Interview with Saskia Sassen 2009
WII: Could you please sum up your lecture using the two vectors of power and powerlessness?
Saskia Sassen: You’re right, you capture it well. The purpose of this kind of analysis is to recover how power is made, how power is multiveillant, and at the same time powerlessness is made, and it is multiveillant – it can be good, or it can be bad. So it is a kind of constructionist approach in this notion that it is made, and in such a constructionist approach lie possibilities for recovering even how those who are powerless, under certain conditions, can actually make history. The multitude you mentioned is a very good example of that. They are not empowered in a foundational sense by constituting a multitude, but they can make history. When the multitude ceases to be, you know, they’re back more or less, in terms of power, to where they were before the multitude moment, but the multitude moment makes their powerlessness complex, because something is happening. Now, it takes a very long time, multi generations often, to understand “Have these powerless people in a certain society, have they actually made history?” Take the struggles by Blacks in the United States for civil rights. It took them five or six generations. And in the end they succeeded because it was their going on and on and on with many dying that forced, in a way, the political system.
WII: You mentioned the idea of “liberating civilian territory” in your talk. What do you mean by this notion? And how does “de-nationalization” fit into this concept?
Saskia Sassen: Those are all very complex issues. On the first point: I am really interested now in the category “territory”. “Territory” is a construction, and it is a construction of power in a way. And war, when war hits a city or a bombing, like in Lahore just now, we discover something, we discover that we, the residents, are civilians, and that is a state of profound powerlessness because we have very few protections. We are supposed to feel protections, but we have very few. And so my notion is an exploration, I use these notions to explore, to see if I can see something that otherwise I don’t see. My notion is, what would happen if we had a claim and a right, to civilian territory in the city, it’s like an off-limits territory. And I think that one consequence would actually be that we would discover to what extent the state controls and owns territory. We own our house, but the national state owns and controls territory, national territory, and in some cases of course multi-national corporations are also part of that coalition, let’s put it that way.
Now, the second question you asked was denationalization. That comes out of this big project that I have been working on, I am now done with it, and it starts with the notion, with a question: Does the vocabulary of globalization capture all the transformations that are actually happening, all the conditions, the events, etc. that are part of this sort of transformation that we are living through, even though it is a partial transformation, it is foundational, and it seems to me that no, the vocabulary of globalization does not, it does not happen outside of the nation state and so I try to understand to what extent in the interiority of the nation state, of the national state apparatus, there is a whole series of processes that are part of this transformation. And then comes the search “how do I name this?”, and one way of naming it – it’s not a great name, but that’s the way I named it which is to keep the connection with the “national” – is to call say “de-nationalization”. It is a term that produces confusion because, say, for the French “dénationalisation” is actually “privatization”, and that’s just one instance. That is part of the story, but I try to use it in a much more general sense. That also means that we as citizens can find the national, can use the national, to make global politics in a formal sense, not just with informal politics.
WII: Where do you see the difference today between the old problem of centralization and new types of fragmentations in cities? Is there an end to the “global city”?
Saskia Sassen: No, I don’t think there is an end, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the same global city that I was discovering back in the 1980s when the big issue was “How do these globally mobile, often highly digitized companies do what they do? Do they never need to hit the ground?” And so I was interested in capturing the moment when they hit the ground. Why? Because it then signaled that they need something, and they needed from the national. And hence a way of enabling the national in the confrontation with these very powerful global actors. So that was a bit the project. Now, I think that today, the need comes out of many more factors. It’s actually, frankly, a fairly complex thing. One of them, for instance, is the urbanizing of many economic factors. For instance, if you are a big factory, or you are a mine, or a stone quarry, if you are a firm, you are going to be buying more specialized services that you did thirty years ago: Insurance, accounting, PR, lawyering, etc. And so that means that even if you have a an economy mostly dominated by manufacturing, like Germany, you will still see growth in cities, even though most of the manufacturing is large scale and happens outside the cities. That’s because of this other growth of the intermediate economy. When you look at the statistics for all the developed countries, you see that the leading sectors in terms of growth, are intermediate services. Firm- to-firm services. And they cater both to knowledge economy sectors but also to very material sectors. And then, if you look at questions of art and culture, and the whole question of mixed identity, there is a lot of stuff that is happening, multiculturalism for a while there, the city is a critical space for that. There are a few other things, issues of lifestyle that I am always less interested in, you know, that a lot of young people want to live in cities, they find suburbs deadly. In the United States the highest rate of women suicides is young, newly married women in the suburbs. I don’t know if that still holds but it still held until about ten years ago, so many things come together. Global cities are sites of power, they have the capacity to make corporate power, to make financial power, not just like that, but because they have the resources. So the global city is always an ambiguous condition. It’s a piece of the real world, it is an extreme zone, where you have both immigrants and queers etc., having a political project, actually they may not gain power, but they are making history, and you have the most powerful actors. So the global city is an extreme zone. So today we say there are about 75 but you know, at the end they are pretty routinized, they have some global city functions, but all these global cities are very strategic spaces, for certain things: you still have vast middle-classes , vast routinized sectors, but they also have this quality of extreme zones. So in that sense, that is staying, our system is still producing that, partly because it is a capitalist system, I guess. It is not a distributed system.
WII: What kind of role does technology play in this context? You proposed in your lecture that we should have to unsettle new technologies as they still function as paradigms. So how can they be used for new forms of micro-politics?
Saskia Sassen: It is also a paradigm, but I say it shouldn’t just be that. Technology should also be something that… where… as I was saying, let’s look at thousand year old practices. By grandmothers, by readers of the Q’ran, let’s see what they do. Can we bring it online? Can we enable them so that they have the knowledge, they will tell us what they need, and we can produce the software. That is what I mean, that we should also think of technology not simply as paradigm. Technology becomes paradigmatic, especially in the United States. That is changing, too, but it was certainly a paradigm. So it was seen through the eyes of “access to the technology” and “competence”. That’s not enough. That reduces those who don’t have access, or who don’t have competence, they are outside. How do you bring them in? You teach them the technology, and you give them access to a computer. That is what I resist. That is part of the trajectory. But there is something else: The obligation falls on us, the technologists or the techies or whoever we are, to say “What are they doing that we could bring online that would enable them?”