ExpulsionsEvery new book by Saskia Sassen is always a small event for me, since she is one of my favorite contemporary sociologist. This one is no exception. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy is a bit shorter than Sassen’s usual length but it has the usual “big picture” and dense writing that are characteristic of her style. Sassen is both an empirical and theoretical sociologist, so, every book of hers, marshalls a deep conceptual apparatus to explain disparate occurrences (or thick realities, as she calls them in this book). She sees these distinct and not-entirely similar trends are subterranean expressions of larger assemblages driven by a dual logic of inclusion / expulsion within the global context. However, this is ground-level work.

That’s a mouthful but that is the general idea and throughout the book, Sassen uses a variety of datasets and case studies to make her points, exploring in greater details four visual expressions of this inclusion / expulsion logic:

  1. shrinking of the economic spaces,
  2. the new rush for African land,
  3. financialization of everything,
  4. environmental destruction.

In all these four domains, we found the same logic of inclusion (something brought onto the global capitalist system) / expulsion (the exclusion and marginalization of the “losers” of the inclusion logic). Since the point of the book is to make the logic of expulsions visible, the focus is on extreme cases. However, because expulsion is the flip side of inclusion, it can occur in a context of economic growth, and therefore, remain deceptively out of sight. In addition, the inclusion / expulsion duality is often overlaid with a complexity / elementarity (yes, that’s a word, I checked) duality where complex mechanisms (such as financial instruments concocted by high-level mathematicians, and comprehensible by only a few) led to the elementary logic of expulsion (mass foreclosures).

The resulting expulsions Sassen define as elementary brutalities produced by complexity. Such complexity comes in various forms (again, financial instruments, structural adjustment programs, “free trade” contracts that lead to land dispossession, complex resource extraction technologies), through various institutions and organizational forms, but they lead to expulsions all the same, and acute ones at that.

But no matter what specific form such expulsions take, they all are part of a mechanism of what Sassen calls ‘savage sorting‘: the sorting of who will matter and be counted in economic indicators, and who will not and be sentence to live at what Sassen calls the systemic edge.

First, Sassen identifies the latest shift in capitalist accumulation with the 1980s. This is a familiar story: the end of the post-War period with its focus on redistribution, inclusion, social protections, etc. Reaganomics-type of economic policy in Western countries, the “lost decade” in the Global South led to an inversion of inequality dynamics with increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top and stagnation for the rest of social classes. Such a reversion of the “Trente Glorieuses” was not a conspiracy of the elites but also a systemic product of institutional, organizational, and technological processes. Not only that but this concentration could, for the first real time, be scaled up to a truly global level. This complex mix, Sassen calls a predatory formation.

But then, what Sassen is really interested in is not the nth statistical description of increased inequality and/or poverty. What she points to is something akin to a statistical ethnic cleansing where the expelled from shrunk (yet growing) economies are simply no longer visible (hence the picture of growth). The economic space is shrunk by pushing out the marginalized, those who no longer receive unemployment benefits, those who leave, those who are incarcerated, those who have committed suicide. Most of these things have happened or are happening in one way or the other, Sassen often uses the extreme example of Greece after the 2007 economic collapse: Greece underwent several waves of austerity imposed by the EU and its economy was pronounced as recovering because the measures and indices that are supposed to show such recovery actually ignore the social collapse.

So, on the one hand, there is the measured corporatized economy, now existing as a shrunk space, after divestment from social-contract, social-welfare-related expenses. It is not hard to see this is exactly what has happened to the countries subjected to austerity programs imposed from the EU:

“It leads one to wonder if this brutal restructuring was undertaken precisely in order to achieve a smaller but workable economic space that would show growth in GDP according to traditional metrics — even if it necessitates the expulsion from the economy, and its measures, of significant shares of the workforce and the small business sector. After all, a mere hint of GDP growth can be a positive signal to investors and financial markets, and this is a key achievement from the perspective of current IMF and European Central Bank policy — and not only in the EU. The alternative survival economies that are emerging exist in a different economic space, one that falls outside formal measures and indicators. For now they are not enough to meet the needs of the expelled and of the merely impoverished.” (43)

To put it simply, the logic of displacement looks like this:

Displacement (1)

This combination of shrinking of economic space / expulsion has occurred irrespective of the political / economic systems in place. For instance, if one look at incarceration in the United States, one can see a mix of privatization and deregulation (that is, the opening up of a market / corporate space), along with systemic racism and massive expulsion. But all of elements in the image above are the product of predatory formations that are themselves a mix of different institutional, organization, and technological mechanisms. On the face of it, they may look very different from each other and unrelated, but once reconceptualized as part of such logic of inclusion / expulsion, they bear some very Wittgensteinian family resemblances.

