Saskia Sassen: 9‍/‍11, we were in New York. We live in the Mews, the Washington Mews. And from there, half a block, you’re on Fifth Avenue from where you can see the Two Towers. We were in bed. We heard an extra­or­di­nary explo­sion that sound­ed like it was com­ing from the inside of my body, frankly. It remind­ed me of an explo­sion when I was in Buenos Aires at the time of all the activ­i­ty; there were many bombs. The first bomb I ever heard in my life—knowingly, because…maybe I’d heard some unknow­ing­ly, you know—was a bomb that real­ly sound­ed like it had explod­ed inside my body. It was not pain, it was a ques­tion of sound. And this one also had that. It was an envelop­ing sound. I guess that is more… Not some­thing that you could iso­late out there like a shot, a gunshot. 

Now, we got up and we said, What was that?” And Richard sort of wan­dered over to Fifth Avenue, where there was a small group of peo­ple. The low­er end of Fifth Avenue by the Washington Square Park is a cer­tain kind of area. There are people—it’s res­i­den­tial, but it’s not super crowd­ed. So peo­ple slow­ly appeared, and some were walk­ing their dogs. I remem­ber John Guare, who lives on Fifth Avenue a few blocks away was walk­ing his two dogs. And we were won­der­ing what was hap­pen­ing. We could­n’t see any­thing. But then we began to see the smoke. It still was not clear. 

And then the sec­ond one came. And then we began to under­stand. I remem­ber par­tic­u­lar moments. I remem­ber the col­lec­tive scream that came out of a few of us—we were about twenty-five, maybe thir­ty peo­ple stand­ing there—when one of the tow­ers went down. It was the most extra­or­di­nary moment, I must say. And I remem­bered this sto­ry that I had read as a child—maybe one returns to one’s child­hood when these things hap­pen, which was a sto­ry about Saint Sebastian in Rome dur­ing the per­se­cu­tion of the Christians. And the hero, sort of hero Saint Sebastian, with all these arrows shot into him. But he was still stand­ing, even though he was dead. What I felt in that moment when I saw the tow­er come down, I was­n’t think­ing about peo­ple. I saw that build­ing. That build­ing which stood, like a hero, even though it was fin­ished. And then it sud­den­ly was not there. And it was a col­lec­tive scream that came out. 

I nev­er com­pared notes with the oth­er peo­ple about what they thought, though I do remem­ber talk­ing about it maybe two days lat­er at a lunch that we usu­al­ly had at the New York Institute for the Humanities. And peo­ple like Ronald Dworkin were there, and peo­ple like that. And I remem­ber talk­ing about this, just very briefly, that it felt like I was think­ing about that build­ing rather than the peo­ple and all that had hap­pened inside. And I remem­ber a cou­ple of these peo­ple at the lunch real­ly were offend­ed. And that is when this new moral­ism began. I began to notice this new moral­ism that set in in the case of Manhattan. 

But I want to return to the day. We don’t have tele­vi­sion. We did­n’t have tele­vi­sion there. And I want­ed to write some­thing. And I’m very inter­est­ed, you know, in the radio. I love radio much more than tele­vi­sion, so I had the radio on. And the sto­ry that was com­ing through the radio was extreme­ly upset­ting to me. It was lit­er­al­ly the voice of pow­er. They had trot­ted in the gen­er­als, and the this— You know, the arch- what­ev­er con­ser­v­a­tives, I don’t know what it was. But it was hor­ri­ble. It was they envy our lifestyle,” that kind of stuff. We will nev­er for­give them. We will get them.” And it was not clear exact­ly who had done it, but it was clear that it was a for­eign oper­a­tion because not too long after that bin Laden did announce the vic­to­ry etc. You know, things began to emerge. And the CIA had a track record on bin Laden any­how by that time. They just…it was prob­a­bly asleep in some Master file cabinet. 

