The "Globalism and Its Discontents: Point/Counterpoint" conversation series features Amherst College professor, and host of NEPR's In Contrast, Ilan Stavans and a guest engaging in thoughtful discussion and attempting to bridge the ideological divide growing in our nation.

Saskia Sassen; Sept. 20, 2018

September 28, 2018

Saskia Sassen, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and a member of its Committee on Global Thought, joined Spanish Professor and host of NPR's In Contrast, Ilan Stavans for a conversation in Stirn Auditorium.

- Hello everybody, my name is Ilan Stavans, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to the second of five public conversations that we are having this semester in Point Counterpoint, the topic is Globalism and its Discontent. These lectures and a seminar that is connected with it, the guests that are coming are all funded by a generous gift from let's see if I get this right, 36 members of the 50th reunion the class of 1970. And I am, and all of us, grateful some of them might be here in the audience, others will be at either some events, sometimes in the seminar that we are having in the morning as well.

I want to give you, for some of you who are attending today for the first time, a sense of what it started and what the goal is. It is basically a response to a sense of isolation, and an echo chamber, that some of us within the academic world have been experiencing, for some time, but that became more acute after the election of 2016, the sense that within the academic world, in campuses across the country, we are listening to the same voices, we are replicating the same messages, and not exposing our students ourselves and the population at large to the other side, which comes also with a sense of dehumanization of that other side, those that don't think like us have to be our enemies, those that do not think like us, living in our same country but are bringing that country down.

The goal is to bring reason and logic and empathy to the dialog, you can have racial, gender and ethnic diversity, you also need ideological diversity to have a fruitful education, here connecting particularly with students. And for us professors obviously, otherwise we ourselves become towers that are disconnected with the rest of the world. And I'm very happy that this lecture, this is the second year, has touched a chord not only within campus and the five colleges, but in the larger community, we have a lot of people from the general public so to speak, that have been coming that have been participating, that engage in these dialogues, and that also feels a fruitful and appropriate attempt to make us within this college and the hell to become more integrated within the rest of the community.

So thank you all for coming, the purpose is to listen, to listen and to understand how others think. Of course there is a microphone here to my left and you're right, wherein the second part of today's event people are invited to come in and share your views, ask questions of the guest. I ask you if you're gonna do that, to just find your place in it, we're going to be brief to the extent that is possible, and in a way that keeps the conversation going.

And I finally want to say, that you are likely to hear today, as you did at the last event on Tuesday, with George Will things that you disagree with, I am hoping that you will disagree with a bunch of things, and that is the purpose, the purpose is not for you to hear what you have been trained to hear, but for you to hear other views, and to try to understand those other views, and to see them with that, as I was saying with reason and logic and empathy. And I want to invite you to come to the next one, it is Joseph Stiglitz, It will be in October 20 something, 21st, you'll get information in the radio and newspapers. After that, we have Amartya Sen, who is coming in November, and Martha Nussbaum comes also at the very end of November.

The spectrum of guests include columnists, philosophers, political scientists, economists and sociologists, which brings me to Saskia Sassen. It's a pleasure to have her here with me, she was today at the seminar, after that this event and the entire series is also sponsored, or co-sponsored by the NAPR Podcast, in contrast where we had a conversation that will be aired very soon, and now the discussion, the public conversation with you. I meant to say this, because you will likely hear references to something that was said in class, or something that was said in the podcast, and I will try to ease or massage the information in such a way so that you feel that you were in those two incarnations as well. Saskia Sassen is an internationally renowned scholar and public speaker, who is concerned with the topic of the global city. She is interested in the flow of migration, be that labor-related, or financial, as it defines the structure, the carcass of the ancient, medieval, pre-modern and modern city, but particularly with an emphasis around the end of the 20th century, and 2008 with the economic debacle that we all went through. She is an award-winning writer, the author of a number of books, some of her books, particularly the last one expulsions, are available outside, courtesy of Amber's Books, and we thank them also for this, she will be signing books at the very end. Many of her books have been translated to numerous languages, she advises for a number of different governments.

