An Interview with Sociologist Saskia Sassen

Shift interview Sociologist Saskia Sassen about the politics of Globalisation and migration. Originally published in September 2010.

The question on the relationship between the national and the global is an interesting one to start with. Especially when we talk about globalisation, because the main idea is that globalisation destroys the national border and it becomes less important, but now we don’t see this. Borders are increasingly important.

Of course. The language of globalisation is pretty ambiguous, on the one hand, for me and this is critical politically and theoretically, most of the global happens inside the national but it is not recognised as global. What we recognise as global is mostly very powerful actors, the WTO, the IMF, the multinational corporations, the financial firms etc; and these actors produce a huge penumbra that hides and obscures all the other, the little presences if you want, and they also have the effect of disempowering. If you’re not one of them you’re out, you’re provincial, you’re a local, you’re immobile. I think that we have to change the language, the code through which we understand reality. So number one, globalisation has certainly opened the borders for flows of capital, information, certain kinds of products, outsourcing. It took law and making new kinds of regulation to enable these cross border flows. On the other hand we have also put in a lot of effort in building up the border vis-a-vis other flows.

The migration question is probably the most important one; so are the refugees. They often find closed borders when they most need to not encounter those borders. Secondly, something that has really not been noticed is that globalisation has produced a new kind of bordering, which is a bordering that cuts across the traditional borders and produces a space of cross-border circulation. But you can’t enter that space, it’s an elite space. For instance under the WTO, the NAFTA and all the other free trade agreements we have invented, we have made a subject with portable rights. This is a transnational professional class. They have special visas and all kinds of rights in all the WTO member countries. We have produced similar regimes for the IMF top level staff and the WTO. This means we can produce the capacity to create a subject with portable rights, something which many immigrant activists have asked for, to have portable rights; something which workers who depend on their employers for rights, for their insurance, also want. It’s a big movement in the UK to try to give portable rights to workers.

We have produced this subject, we’ve just made it elite. We have produced a new kind of bordering, this is just one example. There are multiple such borderings, where if you’re outside of this transnational zone you have no access. This is as tough a border to cross as some of these traditional, conventional borders. The point is that globalisation has actually produced a whole series of new borderings besides strengthening the old borders vis-a-vis the flows of migrant workers.

From this point of view what would the answer be? Would the answer be that of re-nationalisation, of bringing the nation-state back in?

No, I don’t think so. I think that we have a renationalising in the politics of membership, in other words anti-immigrant sentiment - “this is just for citizens” - we have strong renationalising tendencies. Structurally speaking there is much less of it than ideologically speaking. You see that also within the EU, the way the sovereign, the government speaks, they speak as if they have the capacity to control their borders vis-a-vis migration when in fact many of their competencies have shifted to the EU level. The government will take certain decisions, the legislator might approve those that restrict migration but then the international courts will eliminate them. We have very interesting conflicts of that sort. So that tells me that structurally speaking there is a greater amount of internationalism if you want, within the EU, than there is in the language and the politics. This includes that of the working classes which feel threatened because they don’t have jobs and then lateralise the conflict so they go against the other poor, the immigrants, rather than contesting.

But I do think that part of the role of this lies in a misconception about migrants. I think it’s very interesting in the case of the UK a report has come out that by this past summer, 50% of the Polish workers that had a right to come here had returned home. We need to create the possibilities for much greater circulation. There was a time when a lot of us who were politically active protecting the rights of immigrants, we contested the desirability of promoting circulation. But now we know, given the inbred racism and exclusion, that many migrants, perhaps a majority, would like greater flexibility to come in and out rather than being attached to one employer, which means that if they leave to go back home then they lose their job. Many of these immigrants live fuller lives in their home cities and villages than they may have in our fancier cities. So we have to revisit what was politically correct twenty years ago, when the notion of temporary work permits was seen as not empowering the immigrants. Many immigrants say “all I want is to work for three months, I don’t want to become a citizen of Germany or the UK, I just want to work here for three months and then go home where I have a real life”. That is a big shift, because this used to politically be an issue of empowering people for the sake of equality.

Now the other thing that I have long argued is that migrations do need to be governed, that’s different from controlled. I think that the attempt to control borders is a self-defeating proposition in two senses. One, you create a massive distortion such as the Mexico-US border, people often say it’s militarised but I think its weaponised, it’s an active weapon, the border is a weapon basically. The military are continually active, they have tribunals, research divisions. But a weapon is far more elementary. Again one of the issues that you’ve probably heard that I’ve said is this notion that we have enormously complex systems to produce elementary brutalities.

