Geert Lovink on Sat, 2 Dec 2006 07:03:14 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Interview with Saskia Sassen by Magnus Wennerhag

Denationalized states and global assemblages
Interview with Saskia Sassen by Magnus Wennerhag

"The liberal state has been hijacked for neoliberal agendas," says 
Saskia Sassen in interview, and in some cases even for "very modern 
despotisms". It is necessary to repossess the state apparatus for 
genuine liberal democracy, and ideally to create a "denationalized 

Magnus Wennerhag: Today, there is an obvious difference between the 
rhetoric of liberalism ? that is, liberalism as political ideology ? 
and the actual workings of the state in liberal-democratic polities. 
 From an historical perspective, how should we understand this 

Saskia Sassen: I would distinguish two issues. One is that 
historically, liberalism is deeply grounded in a particular combination 
of circumstances. Most important is the struggle by merchants and 
manufacturers to gain liberties vis-à-vis the Crown and the 
aristocracy, and the use of the market as the institutional setting 
that both gave force and legitimacy to that claim. Seen this way, why 
should liberalism not have decayed? What rescued liberalism was 
Keynesianism, the extension of a socially empowering project to the 
whole of society. This is the crisis today: Keynesianism has been 
attacked by new types of actors, including segments of the political 
elite. What is happening today is on the one hand a decay (objectively 
speaking) of liberalism even as an ideology ? being replaced with 
neoliberalism, attacks on the welfare state, etc ? and, on the other 
hand, a decay of the structural conditions within which Keynesian 
liberalism could function. So the struggle today has been renamed: one 
key term is democratic participation and representation, and those who 
use this language will rarely invoke liberalism. When we praise 
liberalism, it is often a situated defense: as against neoliberalism, 
as against fundamentalisms and despotisms ? this is not necessarily 
invoking historical liberalism, which at its origins was defending the 
rights of an emerging class of property owners, but the best aspects of 
a doctrine that had to do with the fight against the despotism of Crown 
and nobility.

MW: In your new book Territory, authority, rights: From medieval to 
global assemblages (Princeton University Press, 2006) you call the 
development of the US state "illiberal". Is this a more general 
development that can be seen in other countries as well?

SS: Theoretically speaking, I would say that we will see similar trends 
in other liberal democratic regimes that are neo-liberalizing their 
social policies, hollowing out their legislatures/parliaments, and 
augmenting as well as privatizing or protecting the power of their 
executive or prime ministerial branch of government. That is to say, we 
will see these trends where we see the conditions I identify for the 
US, even though they will assume their own specific forms and contents. 
I would say that Blair's reign in the UK especially since the war on 
Iraq has clearly moved in this direction. Instead of being guided (and 
disciplined!) by the Cabinet, which is parliament based, Blair set up a 
parallel "cabinet" at Downing Street from which he got much of his 
advice and confirmations of the correctness of his decisions. This had 
the effect of hollowing out the real Cabinet. This may also explain why 
some of the leading figures of the real Cabinet resigned: Robin Cook, 
Clare Short. All of this is well known and much commented on in the UK. 
At the same time, I would argue that even though Berlusconi's regime 
had some of these features, it was more a consequence of corruption and 
manipulation of the political apparatus than the type of systemic 
development I am alluding to. The answer to your question is also 
empirical: we need research to understand where this systemic trend is 
emerging and becoming visible/operational.

MW: Many European countries are currently contemplating introducing 
some type of "citizenship tests". In Sweden, the traditionally social 
liberal Folkpartiet has pursued this issue and proposed that immigrants 
have to pass a language test to become Swedish citizens. Generally, the 
party wants to apply more paternalistic political measures ? "tough on 
crime", more discipline in schools ? especially regarding immigrants. 
The corresponding political party in Denmark has, during its time in 
office, brought this development even further. Speaking of liberalism 
as a political ideology, do you see it as being in the midst of a 
crisis, or is it simply adapting to the conditions of the prevailing 
(economic, political, legal, etc) order?

SS: I would say traditional liberalism is in crisis, or at least being 
attacked by the governments themselves as well as by powerful economic 
actors and certain traditional society sectors, such as fundamentalist 
evangelical groups in the US. Why should it last forever? Nothing has ? 
except the Catholic Church, I guess. But to do so it has had to 
reinvent itself regularly. This does not mean that the aspiration of 
democratic participatory political systems is going under. On the 
contrary. But its historical liberal form is stressed. Perhaps the real 
question is whether the state in countries such as the US is liberal, 
or ever was liberal. It may have implemented liberal policies, and the 
legislature at various times did embed liberal norms in the state 
apparatus. But these did not always last. Today we are witnessing yet 
another set of breakdowns. As for the issues around immigration you 
mention, they are also happening in the US, where there was even a 
proposal to make undocumented immigration into a criminal act and 
status. This is new.

