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.

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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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Capitalism: A Ghost Story

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Capitalism: A Ghost Story

Roy, Arundhati

London and New York, NY: Verso, 2014

ISBN: 9-781784-780319

127 pp.

In her latest collection of political writings, Arundhati Roy (whom it is obligatory to refer to as the Booker prize-winning author of The God of Small Things) describes the impact of the great transformation on Indian society. People and communities move from a situation in which many institutions play a role in their lives, including religion, social relations, recreation, work and the market, to one in which the market is the predominant institution in which they take the roles of producers and consumers. Capitalism brings all the joys of creative destruction, which many of course are unable to deal with and suffer as a result. Not the least of these is those who are displaced by the creation of the new geography of the emerging nation:

“The Dholera SIR [special investment region] is only one of the smaller Matryoshka dolls, one of the inner ones in the dystopia that is being planned. He will be connected to the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), a 1,500-km-long and 300-km-wide corridor with nine megaindustrial zones, a high-speed freight line, three seaports, six airports, a six-lane intersection-free expressway, and a 4,000-mw power plant (pp.16-7).”

I am aware of this from my own experience of visiting the Greater Noida region every year for the BIMTECH case study conference. Greater Noida incorporates a very extensive area of urbanization, in which industrial estates, residential areas, roads and educational institutions (but precious little functioning retail space) have been built on land once farmed by villagers. Those farmers were evicted and have subsequently launched a campaign of obstruction and stone-throwing that has disrupted construction over the past few years. If they have suffered from capitalism, then their situation under pre-capitalism – or feudalism – was hardly desirable either:

“In India the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-International Monetary Fund (IMF) ‘reforms’ middle-class – the market – live side by side with spirits of the netherworld, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains, and denuded forests; the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than twenty Indian rupees a da (p.8).”

Roy considers a wide range of issues in this slender volume, moving from the undermining of progressive institutions by right wing money to the reasons why Afzal Guru was put to death by the state at the time he was for his supposed involvement in the Parliament Attack of 2001. He of course was from Kashmir and it is that region, which Roy describes as the most heavily militarized in the world, that stands at the centre of the book. The abuses of the state, which are well-documented, are symbolic of the relationship between it and the poor and working-class Indian people. They are treated as expendable and demonized as terrorists if they resist depredation (there is a lot of this sort of stuff about). The author is known as an activist and suffered from ill-treatment by organized mobs for protesting against abuses of power and from pointing out inconvenient truths: “India hopes to manage [Kashmir] with the usual combination of force and poisonous Machiavellian manipulation designed to pit people against one another. The war in Kashmir is presented as a battle between an inclusive secular democracy and radical Islamists (pp.90-1).” Yet, she argues, it is Saudi money going in to the madrassas and there is precious little evidence that external interventions in the Kashmir-Pakistan-Afghanistan region have resulted in positive outcomes.

The book ends with a brief speech given to the Occupy movement in the USA. As with that movement and many other progressive movements, Roy is sharp and clinical in identifying what is wrong but less forthcoming when it comes to providing a practical manifesto of actions to improve the situation. She is far from the only worker to display this lack of practicality and, in fairness, this is not a book that promises political solutions. However, while contributing to the pessimism of the intellect for which Gramsci called, it does not help much with the optimism of the spirit for which he hoped.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Review of John Gray’s False Dawn

Gray

This 2009 edition of John Gray’s work, originally published in 1998 in the wake of the East Asian financial crisis, comes equipped with a new foreword in which the author is able to reflect on the accuracy of his prescriptions as demonstrated by the current global economic crisis. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any greater level of willingness in the political classes of the world to pay attention to the reality of world events and the way the economy works than there was ten or even thirty years ago, when the bane of neoliberalism first became the dominant mode of discourse.

Read the full review here.

Review of Harvey’s Spaces of Global Capitalism

David Harvey has become increasingly well-known in recent years as a public intellectual articulating the connections between geographical space and capitalism, in addition to providing the excellent series of podcasts exploring the first and, now, second volumes of Capital. In this book, which was first published in 2006, a short introduction precedes the three main sections which are joined together to create both a commentary on the contemporary world and, particularly with respect to the second section, an exploration of the state of his thinking with respect to the theory of uneven development and the nature of its relationship with late capitalism.

Read the full review here.

Review of Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising

In her extraordinary series of Francis Lymond novels, Dorothy Dunnett portrayed a man capable of taking full advantage of the glories of western Europe in one of its most vigorous and self-confident periods. To follow that series, she then began on the House of Niccolo, of which Niccolo Rising is the first, and set it some century prior to the time of Lymond as a means of exploring how that vigorous Europe came about and who were the men (and women) who shaped it.

Read the full review here.

Okhna Mong Port Co. Ltd. in G.D. Sardana and Tojo Thatchenkery, eds., Building Competencies for Sustainability and Organizational Excellence

Announcing: Walsh, John, “Okhna Mong Port Co. Ltd.,” in G.D. Sardana and Tojo Thatchenkery, eds., Building Competencies for Sustainability and Organizational Excellence (Macmillan: New Delhi, 2011), pp.253-61.

It’s the same abstract as the one from a few posts ago but I am going to put in back again:

Okhna Mong Port Co. Ltd. is part of Cambodia’s Mong Reththy Group and was created in 2002 to develop some 64 hectares of land in the southwest of the country as a private sector port, integrated with special economic zone, resort area and other facilities. Cambodia has been moving towards the factory age or the East Asian Economic Model, in which low labour costs provide competitiveness for large-scale manufacturing of mostly low value-added products primarily aimed at exporting. Clearly, an efficient port and attendant infrastructure will be of great assistance in promoting industrialization of the country. Further, infrastructure is an enabling technology that should provide benefits to anyone who wishes to take advantage of it, from individuals right up to the largest corporations. However, there is some concern that making this vital part of the country’ economic development solely part of the private sector is a form of the new enclosure of the commons and that, since it will reduce the role and effectiveness of state agencies within its confines, workers’ rights and protections will be compromised. This case study uses thick description of the Cambodian market, in the context of Mekong Region industrialisation more generally, to analyse the extent to which infrastructure provision is likely to benefit the country as a whole, the equitable distribution of new income opportunities and the social development of the country. Students will be asked to consider whether the existing public-private relationship may be considered to be optimal and what alternatives might be suggested. Additionally, they will be encouraged to debate the various routes to economic development and which of these should be chosen both by Cambodia and by other countries facing the same developmental goals.

Keywords: Cambodia, infrastructure, corruption, economic development, government