Cap­i­tal­ism and hu­man mi­gra­tion

Saskia Sassen talks ex­trac­tion, dis­place­ment, and de-ur­ban­iza­tion

The McGill Daily - - News - Nora Mc­cready The Mcgill Daily

On March 13, a group of stu­dents and com­mu­nity mem­bers gath­ered in the Mcgill Fac­ulty Club for a lec­ture by Saskia Sassen, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy and the Chair of the Com­mit­tee on Global Thought at Columbia Univer­sity. Sassen’s lec­ture was ti­tled “A Mas­sive Loss of Habi­tat: Three New Mi­gra­tions.” She ex­am­ined the ex­trac­tive and ex­pul­sive prac­tices that have come to dom­i­nate our global fi­nan­cial sys­tem.

Land grabs and ex­trac­tion

Sassen be­gan with a dis­cus­sion of land grabs. Africa is the most af­fected by land grabs, she said. How­ever, land grab­bing, or large-scale land ac­qui­si­tions, are spread­ing across the globe. Sassen brought up a few ex­am­ples such as Bos­nia’s Saudi-run wheat plan­ta­tions, South­east Asia’s his­tory of for­eign-run bio­fuel ex­trac­tion, and wa­ter bot­tling com­pa­nies’ amass­ing of real es­tate world­wide.

These land grabs are de­struc­tive be­cause they push out longterm in­hab­i­tants and quickly drain nat­u­ral re­sources. When this hap­pens, the af­fected ter­ri­tory be­comes what Sassen calls “dead land.” This prac­tice of push­ing peo­ple out for cor­po­rate profit is cre­at­ing “a mas­sive loss of habi­tat,” she said, “that is gen­er­at­ing a cer­tain kind of mi­gra­tion.”

“The [Indige­nous in­hab­i­tants] have knowl­edge [of] how to keep that land alive for mil­len­nia, for cen­turies,” said Sassen. “When they’re thrown out of that land [they end up] in big slums in big cities. At that point, we – the schol­ars, [...] the re­searchers – have lost track of them. We see them as ur­ban slum dwellers. We have for­got­ten the fact that they have knowl­edge about how to keep that land alive.”

This cy­cle tends to re­peat it­self, said Sassen, to ever more de­struc­tive ef­fect: peo­ple be­come in­vis­i­ble, their prac­ti­cal knowl­edge is for­got­ten, their land dies, and cor­po­ra­tions move on to new and un­ex­ploited ar­eas.

Sassen also dis­cussed the re­cent phe­nom­e­non of coun­tries mak­ing land grabs abroad. While this may be con­strued as a form of neo-im­pe­ri­al­ism, she em­pha­sized land grab­bing in for­eign coun­tries mainly con­cern ex­trac­tion for fi­nan­cial gain. This con­trasts older forms of im­pe­ri­al­ism in­volv­ing po­lit­i­cal or re­li­gious agen­das.

“If you think of the old im­pe­rial mode of the French [...] they didn’t want to just con­trol the whole of Africa, they also wanted ev­ery­one to learn French,” she said. “It came with a su­per­struc­ture.” The same was true, she con­tin­ued, of the Spanish in­va­sion of Latin Amer­ica: Spain had cer­tainly pil­laged the re­gion’s nat­u­ral re­sources, but it had also come with a “civ­i­liz­ing mission” rooted in Chris­tian­ity.

To­day, by con­trast, ex­trac­tion-based con­cerns are far more all­con­sum­ing, and this logic is the back­bone of nu­mer­ous mod­ern com­modi­ties. Google and Face­book are both ex­trac­tive of in­for­ma­tion, Sassen said, and “fi­nance is an ex­trac­tive sec­tor: [fi­nance] sells some­thing it does not have.”

“So is this new type of for­eign owner of land in a coun­try that is not its own,” she con­cluded. “It just ex­tracts.”

New mi­grants

The ex­trac­tion and de­struc­tion of land, Sassen went on, has led to the de­vel­op­ment of a new kind of mi­grant: “a mi­grant who, when she ap­pears at our bor­ders [...] is in­vis­i­ble to the eye of the law.”

“When you take the tra­di­tional sub­jects, the im­mi­grant and the refugee, there are le­gal regimes. They might be highly im­per­fect, but they ex­ist.”

“The im­mi­grant is a strong sub­ject. She leaves be­hind a place. She wants to con­trib­ute to fur­ther de­vel­op­ment [...] This [new] sub­ject is not nec­es­sar­ily a strong sub­ject [...] They’re be­ing pushed out,” she said. “What throws out these mi­grants – plan­ta­tion de­vel­op­ment, min­ing, the wa­ter bot­tlers – reg­is­ters as GDP per capita growth in the coun­tries where this is hap­pen­ing.”

This point, said Sassen, il­lus­trates the ironic space within which the new mi­grant op­er­ates. On the one hand, their coun­try of ori­gin is ben­e­fit­ting fi­nan­cially from land grab­bing and ex­trac­tion. How­ever, “you have to com­bine what is seen by the sys­tem as a pos­i­tive [...] with the fact that mil­lions are ex­pelled ev­ery year.”

Re­cently, there has been a pro­found in­crease in the num­ber of un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren com­ing to the United States from Cen­tral Amer­ica. Most of them are com­ing from El Sal­vador, Hon­duras and Gu­atemala.