- Never for money.

- Never for money, good.

- That's very important.

- And for other entities in China, in Japan, in different parts of Europe, in the United States she teaches at Columbia University, in the sociology department. And she is originally from The Netherlands, she grew up in Argentina, in Rome, among other places, and one of the features of her approach to the research that she does, is multilingual, she is a speaker of a number of different languages.

- But one perfectly.

- That's what I was gonna say, she stressed in the class, that though she knows a number none of them--

- Six.

- In a perfect way, I myself think that there is no perfect way to speak a language either. I wanna start directly Saskia with the question of migration, both of labor and of capital, but I wanted to be able to invite you to bring us all to this category, or this concept that you yourself are the one who created it and has become a staple, the global city. You have stressed in your work, and also in a number of lectures, Ted Talks, that there's a difference between the international city and the global city, one thing is international, the other one is global, what do you, what should we understand by global?

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- Please.

- Or am I speaking too long here? Goldman Sachs, we all know what that is, admirable intelligences. So when you walked into Goldman Sachs 15 years ago, you had the back room where there were a hundred secretaries, now you walk into Goldman Sachs, the back room is still there, but they're all physicists. They're physicists, not doctors, physicists. Well they can have doctorates in physics, I mean they're not physicians, they are physicists, and I don't hold them culpable, but that's what we're talking about, we're talking about something that has nothing to do--

- [Ilan] The role of this physicist is?

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- I wanted to go back shortly to explain a little bit more the role that these physicists are having at Goldman Sachs, why physicists now and not then?

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- In one of your books, as part of the research that you've been doing, you talk about the acquisition of land in Africa, in Latin America, mostly, although in other parts of the world to, by large corporations, and I'm gonna go back to the topic of large corporations to these sub-prime mortgages into the concept of too big to fail, but after this. In acquiring them in a kind of silent way, because of the strategies that they have in order to remain competitive, I want you to talk about the role of land acquisition and water acquisition by these big corporations and the connection they have or don't have, corrupt or legal, with governments that allow them in?

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- And the same thing goes for land, 'cause there's the--

- [Saskia] And the land thing, right, and land--

- Go ahead.

- So two moments, one is a visual moment, we have all these amazing landscapes now or maps that we can see, because they were taken by the international satellite, and it looks like many of these areas in Africa for instance that there is a lot of empty land, it looks like an abundance of land, why should we worry. Well in fact a lot of that land is poisoned, it's dying, you have a bunch of big corporations, over a hundred, and you have about 30 governments, that includes the Chinese government, the British government, the American government, all kinds, who are simply grabbing land to grow plantations, which kill the land also very quickly, to grab water, to do mining and all kinds of things. In that process then is a huge displacement of smallholders, with the mines, because the mines poisoned the water, it's more than just the mine, they grab the water from a river and then the river is contaminated, so it's disastrous. So where do they go? They go to the slums and big cities. When it comes to the big plantations, huge plantations, they simply expelled smallholders who cannot show a contract, and they wind up where? In the big slums around the cities. Now when the smallholders own the land they keep it alive for centuries. This is a story that repeats itself in Latin America, when the big plantations come in, 70 years and they begin to decay. So these are little histories in the making, that actually have catastrophic outcomes, and these are all legitimate big operators, they are all legitimate, they are all kosher as we might say, though they are really not kosher.

- We have a lexicon such For that type of a transnational enterprise, that goes back to Marco Polo and Columbus, and it's called colonialism, and we have the lexicon that unfolds itself to a postcolonial world, but we don't use that lexicon when it comes to corporations, because they are not attached to nations, they are autonomous entities that travel in a global way, so Nestle or Coca-Cola don't represent New York exclusively or don't represent London, they represent Nestle and Coca-Cola.

