Saskia Sassen (www.saskiasassen.com) is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, Co-Chair of the Committee on Global Thought, and a Penn IUR Scholar. This essay is based on her forthcoming book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy to be published this year by Harvard University Press.
It is not enough to speak of more poverty and inequality. We need new concepts to capture the breadth and depth of today’s social and environmental dislocations—staggering income gaps between the rich and the modest middle classes, dislocated populations across the world, and a global scale-up in the destruction of natural resources. We are seeing the making of expulsions: the en masse separation of people from society, economy, land, or nation.
These expulsions take on specific forms in each place, whether in the Global South or in the Global North, East or West. For instance, the foreclosure crisis of the 2000s ignited a massive expulsion with its geographic epicenter in the United States. It sent millions of Americans reeling, expelled both economically and physically from their homes. The financial instruments that spurred this expulsion within the U.S. have spread rapidly but quietly to Europe, affecting several hundred thousand households each year, and underscoring the geographic ripple effect of expulsions in today’s globalized world.
In the Global South, citizens likewise grapple with large-scale expulsions from their homes. But in this case, people are often forced into economic and physical limbo by “land grabs” perpetrated by governments or organizations. From 2006 to 2010, for example, over 200 million hectares of land in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, were acquired by rich governments, firms, and financial firms. These land grabs have massive effects on the fabric of societies: forcing millions of people into cities and slums, and stoking wide-spread and rapid urbanization. And they have massive environmental effects: the vast expulsion of floras and faunas to grow monocrops, with the associated use of fertilizers and pesticides.
I see in all of this the making of systemic edges often deep inside the territory of the national. These edges are not to be confused with national borders or other politico-administrative divisions, even though they may coincide. Further, once the unemployed or the displaced, or so many other versions of the expelled, cross this systemic edge they become a bit invisible, they are less likely to be counted in measures of GDP per capita or in various censuses. People, places, failed small businesses, neighborhoods destroyed by hurricanes, neighborhoods destroyed by mortgage foreclosures: all of these become lost, no longer counted and no longer part of the visible world. All of this can coexist with growth in “the” economy, even if the space of that economy is shrinking.
While foreclosures in the Global North and land grabs in the Global South are rarely studied in tandem, they are in fact manifestations of very similar societal responses. The instruments that underlie these expulsions range from elementary policies to complex techniques requiring specialized knowledge and intricate organizational formats.
Together, diverse expulsions across countries and domains may well have a greater impact in shaping our world than the rapid economic growth in major economies such as India and China. Such expulsions can, and often do, coexist with economic growth as counted by standard measures. In fact, the very technologies that can spur advancements in one economic realm—finance or mining, for example—are often the very same instruments that are behind expulsion.
Expulsions in today’s world are interconnected and interdependent. They are complex both in their causes and in their consequences, and essential for understanding economics in the twenty-first century.