Saskia Sassan Interview (06/04)

Across Latin America, new social movements are demanding social justice and challenging the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. New governments, most openly progressive or claiming to be, have formed alliances to negotiate collectively with developed countries about economic policy, external debt, foreign investments, and free trade.

Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia are rejecting the 1990s neo-liberal policies, which increased poverty, unemployment, political crisis, corruption, and external debt. The informal economy has invaded the cities: People barter, sell food on the street, offer services without paying taxes, or trade illegally.

According to researcher Saskia Sassen, the region is occupied with huge social and political processes, creating transnational citizenship, increasing cities’ roles, and engaging in the “geopolitics of war.” Sassen, a Dutch native who grew up in Argentina, currently lives in the US and conducts research around the world. A sociologist, demographer, and economist, this self-proclaimed “transnational citizen” is a professor at the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics, and the author of books including Losing Control? Sovereignty in the Age of Globalization (2002), The Global City (2001), Guest and Aliens (1999), and Globalization and its Discontents (1998).

In Buenos Aires, she recently presented a report, “Cities Transformed: Demographic Change and Its Implications in the Developing World,” based on a study sponsored by the US National Academy of Sciences, and provided this interview.

TF: More and more people have named themselves “citizens of the world,” and identify with universal values. Does national citizenship make sense as the state loses power in a globalized world?

Sassen: The conditions for a transnational citizenship are solidifying. Although some groups are genuinely transnational like Internet communities, world social forums, or international volunteer movements, transnational citizenship is just a component of a much more complex experience: traditional citizenship. Formal rights with regard to the state continue to be the crucial element.

People from all over the world are producing a sort of “transnationalism in situ.” They meet on the street for the first time, in companies, in the neighborhoods of global cities, or encounter other immigrants in highly professionalized jobs. Immigrants, even illegal ones, often become new political subjects.

The phenomenon of “transnational citizenship” opens the possibility of generating new forms of lateral power among groups with few resources, and also improving transnational policies, mobilizing more and more sectors inside a country.

TF: You also talk about the need to “urbanize the social sciences.”

Sassen: To understand social processes, one needs to focus on what happens in cities. Metropolises are strategic places in the global economy: They are bridges between the nation-state and the world, they are locations for implementing measures to reduce the influence of big foreign companies. These measures include assuring housing for the impoverished middle class, establishing taxes for the “new rich” and corporations, promoting civic responsibility, and guaranteeing worker-oriented labor standards.

The coexistence of huge clusters of power and poverty give the city a unique political character. Cities clearly show the contradictions of globalization: concentrations of international capital and increasingly marginalized populations exist side by side.

Globalization is tangible in the struggles that occur from one city to another; for example, the demands of migrants and gay and lesbian communities. This makes it necessary to research the practice of citizenship and the role of civil society. The loss of government influence gives way to new forms of power at local or neighbor levels. Cities are building that new political geography.

TF: What did you study in Latin America?

Sassen: I focused on very specific global circuits: migrations, informal economies, economic inequalities. For example, Sao Paulo is a crucial area to explore complex social processes. Recently, a student of mine finished an extraordinary investigation about the relationship between globalization and favelas (very poor and often violent neighborhoods). She did field work in four favelas, some controlled by drug dealers with whom she could negotiate the conditions to remain inside. She demonstrated how globalization materializes in the cities through processes of informal economy.

TF: How do you explain the attempts of Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina to strengthen the state’s role in social development?
Sassen: Two tendencies are in play. Neoliberalism, along with International Monetary Fund and US policies, diminished the autonomy of the nation-state, mainly in the countries of the South. On the other hand, presidents Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil want to use the state as a political base to implement changes they consider necessary. A social democratic state could implement measures and provide resources for projects benefiting the citizens and local economy.

Recovering the role of the state is a challenge that can mobilize popular support, as we have seen in Venezuela and Brazil. The president of Argentina, Néstor Kirchner, understood this issue when he announced a revision of the privatizations and the assets still in state hands, and changed most of the magistrates at the Supreme Court to look for transparency and state legitimization.

Neoliberalism reoriented key local components toward the global financial markets and gave tremendous earnings to an elite concentrated primarily in the big metropolises. This elite represents nearly 20 percent of the inhabitants of the 40 global cities of the world, places like Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Sao Paulo, Seoul, or New York. The Argentinean crisis – which really started in the 90s – is one of the most dramatic instances showing the marginalizing nature of neoliberal policies. The projects we see in Venezuela, Brazil, and the one emerging in Argentina, are seeking to distribute national resources to favor much more than that 20 percent.

TF: What risk do cities face in terms of international terrorism?

Sassen: Cities are now the favorite target. War inflamed hate against the US like a boomerang effect. The many suicidal terrorists are proof that Iraq’s defeat didn’t demoralize extremists, they go on recruiting followers and intensify the attacks. The most recent attacks in Baghdad or Indonesia demonstrate that innocents are the ones dying.

The Annual Report on Global Terrorism (2002) from the US State Department notes that between 1993 and 2000, 94 percent of the injuries and 61 percent of the deaths from terrorist attacks took place in cities. These are centers of power, the focus of media attention, and are sufficiently complex to hide terrorist movements. The city has replaced the kidnapped airplane: the new target is the media show, not the enemy in person.

Every attack broadcast by media induces people to repeat it, a fact that could become a vicious circle. Neither politicians nor the military’s leaders will take the biggest risks; urban populations will. While US policy provokes rage and hate from other cultures, cities [throughout the world] will remain targets for terrorist attacks.

Insecurity will also destabilize underdeveloped societies. Many poor countries suffered shocking economic policies, which destroyed traditional national sectors. Now they will also have to pay the costs of an American policy against terrorism causing anger and desperation, an ideal breeding ground for violence. It would be naive to think that the rich and relatively safe countries in the North will evade the consequences of urban attacks. No matter how far away, we cannot ignore the poverty, wars, and diseases suffered by the South.