Andreas Broeckmann on Mon, 7 Jul 1997 09:53:53 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Sassen interview, June 1997

Interview with Saskia Sassen, 12 June 1997

Andreas Broeckmann (for Freitag, Berlin)

It is a late afternoon in June, and I meet up with Saskia Sassen at the
Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam where she is participating
in an international conference about new architectural paradigms. Sassen is
an economist and a sociologist, she is Professor of Urban Planning at
Columbia University in New York, a researcher on migration, and an expert
on the role that the Internet is playing in the global economy. My first
question is how she reconciles these different fields in her work.

Sassen: Depending on where I talk I like to say that I got into the digital
networks via the international markets, and hence that gives me a different
perspective from going at it from the internet. In other settings I like to
say that I got to studying the international markets by studying immigrants
who work in financial firms. I like emphasising the materiality and the
fact of the connection between what are the lowliest workers, these
immigrant workers, and what is the most globalised, digitalised economic
sector. There is no necessary connection between any of these things. It
isn't that if you start working on immigrants that you necessarily end up
studying international finance, or that if you work on international
finance you inevitably start working on electronic networks. But it is one
pathway that one can follow, and I like it because it's an unusual one.

Broeckmann: But where lies your focus of interest?

Sassen: My focus of interest is the global economy and how it materialises
in specific institutions, specific sites, places, etc. So immigration has
been one of the issues, global cities has been another issue. I have worked
on each of these themes for five to seven years, and now I am in a new big
five to seven year project which has to do with the question of governance
and accountability in a global economy. All three are really shaped by an
interest in the global economy.

Broeckmann: The first one of these was migration ...

Sassen: Yes, my first book and my first big project was on the question of
a global economy and international migration flows. I started out by noting
that there are these correspondances between the major migration flows to
the United States and the major capital flows of a certain kind out of the
United States. And those were capital flows which led to labour-intensive
direct foreign investment. By labour-intensive I mean something that
involves a lot of people, either directly or indirectly, like commercial
agriculture. When the United States transforms vast areas of Mexico, of
Central America into commercial agriculture it displaces small farmers.
Those are likely to become first regional migrants, because they become
labourers, and so they go to the harvests. In El Salvador, for instance, we
know that the people most likely to come to the United States as
undocumented immigrants during the civil war were people who had before
been seasonal migrant labourers in regional harvests. In Mexico commercial
agriculture meant displacing a lot of the small farmers who then become
that floating labour supply and they wind up then doing the same kind of
work in Texas, in California, etc. And in the case of manufacturing I
looked at the northern industrialisation area in Mexico, and free-trade
zones in Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan - a whole number of
countries which developed export processing zones, which meant that they
were producing manufacturing goods for export, not for internal
consumption, and this was mostly through foreign capital, initially from
the United States, though eventually other countries followed the same
pattern. This again was a very labour-intensive way of manufacturing which
mobilised and brought in vast numbers of young women into paid labour,
disrupting the local economies from where they came, and hence the men then
also had to migrate to the cities because those economies depended on women
and men together running households and local production. Plus large-scale
national of manufacturing began to destabilise small scale national
manufacturing. So you have a conjunction of elements that destroys a lot of
the employment opportunities that people had before foreign investment came
in. I want to emphasise that this is foreign investment that goes there
because it wants to use cheap labour. If you take a map of the world and
you trace these kinds of export-oriented investments by the United States
in manufacturing, and you look at where the main ten migration flows come
from, you can see that to a very large extent they come from those areas.
There is a second type of migration which originates in a neo-imperialist
setting, the areas where the United States was very active in military
terms, Vietnam, Cambodia, that is another major migration stream. These
economic and military interventions build bridges between these countries
and the U.S. Immigrants travel on these bridges; they do't just go anywhere.

