Failures of the Liberal State and responses on the ground

Richard Sennett Saskia Sassen
7 January 2011

Guest editors for 7 - 12 February, 2011, were Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett.** 

Saskia Sassen introduces this week’s theme and its authors: 

In thinking through the issues for this week’s special theme we were struck by how often failures happen at the level of the national state nowadays and remedies, responses, the making of solutions… all tend to happen at more local levels, from cities and villages to translocal networks and neighbourhoods.

Failures and responses can happen at any level. Once you enter these more local levels, the details matter enormously.  We have brought together researchers and activists whose fieldwork addresses some of the more intractable challenges we face: organizing cleaners in powerful global cities, the trafficking of women for the sex industry, what villagers in Afghanistan see as the fatal flaw of the invasion, making a difference through the use of network technologies, and the power of urban space to enable the powerless.

But we cannot give up on the state. Our liberal, neoliberal, and illiberal states are complex capabilities. Any working state is a more complex capability than the most powerful multinational corporation, in that it can handle multiple competing interests and, though not often enough, can generate good outcomes for a majority of people. The current period is a dark one when it comes to state action. But we cannot give up on the work of re-gearing this complex capability to address the major challenges we face in each of our countries and in the world – inequality, unemployment, health, the environment, and so many others. We have selected contributors who can address the question of the state and state politics from a critical perspective that comes out of working with the state, rather than its arm-chair critics.

We begin our special section with two pieces that illuminate each of our two angles into the subject. One is an examination of the crisis of social democracy and what is next, by Neal Lawson, head of Compass, and a long-time member of the UK Labour Party. The other is by Valery Alzaga, a long time organizer and brilliant strategist in the struggle to organize powerless workers; her work with US based Justice for Janitors led to invitations from major European labor unions to come and work with them – in London, in Amsterdam, in Frankfurt, and the work goes on.

Giuliano Battiston, an Italian journalist who has covered the Middle East and Central Asia, is now on his fifth fieldwork trip to Afghanistan. He has travelled through and talked with villagers from half of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. This is the story of the military invasion from the ground up; he is writing a book on his Afghan interviews. Rhacel Parreñas is one of the top researchers on Filipina migrants and their many lives. The article is based on her fieldwork research into Filipinas in the sex industries in Japan. She became a cocktail bar hostess to do the research for the forthcoming, Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo (Stanford University Press, 2011). In her article she examines the traps and contradictions government regulators encounter in their attempt to control trafficking.

Wednesday's two articles came from different parts of the world (Lahore in Pakistan and Paris in Europe) but both describe experiences that make visible how urban space becomes an actor in certain types of confrontations.  Sophie Body-Gendrot has long worked on the meanings of urban violence in western cities, and here presents its contestation/mobilization as a bridging between today’s isolated elites in global cities and the forgotten disadvantaged. Attiq Ahmed and Sarah Ahmad, both from families with generations in Lahore are deeply involved with civil society initiatives in the city that confronts some of the catastrophic events that have hit Lahore and Pakistan generally, from the murder of the Governor of Punjab to the disappearing public domain, given fear and fanaticisms. 

The two articles presented here on Thursday focus on two very different states and two very different modes of intervention. Swapna Banerjee-Guha, one of the great geographers and politically active academics of India, gives us an account of  the developmentalist programmes of the Indian state. This short article is based on her long-time research and observations, all fully developed in a long list of articles and books.  Ann Brooks and Lionel Wee, meanwhile, capture a moment of change in Singapore’s state policy on the regulating of what the authors call “sexual citizenship”.  The relationship of the state to the private lives of citizens is always a charged domain, but perhaps never so much as in the domain of sex and family.

These last two articles deal with radically different processes.  Mario Santucho, from Buenos Aires (Argentina), finds that what we still easily refer to as the irregular economy is now becoming a new type of formation: it is more akin to an assemblage of social and economic worlds which weave themselves into diverse institutional settings. Florian Schneider, from Munich (Germany) is a filmmaker with a long history of mixing digital technologies with on-the-ground activism. He has developed several major platforms which combine machines and people into vast networks – some aimed at fighting abuse, notably of immigrants in Europe, others aimed at building alternative worlds, such as the projects Dictionary of War and Making Worlds


* * Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and co-directs the Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University (www.saskiasassen.com). Her recent books are Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press 2008), A Sociology of Globalization (W.W.Norton 2007), and the 4th fully updated edition of Cities in a World Economy (Sage 2011). For UNESCO she organized a five-year project on sustainable human settlement with a network of researchers and activists in over 30 countries; it is published as one of the volumes of the Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (Oxford, UK: EOLSS Publishers) The Global Citycame out in a new fully updated edition in 2001. She is a Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a member of the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Cities, and chaired the Information Technology and International Cooperation Committee of the Social Science Research Council (USA). Her books are translated into twenty-one languages. She contributes regularly to www.openDemocracy.net andwww.HuffingtonPost.comSaskia's website

Richard Sennett grew up in Chicago, in the Cabrini Green Housing Project, one of the first racially-mixed public housing projects in the United States. Having been a musician, eventually working with Frank Miller of the Chicago Symphony and Claus Adam of the Julliard Quartet, in 1963 he embarked on his academic career in “cultural studies”. He has used interviewing, ethnography and the historical record to explore how individuals and groups make sense of material facts about where they live and the work they do. His first book, The Uses of Disorder, [1970] looked at how personal identity takes form in the modern city. In the 1970s, Mr. Sennett founded, with Susan Sontag and Joseph Brodsky, The New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University. He served as an advisor to UNESCO and as president of the American Council on Work. In the mid 1990s Mr. Sennett began to divide his time between New York University and the London School of Economics. In addition to these academic homes, he maintains informal connections to MIT and to Trinity College, Cambridge University. As the work world of modern capitalism began to alter quickly and radically, Mr. Sennett began a project charting its personal consequences for workers, a project which has carried him up to the present day. The first of these studies, The Corrosion of Character, [1998] is an ethnographic account of how middle-level employees make sense of the “new economy.” The second in the series, Respect in a World of Inequality, [2002} charts the effects of new ways of working on the welfare state; a third, The Culture of the New Capitalism, [2006] provided an over-view of change.Richard's website


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData