2 Let’s start with a conceptual clarification, which is one of the central concerns of our special issue. Matthew Desmond, you use the term eviction, Saskia Sassen you prefer the term expulsion. Could you make more explicit your choices and try to discuss these two terms?
4 Saskia Sassen: Expulsion as a category for analysis comes out of my prior book, Territory, Authority, Rights,  where I asked myself the question “how do complex systems change”? Historically, we can say that complex systems do not change simply by changing everything, even if they undergo foundational change. They often change by shifting existing capabilities into new systematicities. That also means that change in such complex systems is not always self-evident. You actually need to go digging to detect it. So, one kind of digging that I did in Expulsions  concerns the switch from traditional banking, which is commerce (it sells money), to high finance, which is not about selling money but is, rather, about inventing brilliant but dangerous instruments (e.g. derivatives and asset-backed securities). I argue that finance is a capability that enables extractions of all sorts: it does not sell money, it extracts value from wherever it can.
5 Strictly speaking, I used the term “expulsions” to signal a whole variety of systemic edges that function in the interior of complex systems; these edges have nothing to do with international borders. What I argue is that this moment of expulsion is a condition where an existing dynamic crosses that systemic edge, and enters a sort of terra nullius. This becomes the moment when our conceptual categories stop working: when they cannot grasp, capture, what happens after that crossing of a systemic edge. What lies at the other side of the systemic edge becomes invisible to our existing conceptual categories. Of course, there is a physical and material reality that we can see: our eyes can see the body of the long-term unemployed no longer counted in the statistics, or the dead land poisoned by mining, but it is a seeing that lacks meaning in the methodological and theoretical sense. So, strictly speaking, expulsion is the moment, the site, where our conceptual categories fail, or stop working.
6 And I think that Matthew Desmond’s Evicted  also opens up a world of conditions where the social sciences have tended to pinpoint a very specific moment, leaving out the rest. Matthew’s eviction is for me one potentially very rich and novel instance of what I’m after in Expulsions. Matthew’s uncovering of the full array of actors and instruments involved in evictions is defined by a kind of clarity compared to certain conditions I’m interested in: for example, long term unemployment, financial innovations, and dead land are marked by a kind of invisibility, elusiveness. I guess, so were evictions until Matthew did a job on them.
8 Saskia, could you explain more this idea of « moment »? Expulsion (as a process) is also a “moment?” We find the connection between process and moment interesting, as process and moment could appear contradictory.
10 S. Sassen: One way of putting it is to say that it is a moment in a process — the moment when our existing categories of analysis can no longer capture what is happening. That would be the moment, of expulsion, which could also be a process that takes time. The other term that has become important for my analysis is extraction. Again, my approach is to develop a conceptual term that captures a rupture in what is meant to be, or is usually understood, as a continuous process in conventional analyses. These ruptures/expulsions may be old, may have been there for a long time but remained invisible conceptually speaking, or they may be new or re-arranged.
11 Matthew Desmond: On the one hand, I saw eviction as a narrative device, a sort of scientific object that might push the ethnographic form. Then, when I started my ethnography, I realized that it is a huge problem that we know very little about. Eviction used to be rare and scandalous; we are now at a stage where it is incredibly commonplace in the lives of the urban poor.
12 On the other hand, eviction is a legal term in America. It is the right of a property owner to physically expel a tenant from their property for any number of reasons. And in most places in the United States, you don’t need a reason. You can just evict someone with proper notice, but most evictions are because folks can’t afford to live in the apartment anymore. If you survey people in eviction court, the vast majority will tell you that they get expelled because they missed the rent. And one of the issues here is that the United States only provides housing assistance to one in four families who qualify for it. The second problem is that one in four renter below the poverty line spend at least, 70% of their income just on rent and utilities. So, there has been a failure of federal policies in America to bridge the gap between incomes and rent for poor households.
13 And where I see Saskia’s book and my book connecting, is I think we are talking about similar problems with different apertures. My book focuses on a ground level view of the human wreckage caused by the lack of formal housing in cities. But that leaves one big question unanswered, which is why? Why do we have cities becoming unlivable? And I think you have to go to a book like Expulsions from Saskia Sassen to get the answers to this question.
