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.