Responding to Saskia Sassen, February 6, 2018

Robert Gottlieb was a respondent to a talk by Saskia Sassen at Occidental College on February 6, 2018. Here’s his comments:

I’ve been influenced by Professor Sassen’s work for more than three decades, particularly her invaluable work on global cities. With her latest book, I find her compelling governing metaphor of “expulsions” (or what she calls its “material realities”) to be useful and challenging for the work I’m engaged in today.  She sees the transformation of global cities “as strategic spaces for advanced economic functions,” including those cities built from scratch or “brutally renovated”. That framework applies directly in our Global Cities book on Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and China in considering the changes in China’s Pearl River Delta where a city like Shenzhen was literally built from scratch (and is now a key hub as the third largest port in the world thanks to the transformation of China and the PRD into a global export manufacturing and transshipment center). It can be applied to cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou where literally millions of people from rural areas migrated to those cities in search of jobs and settled at the edge or within the urban core to create their own villages in the city Those migrations, in turn, led to panic and policies aimed at dismantling those areas, another form of expulsion. It also applies to the restructuring of Hong Kong which exported its polluting industries to the PRD and whose financiers have played an outsized role in directing those shifts taking place in China. Hong Kong is moreover a place that has one of the worst air quality problems, is water dependent on China, and also has some of the worst inequalities in the world represented by the gap between the poorest and the richest, including those from China who park their money in Hong Kong, and Los Angeles as well.

Professor Sassen also identifies the ascendance of financialization as a form of expulsion with its invasion of more and more non-financial sectors. This includes the privatization of public resources and public spaces or more broadly what Professor Sassen calls “life spaces.” This can occur in the most intimate of settings (for example, decisions about dating, parenting, elder care, or even marriage, as Arlie Hochschild has effectively identified). And it can happen at the national and global scale as land, water, forests, food, and even climate are auctioned off and “securitized.” Financialization facilitates expulsions – dead water, dead land, home expulsions, vast numbers of people in prison, displacements from communities through gentrification, and refugees displaced from their nations and who are constantly crossing borders.

There is a forbidding tone in Expulsions; the specter of financialization and expulsions that march their way through all life spaces and everyday life. Crises like the Great Recession and climate change only make matters worse. We are left with that dead land, dead water, fleeing refugees; indeed a planet in peril. Donald Trump has moved the needle ever closer to a midnight of wastelands, his political game plan a call for yet more expulsions, his economic agenda, a wish to make even more ascendant the Goldman Sachs of the world.

Yet Professor Sassen is not a fatalist; she calls out for a conceptual recognition of the spaces of the expelled; to bring aboveground what has been disguised. She calls for new spaces to be made through the making of “local economies, new histories, and new modes of membership,” which are the concluding words in her book. It requires, I would argue, a new language of resistance that can translate into an agenda of social change across borders.

Let me give two examples of what these new spaces might entail. One involves the work of our sister group in San Diego, the Environmental Health Coalition. This 35 year old rooted social and environmental justice group has sought to identify an agenda of change to remake communities like Barrio Logan not far from the port of San Diego, and Colonia Chilpancingo adjacent to the maquiladora factories through EHC’s border environmental justice program. The second example involves the participants in the goods movement and global trade-oriented Moving Forward Network; groups in places like Wilmington, Mira Loma, West Long Beach, and the City of Commerce in Southern California and their sister organizations like EHC in San Diego, Tejas in Houston, and others across the US and in communities around the world. These are groups challenging the global trade and goods movement system – the ships, ports, trucks, rail yards and warehouses engaged in forms of expulsions that have created dead zones and diesel sacrifice zones on behalf of export industries in China and the big box stores like Walmart in the U.S. Each of these places of expulsion are toxic areas that through the organizing and community mobilizations are being made visible and then challenged. In the process, these groups seek to create new spaces within the old. Yet this is not just an organizing strategy. It is an effort in its early stages to create a new paradigm; not a sense of place but a reinvention of place. It is a search for a passageway towards Professor Sassen’s new local economies, new histories, and new modes of membership.

In reading Professor Sassen, I was struck by another book I read a few weeks ago called “Exit West” by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid. Hamid writes of the experience of Saeed and Nadia, two people facing continuous expulsions, from civil war battlefields, refugee camps in the Greek island of Mykonos, to a London suburb where immigrants are terrorized, to their eventual displacement to the Bay Area. The passageways to these places for Nadia and Saeed are through magical doors. Their stories then are not about the refugee and immigrant journeys but speak to the realities of displacement – of expulsions — in each of the places from where the doors need to be opened and where they lead. Yet, like Professor Sassen, Hamid’s book, though a story of brutality and complexity, does not signify an end. Instead, he writes of a future where people can be able to find “things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and [where] plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now.” These need to be the places and biospheres made visible and reinvented. We need to not only challenge and stop the expulsions, I would argue, but recreate and reconstruct the communities, environments, and economies where people can dwell and regain their life spaces.


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