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Democracy

Invisibility, Globalisation and the Limits of the Political Language

By Saskia Sassen

In what kind of world does the political artist work? Sociologist Saskia Sassen spoke at the first Life Hack of the art project Hacking Habitat. Her theme for the evening: invisibility. This concept was explored in connection to a range of ideas including expulsion, complexity and violence in the global economy.

The interview was conducted by Erica Meijers for our partner publication, De Helling.

Erica Meijers: You use the term invisibility. What does it mean in your understanding? 

Saskia Sassen: Generally, our times are characterised with the terms “crisis” and “inequality”. However important these terms may be, to me they are rather inadequate. Crisis is engrained in capitalism; so that does not offer sufficient explanation for the situation we find ourselves in. Equality is about sharing. It is a description of what is happening, not an explanation.

Today we’re seeing a continuous accumulation of the sharp edges of the system. By sharp edges I mean the moments in which common, familiar situations take on extreme characteristics. To such an extreme that the ways in which we usually measure situations in our society get blurred. They fall outside the scope of our statistics. In this sense these situations become invisible. Take for instance the announcement by the IMF and the ECB in January 2013 that Greece was heading in the right direction again. What gave them that idea? They based themselves on figures concerning company profits, exports and so on, but in their statistics no less than 30 percent of the Greek working population was completely absent, all those small companies whose owners had committed suicide or had been declared bankrupt. This process of the vanishing from the statistics is what I call economic cleansing, in analogy to ethnic cleansing. If you only talk about crisis and inequality, the process of economic cleansing passes unnoticed.

Likewise, the vast destruction of the environment isn’t accounted for in economic reports like these. All those places we’ve completely exhausted, killing them in fact. We’d better hang up maps in kindergartens, point out those places and say: ‘Look children, that’s what mommy and daddy have done!’ The irony of course is that most of us live in beautiful surroundings. I took a walk through Utrecht, the Netherlands, and I think it’s more beautiful than it’s been in ages. This sort of thing also contributes to invisibility.

What does this invisibility have to do with globalisation?

The idea of globalisation suggests the opposite, namely that we’re all closely connected. It gives individuals access to a much larger space than before, physically, digitally, through travel and tourism. But in reality less room is available: less room for crops grown on the land, less clean water, less fresh air to breathe.

If you only talk about crisis and inequality, the process of economic cleansing passes unnoticed.

In spite of globalisation we still take national borders for granted as markers of our territory, but the territory of most nations has shrunk. In many countries whole parts have lost their usefulness through environmental damage. But you also see this in cities: think of all those deserted neighbourhoods where people were evicted from their homes because they couldn’t pay their mortgage any longer. These are no-go areas. And the people concerned are no longer valued as consumers, so they are finished economically. In addition, consumption has lost its importance in the production of economic value; great numbers of people are therefore written off economically and subsequently vanish from numerous statistics.

Another element is that our governments have become poorer, with fewer means available to put the situation right. A great deal of public money has been transferred to the private sector. And multinational companies that are doing a lot of damage have become extremely rich and can proceed unhindered.

So, in many different ways we’re dealing with a shrunken world.

That process still continues. A lot of arable land we’re still using is actually dying. We know that the temperature of vast tracts of land is too high and that is a signal. In the Netherlands things aren’t that bad, except maybe for what is going on in the province of Groningen as a result of natural gas drilling.

What does that say about the value of all those things, people, and places?

Everything is reduced to its practical value, including people. Look, during colonialism the Western countries quarrelled over who possessed which colony and what civilisation quest was the best. Nowadays that’s of little importance. If China goes somewhere, it only uses what it needs, and leaves. It isn’t interested in the rest. They don’t care at all if after a few years they leave a complex structure behind for dead. Call it a new kind of imperialism. Power is used to actively create spaces of expulsion. Spaces that have become unfit to live in.

