Age of Extraction: An Interview With Saskia Sassen

Photo: Alex MacNaughton for Saltamos, 2017.


Professor Saskia Sassen is a world-renowned scholar who teaches at Columbia University in New York. She became increasingly known in the social sciences since the early 1990s, after the publication of her book The Global City (Princeton University Press, 1991), which introduced an urban and spatial perspective into the anti-capitalist critique to late-century market models and the growing power of the digital economy.

In March 2017, KR editor Giulia Torino met Professor Sassen in Cambridge, after a talk that she gave at the Department of Geography. On that occasion, Sassen touched upon three analytic concepts that she had developed in her latest book Expulsions (Harvard University Press/Belknap, 2014): the concept of ‘systemic edge’, the formation of ‘extreme territories’ under extractive capitalist forces, and the ‘before method’ approach needed when change becomes foundational. Here, we publish the conversation that emerged from that initial encounter, beginning with Sassen’s early work and arriving at her most recent research. The aim is to examine some of the crucial themes of our time in the light of an academic positioning that explores emergent conditions in an ‘age of extraction’. Conditions that might be best captured in what Sassen likes to describe as the ‘zone before method’.

Giulia Torino: Saskia, your work is widely known for having introduced the conceptual category of the ‘global city’. You were among the very first scholars in sociology to posit the territorialisation of the highly digitised economic sectors that had been emerging during the 1980s. By this I mean that you highlighted, at a very early stage, how certain urban spaces, back then mainly centred in Europe and North America, were acting as key nodes in global financial networks. How did you get to the point of arguing that finance is ‘the steam engine of our epoch’ and that we are in a financial age, rather than in a digital or information age – as others claim?

Saskia Sassen: When the discussion about globalisation and digitisation came up in the 1980s the most common notion was that, with digitisation, firms and all kinds of other actors could go global and leave behind the material concentration of facilities present in cities. The rapidly ascending notion was that cities would become a bit obsolete, a bit unnecessary for advanced economic sectors, good just for the poor and the modest middle classes.

And, in fact, most major cities in the 1960s and 1970 were poor – London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, etc., were all broke. Middle class residents were moving to suburbs, and so were traditional style corporations, such as the large insurance companies and the headquarters of car manufacturers.

I could not help coming up with an alternative interpretation: something along the lines of digitisation requiring its own very material conditions and, further, generating a speed up of operations and diversifications which might bring back the advantages of proximity.

Further, it struck me that the acceleration of transactions enabled by digitisation would make the management of economic operations more complex. I saw this in the ascendance of finance — and the relative decline or stagnation of conventional banking. The speed of transactions and the possibility of doing this at a global scale meant not only more speed but also a more networked economic system in that no single firm could do everything in-house the way the old corporations used to. And this meant a multiplication of highly specialised smaller firms addressing the increasingly complex needs of large firms.

But each of these smaller firms can produce only some of what the big firms and the financial system need. From there comes the rise of complex networked specialised firms increasingly concentrated in major cities. This also explains the physical concentration in major cities of rapidly expanding and increasingly networked sectors engaging in this provision. I called this an intermediation function, and the global city is the most complex space for the production and scale-up of that intermediation function. The irony was, thus, that highly digitised complex operations actually benefitted from physical concentration.

GT: Is this intermediation function what made possible the ‘resurgence’ of late twentieth-century metropolises, turning them into global cities?

 SS: Exactly. In the period after WWII, economic growth resided in the making of suburbs, large factories and transport systems. Deregulation, privatisation, and globalisation in the 19802 and 1990s began to change the economic landscape.

It was this new intermediation function — that is the global city — which began to bring wealth back into the cities. And did so in an excessive way: eventually displacing the more modest middle classes and working classes from their neighbourhoods to build luxury offices, housing and shops.

In short, one key hypothesis I arrived at early on in my research on the global city was that intermediation was an increasingly strategic and systemically necessary function for the global economy that took off in the 1980s and continues today.

GT: In a lecture that you gave at the University of Cambridge in March, you talked about extreme territories as the product of processes of extraction, both material and immaterial: of natural resources, labour force, identities, and so on. Indeed, some of these considerations already emerged in 2014, in your book Expulsions. How does this extractive logic relate to the financial age that made possible the emergence of global cities?

SS: The economic system I described above was always, in a way, extractive. Starting with what it took to make digital technologies. Finance, I argue, took a very specific and distinctive shape, one that also makes it extractive, and radically different from traditional banking. What marks the specificity of our current period is that we have extracted so many resources from our planet and pushed so many people and whole communities off their land to do so, that this extractive logic is now becoming highly visible. Elsewhere I have argued that this extractive mode has also generated new types of migrations. And it is not clear to me how this all ends, but it can’t be very good.

