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Review: “Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy”

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

Reviewed by Ethan Raker

Crippling poverty, extreme inequality, and irreversible destruction of the biosphere: how do we understand the reality and extremity of the global condition? This is the austere question posed in Saskia Sassen’s latest book, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. From the wealth divide between the ultra-rich and the poor to the creation of “dead land” from fracking plots of the earth, Sassen demonstrates existence of a critical place, located ostensibly at the systemic edges of society, in which current modes of thinking about these conditions is insufficient. We lack both language and conceptualizations of these extremities. Sassen’s text is a reminder of transformations over the past fifty years and a caution against what the next fifty may bring. Her’s is not a thesis restricted to a singular focus but a unique amalgamation of the ecological, economical, and the political into a sociological analysis of the “expelling” occurring on the globe today.

Saskia Sassen, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, is one of the most prolific urban sociologists writing today. Her seminal work, The Global City: New York, London, and Tokyo, develops a unique understanding of globalization through the lens of the city, the site in which political, social, and economic processes materialize on a global scale. In her latest book, Expulsions, Sassen shifts her focus to the margins of these systems. She employs a de-theoretical analytic framework to understand the mechanisms behind the banishing of specific populations and biospheres across disparate localities. One of the obvious strengths of the text is this methodological move, the grounding of the text not in macro-level theory but in the reality of ground level. Sassen’s writing is undeniably that of an academic. At times, it is complex and difficult to decipher, but the exploration of the familiar realities on the ground aids in its reading.

Some of Sassen’s empirical evidence seems conventional for the extant literature, e.g. the rising levels of wealth and hyper-profits in high finance, and the inescapable impoverished condition of urban, black men. Nevertheless, Sassen weaves them as both necessary and relevant to her broader argument. Additionally, the real substance of Sassen’s thesis lies in the chapter titled, “Dead Land, Dead Water,” in which she develops the most unique case of expulsion. She analyzes, amongst others, two mining manufacturers operating in very different political and geographical contexts: Norilsk, Russia and Montana, United States of America. Although these two mining facilities are effectively killing the land and contributing to high levels of pollution, they developed in very unique political economies. The point, then, is that these expulsions are not unique to a singular location or context. They occur across the globe. Furthermore, Sassen highlights the current logics of carbon trading agreements in which nations essentially purchase rights to pollute the biosphere. This type of brutal degradation, Sassen argues, exists in multiple domains, and they emerge at the edges of systems.

In the end, the reader is left with an important ontological question: are our modes of understanding and categorizing inequalities and brutalities enough? Sassen convincingly suggests that in order to comprehend the severity of what exists (or will soon not exist) at the margin, we must adopt new categories and new ways of conveying and addressing these “expulsions.” Readers expecting specific policy recommendations may be disappointed. Instead, Sassen allocates the bulk of her pages to making visible the complexities and extremities of various situations at the systemic margin.

In its analytic framework and angle, Expulsions is deeply sociological. However, Sassen once again proves why she is so widely read. The text is insightful for not just the sociologist, but the economist, biologist, and politician, and above all, the global citizen.

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