So, I think that what we have done at somewhere like the Mexico-US border is an immensely complex apparatus to produce an elementary brutality. Now, once you deal with humans that way, you basically can kill them or let them die in the desert. The notion that you only do that vis-a-vis the outsider is a fallacy, sooner or later it’s kind of a cancer inside of the system that is going to spread. So I say at some point this will affect us, the protected, the citizens. We now see in the United States where a lot of people who are being arrested for supposedly violating the border are citizens but the system is slow in reacting. So they are sitting in jail, we have 300,000 people sitting in jail in the last two years still waiting to get a hearing. They’ve not even been condemned, and some of them are citizens, but citizens who look like immigrants. I think this is a point in a trajectory that is unsustainable and when we are at a later stage in this trajectory we will look back and say “what happened there?”

So there is a difference between controlling and governing borders? Is this the idea that controlling borders is something that is essentially ideological? A case of controlling the global movement of black and white people? Whereas governance might stem from a more systemic necessity toward controlling and managing labour? We are wondering what your reasons are to support this idea of ‘governance?’

Well governance and governing are a bit different, governance is supposedly a system which goes beyond national. But I speak about governing in a very generic sense whoever the entities. Controlling is what we are doing now but it isn’t working and the actors involved have recognised this. There was a famous June meeting in Rabat almost two years ago, where for the first time thirty European and thirty African countries got together and discussed “how do we do this”. The enforcement of the borders is leading to enormous abuses in terms of other normative orders, human rights etc. It’s not just human rights though. We are trying to enforce a law and in that process governments are violating other laws. At some point the coding will include all these violations and it will become unsustainable. So, for me, the notion of governing means a whole bunch of elements but it certainly has to be a co-operation, the sending governments are also highly objectionable in a lot of things that they have done. They really don’t care. They haven’t done anything to develop. There is lots of corruption. We’ve got to find a system where multiple interests are brought into the picture.

At a much higher level - a really aspirational level - really doing away with borders, I don’t see that happening any time soon. So when I say governing I mean having a reasonable mix of elements so that you don’t also have borders with no controls which become a savage space, we don’t want that either. So I mean governing in the best sense of the term, not controlling but governing. This is a reality because in a way migrants, especially when a new migration begins, are a historical avant-garde which signals a reality, a change that is much larger than these people who are moving or their actions. I’m a bit of a structuralist; I think they move because something shifts and so then they migrate, and it’s always, mostly, a minority, an absolute minority that migrates. So that indicates something.

And as I have often argued, in my first book for example, we, the receiving countries, often build the bridges to export capital and our goods to the countries that then produce the migrants. And so you have all these old colonial patterns being reproduced. Often, then, the language of immigration suggests ‘here is a sending country’ and ‘here is a receiving one’, so immigration describes a certain part of the circuit. Whereas for the migrant, it might be the second half of a circuit that starts here in the ‘receiving’ country – but we never bring this in. So when we go to war, in Vietnam, say, or set up export processing zones in Haiti and in Dominican Republic, we assume that they’ll come. I often argue that, politically speaking, the language of immigration is so charged with content and with notions of how these migrations happen whereas often it’s an individual that decides to leave, for example and then it’s up to the receiving country to be nice or not so nice. But in fact it is us that have produced these actors. So we almost need another language in order to understand these complex processes.

If we are to govern then we have to recognise and understand their complexity, rather than this notion of “how do we make sure that not too many come”. That is not governing. Rather that is the idea that we have to control better and that we need countries to make sure that they control who comes and who doesn’t - that is a quota. That is a control system, or maybe governance. But by governing I mean a really rich, complex understanding.

