Recovering the State: Interview with Saskia Sassen

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Interview with Saskia Sassen.

Miguel Lara Hidalgo

Issue #66, February 2004


Beginning January 2004, Argentina and the US engaged in fierce diplomatic controversy over the statements of Roger Noriega, the Department of State officer in charge of George W. Bush's policy on Latin America. Noriega stated that the US was disappointed with Argentina because it had strengthened relations with Cuba and would not support the US proposal to condemn Cuba for human rights violations at United Nation. The most popular Argentinean president in its history, Néstor Kirchner, replied: "No one can demand our country." Many Latin American leaders, including Bolivia's Evo Morales, congratulated him for this attitude.

Sometimes I don't know where Latin America is in the map. I guess it has been geographically located in the Western Hemisphere for millions of years, but its location on political maps changes and puzzles me decade by decade. Currently, the region isn't in the same political location as in the '90s. New grass-root social movements demanding social justice and protesting policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have spread across the borders. "Los tiempos cambian", people say.

During the last year, new governments in Latin America have inspired hope for their populations. Most of them are openly progressive or call themselves such. They have formed alliances to negotiate together with the more developed countries about critical issues — economic policy, external debt, foreign investment, and free trade.

Countries like Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia have abandoned the liberal policies of the '90s that caused increasing poverty, unemployment, political crisis, corruption, and growing external debt. The informal economy has invaded the cities: people selling food on the street, offering all kind of services without paying taxes, or trading illegally֠"Hay que vivir", people say.

According to sociologist Saskia Sassen, recovering the state in Latin America is part of major social and political processes now in progress: the construction of a transnational citizenship, the increasing role of cities, the geopolitics of war, and international terrorism.

Sassen is a transnational citizen. Born in Holland, raised in Argentina, and now resident in the United States, she carries out research around the world. In Buenos Aires, she recently presented "Cities Transformed: Demographic Change and Its Implications in the Developing World," a study she helped coordinate in several countries and sponsored by the US National Academy of Sciences.

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ML: More and more people call themselves "citizens of the world" and identify with universal values. Does national citizenship make sense as the state loses power in a globalized world?

SS: The conditions for a transnational citizenship are solidifying. Although some groups are genuinely transnational, like Internet communities, world social forums or international volunteer movements, transnational citizenship is just a component of a much more complex experience: traditional citizenship. Formal rights with regards to the state continue to be the crucial element.

The enormous number of people converging from all over the world produce a sort of "transnationalism in situ": they meet on the street for the first time, in corporate workplaces, in the neighborhoods of global cities, or by encountering other immigrants in highly professional jobs. For example, we can venture to see a relation between the situation of immigrants and the emergence of political practices of an informal nature. Immigrants, even illegal ones, often become new political subjects.

It's remarkable how the phenomenon of so-called "transnational citizenship" opens the possibility both to generate new forms of lateral power among groups with few resources, and to improve transnational policies mobilizing more and more sectors inside a country.

ML: You state the necessity to "urbanize the social sciences." To what does this refer?

SS: To understand social processes, one needs to research and focus on what happens in cities. Firstly, metropolises are strategic places in the global economy for several reasons:

a) they are bridges between the nation-state and the world;

b) they are locations for implementing measures to reduce the influence of large foreign corporations. These measures include ensuring housing for the impoverished middle class, establishing taxes for the "new rich" and corporations, promoting civic responsibility, and guaranteeing worker-oriented labor standards.

In the second place, the coexistence of huge clusters of power and poverty give the city a unique political character. Cities clearly show the contradictions of globalization — concentrations of international capital and increasingly marginalized populations exist side by side.

Globalization is tangible in the way that struggles are recurrent from one city to another; for example, the demands of migrants, gay and lesbian communities. This is what makes it necessary to research the practice of citizenship and the role of civil society. The loss of governmental influence gives way to new forms of power at local or neighborhood levels. Cities are the places building that new political geography.

ML: Informal economy is a typically urban phenomenon. Is it substantial to a decline of civilization or only a "collateral problem"?

SS: The informal economy in global cities is becoming a "spirit" of the new millennium, even in the richest such as New York. We have technology to travel throughout the world but we're unable to provide water, food, vaccines, or jobs for more than three billion people. It's not a consequence of some scientific inability, but of economic and political projects that don't pursue common well-being. The new informality in the Northern big cities, and now also in the South, isn't an invention of the poor to survive but a substantial characteristic of advanced capitalism.

ML: Why did you do your research in Latin America?

SS: I studied the region in order to focus on very specific global phenomena: migrations, informal economies, economic inequalities֠For example, Sao Paulo is a crucial location to explore complex social processes. Recently, a student of mine finished there an extraordinary investigation about the relationship between globalization and favelas (very poor and violent neighborhoods). She did field work in four favelas, some of them controlled by drug dealers with whom she could negotiate the conditions to remain inside. She had to leave these neighborhoods before 7pm, otherwise she might have been killed. I admire her a lot since she demonstrated how globalization materializes in cities through processes of informal economy. Her name is Simona Buechler and now she is a professor at New York University.