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- I think I see it a bit differently, I mean that is in play, but those would not be the vectors let's say, I love this term vectors, I said it too many times, I promise I won't say once again this evening okay?

- We will see.

- You test me. I would put it a bit differently, in the sense that my image is, so up to the 1980s, there was a period right before the 1980s, cities were very poor, remember New York was officially bankrupt right, and a lot of other cities, I already said at the start today, but they were poor. And so when this new economy installs itself, and the image that I have, so remember the big corporations they sort of left the cities, they didn't need the cities, all the big things about, what is it, insurance they went to Har-

- [Ilan] Hartford?

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- [Ilan] Top-of-the-line.

- Top-of-the-line expertise, they can deliver anything, and that installs itself in the city, displaces the policeman, the teachers, the nurses, the fireman, et cetera, et cetera, the local residents have to subsidize the government for the fireman and the policeman, because we want the fireman close by, we don't want them two hours away. The whole thing changes, and in the meantime this other world keeps expanding, and they literally grab land.

- So you talk about the 1% and the 40%.

- Yeah in a city like New York it's really up to 40% that really have very, very high incomes.

- So I want you to go to the 59, the remaining one, where's the middle and where's the bottom?

- Well we have a growing bottom, that also happens with age to all of us, but this is a different condition, right? So you have, you have a very significant very rich class that is not the super-super-rich, but boy are they rich, let's face it, and where before three families lived, now it's one huge flat for one person. It's unbelievable. So then you have the old middle class, the teachers, the fireman, they are having trouble, they need subsidized, if you want them close by, and some of them you want close by to the center of the city, we have to pay for that extra, because they can't afford it. This is happening in Silicon Valley, this is happening in many places, this is not just New York, New York is just one extreme case. And then we have a growing mass of impoverished modest middle classes, whose children thought that they were going to follow the career of the parents, every generation does a little better, and the children, they got their degrees the hard way, and they can't find jobs, so that is the tragic aspect.

- So just as the cities were in bankruptcy, when you started the conversation, are we going in a direction of either a cleansing of those that are no longer able to afford it, and the city is weeding out, and deferring the budget for the fireman and the teachers from the government to the citizens, although you are reluctant to use the word citizen as we used it before, are we going in the direction of another doom scenario? Or have we arrived there?

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- I think so, I think it really is a different country, and the question then is, this is one question that has guided a lot of my work, is how do complex systems change. And they don't necessarily change if they are complex by changing everything, so that transformation is not always visible. Now in my reading by the 1980s, we know that the system has changed, now these complex systems don't change everything, but they change just enough to make the severe difference, and I think that is what has happened, and not just by the way in New York, but also in Paris and all these major cities, so that marks a difference.

- We've been talking about the two topics that I posed at the beginning, that is the fluidity or the migration of capital, and the migration of labor, or at least across the hierarchy, and in between nations. But I wanna go now to the topic of refugees, immigrants in particular, we are at a time when at least in this country, uncertainly as populism has emerged in major countries around the world, the topic of immigrants and immigration is explosive, is polarizing, and we also see dramatic moves of people from the developing countries to the developed, particularly in the summer for instance, the big boats going from Africa to Greece and Italy. Dubois talked about the 20th century as the century that would be defined by the color line, the 21st century seems to be defined by this mobility that is not empty of color, it's not empty of gender, those are lines that cut it, how do you see refugees and migration within the context of the global city?

