Saskia Sassen, Helen and Robert Lynd Professor of Sociology, Columbia University is considered one of today’s most respected urban sociologists and is known globally for her landmark research on transnationalism, denationalization and the impact of globalization on the movement of labour, capital, and urban life. A prolific author, Sassen’s recent books are Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages and A Sociology of Globalization. In Mumbai to present the Urban Age Award, she speaks to Sayandeb Chowdhury about Mumbai being a global city and the future of globalization. 

Are you happy with the projects that got awarded in Mumbai? 

I am delighted with the Triratna Prerana Mandal (TPM) initiative. It’s home-grown, doing good work and we are happy to be able to reward a project which may not be in a position to attract other sources of funding. I like it as an example of open architecture — an assemblage of elements.

Is this idea of the Award related to your groundbreaking thesis on the global city

I think it is a larger initiative to acknowledge not only the growth of cities, which is inevitable under globalization but how they can grow by engaging their residents. 

Your global city is one with the resources and infrastructures for a radically new knowledge economy but at a price. Does Mumbai fit into your that idea? 

To a large extent, yes. Though unlike the global cities I mentioned in my book — London, NY and Tokyo — Mumbai has had the influx of vast internal poor migrants as much as mobile professionals. And that makes it a global city, where the contrasts are as stark as they can be. The pockets of extreme affluence and extreme poverty are glaring and violently juxtaposed.

How does the idea of a new informal economy fit into the debate? 

My research suggests that besides the old informal economy, cities such as Mumbai and Sao Paulo now also have a new informal economy. In cities in the developed world, this new informal economy is very visible because informal economies were eliminated in the early 1900s. The new informal economy is very much a part of the global advanced urban economy. For instance, it includes a variety of new small-scale manufacturing that services the service industry.

This contrasts with the historic role of services which was to cater to mass-manufacturing and heavy industry. This new informal economy is not always recognised in the megacities of the global south. Look at the new boutiques, the restaurants and the designer furnishing shops that have come up in Mumbai. They need cheap labour but not industrial factories; because it is all about being ‘unique’ and chic. For example, I would not be surprised if much of the fashion industry in Mumbai is serviced, somewhat discreetly, by Dharavi. That would be an instance of the new informal economy. But it makes the workers vulnerable and undervalued. 

You have also talked about a new elite class which finds identification across borders.  

What I mean is that many of the new elite and professional class in a city like Mumbai live like those in western and non-Asian cities. They do not know each other but they act, speak and function similarly. There is a new geography of centrality that connects these glamour zones and their people across the world. I see in it a partial denationalising of lifestyles and desires, aspirations, work practices, and built environments. In my book Territory, I have argued that certain components of national states are also getting denationalised. I am not saying that nations will disappear. My point is that the functions of the nation-state include global state work. Developing a global economy requires a lot of work by the various ministries. In this sense, the nation-state contributes towards its disenfranchisement.

How do you do this research? 

Like anthropologists who lodge themselves inside cultures, I lodge myself inside the state. And I find that various government agencies are denationalising their work as well as outsourcing their functions. But, much of what the legislative branch has lost in liberal democracies is going to the executive, which is gaining power in a globalising economy. Compare the Bush and Chavez administrations — two different political spectrums, yet in both, the executive is getting powerful and internationalist and hence in a way de-‘nationalised’.

You had once written about immigration that “we are becoming consumers of diversity rather than artisans of incorporation”. What did you mean? 

I was talking about how immigration issues can be handled more engagingly. We have got to move away from the shopping mentality — if there is no ready-made solution sitting on the shelf, there is no solution. We have to be artisans of not just the social but also the political. 

Is globalisation the only future? 

Diverse globalisations are going on at the same time — some open up possibilities for the disadvantaged and some don’t. And all of them are in shifting mode. But the global corporate economy, the most advanced type of globalisation, is deeply entrenched in a large number of countries. Withdrawing from these, reverting to past national formats — I doubt that is possible.