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Saskia Sassens on digital space and state power

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Clare Melhuish reviews...

Saskia Sassens says she has often been criticised for 'not engaging with the political' in her writing and teaching work, which ranges across sociology, geography and urbanism, and has earned her many awards, including one from the Chicago Institute of Architecture and Urbanism. So her lecture last week questioning the power and relevance of the state, as we know it, represented a decisive departure. Sassens suggests that since leaders repeatedly assert the inability of states to bear the costs of maintaining the welfare of societies, one might ask whether there is any point having them.

Sassens argues her case for a transformation of the state and its work from a spatial perspective, set out in terms of a dramatic broadening of the 'field', or 'landscape', or 'geography' of power. She asserts that, as a result of global capital and trade, and the growth of the Internet and digital space, a 'multiplicity of geographies' has emerged, represented by a whole range of sub-national and private institutions. These include human rights organisations and ngos, but also financial institutions and multi-nationals playing the global markets, which have acquired not just power, but also authority, generating what she terms 'norm-making capacity.' For example, most businesses engaged in cross-border activities now use privatised systems of arbitration and justice which allow them to bypass national court systems, and sectors dominated by a few large firms have self-imposed regulatory systems. These are themselves serving to instigate changes in state legal systems around the world.

One factor leading to an enormous increase in the power held by these types of institution is their access to private digital space, the existence of which is unknown to many people. By contrast, the Internet represents a public free-for-all which has served to create a 'new world of action', or 'distributed power', existing in parallel. Sassens describes this not as a 'global space', but as 'a multiplicity of local sites engaged in a global project.' She cites the impact of the demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation as a highly pertinent example of the way in which the Internet 'has emerged as a significant tool for good old-fashioned activism.' The more frightening dimension is the vulnerability of basic social infrastructure to attack by hackers and cyber-terrorists.

These developments suggest an interesting future for the advance of the green movement, which has already benefited enormously from the growth of digital space, and grassroots initiatives of all sorts. Sassens suggests we will see a growth of supra-national (eg the eu) and sub-national institutions alongside each other, and she is optimistic about the possibility of building 'institutional bridges to a new kind of emancipatory politics' in that context.

Saskia Sassens was giving the first lecture in the British Journal of Sociology's 'Millennial Series' at the London School of Economics.

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