Sassen also demonstrates that the same logic of inclusion / expulsion is at work in the current land grab made necessary by (1) the rise in demand for industrial crops, such as biofuels, and food crops, and (2) growing interest from global investors (hence the rise in food prices). On the ground, this means the expulsion of small farmers, who then join the legions of urban poor, themselves expelled from the economic growth of the global cities, creating what Mike Davis had nicknamed Planet of Slums.

At the same time, this mass acquisition of land in the Global South was made possible because the IMF and the World Bank have used debt reduction as part of a disciplining regime, that was, again, supposed to integration countries of the Global South into the global economy, but resulted in elementary expulsions, as governments from these countries had to agree to conditions akin to austerity programs (the infamous structural adjustment programs). Sassen describes at length the mechanisms of land acquisition in the context of the discipline-through debt reduction.

A similar logic is at work in the financialization of everything that was so central to the crisis of 2008:

“The financialization of a growing number of economic sectors since the 1980s has become both a sign of power of this financial logic and the sign that it is exhausting its growth potential in the current phase, insofar as finance needs to use and invade other economic sectors in order to grow. Once it has subjected much of the economy to its logic, it reaches some type of limit, and the downward curve is likely to set in. One acute illustration of this is the development of instruments by some financial firms that allow them simultaneously to bet on growth in a sector and bet against that sector.” (137)

This is also a well known story and it is not hard to see the expulsions it created. The best documentary on that subject is Inside Job which does a good job of showing the globally-interrelated dynamics that created the pre-crisis situation: Wall Street, US academia, global investors, pension funds (local, national, and global), etc.

Finally, Sassen turns to her last form of expulsion: expulsion from the biosphere. The anthropocene era means that humans are having an irreversible effect on the biosphere’s ability to regenerate. This leads to the creation of dead landscapes through a variety of human practices that affect wildlife and fauna (we recently learned that extinctions are at an increasing pace) and flora. Sassen goes through a multiplicity of local instances and examples which can be mapped out below:

Expulsions from the biopshere (1)The fact that these instances of environmental degradation (that involves our now-familiar dynamic of inclusion / expulsions) can be found in a variety of political economies show that no system has a monopoly over bad environmental management.

Having gone through an enormous amount of data and a multiplicity of cases, Sassen pulls it all together in her concluding chapter where she explores more thoroughly the idea of systemic edge, whose key dynamic is incorporation (inclusion) / expulsion. The way I see it, Sassen uses incorporation / inclusion in two senses: (1) to describe the post-War period where redistribution mechanisms led to the incorporation of more actors within the system (minorities, women, etc.) and (2) as bringing something within the realm of the capitalist world-system (areas or sectors that were previous not included but now could, thanks to technology, institutions of global governance, etc.

But from her own examples, it is that second meaning that seems the most relevant at this point: inclusion comes at a price: expulsions in all the forms Sassen describes, be they social, economic, or ecological.This reads as very pessimistic as the book ends with the defining of the systemic edge as a space of expulsions, where the expelled are relegated. I guess her next book should be about that space since she spent this one describing the shrinking space at the system’s center.

Indeed, this is a very rich book that feel a bit unfinished. I do hope she gets to write Part II – Life at the Systemic Edge or some such title.

This is not an easy book but it is worth anyone’s while. What is important, I think, is how Sassen takes “stories” that most of us are now familiar with (the end of the Trente Glorieuses), the neoliberal turn, increase inequalities (a fertile topic before Picketty-mania stroke!), slum-ification of the global cities, environmental degradation, and then reconceptualizes them as part of a set of predatory formations. The strength of the book is, I think, in its deployment of Sassen’s conceptual apparatus. So, I wish this book got more play but not, it’s all Picketty all the time, and I’m concerned that this will eclipse a work that should receive greater publicity.

In any event, here is Sassen speaking about expulsions at the LSE:

Needless to say, when two of my favorite contemporary sociologists write a book together, on a topic of high relevance, lately – surveillance – I jumped on it. Liquid Surveillance – A Conversation is actually a dialogue via email between Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon. The conversation revolves around the two major concepts that have shaped these men’s intellectual career: liquidity for Bauman, and the surveillance society for Lyon. So, it was only natural for their conversation to revolves around joining these two themes.

On that, the book does not disappoint. At the same time, because the conversation assumes at least some familiarity with the works of both men, it might not be as accessible to a non-academic audience as one might hope. It does seem, though, that whoever edited the book wanted to reach a wide audience through a short book, written in a relatively casual style and conversational tone. The book works on those aspects.