14 I started to write about evictions because I wanted to write a book about poverty that wasn’t about the poor. In my understanding, poverty is a relationship, which involves rich and poor people alike and involves what Saskia said about mechanisms of extraction and extractive markets.
16 Matthew, you were talking about poverty. In your book , there is a long footnote explaining that the term “exploitation” almost disappeared in the social science debate. We wanted to ask both of you if you see a link between expulsion, eviction and exploitation? How do you situate the notions of eviction and expulsion in more general concepts?
18 S. Sassen: I used exploitation a lot when I was working on immigration as a short-hand descriptive term. And now that you say it, exploitation could also capture the fact of a mechanism, a sort of intermediate mechanism, rather than just an outcome or stasis. Mechanisms also have outcomes, of course. But as outcome it is, from my perspective, too specific and quite inadequate to capture what is happening nowadays, particularly in the world of finance. I think there are more intermediate zones that are getting constituted, that would be obscured, rendered invisible, if we simply call it exploitation. For example, we tend to think that when firms locate operations in low wage countries, it is just about exploiting the workers by getting a lower wage. Yet, when you go digging into the logics of this system you discover broader processes. When those big corporates outsource tasks to cheap labor countries, Wall Street evaluates it as a positive signal: the will to maximize profits raises the stock market value of a firm. And that to me is a form of evil… You can’t quite call it exploitation. Exploitation happens at the work place. But there are additional logics in play that guide those kinds of decisions. I use the notion of extraction, or the rise of extractive logics. I think I would like to keep the term exploitation in its rich historic meaning, which is more straightforward, and continues to capture current conditions. However, to keep a certain degree of precision, it is not the same as what happens in high finance for example. Exploitation has a particularity to it. Extraction is a more general process that transcends borders and time, and that organizes the conditions for exploitation. Extraction signals a form of violence that is different from exploitation.
19 M. Desmond: I would love to have a debate about the analytical categories and the levels of expulsion, extraction or exploitation and what those exactly mean. I think that is exactly where the debate needs to go in terms of thinking about global inequality today. There is this other problem in the American poverty debate, which is that no one is talking about any kind of exploitive or extractive mechanism at all. And so, the American poverty debate is kind of framed in two ways: if you lean more to the right, to the conservative end of the spectrum, you would probably attribute poverty to individual failings. If you lean more to the left, to the liberal end of the spectrum, you would probably attribute poverty to macro historical forces. And those debates are usually pitted against one another. But what they have in common is that they get everyone off of the hook. It is as if there is this enormous problem in America — one in six Americans can’t afford basic necessities — that no one bears any responsibility for. And my very small move in Evicted was to follow landlords and watch their work, and recognize how much they make of the very bottom of the rental market. For example, in the trailer park I lived in Milwaukee, I tried to calculate how much the landlord would make a year after all expenses. The number I got is that the landlord is making about four hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Which is fifty-five times more than his tenants are making, working full time at their minimum wage jobs.
20 That was one of my biggest realizations during fieldwork because it meant that poverty is not just a matter of low incomes. It is a matter of the extractive market. And that I think necessarily leads to a normative question: are we okay with that? How much can we tolerate? Saskia’s denunciation of something that is evil is very interesting because it articulates social science and normative advancement. And the policy implication is this: in America, poverty is often discussed as an economic issue. We often talk about raising wages, for example. But if we don’t talk about the market catching up with wages, then our solutions are going to be limited.
21 S. Sassen: Yes, and Yes! I think you are naming important differentiations — the concepts we use are a serious matter. It speaks to my attempt to de-theorize in order to re-theorize. We need to work, once again, from ground level in order to go beyond the standard categories we used in the past but that are not useful anymore to explain the world. One of my favorite modes to capture this is comparing the gold mines in Montana (USA) — which have a horrible history of super exploitation, violations of the law, leaving poisonous materials, and tax avoidance — and the Norilsk nickel mining operations in Northern Russia. What stood out to analysts are the communism and the capitalism markers. But my question in Expulsions became: in today’s world, what really matters about those two? It is not that one is capitalism and the other communism. The foundational issue in today’s world is their capacity to destroy the environment. Thus, we need other framings. We need to de-theorize in order to re-theorize. And this means detailed empirical work to find out what matters today, to cut across established knowledge silos (work, environment, biosphere, housing…). This is the aim of my book Expulsions.