The point for me is one of politics: international migrations are produced
not just by the poverty and unemployment in sending countries, but also by
the bridges built and the destabilising effects produced by the economic
and military interventions of the receiving countries. In the case of
Europe you have a lot of neo-colonial migration, -- the example of the
Algerians who move to France -- and direct labour recruitment. The main
implication is that international labour migration, the large systemic
flows, are really embedded in other patterns that have to do with capital
movement, with military and neo-colonial domination. It is not enough to
say: they are poor and unemployed, hence they will come. Most people who
are poor and unemployed are not emigrants. Many countries in the world that
have poverty and unemployment do not have significant emigration. And many
of the countries that at some point become significant emigrant sending
countries have had poverty and unemployment long before that period. We
really need to look, both politically and theoretically, at what are the
dynamics that get these processes going. This is a very abstract statement
and there are many exceptions to it, but overall the pattern repeats itself.

Broeckmann: You are also describing that in the book about the history of
migration in Europe that you recently published in Germany (Migranten,
Siedler, Flüchtlinge, Fischer TB 1996).

Sassen: That's right. In the 19th century there were many places that were
poor, but they did not all send migrants to the richer sites within Europe.
There is always a combination of conditions, which is why I like to say
that migrations are produced, they are not just the consequence of an
individual wanting a better life. Wanting a better life matters a lot, but
it cannot by itself explain the process of migration. This also means that
at the level of policy there are no 'innocent' immigrant receiving
countries. The receiving country has been a player, either dirctly through
labour recruitment, military operations, neo-colonial bonds, or indirectly
through these kinds of foreign investments.

Broeckmann: What is the period that you have in mind when you are talking
about globalisation in this way?

Sassen: There are two answers to this question. One is, that we have had
internationalisation for a very long time, for centuries, so there is
inevitably a lot of continuity. I have been particularly interested in
understanding the difference of the contemporary period. I position myself
very openly as a theorist of the difference. I am keen on emphasising what
is different, which doesn't mean, that there isn't a lot that is the same.

Secondly, I believe that there are a number of new developments in the last
fifteen years in the United States, more recently in Latin America and Asia
-- a set of processes that begins to chrystalise fifteen years ago, in the
early 80s. The main difference is not, as is often said, that globalisation
means that you have an economic system that goes beyond the borders of the
nation state - international trade, international investment, etc.
Globalisation means that you have an economic system that operates not
simply outside single states, but outside the inter-state system. Before
that, you had international trade, but international trade operated within
the context of the inter-state system. There is a period in the late 19th
century where you have quite a few cross-border processes resembling
resembling the current era -- e.g. a very open international system.

The real difference is what happens after World War I, when the nation
state is strengthened and you have the formation of an inter-state system.
This is a period that goes through the early 1970s: everything happens
within the context of the inter-state system. In the late 19th century you
have basically a British Empire, and it is in some ways more similar to
today than that period between 1914 and the 1970s. But I still see

One issue that specifies today is that you have an inter-state system, yes,
but that you also have an international economic system that operates
partly outside the inter-state system. The second big difference - and I
should really say that these are very much my own ideas with which many
economists would not agree - the second big difference today is that you
have the formation and the development of an intermediary world of
strategic agents like financial services firms, international accounting
experts, international legal experts, international organisation experts,

This is an intermediary world that operates between nation states. It means
that in the past, when a country entered the international system it almost
inevitably engaged another nation state. Today a country can enter the
international system and not engage another state, but engage J.P.Morgan,
the Swiss Kreditanstalt, etc.. A very good example is when China recently
entered the global capital market with a hundred-year bond from the Chinese
government. It was sold in New York and in Hongkong. China didn't have to
deal with the United States government, it dealt with J.P.Morgan and a few
other such firms.

Part of this intermediary world are the credit rating agencies - private
firms that create order in the global capital market and that rate private
and sovereign debt, including not just the Brazils and the Mexicos, but the
debt of all the highly developed countries like Sweden, Switserland, or the
United States. And international commercial arbitration which is a private
system for solving business disputes that has as its purpose to avoid
national courts. This creates a very private world of highly specialised
agents which means that you can enter the international system without ever
engaging another state.

