Urban capabilities: those we want in our cities and those we should avoid

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Saskia Sassen

Jul, 2020
MUSIC:
We tend to think of capabilities as something positive –made, developed, useful. Here I focus on a particular capability, marked by admirable modes of intelligence and impressive effectiveness, but basically functioning as an extractive sector that can destroy a variety of healthy economies in major cities.

The COVID-19 pandemic serves as an invitation to reflect on the patterns of such capabilities. What we currently face extends beyond solely a public health threat to communities throughout our planet. We could posit that this invisible virus is of course not a sentient aggressor, but does indeed resemble a global actor with corresponding function: it influences our behavior and interacts with other global actors that shape our world. Since its function is not determined only by its own nature, but also by the model of society it is immersed in, this event serves as an alert to show us the SARS-CoV-2 is not even the most dangerous global actor we must confront.

When the lockdowns were implemented, the inequalities and injustices caused by extractive sectors became all the more obvious. Privileged urban zones were suddenly empty, either because their residents had additional homes outside of the city, or because these zones already no longer functioned as habitats, but had been appropriated for more «profitable» use: in large part, such zones were absorbed by the tourism industry, almost nonexistent during the pandemic. Average citizens, meanwhile, had to endure worse living conditions during quarantine, as the market had already forced them into reduced or further removed housing.

Photo_ Diego Miranda_ Displayed_ CC BY 4.0

The alarming effects of the pandemic also manifest in the fields of labor, occupation and social care. Again, the assertion holds that the problems we are facing were primarily caused by other global actors, rather than the virus.

In short, what concerns me here, to a large extent, are the negative capabilities that we must recognize and fight against.[1] To that end, I explore an aspect of high finance that functions as an extractive sector: this is a sector with often considerable capacities to destroy what are largely modest survival support systems, such as, for instance, retirement funds. I want to argue that these are significant destructions, even though they appear as benign — dressed in the clothing of support systems. Some of these have been exposed: most notable, perhaps, is the case of the major California University retirement fund, one of the largest such funds and much admired across the decades. But several years ago, this fund and several other major funds saw a new type of management team take over. It was the type of management team that was above all oriented to adding a third entity to the picture: financial firms that had their own idea of what was the way to go –and it was not simply about workers, it was also about using workers’ funds to add to the advantages of major financial firms. It is this capacity to extract value, no matter what the conditions, which the financializing of more and more operations has brought about.

Can complexity camouflage violence?

One concern are the cases which are not recognized as a form of violence, because they are sufficiently complex to be almost automatically seen as admirable and trustworthy. This is, for example, what has happened with the retirement funds of modest income workers in the United States. The abuses of power are not easily visible or evident to the average retiree. I frame the analysis as a focus on modes of power that we can think of as positive (retirement funds!) but should increasingly be recognized as containing options for a range of investors that are not about enabling pensioners. In this regard they are in violation of the law as intended. Under such conditions we can frame this abuse as acts of violence. High finance has become one of the most brutal extractive sectors, but it dresses itself in the benign clothing of «commerce.»

What is alarming is that the financial system has developed the capacity to make even small amounts of money, or gold, or modest housing into something that is of interest to them. This is not good for us, the people.

The traditional bank is in the business of selling money. Finance is quite different. It is about the capacity to financialize valuable entities. Perhaps particularly impressive (in my reading) is the fact that unlike most other sectors, it can extract value from both positives (such as capital) and negatives (such as debt). Remarkably, it has the capacity to transform negatives such as student debt into a value-producing instrument.

Here I examine the capabilities that have enabled this financializing of more and more components of our economies. What is alarming is that the financial system has developed the capacity to make even small amounts of money, or gold, or modest housing into something that is of interest to them. This is not good for us, the people. In my reading, it has made high finance into what I conceive of as an extractive sector. And once an economic actor has the capacity to transform everything into an extraction, we the people lose, and we lose big.

It should be noted that much of that financializing is basically invisible to the average person –and, we might add, invisible also to our eyes. This is, I think, a source of concern given the «innovative» power of the sector and its capacity to financialize just about anything. Much of this financializing capacity has become a major source of the mal-distribution of resources, gains, and losses, that took off in the post-1980s period. And this continues today, with a noticeable acceleration since the 2008 financial crisis. Further, we have also increasingly seen some of this in major European countries and beyond. Given limited space, I will focus primarily on the United States, but clearly, the financial system is global, and so is its impact.


A major actor we frequently overlook: high finance

The traditional bank is in the business of selling money. Finance is quite different. It is about the capacity to financialize valuable entities. And this, rather than simply selling money, is its source of profit. This includes an enormous variety of items—from luxury buildings, to metal sheets, to coffee beans. In its vast range of innovations, this capacity to financialize is quite admirable. Perhaps particularly impressive (in my reading) is the fact that unlike most other sectors, it can extract value from both positives (such as capital) and negatives (such as debt). Remarkably, it has the capacity to transform negatives such as student debt into a value-producing instrument.