So I decid­ed to write some­thing, giv­en the irri­ta­tion that I felt about how the sub­ject was being han­dled in what was at that moment a very pub­lic way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing some­thing: the radio. And so I wrote a piece that I called some­thing like A mes­sage from the glob­al south [chuck­les] which for some of those who remem­ber some of the debates at the time, that was one line of argu­ment I had­n’t checked with any­body but clear­ly I was not the only one who thought of that. And basi­cal­ly I trot­ted in all the data that I had about the abus­es of United States, cor­po­ra­tions in Africa and Asia and Latin America, the injus­tices of inequal­i­ty. I real­ly meant it all, and I still mean it all. 

So I wrote an op ed, which I sent to The New York Times where I had an edi­tor that I knew. And I sent it to The Guardian. And the New York Times per­son got right back to me and said Look. It’s four thir­ty, or five o’clock, some­thing like that. I want to work with this tomor­row. We have been ordered to evac­u­ate our build­ing,” and indeed they had to evac­u­ate the building—they were not the only ones—and then had to walk out from—because there was no trans­port. So in fact he told me I have to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to get to Brooklyn to my home. I have to leave now. So, let’s revis­it tomorrow.”

And I did­n’t hear any­thing from The Guardian. The next morn­ing, I got up very ear­ly. I some­times wake up at four in the morn­ing. If I’m awake, I get up. I open my email, always the eas­i­est thing to do in the morn­ing, and I saw this…end­less list of emails about some­thing. And some of them were I’m going to make sure that you are killed.” Others were How could you?” Others said Can we reprint this? Can we down­load it? Can we post it?” 

And The Guardian had pub­lished my op ed with­out even check­ing with me, with­out telling me—I guess they were in a hur­ry, too. And with­out check­ing either on whether I had some edi­to­r­i­al com­ments to make, noth­ing. But it was fine. That piece got down­loaded world­wide, and it was even­tu­al­ly trans­lat­ed I was told into sev­en­ty lan­guages, etc. It was Comment Is Free from The Guardian so nobody had to ask for per­mis­sion. I thought that was extra­or­di­nary in that moment. 

And that was my day. That day ends with Richard and I going to a din­ner of friends. The din­ner of friends, it was on the same block, they had a tele­vi­sion. And for the first time— I remem­ber Helen and Tom Bishop. For the first time, we saw—I saw on tele­vi­sion the human face of the tragedy. Now this was after I had writ­ten my piece, I had emailed my piece. This was September 11th. And then I real­ized, in this sit­u­a­tion, the tele­vi­sion is right there. The image can cap­ture the human face in a way that the radio in a moment of crises tends to get the voic­es of author­i­ty, the reas­sur­ing voic­es, the voic­es that call for we are going to fight them,” etc. It was quite a les­son, and I could also see that if I only would have watched tele­vi­sion, I would still prob­a­bly have want­ed to write some­thing. I sort of respond often to these kinds of things with want­i­ng to write. But I prob­a­bly would have writ­ten some­thing about the human face. I don’t know, I think so. 


So, that then was a moment for me also to revis­it a lot of the argu­ments I had devel­oped, revis­it my data sets when I was writ­ing this piece, you know, think­ing about how we the pow­er­ful, we the impe­ri­al­ists, had con­duct­ed our­selves for decades, frankly. And I real­ized also that it was­n’t peo­ple, it was­n’t so much elites. It was a sys­tem. Logics of a sys­tem. That if you were an elite at that point, you actu­al­ly were enact­ing that log­ic. I’ve always been accused of being a bit of a struc­tural­ist rather than some­body who sort of focus­es on who are the lead­ers, who are the indi­vid­u­als who make the dif­fer­ence. So I tend to not see indi­vid­u­als but struc­tur­al log­ics with­in which some indi­vid­u­als are enac­tors and ini­tia­tors, and oth­ers are fol­low­ers, you know, some­thing like, very ele­men­tary. But in my work I basi­cal­ly have looked at what are the struc­tur­al con­di­tions that make some­thing possible. 