22 So, thinking about eviction, it is not just simply a mode of expelling people from their home. It is, accumulation. And I agree with Matthew that the American debate tends to look at the poor as poor, and not as a process that constructed that reality. I think, one of the issues here, is how we, as academics and intellectuals, engage with the possibility of exiting “the paradigm,” or dwelling at its edges, where its strengths become weak, and messy. I do not want to be its prisoner. I like the fuzzy edges of the paradigm. That is the interesting site for me, it is where I locate my thinking. Not the strong heart of the paradigm. Don’t get me wrong, I need the strong center of the paradigm, it produces knowledge, and I gain from that and I can engage it. But I am really interested in understanding where it weakens, looses capture, and intersects with the fuzzy edges of other paradigms — for me, these other paradigms often concern economics and law. It can get very messy. But that is ok, it is what has driven me over the last thirty years — and it meant my first book got rejected by 12 publishers… but I never gave up! I think we have lost a lot of very good thinkers because of the structure of paradigmatic knowledge.
23 M. Desmond: There is a 1972 review in Science magazine  by Arthur Stinchcombe, evaluating the book Inequality by Christopher Jencks and coauthors. And Stinchcombe says there are two ways to view inequality: one is the way that is modeled in inequality, which A. Stinchcombe called “curiously benign.” The idea is that poverty and inequality are explained by differences in education levels, or skill sets, or things like that. As if there is no one that is actively trying to keep people poor. As if there is no land grab going on in the United States, no corporation that have a vested interest in decoupling productive activity from labor power. And for some reason, the American poverty debate is historically done in that way.
24 The Latin American example is really instructive to someone who usually studies poverty in the US. For instance, if you go to Sao Paulo and you look at the housing situation there, it is a similar situation that you see in many large cities in the United States. But many poor folks are responding in a very different way from the US. The occupation movement in Sao Paulo is for example very strong and lots of folks are taking over abandoned buildings and asking for their right to housing. And sometimes, the state responds by letting them stay on the basis of that fight. That is something that would challenge the American imagination. And so, I think there is a whole level at which we could learn about these, not only different modes of extraction, but also different modes of resistance, in the global poor experience.
25 S. Sassen: That actually reminds me of a case in Buenos Aires where poor people succeeded in formalizing an irregular settlement in a very central area. In Buenos Aires, where I grew up, you see the willingness of the poor to fight against being reduced to the subject we have produced in many ways in the United States, where we tend to see the poor as somewhat guilty, not innocent of their own condition. And this makes Matthew’s findings so important! In Latin America, it is also beginning to change sadly. The forces of eviction are rising across these cities. But they are also fighting back. One issue to pull out of this is that there are different cultures within poor communities. And in the United States, it is one that demoralizes the poor.
27 You are referring to exploitation, expulsion, eviction as mechanisms, where different actors and processes intervene at different scales. Saskia Sassen, in your book, you make explicit the link between complexity and brutality. So, we were wondering to which extent, in this complexity, are social scientists able to localize and situate actors’ agency and strategies? Some papers in this special issue show that eviction comes with Welfare policies: it seems there are still left and right hands of the State. To which extent is eviction the result of explicit strategy from political actors or private corporations?
29 S. Sassen: Okay, so I would leave the part of housing and eviction aspect to Matthew, but let me give you an example in the case of finance. The argument I want to make is that particular sectors within the State are significant enablers of some of these destructive financialized outcomes. Let me go back to the 2008 crisis in the United States, which eventually also affected European countries.
