On 12-13th of July, we had the chance to talk to Saskia Sassen at the FabCity Summit in Paris. During her opening keynote at the Summit, the renowned urban sociologist, who re-conceptualised and popularised the term “global cities” almost 20 years ago, addressed some of the challenges global cities are facing. In a discussion that ranged from the growing housing crisis and the dark and hidden powers of financial trading, to the invisible frontiers within territories, she also spoke about the need to destabilise stable meanings. “The city is marked by the material and it has lost a certain capacity to tell us the truth.” Those words stayed with us. What are cities no longer capable of telling us? Or what are they telling us that we don’t want to hear?
1. You have always championed the notion that it is in cities where people without power can make things and leave a mark. With the rise of corporate cities where low-wage workers work but don’t “make”, are cities losing their power to empower people?
Cities are still places where the poor and modest middle classes can actually live. They participate in the local economy, a partial one, but one where they create their opportunities. Immigrant neighbourhoods in New York or London are classic examples of that: people who are not going to get a job in a regular company that instead start small economies.
The biggest threat to this entrepreneurial wealth and to local economies are franchises. A great example of a politician who understands this is Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona, who has finally said ‘No more franchises in my city”. Why is this needed? Number one, franchises are extractive. They take part of the consumption capacity of a neighbourhood just to send it to headquarters; moreover, they destroy the entrepreneurial spirit, the thought of ‘why don’t we start our own business?’. So this is a real threat to our modern cities. Number two, they are exploitative: they are only the intermediary that buys cheap, sells expensive and never loses, without any concern for people nor the environment. That to me is a very destructive component.
Now, what we now see in big cities around the world is a recognition that we don’t need to be quite so dependent on big firms and their franchises. We know we can’t make a computer, we do need a franchise/big company to sell us one, but my rhetorical and recurring question is ‘Do I really need a multinational to have a cup of coffee on the neighbourhood?’ No, I don’t. However, if I walk around on my street, the only place where I can get a coffee is a big multinational chain. In short, if we want to save our cities from becoming corporate machines, we need to come back to the local.
A new type of local coffeeshop is emerging in London to counterbalance the pervasiveness of chains. Paper & Cup is not only local, it helps recovering addicts from the neighbourhood.
2. Rising nationalist discourses across Europe and America feed on or make allusion to precisely tensions experienced in cities due to rapid demographic and economic changes such as migration and unemployment. So how did we get here? As a sociologist and urban expert, is this really a crisis?
I have long argued that in the 1980s our democratic systems began to change, but we didn’t change much concerning the law, particularly regarding responsibility and governance. Many people think that the current phase we are living in the post-war era when the peace came, but this is just not true. We had a radical rupture in the 80s, and it has to do with the privatisation of many industries and sectors previously owned by the government. When you do that, an extractive logic begins to dominate, whereas the government has an obligation to its people, companies only care about their profits. On top of that, we have increased deregulation and a driven globalising economic development. This phenomenon is very different from the older versions of the international economy –which was not necessarily better, just different.
Another big problem is that we stopped making law vis- à-vis new emerging actors such as GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft). Look at what is happening with Facebook, fake news and the 2016 US elections. There is zero accountability. Now Europeans are starting to ask for more control, but I wonder if it’s too late.
Nationalism arises as one of the familiar well-established ways of generating a critique. It also reflects laziness. Rather than saying ‘What is what is truly wrong in our society?’ It’s easier to fall into the nationalist discourse that blames immigrants. This kind of ignorance deployed by high-level politicians shows both negligence and stupidity. They don’t want to do their homework and solve the problems that most of their base is calling for.
For the past three decades, there have been many little degrading transformations and out of that comes Trump. He didn’t fall from the sky; he is just the extreme version. So I am deeply troubled because this is not only about individuals, this is about a decaying system. Look at the Supreme Court Judge appointments. Obama had the right to appoint a judge, and for a year Republicans stopped him. This is not the way liberal democracies are meant to work.
3. So what is the way forward? How can we move beyond ‘lazy nationalist promises’ that hide real problems?
Not ignoring a big part of your country’s population like Clinton did is a good start. Even if I am a critic of the Clintons’, I would have prefered Hillary to win, look at what we have now, but you know what? Perhaps it isn’t so bad because what we have now is the truth, and it is staring us in the face and reflects the profound degradation of this political system.