So here it was like I was think­ing about the head of some multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tion in the United States, or— No, I was think­ing about how the kind of sys­tem that we had pro­duce which meant that we grew pros­per­ous and rich— you know, I’m think­ing now of the Keynesian years, and often at the expense of grow­ing huge plan­ta­tions in the Global South with mas­sive amounts of tox­i­c­i­ty that killed land. Land will die. It will be dead for about thir­ty or forty years, and then it can again get togeth­er and revive if you want. Those are the kinds of things I was think­ing about. I was think­ing about the imple­men­ta­tions of lead­ers like Patrice Lumumba, who was mur­dered by the CIA it’s now known, who real­ly were peo­ple who want­ed to build their coun­tries. And who could see that some of these American and British and oth­er coun­tries, but espe­cial­ly the Americans, that that was not going to help. 

I was think­ing about when the Americans invad­ed Guatemala because the Guatemalan peo­ple had cho­sen Gustavo Arbenz, a Social Democrat, and that is when this thirty-year-long (and more, actu­al­ly) civ­il war in Guatemala begins, which is ter­ri­ble. Because Gustavo Arbenz want­ed to redis­trib­ute land to the poor. And that nev­er happened. 

I was remem­ber­ing when the United States invad­ed the Dominican Republic in 19…what was it, it was like 1964, because they had elect­ed—again, demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed, Bosch a Socialist. This is a few years after Sierra Maestra. Castro has hap­pened. And we invad­ed the coun­try because we were real­ly wor­ried. I mean, I did­n’t even live in the coun­try then. We were wor­ried about the social­ist rev­o­lu­tion spreading. 

Those were the kinds of things I was think­ing about. The hor­ri­ble sto­ries about food. The Bangladeshis. The Americans, and oth­ers, get­ting the Bangladeshi elites that own the land and grew the rice to sell them the rice at a very good price, while you had one of the worst famines in Bangladesh. Those were the things I was think­ing. I was not focused on the head of General Electric or what­ev­er. I real­ly— I don’t even know the names of those peo­ple. I don’t care about that. I mean, you know, it’s an item in my head some­where but— Those were the things that I was think­ing when I wrote this. 

And the piece is real­ly most­ly data. The data tell a tale. And I think the tale that the data told that eleven years ago or ten years ago has got­ten worse today. 


In a way, we cre­at­ed, we made also—besides all the oth­er makings—we made a glob­al secu­ri­ty cri­sis. We made it both as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al act like you know, ten hours or twen­ty hours after the actu­al destruc­tion of the…you know, the var­i­ous build­ings, Pentagon, etc. But we also made it as a log­ic for action. So many parts of the world actu­al­ly, they were fine. They had bare­ly heard about it. We clear­ly were deter­mined to pick up on an old his­to­ry, an inter­rupt­ed his­to­ry, which was that Bush won, nev­er fin­ished going to Baghdad an get­ting Saddam Hussein. 

Now, this was Rumsfeld’s obses­sion. And so there it was picked up. And we made that also. The evi­dence is all there, I don’t need to say this, even. But we know for a fact that the log­ic for going into Iraq was sim­ply faulty. We just want­ed to go in there. There was the oil and there was the fin­ish­ing of Saddam Hussein. So this is also a hor­ri­ble part of American his­to­ry. When you think that 600,000, at least, Iraqi peo­ple, civil­ians were killed. They bombed the water sys­tem out of exis­tence. They bombed the med­ical facil­i­ties out of exis­tence. They bombed elec­tric­i­ty out of… What destruc­tion, what death. Two mil­lion at least Iraqis have left. We made those tragedies. All these dif­fer­ences that had been sort of in there hang­ing in there, you know, the Sunnis, the Shia, and then a few oth­ers. The Christians. All of that acti­vat­ed. And the only rea­son we had peace there for a while, what­ev­er it was called, was because basi­cal­ly the Americans have done eth­nic cleans­ing helped by the Shia. 