Another aspect of the book that makes it easy to follow is that the two sociologists do not seem to disagree on anything. So, each chapter basically revolves around one theme organized through an email exchange, where Lyon sets up the question, and then, Bauman compliments him for hitting the nail right on the head. Things go back and forth a bit until the end of the chapter. And the cycle starts again in the next chapter.

The overall theme of the book then joins two conceptual and theoretical apparatuses that truly seem to belong together: that of the liquidity thesis (the contemporary modern era where individuals have to find individualized solutions for structural and systemic problems in the context of precarization and risk society), and that of the surveillance society as tied not just to the state and governmental surveillance, but also that of consumerist surveillance promoted by large corporations, and the ties between the two types. A big chunk of the discussion questions whether Bentham’s Panopticon image is still relevant, and if not, what has replaced it as the image liquid surveillance. That is what the two sociologists explore.

“Surveillance is a growing feature of daily news, reflecting its rapid rise to prominence in many life spheres. But in fact surveillance has been expanding quietly for many decades and is a basic feature of the modern world. As that world has transformed itself through successive generations, so surveillance takes on an ever changing character. Today, modern societies seem so fluid that it makes sense to think of them being in a ‘liquid’ phase. Always on the move, but often lacking certainty and lasting bonds, today’s citizens, workers, consumers and travellers also find that their movements are monitored, tracked and traced. Surveillance slips into a liquid state.” (Loc. 32)

The way the liquidity thesis and the surveillance society thesis join together goes like this:

“‘Liquid surveillance’ is less a complete way of specifying surveillance and more an orientation, a way of situating surveillance developments in the fluid and unsettling modernity of today.” (Loc. 70)

At the nexus of state, private sector, and surveillance, one encounters the now ubiquitous idea of “security”, whether it is protection against terrorist threats or corporate fears of hackers of all tripes. The whole idea is that the risk society surrounds us and security measures have to be adopted to protect us all from all these risks. It is for our own good and we need to accept it.

“As Didier Bigo points out, such security operates by tracking ‘everything that moves (products, information, capital, humanity)’. So surveillance works at a distance in both space and time, circulating fluidly with, but beyond, nation-states in a globalized realm.” (Loc. 107)

And everything that moves includes, of course, one’s cursor on a computer screen, the clicks on links, the online movements and purchases one makes, the games one plays and the communication one engages in. From this perspective, social media is one giant surveillance apparatus where human beings are turned into little (or big) pile of data that then gets manipulated, repackaged, and sold. Surveillance within social media is pretty much an accepted fact of life. As much as one might get enthusiastic on the use of social media for social movements (as we have seen in the past few years on a global scale), the use of social media is always at the discretion of the corporations that own the platforms and based on state oversight.

A key concept invoked repeatedly by Bauman to define the nature of liquid surveillance is that of adiaphorization in which systems and processes become split off from any consideration of morality.” (Loc. 132). Contemporary technologies of surveillance allows its extension to great distance, creating an almost complete separation between the watchers and the watched (think drone operators and their potential targets and victims).

Adiaphorization also applies to all the different ways in which human being are disembodied and turned into piles of data, whether it is biometric data gathered at the borders, or genetic information collected through medical testing, or consumer profiling through sites like Amazon. These aggregated data are then used as “standing in” for the person who has been in effect disappeared in favor of a substrate that is easier to classify, categorize, select or exclude, through statistical means as run through massive servers. Indeed, one can invoke the fact that “dealing with data” is a morally neutral activity, even though, it obviously is not.

There is a soft power side to surveillance practices in liquid times, its carrot side: the fact that a great deal of information and data comes from us. We voluntarily submit data to a variety of organizations because we get little things in exchange. When Amazon asks us to rate and review our purchases in order to provide us with a more customized experience, we comply and volunteer our free labor as data because we get something in exchange: a more fun Internet and purchasing experience overall. The same goes for Facebook, Google and a lot of other companies. So, we trade a bit of privacy and data in exchange for some reward in a variety of forms.

The end result, though, of all these forms of surveillance, whether public or private or partnership of both, is social sorting: defining classes of individuals as worthy of state or commercial benefits or excluded from those. These benefits though may very well be life chances and opportunities, and results in +and – in terms of social rewards and privileges or their absence.

So, is the old Panopticon dead or have we entered the post-Panoptical era? It is not clear-cut. With the greater presence of ever smaller drones, Google Streetview, etc. we are more than ever subject to surveillance but we never really know when and by whom. That’s the contemporary, ubiquitous Panopticon. On the other hand, social media also hold the promise of constant sociality: you are never alone on Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media platforms. These platforms hold the promise of never being alone, but also of never being invisible, ignored, neglected, etc. They even offer the possibilities of seemingly freely chosen presentation of the self (paging Erving Goffman). Out of the loss of privacy came the pleasures of being noticed and recognized (and how has not checked their Klout scores??). But this means that we also turn ourselves into commodities.

