Saskia Sassen’s The Global Situation

Inda, Jonathan Xavier, and Renato Rosaldo. The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008.


Saskia Sassen’s The Global Situation


Since the 1990s, the term globalization seems to have become an organic specter, from its beginnings as a term used to describe a growing economic and trade phenomenon, to its current state as naming social structures of interconnection and any type of global movement. Like theories of nationalism, liberalism and modernity, globalization could have originated in the post-WWII era with Brettonwoods, or the late 19th Century with the Great Game and the Race for Africa, or with the Dutch East India Company, or with the founding of the New World and the Cape of Good Hope, or, if we be so audacious, with the expansion of the Roman Empire. In all of these origin points, globalization seems to have originated alongside imperialism, in fact, these nearly synonymous terms have very similar qualities: both suggest the outward expansion and inevitable domination of a world super-power, both suggest homogenizing cultural effects despite formal autonomy and sovereignty, and both suggest efforts of rights over territorialization, whether through expansion of the state or through expansion of the economy in Free Trade and Export Processing Zones, etc. Yet these two terms, imperialism and globalization, also carry binary oppositions: one is archaic, the other looks to the future, one reminiscent of racism and the oppression of a cultural particular onto a global order, the other of cultural differences and a type of open pluralism in the face of a neutral world market. If globalization then, in the way we analyze it, can be seen as a term hurtling through space, picking up debris and growing into a critical mass, then is imperialism merely a piece of this debris that has somehow been attached to this term through its genealogy? Or is imperialism within the hard kernel of the idea of globalization, an inseparable and hidden product of globalization, and thus should always be considered within its purview?

To answer this question is out of the limits of this presentation, yet feminists with an understanding of global economic processes have added possible ways of thinking out of empire and globalization through the insistence on critical analysis of the term and its assumptions toward futurity and cultural homogenization (Sassen), through proposing more grounded, collaborative and comparative studies that construct place and the local within global processes (Nagar et al.), and through what Saskia Sassen refers to as Counter-geographies: global markets, translocal networks and communications that easily escape conventional surveillance practices, made possible by a system of global economics, infecting its infrastructure to provide new shadow economies.

Saskia Sassen identifies a lack of critical engagement with the way globalization is analyzed, in the disallowed questions contained within the hope of futurism and newness, in the conflation of ideologies coeval with globalizing effects into a single ideological system, globalization, and finally, in the privileging of certain social actors who embody the connection and hybridity of the metropolis. Through all of these critiques, simple understandings of global processes are debunked for complex, less idealistic understandings that are instantly critical of the new global order, while at the same time, maintain the constructive criticism that yields possible alternatives. How does one negotiate the tensions between the local and the global? How does race, class, gender etc. travel through global flows of capital or otherwise, and how can we deracinate global circulation from the unquestioned access to the good life? Sassen introduces ideologies of scale as a possible alternative, that is, “cultural claims about locality, regionality, and globality; about stasis and circulation; and about networks and strategies” (15). Though it seeks to free us from the abyss of globalization, this term itself is vague and abysmal: does Sassen here mean ideology of scale like an economy of scale, one that has reached a point of transformation into an economy of expansion, and therefore, retain its imperial similarities as a spreading of civilization? Or, is an ideology of scale to be understood as a culturally particular understanding of global networks that are qualitatively different from others? For example, is the way a FDW in Singapore sees the new international division of labor different from the way a white American might see the scale of the NIDL? How might this comparative analysis reveal the privileging of global forces in the global/local dyad?