- So I started out by saying that there are two familiar migrant subjects or actors, by subject I mean, I mean people, right? The immigrant, and there is law, its national law, it's messy, but there is law, that is a person who can be recognized via law. And then we have a refugee, and international regime, again very faulty, et cetera, et cetera, but the refugee is recognized in law. I argue that we have a third migrating subject, and I wrote a very long boring article about this, and this third migrant subject, when she comes to our borders so to say, she is not recognized in either one of those laws, why? Very simple answer, because it's really a complicated story, Because her country, when they look at what's happening in her country, my God, GDP per capita, a very important measure, GDP per capita is growing, your country's doing so well, well what is the growth? I think you already know what I was going to say, it's that the plantations have replaced the smallholders, the mines have evicted all kinds of other modes of survival, in the cities you have this emergent rich class which is displacing others, so what is registered by our current measures, which Stiglitz for one, and Amartya, they have fought those, what gets registered as growth, is actually the destruction of existing multiple small operations that sustained vast numbers of people, plus also the fact that that land is going to die, either because of the mining, the poisoning, or because the extracting of water, or because plantation agriculture which kills the land in about 70 years, it becomes less productive. So we have this invisible third subject, I wrote a very long boring article about this, that you have to read.

- [Ilan] I've heard the word boring twice.

- I had to document a lot of stuff to make the argument you see, so our existing measures they don't help us really understand, and that's just one example, there are other examples of how we are measuring stuff, and why should measures that we developed almost a hundred years ago still work as well, it's not necessarily the case.

- In another part of your work you talk about the fact that it is not how many refugees Europe or the United States, we call them refugees, or the undocumented immigrants are having, but how many we are not having, how many are staying behind.

- No, I mean it's very serious, again a lot of these people are expelled, number two, I like to emphasize, if all the people who are poor, exploited, et cetera who don't see a future for their children where they are, if they all were migrants, it would look very different, it would feel very different, it's amazing how limited the numbers are ultimately.

- [Ilan] And this is because?

- Of the total migration, and this is in line in my reading, because most people who are poor are not migrating, and so the question then becomes who is the migrant, well very often the migrant is somebody who's had an interaction with that other world, the modern factory, the modern this, the modern that, and so they are the ones, one simple way to put it, hey I did it for them here in the Dominican Republic, you know what I can do it for them in New York too. So they have, because that is the only good explanation we have for why not more people migrate, the most common formula is, if you're poor you're motivated to migrate. Well you know what, we should have two or three billion migrants in the world, and we have much less than a billion, and in that sense if you have become part of that modern, modern as we call it system, you have been employed by them, you know them, then you say, ah, I do it here for them, I can do it in their country for them as well. That is a bit the logic, now I'm simplifying a bit, but I have really looked at this in depth.

- And you talk about the city as, correct me because you, as an open but unfinished, complex but unfinished--

- Incomplete.

- Incomplete.

- [Saskia] Meaning really something left unfinished.

- Incomplete, meaning that it's always in a state of desiring that completion.

- That's the big question, because completeness would kill it, does it know that, I don't know. But that is why the urbanite is someone who, they're open, you have to be a bit open, otherwise you go crazy, if you're very, you're not happy in a city, then you go to the suburbs right? So there is something there.

- And what you're saying about those that migrate, is that there is a network among them also enables them that dream of going to the other side, if the city is a system, there is also a system among those that are migrating that is taking that step.

- Yeah the Jamaicans are famous for having started all kinds of businesses here in New York City, at least that's the case that I know very well, and then exported back to their countries, I mean there is a lot of trading, trade is a very solid sort of ground from which to. But I find it very interesting, for me the question is not why do they migrate, but why don't we have much bigger migrations? Even what we have seen now, I don't know if people followed what is happening in Central America, where there are two different brutalities, there are many, but one is the land grabs by major actors, local. And the other one of course is what's happening in Nicaragua, which is one real ironic turn of events I would say.

- The revolutionaries that are now the dictators.

- But he was always problematic, I got to know him, I did a big party for him way back when, in the early 1980s.

- You mean in New York?

- Yeah, in Manhattan.

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- Look, I do a lot with the law, I have written many law articles, and I often go to law schools. And I think that we need new law for one, we need to throw out quite a few old laws. The making of law has fallen behind, our legislators confront such complex systems, because traditional banking is one thing, commerce, but high finance? It's algorithmic mathematics, I mean it's very, very complex.

- [Ilan] And many politicians have no idea.