So these to me are very very dis­turb­ing modes of pro­ceed­ing. And the vio­lence that fol­lowed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the bomb­ings in London, the bomb­ings in Madrid, the bomb­ings in Bali, the bomb­ings in Casablanca. The bomb­ings in Lahore—Lahore had been total­ly out of the pic­ture of this kind of vio­lence. The old cul­tur­al cen­ter that the Muslims had built. Well, how many bomb­ings, how much destruc­tion. It’s just, when you stand back and you look at the his­to­ry when you sort of do this nar­ra­tive that I have just giv­en you, you do wind up with a very very dif­fer­ent opin­ion of of the mean­ing of September 11 than I think is the main nar­ra­tive in the United States.


Another sort of angle into this, which is a hor­ror. When I think of the human face on that day when I saw it on tele­vi­sion, but also sub­se­quent­ly, it is real­ly those who were will­ing to risk their lives—they did­n’t even know they were risk­ing their health—but their lives to help the police­men, the fire­man. Also the civil­ians. All the vol­un­teers that came. I remem­ber my son also became a volunteer. 

And then when we have now the evi­dence that espe­cial­ly those who were on duty—you know, the fire­men, the police­men, etc.—that they have per­ma­nent­ly dam­aged their lungs because the par­ti­cles were very thick that came out of that and they have ter­ri­ble health con­di­tions. And our Congress, dom­i­nat­ed by Republicans who urged every­body to war, will­ing to pay— I mean, the amounts of mon­ey that were paid to all these con­trac­tors, you know. They are unwill­ing to fund this thir­ty million—some frag­ment of mon­ey com­pared to the Pentagon’s bud­get for Iraq—so that these could have prop­er health­care. To me this— I don’t know where I put that. The bru­tal­i­ty of that for me sur­pass­es almost what bin laden did, frankly. I can’t say that in New York. They would just cut my head off, I think. Somebody would find a way of cut­ting my head off. But I am shocked. I am shocked at the… I don’t know what name to use. I real­ly don’t know. But this is a sys­temic log­ic, so that the peo­ple who make these deci­sions, who make those argu­ments, they feel that they’re com­plete­ly in the right. There is no shame. It’s not that they’re all bought by the finan­cial system—many are. But they don’t need that in order to say this. this is just a sys­tem that pro­duces nar­ra­tives that do not cor­re­spond to a cer­tain type of exam­i­na­tion of reality.


We should also bring into this pic­ture Blair and his inter­na­tion­al lib­er­al­ism. A notion invoked of course by so many peo­ple who decid­ed to join the coali­tion of the will­ing. Now, what is the actu­al sit­u­a­tion on the ground? I’m not talk­ing about the war. I’m talk­ing about the gov­ern­ments and their work inside their coun­tries. What’s hap­pen­ing on the ground is a pri­va­tiz­ing of ser­vices and enti­tle­ments that used to be in the hands of the government. 

What is also hap­pen­ing is dereg­u­la­tions that allow extra­or­di­nar­i­ly pow­er­ful eco­nom­ic actors to gain even more pow­er. What is hap­pen­ing is a kind of laissez-faire, indeed a lib­er­al­ism vis-a-vis a grow­ing and esca­lat­ing ruth­less­ness of big firms. I’m think­ing espe­cial­ly of course of the finan­cial firms, but I’m also think­ing of oth­er firms. The firms that fought the claims of work­ers. The firms that tried to get rid of work­ers who had enti­tle­ments earned in an ear­li­er era. Just a hor­ri­ble, inhu­mane strug­gle. Insurance com­pa­nies which lost all shame and sim­ply went for the mon­ey. So when they could find any any lit­tle prob­lem in a long-term sub­scriber… A woman—I remem­ber this one case, a woman that devel­oped can­cer. They found that she had some lit­tle ail­ment that enabled them to can­cel the pol­i­cy just when she need­ed it most. 

I mean, for me this talk about inter­na­tion­al lib­er­al­ism is tru­ly prob­lem­at­ic. It rais­es a deep­er ques­tion. This cat­e­go­ry, cos­mopoli­tanism.” Which I actu­al­ly don’t use very much. I think that cos­mopoli­tanism is an ide­al­ized con­di­tion that real­ly needs to be revis­it­ed. When I think of these new pro­fes­sion­al and man­age­r­i­al elites that are tru­ly glob­al, that get to learn the habits of dif­fer­ent coun­tries, that get to know the food of dif­fer­ent coun­tries and get to know the art and cul­ture of dif­fer­ent coun­tries. And they real­ly present them­selves as cos­mopo­lites, and often they are thought of as being that. I’m not so sure of that. 

Yes, they are intel­li­gent and they learn the habits of a place. Yes, they can enjoy dif­fer­ent types of food. Yes, they can enjoy dif­fer­ent types of cul­ture. The log­ic that makes them glob­al is not cos­mopoli­tan at all. It is very single-minded. It is bet­ter prof­its. Better con­trol of the mar­kets that inter­est them. What does this tell us about cos­mopoli­tanism? There’s a kind of cos­mopoli­tanism— There is a ques­tion of taste, finesse, aware­ness. But if it can coex­ist, and if its source or its con­di­tion­al­i­ty, what makes it pos­si­ble, is some­thing that is pro­found­ly non-cos­mopoli­tan, should we use the term cos­mopoli­tanism” to cap­ture that? Sure, it’s a kind of glob­al­i­ty, a kind of glob­al knowl­edge. But at the same time it’s a glob­al provin­cial­ism. In the sense that it pur­sues one par­tic­u­lar log­ic. And that is…the mar­ket issue, the prof­it issue. I know that I am sort of repeat­ing myself on that, but I do think that that is very important.


One of the very prob­lem­at­ic emer­gent issues is this notion that we know how to help them. And so where­as edu­ca­tion, tech­nol­o­gy, water sys­tems, bridges, what­ev­er it might be. So war by oth­er means. In oth­er words peace­ful means that look like con­struc­tion, etc. And some of that is indeed very good. I have no doubt about that. If you can install a work­ing clean water sys­tem, that is good. 

There is how­ev­er a curve here. And if we are con­tin­u­ous­ly export­ing our sys­tems to the rest or to cer­tain parts of the world, say sub-Saharan Africa or cer­tain parts of Latin America, then we are rob­bing all the ele­ments that con­sti­tute a soci­ety and a polit­i­cal sys­tem in those coun­tries from hav­ing to devel­op the mus­cles, the capac­i­ties, the deter­mi­na­tions, and you know, all that it takes to do that them­selves. We reduce those peo­ple to chil­dren, in a way. It’s a kind of tyran­ny. Some tyrants were really…terribly nice to their peo­ple. But the prob­lem is that they treat­ed their peo­ple as if they were chil­dren. And you know, a bit of installing good water sys­tems, a bit of that is fine. But we do not want to become tyrants in the clas­sic sense of the Greek term, which is sim­ply that you treat your con­stituents as if they were chil­dren. You rob them from their adult­ness, etc. I think that that is some­thing that the United States—that’s a line that the United States has a lot of dif­fi­cul­ty notic­ing. That’s my sense from review­ing this literature. 

But there’s some­thing a bit more per­ni­cious. Which is then often these good inten­tions are a bridge, are the car­ri­er on which can come, gal­lop­ing bat­tal­ions of firms—from all kinds of coun­tries, by the way, not just Americans—which are then going to do their bit. So if we keep buy­ing vast stretch­es of land or cor­po­ra­tions in Africa and trans­form­ing that land into plan­ta­tion. In oth­er words we evict flo­ras, fau­nas, vil­lages, small farm, small hold­er agri­cul­ture. And at the same time we install some beau­ti­ful water sys­tems, you know, there is a prob­lem there. So there is some­thing about the way impe­r­i­al pow­ers— It’s not just the United States, it’s also the Brits, you know, the French. But I think there is a prob­lem with how the impe­r­i­al pow­ers of the West…I don’t know enough about how China is doing it to com­ment on that. But cer­tain­ly in the West we have wrecked a lot of not just land as a source of life, let’s say, and liveli­hoods. But we have wrecked a lot of tra­di­tion­al economies. 

