Unsettling the Category of the Border / Report EF lecture Saskia Sassen


2009, Euregional Forum Newspaper

On 13 May, sociologist and internationally renowned globalisation scholar Saskia Sassen held the second lecture in the series ‘The Unresolved Borders of Europe’ at the NAi Maastricht. The main aim of Sassen’s lecture was to unsettle the stabilised understandings and categories of the border, and offer the conceptual instruments to achieve this.

Unsettling the category of the border

Bordering instead of borders

The first in Saskia Sassen’s series of ‘unsettlements’ was her emphasis on the man-made character of borders and thus not so much on the border as such, but on the activity of making borders, as well as the capabilities to do so. In this sense, she proposed to speak of ‘bordering’ instead of ‘borders’, that is to say: the border not as a noun, but as a verb, a specific type of human activity. Conceived of as man-made, the border becomes also something inherently unstable, since it can always be re-made or altered. Or, as Sassen put it: “the border is a stabilised meaning and no meaning is permanently stable”.

Globalisation: deregulation and multiplication of borders

Apart from the notion of the border itself, Sassen also took issue with the master categories in which borders are mainly considered today: that is to say, the national and the global. The advocates of the former see the growing fortification of the borders around the globe as proof of the fact that nothing much has changed in terms of borders. The advocates of the latter, on the other hand, see the on-going deregulation of borders as a way to secure a smooth flow of goods, information and professionals, as proof of the coming of an increasingly border-less, global world. Sassen criticised the ‘all or nothing’ logic inherent in both positions. Her stance and main thesis was rather that even if certain borders are being deregulated today, there has actually been a multiplication of borders. Sassen also regarded the current situation of the EU as an “accomplished overcoming of a certain notion of order”, i.e. that of the traditional nation-state, while also seeing it as the multiplication of all kind of other borderings.

According to Sassen, however, these borders are of a radically different nature. This is no longer about borders that encircle and enclose a certain local or national territory. Today, she argued, borders increasingly cut across countries and create encased zones and spaces for highly specialised activities (such as finance), to which she referred as “private circuits with special access”. Although more elusive and flexible, these zones still enact clear-cut borders between those who are in the circuit and those who are not. Thus, Sassen took up a more complicated ‘third’ position between both globalisation and anti-globalisation discourses.

Third spaces

In line with this position, Sassen stated that the emergence of what she called ‘third spaces’ is most characteristic for the current stage of globalisation. These are spaces that are neitherglobal nor national or, conversely, bothglobal and national. They do not exist independently from the nation-state, but neither are they strictly national in scope or interests. As an example of a third space, she referred to the space in which global firms conduct their activities. According to her, there is no such thing as a global firm. Even though a lot of firms today undeniably act globally and operate beyond the national borders to maximise their profits, she stressed that in legal terms these firms are still fully national. However, their global operations are made possible since nation-states denationalise particular elements of their institutional space. Sassen also put forward that the executive branches of national governments increasingly develop into third spaces: although elected nationally, they increasingly ally themselves with global logics and interests. These two examples, in Sassen’s view, support her broader thesis that today the global level still highly depends on certain developments and decisions of the nation-states. Furthermore, she also believes that in terms of globalisation, we are still only at the beginning of a major transformation.

The alternative framework: territory, authority, rights

In tackling the issue of present-day borders, Sassen went beyond merely deconstructing the prevailing categories of analysis, like the nation-state or globalisation. She also proposed a different conceptual framework for theorising about the current global order, built around a complex or, as she calls it, ‘assemblage’ of three major elements: territory, authority and rights (or short: TAR). She developed this alternative theory of globalisation in her latest book entitled Territory, Authority, Rights, where this framework is used not only to analyse the nature of our current social or global order, but also of previous, historical periods in human society. According to Sassen, each of these periods, including the present one, could be seen as a specific combination of the three TAR components; moreover, she distinguishes a certain hierarchy between these components. For instance, in the earliest nation-state period, territory was the dominant factor on which the other two rested: the most important act of the sovereign or state was the determining and consolidation of the national borders, as the basis of its power and legitimacy, and the rights of its subjects. In medieval times, however, authority was the dominant factor, while territory could be subjected to multiple authorities (as opposed to the “exclusive territoriality” of the nation-state). In contrast, what Sassen called today’s “human rights regime would want to put rights in the dominant position, over territory and authority.

According to Sassen, looking at different phases of human society through the lens of these three categories creates a better understanding of previous social formations, while also providing a better detection and analysis of the third spaces characteristic of our present world. In our current global electronic-financial markets, for example, authority would again be the dominant factor, since the important factor is not so much where you are, on which territory, but whether you are authorised to access certain networks, which are themselves deterritorialised to a high degree.

Borders, immigration, resistance

Sassen’s thesis of the present-day dominance of authority over territory or rights does shed a new light on the notion and status of borders in our contemporary world, as well as on related issues of inclusion and exclusion, border regimes and migration; she used a large part of her lecture to illustrate this.