At this point, though, both Bauman and Lyon fall prey to digital dualism while opposing the strong ties of communities and the weak ties of networks, privileging the former over the latter:

“Belonging to a community is a much more secure and reliable condition than having a network – though admittedly with more constraints and obligations. Community watches you closely and leaves you little room for manoeuvre (it may ban you and exile you, but it won’t allow you to opt out of your own will). But a network may care little, or not at all, about your obedience to its norms (if a network has norms to obey, that is, which all too often it doesn’t) and so it gives you much more rope, and above all will not penalize you for quitting.


All in all, the choice is between security and freedom: you need both, but you cannot have one without sacrificing a part at least of the other; and the more you have of one, the less you’ll have of the other. For security, the old-style communities beat networks hands down. For freedom, it is the other way round (after all, it takes only one press of the ‘delete’ key or a decision to stop answering messages to get free of its interference).” (Loc. 558)

One would hope that this is a dualism that we would have buried once and for all. This opposition is much too simplistic than Bauman and Lyon make it sound. After all, a lot of Facebook users, for instance, use the platform to reinforce their bonding social capital and not exclusively to increase their bridging social capital. I don’t think these oppositions hold empirically.

But this is well in line with a general pessimistic tone that persists throughout the book, and not just on the subject of surveillance but on the larger subject of social networks. In Bauman and Lyon’s discussion, there is little hope for any positive aspect of social networking technologies. It may very well be that one gets different types of relationships through social media than face-to-face (and again, this would need to be demonstrated empirically rather than just asserted), but this whole formation of hierarchy of relationships by medium is getting old and tiresome. There is no reason to assume a priori that face-to-face interactions are more authentic or deeper than digital ones. And yes, one has the freedom to leave a network without constraints. But local communities can be hotbeds of oppression that may impossible to escape, especially for women and girls in highly patriarchal environments. And yes, social networking platforms are as reflective of patriarchy as brick-and-mortar institutions.

Ok rant over on the digital dualism thing. Moving on.

Here is a good question though, and a very relevant one these days:

“If social media are actively used by people for their own purposes, then what happens when those purposes are opposed to the corporations or governments who might be thought of as using them?” (Loc. 625)

In the context of the whole NSA / Snowden fiasco, this is important and we saw how crucial it is when it was revealed that some of the major media players had willingly collaborated with NSA surveillance.

And yes, the jury may still be out on the prospects of social movements that made skillful use of social media over the past few years, here in the US and worldwide, but Bauman and Lyon seem deeply set in their pessimism. But the issue for social movements is not either/or: on the ground or virtual. Analysts like Castells have shown that it is both. There is a two-way street between the virtual and the non-virtual, there is interdependence rather than opposition or hierarchy. As we saw last week with the case of HB5, the anti-abortion bill debated in the Texas legislature, there was ground action, and virtual activism as well. They combined and joined into a powerful demonstration of crowd behavior merging with mass behavior. And in that case, it was the online crowd who watched and monitored as political actors on the ground try to cheat on the final vote on the bill. Without the mass of virtual witnesses, this might have gone without much opposition. The virtual and the on-ground supported and sustained each other. So, again, I think both Bauman and Lyon are lacking imagination and optimism on this.

Back to the Panopticon 2.0:

“The panopticon is alive and well, armed in fact with (electronically enhanced, ‘cyborgized’) muscles so mighty that Bentham or even Foucault could not and would not have imagined them – but it has clearly stopped being the universal pattern or strategy of domination that both those authors believed it was in their times; it is no longer even the principal or most commonly practised pattern or strategy. The panopticon has been shifted and confined to the ‘unmanageable’ parts of society, such as prisons, camps, psychiatric clinics and other ‘total institutions’, in Erving Goffman’s sense. How they work nowadays has been superbly recorded and in my view definitively described by Loïc Wacquant. In other words, panopticon-like practices are limited to sites for humans booked to the debit side, declared useless and fully and truly ‘excluded’ – and where the incapacitation of bodies, rather than their harnessing to useful work, is the sole purpose behind the setting’s logic.” (Loc. 763)

This is a point that is well demonstrated in Eugene Jarecki in his documentary on the War on Drugs, especially as commented by The Wire’s David Simon. US prisons are warehouses for the socially excluded and marginalized.