Now, in this effort to mod­ern­ize, to do good, tra­di­tion­al economies…yes, they’re inef­fi­cient. But they’re like sticky webs. At the edges of that sticky web, you’re just bare­ly hang­ing in there. But you know you belong. When you modernize—a term that is very prob­lem­at­ic, I say it in quo­ta­tion marks—you cre­ate vast tears in that sticky web. It’s like run­ning oil pipes through the wet­lands. You kill slow­ly kill, but you kill. And the same thing with wreck­ing the tis­sue of those tra­di­tion­al economies. Those tra­di­tion­al economies ought to learn by them­selves. They have their own indige­nous knowl­edges. They have more knowl­edge than we have grant­ed them. 


It’s also worth think­ing about what hap­pens once this inter­na­tion­al lib­er­al­ism gets deployed across the world, and the lib­er­at­ing the peo­ples of Iraq, Afghanistan, those two espe­cial­ly. What hap­pens in the United States? In the United States what we have is the imple­men­ta­tion of an emer­gency act that gives enor­mous pow­ers to the government—the exec­u­tive branch of gov­ern­ment, one should say—to per­se­cute jour­nal­ists, aver­age cit­i­zens. I still now…I am sort of a bit aware we have code lan­guage a bit, and receiv­ing emails in code from peo­ple who have been told by the nation­al secu­ri­ty appa­ra­tus in the United States that they are now under inves­ti­ga­tion. That they can­not tell any­body. These are the so-called social secu­ri­ty let­ters. That they can­not tell any­body. Not even the lawyer. This has been hap­pen­ing to thou­sands of peo­ple. The code is a bit like Will you help?” Because noth­ing can be said. So that we are made aware there is an issue. This is tru­ly a state of persecution. 

Now, there are all kinds of reper­cus­sions on that. The PATRIOT Act—that is that nation­al emer­gency act, nation­al secu­ri­ty act, autho­rized the Attorney General of the United States to deport or incar­cer­ate immi­grants and…yeah, espe­cial­ly immi­grants, with­out hav­ing to have them go to tri­al or any­thing. Unilateral deci­sion. And in some oth­er sense per­haps less dra­mat­ic but actu­al­ly rather dis­turb­ing, it allowed the Attorney General to vio­late fed­er­al law…supposedly the Attorney General is the senior per­son in charge of the imple­men­ta­tion of fed­er­al law…to vio­late fed­er­al law by giv­ing sub­na­tion­al enti­ties like provin­cial states—you know the states; not the fed­er­al state but the states—and local­i­ties the author­i­ty to make low-level laws—bills they’re called, ordinances—to per­se­cute immi­grants out­side what the law autho­rizes. I mean. This is crim­i­nal con­duct, and vio­la­tion of the law, enact­ed, enabled, inside the exec­u­tive branch of gov­ern­ment. This I find extra­or­di­nary, and this goes on today actu­al­ly. Though the PATRIOT Act, it needs to be renewed so there’s a kind of a bit of a state of sus­pen­sion right now. 

So with­in the United States we real­ly saw a rather dis­mal sit­u­a­tion emerg­ing. So, in comes Barack Obama. Barack Obama comes with many good inten­tions. He also comes in with great speech­es. And I think he real­ly believes in his speech­es. I real­ly like Michelle and Barack Obama. I think they are real­ly spe­cial peo­ple. But Barack Obama comes into a place where it’s not just him. This is not the Wild West. This is not a Latin American [?] the ear­ly 1990s. This is a system. 

