Saskia Sassen, Kumi Naidoo, Tarso Luís Ramos

Barriers to Belonging: Expulsions, Right-Wing Populism, and the Global Struggle for Democracy

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By: Sara Grossman

From extreme inequality to forced migration, the world’s bloated system of finance can be found at the root of nearly all major challenges of our time, said renowned sociologist Saskia Sassen during an hourlong panel discussion on “barriers to belonging” with Kumi Naidoo, former director of Greenpeace International, and Tarso Luis Ramos, an expert on rightwing movements.

Finance, she explained to nearly 1,200 attendees at the 2017 Othering & Belonging conference, is not so much about making money, but about creating it—as, by its nature, finance sells what it doesn’t have and does so without producing anything of tangible value. This buying and selling of nonmaterial goods now outstrips the value of global GDP—and as a result, social concerns like health care, education, and shared opportunity have all become secondary to the continued generation of profit.

Fundamentally, Sassen said, financialization is just one more manifestation of a larger “logic of extraction,” which she called a global economic project spurred by the twin trends of privatization and deregulation. For finance firms to achieve profit, she explained, they must speculate on the products of other sectors using tools to extract goods and create financialized commodities. Eventually, everything from student loans to mortgages becomes financialized—and a powerful wealth creation tool for a small global elite that can make billions from the click of a mouse.

Barriers to Belonging: Expulsions, Right-Wing Populism and the Global Struggle for Democracy, a Keynote Address by Saskia Sassen, Kumi Naidoo, and Tarso Luís Ramos

“All that capital, if you could just bring it down, and use it to build social housing, to clean up all the toxic dumps we have—if we have a larger mind that could think ‘How do we use this for the larger good?’ we would be better off,” Sassen said.

Naidoo, who is currently the launch director of Africans Rising for Justice, Peace, and Dignity, took Sassen’s criticism of the global economic system one step further, arguing that a new vision of economics is needed to achieve a truly inclusive and sustainable world.

“We must connect spirituality with our economic system,” he said. “What makes a meaningful life? What is valuable for us?"

We are suffering from affluenza—a pathological illness that equates happiness with consumption," he continued, "and are in deep denial about how broken our political and economic systems are and how close we are to ecological collapse."

“Climate change cannot be addressed with incremental tinkering,” Naidoo added. “To address the crisis we need to do more with less.”

Sassen said that to address the worsening ecological and economic systems, we must begin to “relocalize.”

“Do we need an international corporation [in order] to have a coffee in the neighborhood?” she asked. “We must work to create tissue in neighborhoods through new kinds of economic activity.”

Ramos, Executive Director of Political Research Associates and a researcher of US rightwing movements, noted that neoliberalism—the movement to deregulate and privatize all aspects of communal life—was once a right-wing project, but “is now the air we breathe."

For those seeking guidance on achieving Naidoo’s vision of a reimagined economic system, Sassen pointed to cities themselves as homes of the resistance. The frontier has traditionally been where actors from different areas meet and where there are no rules, she said. But today, “the only frontiers we have left are those within our own cities,” where creative resistance can meet, formulate, and grow stronger.

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