In a letter dated July 24, 1889, Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt warned his friend Friedrich von Preen, “My mental picture of those terribles simplificateurs[simplifiers] who will one day descend upon our old Europe is not an agreeable one. In my imagination I can visualize these ruffians in the flesh before my eyes and will describe them to you when we are having our pint together in September.” Burckhardt feared the emergence of trends that he had described to von Preen almost a decade earlier. In an 1881 letter, he wrote of “a power” that would one day “make short work with voting rights, sovereignty of the people, material wellbeing, industry, etc., and will stand upon small ceremony. For this will be the inevitable end of the State based on the rule of law once it has succumbed to mere numbers and the consequences.” Burckhardt dreaded a future in which increasingly complex technical capabilities would enable the pursuit and possession of unimaginable material welfare but would, at the same time, flatten social relations. He predicted that élites employing logics of generalization and abstraction would not merely enhance our capabilities but also attenuate relationships, sharpen the division between classes, and decrease our sense of individual agency.

Readers, however, may wonder if Sassen inadvertently brings us one step closer to Burckhardt’s dystopia, if Sassen herself unwittingly plays the role of the terrible simplifier.

Many of the same preoccupations lie at the heart of Saskia Sassen’s Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. The question motivating Sassen’s analysis: “Is much of today’s society tending toward the condition of brutal simplicity against which the great historian Jacob Burckhardt warned in the nineteenth century?” Sassen recasts Burckhardt’s simplification as a betrayal in which capabilities that “should have served to develop the social realm, to broaden and strengthen the well-being of a society [and] the biosphere … [have instead] too often served to dismember the social through extreme inequality, to destroy much of the middle-class life promised by liberal democracy, to expel the vulnerable and the poor from land, jobs, and homes, and to expel bits of the biosphere from their life space.” Sassen wonders, in other words, if Burckhardt predicted a future more terrible than he knew. Readers, however, may wonder if Sassen inadvertently brings us one step closer to Burckhardt’s dystopia, if Sassen herself unwittingly plays the role of the terrible simplifier. If Burckhardt were here, would he see Expulsions as exposing terrible simplification or perpetuating it?

Expulsions opens up a third movement in Sassen’s body of work, and one that sheds light on the whole of her distinguished scholarly career. “Movement,” here, is an especially appropriate term, as her work over the past three decades can be loosely organized according to three distinct trajectories—migration, agglomeration or concentration, and expulsion—each of which has been shaped by developments in the global economy. But “movement” is not all that these stages of Sassen’s career have in common. By invoking Burckhardt in Expulsions, Sassen invites readers to grasp the thread of mere numbers and their consequences—of terrible simplification—that runs throughout her work.

In the earliest phase of her career, Sassen examined the influence of overseas manufacturing investment on international migration in the second half of the 20th century. Her book The Mobility of Capital and Labor: A Study in International Investment and Labor Flow (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), for example, argues that investments in overseas manufacturing not only depleted the supply of manufacturing jobs in the United States but also destabilized concepts and practices of work abroad. The movement of capital created material insecurity at the margins of the global economy, resulting in migration from regions with newly destabilized opportunities for work, like Central America, to countries with greater perceived economic opportunity, like the United States. This paradoxical movement of people to countries where the labor market had also been stressed by decreasing numbers of jobs resulted from a process driven by mere numbers—less a decision than a realization. Investment in overseas manufacturing was a consequence of less costly labor and environmental regulation in developing economies.

Sassen’s best-known work traced a second trajectory, the continued movement of people to the city. Beginning with her most influential book, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), Sassen tackled the paradox of urbanization—the continued concentration or agglomeration of people in cities—in the face of economic forces of dispersal. While some believed that advances in telecommunications and transportation technology would diffuse population and make cities irrelevant, Sassen argued that today’s cities are increasingly influential as a consequence of their ability to concentrate functions necessary for coordinating geographically dispersed, but still socially concentrated, capital—that is, capital that may be invested in all corners of the world, but is still owned by a small fraction of the global population.