MW: Around the turn of the last century, the discovery of the "social 
question" (and the rise of the workers' movement) transformed politics 
in a profound way. It changed the liberal notion of "citizenship", 
which became more inclusive, making space for previously excluded 
social classes and political subjectivities. New models for mediating 
social conflicts via the state were created. From this perspective, how 
can the handling of today's "social question" ? the groups that are 
marginal or excluded in today's economic circuits and the political 
subjectivities that this gives birth to ? be interpreted?

SS: This is a critical arena. It is an issue which illuminates like few 
others the decaying capacity of the liberal state to handle the social 
question ? given the type of liberalism that has evolved over the last 
twenty to thirty years and the context within which today's liberal 
state operates.

In my new book, I argue that the formal political system accommodates 
less and less of the political today. Hence informal forms and spaces 
of the political become increasingly important today. Most familiar is 
probably the whole range of street politics. You can demonstrate 
against police brutality even if you are an undocumented immigrant or a 
tourist visiting a friend. I am particularly interested in how cultural 
events can become political at particular times and places. Thus the 
circus (street circus) has become a political form today, as have 
parades such as the Afro-Caribbean parades in London and New York, or 
the gay parades in a growing number of cities around the world. When 
the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo stood in front of the houses of power in 
Buenos Aires during the dictatorship protesting the disappearance of 
their sons and daughters, they were there as mothers, not as formal 
citizens. And in that sense they were informal political actors, 
because the legal persona of the "mother" is private, not that of a 
political actor. I think it was precisely their being there as mothers 
that protected them, because as citizens they would have been violating 
the contract between the citizen and the state, and they would probably 
have been jailed.

Important to my analysis are two other points. One is the role of 
space. There are kinds of spaces that are particularly enabling, and I 
think large messy cities, especially global cities, are such spaces.

Secondly, I argue that today the multinational corporation, which is a 
private legal persona, also functions as an informal political actor at 
a time when the globalizing of the economy requires that national 
states change some of their key laws and regulations so that there is a 
global space for the operations of these firms. They have and continue 
to put a lot of pressure on governments to do what they want done. Yes, 
they are informal political actors. I should say, on a more theoretical 
note, that this points to something that has long been critical in my 
work: the multivalence of many of the emergent social forms ? these new 
social forms can incorporate what we might call the good and the bad 

MW: You mention some of the subjectivities at work today in what you 
interpret as new political spaces. Do we also have to invent new forms 
of rights that include those on the outside?

SS: This brings up a critical dynamic, but one that is elusive and 
often obscured by the hatreds and passions of a period. Some of the 
best social and civic rights we have achieved in Western societies have 
come out of the struggles for and against inclusion of the 
disadvantaged, or the discriminated, or the outsiders. The struggles by 
women for the vote are an example, as are the struggles of any 
minoritized citizen ? black in the US, for instance. So were the 
struggles by medieval merchants who fought for the right to protect 
their property from the abuses of the king, nobility, and Church. When 
you look at the history of immigration in western Europe (much more so 
than in the US), you can see how the struggles to include the outsider 
thickened the civic fabric. In the European context, where the civic 
matters, including the outsider has always been a big deal. In 
contrast, in the US with its laissez-faire stance, the notion was more: 
You want to come in? Fine. But you are on your own. This is clearly a 
simplification, given the racisms that have proliferated in the US, 
starting with the racializing of the Irish. But in Europe, including 
the outsider has meant access to public health and other public 
services, a reasonable sense of integration. This is, of course, also 
an exaggeration, but still that is the orientation. The outcome was 
that European countries had to invent new administrative instruments 
and often new legal statutes to handle these matters. But this was to 
the benefit of all, as it strengthened the right to public goods. We 
have not had this type of development in the US. This was clearly a 
complex history, but I think these contrasting alignments are present 
in the trajectories of the US and western Europe.

This was hard work. In my work I emphasize that these types of 
struggles for inclusion and for the production of new administrative 
instruments and new types of rights by law took work, took making. 
Today we seem to have a consumer attitude to these difficult times, 
such as today's anti-immigrant politics. If there is no ready-made 
solution lying on a shelf, there must be no solution. We have lost the 
historical sense of "making".

This political work was often the work of minorities in their struggles 
for recognition and inclusion. But it typically involved some dedicated 
groups, politicians, activists of a country's majorities who believed 
in the need for including rather than excluding. Again, some of our 
best rights have come out of this history of struggles by the 
disadvantaged and those holding political ideals that made them 
marginal, no matter how much a part of the dominant society they may 
have been. I like to emphasize that these struggles contained the work 
of making rights ? in fact, often making new rights. This was not only 
about asking for inclusion under existing rights or asking for a bigger 
share of the government's pie. Including the outsider meant "making 
new" rights, especially civic and social. This is a long history in 
what was largely a Europe of cities.

Today the landscape is confusing ? confusing in the sense that it does 
not make visible all the elements, and in that sense, hermetic. We need 
to detect what struggles and debates today signal the possibility of 
the making of new rights. Here I do find that the question of 
immigration, but also that of racialized citizens, of gays and lesbians 
and queers, of political dissenters at a time of exceptional powers 
granted to states ? really the executive branch of states ? are the 
ones that can materialize the making of new rights.

MW: The idea of the private sphere ? the home as well as the market ? 
has for long been the target of criticism, from progressive theorists 
as well as social movements, for veiling and legitimizing asymmetries 
of power and injustices. Are we today, because of the more frequent 
violations of personal integrity (surveillance, "moral politics", etc), 
confronting a situation where a different private sphere must be 
constructed, rather than continuing the criticism of the public-private 
divide? Or do you see new possibilities coming out of the withering 
away of old dividing lines between the private and the public?

SS: This is a complex issue and one I spent quite a bit of time teasing 
out in the book. Yes, the division as historically constructed is under 
stress. And it is not just because of surveillance technologies and the 
erosion of privacy rights. Nor can the current change be explained by 
the fact that the personal is political and the site for multiple 
asymmetries. All of these critical aspects are part of the picture, but 
in one way or another they have been there for a long time.

What is different, or specific to the current transformation? At the 
deepest level, I argue, it has to do with a changing logic organizing 
the division of private/public. In its historical origins, this 
division was a working division: there were specific aims having to do 
with allowing the expansion of markets, contesting absolutist powers of 
the Crown, and so on.

My question is: what is the logic that underlies today's changes. It is 
impossible to do justice to the subject, but here are some elements of 
my answer. First, the privatizing of executive power brings with it a 
fundamental inversion of the state/citizen (public/private) 
relationship. The executive is less and less accountable and citizens' 
privacy rights are increasingly perforated. Secondly, these perforated 
privacy rights are but one instance of deteriorating rights for 
citizens (the most familiar being deteriorating social rights).

Third, a great strengthening of the market sphere, but with an ironic 
twist: a greater autonomy that allows powerful economic actors, notably 
global firms, to act as informal political agents. This then moves into 
my analysis about the denationalizing, partial and specialized, that 
these firms can bring about in the policies of nation-states ? they get 
reoriented, away from historically defined national aims towards 
denationalized global aims. And the latter holds particularly for the 
executive branch. There are several other issues that I develop, 
including the growing use of economic corporate law in shaping market 
dynamics. Markets are not natural conditions; they are created 
institutions. And today they are being made in particular ways.

MW: What are the implications of a more widespread use of private 
"legal" techniques, private institutions (private arbitration courts, 
etc), and private creation of norms, ? in general, an increase in the 
power of private institutions ? seen from the perspective of 
fundamental liberal-democratic values and regarding the possibilities 
for democratic governance?

SS: Two outcomes. One is that the centripetal power at the heart of the 
historic project of the nation-state begins to disassemble, partly. The 
centre no longer holds the way it used to ? though this was never 
absolute, always imperfect, and with much leakage. The result has been 
a decay in the normative framings, balances between power and 
vulnerability, and other good features of liberal democracy. So we may 
still have the systems, the institutions, of that democracy but they 
mean less and less. Thus in the US we still vote, but it means less. 
First we had the rapidly falling rates of participation in voting, now 
down to well under half of the voting population. And the Bush 
Administration brought with it yet another phase of decay: a contested 
election that had to be decided by fiat by the Supreme Court. It also 
revealed that the voting machines of poor black areas were so defective 
that many of their votes were not counted, including in past elections.

In my reading, the internal transformation of the state apparatus ? 
growing distance and asymmetry between the power of the executive/prime 
minister and hollowing out of legislatures/parliaments ? is one 
indication of this institutional decay of "liberal democracies". Again, 
the US is an extreme case of this decay. You in Sweden have working 
institutions, as do many of the European countries. The change in the 
public-private division that I spoke of earlier is another indication 
of institutional decay in liberal democracy.