GT: Recently I was reading an article in which you were positing the importance of considering expulsion as an analytical category, which adds something more to the well-established category of exclusion, as it introduces the concept of ‘systemic edge’. What are the main differences between borders, peripheries, and systemic edges?

SS: Very glad you picked up on this. In Expulsions I develop an argument, partly methodological and partly conceptual, that aims at identifying a radical rupture that goes well beyond what is captured with more familiar categories such as inequality and social exclusion. When that systemic edge is crossed, such conditions become invisible to our ‘standard measures’. I see a multiplication of sharp breaking points that can be thought of as systemic edges. Once crossed you are in a different space; it is not simply a less agreeable or liveable zone, as might be the spaces of social exclusion. It is far more radical: you are out.

GT: What do you mean exactly by ‘out’? Could you elaborate on this condition of simultaneous expulsion and invisibility that, as you argue, takes place once the systemic edge is crossed?

SS: I argue that these systemic edges have the effect of conceptually rendering invisible what is expelled, no matter how material it might be. For instance, the very long term unemployed in the US simply disappear from our statistics. This goes well beyond social exclusion: they have been expelled from the system. Something similar happens with ‘dead land’: once land cannot be used anymore to extract natural resources it becomes invisible, even though it has a very visible material condition. Several vectors are at play here. One is the difference between expulsion and exclusion: the latter takes place inside a system, and hence entails the possibility of eventual incorporation. For instance, the eventual incorporation of the Irish in the United States, who had long been seen as ‘different’. Or the — albeit very partial — incorporation of ethnic groups like Afro-Americans and Latinos in the US political system.

GT: So, are expulsions peripheries?

SS: Sort of. But, at least in one type of critical analysis, the periphery is working for the centre of the power zone. I do not think you have that with the expulsions that I am focused on. I think expulsion is actually an act of profound conceptual discarding, of eliminating. And I am persuaded we will see more and more of it in the future. For instance, the massive land grabs in the ‘Global South’ by all kinds of foreign governments and corporations: they are rendering the people working their small plots of land completely irrelevant, invisible, even a sort of nuisance to the larger corporate project of using rural areas — for mining, for water grabs, for developing plantation economies where before there were small land holders, etc. Those expelled small holders, with their long-standing knowledge about how to keep the land alive, become invisible, and reappear as slum dwellers in large cities or as migrants in the ships of smugglers. Their histories and their knowledge have been rendered invisible in this passage.

GT: Living at the systemic edge seems to take on many forms. Including forms of financial invisibility. Yet, within a financial ontology, I can see how this translates into a form of social — even existential? — invisibility. According to this, would you say that sanctuary cities, either de jure or de facto, are extreme territories acting at the systemic edge? I am thinking, for instance, of the responses on the part of some US cities and their mayors to the travel ban imposed by Donald Trump. Or of those by some European cities to the triggering of Article 50 by Theresa May, and to the more general spread of anti-immigration sentiments throughout the EU.

SS:  Yours is a great conceptual move — “sanctuary cities, either de jure or de facto, are extreme territories acting at the systemic edge.” I had not thought of this, but in a way, they are. What you are pointing to goes beyond the people…You are invoking a space, and put that way, yes, the sanctuary city is an invisible space. It becomes visible when persecution hits the refugees inside the sanctuary city. Returning to the more standard understanding, the sanctuary cities movement tends to arise from a specific politics: the persecution of particular segments of the population. Today in the US it is about irregular migrants and Muslims, both of whom have been openly marked by the national government as problematic, to put it mildly. Growing segments of these two populations are at risk of becoming persecuted, and are already so in a growing range of recent events in the US. At the same time, this is further feeding a sort of counter-movement that began to emerge about five years ago, what I like to think of as the ‘global street’.

At a more encompassing level I see an emergent configuration where sanctuary cities will be put to extreme test, and take on new meanings. This will happen as consequence of the escalating expulsions of millions of people from their villages and rural areas throughout the world.

The key factor here lies in particular modes of economic development: the rapid expansion of massive plantation agriculture, mining, and the escalation of both desertification and floods. One overwhelming result is a massive loss of habitat for millions of people. Consequently, large cities and their vast slums become one of the last places where those millions can flee.