30 We had a very good public debate in 2010-2011 in the legislature about what to do to rescue the economy from a crisis. It engaged people across the country, something that is not so typical. After much debate, legislature decided to allocate $ 700 billion to specific economic sectors, including half of it to rescue the financial sector (which had actually produced the crisis!) This, was a rare public event, something that we don’t have much in the United States. But something else, secret, behind closed doors was taking place at the same time in our central bank, the Federal Reserve (FED), as became public years later through a freedom of information request by the Bloomberg News Journal. Bloomberg News Journal suspected that our central bank, the FED, was actually transferring money to major financial institutions. This information was finally made public almost three years later, an unjustified delay. We, the people, found out that while we were having a public debate, through regular channels, and in a positive spirit, congress transferred “citizens” money to the banks to rescue them, the FED had decided secretly to transfer 7 trillion — which is citizens money to a large extend — to the same big banks. To those seven and a half trillion dollars, we added another 7 trillion in the form of “quantitative easing.” “Quantitative easing” is a beautiful term to capture what is basically money… mostly the people’s money. Quantitative easing is still going on now, and our government’s debt is growing and public services are being cut. What we call so elegantly “quantitative easing” is a camouflage of massive money transfers to the financial system. It is an invisibility produced by language.
31 This is a transformation of the modes of government. Capitalism is never benign. But economic structures, mixed with legal enabling, can make it more brutal, or less so. In the Keynesian period, mass consumption dominated, and all major actors, including the traditional banks of the time, wanted the sons and daughters to do better than their parents because mass consumption was dominant. People’s consumption really mattered, but this logic began to weaken in the 1980s, a period of privatization and financialization, which saw the rise of “extractive logics” — high finance rather than traditional banking, the unaccountable Facebooks rather than consumer goods manufacturers, and so on. Then begins the real decay of this model of liberal democracy, never perfect but still bringing prosperity to many. We will never have perfect justice, but today’s injustice is extreme.
32 M. Desmond: When I started to work on eviction in 2008-2009, I would go with the sheriff and the family who were going to be evicted and ask “Who is evicting you?” And they would tell you the name. They would have a very clear story. When I came back to study eviction in 2014, after the housing market crashed, I would go to a tenant getting evicted and asked “Who is evicting you?” What came next was just a bundle of complexity. People would say: “Well, I sent my rent payment to my landlord and then I got a letter from this bank I have never heard of, and I sent the payment to the bank and they sent me a response that said ‘we are not your landlord,’ etc.” It became very clear to me that for a family on the very edge of financial insecurity, even a basic question like “Who is my landlord, Who owns the property underneath me?” is a complex one, an unclear one. And so, I tried to get out some of those data in order to answer this very basic question: who owns our cities? Has the ownership concentration changed since the financial systems collapsed? And those questions are almost empirically impossible. Impossible, because cities and states have designed ways to hide ownership. There are two big implications of that.
33 The first has to do with exposure to information. As a social scientist, I can know the names and addresses of every single person who was evicted in America. That information is accurate and exposed. But, I can’t know who owns my city, who are the biggest property owners in my city. And, a lot of the time when we talk about information, we talk about it as a liberating force in a way. But it is responding to inequality just as everything else. That’s one thing that complexity does.
34 And it is related to the second implication which also prevents us from telling a really clear story. It is the way scientists pay attention to details and wrestle with complexity which is part of the story, but that also prevent us at looking broadly at the human consequences of the problem of eviction. In her essay Against Interpretation,  Susan Sontag talks about how complexity is an armor, a shield, for writers afraid of being exposed to the rawness of things. And I think especially when talking about objects like financial analysis, that’s one of the things the word complexity does. It destroys narrative.
35 Another way to take this question of actors is to go back to the debate between users rights versus property rights. And one of the important parts of that story is intellectual capture and its role in the destruction of policies like rent control. It was a moment when you had this market influence that lined up very well with the neo-classical economists at the Chicago School, saying that rent control is a very terrible idea… and that changed the face of the American city.