So we have to do with extreme exclusion in all kinds of fields: social, economic, geographical and natural. Look for instance at the black ghettos in the cities; they aren’t simply no-go areas, they are now completely written off once and for all, including the people. In the old system they were interesting in terms of cheap labour, but now the economy doesn’t need cheap labour anymore. Young black men only serve to form a prison population. After all, in order to make a private prison profitable you need bodies to fill the beds. It’s that extreme.

If democracy is about giving people a voice, making them visible, what does your story say about the shrinking world and democracy?

Firstly the role of the state has shrunk too because of privatisation and deregulation. The result is that the legislative branch has lost its grip on a lot of sectors. By liberalising the telecom sector for instance, you in fact undermine the role of parliament. The executive branch, i.e. the government, does gain power, which I call ironical power. By regulating the private sector and the semi-public sector the state has become more important when it comes to drafting treaties, drawing up contracts and deciding on rules and regulations. The private sector requires all sorts of rules and regulations. It needs the state to modify legislation. So the state seems to gain in importance as the executive branch increases its power, but the political role of the state is diminished. All the more so since the state itself looks at society through the eyes of the business community because of the lack of distance between the two. The result being that we no longer have a well-functioning liberal state.

Can a counter-movement achieve anything, if people no longer have an economic powerbase? 

I don’t foresee an emancipatory movement like the one we had in the 1970s materialising very rapidly. We also know that many leaders of former resistance movements turned out to be corrupt and violent. So more than about movements, it’s about gestures. For instance the way in which president Morales of Bolivia acknowledged an entire population group that had become invisible. But examples like these are few and far between. I do see people and groups who’re saying: we’ll do it alone, we’ll bake our own bread, generate our own energy, and so on. People want to survive in ways of their own. They’re pragmatic. But there’s no serious assessment of how our system works and what the alternatives are.

Artists, especially the more activist ones, play an important role in creating sanctuaries where alternatives can be invented and tried out.

Hacking Habitat launches the idea of hacking; which appeals to me. One counter-movement or one fist isn’t enough, the existing systems are just too powerful and too complex. You can bring them down here and there, you can create leaks and make visible what is being suppressed.

Does the lack of confidence in politics also play a role here? 

Absolutely! And don’t forget the poverty of our political language. That’s an important issue as well: we need a new language to describe the new reality. The old vocabulary of the left no longer suffices. On the other hand immigrants are depicted as the enemy, vis-à-vis low-income citizens; horizontal lines of conflict are created and the vertical ones disappear out of sight completely. It’s a tragedy, it’s the poverty of the political language at its worst. The middle class has benefited from Keynesian capitalism, without having to fight for it. So we behave like consumers. We have no time for struggle, all we do is complain… and there’s nothing political about that. The question then is: how do we regain control over the political arena? In order to do this a new language is needed.

An old political term we could start using again is expulsion. Because that’s what happened, you were expelled, banished from the community, socially you ceased to exist. This often led to actual deaths as well. We see that now, but at a micro-level. Youngsters from migrant families are being expelled. And where can they go? Today there isn’t much choice, except the Islamic State. And take prisons, they can be regarded as places of expulsion. They’re places where there are people who don’t matter anymore. Politically speaking there is a problem of representation. We need language to address the greater political landscape.

Can artists make a contribution?

Not only artists, but scientists, and others, too. But artists have the benefit of an important condition, namely freedom, in the sense that they enjoy emancipatory autonomy. Because of that they see more and have a different perspective. Art can make visible what has been lost from view. We once organised an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where an artist showed what it means to work in a sweatshop as a needlewoman. She sat there sewing in the shop-window and only left it to sleep elsewhere, just a few hours a night… In the same vein there are exhibits showing what it means to be homeless.

Artists, especially the more activist ones, play an important role in creating sanctuaries where alternatives can be invented and tried out. And strikingly enough they do that often in those places that have been written off by the system, in the  spaces of expulsion in other words. Making them visible again.

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