The irony of Trump is that, in all the horrors, vulgarity and ignorance that he deploys, now and then, he hits it right. Some of the things that he has put on the table, I hate to say, are true. Now, whether he is going to do something (and the right thing) about it is another story. Nonetheless, the speech-act is already something. Though I hope people don’t re-elect him, I do expect the political classes are learning something from that, and start saying “you know what, he is right, it is time we start doing something about the working and modest middle classes, because they are getting disadvantaged.”
We also need to make new laws and regulations. Law is relevant because it can make visible a transformation in a system, it sheds lights on existing problems. Because we haven’t adapted our legal system to these changes, our political classes keep thinking we are still living in a different era.
Regarding new alternatives, there are two elements that I find interesting. In one, valid in both Europe and the US, going nationalist becomes an option for citizens that have never been paid attention to. So now we know: we need to pay attention to them. Two, we can also see that these nationalist politicians hold on to superficial things like immigration as opposed to real core problems, like extractive multinational corporations destroying our economies. So there is much work to be done regarding building better narratives.
I mean look at Trump during his visit to Europe, all he said had to do with his base. I think it is because he doesn’t have the knowledge to engage with the European political classes. Also because he has realised that the best he can do for himself is to keep feeding anger back to his base; no solutions, just anger and hatred. It is just extraordinary the corruption of the political system.
4. What is your analysis of what is happening (and will continue to happen) in London and New York vis-à-vis post-Brexit and post-Trump?
Well, the Global Cities have come back with a vengeance. The whole concept exploded almost 30 years ago, now suddenly, all kind of actors are catching up. People want to see cities as the beacons of light, the last progressive fronts where changes are more feasible. I think the reality is a bit more complicated, but I would love for global cities to keep embracing their wealth and cosmopolitanism.
If you look at all the cosmopolitan cities, they all have lots of immigrants, from many different places. How do you become cosmopolitan? It is a journey of absorbing and mixing different types of food, music, ideas, costumes, clothing. It travels, it leaves immigrant neighbourhoods, it hits the markets and then it ends up as something sophisticated. It has always moved upwards. I mean, some of Bach’s best music was the music that the peasants danced to. This tells us a lot.
For me it is essential never to forget that an immigrant is not merely an immigrant, an immigrant contributes, not only economically, but socially and culturally. They bring so much diversity and wealth, so we end up admiring them. I truly love how much we can learn and enjoy so many different cultures, how they mix to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.
5. If you were Mayor of Paris, what would be your most urgent tasks?
I actually already have a project here in Paris, and I have also just accepted to chair the Center that the City Government has set out for scholars, so I am already working on what I feel is necessary.
I call this project the Importance of Indeterminate Space in cities that have mixed worlds. It’s about trying to understand terrorism in Paris. I set up an international team without French experts. I told them ‘I want you a month here, to walk around, see and feel the city and in the back of your mind keep the terrorist attacks’.
My concern is those who are alienated but not yet at the stage of becoming so angry to enact violence. Those who are already convinced, forget it, they are not my subject. But what about all the young ones? Shouldn’t we give them a chance? A chance not to feel that the banlieue (suburb) is a separate zone? Most cities have such zones, but here it over layers with a much more complex racial and religious conflicted past.
What I care about is how a well-rounded city like Paris can incorporate those individuals in/from the banlieues, who don’t feel this is their city. An example I like to use the Jardin de Luxembourg, a beautiful public park. When I go there, I say “what a beautiful space, this is my park”. But a lot of the people from the banlieue say well this might be a public park, but it is definitely not my park. So what is their park? That is what I want to know.
How people reclaim their city is not only about having more cheap shops in some neighbourhoods because they’d still feel that they are not part of it. It has to be more distributed, more ambiguous, more unmarked, rather than marked. Particularly some sectors of Paris that are full of immigrants.
So if I were Mayor of Paris, I’d make sure that more average ‘French’ (whatever that means, hence the inverted commas) lived in the banlieues regions and vice-versa, making space inside inner Paris for more social housing. The Mayor of NY – against all the odds because NY is an inferno of power and privilege– has built 100,000 houses for low-income people in the centre of Manhattan. I know building in Paris is more difficult because it is already saturated, but we have to be a bit more radical than we are. I’m saying just a bit more; otherwise, it’s a fantasy.
Cities have become strategic. The frontier zone today is where actors from different worlds have an encounter for which there are no established rules of engagement. We have to make them for this is where wealth is created. Frontiers are not happening in the rural areas; they are happening in cities. The city is today’s frontier zone, with extraordinary productive capacity. I see there is potential for the city and government of Paris to embrace this power.