is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization

Author(s):Sassen, Saskia
Reviewer(s):Aaronson, Susan Ariel


Published for (April 1998)

Saskia Sassen. Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization. University Seminars/Leonard Hastings Schoff Memorial Lectures. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. xvi + 148 pp. Bibliographic references and index. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-231-10608-4.

Reviewed by for H-Business by Susan Ariel Aaronson , George Mason University

Reordering the World?

The spoken word is often easier to understand than the written word. That’s why I was eager to tackle a series of lectures on globalization by Columbia University Professor Sasskia Sassen. This collection however, is a tough hike. The language is like a jungle that the reader must cut through.

Although Sassen’s words are a thicket, it is a hike worth taking. Sassen’s turf has been well traveled by economists, business leaders, policy analysts, and historians, but Sassen brings a different perspective as a professor of Urban Planning who teaches at Columbia’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs. She is interested in how a new economic system centered on cross border flows and global communication has affected “two distinct features of the modern state: sovereignty and exclusive territoriality”(p. xii). She wants the reader and listener to see how it will affect the institution of economic citizenship as a “strategic research site and nexus” (pp. xiii) (this is what I mean by a jungle of unnecessary words). Sassen alleges that “we must consider the possibility that there exists a form of economic citizenship that empowers and can demand accountability from governments.” But these economic citizens are not people; they are “firms and markets”: “The fact of being global gives these actions power over individual governments…I use the concept as a kind of theoretical provocation, outside the accepted lineage of the concept of citizenship” (p. xiv). Finally, Dr. Sassen is concerned about immigration and worries that we need to “deconstruct the state” in its role in the migration process. “It is in this sense,” she says, “that immigration is a strategic site to inquire about the limits of the new order…it is embedded in a larger dynamic of trasnationalization (sic) of economic spaces and human rights regimes” (p. xvi)

Sassen begins by tracing the evolution of the term sovereignty. Here her path is easy to follow. She describes how sovereignty has been affected by globalization and how globalization has been accompanied by the creation of new legal regimes and practices. To many observers that process has been U.S. driven. In many countries, international or transnational has become “a form of Americanization” (p. 18). Who can disagree as we listen to Madonna and type on our IBM computers while wearing our Levi’s jeans. Finally she notes that the “virtualization” (a new word?) “of economic activities is a challenge both to regulation and to business. “This,” she concludes, “may signal a control crisis in the making” (p. 21).

Sassen argues that this crisis is occurring at the same time that “global capital has made claims on national states, which have responded through the production of new forms of legality” (p. 25). These new legal regimes “negotiate between national sovereignty and the transnational practices of corporate economic actors” (p. 26). Thus, sovereignty is being transformed by economic globalization. The next two chapters compare how economics is undermining the role of states, while immigration in contrast is “renationalizing politics.” Chapter Two tries to relate these developments to the notion of citizenship and the rights associated with citizenship. Here Sassen has forged something new. She argues that our notions of citizenship will change as the global economy changes. Global forces challenge the authority of the nation states. “There are enormous problems,” she notes “of state membership for aboriginal communities, stateless people, and refugees” (p. 34). She believes the challenges of globalization and “virtualization” will have important implications for human rights, and who or what will enforce these rights: “Today’s welfare state crises, growing unemployment and growing earnings inequality…can certainly be read as signaling a change in all the highly developed countries in the entitlements of citizens.” Other analysts of globalization such as Dani Rodrik have taught us that globalization has undercut the social bargain that many democratic capitalist nations have adopted since the Great Depression (a welfare state, regulation, and capitalism). However, Sassen adds that international investments searching for global opportunities “do not favor the growth of a large middle class.” Thus, “economic globalization has hit at some of the major conditions that have hitherto supported the evolution of citizenship and particularly the formation of social rights” (pp. 37-38). All of us should worry if globalization undermines democracy. At the same time, however, Sassen notes that the powerful in the global economy, (global corporations, international financiers) have acquired new rights and that there is “a consensus among states to further the interests of economic globalization.” But Sassen shows no primary sources or evidence of government action over time to illustrate this allegation. She cites two articles in one book and her own forthcoming work to prove this point [1]. She then notes that fifteen agencies around the world (including the Justice Department) reviewed the merger of Gillette and Wilkenson in 1989 and acceded to it. But does this prove the consensus she alleges? I doubt it. The evidence she cites might also be used to make the opposite point. The fact that so many agencies reviewed this merger illuminates, I believe, elite and public concerns about the consequences of globalization and a desire to hamper and halt it. (We certainly hear this in the ongoing debates over refunding the IMF and in fast-track authority, how Congress grants authority to the President to negotiate trade agreements.) Moreover, globalization often pits one national champion against another. (We see this in the 1980 market competition between Japan’s Komatsu and America’s Caterpillar Corporations and even more recently the European Community’s response to the Boeing/McDonnell Douglas merger.) Governments weigh such mergers to ensure that some of their taxpayers, citizens, consumers, and shareholders benefit. Government actions can tilt the balance.

Sassen’s last chapter addresses how in the face of globalization, nations have retained sovereignty to control immigration. In fact, this week NPR noted that the largest police force in America was that of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Sassen notes “a fundamental framework roots all the immigration policies of the developed countries in a common set of conceptions” (p. 64). She sees globalization behind many changes in immigration (“the international activities of the governments or firms of countries receiving immigrants may have contributed to the formation of economic links…that may invite the movement of people” [p. 84]). However, Sassen notes that human rights challenge immigration policies because “human rights are not dependent on nationality, unlike political, social, and civil rights” (p. 89). In recent years, court cases have shown that individuals and non-state actors brought claims based on the notion of international human rights codes as expanding international law. This lets the judiciary mediate “between these agents and the international legal order.” The result, she claims has been a shift to the rights of individuals “from an exclusive emphasis on the sovereignty of the people and right to self-determination” (p. 95). This has devalued the institution of citizenship, affecting “the configuration of the international order” (pp. 96-97). But perhaps the international defense of human rights may also make us better citizens because of our willingness to defend and attribute rights to individuals in states that do not honor or enforce human rights. I don’t see this phenomenon as a big negative but something positive.

This chapter ends with a summation of globalization’s impact upon sovereignty but no answers as to what to do about it. Moreover, the author has no suggestions for the public who surely should be worried about the effect on them as citizens in democratic regimes challenged by globalization. I will look forward to reading Sassen’s upcoming work on these issues. However, I wish she had not left us hanging.


[1]. James H. Mittelman, ed., Globalization: Critical Reflections International Political Economy Yearbook vol. 9 (Boulder, Co: Lynne Riener, 1996).


Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII