Review of Saskia Sassen’s Expulsions

Sassen, Saskia, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, The Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.3, No.1 (Jan-Apr, 2016), pp.51-3.


Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy
Saskia Sassen
Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
ISBN: 978-0-674-59922-2
298 pp.

Saskia Sassen focuses on two systemic shifts in the global economy to explain how brutality has produced the eponymous expulsions that inform the basic concept of this book. One of these is the ascendancy of finance capitalism and she remarks on “… the capacity of finance to develop enormously complex instruments that allow it to securitize the broadest-ever, historically speaking, range of entities and processes; further, continuous advances in electronic networks and tools make for seemingly unlimited multiplier effects (p.9).” The other relates to space: “… the material development of growing areas of the world into extreme zones for key economic operations. At one end this takes the shape of global outsourcing of manufacturing, services, clerical work, the harvesting of human organs and the raising of industrial crops to low-cost areas with weak regulation. At the other end, it is the active worldwide making of global cities as strategic spaces for advanced economic functions, this includes cities built from scratch and the often brutal renovation of old cities (p.9).” Both time and space, therefore, have been assaulted and wrestled to the ground by the forces of capitalism as they subject the world to a new stage of nature: first nature was the world before the impact of humanity; second nature was the world after humanity began to extract and take advantage of its resources; third and subsequent forms of nature are the world after capitalism has reshaped it so as to intensify capital accumulation. Inevitably, this form of creative destruction produces both winners and losers and it is Saskia Sassen’s claim that the losers are not only increasing in number but are being expelled from the system and from communities with ever increasing rapidity and brutality, with obvious implications both for inequality and for the inherent instability of the system.
She explores these themes through a series of empirically-based chapters which include issues of land ownership and degradation, the role of finance in the formation of permanent crises and the role of global climate change. She builds a powerful if somewhat unoriginal picture of a world in which through accumulation by dispossession, in various guises, millions are forced into becoming refugees while a tiny minority increasingly hoovers up all the wealth, resources and future available. These chapters are competently enough written but seem slightly underwhelming because customarily she offers so much more than the accumulation of evidence. So, we look to the conclusion for the conceptualization to take place. Here, she describes the systems considered in the book to be economic, social and biospheric and (given the two themes outlined above) they veer ever further away from geographical borders and, hence, are emblematic of the declining relevance of states vis-à-vis capital. This leads to the core hypothesis “… that the move from Keynesianism to the global era of privatizations, deregulations, and open borders for some, entailed a switch from dynamics that brought people in to dynamics that push people out (p.211).” This is evident both at the international scale and also at the national scale, where China, as a large nation, has demonstrated its own movement towards inequality that is locking people out of the overall economic wealth creation process. The unit of analysis in this case is the ‘systemic edge,’ because that is: “… the site where general conditions take extreme forms precisely because that is “… the site where general conditions take extreme forms precisely because it is the site for expulsion or incorporation (p.211).”

Having established this position, which has an attractive logic, Sassen can then broaden her analysis to cover the world from the early 1980s, which is approximately the moment when neoliberalism began to replace the previous rather successful (as Paul Krugman regularly argues) Keynesian economic settlement and concomitant social institutions. That settlement was fundamentally inclusive, as demonstrated by the rising wages and living standards for most sectors of society around the world. That this took place was not related to some kind of good old days phenomenon of moral decay so much as the awareness of the desperate need for peace and security after the horrors of the Second World War. People realised the need to build stable ties between countries and with communities to prevent those horrors recurring. That thinking has been replaced. Neoliberalism, of course, reduces all of the additional effects of work and of social arrangements to the lowest common denominator of money. People thereby become customers rather than clients, patients or passengers and the financial bottom line of the corporation is the master narrative of the age. In other words, “The relationship between today’s advanced capitalism and more traditional forms of market capitalism can, at the limit, be characterized as one of increasingly primitive accumulation: complexity and technical progress serve causes of brute simplicity (p.216).” This is a powerful argument and one which I would have liked to see developed further.

Sassen concludes by wondering about the ‘spaces of the expelled (p.222)’ and this consideration leads to a number of emergent questions which might have shed light on whether any of these effects might be eliminated or reversed. As is so often the case, the book is more concerned with what has happened and its problems rather than what might now be done to try to improve the world. However, the closing words do offer some sense of tempered optimism: “… the spaces of the expelled cry out for conceptual recognition. They are many, they are growing, and they are diversifying. They are conceptually subterranean conditions that need to be brought aboveground. They are, potentially, the new spaces for making local economies, new histories, and modes of membership (p.222).” Perhaps these will be addressed in another book.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University


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