An­thro­pol­ogy Ob­jects and Be­hav­iours

… It is as if a mon­ster en­tered the city… and ate its way through it.

Domus - - CONTENTS - Text by Saskia Sassen

The in­ter­me­di­a­tion in com­plex sys­tems

One key hy­poth­e­sis I ar­rived at early on in my re­search was that in­ter­me­di­a­tion was an in­creas­ingly strate­gic and sys­tem­i­cally nec­es­sary func­tion for the global econ­omy that took off in the 1980s.1

This in turn led me to gen­er­ate the hy­poth­e­sis about a need for spe­cific types of spa­ces — spa­ces for the mak­ing of in­ter­me­di­ate in­stru­ments and ca­pa­bil­i­ties. One such strate­gic space con­cerned the in­stru­ments needed for out­sourc­ing jobs, some­thing I ex­am­ined in my first book (see note 1).

But what be­gan to emerge in the 1980s was on a com­pletely dif­fer­ent scale of com­plex­ity and di­ver­sity of eco­nomic sec­tors. It brought with it the mak­ing of a new type of city for­ma­tion. I called it the global city — an ex­treme space for the pro­duc­tion and/or im­ple­men­ta­tion of very di­verse and very com­plex in­ter­me­di­ate ca­pa­bil­i­ties. This did not re­fer to the whole city. I posited that the global city was a pro­duc­tion func­tion in­serted in com­plex ex­ist­ing cities, al­beit a func­tion with a vast shadow ef­fect over a city’s larger space.

In that ear­lier pe­riod of the 1980s, the most fa­mous cases il­lus­trat­ing the as­cen­dance of in­ter­me­di­ate func­tions were the big merg­ers and ac­qui­si­tions. What stood out to the care­ful ob­server was how rarely the in­ter­me­di­aries lost. The fi­nanciers, lawyers, ac­coun­tants, credit rat­ing agen­cies, and more, made their money even when the new mega-firm they helped to make even­tu­ally failed.

Fi­nance be­came the mother of all in­ter­me­di­ate sec­tors, with firms such as Goldman Sachs and J.P Mor­gan mak­ing enor­mous prof­its, fol­lowed at a dis­tance by the spe­cialised lawyers and ac­coun­tants. From the early phase dom­i­nated by merg­ers and ac­qui­si­tions, in­ter­me­di­a­tion has spread to a grow­ing num­ber of sec­tors.

This also in­cluded mod­est or straight­for­ward sec­tors. For in­stance, most flower sellers or cof­fee shops are now parts of chains. They only do the sell­ing of the flow­ers or the cof­fee, and it is head­quar­ters that do the ac­count­ing, lawyer­ing, ac­qui­si­tion of ba­sic in­puts. Once, those smaller shops took care of the whole range of items; they were a mod­est knowl­edge space.

In­ter­me­di­a­tion can now be thought of as a vari­able that at one end fa­cil­i­tates the glob­al­is­ing of firms and mar­kets, and at the other end brings into its en­ve­lope very mod­est con­sumer-ori­ented firms. It also con­trib­utes to ex­plain­ing the ex­pan­sion in the num­ber of global cities and their enor­mous di­ver­sity in terms of spe­cialised knowl­edge.

Else­where I have con­cep­tu­alised in­ter­me­di­a­tion as a logic of ex­trac­tion. For ex­am­ple, un­like tra­di­tional bank­ing, fi­nance can be thought of as an ex­trac­tive sec­tor, and I say this only partly as provo­ca­tion.2 It has de­vel­oped in­stru­ments that al­low it to ex­tract ‘value’ even out of low-grade as­sets or mere debt.

A ma­jor con­cern for me was to cap­ture the fact that in­ter­me­di­ate func­tions needed to be pro­duced, de­vel­oped, re­fined, mixed with other types of in­stru­ments, and so on. In its nar­row­est sense, then, I con­ceived of the global city func­tion as a space

of pro­duc­tion; a sil­i­con val­ley for ad­vanced ser­vices, no­tably fi­nance. Fi­nance could not have be­come as com­plex and in­no­va­tive (to put it kindly) if it had not had a net­work of global cities. Even­tu­ally, I ex­panded the cat­e­gory to in­cor­po­rate a di­ver­sity of mean­ings, in­clud­ing the in­stru­ments needed by coun­ter­sys­temic ac­tors to op­er­ate in com­plex global set­tings from en­vi­ron­men­tal to hu­man rights ac­tivists. And even­tu­ally I be­gan to include con­ven­tional ac­tors such as mu­se­ums en­gag­ing in in­ter­na­tional ex­changes of­ten for the first time, be­cause now they had ac­cess to a range of com­plex le­gal, ac­count­ing and in­sur­ance in­stru­ments. It also en­abled a mas­sive scale up of ir­reg­u­lar ac­tors, from traf­fick­ers in drugs and people to an ir­reg­u­lar mar­ket for ar­ma­ments.

As a space of pro­duc­tion, the global city gen­er­ates ex­treme needs. These include state-of-the-art in­fra­struc­tures that al­most in­evitably go well be­yond the stan­dards for the larger home cities. Thus, for in­stance, the fi­nan­cial cen­tres in New York and Lon­don in the 1990s had to de­velop types of dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture that were on a com­pletely dif­fer­ent level from most of the rest of the city.

Fur­ther, the global city gen­er­ates a sharp rise in the de­mand for both high-level tal­ent and masses of low-wage work­ers. What it needs least are the tra­di­tional mod­est mid­dle classes, which were so cen­tral to the era when mass con­sump­tion was the dom­i­nant logic; larger cities with more rou­tinised economies do con­tinue to need them.

