Global cities, climate change, and academic frontiers
Today marks the 3rd anniversary of FreshEd. To celebrate, we are going to air our first ever FreshEd Live event where Saskia Sassen joined me for a conversation about her life and work.
Saskia Sassen is a professor at Columbia University. In 1991, she published the now classic book called The Global City where she chronicled how New York, London, and Tokyo became the centers in the new digital economy. What she focused on was the rise of intermediary services that allowed corporations to operate globally. Instead of seeing place as no longer necessary in the digital economy, she saw certain cities as physical sites that became more important than ever in the global economy.
For Sassen, intermediaries concentrated in certain parts of the city and relied on high-level knowledge, like algorithmic mathematics. In New York City, financial services took over lower Manhattan. This left a peculiar reality for the physical buildings in the city.
As a result, many people who didn’t work in intermediary services were expelled from those parts of the city. And yet, despite this expulsion by intermediaries, new forms of inclusion were created.
Today’s show was recorded at Musashi University during the Third Japanese Political Economy Workshop organized by Nobuharu Yokokawa.
Citation: Sassen, Saskia, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 131, podcast audio, October 22, 2018.https://freshedpodcast.com/sassen/
Will Brehm 3:26
Well, Saskia Sassen, thank you very much for joining us today, for being the first guest on FreshEd live.
Saskia Sassen 3:33
Oh really? I’m a first.
Will Brehm 3:35
So, I actually wanted to, based on your conversation today; your lecture primarily about New York City and the global city, I wanted to situate us in Tokyo where we’re sitting currently. When was the first time you were in Tokyo?
Saskia Sassen 3:50
It must have been in the early 1980s.
Will Brehm 3:54
Saskia Sassen 3:55
Right. And Tokyo was in transformation. You know, it was really changing, just beginning. It was a lot of construction. The Yakuza were busy burning down little houses in the center of Tokyo because they wanted to put towers. And it is quite a … and New York City was the same situation: A lot of burning down of little houses so that they could put high rise buildings. So, when I arrived in Tokyo … the Tokyo always is form of civilized, you know, then, but there was a lot of activity and I spent time in the daily labor camp in Yokohama. That was an experience. I mean I learned so much. It was an amazing experience for me. And Professor Toshoyotani was a very important part of this, and there were some others.
Will Brehm 4:51
And so, in your article, you say that Tokyo was a city that exported the raw commodity we call money. Can you tell us what you mean by that? What do you mean by the raw commodity of money versus New York being sort of the financial intermediary?
Saskia Sassen 5:09
In a sense that it was just, there was a lot of capital here, in the form of money. You know, whereas in New York, they had all this huge stock money, and they were inventing instruments that would produce other valuations. So, Tokyo for a while, really exported a lot of just money, I mean, currency, to New York, I don’t know if to London, I can’t remember that part, but certainly to New York. But it was also the fact that that money in New York, given the new instruments that were being invented, that money could generate far higher levels of profits than what was happening in Japan where it was basically a traditional mode still. Eventually that changes, but for a while there when I came here, that is what was happening. Now what was also happening when I came here was that you began to see a lot of foreign experts, mostly from London and New York, who were beginning to introduce other modalities. Where you don’t just lend money with an interest rate, but you actually produce instruments that can escalate the value of an existing pile of currency.
Will Brehm 6:24
And this would be the intermediation?
Saskia Sassen 6:26
And this would be a form of intermediation, that is correct.
Will Brehm 6:29
So, in a sense intermediation – the intermediary services that you were talking about as being sort of one of the distinguishing features of global cities weren’t necessarily here in the 80s, but eventually emerge in Tokyo?
Saskia Sassen 6:43
Well, what I remember, because I played the role of ‘stupid blonde’. Literally. I dyed my hair, and I conducted myself like I am not. For starters, I raised my voice, “No, are you really telling me that? No. Really? Tell me more. This is so interesting. Shall we have a drink?”
Will Brehm 7:10
And it worked?
Saskia Sassen 7:11
Well, I found out a lot of stuff. I could not publish all of that. No, I can see that this was a misunderstood statement that I just gave. No, no, I mean, you know, some of these things I couldn’t, because it was insider knowledge. I mean, people really talked to me, I can tell you. And I looked younger than I really was, and I conducted myself as stupid. And it really works with men.
I don’t mean to offend. Not nowadays, that would not happen nowadays. But yes, so that was just one tactic. When I went to the daily labor camps, I did not conduct myself like stupid, and I would walk there and the Yakuza, they kept walking around me. I walked, you know, they walked too, but then I conducted myself neutral, no speech. And there was this priest that then got murdered. He was a Catholic priest from Philippines, and he was an activist in this camp in Yokohama, and the Yakuza killed him because he was fighting for the rights of those … you know, there were a lot of these were homeless, older men. But among them also were students who had been students at the top university, Tokyo University, who had been fighting so that there was no extension of the airport. Remember, which meant that they were protecting the fields of farmers. And a lot of the students were expelled from Tokyo University, and they wound up in daily labor camps. By the time I got to them, they were already, they were not 25 years old, they were more like, I think, 35 years old. And they look really broken. And so, the daily labor camp in Yokohama for me is a major experience. So, for instance, I remember it … so they put me in a safe house, with a priest and some other people – activists. And what I remember is that there was no water in this room. A whole night without being able to have any water. Now I suffered; the others who are there, they were all men. They evidently were used to that. But you know that that experiencing the daily labor camp put me in very close touch with the kind of hardship, that is a routinized hardship, not the drama of “Oh, my god”, no sort of, this was the daily routine. And I mean I just learned a lot. And then I also went to the big daily labor camp in Osaka, which was a very different type of camp actually from Yokohama, you know. So yes, that visit of mine that lasted many, many months, it was an amazing experience. I spent nights in safe houses of young girls who were brought in for the sex trade. I got to know a Tokyo that many of you probably never saw.
Will Brehm 10:23
And what did that tell you about the global city, this emerging idea?
Saskia Sassen 10:28
Cities are that. Cities are spaces where just about everything is present. It’s just amazing. It is that way. And … did I answer your question?
Will Brehm 10:41
Yes, so it’s interesting. Your work has often been about the abuses of power that are lawful rather than fraudulent and illegal.
Saskia Sassen 10:49
Yes. Very nice, very nice that you picked up on that. I’m really interested in how the law has itself enabled abuses. But they’re all legal.
Will Brehm 11:01
Right, and you end up exploring a lot of these expulsions and sort of new forms of inclusions that result from those people who have been expelled in certain places. I actually want to change the focus slightly to thinking about the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN report that just came out, that basically offered a very dire warning about climate change, and yet never mentioned the word ‘capitalism’, and did not see economic growth as part of the problem creating this climate change that is so dire. So, I wanted to ask a little bit about what sort of exclusions and maybe even inclusions, maybe in the urban space in these global cities, that you see vis-à-vis climate change?
Saskia Sassen 11:50
Well, I mean one thing that I’m deeply involved with is relocalizing whatever we can relocalize. We’re now dealing with an intermediate actor, who basically … these are concrete examples … imports: English, or UK milk, to Germany, and Germany exports German milk to the UK, and the milk is more or less the same. And that goes for all kinds of very elementary. And now they have expanded. It used to be just smaller. Now the geography goes to Australia. The intermediary actors involved here; they never lose; they gain from that trade. The rest – the planet, the local farmers – they lose. So, the reason I emphasize so much these intermediaries, because intermediaries have a hard time losing. You know, they intermediate. And so, whether that is in high finance, or that is in this kind of trading of very simple foods – this has not even elaborated food. And the intermediaries make money. Every time they have to take the milk all the way to whatever, you know, to Australia – as if Australia didn’t have milk – they make money. The losers are the ones who are fixed. So, this, to me is a big issue. And of course, high finance is a brilliant, admirable form of knowledge that is functioning as an intermediary. Also, again, difficult for them to lose, but others are paying a price for that.
Will Brehm 13:34
So, what can be done? I mean, it seems like the power is really resting in these intermediaries.
Saskia Sassen 13:41
So, at the most general level, my basic answer is, “No formal system of power has lasted forever.” So, I’m hoping that eventually this will crack. And my sense is the first indication was the derivatives. I talked about that right? The derivatives losing a lot of ground. They’ve been around for quite a while. And they are now sort of messing out of it. So that, it’s not bad that that sort of ends. But I do think that we need new law, and we need to get rid of a few old laws. This is an almost impossible project. And I’m just talking now about the West, because I really don’t know in Japan how that all works. But I do think we need to act.
I also think that our political classes, even the well-intentioned one, are having a very hard time. There is so much specialized expertise right now that it does not make it easy for the political classes, even the well-intentioned ones, to actually make corrections. That leads me to say that we really need a few experts of major sectors among our political classes, which will change the tenor of the liberal democratic model, right. But now we are confronting a situation where when the political class like the Congress in the United States, when they have a big trouble by something that is happening in high finance, etc. Whom do they invite to discuss the matter? You guessed it right, the high financial firms. These firms then trot in the most complex analyses, which then again persuade the people who are trying to change the story. I mean, the politicians, persuade the politicians, “Yes, we don’t understand that, we cannot do that, we have to delegate to them.” They have done this with the digital, they have done this with finance, they have done this with Facebook. They have done this … You know, that is truly a problem. It tells me that this mode of the political, which has really been quite reasonable in many, many ways. Right now, one major absence that needs to be corrected and addressed is we need a bit of experts among our political classes who are sitting in Congress, who are making decisions, who have the power to insist that this is not good, etcetera. But you need knowledge, you need expertise. So that means the transformation in how we elect. This is not going to be easy, but I do think the time has arrived. I mean, I really am deeply troubled by the level of incapacity among so many legislators to understand what the hell is happening. Excuse the “hell” there.
Will Brehm 16:43
So, does this mean that politicians are going to have to understand algorithmic mathematics?
Saskia Sassen 16:48
No, but you want a few. We actually need, like having Elizabeth Warren – you know, she is one of our members, she is an expert on consumer finance. Now, consumer finance happens to be not the most complex, and it’s just one sliver. But it’s great to have her. She understands something that most of the other colleagues don’t understand. We need a few. I also think that we need people who don’t know anything about politics or anything in Congress in a liberal democratic system. But we also need expertise. So right now, all the complex, like high finance, the complex sides of the digital, they’re free to do what they want, more or less. Every now and then they are called, like, what happened with Facebook, for instance. But still, it is … And you know again, sort of on a more general level, no formal system of power or of regulation has lasted forever. Why should this one? And secondly, this question of how do our complex types of systems change? How visible is that change? Very difficult to track. And so, if it is the case that complex systems change often by shifting familiar capabilities to a different organizing logic, what the average citizen sees is the capabilities; they are the same and nothing has changed, but in fact, a profound transformation. And sort of my analysis, you are there, launched a bit in the territory book also, is that complex systems change by changing a few things, not by changing everything. So, we have entered a new epic. For me, the 1980s marks a real transformation that had been brewing already before that, that keeps on brewing, but it is a change. And again, mostly everything looks more or less the same, because this is the nature of the animal that doesn’t preclude that a certain type of transformation has happened.
Will Brehm 19:02
So, this is a podcast about education, so I would be remiss not to talk to you about education for my last question.
Saskia Sassen 19:08
I’m an educator. (Laughs.)
Will Brehm 19:13
I read your first-hand account in Disobedient Generation, and I was very struck …
Saskia Sassen 19:19
I think they deleted the most controversial part.
Will Brehm 19:22
Oh, really? I’d like to read them. What were they about?
Saskia Sassen 19:27
Oh, we don’t want to talk about that.
Will Brehm 19:30
Fair enough. But one thing that struck me was how you seem to be always on the cutting edge of theory, but not necessarily the popular fads. So, when you were in Paris, you weren’t chasing Deleuze for instance. You were off with another scholar, D’Hondt.
Saskia Sassen 19:47
Yes, Jacques D’Hondt.
Will Brehm 19:50
D’Hondt. So, I want to ask today, who are the theorists that you’re reading that you think all of us in the audience should also be reading but who aren’t being read? So, in other words, who are the important academics currently being overlooked?
Saskia Sassen 20:06
You know, that is not an easy question for me to answer, number one. Number two, if I answer it, I’m at risk of offending battalions of people. So, we could have a little private conversation.
Will Brehm 20:22
Saskia Sassen 20:25
But spare me … No, look what I like right now, I have this thing that I developed. I’m sorry, I’m interrupting myself. But I say, the heart of the paradigm is still strong, a paradigmatic knowledge in many different disciplines. But it’s losing grip, in a world there are sufficient transformations. So, I say I am not rejecting the paradigm. But I want to be at the fuzzy edges of the paradigm, where the paradigm is weak. I don’t want to be in the center. Number two, in the social sciences, being at the center of the paradigm … you know, this is a mode of research that starts 50 years ago, 60 years ago. It is far weaker today than it was when it started. When it started, it really helped. It illuminated, it added knowledge, etc. Now, we’re talking about a little, little debates in the this against the that. I am not part of that; I am not interested. “Oh, but you said that, but you know that’s wrong, because…” No, we have to really renovate the paradigmatic mode, we cannot lose it, we need that and there is no doubt in my mind. But again, the fuzzy edges of the paradigm where the paradigm loses grip, and other paradigmatic edges come into play, that is where I like to be. And that is why I often combine different forms of knowledge. And out of that you see something emerges that is neither any of those, nor the sum of those, it’s something else. And that could be a bridge. It doesn’t always work out, by the way, but it can be a bridge into seeing it differently. So, when the work on the global city had that in it also. But I want to say for the young academics in the audience. That includes you, OK?
The paradigmatic matters, number two: If you fight it too hard; I did that with my first book. My first book, I sent it out, I was sure it was going to get published. Back came very interesting stuff. “Where does it fit?” Twelve rejections; I kept sending it out. In the meantime, I was writing The Global City, so I was totally engaged by that. But that, you know, I kept getting … and I said “No way. I’m not going to give up, even if it takes 65 mailings.” But it took 12. When I look at my doctoral students today, after three rejections, they think that they have a problem. Now very often that might be the case, but finally, there is my Mobility of Labor and Capital book which I really liked that book. And it was published in Japanese also. But the system has a hard time with an author who steps a bit too far out of the sort of the heart of a discipline. It is changing. I think we now have publishers who are actually actively interested in those that, and I have a list of those for my students, try them etcetera. So, that is also very nice. So, there is a sense that the stability of the paradigm in many different disciplines is a bit weakened.
And that is healthy when a culture can recognize that, but most professors that I know of in the United States, they still keep writing within a certain mode and a little wrinkle here and a little wrinkle there. And that accumulates knowledge, and in a way that is very useful for me. But I myself, I have a hard time doing that. I don’t know what it is with me. You know, I grew up in six languages; I don’t speak a single language perfectly. I love that for a professor. So, I am inevitably an explorer at the edges of the paradigm so to speak.
Will Brehm 25:01
Well Saskia Sassen, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. Really wonderful to talk today.
Saskia Sassen 25:06
Wonderful, wonderful speaking with you.