So one of the things that I proposed in the U.S, a long time ago, is that whenever a new big international decision is made, a law, a statute, a piece of legislation is brought in, say outsourcing, or going to war, you should always have ‘immigration impact’ statements. If you are going to invade or set up operations in this country, you are building a bridge and the drug dealers, the people traffickers, whoever, are going to use it; they are the unexpected users of what we make. So when a national state takes international actions, there are consequences. Now in this case what is amazing in our current histories is of course, the combination of two things; one is the colonial past that is still operative in many ways. The other is what we did with neo-liberal policies in ‘sending countries’ where, over the last 30 years, we literally destroyed small, traditional operations that were very inefficient, but therefore of course, there were a lot of people hanging in there. So employment structures were like sticky webs; nobody could quite totally drop out. That is why countries that have long had poverty suddenly produce emigration. You can not reduce that emigration simply to poverty. Something else had happened to activate that poverty into a migration sending factor. Governing means taking all those complexities into factor. That means that in the case of the United States, the Pentagon and the State Department, they are also part of the story, it’s not just the Immigration Police.

And then coming back to the European Union, the big issue is that the EU does not have an immigration policy – when the EU goes for the asylum seeking or even the refugee convention, it reinserts itself in a really unilateral mode. Because the asylum seeking regime is opting out of the international refugee regime; a very well established regime, where the national state has responsibilities that cut across. The asylum seeking system allowed every state, individually, to do what they want, so you have all these different policies within the EU. So in some cases they gave you money, temporary work permits, but not in other countries. There again the EU has, very often, a civilising influence. So the EU said ‘we’ve got to standardise’. But still the asylum seeking regime gives the national state more arbitrary powers than the international refugee regime. If you don’t have a serious immigration policy and you have the potential for immigration – and you know, given that we destroyed their national economies and everything else – then you have these people trying to enter via the asylum regime and then they are straight into the unilateral hands of a state that is not entirely accountable to an international regime.

So the national state is the problem. It’s not a particular national state. It’s way beyond a political party. It is how a national state sees the world: absolute lack of internationalism, of a sense of interdependencies. That for me is at the heart of the intractability. That’s what I have been saying: there’s an ironic development of an internationalism in national states focused on global finance, on multinationals. Is that capability transferable to migrations? Can something happen that means we can start to be more intelligent about the environment, you know, anything that is a global commons, and migration is.

One of the things that we, as activists, as actors in a grassroots social movement, are very keen to do is to see migration as a social movement itself, as something that is autonomous from border control, and possibly from other forms of governance as well. We wondered what you think about that idea?

I think of these as aspirational projects that matter. It’s like when we think of citizenship as being about equality, it’s not a reality at all, it’s an aspirational project that matters. I also think that politically it is very interesting to think about this not as mobility, but as a political, social movement. I like that because again it gets beyond this thick category with all its excesses of meaning of immigration; you know, with these images of all the poor masses of the world that come that seek refuge in a generous country. My god let’s get out of that! Now I just gave you the hardcore side there, let’s be clear about that. But the other side then is ‘who is the migrant’. There’s this extraordinary book by a Spanish women named Natalia Ribas Mateos, she has a way of talking about the migrations between Tangiers and Spain. She captures a whole space that doesn’t fit into the traditional idea. She looks at these women, basically women, that are circulating. She captures a choreography of movements that are their own space, they don’t function as the typical image of the migrant, well of the immigrant, that is the really typical image. She also did a fantastic study on Albania. She studies the Mediterranean really as a space of connectivities rather than barriers. So I really like what you are saying, because it’s one way of extricating the subjects, in the postmodernist sense, an actor, not as a subject to, and recovering a subject that is not the “thick” immigrant. There’s something else there: each one of us is multiple subjects too, and the same thing with the immigrants. So we need to recover the grandmother, the woman that is the artist etc.

And then there is also the social movement. I like the notion that you can’t collapse the subject into “the immigrant”, which isn’t necessarily a bad word always - it’s very powerful. If we really want to create an opening of the mind then we really need to sometimes not use “the immigrant”, but say “the young artist”, “the old artist”, “the activist”, you know whatever it is. They are all those things. And frankly you know many of the activists are immigrants, certainly in the United States. Say for example organising in labour unions; that can be much easier when there are immigrants involved because there you have the community for solidarity etc. It’s re-humanising the immigrant in a way; and in this case, making an active actor. I really like that in what you are saying. But it’s really only a partial project, there are so many other versions of this.

Another thing we’d really like to talk about is the concept of the city that you use. Because we have the global, we’ve got Europe, we’ve got the nation. And then there’s a city, as a different space, where migration also plays a role, and maybe the city would govern migration differently?

