Saskia Sassen and Schloss Dürnstein

by Kaleb Warnock

Schloss Dürnstein, set high above the Danube on one of the most beautiful sections of the Wachau valley is an ironically idyllic place to discuss the overthrow of the global political system. Well, not “overthrow” exactly. Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen has decided that it’s time to re-examine how the world’s people see their roles in the system.

In her lecture, National Security as a Source of Citizen’s Insecurity at the Symposium Dürnstein, the Lynd professor of Sociology at Columbia University and visiting professor at the London School of Economics looked at the evolving role of national states that is disenfranchising the people they were created to protect. According to Sassen, our global system is unsustainable with present levels of inequality and the only way things will be changed is through mobilisation of the people themselves.

Sassen was highly critical of current methods of establishing security, that to her, results in gross inefficiencies from the bureaucracies that shape policymaking. These inefficiences are much more than overhead costs, and the global system isn’t sustainable at its present level of inequality.

“We cannot confront this system on its own terms,” Sassen Said. “We need to create our terms.” She means to “recode” the global system of government and change it from its structure as a “plantation economy” that relies on the masses of people to support the minority on top of the socioeconomic pyramid.

Sasssen discussed her own historiographical analysis of failed empires that results from income disparities, her most recent example being the global financial system. Ultimately, due to the imbalanced structure, the marganilizing of peoples has led to an increase in asymmetrical warfare like terrorism, which has left world powers reeling.

Sassen was also critical of urbanization, which is often percieved as an important

consequence of globalization and technological advancement. However, issues arise when people are relocated to cities as a result of state-sponsored expulsion known as “land grabbing”, in which land is sold out from under native inhabitants to corporations and governments, reaching up to millions of hectares per year. These land grabs only contribute to marginalization through inequality and poverty as there are often few opportunities for those who have been relocated. These land purchases are for corporate farming and products like biofuel that are often exported, and rarely make their way into domestic economies.

“They’re developing all of the land into something that people cannot eat.” Sassen said. “This is another kind of hunger.”

She then led the lecture into the issue of overbearing state security, the United States as the primary example. Recently, the U.S. has seen an explosion in intelligence agencies to counter transnational threats like terrorism and crime.

“The irony of the system is that in order to protect us from the the 10 terrorists, they have to survey 320 million people,” Sassen said. “The system on the one hand is not a direct, immediate threat, but on the other hand, its the inefficiencies that are extraordinary.”

The spy-agency state diminishes peoples’ right to anonymity and has even led denial of habeas corpus through unlawful deportation and detainment. In effect, leading the U.S. into becoming a “turnkey state” in which the population is allowing the state to run itself, and are simply “consumers of citizenship”.

Sassen concluded that there must be avenues through which people can collectivize to combat the organized system of power. Because the disenfranchised outnumber the ruling minority, they must “provide their own terms to convert,” the system and to take their place on the global street to protest the waning legitimacy of the ruling states.

“You have to believe that there is something we also represent,” Sassen said. “We the people make the legitimacy. It’s not just about power.”


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