But Bauman takes this point even further: in the old conceptualization of the Panopticon, there has to be an external watcher. But the Panopticon was a modern construct:

“Having considered bureaucracy as the fullest incarnation of modern rationality, Max Weber proceeded to enumerate the features which any purposeful arrangement of human activities needs to acquire and strive to perfect, in addition to strict hierarchies of command and reporting, in order to come close to bureaucracy’s ideal type and so climb to the peak of rationality. At the top of Weber’s list was the exclusion of all personal loyalties, commitments, beliefs and preferences other than those declared relevant to serving the purpose of the organization; everything ‘personal’, that is not determined by the statute books of the company, needed to be left in the cloakroom at the entry to the building, so to speak, and collected back after the completion of ‘office time’. Today, when the centre of gravity, burden of proof and responsibility for the result has been dropped by managers, as team leaders and unit commanders, on to the shoulders of individual performers, or ‘contracted out’, ‘outsourced’ or ‘hived off’ laterally and judged according to a seller–buyer pattern rather than a boss–subordinate relationship, the aim is to harness the totality of the subaltern personality and their whole waking time to the company’s purposes.” (Loc. 798)

And so, we all become our own watchers:

“Servitude, along with surveillance of performance twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, is becoming fully and truly a DIY job for the subordinates. The construction, running and servicing of panopticons have been turned from a liability into an asset for the bosses, written into the small print of every contract of employment.


Just as snails carry their homes, so the employees of the brave new liquid modern world must grow and carry their personal panopticons on their own bodies. Employees and every other variety of the subordinated have been charged with full and unconditional responsibility for keeping them in good repair and assuring their uninterrupted operation (leaving your mobile or iPhone at home when you go for a stroll, and thereby suspending the state of being constantly at a superior’s beck and call, is a case of serious misdemeanour).


Tempted by the allure of consumer markets and frightened by the new freedom of the bosses to vanish, together with the jobs on offer, subordinates are so groomed to the role of self-watchers as to render redundant the watchtowers in the Bentham/ Foucault scheme.” (Loc. 817)

And so, in the Global North, we carry our own personal Panopticons, and in the Global South, the semi-periphery, factory workers get locked up in unsafe plants to make goods for our consumption, under the brutal watch of old-fashioned floor foremen (think Foxconn or the dead workers in Bangladesh). The Panopticon also applies to the marginalized mass of Manuel Castells’s Fourth World, wherever they are in the world (as welfare recipients have to agree to subject themselves to degrading forms of surveillance through testing if they wish to receive ever more meager benefits).

Here, Lyon borrows an interesting concept from Didier Bigo: “ban-opticon“:

“Bigo proposes ‘ban-opticon’ to indicate how profiling technologies are used to determine who is placed under specific surveillance. But it emerges from a full theoretical analysis of how a new ‘globalized (in)security’ emerges from the increasingly concerted activities of international ‘managers of unease’ such as police, border officials and airline companies. Transnational bureaucracies of surveillance and control, both businesses and politicians, now work at a distance to monitor and control population movement, through surveillance.


The outcome is not a global panopticon but a ‘ban-opticon’ – combining Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea of the ‘ban’ as developed by Agamben, with Foucault’s ‘opticon’. Its dispositif shows who is welcome or not, creating categories of people excluded not just from a given nation-state but from a rather amorphous and not unified cluster of global powers. And it operates virtually, using networked databases to channel flows of data.” (Loc. 836)

This is a very important point:

“The strategic function of the ban-opticon diagram is to profile a minority as ‘unwelcome’. Its three features are exceptional power within liberal societies (states of emergency that become routine), profiling (excluding some groups, categories of proactively excluded people, because of their potential future behaviour) and the normalizing of non-excluded groups (to a belief in the free movement of goods, capital, information and persons). The ban-opticon operates in globalized spaces beyond the nation-state, so the effects of power and resistance are no longer felt merely between state and society.” (Loc. 846)

Emphases mine. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. The point of all surveillance (state or commercial) is as much to exclude as to include, and both flow from the same processes. But in some cases, we have created some in-between spaces: the refugee camps, the detention centers for immigrants and asylum seekers, where people are warehoused until a given entity, state or otherwise, makes a decision on inclusion v. exclusion. Snowden is in some such space right now, as countries decide whether to grant him political asylum or not.

In addition to the ban-opticon, Bauman and Lyon borrow another related concept, synopticon:

“Thomas Mathiesen’s neat neologism that contrasts the panopticon’s ‘few watching the many’ with today’s mass media, where as he puts it, ‘the many watch the few’.” (Loc. 936)

How many of you watch The Kardashians? Real Housewives of Wherever? The synoptic is not a contradiction to the panoptic. They work together. Or, as I mentioned above, the 100k+ people “watching” the Texas legislature via Twitter or streaming media.

