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Beyond social exclusion: emerging logics of expulsion with Saskia Sassen

By James M Heather, on 23 June 2012

Professor Saskia Sassen

Professor Saskia Sassen

On 13 June, renowned sociologist Professor Saskia Sassen, who popularised the term ‘global city’, came to London’s Global University to give a talk on some of her current research.

Centring around the idea that in recent history changes to the socio-economic make-up of capitalist nations has brought about changes to the way society values and includes its members, the talk focused on how the dynamics and metrics of exclusion – and expulsion – have altered throughout much of our society, and largely for the worse.

We started by learning the definition of social expulsion, as opposed to exclusion. Imagine, if you will, those people that reside at the edge of a system (not necessarily a geographical edge). Exclusion would be the prevention of people outside of that system entering it. Expulsion, however, is the act of those already within the system being ejected from it, and finding themselves on the other side of the line.

This is what Sassen believes to be occurring at a tremendous pace today, visible in the growing numbers of poor, unemployed, disenfranchised and displaced peoples across the globe.

Sassen told how she was among those who began to see the genesis of this shift during research she performed in the 1980s. Upwards of a half-century or so before this, capitalist systems had increased the value that they placed on people. This was fuelled not by compassion, but consumerism, with the populace providing both labour and a market for the output of that labour.

Since then, however, systems have been changing, a dynamic she believes is apparent in the astronomic rise in such expulsion. She sees this change in human fortune as an indication of far larger, but less tangible, changes to global capitalism.

“[I] try to be a ‘savage’ sort of scientist,” was the claim, as Sassen has taken it upon herself to break down the superstructures she sees to be holding back research into this phenomenon by transcending technicalities, and destabilising stable lingual meanings.

According to Sassen, in order to discover new things about say, territories, we must first abandon our initial preconceptions of what a territory is – likely something nationally inclined – before we can then explore what meanings it might have free of that connotation.

While normally only glimpsed occasionally, by changing the analytic paradigm in this way, Sassen aims to better understand this systemic change, and its governing logic.

The lecture covered much ground, using evidence about the rise of mass surveillance, the financial crisis and immense rise in home foreclosures to underline the active production of inequality that is fuelling this boom in expulsion.

Hosted by the multidisciplinary UCL Institute for Global Health, the event – and institute’s – broad spectrum was reflected both by the diverse range of panel members and the questions posed by the audience.

Of particular interest to me was the contribution of panel member Professor Peter Goldblatt (deputy director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity), who bridged the subject of the talk with my own particular interest in global health. Goldblatt highlighted the associations between the distribution of wealth, power and resources and that of health provision.

Clearly, expulsion from the former must expel people from latter. If Professor Sassen is correct, much of this burden will be occurring in silence, and we must change the way that we think about these problems in order to understand, and solve them.

One Response to “Beyond social exclusion: emerging logics of expulsion with Saskia Sassen”

  • 1
    Damita Abayaratne wrote on 25 June 2012:

    In the United States, there are approximately 1,300 government organisations and 1900 private companies that carry out surveillance on US citizens. The scale of this surveillance is further illustrated by revealing that 30 trillion emails, sent within the US, have been studied by these groups to ensure our safety.

    The question that Professor Sassen drew from it was: “is it right that in order to make us safer ‘they’ set up a system to survey us all, and in doing so (makes) each person… a suspect?”, i.e. not a trustworthy member of society.

    I would like to make a slight objection to the words within this question, as I wonder if it is an oversimplification to ask about a “they” that surveils us?

    It may be that we have all internalised the value of surveilling each other, in which case there may be no separate “they” in this process? For example, isn’t Professor Sassen surveilling the surveillance system?

    I was also struck by what she had to say about housing foreclosures.

    Within the US, 9.2 million households (approximately 30 million people) have been evicted from their home as a result of lost trust in the sub-prime mortgage system. To illustrate the scale of this expulsion, Professor Sassen likened this to evicting the whole of the Dutch population twice over!

    Despite the size of this expulsion, most of this process is hidden from mainstream awareness. She asked how is it that we can have a system that can “render invisible this extraordinary eviction”?

    To explore this question Professor Sassen delves into the work of the brilliant people that work within the financial system. What I took home from her explanation on this point is that the financial system is a mechanism of “materialising” ideas by influencing human motivations.

    I’d like to attempt to take this final point on foreclosures a little further; noting that “foreclosure” was a term used by Jacques Lacan to describe a defence mechanism that is central to the development of psychosis.

    Perhaps what we are witnessing in this financial crisis is an outward manifestation of the psychosis of our collective psyche.

    It seems clear that these brilliant people that have influenced our financial system are brilliant at mathematics but not necessarily brilliant at holistically balancing human motivations. To be fair, it is possible that they have fulfilled a greater role that they were not aware of.

    Is there a way out of this psychosis? Could this crisis be a necessary cathartic point in the progressive realisation of friendly relations between individuals and nations? Will humanity have the luxury of choosing how this crisis plays out? I have no idea – do you?

    Damita Abayaratne, UCL Institute for Global Health

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