Cross-border regimes and the IMF citizen

With reference to the issue of migration, for instance, Sassen gave the example of individuals working for well-known global institutions such as the IMF, WTO or World Bank. These individuals are granted ‘portable rights’: highly privileged rights, attached to them as employees of these institutions. Moreover, they can take these rights along to whichever country they go, in other words, they are not tied to a specific territory or territorial belonging. After their employment, the individuals are even able to choose whether they want to keep these rights. One of these rights, for instance, is the protection against lawsuits related to their activities within global financial institutions. Sassen found this to be rather problematic in view of the worldwide financial crisis that is largely caused or enhanced by the activities and policies of global financial institutions such as the IMF. It basically grants the perpetrators of the current economic crisis eternal immunity from being held accountable by its victims in a court of law.

This example of what Sassen called ‘the IMF citizen’ not only says a lot about immigration, but also about today’s emerging type of bordered spaces. These are spaces that cross traditional national borders; yet, they do not eliminate these borders and their constitutive jurisdictions and territories, but merely cut a zone out of it. In addition, similar bordered spaces exist for immigrants with different statuses: such as the business visa immigrant, family dependent immigrant, green card immigrant, high tech visa worker …

Managing border ecologies

This emergence of cross-border spaces does, of course, not only stem from certain global institutions. For Sassen, similar spaces are constantly being produced from the bottom-up, as a result of the increasing globalisation of economies and societies. In today’s world, she witnessed an increase in what she called ‘border ecologies’, which not only unsettle existing national borders, but also the ways of protecting their exclusivity.

As an example, Sassen referred to the complex border ecology between Mexico and the US. This border ecology not only concerns the massive emigration of Mexicans to the US, hoping for a job and a better life. Sassen showed how the ecology also works in the opposite direction, with one to two million US citizens living and working in Mexico (including a lot of retired people), besides nearly a hundred million travel movements from the US to Mexico (for work, tourism, etc.). This borderland ecology even stretches as far as Wall Street, with US banks annually earning around two million dollar in handling fees from the remittances of Mexican immigrants to their home country. In short, Sassen argued how the border issues between Mexico and the US involve much more than the iconic and infamous highly secured border between the two countries. It is rather a case of a complex and “sticky web” of social and economic interactions and interdependencies, which no fortification of the border can ever hope to eliminate or even control or neutralise. Sassen showed statistics revealing that despite the unprecedented “weaponising” of the border over the last fifteen years, the incidence of arrests of illegal immigrants sunk to a forty-year low, while the amount of illegal immigrants in the US doubled within a decade and is at an all-time high. In short, the case showed how a complex or ecology of social and economic processes is continuously “debordering” the border and how traditional strategies of reasserting the border are useless.


Finally, Sassen also addressed the implications of her theory of TARs for the issue and possibility of resistance to the many injustices in the current global order. According to Sassen, her theory unsettles and opens up the usual binary opposition of power and powerlessness. The specific combinations of TARs throughout human history do not just come about in an accidental way, nor are they solely created by the powerful. In Sassen’s view, they are collective productions made out of struggles and therefore never harmonious entities, but full of tensions. In those struggles the powerless play an important, though complex role. Sassen, for instance, stressed how a lot of the norms that have come out of the struggle of the dispossessed have filtered into our laws. Even though this doesn’t mean that they are always respected, these laws do exist and can be used against abuses by the powerful.

As an example of the complex power of the seemingly powerless, she gave an example of a series of successful court-cases in the United States by American citizens, levelled against several multinationals for their violations of workers’ rights in offshore factories. The lawsuits, however, were not held at some international tribunal, nor did they involve international law. The court-cases were issued at the lowest, domestic court and cleverly used a national law dating back from the high-days of piracy, which hadn’t been used for two hundred years. Still, it was effective in getting the multinationals evicted for their ‘pirate-like’ activities overseas.

For Sassen, this example showed how the third spaces in today’s globalised order are not only there so that the powerful – like the abovementioned large multinationals – can exploit and manipulate them for the maximization of their own interests. The example revealed how a similar third space was created and exploited by seemingly powerless citizens, using national law to create a global jurisdiction to put the multinationals on trial. This is something that, in turn, is only possible because the multinational companies are legally speaking still national, and because their global activities are enabled by their respective national states, as Sassen had revealed earlier in her lecture.


Sassen concluded her lecture by emphasizing that when one starts to look at the world through the ‘complicated lenses’ of territory, authority and rights, one starts to see not only patterns but also possibilities. And in the case of the civil court case against multinationals, these include political possibilities, some of which may be direct, some indirect. It also causes the meaning of the border to become unstable, even if borders are still there and are being reinstated or renationalised.


– A first question concerned ways for governments to deal with border ecologies, other than militarization.

Sassen answered by again stressing the impotence of weapons – even the most advanced and destructive ones – in the face of border ecologies (which she called “complex systems of non-violence”). As proof of this, she referred to the recent Israeli war against Gaza (which she would rather want to call a bombing expedition by the Israeli army).

