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
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.