Saskia Sassen: Disposable life. What comes to my mind is a set of dynamics, I think, that are marking the current period, that are marking a difference in the current period. And it is the multiplication of expulsions. And once something is expelled (and I’ll elaborate) it becomes invisible. And that is part of the tragedy, I think. That it’s in the drama of being expelled, invisibility sets in. And I’m sure that some version of systemic longevity that is insured that way.
So, the starting point for this project, which really is a version of disposable life, was this question of the more. More inequality, more poverty, more homeless people, more trafficked people, more human bodies reduced to deliverers of organs for the rich. That “more” suggests it’s more of the same. It strikes me that at some point, we’re on the other side of the curve, and then it is not simply more of the same. Then we do need to mark a difference, to name it differently, to alert us that it’s not simply a bit more and a condition that hence can reverse to an original condition or an original state where it might have been more benign or not as bad. So from poor you go to “poor employed worker,” for instance. No. Some of these crossings are truly systemic edges, and once you cross it, you’re out. There is no return to a better condition.
Right now I’m clearly making a very absolute statement. The purpose of that absoluteness is to capture critically and to help the listener to understand that I mean really something quite drastic happening. The systemic edges are not the borders of a country. The systemic edges can happen right downtown London, downtown Beijing, downtown in the middle or somewhere else, or in the countryside. They are not visible by themselves. But for me they represent that moment in a trajectory when a condition that might already be slightly problematic becomes extreme.
I chose those extreme moments as the place, the site, for my inquiry, under the assumption—which might not be right but it helps me—that the extreme condition makes legible, in an unambiguous way, something that might be far more ambiguous in a milder point in that trajectory. So yes, extreme condition and hence I’m calling it a systemic edge. And I see our current period, I repeat, marked by a multiplication of systemic edges.
So, some of these systemic edges have to do with people—people losing everything. The 30% of the people in Greece who are out of homes, out of jobs, out of their pension funds, out of futures. Many of these people were government employees. It is almost inconceivable when you stand back to think that the government of the country accepted the conditions set by the IMF and the European Central Bank to say, “You’re all out so that we can raise our credit rating. So that the banks are again happy with us.” Is that really what we understand by progress or by returning a bad condition into a better situation, just expelling?
That expelling, however—and again I use Greece as the example here, as one example. The expelling allows the Central Bank, the IMF, and the credit rating agencies eight or nine months later to say, “Greece is back on track. GDP per capita is growing. It’s growing slowly, but it’s growing.” What that formulation, what that standard measure—GDP per capita; a very respectable measure, a measure accepted by all governments in the world—leaves out is that 30% of workers, of spaces, of small businesses, the suicides, and all the other things.
What Greece captures in our sort of Global North countries (the developed part of the world) in very extreme form is happening perhaps on a smaller scale in other countries. If you look at foreclosures, people who lose their homes, people who get a notice saying, “If you don’t pay, you’re out.” And most of those people cannot pay; that is why they’re not paying, and hence they are out. Very dramatic numbers in the United States. Thirteen million people, according to the Federal Bank, which is our central bank in the United States. In a short, brutal history that lasted seven years, thirteen million households losing their home, that is about thirty million people, counting it mildly. A household can have one person, three people, it can be two families living there. And all that materiality of bodies, of destroyed neighborhoods, of empty houses, of bushes growing, weed growing—not the good weed, the bad kind of weed—weed is growing there. All of that is invisible. Who would go visit an abandoned neighborhood? Maybe there’s one person; okay, then very few will see it.
The municipal governments that have put tent cities, thousands of people in them, same little tents as the tents of the international refugee system. Thousands of people there. How many people in the United States are aware of that? Almost nobody. Not even experts are aware of that. So these are all systemic edges. There are other types of systemic edges.
Let’s go to the Global South. So from 2006, when the crisis really begins, a crisis that is called the financial crises for the financial sector. It lasted for about two hours. (I exaggerate, it was two years.) But the rest of the economy of the people, they are still in crisis in many of these countries, even though it is getting a bit better.