With regard to alternative ways of governing border ecologies, she stressed how the border ecology is itself a form of governing that is embedded in specific practices and systems, from investment and cash flows to employment structures of family or day workers. These forms of self-governing should form the focus of an alternative approach by governments or supranational entities like the EU. Thus, she saw the recent meeting in Rabat between European and African countries, to discuss a more sustainable approach to current European immigration policies – focusing, for instance, more on developmental aid –, as an attempt in the direction of a governance approach to the border ecology.

Yet, the persisting pathological fear, or even obsession of European governments with mass migration of the poor to the EU, made her feel more pessimistic about the initiative. According to Sassen, this fear is based on deep-rooted misunderstandings about both the history and the nature of migration. In the first place, she stressed how in similar historical situations, with great inequalities in European territories and with states unable or unwilling to control the borders, there was in fact no massive migration of the poor to more prosperous areas. Moreover, she said that there had been other historical settings, where the immigrant belonged to the same religious, racial, ethnic or cultural group, which did involve discrimination, persecution and even killings.

– A second question concerned the presumed, mainly American, perspective of Sassen’s lecture, and the possibility of applying its theses to the case of the EU.

According to Sassen, there are great differences between the two. She stressed how Europe has always been more civilised than the US. She referred to the fact that despite its adoption of neo-liberal policies, Europe has embedded a good safety net in its laws, with for instance the activation of certain added socio-economic protections, if levels of unemployment go beyond a certain level. In the case of the Netherlands, she also lauded the existence of a technocracy inside the state, to which she attributed the safeguarding of green spaces in the Netherlands, as well as the excellent protection against environmental dangers.

– Some doubt was expressed towards the effectiveness of national court-cases against globally operating forces, especially in light of the collapse of a recent case of Belgian citizens against those responsible for the war in Iraq.

Sassen stressed the fact that failure of a strategy or action is not necessarily proof of its ineffectiveness, but should be seen as part of a larger trajectory. She referred to the famous recent lawsuit by a Spanish judge against Pinochet, ex-dictator of Chile. This case eventually didn’t go through, which Sassen regarded as a good thing, since it would probably not have been won. Nevertheless, she thinks it was good that it happened, since it created a precedent, albeit a still weak and underdeveloped one, for thinking about more advanced and effective future legal actions against ex-dictators. Sassen saw the more recent lawsuit by the International Criminal Court against the Sudanese president in the same vein: even if it is unlikely to succeed, it sends out a clear signal to war criminals all over the world and also confines their manoeuvring space: they now have to avoid travelling to or via some countries where they might get arrested. For Sassen, in short, the crucial question is that of the temporal frame of the acts of resistance of the powerless. She illustrated that this frame can be rather protracted, saying that all military dictatorships in South America were eventually brought down, not by a more powerful power, but by the abuse of their own power. This, she claimed, is also the case with the recent collapse of the Republican Party in the US.

– Another issue put forward was whether the project of destabilizing traditional borders as described by Sassen and her thesis of the multiplication of other types of borders, does not in fact create the opposite effect: the stabilizing or minimizing of still existing frontlines, no matter how much they are being transformed, which still leaves them having very real and negative effects on a great majority of people in the world. Sassen’s idea of the destabilizing of the borders was also said to obscure or undermine her attempt to come up with notions of struggle against these borders.

Sassen again stressed her focus on finding out how frontlines are being made as well as defining the spaces where they are made, in order to locate possibilities of unmaking these frontlines or altering them. She stated it wasn’t the case that one can or must only fight borders at the border itself. She again referred to the conflict between Israel and Gaza: although the frontlines there are very visible, they are equally situated in less obvious places, such as the power hubs in other countries where foreign policies are made.

– A final question queried situations in which the creation and proliferation of new borders and territories could potentially be beneficial to stabilizing a conflict situation between different nation-states. Cited as an example of this were the plans of creating enclave-like micro-border regimes between the different warring ethnic groups during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, in order to temporarily counter and dilute the logic of the nation-state.

Sassen stressed that when it comes to political-geographic entities it is not a case of ‘the bigger the better’ or ‘the smaller the better’. For instance, a large, extraordinary concentration and centralisation of power, such as in the US or the former USSR, can seriously undermine democratic processes. On the other hand, local organisations can be very provincial and narrow-minded: she referred to some independence struggles in Africa, which are mainly about acquiring and exploiting resources. However, she emphasised that there need not necessarily be a bad outcome, in either scenario.

With regard to this issue of the concentration of power, she made a last, closing comment on the extraordinary power of the financial sector in the US, which, she claimed, has invaded all economic sectors. It was Sassen’s belief that, even though we may need finance, any condition that allows such excessive concentration of power is problematic: over the past twenty years, what we have seen is that finance, rather than being used to realise useful things, has in fact been using the people (“we got used”).

Tags: English

Categories: Urban planning

Type: Article