And I think that the pres­i­den­cy of Obama almost has the char­ac­ter­is­tics of being a heuris­tic. It is giv­ing us insight into the sys­tem, the things that he tries to do, and that the sys­tem will not allow him to do. So he winds up hav­ing on his eco­nom­ic team the two worst peo­ple, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, that giv­en what he wants to do with the bailout or with the econ­o­my, he gets the two worst peo­ple. The famous datum: Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury—the equiv­a­lent of your Finance Minister in Europe; gen­er­al­ly we call them Finance Ministers—during the bailout nego­ti­a­tions and the crises has more tele­phone calls with Goldman Sachs than with the White House. This gives you a slight indication. 

So we have it on all fronts. We have it on the one end: deep inside the most up pow­er­ful enac­tors and pro­tec­tors of the basic law of the land? Incredible vio­la­tions of that law. And at the oth­er end, in the pri­vate sec­tor: enor­mous­ly pow­er­ful actors who enter and con­tribute to make law inside the state, basi­cal­ly installing their log­ic, their prof­it log­ic, inside nation­al law. In oth­er words their prof­it log­ic dressed as some­thing that is in the inter­est of the pub­lic, of the pub­lic domain. 

And I have writ­ten about this at length in my lat­est book about how what glob­al­iza­tion has done is enhance the pow­er of the exec­u­tive branch of gov­ern­ment. Yes, it has weak­ened big parts of the state. But I real­ly find prob­lem­at­ic this very gen­er­al asser­tion that is made of glob­al­iza­tion weak­ens the state. The state is less and less a viable cat­e­go­ry. We need to real­ly enter the state and focus on par­tic­u­lar ele­ments of it. So in the United States, in the UK, in Germany, in France, you name it, all the so-called lib­er­al or neolib­er­al democ­ra­cies, the exec­u­tive branch of gov­ern­ment has gained power.


When I think about to Tahrir Square in Cairo…Tahrir Square here being an image that cap­tures this large com­plex set of events that hap­pened in sev­er­al coun­tries, what I see are a cou­ple of things. One is that— Because it starts a bit, you know, with the sons and daugh­ters of the mid­dle class who can’t get the jobs. You know, that is what we have heard. And I do think it’s a crit­i­cal part of that. There are of course also old­er genealo­gies of protest that become active again, that come to the fore. Certain in Egypt there were many hero­ic protests thir­ty years ago. But so, what I see is on the one hand the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the sons and daugh­ters of the once-prosperous mid­dle classes—and that holds for our coun­tries as well—recovery. The recog­ni­tion that they need to make the polit­i­cal, make the social. They can­not sim­ply be con­sumers of their cit­i­zen­ship, of their priv­i­lege. That is one thing that I see. So an inter­est­ing project. 

And this is espe­cial­ly sig­nif­i­cant say in the United States. Again, the most extreme case always. The lat­est cen­sus, 2010, shows that the sons and daugh­ters of the mid­dle class­es that emerged after World War II. In oth­er words we have three gen­er­a­tions of mid­dle class, this would be the fourth. They have less income than their par­ents. And they’re on a roll where—on a tra­jec­to­ry where they will not ever make as much mon­ey, if things stay as they are. They have less edu­ca­tion. We’re talk­ing peo­ple are between 25, 28, some­thing like that. And they are less like­ly to own a home. 

In the UK you have sim­i­lar indi­ca­tions hap­pen­ing that the new gen­er­a­tion, this fourth gen­er­a­tion of mid­dle class peo­ple, are not going to do as well as their par­ents. The expec­ta­tion was that every gen­er­a­tion makes a lit­tle better. 

Now, we’re not talk­ing about this 20% at the top (which is a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber) of peo­ple who have become far rich­er than they ever thought they would, you know, in the last twen­ty years because of finance, etc. They have esca­lat­ed into sort of some­thing that you can bare­ly call a mid­dle class. 

