Saskia Sassen

Columbia University professor Saskia Sassen’s 1991 book The Global City invented a term that is now ubiquitous. Since then, the polyglot sociologist has made some of the most profound contributions to thinking and writing about the city in the contemporary era of globalisation. Her latest book, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, was published earlier this year.

Thomas Roueché Would you say we are  seeing a return to the city as the world’s fundamental building block? And as a result, do historical city states have a newfound resonance?
Saskia Sassen Yes, and no. The numbers of global cities have grown rapidly since the global economy became really global in the 2000s – so now we have about a 100 major and minor global cities. And national states have lost some of their formerly exclusive powers through privatisation and deregulation, as well as through the formation of a range of international institutions with comfortable access to national economies, from the WTO and IMF to a vast number of international regulatory bodies. In this context, the city has emerged as a robust platform for triaging the diverse and multiplying encounters of the national and the global, in their many incarnations. But global cities are not the city states of older times, nor are they interested in being that.

TR How has this process happened?
SS The main dynamics that mark the contemporary city’s rise as global power platforms are quite specific. One key process generated by a broad range of conditions is the urbanising of more and more of the components of our economies and societies. Thus even a mining operation or a plantation – definitely not urban in themselves – today has a growing part of its operation in a city. They need specialised services – accounting, lawyering, financing, investment advising, and more – and these are in cities. Global cities are a sort of platform for producing advanced, specialised and innovative types of knowledge for global firms and markets. Secondly, the privatisation and deregulation of economies have meant a shift of functions that used to be governments’, especially legislatures’, to specialised private services. This has meant that the space of the city rises in importance, and national governments, especially legislatures and parliaments, have lost functions. But, as I have argued at length in one of my books, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, the executive branch of government, both presidential and prime ministerial – has gained a sort of private unaccountable power. And this is not good!

TR If urban centres are nodes in a global network of money, power and people, is London’s hinterland less important or interesting to its mayors, markets and citizens than Shanghai, São Paulo or Singapore?
SS Yes! This is one of the major trends and it is both good and bad. On the one hand, mayors from major global cities across the world have developed some quite interesting versions of what we used to call “international relations.” They have learned how to talk to each other across multiple national and geographic differences: they all share the need to confront ground-level problems that must be addressed promptly. National leaders can devote years to discussion on key issues; city governments, however, must act promptly and the practical level at which they act enables them to share experiences about what works with other cities in radically different countries, including countries we might think of as basically enemies. A nice example is Moscow. Its very smart and active chief planner is redeveloping a large stretch of land as a public park, next to the Kremlin. He set up an international jury to run a competition and the finalists included people like Winy Maas from MVRDV and Liz Diller [partner at New York design studio Diller Scofido + Renfro]. She won the competition and will now be redoing this vast public stretch of land next to the Kremlin. Somehow I don’t think Putin would have thought of this. I actually served on the international jury and it was interesting, fascinating.

TR Technology has rewired the city and its inhabitants into new hybridised cosmopolitans. How do these transnational citizens engineer their identities and reprogram urban norms?
SS Yes! We are witnessing the creation of new geographies of centrality that cut across the old divisions of north and south, east and west. At the heart of these geographies are the global cities – elites in Luanda begin to share more with those in other global cities than they do with those in their own countries. Their country becomes a sort of hinterland, irrelevant to what those elites are interested in, and less important even as food providers in a world where elites tend to eat globally sourced food and very specialised horticulture is often produced inside the city itself. The super-prime housing market is another feature of this cross-border geography of centrality.

TR Does the global city represent the destruction of ecologies, expulsion of nature, and a threat to the biosphere itself?
SS It does, but cities must be recoded so that each component can be made to work with the biosphere rather than against it. I have an ongoing project where I look at what scientists interested in the environmental question – most scientists are not! – are discovering. It takes us into the world of bacteria and algae, but also of advanced synthetics that mimic functions in the biosphere. The current inter-state preference for carbon trading will do nothing but redistribute the right to pollute or the right to buy the right to pollute. It’s more than a little Shakespearean. We must work at a very different level, well beyond policy.

TR Your book looks at “expulsions” as the quintessential conceptual model for dislocations in the city. In your opinion, does the city have the capacity to withstand these expulsions?
SS There is an ironic twist to all of this. Even as the traditional middle classes are expelled from the neighbourhoods where they used to live due to gentrification, the global city becomes the space where those without power can actually make a history, a politics. The global city becomes the space of the very powerful or rich and the very modest and powerless – think about all those low-wage workers in food outlets and shops, cleaning the luxury offices, and so on. They are part of the global economy in a way the traditional middle classes are not. And they are beginning to mobilise and make claims for better wages. They could not launch these sorts of actions in a plantation, for example. But the expulsions that I engage with in my book are more than an issue in cities. I see a multiplication of systemic edges inside countries – this has nothing to do with traditional interstate borders, nor is it simply a matter of social exclusion. Once a person, a neighbourhood economy, a place, crosses those edges, they become invisible to the standard measures we use for analysis. The simplest example is probably the long-term unemployed – at some point they are no longer measured; they fall off the cliff, become invisible, no matter how real they are as people.

TR You have spoken about “the capacity of the city to talk back.” How does this manifest itself?
SS Speech is a foundational element in theories about democracy and the political. As a concept it has seen both expansions and contractions in its meaning. But it has not yet been expanded to include the concept that the city might have speech, as far as I can tell. Arguing, as I do, that cities have speech, albeit of a very different sort from that of citizens and corporations, is in many ways a question transversal to both the law and urbanism. It is present neither in literature on cities nor the literature on law. My favourite and simplest example to illustrate what I am getting at is as follows: think of a large car, made for speed and able to handle any terrain. It arrives at the crowded downtown of a city, and all those impressive capacities are neutralised by the crowded streets. I say, “The city has spoken! Car, this is no place for you, go back to the highway!” Another element is the different knowledge that different neighbourhoods of the city contain.

TR What are the opportunities for the city to resist these dystopian trends? Is there a way out for the ordinary citizen?
SS The city is one of the few places where we can not only resist but also overcome, and make place the way we need it. The city in its complexity and incompleteness is a space where powerlessness can at least become complex, and in that complexity lies the possibility of making a history, a politics, even if one does not become empowered, at least not immediately. §

  • Saskia Sassen