What Saskia Sassen really talked about

On September 22, Columbia University professor, sociologist Saskia Sassen, spoke at the Biennale about what does it really mean to be a citizen. Moscow Biennale bloggers — historian Ilya Budraytskis, culture theorist Marina Simakova and art critic Andrey Shental — talk about their respective impressions of the lecture.

Ilya Budraytskis: “In her lecture about a global city that straddles a new border between the worlds, and in the running project of civil society, which constantly undergoes prolongation through grass-roots movements, Saskia Sassen pointedly left the Russian context out in the cold. It would be silly to blame her for this — quite to the contrary, Sassen’s generalizing approach must invite her Russian audience to draw the parallels and the conclusions that come from our own experience. By this I mean our inherent Russian uncertainty in the very idea of civil society.

In the beginning of her lecture Saskia Sassen reminded us of the main internal contradiction of the liberal democratic societies — between the formal legal equality and the real social power disparity gap. The modern city, whose structure is constantly changing due to the colossal destructive activities of the speculative market, sets the stage for this drama. New owners come into their rights, becoming visible, and with their visible power they suppress the regular citizens. At the same time millions of losers, evicted from their homes and having lost their place in the urban area, become invisible. They are no longer noticed not just by the other city dwellers, but by the representative logic of liberal democracy itself. In fact, they cease being full-fledged citizens altogether.

In today’s Russia the loyal mainstream determines citizenship as a given, as a static affiliation followed by numerous obligations — to obey, to keep your voice low, to follow all new government orders. The eternal local opponent of this position, the liberal discourse, counters this frightened citizen with an active one, the one who knows the laws and demands adherence to formal rights, typical for countries will liberal democracies. However, Russia — probably to a greater extent than the West — is a country with substantial inequality and unfair distribution of colossal national treasures. Manifestation of dynamic citizenship attained in the public speech of the «global street», which Sassen talked about in her lecture, is only possible if we re-think the persistent Russian model of contrasting citizens performing orders with citizens knowing their rights. We should move away from the discussion on the shape and form of the citizenship and tackle a much more important question — its content.”

Marina Simakova: “One of the lecture’s key questions would seem a bit strange at first: it’s the question of land ownership. The post-Fordism and the accompanying information fever, associated both with production and consumption of the growing volumes of information and new technologies, has moved this issue to the periphery of our attention. But Sassen shows that in the era of global capitalism the issue of land ownership is far from being resolved: it is exactly in this sphere that the investment interests of global business, the royal families of the Persian Gulf and financial institutions converge. The volumes and the speed of buying lands, wherever they may be — in England, Poland or Angola — are steadily growing. As a result, today we have the opportunity to watch firsthand another historical round of capital accumulation. The consequent distribution of privileges and colossal opportunities, which are off limits to the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, reminds us of colonial politics and of multiple processes of peasant land expropriation. But in the Russian context, which Sassen deliberately left out of her lecture, the perfect (and recent) example of capital accumulation is privatization of 1990s. And here’s what’s interesting. The numbers cited by Sassen in her lecture show that Russia is taking an active part in the land-buying spree. The following picture emerges: applied to Russia, the national and global processes of capital accumulation follow each other correspondingly, which makes it possible to suggest that the participants of this process (the owners of current and future privileges) are the same people. This fact lets us see that the problem of “global capital” in the context of Russian realities is not limited to the opportunistic behaviour of transnational corporations. This problem has both a local nature and a local and well-known agent.”

Andrey Shental: “Although we live in one of the worst times for the liberal democracy, our cities look better and better each day. Saskia Sassen started her lecture with this paradox and went on to talk about citizens’ exclusion from urban politics and their subsequent disappearance from view and deprivation of voting rights. Situation in Moscow, which Sassen intentionally left without a comment, complicates the situation. The city’s transformation over the course of the last few years, which, among other things, made possible this Biennale at VDNKh, reflects the ambivalence of Russia’s political system per se, with its close ties between big capital and the government and its “progressive” legal system that goes hand in hand with rampant corruption. At the same time it also reflects the West, where enthusiasm for the idea of “creative cities” was followed by disappointment.

After two decades of Yuri Luzhkov’s reign, it seemingly took Moscow just a few months to remake itself into a real “Western” metropolis with all the relevant attributes: parks, bike lanes, gallery spaces and lots of cafes. But unlike in London, Berlin, New York and other cities where the main role in this process is played by the financial sector, which follows in the footsteps of the creative class, “Russian-style gentrification” is propelled forward by the government monopoly on urban politics. Eviction of citizens, devastation of small businesses and destruction of natural urban environment generally happen “from the top” and seek to fulfil both the political (the suppression of middle class) and economic objectives, where the profit is made on the basis of cuts and kickbacks. Thus, the benefits of the current urban improvement activities are enjoyed by the developers and construction companies with close ties to the city administration.

On the ideological level this duality of the Russian system is embodied in the ambitious project of Zaradye park scheduled to appear on site of demolished modernistic Rossiya hotel. This future symbol of Russia’s statehood and imperialism, where all the constituents of the Russian Empire will be represented by different types of local flora, speaks the “creative city” language and has been designed by the famous architectural bureau Diller Scofidio + Renfro, well known for their collaborations with different exhibition spaces. And so, when Sassen says that the descriptive language for urban politics and civil society is outdated (in particular, the popular “gentrification” term no longer describes the current urban processes), a critical view of the Russian context may lead us to see that there is no connection between civil freedoms and gentrification, and moreover there’s no connection between gentrification, urban studies and free market either.”