Histories of Violence: The Expulsion of Humanity

THIS IS THE 25th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Saskia Sassen, who is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. Her most recent book is Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Harvard University Press, 2014).


BRAD EVANS: Your work has attended in rigorous detail to the multiple ways marginalization and social abandonment take place across the planet. I was particularly taken by the concept of “expulsions,” which was the title of your latest book. Rather than seeing marginalization as merely arbitrary, this concept links it directly to human decisions and the operations of power. Was this part of the intention when developing this project?

SASKIA SASSEN: Yes! I found that a mere range — i.e., more of this or that — is not enough to capture the more extreme conditions. These extreme conditions can, of course, also be described as “more poverty” and such. But I wondered if there are ruptures — as when you lose a leg … that is a rupture; but in a way some might argue that well, you still have one leg, and look what all kinds of people who have lost a leg can actually do! In a way, we have interpreted the growing inequality evident in the United States, and so many other countries, as a bit more of the same — a bit more inequality than 10 years ago, a bit more expensive housing, and so on. And that is where my engagement with the question of dead land allowed me to argue for radical ruptures. There is something taking place here that’s more devastating than the “more than” account to survey the everyday archipelagos of human misery. And it also takes a kind of weird courage as an academic to decide that “a bit more inequality” is not enough to capture what we should see as a new reality, a reality that breaks with the past even if it just looks as if it is simply “a bit more inequality, a bit more misery, a bit more homelessness.”

In many ways, in fact, the statistics continue to hide more than what is being revealed. The numbers often appear “inclusive,” and yet it is in the drama of being expelled — truly expelled regardless of the numbers — that the violence of invisibility sets in. The lived experience of the truly destitute, those for whom the term “expulsion” continually applies, remains beyond the realms of visibility; even if we glimpse from time to time the violence of its hunger, peoples systematically starved of all possible opportunities.

Recognizing the many ways in which human life is rendered disposable on a daily basis, how does the concept of expulsions speak directly to narratives of violence?

Expulsions got me out of the infamous more inequality, more poverty, and more homeless mode of human quantification. No. It’s not ethically right to sustain this more than/less than understanding on the quality of life. At some point, we are dealing with a rupture, a deep one, what we might call a systemic rupture. We have always had inequality, and any complex system is marked by differences, though these need not aim at privileging some types of workers or people and destroying others.

Here is one possible interpretation of our current period — at least in the West. By West, broadly understood, I include Latin America, parts of Africa and Asia with North America and Europe, supposedly the “good pupils” of the system (no matter the raging poverty and alienation that are also present).

Complex systems are not easy to decode. At its most extreme, you might need new language to capture a transformation in a complex system, especially if it is a foundational transformation. But in such complex systems (think any of our societies in the so-called developed world) it can be very difficult to detect a major rupture. If a dam breaks down, you can see it. If a car stops working, you can see it. But if a deep switch of logics is happening in one of our societies, you cannot necessarily see it (even if it reveals subtle traces). You can of course see a revolution taking place in the standard meaning of the term, but much change can happen in our societies that is not in the shape of a revolution or where the revolutionary contours are less self-evident to established forms of power …

Could it be, as I argue in Expulsions, that something we have long lived with, is dead, finished? What does it mean to proclaim the death of anything social or political? A society where the modest and middle “middle classes” are at the heart of the society, the biggest sector of a society, as we have experienced it in the West for much of the 20th century, is facing the kind of rupture I have in mind.

The loss of this middle cannot be simply measured by its relative share in wealth and production alone. We are witnessing the end of a development. It is in the process of ending as it appeared for nearly a century. The ground beneath it is gone. Think of the old-style big corporations, which employed in-house all the types of workers they needed, more or less. This meant that a hard-working worker could actually move up the scale. That was a good system, where the hard work of the lower levels and the poorer workers could actually be recognized and rewarded. That is mostly gone. Hard-working low-level workers are barely recognized, because they have become invisible — they may be working in Bangladesh, or in Brooklyn, but they are a separate entity from the core firm that wants the products they make. This is a form of ghettoized production, which offers no social mobility. Or just think about the vanishing of the industrial “working classes” in Britain, which live in areas where the term “working” is itself redundant for many of its fixed and localized populations. The intermediate moment between what are now separate firms is about cost, not about good work.