But in the end, panopticon, synopticon, or ban-opticon all work through databases. And by definition, these databases dehumanize and depersonify (if that is a word), but they do categorize at distance, in absentia.

“Every and any kind and instance of surveillance serves the same purpose: spotting the targets, location of targets and/or focusing on targets.


Instruments of surveillance installed at the entrances of shops or gated communities are not equipped with an ‘executive arm’ designed to annihilate the spotted and pinpointed targets – but their purpose, all the same, is the targets’ incapacitation and removal ‘beyond bounds’. The same might be said of the surveillance used to pick out the credit-unworthy from among aspiring clients, or of the surveillance tools used to set apart the penniless loiterers from the promising clients among the crowds flooding the shopping malls. Neither of those two varieties of contemporary surveillance has the purpose of causing physical death; and yet what they are after is a sort of death (the death of everything that matters). It is not a corporeal demise, and moreover not finite but (in principle) revocable: it is a social death, leaving open, so to speak, the chance of a social resurrection (rehabilitation, a restoration to rights). Social exclusion, the raison d’être of the ban-opticon, is in its essence analogous to a verdict of social death.” (Loc. 1233)

Which gets us back full circle to adiaphorization, which is a central concept to all this.

While exploring that concept, Bauman takes the opportunity to debunk the trope that technologies are neutral while their uses are not (the high tech version of “guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” All technologies are produced out of socio-political-economic arrangements that are by no means neutral within specific social institutions, marked by social relations of power. Nothing neutral about any of that.

I confess to losing interest towards the end of the book, when Lyon gets all religious-y about all this.

But apart from that, I think this is a very relevant book. As I mentioned above, it helps if readers are already familiar with both sociologists. But they tend to avoid too much jargon (except for the few, highly important, concepts I noted throughout the post).

As I noted above, I have a few disagreements here and there and I do think they are both very pessimistic about future prospects. But otherwise, this book should be read discussed not just in academia but in activist circles as well, especially those groups concerned with surveillance.

I have already posted quite a bit about David Harvey‘s Rebel Cities: From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution:

It is somewhat of a given that every book by prolific David Harvey is an important book. He is a sharp analyst of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and has the ability to write very clearly about rather complex matters. His writing is engaging, full of examples that illustrate the concepts he uses in his deconstruction of the logic of 21st century capitalism. At the same time, as my previous posts on the subjects have shown, he is not shy about being critical of the left for its fetishism of the local and organizational forms (currently: the horizontal and non-hierarchical).

My previous posts have focused mainly on chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the book. That is where the heart of the argument is and we’ll see why in a minute.

The heart of the book, of course, is the concept of “right to the city” and the centrality of the city as locus of power in 21st century capitalism, but also as locus for potential anti-capitalist movements:

“The city, the noted urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” If Park is correct, then the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. How best then to exercise that right?

Since, as Park avers, we have hitherto lacked any clear sense of the nature of our task, it is useful first to reflect on how we have been made and remade throughout history by an urban process impelled onwards by powerful social forces. The astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years means, for example, that we have been remade several times over without knowing why or how. Has this dramatic urbanization contributed to human well-being? Has it made us into better people, or left us dangling in a world of anomie and alienation, anger and frustration? Have we become mere monads tossed around in an urban sea? These were the sorts of questions that preoccupied all manner of nineteenth-century commentators, such as Friedrich Engels and Georg Simmel, who offered perceptive critiques of the urban personas then emerging in response to rapid urbanization. These days it is not hard to enumerate all manner of urban discontents and anxieties, as well as excitements, in the midst of even more rapid urban transformations. Yet we somehow seem to lack the stomach for systematic critique. The maelstrom of change overwhelms us even as obvious questions loom. What, for example, are we to make of the immense concentrations of wealth, privilege, and consumerism in almost all the cities of the world in the midst of what even the United Nations depicts as an exploding “planet of slums”?

To claim the right to the city in the sense I mean it here is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way. From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while control over the use of the surplus typically lies in the hands of a few (such as a religious oligarchy, or a warrior poet with imperial ambitions).” (3 – 5)

At the same time, capitalism and urbanity have been associated with crises and social movements throughout the 20th and 21st century (and before), so there are clearly capitalist and anti-capitalist dynamics revolving around the urban context that are separate from strictly class / labor dynamics. And that is what Harvey is interested in: to examine the nature of 21st century capitalism and to find interstices and spaces of contention and conflict through which social movements could emerge and challenge hegemonic arrangements. The global city is the perfect nexus for all of this.