In the case of the systems you mention in your question, systems 
predicated on privatizing "legal" processes, this comes down to an 
explosion deep inside the institutions of liberal democracy ? a kind of 
subterranean explosion of which we are only seeing the most superficial 
reverberations, and most people barely recognize them. I go on and on 
about this in the new book ? it is difficult to address in a few words 
precisely because it is made up of many (I counted over a hundred) 
small, specialized, often invisible except if you are part of them, 
legal systems that function in various ways at least partly outside the 
framing of the national state. These are mostly very partial rather 
than holistic and mostly private systems of justice and private systems 
of authority.

In my research for the new book, I found dozens of such private systems.

To this we should probably add the new kinds of supranational and 
global systems that begin to eat away at the central authority and the 
centripetal forces that marked the nation-state, the project of the 
nation-state. In this new landscape I include informal global systems, 
that is, systems not running through the interstate or supranational 
institutional world. Among these are, for example, the various global 
networks of activists (on the environment, social justice, human 
rights, etc). I also include the emergence of subjectivities that are 
not encased by the national ? they overflow the national. Some of this 
is actually very positive, as it denationalizes the national. In other 
words, these global systems include negative and positive networks from 
my perspective.

But this also begins to eat away at some of the foundational 
architecture of liberal participatory democracies. Clearly these trends 
are far more developed in some countries than in others.

MW: Sovereign authority can be seen as state sovereignty, but also as 
popular sovereignty ? the collective self-realization of the people, in 
contrast to mere territorial control. Is there any difference in how 
"de-nationalization" exerts an influence on these different kinds of 

SS: There is a revolutionary clause in all the new constitutions framed 
in the 1990s ? Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, South Africa, the central 
European countries, and some others. It has gotten very little 
attention, which surprises me. It says that the sovereign (the state, 
in the language of international law) even if democratically elected 
cannot presume to be the exclusive representative of its people in 
international fora. What lies behind this is the claim making (back to 
my informal politics) by a variety of groups that do not want to be 
merged into some sort of collective identity represented by the state. 
We can think of first-nation peoples, minoritized citizens of all 
sorts, new types of feminisms that are transnational, political 
dissenters, and probably all kinds of other actors now in the making, 
as we speak.

This clause is revolutionary in that it goes beyond, indeed, contests, 
the major achievement of the French and American revolutions, which was 
to posit that the people are the sovereign and the sovereign is the 
people. The achievement of these earlier revolutions was to eliminate 
the distance between the people and a putatively divine sovereign 

This signals for me the beginning of a reconstituting of sovereignty.

With the notion of denationalization I try to capture and make visible 
a mix of dynamics that is also altering sovereignty but is doing so 
from the inside out, and on the ground, so to speak ? the multiple 
micro-processes that are reorienting the historic national project 
towards the new global project. National state policies may still be 
couched in the language of the national, but at least some of them no 
longer are: they are now oriented towards building global systems 
inside the national state. From there, then, the term 

MW: Is it possible to discern any counter-powers on the global level, 
working to re-institute the fundamental principles of the 
liberal-democratic (nation) state on a global level? Do you think that 
the criticism of the global justice movement, of institutions like the 
WTO and the IMF, and its demands for more transparency and a 
democratization of global institutions, can play a positive role in 

SS: Yes, definitely. I think one critical element is the notion of 
repossessing the state apparatus for genuine liberal democracy. The 
liberal state has been hijacked for neoliberal agendas, and even new 
types of very modern despotisms. By this I mean despotisms that are 
less heavy-handed, more intermediated through propaganda machineries, 

My preferred version is a denationalized state. I am not keen on 

Another critical element is the notion I talked about earlier: that the 
formal political apparatus accommodates less and less of the political 
and hence the growing importance of informal political actors and 
political struggles. I see a lot of this emerging.

Besides what I said earlier, these politics also include a sort of 
denationalizing of the claim to the right to have rights. And, at the 
other end, a politics of the rights to the city, which makes politics 
concrete and democratic, and also has the effect of denationalizing 
politics ? this is not about exclusive allegiance to the state, this is 
about a denationalized politics.

MW: The title of your new book indicates that the concept of 
"assemblages" is central to your analysis. What role does this concept 
have for the description of the hierarchies of power in today's world? 
And how does it relate to your earlier research on the global city?

SS: A key yet much overlooked feature of the current period is the 
multiplication of a broad range of partial, often highly specialized, 
cross-border systems for governing a variety of processes both inside 
and across nation-states. These systems include at one end of the 
spectrum private systems such as the lex constructionis ? a private 
"law" developed by the major engineering companies in the world to 
establish a common mode of dealing with the strengthening of 
environmental standards in the countries where they are building. At 
the other end of the spectrum, they include the first ever global 
public court, the International Criminal Court, which is not part of 
the supranational system and has universal jurisdiction among signatory 
countries. Beyond the diversity of these systems, there is the 
increasingly weighty fact of their numbers ? over 125 according to the 
best recent count. The proliferation of these systems does not 
represent the end of national states, but they do begin to disassemble 
bits and pieces of the national.