This globally-dispersed-but-still-socially-concentrated capital, which operates at considerable distance from its owners, requires firms that specialize in coordinating its work. It requires what Sassen describes as “advanced producer and financial services firms” with transcontinental reach and global savvy—accounting and management consulting firms, highly specialized import/export law firms, financial firms that can liquidate assets and move money quickly. Cities with a disproportionate presence of advanced producer and financial services firms experience a surge in high-income jobs occupied by a globetrotting upper-class, which Sassen describes as the “global mobile.” Those same cities also experience a related surge of low-income consumer services jobs—retail salespeople, dogwalkers, nannies, hotel housekeepers, personal shoppers—occupied by the “global immobile,” people who are connected to and sometimes necessary for the functioning of the global economy as we know it, but who are not at the center of its most profitable enterprises.

Thus the “logic of agglomeration” that drives the emergence of global cities—the reason people and opportunity concentrate in these cities—is not primarily security, manufacturing, or trade, but the coordination of global economic activity. This logic brings the core (the global mobile) and the periphery (the global immobile) into the geographic centers of gravity of the global economy, resulting in what Sassen describes as “production of presence.” In global cities, the vulnerable are functionally and geographically included, even if they are sometimes exploited. This complicated proximity in our urban centers is the consequence, again, of mere numbers – a necessity of coordinating capital that is constantly being directed to the most profitable locations and industries around the world.

Logics of exclusion and dispossession expel the marginalized, banishing them to “the systemic edge,” the “site where general conditions take extreme forms.”

Enter Expulsions. If concentration or agglomeration is complex, then expulsion, the third trajectory explored by Sassen, is terribly simple. Expulsion runs against the grain of the production of presence. Instead of bringing the core and the periphery together in the most influential places, expulsion is what Sassen describes as a “savage sorting,” in which complex capabilities result in the straightforward exclusion of individuals, communities, and environments from the global economy. Expulsions explores a shift from global economic dynamics “that brought people in to dynamics that push people out.” As Sassen sees it, logics of exclusion and dispossession expel the marginalized, banishing them to “the systemic edge,” the “site where general conditions take extreme forms”—where malaise becomes suicide, where vulnerability becomes dispossession, where pollution becomes absolute degradation. She works to expose common dynamics driving challenges from mass incarceration to unemployment, from foreign land acquisition to polluted waterways, from suicide to subprime lending. She sees, and seeks to make legible, “deeper and conceptually invisible dynamics that are cutting across very diverse countries and places … a global systematicity, no matter its thick localized instantiations … [a systematicity] deeper than the diverse geopolitical formations and economies we have built on our planet.”

Sassen’s analysis in Expulsions tends toward generalization and abstraction. To be clear, generalization and abstraction are not problematic in and of themselves. Indeed, while the task of the scholar is often to break down overgeneralization or to expose unhelpful generalization, it is just as often the scholar’s responsibility to identify patterns and offer helpful generalizations—ones that can assist in grasping reality. Sassen’s identification of patterned relationships between global economic developments and vulnerable individuals, communities, and ecosystems is not fundamentally unlike my suggesting that the whole of Sassen’s work can be better grasped if we trace the “movements” at the center of each part of her work. Nevertheless, Sassen’s practice of generalization and abstraction is risky.

The first risk Sassen faces is apophenia, described by William Gibson in his novel Pattern Recognition as “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things.” Are the issues Sassen explores—from the foreign acquisition of land in Angola to mass incarceration in the United States to unemployment in Greece to the proliferation of dead zones in the Pacific Ocean—really more similar than they are different? Is it particularly helpful to identify them as resulting from a singular logic of exclusion and pattern of “savage sorting?” Or does the attempt to tidily package this variety of phenomena blind us to concrete realities and particular circumstances of each one? As Gibson writes of apophenia, “while comforting yourself with the symmetry of it all, … [you stand] all too real a chance of missing the genuine threat, which was invariably less symmetrical, less perfect.” Apophenia—generalization that misses the mark—results in misdirected efforts and a compromised agency not unlike that of terrible simplification.