“Fast-forward once again to our current conjuncture. International capitalism was on a roller-coaster of regional crises and crashes (East and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001, and so on) until it experienced a global crash in 2008. What has been the role of urbanization in this history? In the United States it was accepted wisdom until 2008 that the housing market was an important stabilizer of the economy, particularly after the high-tech crash of the late 1990s. The property market absorbed a great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction (of both inner-city and suburban housing and new office spaces), while the rapid inflation of housing asset prices, backed by a profligate wave of mortgage refinancing at historically low rates of interest, boosted the internal US market for consumer goods and services. The global market was stabilized partly through US urban expansion and speculation in property markets, as the US ran huge trade deficits with the rest of the world, borrowing around $2 billion a day to fuel its insatiable consumerism and the debt-financed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

But the urban process underwent another transformation of scale. In short, it went global. So we cannot focus merely on the US. Property market booms in Britain, Ireland, and Spain, as well as in many other countries, helped power the capitalist dynamic in ways that broadly paralleled that in the US. The urbanization of China over the last twenty years, as we shall see in Chapter 2, has been of a radically different character, with a heavy focus on building infrastructures. Its pace picked up enormously after a brief recession in 1997 or so. More than a hundred cities have passed the 1 million population mark in the last twenty years, and small villages, like Shenzhen, have become huge metropolises of 6 to 10 million people. Industrialization was at first concentrated in the special economic zones, but then rapidly diffused outwards to any municipality willing to absorb the surplus capital from abroad and plough back the earnings into rapid expansion. Vast infrastructural projects, such as dams and highways—again, all debt-financed—are transforming the landscape. Equally vast shopping malls, science parks, airports, container ports, pleasure palaces of all kinds, and all manner of newly minted cultural institutions, along with gated communities and golf courses, dot the Chinese landscape in the midst of overcrowded urban dormitories for the massive labor reserves being mobilized from the impoverished rural regions that supply the migrant labor.


China is only one epicenter for an urbanization process that has now become genuinely global, in part through the astonishing global integration of financial markets that use their flexibility to debt-finance urban projects from Dubai to São Paulo and from Madrid and Mumbai to Hong Kong and London. The Chinese central bank, for example, has been active in the secondary mortgage market in the US, while Goldman Sachs has been involved in the surging property markets in Mumbai and Hong Kong capital has invested in Baltimore. Almost every city in the world has witnessed a building boom for the rich—often of a distressingly similar character—in the midst of a flood of impoverished migrants converging on cities as a rural peasantry is dispossessed through the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture.

These building booms have been evident in Mexico City, Santiago in Chile, in Mumbai, Johannesburg, Seoul, Taipei, Moscow, and all over Europe (Spain’s being most dramatic), as well as in the cities of the core capitalist countries such as London, Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York (where more large-scale urban projects were in motion in 2007 under the billionaire Bloomberg’s administration than ever before). Astonishing, spectacular, and in some respects criminally absurd urbanization projects have emerged in the Middle East in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a way of mopping up the capital surpluses arising from oil wealth in the most conspicuous, socially unjust and environmentally wasteful ways possible (such as an indoor ski slope in a hot desert environment).


But this urbanization boom has depended, as did all the others before it, on the construction of new financial institutions and arrangements to organize the credit required to sustain it. Financial innovations set in train in the 1980s, particularly the securitization and packaging of local mortgages for sale to investors world-wide, and the setting up of new financial institutions to facilitate a secondary mortgage market and to hold collateralized debt obligations, has played a crucial role. The benefits of this were legion: it spread risk and permitted surplus savings pools easier access to surplus housing demand, and also, by virtue of its coordinations, it brought aggregate interest rates down (while generating immense fortunes for the financial intermediaries who worked these wonders).” (11 – 13)

This is the initial state of affairs. In the following chapters, Harvey, then, goes digging for the contradictions in this system in order to carve out spaces of contention for alternative social movements, especially since the dynamics quoted above have created vast inequalities of wealth and power (what with triumphant neoliberalism) that are highly visible in the global cities, with their cosmopolitan and privileged core and their peripheral slums, with their mass consumption levels and therefore, their great dependency on labor for both goods and services and the necessity of absorption of surplus value (so central to capitalism). Where neoliberalism is the most visibly dominant is also where it is most vulnerable. The amount of displacement and dispossession taking place in global city can be matched by counter-dynamics of anti-capitalist movements, IF they can organize around a new definition of what the working class is.