Emphasizing this multiplication of partial systems contrasts with much 
of the globalization literature that has focused on what are at best 
bridging events, such as the reinvented IMF or the creation of the WTO. 
Rather than the transformation itself. The actual dynamics being shaped 
are far deeper and more radical than such entities as the WTO or the 
IMF, no matter how powerful they are as foot soldiers. These 
institutions should rather be conceived of as having powerful 
capabilities in the making of a new order ? they are instruments, not 
the new order itself. Similarly, the Bretton Woods system was a 
powerful instrument that facilitated some of the new global formations 
that emerged in the 1980s but was not itself the beginning of the new 
order as is often asserted.

These cross-border systems amount to particularized assemblages of bits 
of territory, authority, and rights that used to be part of more 
diffuse institutional domains within the nation-state or, at times, the 
supranational system. I see in this proliferation of specialized 
assemblages a tendency toward a mixing of constitutive rules once 
solidly lodged in the nation-state project. These novel assemblages are 
partial and often highly specialized, centered in particular utilities 
and purposes. Their emergence and proliferation bring several 
significant consequences even though this is a partial, not an 
all-encompassing development. They are potentially profoundly 
unsettling for what are still the prevalent institutional arrangements 
? nation-states and the supranational system. They promote a 
multiplication of diverse spatio-temporal framings and diverse 
normative orders where once the dominant logic was toward producing 
unitary national spatial, temporal, and normative framings.

This proliferation of specialized orders extends even inside the state 
apparatus. I argue that we can no longer speak of "the" state, and 
hence of "the" national state versus "the" global order. We see a novel 
type of segmentation inside the state apparatus, with a growing and 
increasingly privatized executive branch of government aligned with 
specific global actors, notwithstanding nationalist speeches, and we 
see a hollowing out of legislatures which increasingly become confined 
to fewer and more domestic matters. This realignment weakens the 
capacity of citizens to demand accountability from the executive and it 
partly erodes the privacy rights of citizens ? a historic shift of the 
private-public division at the heart of the liberal state, albeit 
always an imperfect division.

MW: Lately, several "grand narratives" of globalization have been 
formulated by theorists such as Manuel Castells, Michael Hardt, and 
Antonio Negri. In what ways does your own theory resemble, or differ 
from, these?

SS: I share much with them, and I know them all. There is much 
political trust among us. But since you ask about possible theoretical 
differences, let me answer. One way of starting is to say that their 
effort has been to map the emergent global. And I agree with what they 
see and the importance they give to this global. But that is not what I 
am doing.

Very briefly, my struggle over the last twenty years has been to go 
beyond the self-evident global scale, and detect the global at 
sub-national levels. From there comes my concept of the global city, 
for instance. One way of putting it is that I like to go digging in the 
penumbra of master categories. The global has become a master category, 
and is so blindingly clear that it puts a lot of places, actors, and 
dynamics in a deep shadow. My current work on the denationalized state 
? no matter how intense the renationalizing also is ? is yet another 
instance of the global that is not self-evidently global. I am 
interested in the ways in which the global might be endogenous to the 
national. For example, much global capital is actually denationalized 
national capital. Strictly speaking, there is no legal persona for the 
global firm. But there is a global space for their operations, a global 
space that is the result of states denationalizing bits and pieces of 
their national systems ? it took a lot of work by over a hundred states 
to do this. The human rights regime offers another type of example. 
When a judge or a plaintiff uses human rights in a national court for a 
national court case, it partly, and in very specialized ways, 
denationalizes a national law system.

By the way, this, again, points to the multivalence of many of the key 
categories I have developed to do my type of research. The 
denationalizing that happens through the demands of global firms is not 
so good, whereas the denationalizing that happens through the use of 
human rights in national courts is very interesting, and mostly 

These are just two examples of how I work. It is, thus, quite different 
from just focusing on the global per se. Focusing on the global firm or 
the human rights regime as global entities is critical. But it needs to 
be distinguished from the making of that possibility. I am interested 
in the making. I think this approach also has consequences for 
politics: we can perform global politics through national state 
institutions ? and in so doing, will, of course, partly denationalize 
our state, which is fine with me as it begins to build a multi-sited 
infrastructure for global politics ? a global politics that runs 
through localized sites rather than a world state.

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