Saskia Sassen: Expulsions – Beyond Inequality



Expulsions: Beyond Inequality

Saskia Sassen

Columbia University


At some point in the evolution of extreme negative conditions, the familiar explanations fail. Today, the language of more inequality, more poverty, more imprisonment, more environmental destruction, and on, is insufficient to mark the proliferation of extremely acute versions of old and new conditions.Sassen_Saskia2014-Expulsion bookcover

In Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Harvard University Press 2014) I examine a broad range of familiar processes that have reached this point. The focus is on systemic edges – not to be confused with the more familiar concept of interstate borders. Systemic edges can emerge deep inside a nation-state, an economy, a society, a city. I conceive of these systemic edges as the point in sometimes long trajectories, when condition x becomes invisible because it has been expelled from our statistical analyses, theoretical framings, societal understanding of a condition, etc. This invisibility can attach to very material conditions.

The book uses very diverse conditions to deploy these analytics. 1) Economic shrinkage in both the Global North and the Global South; 2) the massive surge in land-grabs in a growing range of countries, now including not only the familiar Global south areas, but also Russia, France, Central Europe; 3) How finance can use even very modest assets to generate hyper-profits, and in that process destroying the owners of sites of those modest assets; 4) The rapid expansion of dead land and dead water bodies across the world, which I conceptualize as an expulsion of bits and pieces of the biosphere from their life space.

Let me illustrate briefly this notion of expulsions across systemic edges with a familiar case. At some point the long-term unemployed fall out of the standard categories for measuring unemployment; they become statistically invisible, no matter how visible their bodies are. Importantly, these expulsions can coexist with growth in “the” economy, even if the space of that economy is shrinking. Another example is our standard measure for economic growth: GDP per capita increasingly gives us a measure of “the economy” that leaves out significant numbers of people, places, and activities. It measures a shrunken economic space, and in so doing can come up with some positive growth numbers, even as significant numbers of people, small businesses, and places have been expelled from “the” economy.

I argue that this mode of measuring the economy amounts to a kind of economic “cleansing” – a term I intend to harken back to that other brutal mode referred to with the more familiar “ethnic cleansing.”

The proliferation of such systemic edges leads me to posit that we need a new analytics and new conceptual language to capture such extreme conditions. In the book I argue that we need to de-theorize our understanding of some of these major turns, and go back to ground level so as to capture the empirical details, in order thus to re-theorize these extreme conditions.

For instance, take two of the largest mining operations in the world –the Norilsk nickel complex in Northern Russia, and the large gold-mining operations in the US state of Montana. What matters more, that one comes out of a long history of Communism, starting out as a gulag, and the other out of an equally long history of capitalism with all its abuses of the law? Or is it the facts on the ground that matter today: both these mining operations are massive destroyers of the environment.

The issue is not to erase those communist and capitalist trajectories. The issue is rather to free ourselves from those past modes of narrating economies. Today communism versus capitalism really do not matter. Both have generated predatory elites, and more foundationally, predatory formations.


Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. Her new book is Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Harvard University Press 2014, and forthcoming in multiple translations). Recent books are Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press 2008), A Sociology of Globalization (W.W.Norton 2007), and the 4th fully updated edition of Cities in a World Economy (Sage 2012). Among older books is The Global City (Princeton University Press 1991/2001). Her books are translated into over 20 languages. She is the recipient of diverse awards and mentions, ranging from multiple doctor honoris causa to named lectures and being selected for various honors lists. Most recently she was awarded the Principe de Asturias 2013 Prize in the Social Sciences. Web:


Banner image: Hilary Koob-Sassen, Transcalar Investment Vehicles, FLAMIN Productions, 2012.

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