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Rethinking the Greek crisis by Saskia Sassen



Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lyn Professor of Sociology and Chair. The Committee on Gloobal Thought, Columbia University (www.saskiasassen.com). She is the author of several books nd the recipient of diverse awards and mentions, ranging from multiple doctor honours causa to named lectures and being selected for various honors lists. Her new book is Expulsions: When complexity produce elementary brutalities (Harvard University Press 2014).

Organised by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung – Office in Greece



Athens 9.6.2015

Dear Nicholas,

sorry if I disturbed you twice with my phone calls in order to find out the exact place where Saskia Sassen was giving her lecture thanks to the Rosa Luxembourg foundation. Since it started at seven, by the time I arrived all the introductory speakers had completed already their speeches, and Saskia was just about to begin. At first she gave an outline of her analytical i.e. methodological approach.

She spoke about her preference not to look at the hard core of any paradigma, but at its fuzzy edges. This is in line with her overall thesis that nowadays all meanings of terms are questionable. "We have no longer categories to describe adequately what is going on!", was one of her key methodological statements.

When driving through Athens on her way to the lecture, she was wondering not merely what she was seeing, but what she did not see. She went on to explain that there is not only a material world there, but as well an invisible material world.

A first comment on my part would be that the ability to see the invisible, and this without getting trapped in the usual duality of material-immaterial worlds (in cultural heritage this becomes the difference between tangible and intangible), has to be recognized as something . Saskia Sassen demonstrates a mind capable of using a reflective framework to make astute observations about contemporary trends.

As you Nicholas would say, analysis is not a matter of looking only at the current crisis, for more important are the overall trends and the problems which existed already before the crisis set in. Here the philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer set already an example in the use of such philosophical terminology which helps to avoid 'the jargon of actuality'. They had not only Heidegger and his jargon in mind. For when they published 'Dialectic of Enlightenment' in 1944, they stated "that even when Fascism has been defeated, there will be still the xenophobic forces in need to be dealt with." Hence it is advisable to use such terms which allow the identification and anticipation of the more permanent changes in society. If orientated solely as to what is actual, such a theory can be made very quickly redundant by new phenomena bursting into scene.

One of the many victims of such an approach has manifested itself as the 'death of sociology'. It is a very clear indication that society had lost a special way of perceiving itself, namely in a self critical way. It follows another tpye of crisis, insofar as students of Sociology found themselves to be without any liveable linkage to society.

Saskia Sassen would explain the term 'invisible material order' later, especially when she came to her general theme of expulsion. She considers that to be violence of the system. 'Foreclosures', something best known in the United States, implies people lose their homes. They are ousted from the system and not allowed to come back. She added that housing estates were never meant to be available for people with low and unstable incomes, but the financial bubble had made that possible up to 2008 i.e. through easy credits. She explained this phenomenon with the financial system working with people signing contracts and are thereby trapped. Once they cannot pay back their mortgages, they are completely abandoned.

Another part of that invisible world she calls 'corporate parking'. Corporates buy no longer empty urban land to develop it, but instead already existing housing estates in cities. Important is that they never use these buildings. She would come to that phenomenon later in her lecture.

Of interest is that she drew a distinction between banking which she finds alright if of the traditional kind, and financing which she considers to be dangerous. While traditional and especially local and small banks would serve the local society by offering re-financing possibilities so as to ensure money remained in the local economy, finance is an entirely different operation. It has no assets behind it but depends upon derivatives of derivates. Consequently it is positive as it has to be innovative, but equally dangerous since financial strategies end up invading spaces and therefore as well cities with all the negative consequences it has.

She cited the example when Greece prepared for the Olympics, an entirely new road system was build. However, the finances were handled in such a way that the construction companies made a lot of profit but it was the Greek tax payer who ended up with the debt. The latter was accummulated to finance the entire operation.

Moreover she would argue that finances are by now in the trillions of money and therefore way outside any control by governments. Linked to that are the corporations who are making after the crisis more profits than ever before. She does not condemn a corporation per say. They all follow the logic of accountability and transparency and especially the smaller ones contribute a lot to making an economy work. It is the larger ones which pose a danger since they go beyond any state control.

With an expansion of the financial sector as the most powerful and influential one beyond any control, there goes another development. She calls it the increasing alteration in the territory. Each territory is complex, has its own powers and conflicts, and follows its own logic like any city. Until now a city has been an incomplete whole and has survived governments which came and went. For people in that city could make history e.g. migrant areas beginning to enter the economy as a whole group.