Natural resources, especially land and water, are increasingly getting the same treatment. It is about profit and cost, not the protection of a resource across generations. The cultures that emerged before our current fascination with large-scale projects enabled the long life of land and water bodies over the centuries. That is rapidly disappearing given the escalating land grabs by big corporations that are pushing small holders out of habitats, often in extremely violent ways. The only place the small holders can go to are increasingly the large poor areas of abandonment — the geographical and social peripheries that have emerged around many major cities. The city itself as such is being violently restructured through its own expulsions.

I’d like to focus more on the spatial dimensions to human expulsion. We are still often presented with a picture in mass media where endemic social dislocation happens “elsewhere.” And yet as you have suggested, every global city (to use your term) reveals multiple cracks into which entire communities are trapped. How can we overcome crude spatial assessments in our attempts to map out the human dimensions of expulsion?

You said it correctly. We do tend to think that it is happening elsewhere. By the “we” I guess we are referring to mostly we, the middle classes who are doing fine even when we think we should be doing better. One way of putting it is that there has been a far deeper transformation in the innards of our system, than we recognize or are able to recognize. Change in complex systems is often hard to track. We can easily see the innovations, but that can be surface change — easy to grasp — say the iPhone. It made a lot of difference and the difference is highly visible. But a complex system — say the economy in a country such as the United States — can often undergo foundational transformations in a few sectors with large shadow effects over the rest of the economy without that being particularly visible.

How many US residents noticed way back in the 1980s — when this foundational change begins — that besides banking (which is commerce: the bank sells money) there was a vast expansion of high finance, which introduced a whole new system? And what made it a bit invisible, for instance was that it presented itself as banking and used the conventional language as a screen for acceptability. But it was not traditional banking. It was a far more complex, and innovative system of power. As I argue in Expulsions, high finance should be seen precisely as an extractive sector. It does not extract metals; it is another mode of extraction. It has developed truly brilliant instruments that allow it to grab. And the human consequences of what it takes can be truly devastating.

A simple example: The traditional bank does not know what to do with student debt; no matter it has reached over a trillion dollars. Finance? “A trillion dollars? Negative money? I can work with that.” And work with it it has, including succeeding in passing a law in Congress that establishes this is a debt than can never be excused. So there is a capability at work here that the traditional bank never had. I am not saying debt is a new phenomenon, but this type of debt is part of a new regime of power that is capable of binding and expelling in ways that are novel. Those students will have that debt until they die, but the debt will not die, even when they die. It passes on to whoever is pertinent. And in the meantime, finance can make it work for its purposes — it is not just sitting there. Via algorithmic mass you can transform it into a working element. You know, when I describe finance in these terms, I think it becomes a kind of Frankenstein of a special kind: it can never lose.

If expulsion, as you explain, is less about some exceptional or spectacular event and more about a slow, hidden catastrophe, which like a toxic tide comes wave after wave to slowly drown a people and humanity in the process, how might we rethink the question of resistance in our attempts at rehumanizing politics?

Oh, this is so well put! Can I borrow that sentence sometime? One first elementary step in this process is something I like to capture with a provocation: “Do I really need a multinational to have a cup of coffee in my neighborhood?” No, I do not. I do need a franchise if I want to buy a computer or a truck. But I do not require the expansive reach of corporate forms of power for so many of the basics of daily life. This is nothing complicated about this in terms of the choices we make over consumables. My concern here is: How do we re-localize the production, the making of what we can do locally but has now been taken over by the big conglomerates? There is much that we can re-localize, and in that process build communities of mutual support.

And yet, while we are seeing more of this re-localizing take place across the country, I am not proposing a new ethical puritanism. In my new project on “Ethics in the City,” I confront the difficulty of escaping the voracious capture of just about everything by large firms. Bringing in the notion of an ethics of the city almost by definition is an ethics that cannot be pure since inequality is built into the design and structure of the city. But it could still be an ethics — an urban ethics. The challenge is to understand what is truly offensive, unacceptable, seen as unnecessary and yet violently experienced by the poor in our cities. And to supplement this with the experiential understanding that we, the nice middle classes, do not necessarily know even when we think we do what is truly offensive to the poor. This could open up a new ethics so badly needed for the precarious world in which we live.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.