Exactly. The city is a weak regime and the human rights regime is also seen as a weak regime. Right now I’m playing around with this idea of cities and the new wars: asymmetric wars, gang war, the new racisms, these are beyond a level of negatives that we associate with a normal situation. And what we are seeing in the US is serious, they’re just killing young immigrants, young gangs are killing, it’s just so extreme in the US right now, and in Germany, and here too a bit? Or maybe less so here. So the city is, number one, space, coming to Europe, a point that can be seen in its complexity as a weak regime that has its own governing impact. Now secondly the city is a sufficiently complex place that any given immigrant becomes multiple subjects in the course of the day: the parent brings the child to school, the worker, the person who meets with friends. You de-naturalise the immigrant. It’s not just the immigrant, if you describe a day in the city, you move through many spaces, each of which has its own complex reality and the person fits into that. And finally it’s a space for a kind of informal politics; protests against a landlord who is gentrifying, against police violence, where the citizen, the migrant, the tourist, they’re all there, they become the demonstrators. The city is also an interesting space for the making of new types of political subjects, political actors, often very “light” political actors, whereas if you organise on a farm in California, there is no “light”, you become immediately the rebel, the troublemaker. In a city it is all so much more diffuse, there are all these multiple worlds. So I think always of the city as a space for the making of new types of politics, of informal political actors.

The financial firms are also informal political actors, because financial firms, multinational corporations are private personas, literally. They are not supposed to be in the business of doing politics, but the CEOs themselves directly do politics, we know that. And finally, there is no central planner, no central powerful urban government, or it’s a national government like in Tokyo or Beijing. So the Chinese have, in Shanghai, a controlled project, they removed forcibly 3 million people from the centre of Shanghai in order to build 700,000 high rise buildings, now that is a controlled project. Every day you have dozens of revolts, of all sorts, but the government has accepted this. They have also some intelligent people in the central committee that have said, no, never again in Shanghai. So those to me are natural experiments that show that the city is an interesting space. And there is of course a lot more to be said.

Now something else in my work that might be interesting to you is this analysis, there are two elements of it, where I argue that there are citizens who are authorised, they are authorised by law, but they are not fully recognised, they are minoritised citizens. And then on the other hand there are unauthorised citizens in a city, undocumented immigrants, and they have lived there for a long time, they’ve raised families, they participate in the daily routines of the neighbourhood, which may have mainly citizens. So although they are unauthorised they are recognised. And I juxtapose those two extremes, it’s an interesting space. And there is a material base to this, it is not just a projection, an interpretation, because throughout their material daily practices they have built the material ground for their being recognised, by their neighbours etc. And then I go further, you must have come across this yourself, there is this standing joke among immigration experts that when an amnesty is declared or implemented you need to have violated the law for at least a solid 10 years to qualify. We all used to say they’re irrational and we laughed. And now I have totally reinterpreted this, and I say, you know what, time, 10 years, whatever, stands for all these material practices. So that the unauthorised immigrant has actually built the material ground for the law, the possibility of giving her amnesty, and that’s a heavy word. So rather it’s not the irrationality of the law, it’s rather that 10 years stands for the active making of the grounds for being incorporated. And that points out something very interesting for the practices of social movements. And we know this from squatting, at least we did in the good old days, that if, in the Roman code, you possess something for 20 years, it is yours, by law. So there is something about time, temporalities, on the side of the powerless that is a very interesting issue. It’s a sort of structural condition recognised in law that can really work if migrants begin to construct themselves as a certain type of actor, like social movements, or whatever. We have to consider time, it’s a trajectory. So now it may seem like a purely aspirational project, as I was saying, but in some years, it might actually have constructed a new type of subject. We have this in Europe I would say, we have SOS-Racisme and all of these other organisations that have been around for decades. And there’s the sans-papiers, now obviously sans-papiers is a broad category, but those who are the activists, it seems that these days they have become a kind of category of their own, they make a forceful claim that they have the right to stay. That possibility also comes out of all the work that SOS-Racisme has done, and this question of time. And now I’m speaking as a theorist, but these are ways that you can unpack this “thick” subject that is either loved or hated that is “the immigrant”, that loses her humanity, certainly at this end. Anyhow, I think we’ve said it all.

"Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Member, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University ( Recent books are Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press 2008) and A Sociology of Globalization (W.W.Norton 2007). For UNESCO she did a five-year project on sustainable human settlement with a network of researchers and activists in over 30 countries, as part of the 14 volume Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (Oxford, UK: EOLSS Publishers) [ ]."