However, now that the financial world invades urban space and focuses on 'geographical centrality', the making of history is ruled out. By the term 'geographic centrality' she means that the financial world no longer follows the rule of old imperialism which sought to occupy an entire region or even continent e.g. Spain the entire Latin America or England India or Africa. Rather they focus just on a certain land to be used as plantation and which can be left once its earth has been ruined by the mono culture.

In cities of today, there has to be observed that finance does not seek to develop urban land but buys up merely building stock but which remains unused. She calls it 'corporate parking'. She asked when you walk through cities at night past tall buildings what can seen? Usually these buildings remin without any light on. This investment in 'dead capital' is a wise move on the part of those with money. They park simply their money in such builings during the economic crisis. It is a good way to safeguard your money, in her opinion. Hence they do not need to use or to develop any further that building.

She sees in this development the danger that it will ruin the functioning of a city which was until now an incomplete, equally complex entity, but in which people could make their own history. By destroying especially the locality in the cities and more so preventing all those who work within such corporations to make their own history, the city is transformed into a mere functional platform ready to serve these global financial interests.

History is made by those who do not stay within the system but resist as Greece and its newly elected government is doing right now. She warns especially about the intention of this finance. For it wishes to transform Athens into precisely such a platform which serves global financial interests and transactions. With such a concept of a platform goes the wiping out of small businesses and local activities.

Evidence of that intention exists. At the G7 meeting in Germany, President Obama stated the following: “What it’s going to require is Greece being serious about making some important reforms, not only to satisfy creditors, but more importantly, to create a platform whereby the Greek economy can start growing again. Greece is going to have to make some tough political choices.” 

Source: Rob Graves, A Greek Default Slashes U.S. Exports and Jobs The Fiscal Times, June 8, 2015 http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2015/06/08/Greek-Default-Slashes-US-Exports-andJobs#sthash.i3Y5S4P0.dpuf

Saskia Sassen went then on to compare different cities and countries. One reason why the German economy is doing so well in her opinion is that there the political system is a federal one, so that the central state has not so much power compared to what the Länder have. Also there is a solid base of assets behind the money circulating. For manufacturing is a leading industrial component of the economy. It is linked to many smaller banks working closely with their clients so as to ensure creditability is risk free, relatively speaking. They have even credit unions which are not solely consumer orientated financial institutions.

So she wishes to come back to the United States. When the crisis started, 65% of the jobs lost where middle class ones. Now that new jobs are being created only 10% are middle calls jobs while 30% are high income ones. All the rest are low income jobs. It explains why incomes rise faster at the top while at the bottom the thinning out of income chances alters also the chances of these people to stay within the system. Rather a systematic explusion is taking place. This is the real violence of the system.

Saskia Sassen believes the deeper intentions behind those calling for reform of the Greek economy as merely following this trend of global finance wishing to convert Greece into a functional platform. As a consequences she sees Greece falling within the overall trend of a new systematic order and, therefore, in not being really an exception in Europe. 

At this point, she asks what would be the steam engine of today? What innovation would order things anew or become like the steam engine of the past become a highly innovative driver of change?

Given the interests of the financial world, she supports what the Syriza government is trying to do, namely to put up a fight against the demands of the creditors. Saskia Sassen thinks that the Syriza government attempts to step out and therefore shall be making history.

There is another worrying trend. She warns of the security agenda which robs citizens of their Rights. At the same time, she admits that citizens have at best only incomplete contracts between themselves.

Her recommendation is to return to traditional banking systems which support local activities. She wishes to avoid the term 'community' for that is too romantic.

Also she recommends to study the papers written by those who work at the IMF, but whose opinions are never reflected in the official reports. Still, these papers contain invaluable insights and since we as tax payers have financed this, the information provided should be used since free of charge.

One critical reflection as to her presentation may be by going down to the local level, she seems not to reflect what needs to be done in an bottom up sense. Citizens need to reach a consensus about both the agenda and the kind of govenance at a larger scale. It means bringing the city into relation to the region and for there to Europe as a whole. If the aim was to provide some ideas on how it will be possible to re-think Europe, then certainly her lecture was even an incomplete description of current trends a good analysis aiming to make some of the more hidden dimensions visible.

hatto fischer


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