GT:  On your line of thought, I wonder if we could even consider these big cities of the Global South, with their almost incessant production and re-production of shantytowns and highly segregated social spaces largely derived from rural-to-urban migrations, as some form of sanctuary cities. Yet, the condition that these migrants generally encounter in the ‘sanctuary’ urban realities that they flee to is not exactly an ideal ultimate hope…Which is, then, this ‘new meaning’ that you mentioned in relation to sanctuary cities and migrations?

SS: Aha — you are right, there is a resonance here with my argument that our big cities are the last spaces where the expelled from rural areas can find a place to ‘put their bodies down’ and, also, to develop a sub-economy — as in immigrant neighbourhoods, for example. Yet I would still not call this a sanctuary function. I think of it more as a function of the fact that our big cities are spaces that cannot be fully controlled by governments or the powerful actors that might rule a city.

A sanctuary city requires an active participation by insiders. And that is beautiful. What I am speaking about is more like a frontier zone, which I define as a zone where actors from different worlds have an encounter for which there are no established rules of engagement. In our colonial past, the frontier was at the edges of empire, and we basically slaughtered those we encountered. Today most land is privately owned and/or controlled. The only real frontier where such encounters can happen lies in our big cities, that cannot be fully controlled.

GT:  What is, then, the role played by land grabs in these world-wide processes of human expulsion and forced migration?

SS:  Let me answer through one example. I have examined two very serious situations in two very different parts of the world — Myanmar and Honduras — where land grabs are a key issue explaining violence and persecution, although the typical explanation tends to overlook this.

One of them is the case of the Rohingya persecution in Myanmar, which has most commonly been constructed in terms of a religious and ethnic persecution only. What I argue, instead, is that since 2012, land grabs began to play an important role in this latest phase of the centuries old persecution of the Rohingya. In Myanmar, the military have been grabbing land from smallholders with no compensation since the 1990s, threatening the lives of those who tried to resist. Since 2012, the military have begun to sell or give away land to foreign corporations for mining, agriculture, water exploitation, and so on. Land grabs have now finally also reached in the rather remote areas where much of the Rohingya population is concentrated. All this played an important role in the persecution of Rohingya people, Most recently, and first, the government formally allocated over 1,268,077 hectares (3,100,000 acres) in the Rohingya’s area of Myanmar for corporate rural development. This has opened the whole region, well beyond the formal figures. Yes, religion is an issue, but the rising expulsion format has to do with corporate development and many of the diverse Buddhist minorities are among the major losers of their land.

GT: As we approach a conclusion, I would like to draw on the conceptual categories that you introduced, and that we have been discussing so far, in order to mention a project you are currently working on: the ‘Before Method’ approach. During your talk in Cambridge last March, you argued for the need to ‘de-theorise’ well-established categories both inside and outside of academic research, in order to be able to ‘re-theorise’ in more meaningful ways. What does it mean to locate ourselves ‘before method’, when analysing extreme processes of natural and human extraction?

SS:  Ah, happy to hear this question. The diverse extreme conditions we have been discussing is what led me to begin to develop a conceptual and research zone, which I called ‘Before Method’. As you know there are well-known books called ‘After Method’. It gave me a special pleasure to wind up with Before Method — but I mean it literally: this is not a play of words with those earlier authors on After Method. Not at all. One way of positioning this effort is that the current global age that took off in the 1980s has unsettled many of the major social, economic, and political categories through which we explain the preceding Keynesian era in the West. My concern is particularly with the social sciences — economy, polity, society, justice, inequality, state, globalisation, and immigration. These are all powerful categories that explain much about the realities they represent. However, those realities have also mutated. A first move in research, therefore, is to posit that we need to discover what these major categories veil or obscure about our epoch, precisely because they are powerful. In my own work, I have sought to show that the national and the global are powerful categories that hide as much as they reveal about our current epoch, and so does their mutual exclusivity. A second key move shall then be to cut across the knowledge silos we have generated in over fifty or more years of research in the social sciences.

Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Member of The Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University (www.saskiasassen.com). Her latest book is Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Harvard University Press 2014), now out in 18 languages. She is the recipient of diverse awards and mentions, including multiple doctor honoris causa, named lectures, and being selected as one of the top global thinkers on diverse 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 Netherland.

Giulia Torino is a PhD Candidate in Urban Studies at the University of Cambridge, where she is a member of the research group Cities South of Cancer (Martin Centre, Department of Architecture), founder of the King’s College Urban Network together with Professor Matthew Gandy, and founder of the multi-departmental Urbanism in the Global South Working Group. In her research, she seeks to interrogate and problematize the concept of racial segregation in a Latin American metropolis (Bogotá) from the perspective of Afro-descendant invisibility and Latin American ‘decoloniality’ theory.