Interview. “We are facing an extreme form of extractive capitalism,” said the American sociologist Saskia Sassen in an interview with il manifesto.

A world unified by the golden rule: expropriation

The exclusion of significant parts of the world population from active life is a sad reality today and will be for years to come. That’s the thesis that Saskia Sassen, a sociologist focused on globalization and global cities, describes in her last two books, Territory, Authority, Rights and Expulsions. If the first is a reflection on the dynamic relationship between global and local realities, the second analyzes the nature of extractive capitalism, one of the emerging trends in the world economy, where the expulsion of people from the places where they lived and land-grabbing are elements of a widespread practice of the private appropriation of natural wealth and knowledge.

The expropriation of African, Asian and even European regions to be put in the hands of agro-industrial multinational companies and the plundering of natural resources are recurring elements in the extractive capitalism chronicles. Here, finance is the protagonist of a wealth expropriation never before seen in history. Sassen’s analysis outlines a future in which the trend of population banishment has the features of a social apocalypse.

From her most recent essays, it’s clear that Sassen is engaged in countering a reductionist reading of globalization — a parenthesis about to be closed — to sharpen criticism on the extractive capitalism that opposes isolationism and economic nationalism. This interview is compiled from a conversation during her visit to Rome and numerous email exchanges.

One of the refrains repeated by the media is that globalization has reached its terminus, and the nation state will return to the center. How do you interpret this phase of the global economy?

We are in the midst of a global upheaval, due to the economic crisis and the strengthening of a capitalism that I qualify as extractive. It is shaping a new geography of world power. In this new geography of power, new intermediate spaces were formed between the global and local realities. These areas formed the space where global and local realities have lost the opacity, which differentiated them to become distinct but interdependent moments with each other. They are “frontier areas” that have nothing to do with geography, but are the places, the dynamics that lead to decisions that overwhelm the work of both the supranational institutions as well as the national and local ones. Over time, they popped the old division between North and South of the planet, between East and West, between central and peripheral countries of capitalism. Let me be clear, it is not that the frontiers have disappeared, but were jumped over in the sense that they are no longer central. Therefore, it is not relevant whether or not the nation-state will return, which has already undergone changes in constitutional setups, in the balance between the judicial, legislative, and executive powers, to be in line with the needs of world economy. It surrendered that part of its sovereignty over a given territory.

In the exercise of global governance, the “border areas” to which I referred are critical. They bend to their will the national sovereignty and the internationally defined rules on financial flows, human rights, environmental protection. They also contribute to shaping a new and yet ever-changing international division of labor.

Donald Trump won the election by appealing to patriotism. He pointed to China and Europe as obstacles to the U.S. economy. He promised to bring back home the jobs sent overseas by the US industry. Can we consider Trump a president who wants de-globalization? Or more realistically, as the president of the decline of the US as the only superpower in the world?

Right now, I cannot say if Donald Trump will be the president of the American decline. It is early to say. But I know that he has made dangerous decisions because of their racist content. I never imagined that this could happen, but it happened. In the U.S., we are experiencing a feeling of loss, maybe even disbelief which is maybe similar to what you experienced with Berlusconi in Italy: only that what the leader of Forza Italy did is a breeze compared to what Trump promises to do.

His positions are not welcomed by the liberal elite. That’s well known, but we cannot ignore the fact that, in the recent past, the liberals did not effectively oppose the growth of poverty and have not done much in support of policies of the working class and the middle class: all of which Trump says he wants to do.

In your book Expulsions, extractive capitalism is characterized by plundering the wealth of a nation and then leaving the country. This might be apply to some natural resources — oil and other natural resources. The speech becomes more complicated in regards to land-grabbing, biodiversity, intellectual property. But if we focus on big data, the thesis of extractive capitalism as a brutal predatory practice becomes problematic. Facebook, Google, Amazon will never go away because the data is produced online by the activity of men and women.

The land-grabbing, biodiversity, intellectual property, and the digital platforms can certainly be considered examples of extractive capitalism, but it is finance where the emerging pattern of extractive capitalism is represented.

Banking activities offer services, but above all they lend money and that’s why they charge interest. That’s normal. What’s different is that new financial services are aimed at extracting value from all economic activity, from production to distribution to the sale of goods and services.

The heart of the Western Economic style has seen a shift from a paradigm which had production and mass consumption at the core to a reality where the spending power of individuals or families is the subject of attention from financial companies, which aim to exploit this spending power to produce revenues and profits. In recent years, much has been written and read about the privatization of social services and consumer credit. Well, finance extracts value from consumption, from access to cash for the purchase of social services, but also from financing companies, from the stock market, the public debt of the states. Financial firms have developed sophisticated tools for each of these aspects and when the vein of the value is low, they leave the field, indifferent to poverty, the implosion of social bonds and the failure to finance nation states. It is a radical departure from the past.

This rapacity of finance has nihilistic characteristics, don’t you think?

I would like to underline the change of perspective. Consumption was always an integral part of capitalism, but we are facing a radicalization of this role. The same applies to the financialization of the welfare state, which was the prerogative of the national state in the past. Now they are individuals and families who have to buy it, borrowing from financial firms. However, the nation states have seen their deficits grow and to avoid collapse and failure, they have resorted to financial companies. This means that much of the Internal Revenue tax goes to pay interest on debt. That is, we are facing an extreme form of extractive capitalism. The tools developed, the software used, the devices used cover all forms of capital. This is the dynamic that is changing globalization during the past 20 years. Therefore, I do not believe that we are entering a phase of de-globalization, but of a variation of it. The problem is how to imagine the answers to everything. And there is a huge delay. But I do not say that it is impossible to fill it.

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