Magazine article Soundings

The High Price of Neoliberalism

Magazine article Soundings

The High Price of Neoliberalism

Article excerpt

Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, Harvard University Press 2014

What do African-Americans evicted from sub-prime homes, Greek migrants scattered across the EU, and the 'green deserts' of palm oil plantations have in common? In this wide-ranging book, Saskia Sassen weaves together examples such as these from across the globe to draw out the 'subterranean trends' of contemporary capitalism, 'marked by expulsions--from life projects and livelihoods, from membership, from the social contract at the heart of liberal democracy' (p29). The four chapters which form the core of the book trace this theme through looking at shrinking economies, land acquisition in the Global South, financialisation and environmental degradation, each supported by clearly presented and detailed evidence which does not obscure the force of her argument.

In cases such as Greece, Sassen notes that what counts as 'the economy' itself has shrunk, with many of the unemployed and the poor--not to mention those who have committed suicide or emigrated--becoming invisible to standard measures; and the the numbers of those who count are also being reduced by growing incarceration rates around the world, and particularly in the US, which both reflect and create a new class of people who have no realistic prospect of legitimate work in their lifetimes. The 200 million hectares of land acquired between 2006 and 2011 by foreign governments and firms, mostly in Africa but also Latin America and in countries such as Ukraine and Vietnam, have largely been used for monoculture agribusiness, expelling smallholders, whole villages, and often all other flora and fauna. The growing complexity of finance, and the inability of ordinary people to protect themselves from the systemic risks it creates and profits from, challenges standard definitions of growth and prosperity, while the biosphere--as land is poisoned by chemical extraction and water by hydraulic fracturing, and dead zones grow in the world's oceans--is increasingly treated 'as if it does not belong on our planet, no matter that it accounts for a good share of the planet and that the biosphere is us' (p210).

Underlying these disparate examples, Sassen argues, are shifts towards forms of 'advanced' financialised capitalism which entail different kinds of relationships between populations, states and corporate actors. Mid-twentieth-century capitalism, based on mass production and consumption, still maintained the presumption that the majority of people had some value, as workers or consumers, and at least some minimal right to protection from the state. Today, a large proportion of the world's population are regarded as simply devoid of value, unless they can be converted into a unit for speculation--through taking on unsustainable mortgage debts, being traded through the privatised US prison system, or indeed (although this is not a case Sassen discusses) being used as a 'migrant threat' to justify harsher security measures--and greater profits for security companies--on the borders of Fortress Europe. The price paid by those on the receiving end of foreclosures and long prison sentences, or people forced to make perilous trips across the Mediterranean, is of course very high. But the complexity of the system makes it difficult to see who is paying that price, and who is benefiting from it: the more complex the system 'the harder it is to pinpoint accountability, and the harder it is for anyone in the system to feel accountable' (p215). …

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