The comparative analysis implicit within the ideologies of scale is given further grounding in Nagar et als essay on Feminist (re)readings of globalization. Like Tsing, Nagar and company see the literatures of economic globalization scanty at best when it comes to an understanding of subjecthood and excluded spaces that are created by global processes. By neglecting these other spaces, analysis of globalization has commonly reproduced imperial binaries between self and other, dominant culture and other ethnicity, masculinist agency and feminine passivity. Rather than focus on global capital flows, Nagar et al want to examine the effects of globalization on the household, on the dissolvement of the public with the private that occurs within these households, on the importance of an international civil society, and most importantly, on the topologies and scales that happen to incorporate entirely dissimilar ideologies of the same global process (as they put it, tracing the contour lines of a counter-topography). In an argument similar to Tsing;s critique of globalization and conflation, Nagar et al note the new and disparate gender formations that occur through the same global process, where Fordist style factories that hire women may engender a crisis of masculinity for the locals, while affirming masculinity by the white management within those factories. In other words, the only way to critically asses these processes respective to the disparate ways of thinking about the same process, is, according to Nagar et al, by “undertaking a large number of richly contextual studies that cut across many geographic scales…to appreciate which aspects of any particular process or place usefully illuminate circumstances in a different time and place” (21). In other words: “Collaborative research must be undertaken with subjects of globalization in peripheralized places” (20).

In direct opposition to imperial binaries, Saskia Sassen offers such a “topography” of gendered labor that is undertaken for survival. While Sassen acknowledges that in migrant flows of female workers in the sex industry and other forms of affective labor can be seen as given shape by the women themselves—key actors within this global process—Sassen also understands the increasing revenue-making incentives of traffickers and contractors who seek to utilize global infrastructure to foster a shadow economy of sex trafficking. Though the key actors are always the women themselves, the structural violence that creates the necessity for such action is also seen alongside these global movements: the growth in unemployment , of debt servicing, the decrease in traditional forms of profit-making, and the loss of male employment. The circuit of sex trafficking and prostitution is then seen as a counter-geography, a dynamic and locational feature that utilizes the global infrastructure of globalization for underground networks that sometimes support shadow economies. What distinguishes counter-geographies from the shadow economy however, is first that counter-geographies not only take advantage of infrastructure, but of the very questions of sovereignty, of legality and juridical territorialization, in order to circumvent issues of litigation. With sex trafficking, the problems in enforcement are constantly disputed as responsibilities of the country of origin or the country that harbors them. Second, counter-geographies are enterprises of profit-making not only for private criminal actors, but towards governments as well, who use the abyss of transnational legality to selectively enforce their own laws onto an otherwise profitable illegal trade network. Sex trafficking and other forms of migrant labor are prime examples of state complicity with its own opposing forces, as prostitution not only provides large amounts of tourists, but large amounts of domestic markets as well. To Sassen, such counter-geographies create new international divisions of labor around a “serving class,” an off-shore proletariat that provides affective labor through an alternative global circuit (94). These counter-geographies, though implicitly counter-to-the-norm, in fact embody key conditions and structural contradictions that lie at the heart of globalization as an imperial phenomenon. Through the nation-state;s control over work permits, visas, the enforcement of its own laws, the availability to tourists, its ineluctable pull into further governmental debt, its reliance and promotion of remittances, and its ideological control through the media and other networks, these counter-geographies reveal new notions of subjectivity and citizenship, new types of being human, being inside the law, and being inhuman—the new migrant proletariat operating outside the law and subject to both state oppression and invisibility to the sate—reiterate forms of imperial domination.

The feminist understandings of global economics and its effects in Tsing, Nagar and Sassen, reveal instances of imperial dominance within the work of analysis that occurs through the many pitfalls of global analysis. Together, these writers begin to disaggregate this fully-loaded term globalization, understanding it within the context of a new phenomenon that holds imperial implications within its center. As these writers discover, to unconditionally endorse globalization is to ignore our own involvement with imperial dominance, to think of globalization as a new civilization is to name the inhuman savage in those who are unconnected and stagnant, and, finally, to think of globalization as merely an effect of a culturally neutral free market working through cultural pluralisms in order to increase the Gross National Product for all, is to vow complicity with the violence of an not-yet anachronistic.

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