Those were basically the premises laid out in chapter 1. For those of us who had read Harvey’s previous book, The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism, chapter 2 will feel very familiar as it summarizes the current crisis. The core of Harvey’s argument really takes off in chapter 3, all through chapter 5 (so, you can refer to my blog posts listed at the beginning of this post). Chapters 6 and 7 read like columns that were published when things started heating up in Spring 2011, and especially during the London riots in Summer 2011 (I blogged about it at the time). They are very short, much less analytical and in-depth than the preceding chapters. This is where Harvey introduced the concept of feral capitalism:

“The problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all it’s worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shopkeepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.

A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery—particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected—has become the order of the day.


Every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way—more blatantly and visibly, in the streets. They mimic on the streets of London what corporate capital is doing to planet earth.” (155 – 6)

Chapter 7, also short and column-ish rather than full-on analysis, address Occupy Wall Street:

“But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront the Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and, by putting human bodies in that place, to convert public space into a political commons—a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and ongoing struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, and now the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked. What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook, that really matter.” (161 – 2)

It is not hard to see why Harvey would be interested in OWS, which is why I was a bit disappointed to not find a full-fledged analysis of the movement in the book. Apart from this two-page chapter, there is nothing on OWS, at least not explicitly. Of course, one can easily read between the lines of his analysis in chapters 3, 4 and 5 and see what applies to OWS (the organizational fetishism, for instance), which makes this absence all the more remarkable.

Nevertheless, Harvey offers a few recommendations for the OWS movement:

“To succeed, the movement has to reach out to the 99 percent. This it can do and is doing, step by step. First there are all those being plunged into immiseration by unemployment, and all those who have been or are now being dispossessed of their houses and their assets by the Wall Street phalanx. The movement must forge broad coalitions between students, immigrants, the underemployed, and all those threatened by the totally unnecessary and draconian austerity politics being inflicted upon the nation and the world at the behest of the Party of Wall Street. It must focus on the astonishing levels of exploitation in workplaces—from the immigrant domestic workers who the rich so ruthlessly exploit in their homes to the restaurant workers who slave for almost nothing in the kitchens of the establishments in which the rich so grandly eat. It must bring together the creative workers and artists whose talents are so often turned into commercial products under the control of big-money power.

The movement must above all reach out to all the alienated, the dissatisfied, and the discontented—all those who recognize and feel in their gut that there is something profoundly wrong, that the system the Party of Wall Street has devised is not only barbaric, unethical, and morally wrong, but also broken.

All this has to be democratically assembled into a coherent opposition, which must also freely contemplate the future outlines of an alternative city, an alternative political system, and, ultimately, an alternative way of organizing production, distribution, and consumption for the benefit of the people. Otherwise, a future for the young that points to spiraling private indebtedness and deepening public austerity, all for the benefit of the 1 percent, is no future at all.


In the face of the organized power of the Party of Wall Street to divide and rule, the movement that is emerging must also take as one of its founding principles that it will be neither divided nor diverted until the Party of Wall Street is brought either to its senses—to see that the common good must prevail over narrow venal interests—or to its knees. Corporate privileges that confer the rights of individuals without the responsibilities of true citizens must be rolled back. Public goods such as education and health care must be publicly provided and made freely available. The monopoly powers in the media must be broken. The buying of elections must be ruled unconstitutional. The privatization of knowledge and culture must be prohibited. The freedom to exploit and dispossess others must be severely curbed, and ultimately outlawed.” (162 – 3)

As I mentioned above, any book by David Harvey is an important book and I would consider him one of the most important “translators” of Marxian thought (I don’t really like the term “vulgarizer”). He does provide a deep yet clear analysis of both the workings of 21st century capitalism, locates them in the longue durée, sniffs out the contradictions and exposes them for all to see, hopefully (for him) leading up to social movements rushing through these interstices opened by these contradictions.

This book should be mandatory reading for activists and anyone interested / involved with the anti-capitalist movements around the world.

In the end, whatever the future of capitalism, it will be an urban future, so, any movement that hopes to contest the hegemony had better have some urban planning of its own ready. This book offers a good starting point.

I should end by noting that Harvey, as he recommends a redefinition of the working class beyond the factory workers, offers The Salt of the Earth as example of the kind of broad mobilization that is needed. In the case of the film, it is rural communities. Harvey thinks the same should be done for urban communities:

That much seems pretty obvious (click on the image for a larger view):

There seems to be a domino effect recently: New Zealand and Uruguay have recently passed gay marriage laws, France is on the verge of doing so (demonstrations from catholic fundamentalists and reactionary Petainists notwithstanding) and the US Supreme Court is set to review the Defense of Marriage Act. At this point, it is a matter of when rather than if. And it’s about time too. Now, if only the Global South, especially Africa and the Middle East could catch up.