under what conditions powerlessness can become complex. Even if there is no major empowerment it is central to my work, but I am rarely asked about it and I do about a hundred interviews every year.

There are moments in history and in the development of economies when power and powerlessness occupy the same larger space. When Marx and Engels developed their arguments, capital owners and their workers occupied the same space. You cannot say that about today’s corporations and their outsourced jobs far away… [The same goes] for many workers and their employers in major cities, because the owners of capital… are often not simply people, but a bunch of stockholders, and their stocks are, in turn, used to build derivatives owned by yet other entities.

The city becomes a critical space where there is an encounter, not so much between employer and employee, but between those who are actually separated by the vast divide between power and powerlessness. In a large messy city, those without power get to make a history, a culture, a neighborhood economy. And they get to stand their ground and assert “Estamos Presentes” …we do not ask anything from you, we are just letting you know that we are here. That this city is also our city.

In these encounters much happens, including the making of an urban subject. I think a simple example [of this] is rush hour, [a time] when all – cleaners, construction workers, fancy professionals – [are in the same place]. That is one moment of equality, and in that moment we are all urban subjects.

While the types of expulsion you describe in Africa – and even Greece – have been more or less rapid, transformation of middle class domesticity in developed countries you allude to – adult children living with their parents, large-scale long-term unemployment – has been more gradual, suggesting the potential for rethinking the forms and conventions of domestic architecture. Does architecture merely reflect existing conditions, or is there a way for architects to resist, slow down, or make visible the processes of dispossession and expulsion, processes which, at least in “global cities,” are closely tied to the rise of financial elites?

Architecture can and must transform our cities. [Architects can’t do this alone], but they can build that change in stone. We are still living … with concepts of the urban built environment which stem from earlier periods…. Today, we need multifunctional set-ups, [of the sort where] housing and commerce combine to construct cultural components. We need to redraw at least part of our cities. It is still so common [for cities] to have only one major economic center, rather than twenty or thirty – look at London, with its [myriad] high streets across the city. And we need to recognize how gendered much physical planning is.

We need to recover genuinely public space for all—men, women, children, old, young – [without] invisible barriers of gender or race or economic status. This is what cities can enable, unlike suburbs, with their mostly homogeneous populations.

The book closes with a brief reference to the “spaces of the expelled,” sites which are increasingly invisible to members of the urban elite and middle classes. What can be done to bring more attention to these “spaces?”

These are major issues and I do not have all the answers, but multi-nodal mixed spaces would enable some who are marginal and at risk of falling out or being expelled, to hang in there, and to gradually recover. The truth is that I think we are facing a massive loss of habitat, [of which] the wars’ refugees and displaced are only the most visible moment. As I describe in Expulsions, there is much land that is already dead and much that is dying, and the same goes for water. Water is, according to many, the most at-risk component of our lives.

It will take some very radical changes and interventions to halt this process. I am afraid that well designed cities will go only so far [toward] incorporating those at risk. We will need more, much more… multiple vectors…

Saskia Sassen is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, where she co-chairs the Committee on Global Thought. She is the author of several books, including The Global City (Princeton University Press, 1991) and most recently, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Harvard University Press, 2014). Her work has been translated into over twenty languages. She has received diverse awards, including multiple doctor honoris causa, and has been chosen as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers in multiple lists. Most recently, she was awarded the 2013 Principe de Asturias Prize for the Social Sciences, elected to the Netherlands Royal Academy of Sciences, and made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government.

Publication Date
October 8, 2015
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