- No idea, nor are they ever going to try. So when you look, second sort of little thing here, most of the political classes, especially Congress et cetera we have good data on it, they all retire rich, their salaries do not explain that. I don't know if all by the way, but we know that a big majority. So the question of governing, which is serious stuff, which should include experts on particularly delicate, like climate change, et cetera, and we should include people don't know anything about anything because they see it with a fresh view, we should take it seriously, and that his what has failed, there is a sense of entitlement, there is a sense that they don't do their homework, when they have to call the financiers, they delegate to the financiers, because they don't understand it.

- So more than laws, do we need in your view, a new political elite?

- No, we need to kill some of the old laws, we need to make new laws, and some of the new laws have been killed.

- You said kill the laws but not kill the lawyers.

- No not the lawyers, well some lawyers, okay, we can accept a few you know, but, I think we are in a decaying Constitutional moment, not that our Constitution is decaying, but that we need to insert certain of our challenges into legal modes. You know I'm not a fanatic about the law, the law has its limits, I think I mentioned it at the beginning, but I want to repeat it, but we now have, some researchers have found, if you look at how the corporations, have been treated, which is very well by the law, they have worked very hard for 200 years to change a little bit here, change the law a bit there, I mean we have famous cases that became very public events, where you see the fight between the working classes and the big firms, but overall, and certainly I would say in the 1980s, so that is an abuse, why does the top have to be so rich that they don't know what to do with their money, and you have impoverished workers, this idea that okay if I can reduce the wages in my, even if you're rich, then you do that, there is a real notion in this country that if you can do it cheaper, by God you do it cheaper, that is what the good God would want, I mean they take it to an extreme I don't mean to offend anybody.

- I'm gonna open it to the audience, hopefully there will be questions, please come to the microphone, anybody who wants to start, we have one here. Go ahead.

- Thank you for coming, my question has to do with the 2008 financial crisis, this being the 10 year anniversary articles are being written, and I'm seeing a theme among them, and that is that the writers are saying that the rise of populism in general, and Trump in particular, can be traced to the failure of government to really hold Wall Street accountable, and so my question is do you feel that the government or somebody should have done more to hold Wall Street accountable, specifically that the CEOs of those firms at the very least should have lost their jobs, and even the shareholders should have taken some financial hit because they are the risk takers.

- [Ilan] Have we learned anything?

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- [Ilan] So the lesson that one takes from that is that the next time around, it's not that it's too big to fail, but it's too complex, too defiant, too self-regulating, and ultimately the failure of the past will not become a lesson for the present or the future in your view.

- That's right, the lesson is complicated, you have many, many different factors in play, so it's not easy, I've been working on this for years, so that's very different from. So you are right, that's a good way to put it, the way you put it, that this is a tough one, it's not easy.

- Next question.

- I'll try to be brief.

- My question concerns the European countries and their economic crises, and I know you talk a lot about this, and you blame the policies promoted by the EU that focus on austerity, and my question is do you see austerity as the wrong solution, or as the problem, because many of the countries in the European South have had economies that have very large states, very large welfare states, very rigid labor markets, and it seems like these large states have caused the problem, and maybe austerity is a bad solution, but I wonder what you think about that?

- Austerity was not the right thing to do I think, number two, the Euro became a problem, it really impoverished many countries, and the whole southern countries, I remember, I was invited to go to a meeting of bankers in Europe, that's when all the debate of the Euro was happening. And Amartya was the other person invited, and I will never forget what Amartya said at that point, he said, "Look if you're going "to have a European level currency, "and sort of financial market "and key financial institution like our Treasury, "you've got to bring in the labor question." Now the labor question is not just about the individuals who are going to do the labor, the labor question also indicates a completely different set of actors who are going to experience the money question very differently, and that of course didn't happen, so I'm sure that when Joe comes, Joe is the one who recruited me from Chicago, he will talk about the Euro and the mistake, the Euro became a device to concentrate, the Euro is not just a currency, because it comes from the Central Bank after all, and so it became a device to capture and concentrate to the disadvantage of all the countries whose currencies have been much weaker consequences, the Germans were fine, the Swedes they were just partial, but many of the countries who were rich it was fine, for us tourists it's heaven to have the euro, so that is a bit the story. And the whole question of language, how the language of austerity, you know that was a project, and in the global south we had another term, but it was the same thing, It's like really not giving as much to the poorer and the modest middle classes as they used to, there was a post-Keynesian period, well a post-World War II period, generated a kind of generosity, we had gone through terrible things, a kind of generosity, you were enabling, but the economy also was an enabling thing, you needed a lot of workers, it was different from the global economy that really launches in the 1980s, so it's a complicated story, but I hope I answered at least some of what you said.