So that is one sort of bun­dle of issues. The change, you know, the lega­cy of the mid­dle class­es that comes from the Keynesian peri­od is sort of thin­ning out. So what poten­tial is there for a new demand for a dif­fer­ent type of pol­i­tics? In the United States, that is not quite hap­pen­ing, but you see it hap­pen­ing pre­cise­ly in some of these oth­er coun­tries, and I hope that it also hap­pens in the West. 

The oth­er thing is some­thing that I have long used as sort of a propo­si­tion, as a fram­ing to under­stand all kinds of things. Which is this notion that under cer­tain con­di­tions, pow­er­less­ness can become com­plex. And in that com­plex­i­ty lies the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mak­ing a his­to­ry, mak­ing the polit­i­cal, this capac­i­ty to make. And it seems to me that what I try to recov­er, which is a real­i­ty out there it seems to me, is some in-between space. In the Anglo imag­i­na­tion, Anglo-American imag­i­na­tion, if you don’t have pow­er, the dif­fer­ence in that con­di­tion, are you gain­ing some­thing, you know, is you are empowered. 

Now, that’s a big leap. Being empow­ered is great. I think it’s love­ly. It’s very dif­fi­cult. I think there’s a whole in-between zone that is obscured by this obses­sion with empow­er­ment. Its mass­es of peo­ple that are mak­ing his­to­ry, that are mak­ing the polit­i­cal, but they’re not sole­ly get­ting empow­ered. So the Tahrir Square peo­ple, they made his­to­ry. They real­ly made his­to­ry. And they made a pol­i­tics. But they’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly empow­ered, you know, in some sort of sig­nif­i­cant and last­ing sense. The pow­er remains with the mil­i­tary. But they don’t want to pow­er, either. They want to be empow­ered inso­far as they want to change the polit­i­cal sys­tem, the dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tems, etc. But they believe that a gov­ern­ment, a prop­er­ly func­tion­ing gov­ern­ment, a prop­er gov­ern­ing class should do that, not they. 

And I see many instances across time. The civ­il rights actions by blacks and by women in the United States. Generations of action. They made his­to­ry but it took a long time for them to get those rights. And again, we often obscure that, that in-between, when we either focus on empow­er­ment, or what hap­pened in the United States when in 1964 we had a lib­er­al leg­is­la­ture and they actu­al­ly adopt­ed civ­il rights for blacks and for women. And it’s usu­al­ly if you look at the books, espe­cial­ly those which deal with polit­i­cal sci­ence or sort of gov­ern­ment schol­ar­ship, it is that the state had embed­ded lib­er­al­ism, and because of that these civ­il rights laws were passed. That is real­ly a very lim­it­ed— It cuts off the his­to­ry of actions that went for gen­er­a­tions, destroyed house­holds, destroyed careers, in the name of fight­ing for those civ­il rights. That was a crit­i­cal his­to­ry that led into the fact that the gov­ern­ment then passed the laws. Sure, embed­ded lib­er­al­ism also hap­pened. It sort of was an oil that facil­i­tat­ed mat­ters. But it’s not clear at all that those laws would have been passed if you had­n’t had those strug­gles that were becom­ing increas­ing­ly visible. 

So that is what I think is crit­i­cal, for me at least, when I’m think­ing about what’s next, what are the pos­si­bil­i­ties, where could we be going giv­en the dis­mal sit­u­a­tion. You know, an envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis is loom­ing; we can­not keep on con­sum­ing the way we are. Given grow­ing—mas­sive grow­ing inequal­i­ty. Given all these neg­a­tive con­di­tions. At what point will some­thing give? And who will be the actors who can car­ry the torch? What I see in this Arab Spring is a set of young peo­ple who are prob­a­bly com­ing from not the poor­est fam­i­lies, who are will­ing to fight, and in the case of Syria and in the case of Yemen, will­ing to die. I mean, that kind of courage is extra­or­di­nary. We don’t have that any­more in the West. We have become far too comfortable.


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