ML: How do you explain the attempts of Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina to strengthen the state's role in social development?

SS: There are two different tendencies in play. Neo-liberalism, along with International Monetary Fund and US policies, diminished the autonomy of the nation-state, mainly in the countries of the South. On the other hand, presidents Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil want to use to the state as a political base to implement changes they consider necessary in their nations. A social democratic state could implement measures and provide resources for projects benefiting the citizens and local economy.

In this sense, recovering the role of the state is a challenge that can mobilize popular support, as we have seen in Venezuela and Brazil. The President of Argentina, Néstor Kirchner, understood this issue when he announced a review of the privatizations and assets still in state hands, and changed most of the justices at the Supreme Court in order to achieve transparency and state legitimization. No politician has made such a pronouncement over the past decade.

Neo-liberalism reoriented key local elements toward the global financial markets and opened the way for tremendous earnings by an elite concentrated primarily in the big metropolises. This elite represents nearly 20 percent of the inhabitants of the 40 global cities of the world, like Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Sao Paulo, Seoul, or New York.

The Argentinean crisis — that really started in the '90s — is one of the most dramatic instances of the marginalizing nature of neo-liberal policies. Now the projects we see in Venezuela, Brazil and the one emerging in Argentina are seeking to distribute national resources to favor much more than that 20 percent.

ML: Last January 1st. Fidel Castro celebrated the 45 anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and his rank as the longest-serving president in the world. Do governments with markedly nationalist policies, such as the United States or communist Cuba, need an "enemy" to legitimize their existence?

SS: They need it in a certain way, but their motivations are different. Cuba is a project of political power with a social mission: the common well-being. In the United States, one political party wants to hold power without caring about the costs, because power represents military control, economic wealth, and ideological influence.

On the other hand, the meaning of each project counts. It's painful to see so many freedoms eliminated in Cuba, but it has achieved an excellent medical system and a basic wage for every citizen. That's much more than the United States can show, where we have 50 million under the poverty line — five times the population of the island; 40 million workers without medical insurance; and much higher child mortality rates in poor neighborhoods than in Cuba.

It's true that each country has a sort of a necessity to create crisis atmospheres to justify its government's actions. The Cuban state has an obsession with power mixed with strong social policy in which many still believe. In the United States, the measures limiting civil freedoms and allowing large corporations to exploit resources, as in Iraq, are connected to the interests of a small group of politicians from the Republican Party and their associated companies. In this sense, the differences between these countries are scandalous.

ML: What risk do cities take regarding international terrorism?

SS: Cities are now the favorite target. War inflamed hatred against the United States, like a boomerang effect. The youth of many suicidal terrorists is one proof that Iraq's defeat didn't demoralize extremists; they go on recruiting followers and intensify their attacks. The most recent attacks in Baghdad or Indonesia demonstrate that innocents are the ones who continue dying.

The Annual Report on Global Terrorism (2002), from the US State Department, notes that between 1993 and 2000, 94 percent of the injuries and 61 percent of deaths from terrorist attacks took place in cities. Several reasons explain this: these are centers of power, focus media attention, and are sufficiently complex to hide terrorist movements. The city has replaced the kidnapped airplane: the new target is the media show, not the enemy in person.

Cities like New York, London and Paris are targets for terrorism. Since last year, we can add Kabul, Riyadh, Casablanca, Bali֠Others such as Athens, Istanbul, Rome, Berlin, and Jerusalem belong to other global nets but are potential victims too.

Every attack broadcast by the media induces its repetition, a fact that creates a vicious circle. Neither politicians nor military leaders will take the biggest risks — urban populations will. While US policy provokes rage and hate from other cultures, cities will be targets for terrorist attacks. The US government is working very hard to make a world that is less safe for everyone.

Insecurity will also destabilize underdeveloped societies. Many poor countries suffered shocking economic policies, which desolated traditional national sectors. Now they will also have to pay the costs of an American policy against terrorism causing anger and desperation, an ideal breeding ground for violence. It would be naive to think that the rich and relatively safe countries in the North will escape the consequences of urban attacks. No matter how far away we may be, we cannot ignore the poverty, wars and diseases suffered by the South.

Miguel Lara Hidalgo: Cuban journalist resident in Buenos Aires-Argentina. BA. in Social Communication (University of Havana, 1998). Writings in newspaper and magazines from Cuba, Peru, US and Argentina. Director of Communication, Argentinean Association of Entrepreneurs. Ex-Journalistic Director of EMPRENDER TV program (Channel 7 Argentina). Ex-professor of the School of Communication at the University of Havana.

Saskia Sassen is a sociologist, demographer and economist. She teaches at both the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics, and is the author of Losing Control? Sovereignty in the Age of Globalization (2002), The Global City (2001), Guest and Aliens (1999), and Globalization and its Discontents (1998). Her works have been translated into twelve languages.

Copyright © 2004 by Miguel Lara Hidalgo. All rights reserved.

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