- [Man] Yeah, definitely.

- [Ilan] Next.

- Hi, thank you so much for giving this talk by the way, my question, I hope I can navigate it correctly, but it concerns coming up with new visions, both in politics and economics. And so just to frame it a bit, it seems like we're at a moment where we have a global capitalism which treats the entire world cynically as a set of factors of production and possible resources, and yet we also have nationalists that are centering all of the attention and power within states, and yet these states are still very supportive of these major capitalist ventures, because they ultimately sustain economies. And I was wondering if faced with such a cynical system, that is only getting further and further worse, and will either see our destruction or complete disposal, should people in their cities especially figure out ways to organize money and political power outside of the state and economic institutions? Then just something to frame that a little bit, Los Angeles, for example, has a very modest proposal for public banking, that's coming up on the ballot.

- I think we need to find, indeed other mechanisms and little institutions, et cetera, one of the projects that I have, the execution happens in New York, is to re-localize what we can re-localize, if you need a computer, if you're going to re-localize you have to take a plane to go to the factory, but Jesus you know, if I need a cup of coffee in my neighborhood, do I really need a multinational to generate that? Because remember every franchise extracts and takes it to headquarters. So it's continuously, these neighborhoods get poorer, the little shops get poorer because if they're part of a franchise, the franchising is a big phenomenon, so again I repeat, if I need a computer, yeah I want a franchise, but for so many other things.

- But isn't that already happening? We see within the global phenomenon, this desire for the local, for something that is authentic.

- Yes absolutely, and in fact in Europe you have a kind of vertical farming, which is good vertical farming, vertical farming is not so great, but doing vertical farming in cities, the Europeans are very good, sort of yeah, we're going to do that, and so you see a move, I think it is a very interesting moment, because we have both very problematic phenomena, but we also have a real mobilizing of young and old people, it's not just the young, I'm old. So there is a sense that things have gotten a bit out of control, so yes I agree with your final suggestion, I wish I could say more, but I see the.

- [Man] Thank you.

- I think we're gonna have, 'cause Saskia has to go to the airport. Go ahead there.

- I learned a lot from what you said so far, so thank you very much. I was at the top by George Will in this series previously, and there are many really interesting differences, obviously, but one that I wanna focus on, is we learned about his background in philosophy, he has a Ph.D. from Princeton in that, and when he was speaking, he returned often to very foundational questions, what are natural rights, what is our country based on, what is a market, he acknowledged many problems in the world, but being a conservative he wanted to really focus on these continuous principles. Your discourse, in contrast, is very piecemeal, and it did occur to me that if we put you back in the 1940s, late 40s and 50s, you'd have no difficulty saying this is unprecedented, there are more refugees in the world than any time in history. I'm reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America, 1830s, he's traveling across America, he encounters slavery, he wrote the longest chapter of his book on slavery, there are problems all the time. I wonder if to use a philosophical term with a little edge, if you could tighten up your discourse a little bit for purposes of this evening, and tell us what do you think is the transformation occurring right now, and what is its general significance?

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- Yes, I am going to apologize to the two other members, because Saskia has to catch a plane.

- Write to me will you, he has my email.

- I want to thank you for coming, and thank you everybody else too for being here, thank you.