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