The compromised sense of agency risked by Sassen doesn’t end with the effects of misguided generalization, but may in fact be most keenly observed in the tendency toward abstraction. In Sassen’s work, it often seems that no one in particular is really creating the problems that she writes about. In her studies of global cities, both the jetsetting global mobile and the marginalized global immobile are drawn into cities by forces largely beyond anyone’s control. Similarly, forces largely beyond anyone’s control drive the dynamics of expulsion. The global economy gives rise to “predatory formations,” incredibly complex and vague “assemblages of elements, conditions, and mutually reinforcing dynamics” that are far more influential than the decisions or actions of any individual, firm, or government. Élites do not control these predatory formations any more than the vulnerable can defy them.

The nouveau riche don’t wake up in their McMansions wondering how they can kick away the ladder of social mobility.

Something about this abstraction rings true. It is rare—not nearly rare enough, but rare—for the powerful to knowingly and actively attempt to marginalize the vulnerable. There is no cabal of influential élites devoted to excluding the poor. The nouveau riche don’t wake up in their McMansions wondering how they can kick away the ladder of social mobility. Nor is it the case that all of the excluded experience a sense of control over their own destiny or an ability to meaningfully resist their own marginalization. Anyone who has ever tried to make meaningful change in the world has found that structures and systems limit and condition possibilities for transformation. For all these reasons, Sassen’s notion of “predatory formations” that expel the marginalized from the global economy make sense.

On the other hand, Sassen’s abstraction limits and conditions our sense of responsibility. If predatory formations are more or less undirected and autonomous, even if contingent, structures of global political economy, then where does responsibility lie for creating or fixing these problems? To be sure, Sassen has ideas about what can be done to address the challenges of expulsion, but it isn’t entirely clear who, exactly, would do these things. This may be one reason that élites are so comfortable with Sassen’s analyses. While logics, formations, and other abstractions are helpful in representing the truly foggy realities of global political economy, they are also helpful tools for avoiding responsibility. While Burckhardt could “visualize these ruffians in the flesh,” Sassen doesn’t help us much with that.

If we hope for a future in which the poor are included, rather than expelled, we must find some way to assert the agency of the marginalized.

Furthermore, it is not only the powerful who lack agency in Expulsions, but the vulnerable. One wonders how the poor are responding to logics of exclusion. Are they completely powerless to shape global—or even local—political economic realities? Are they totally helpless to shape their own lives in the face of these systemic and structural realities? It would, of course, be unrealistic to suggest that the vulnerable face no barriers to shaping their own destinies or changing the world. But there are middle paths between notions that the marginalized have unlimited responsibility for and control over their own circumstances and ideas that ignore the sometimes hope-giving reality of agency among the oppressed. Sassen has managed to walk this line in her previous work, emphasizing relationships between structural realities and choices about migration or describing how the poor in global cities participate in “global survival circuits,” shaping transnational relationships that promote their welfare, but Expulsions lacks attention to the agency of the vulnerable. If we hope for a future in which the poor are included, rather than expelled, we must find some way to assert the agency of the marginalized – not because we want to blame the victim, but because we want to acknowledge the power of resistance.

Indeed, Expulsions’ own tendencies toward abstraction and generalization lead to a diminished sense of agency.

For all of its analytical and rhetorical force, Expulsions could have made an even more important contribution if Sassen had marshaled her own powers of resistance against the forces of generalization and abstraction. Still, by giving in to these two, Sassen does manage to answer, by way of example, a Burckhardtian question: Have tendencies toward abstraction and generalization, instead of empowering us, contributed to a truncated sense of agency? Indeed, Expulsions’ own tendencies toward abstraction and generalization lead to a diminished sense of agency.

Perhaps, though, we should not be surprised if Sassen emulates what she seeks to expose. Sassen seems to expect that increasing technical complication could be made to serve society and the environment—thus the sense of betrayal and paradox that are at the heart of the book. Not having given up this hope of liberation through abstraction, generalization, and complexity, Sassen tries to employ them to free us from terribly simple patterns of expulsion. Unfortunately, in the end, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether Sassen’s muse is Burckhardt or Burckhardt’s terribles simplificateurs themselves.

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