Saskia Sassen at Schloss Dürnstein

News | Kaleb Warnock | March 2013

Sassen sees inefficiencies in National Security Policy (Photo: photo-graphic-art)

Schloss Dürnstein, set high above the Danube on one of the most beautiful sections of the Wachau valley, seems like 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 14 February, the Lynd professor of Sociology at Columbia 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 at current levels of inequality and can only be changed through the mobilisation of the people themselves.

Sassen opened the three-day symposium, Risiko Sicherheit (The Risk of Security), with remarks that were highly critical of current methods of establishing security and the bureaucracies that shape policy making. She believes these result in gross inefficiencies, which are more than overhead costs, but rather create a global system that isn’t sustainable.

"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 from a "plantation economy" that relies on the masses to support the minority on the top of the socio-economic pyramid.

Through her own historiographic analysis of globalisation in Cities in the World Economy (2012) and Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (2008) she used the global financial system to illustrate the volatility that stems from increasing income disparity. Ultimately, marginalising groups within the system has led to a denial of human rights, and asymmetrical warfare – terrorism being the most visible – that has left world powers reeling.

Further problems arise with urbanisation, when people are relocated to cities as a result of state-sponsored "land grabbing" to produce products that are often exported, and rarely make their way into domestic economies.

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

Another distortion is overbearing state security, as in the U.S., where a recent explosion in intelligence agencies has been marshalled to counter transnational threats like terrorism and crime.

"The irony of the system is that in order to protect us from the 10 terrorists, they have to survey 320 million people," Sassen said. "The system is not a direct, immediate threat, but the inefficiencies are extraordinary."  A spy-agency state diminishes peoples’ anonymity and has led to a denial of habeas corpus through unlawful deportation and detainment as in the secret renditions during the Iraq War – leading the U.S. to becoming a "turnkey state" allowed to run itself, and the public becomes simply "consumers of citizenship".

The answer is to collectivise in order to combat the organised system of power, Sassen said. The disenfranchised outnumber the ruling minority, and must "provide their own terms" and 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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