Broeckmann: In a book that also came out in German (Metropolen des
Weltmarkts, Campus Verlag, 1996), you have described the sites of these
transnational economic activities. Does the global economy still have a
necessary relation with the real world and its cities, landscapes, states,

Sassen: The new world economy is highly globalised, highly digitalised,
characterised by the possibility to communicate instantaneously. This has
lead to the image that it is a placeless economy where places no longer
matter, and also to a dematerialised image of the global economy. It is
true that there are more dematerialised factors. There is a
dematerialisation of economic activity. However, when you really begin to
look how this system is coordinated, worked, implemented, etc., you will
descover that there is a lot of material infrastructure that is a necessary
part of it, that there is a lot of work, of managing, coordinating,
servicing that happens in the context of corporate hierarchies, very
specialised services where the firms buy what they used to do in-house, and
thirdly, you see that to a very large extent these activities which are
strategic activities in the context of the global economic system tend to
agglomerate in centers which I call global cities.

To some extent when I look at the global economy I see a network of about
thirty or forty strategic places - it is a changing animal which depends on
all kinds of things - where there is an enormous concentration of all those
resources. They are largely cities but not exclusively, Silicon Valley
would be part of it, industrial areas with telecommunications industries
like Lille for instance. The point is: yes, globalisation, yes,
digitalisation, yes, dematerialision, yes, instantaneous communication, but
because it is a system characterised not by distributed power, distributed
ownership, distributed application of profits, but by the opposite,
concentration of profits, concentration in ownership, concentration of
control, you also have a material correlate to this, which is this enormous
concentration of strategic resources in major cities.

Let me qualify this a little. Firstly, whatever can be re-located, whatever
can be decentralised leaves the city. Secondly, I am very much talking
about strategic sectors, which means that the majority of firms, the
majority of workers, the majority of places don't fit this image. This is a
strategic topography that cuts across the north-south divide, so that Sao
Paolo is part of it and Bombay, it is not only New York, London, Paris,
Tokyo. As these countries deregulate and privatise because they want to get
integrated into the global market, they adjust and accommodate their
economic policies, partly their institutional apparatus. The example here
is the autonomy of central banks, which is really code language for saying,
we Argentina, we Thailand, we South Korea, we are playing by the new rules
of the game. The central european countries which are also very keen on
becoming integrated are all now studying how to set up autonomous central
banks. There is a set of standards or rules of the game and there are more
and more places that decide to play it by the rules of this game, they
become integrated and the network grows. But there is hierarchy in this
network. You definitely have some that will gain more than others.

Broeckmann: What is the role of the nation state, then, if in order for a
country to become a global player the state has to withdraw from some of
its hegemonic positions? Isn't it paradoxical that, for instance in the
discussion about the 'Standort Deutschland', there is a nationalistic
investment in such de-nationalising economic strategies?

Sassen: There are several answers to this question. At the most evident
level there is what for less developed countries has been called 'IMF
conditionality': the IMF goes around the whole world, Russia, Romania,
South Africa, with its set of conditions and a bag of money; countries have
to submit to those conditions in order to get the dollars: austerity
programmes, privatisation of public sector firms, deregulation - it is a
neo-liberal culture, and the World Bank is one of its implementors. What is
amazing is the extent to which, while some statesmen in various countries
may resist and say this is hateful, countries are adopting this as a norm
that signals: this is good economic policy. There is almost no resistance
to this overwhelming neo-liberal agenda where privatisation is good,
deregulation is good, flexibilising the labour markets is good, a stable
exchange rate no matter what the costs at home - this is what Mexico,
Argentina and Brazil did, to the extent of demolishing their middle
classes. What has emerged is a new normativity. The rationale of the nation
state was the well-being of its citizens. The new normativity now is this
neo-liberal set of norms. There are other normativities like that of the
international human rights regime which is very powerful. These
normativities operate in different spaces, but they are in a way in combat
with each other.

So one level affecting the position of the nation state is the neo-liberal
policy. Second level: it is very common to juxtapose the nation state and
the global economy as mutually exclusive entities, so that what the global
economy gains, the nation state loses. This zero sum notion is very common.
In my new project (Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalisation,
Columbia Univ.Press, 1996) I begin to argue that it isn't quite that way.
The enactment and implementation of the neo-liberal project takes place
partly in particular institutions of the nation state. The nation state is
over-developing and strengthening those capacities which have to do with
the implementation of neo-liberal policies and impoverishing and
underdeveloping those parts of the nation state which have to do with the
social agenda.