So, when the financial crisis starts, 2006, 2007, till 2011, those are the data we have, it turns out that fifteen foreign governments and about a hundred firms bought 220 million hectares of land in Africa; in South America; in certain parts of Central Asia; certain parts of Southeast Asia; Europe, also Europe—especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Now, a lot of these plots were—well, the basic measure is at least two hundred hectare size, otherwise you don’t count it. That is why you look at the figures of Europe and you don’t see very much. Because a two hundred hectare plot is actually a significant plot say, in the UK. In the UK, by the way, invisible to the eye of I don’t know the government or…the Mormons of Utah are buying vast stretches of land in rural areas, including Cambridgeshire. Ten minutes outside of Cambridge is a vast rural zone. The Mormons are buying— The Mormons are an enterprise, they are a global firm. Very rich global investor.
So let’s go back to Global South. What really happens when a country, and quite a few countries have done this, buys 2.8 million hectares to grow a plantation? Of palm. Mostly palm. The most important crop right now, an industrial crop. There is an expelling of faunas, floras, whole genealogies of meaning, of the rural people, the rural economies, their traditions. They are their land, etc., etc.—out. All of it, out.
From complex national sovereign territory—territory being partly something that gets shaped by the meanings that local peoples bring to a place; by the knowledge that they have about farming; what can be farmed well in those particular areas given the land, the light, the sun and the water available—all that is erased. And one little question one might also ask is well, where do all those people go? Well, they also go to the cities.
So I always like to say, when we invoke, as so many politicians do nowadays, the term “urbanization…” All politicians now are able of emitting the sentence, “Most people now live in cities.” They stick with just that, the city, and so do most experts on cities. What they leave out are these other histories that are being made that are also feeding urbanization. Today when I hear the term “urbanization” I cannot help but think about those 200 million hectares of land that have mostly been taken out of other forms of occupation and other forms of economies.
Now for me, there’s also an expulsion there. There are expulsions not just of floras and faunas but of histories. And I repeat, ecologies of meaning made by local residents. And on a more abstract level, the expelling of the territorial. The territorial being a complex category with embedded logics of power (the state), but also embedded logics of claim-making, which we in the West would think of as citizenship. All of that is out. So land: you go from territory, complex category; to land: commodity. Land for sale.
One of the features of this last decade, that I see, is that more and more national sovereign territory, no matter how creepy and corrupt the governments that occupy that position, that more and more of that land now has these structural holes where the territorial as constructed in our political modernity in the West is simply being diluted. At what point do enough of these structural holes represented by foreign ownerships and really erasure of local histories… At what point does that whole territorial zone really become a tissue that no longer works, that lacks meaning, that lacks possibility? Not to mention all the people that have been expelled and wind up in shanties.
A final major category, if you want, of expulsions that I develop in this book has to do with the environment. We have been…slightly destructive since we started on this planet. But, until the last thirty years, and I think this is an extraordinary datum, until the last thirty years, the biosphere managed to reintroduce life, to reintroduce a certain kind of balance into land, water, air. That has stopped. We have actually managed now to expel bits and pieces of the biosphere from her lifespace. And mind you we are also biosphere.
So we really have scaled up our destruction in a way that the biosphere can no longer handle the correcting of that level of destruction. And the boomerang effect is quite extraordinary. So, the permafrost of the Arctic is melting. And the Arctic was actually innocent in all of the production of the negatives that are leading to that melting of the permafrost. Of course that permafrost is a danger zone, actually. We just discovered the biggest virus ever, asleep in the permafrost. We don’t know what all else— This happens to be, as far as we know now, it’s 30,000 years old or something. It’s extraordinary, actually, that it’s benign. But we now know that there are others; they might not be benign. And the methane. The methane gas captured in the permafrost is far stronger than anything we have produced thus far. So, we are capable of enormous self-destruction as well, that’s clear.
I want to wind up with a thought. And that is standing back and looking at the globe today, how can it be that we allowed, and maybe even enabled at times, so much destruction of bodies, of land, of water, and of air? So much destruction of achievements, collective achievements like a prosperous working class, a prosperous middle class, destroyed. Brought back into poverty and misery, hunger. What is it about the DNA of of our humanity that enables us to be witnesses and to some extent perhaps be unable to actually addresses this?
And the image that comes to my mind that I have sort of developed to capture some of this is that it’s not just a question of predatory individuals, predatory firms, predatory elites. We’re really dealing with predatory formations. Even if we shot all the rich people, we would not solve our problem. Because these are mixtures, assemblages, of technical networks and capabilities, certain very complex organizational formats, and then yes, also individuals. These predatory formations are going to take quite a bit in order to displace their central organizing force that they are in our current culture.