“El Sal­vador and Hon­duras are con­sid­ered among the most vi­o­lent coun­tries in the world” said Sassen. “When you ask the chil­dren ‘why, why did you [leave]?’ They al­ways say ‘la vi­o­len­cia.’”

“They left be­cause of vi­o­lence but the point is that vi­o­lence doesn’t fall from the sky ready-made,” Sassen con­tin­ued. “Small farm­ers have been thrown out of their land by the de­vel­op­ment of mas­sive plan­ta­tions owned both by for­eign cap­i­tal and by old lo­cal elites.”

These small landown­ers are forced to go to the cities: “San Pe­dro Sula for ex­am­ple, in Hon­duras. a coun­try re­ported to have the high­est na­tional mur­der rate in the world ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions Of­fice on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) in 2012.

The lo­cal economies in the­ses cities are strug­gling, and the drug trade is one of the only de­vel­op­ing fi­nan­cial sec­tors. The par­ents of these mi­grant chil­dren of­ten be­come in­volved due to a pro­found lack of op­por­tu­nity, and in many cases, they end up be­ing killed. This, said Sassen, is ‘la vi­o­len­cia,’

The Di­nant Cor­po­ra­tion is cur­rently the largest landowner in Hon­duras. “The world bank just gave [the CEO] a prize [...] he runs a very well-run plan­ta­tion. He had to ex­pel all kinds of peo­ple. So here again we en­ter this strange zone.” Sassen con­tin­ued, “In the statis­tics of the coun­try it all looks fantastic. [ How­ever] it ac­tu­ally rests on killing.”

Sassen im­plied that many peo­ple are un­aware of the true cause of this de­struc­tion, and in­stead at­tribute the vi­o­lence to racist pre­con­cep­tions about the re­gions af­fected.

“You can’t just say ‘la vi­o­len­cia’ – you have to say land grabs, you have to say cer­tain modes of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, you have to say the cor­rup­tion of gov­ern­ments. [...] Then you’re ac­tu­ally get­ting at some of the foun­da­tional facts.”

Ur­ban ex­pul­sion

Re­cently, said Sassen, for­eign buy­ers have been pur­chas­ing prop­erty in cities con­sid­ered de­sir­able, and de­vel­op­ing lux­ury prop­er­ties there.

“At­lantic Yards [in New York City] was [once] dense with all kind of ac­tiv­ity,” she ex­plained. “All the artists that were too poor to live in Man­hat­tan wound up there. It was bought up by a Chi­nese com­pany [...] and they’re now build­ing four­teen of these tow­ers, lux­ury tow­ers, apart­ment build­ings. They are rais­ing the den­sity of the place enor­mously but they’re ac­tu­ally de-ur­ban­iz­ing [...] You’re just elim­i­nat­ing mixed economies and cul­tures [...] and re­plac­ing it with lux­ury apart­ments.”

Not only are for­eign buy­ers build­ing new high rises and de-ur­ban­iz­ing neigh­bour­hoods, they are also buy­ing up units in pre­ex­ist­ing build­ings, Sassen went on. This means that a lot of ur­ban space re­mains empty, be­com­ing noth­ing but a sym­bol of for­eign cap­i­tal. This can be very de­struc­tive to the lo­cal econ­omy be­cause it drives up the cost of liv­ing for the peo­ple who are ac­tu­ally con­tribut­ing eco­nom­i­cally. In the last ten years, four­teen mil­lion house­holds have been fore­closed on.

“That’s al­most forty mil­lion peo­ple thrown out” said Sassen. “That’s a lot of ma­te­ri­al­ity [made] in­vis­i­ble.”

Sassen re­lated this idea of loss of habi­tat and si­mul­ta­ne­ous gain of cor­po­rate profit to his­tor­i­cal eco­nomic trends.

“It’s not like the Key­ne­sian pe­riod af­ter World War II [in which] the [mid­dle class] grows,” she said. “If you’re do­ing bet­ter, you don’t care that much about the fact that the rich mid­dle class is do­ing even bet­ter than you. But what we have now is loss, loss, loss, gain, gain, gain.”

“I can imag­ine an ex­treme pe­riod with two ris­ing ur­ban for­mats. [...] End­less stretches, some of it be­comes slums, some of it not, some of it is le­gal, some is not, but very very dense. All those peo­ple who are be­ing ex­pelled, many of them wind up here. And then mas­sive ex­pan­sion of these cor­po­rate cen­tres.”

Sassen con­cluded her talk by show­ing a photograph of lux­ury high­rises next door to a deeply im­pov­er­ished neigh­bour­hood. This, she im­plied, is our fu­ture.

“We see them as ur­ban slum dwellers. We have for­got­ten the fact that they have knowl­edge about how to keep that land alive.” —Saskia Sassen Chair of the Com­mit­tee on Global Thought at Columbia Univer­sity “They left be­cause of vi­o­lence but the point is that vi­o­lence doesn’t fall from the sky ready-made.” —Saskia Sassen “They are rais­ing the den­sity of the place enor­mously but they’re ac­tu­ally de-ur­ban­iz­ing. [...] You’re just elim­i­nat­ing mixed economies and cul­tures [...] and re­plac­ing it with lux­ury apart­ments.” —Saskia Sassen

Nora Mc­cready | The Mcgill Daily

Saskia Sassen.

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