Thirdly, I think that globalisation has had an effect on the territoriality
of the nation state. I distinguish between national territory, and
exclusive territoriality. National territory is the physical territory,
while exclusive territoriality is related to the question of sovereignty
and the fact that the nation state has exclusive authority over that
territory. Historically, and certainly in the last seventy years, the two
have been one and the same. What globalisation has done is it has revealed
to us that they are in some specific aspects two separate questions. I
think that globalisation has not affected national territory. The
geographical borders of countries have mostly stayed the same, unless there
were other causes like the war in Yugoslavia.

What globalisation has affected is exclusive territoriality, the
institutional encasement of that national territory. The global city, for
instance, is what I describe as a denationalised part of a nation's
territory. This is very strong in the case of New York and London because
they are so heavily deregulated, it's less strong in the case of other
countries. This means that you have these strategic elements within
national territories where you have incipient denationalisation of a very
specialised institutional and functional rather than geographical
character. It happens to coincide with geographic sites like New York
because of the "Global City syndrome" I talked about earlier. It is a
denationalisation that you see in the institutional realm - it's not that
Manhattan becomes denationalised, but the financial industry becomes

So the role of the national state is a very ambiguous one. If you ask about
the other, neglected part of the nation state that has to do with social
equity, I think that is one of the arenas where we need a lot of political
work. We need to develop the capacities in the national state and we need
to put pressure on the national state to want to develop the capacities
that have to do with the social agenda, rather than allowing it to hide
behind the neo-liberal normativities. There is an important political role
that has to do with recovering some part of the national state, rather than
allowing the national states to keep on saying what they are saying now,
namely that as governments we can't do anything, we have to follow this
neo-liberal agenda if we want to promote growth. I think that that is not
correct and that national governments could be doing much more and should
be doing much more.

Broeckmann: You are talking about the way in which the state should react
to globalisation. Are there ways in which non-government groups can react
and maybe develop strategies of resistance to these developments?

Sassen: There are many different ways in which one can mobilise. The fact
that trade unions are becoming stonger again in the United States is an
indication of a certain change. I don't have an easy answer to this, I just
see a lot of NGO activities and civil society activities, there are
different kinds of neighbourhood organisations, and so on. How you can do
it, I don't know, but I do know that strengthening all these community and
networking groups, small firms that feel dominated by big companies, women
on welfare organising themselves - we just need a multiplicity of
organisational efforts which have to be task-oriented, focused. This is an
era that will demand enormous innovation in our thinking about how we
handle the political resistance question, and how we handle the matter of
putting pressure on our governments or on the private sector.

I also think, and this is for me a very important issue which I think the
internet can help us with, that there are many micro-histories of
resistance going on all over the world, some of them extremely successful
at the very micro-levels, that are at risk of invisibility. We need to know
about them, other people need to know. Poor in a slum in Rio who have found
a way of doing this should be communicating with poor in the slums of
Bombay directly or through an NGO, rather than going through some
intergovernmental commission. We need to communicate also at the bottom,
and that I think is where e-mail can help, poor man's e-mail, which allows
one to communicate, or electronic bulletin boards for community groups.
Connecting only a few groups in different places through, for instance, the
computer of an NGO that they can use - something that is also a
cross-border experience of resistance for people. But equally important is
that we can get to know about their work, because visibility is a very
important thing to achieve.

Foundations like the Ford Foundation have been very good at creating, for
instance, credit systems for poor people where very little money circulates
but where small amounts of just $70 can make all the difference to a
micro-entrepreneur. These micro-economies are very often not recognised by
elites, and the foundations would not have developed these projects 20
years ago. Can they be brought to a next stage where they would create a
fund for alternative communication networks that is elementary and cheap? I
have never thought about this: where are the sources of money that might
have an interest in helping poor people's groups communicate with each
other? Some elementary version of an internet that is of no interest to the
commercial community and that hence can be a public space that is protected
from private invasions.

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