This is a radically different mode from that of traditional banking. In the post-World War II decades, traditional banking benefitted from an economic logic that enabled the making of large prosperous working and middle classes, and from the fact that each generation did a bit better than their parents. That period is now mostly over in the majority of the United States, though it still survives in Europe, to the comfort of the modest income classes.

We now see a sharp growth in the numbers of high-end financial experts of all sorts who become richer than they ever expected. It is not as rich as the top 1%, but it is a whole new class of the very rich that amounts to 20 or 25% of the population in more and more major cities. De facto, the impact of this 20 to 25% of new rich inhabitants on a city’s population is far larger than that of the long-standing top 1%. This 25% can take over and gentrify vast stretches of a city’s space for its housing, its luxury offices, shops, restaurants, and more. Together, these various expansions of the spaces of the rich and powerful have now displaced the well-established, but basically modest, older middle classes from their often long-standing urban habitats.


An extractive sector

As explained above, finance can best be described as an extractive sector like mining, though it does not present itself as such. For example, it resembles mining in that once you have extracted what you are after, you are done with that site and have no concern about the destruction left behind. It is a system that takes and takes, and does so in ways that make it radically different from traditional banking. The latter is in the business of selling money. In short, as previously mentioned, it is good old-fashioned commerce.

High finance, in contrast, is not about commerce and not about selling money. It was partly enabled by diverse government programs aimed at supporting its people. But largely, these positives were the result of a specific set of economic dynamics, notably the growing importance of mass consumption. In short, traditional banking was part of the larger logic of mass consumption. It had, basically, a positive function for a large number of fairly modest households, enterprises, and many other elements of the traditional economy in our major cities. These features of traditional banking do not hold for today’s high finance. What took off in the late 1980s for high finance is very different: it is marked by a proliferation of financial innovations that have the power to concentrate advantage.

Photo_ Photoheuristic.info_ Homeless_ CC BY 4.0

My concern is that this is a brutal attack on diverse key sectors in our urban economies: from housing and medical services, to savings arrangements for retired workers. In what follows, I examine particular aspects of this sector, with a focus on what I refer to as its extractive capabilities.


The rise of financialization

There is a rapidly growing critical scholarship on financial institutions and markets that has contributed to our understanding of high finance; in good part, this is because it is written by social scientists rather than «financial experts.» Within this larger context, my focus here is quite different from that scholarship (one to which I did contribute in the past) in that I examine a specific aspect: the features that have enabled the financializing of more and more components of our economies and thereby transformed much of this high finance into what I conceive of as an extractive sector. Again, it is important to remain cognizant that much of that financialization is imperceptible not only to the average citizen, but to everyone.

The concerning «innovative» power of the sector and its capacity to financialize virtually anything is demonstrated in the increasing mal-distribution of resources that has especially been on the rise in the wake of the 2008 crisis. This capacity has become all the more visible throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this analysis, the concerning «innovative» power of the sector and its capacity to financialize virtually anything is demonstrated in the increasing mal-distribution of resources that has especially been on the rise in the wake of the 2008 crisis. This capacity has become all the more visible throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the growing disparity among populations in concentrated spaces like cities has been exacerbated or highlighted by the public health crisis, underlining how the impact of financialization has extended to everyday living conditions among the vast majority of the population. It is not an isolated phenomenon.

To that point, a central consideration in my analysis is that global finance has de-bordered the narrowly defined notion of finance as simply «financial firms and markets,» and financial institutions generally.[2] It is not so much about institutions as about a larger assemblage of institutional, legal, technical, and geographical components that function as capabilities for the financialization of more and more material and non-material elements.[3] These components include the massive incorporation of experts of algorithmic mathematics –which has radically transformed and expanded the capacity to financialize more and more material elements in particular.

This also includes among others, a broad range of non-financial institutions, technical infrastructures, and public and private domains. It is precisely this larger assemblage of complex components emerging in the last two decades that has enabled finance to shake up so much of the old established order that rose after the post-World War II era.

In conclusion, in considering our city organization beyond the pandemic, the type of finance analysis I call for entails recognizing negative elements before the crisis, such as the destruction of traditional economies and the growth strategies of traditional households. This makes it clear that finance has a radically different organizing logic than that of the typical mass consumer oriented corporation or the traditional bank. The latter needs and thrives on households doing well, on sons and daughters doing better than their parents, on governments supporting households via health subsidies so they can use private hospitals and buy expensive prescribed medications, and so on. But finance, like mining, wants to extract value it can put to work (that is, financialize) and produce additional profits. And once it has executed those operations, it leaves behind destruction and moves on to the next target –yes, again, just like mining.

[1]  For a detailed analysis, see: Sassen, Saskia (2014). Expulsions: brutality and complexity in the global economy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[2]  In Sassen, Saskia. (2016), The Global City: Enabling Economic Intermediation and Bearing Its Costs. City & Community 15(2)97-108, I have made a detailed analysis of how the financial system has, literally, built an operational space that is, yes, global, but marked by very specific insertions in diverse locations across the world.

[3]  Sassen, Saskia. (2008). Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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