Fi­nally, as the global econ­omy glob­alised, this global city func­tion spread to more and more cities. It was a sort of fron­tier space en­abling global cor­po­rate ac­tors to en­ter na­tional economies.

What started as a hy­poth­e­sis and then be­came a re­searched fact is that such in­stru­ments for in­ter­me­di­a­tion are a mark­ing

fea­ture of the type of global econ­omy that emerged in the 1980s and had de­vel­oped its global reach by the late 1990s. This, then, also ex­plains the rapid in­crease in the num­ber of global cities dur­ing the 1990s and on­wards. To­day, we can iden­tify about 100 plus global cities, no mat­ter how di­verse their power to shape ma­jor global trends and their ca­pac­i­ties to de­velop or in­vent new in­stru­ments. One, mostly over­looked, fact is that even mi­nor global cities have in­vented new in­stru­ments and built new mar­kets, of­ten based on a single com­mod­ity.

The global city func­tion is made, and that process of mak­ing is com­plex and mul­ti­fac­eted. It needs to fac­tor in laws, ac­count­ing prac­tices, lo­gis­tics and a broad range of com­po­nents such as the ex­is­tence of di­verse cul­tures of in­vest­ment de­pend­ing on the coun­try and the sec­tor.

This process of mak­ing could not take place sim­ply in a firm or a lab­o­ra­tory sit­u­a­tion. It had to be cen­tred at the in­ter­sec­tion of dif­fer­ent types of emer­gent global eco­nomic cir­cuits with dis­tinct con­tents, all of which var­ied across eco­nomic sec­tors. It needed a space where pro­fes­sion­als and ex­ec­u­tives com­ing from di­verse coun­tries and knowl­edge cul­tures wound up pick­ing up bits of knowl­edge from each other even if they did not in­tend to do so.

I saw in this process the mak­ing of a dis­tinc­tive “ur­ban knowl­edge cap­i­tal”, a kind of cap­i­tal that could only be made via a mix of con­di­tions, among which was the city it­self with its di­verse knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­en­tial vec­tors. I saw this both in its broad sense (all the knowl­edge­mak­ing in­sti­tu­tions, in­di­vid­u­als, ex­per­i­men­tal moves), and in the nar­rower sense of the global city func­tion (highly spe­cialised and ded­i­cated knowl­edge sys­tems).

Fi­nally, and crit­i­cal to the whole project, was what I re­fer to as the in­fra­struc­ture to en­sure max­i­mum per­for­mance by high-in­come tal­ent — the broad range of con­di­tions en­abling their work-lives.

Promi­nently in­cluded in my anal­y­sis was a va­ri­ety of lowly re­warded tasks, rang­ing from low-level of­fice to low-wage house­hold work. I ar­gued that in many re­gards the homes of top-level staff are an ex­ten­sion of the cor­po­rate plat­form. The ac­tual tasks were only part of the story. To get it out of the lan­guage of ‘low-wage jobs’, I de­scribed these tasks as the work of ‘main­tain­ing a strate­gic in­fra­struc­ture’, one that in­cluded the house­holds of top-level work­ers as these had to func­tion like clock­work, with no room for lit­tle crises.

Left: Hi­lary Koob-Sassen, The 6th scale of bi­o­log­i­cal com­plex­ity (op­er­a­tional im­ma­nence in a garden of sys­tems), 2011-2014. Mar­ble, al­abaster, soap­stone and steel, 3.6 x 2.7 x 1.8 m

Above: Hi­lary Koob-Sassen, The 6th scale of bi­o­log­i­cal com­plex­ity (op­er­a­tional im­ma­nence in a garden of sys­tems), 2011-2014, de­tail. Mar­ble, al­abaster, soap­stone and steel, 3.6 x 2.7 x 1.8 m. Right: Hi­lary Koob-Sassen, Venus of the Y axis (In­fra­struc­ture and Epi­taxis), 2011-2014, de­tail. Nickel-plated steel and mar­ble, 2.2 x 3.1 x 0.9 m

1 Saskia Sassen, The Global City New York, Lon­don, Tokyo, Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, Prince­ton (NJ), 1991, sec­ond edi­tion 2001. 2 Saskia Sassen, Ex­pul­sions: Bru­tal­ity and Com­plex­ity in the Global Econ­omy, Har­vard Univer­sity Press, Cam­bridge (MA) 2014. See also Saskia Sassen, Who Owns the City?, in The Guardian, 24.11.2015; Saskia Sassen, The fairy tale ver­sion: A mon­ster en­ters the city, in The Guardian, 23.12.2015; Saskia Sassen, Dig­i­tal tools nar­row the space of the di­vide be­tween op­pres­sors and op­pressed, in http:⁄⁄worl­dar­chi­tec­ture.org⁄ ar­chi­tec­ture-news⁄cfmnc⁄_ dig­i­tal_­tool­s_­nar­row_the_ space_of_the_­di­vide_­be­tween_ op­pres­sors_and_op­pressed_ says_sask­i­a_sassen.html

Saskia Sassen is Robert S. Lynd Pro­fes­sor of So­ci­ol­ogy and Mem­ber, The Com­mit­tee on Global Thought, Columbia Univer­sity. Her lat­est book is Ex­pul­sions: Bru­tal­ity and Com­plex­ity in the Global Econ­omy, Har­vard Univer­sity Press, Cam­bridge (MA) 2014.

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