36 S. Sassen: One way of synthethizing is that we have entered a rather extreme period, one where just about everything can be financialized given that the key instrument is algorithmic mathematics — and you can build those algorithms into almost endless variations. The invisibility of that process — it takes place deep inside firms that now hire hundreds of physicists — and I do not blame the physicists! This is not the domain of micro-economics. This is an open zone with endless innovations and experiments. We have long had extractive logics in our economies and societies. But this mechanism is extreme. It can extract value (as understood in finance, which may not be the same meaning of value that other economic actors have, such as mining) from just about anything, including negatives. A simple example is student debt — that is debt from modest-income students or their parents… or they would not have that debt. The traditional bank would not know what to do with that debt, as it is in the business of selling money, for an interest. Financial firms can work with anything, including debt, as long as it is big debt, really big. So, student debt in the US now stands at over a trillion: the financial firm can work with this, and it was probably behind the passing of a law in our legislature that makes this debt one that cannot be forgiven. That is even better for financial firms, so they can play around with this, over and over again across the years. There are many such cases where a negative can be used to make a profit via these complex financial instruments. It also explains why the value of global finance, as measured by outstanding derivatives, has reached well over a US$ quadrillion… That is a lot of zeros, and they are all working.
38 Both of you, in your works, explore the complexity of these processes but at different scales. Matthew Desmond, your approach is an in-depth following of some families in an impoverished neighborhood, and Saskia Sassen, you use a more general framework to re-trace subterranean logics on a global scale. How can we deal with the complexity of these two scales of analysis?
40 S. Sassen: Matthew’s type of research, which takes a lot of time, adds knowledge about the innards of a system — in this case the innards of the category “eviction.” For me, this is an extraordinary contribution, and it is what we need for so many other categories, which are just sitting there, getting used, without their innards being examined, disassembled, put under the microscope. It fits rather well into this notion of extractive logics that I am trying to detect in certain sectors that look like they are merely about complex and admirable forms of knowledge (like algorithmic math). What is very interesting in Matthew’s approach is the way he takes something we would all think we know very well, with a master category (eviction) that looks so self-evident, and then he shows us how little we actually know. The language of eviction is so powerful, clear and transparent that you do not interrogate the term. We need to revisit many of our established categories, no matter how self-evident they sound. Great clarity of purpose and of justification may camouflage what is really going on. The way Matthew shows us that behind a familiar and self-evident term — eviction — lies a set of processes that construct eviction, is extremely important.
41 M. Desmond: For me, Saskia’s work is incredibly clarifying in multiple aspects, but one is just mapping the terrain. If you look at the relationship between landlords and finance, you can learn quite a lot, but there are so many more relationships that need to be mapped and studied in an incredibly in-depth way. That was just beyond the scope of my project. For example, who is lending the landlords money? As Saskia asked, what is the instrument, the legal and financial device that allows us to produce and incentivize a sort of predatory behavior or even normal market behavior that has a disproportionate impact on suffering amongst poor families? I think that looking at such broad financial instruments, looking at the relationship between the land and the state, the environmental extraction that has an articulation to urban expansion, for an ethnographer it is extremely important, but something out of reach for a single project.
42 The second thing that I draw from this work and this conversation is just the importance of denaturalizing conditions that we kind of find acceptable. I was just talking with a major American magazine yesterday, and the interviewer said: “Well, what other option is there than to evict someone?” And the answer is “a hundred other options!” Eviction shouldn’t be seen as the natural consequence of missing a rent payment. Homelessness should not be the consequence for missing a rent payment. I think that this is a big part of our job too. We have to show that things have not been this way all the time, and we could do them very differently. And that’s good news actually.
44 We are talking about the process of eviction. What about its upside? Is the opposite of eviction inclusion?
46 M. Desmond: For me, the opposite of eviction is dignity, something that we should absolutely want. Because eviction is not only the consequence of poverty. It is a cause of it too. It affects people’s mental health; it causes people to commit suicide; it drives educational outcomes for kids because they are tossed around from one school to another; it breaks the fabric of the community; leads to higher crime rates in the area; it turns residents into strangers; it drives families to lose their things and homes; it marks people with a record that stays in the court systems which pushes families to live in dangerous neighborhood and prevents them from accessing government systems. It matters a lot. So, the opposite of that is something you can see when families finally get help to pay their rent. Those programs work for the lucky minority of Americans who benefit from them. But most Americans below the poverty line are not so lucky and their kids don’t get enough to eat, because the rent is first. The opposite of eviction is something like America living up to its promises and its story.
47 S. Sassen: I think Matthew said it all. One angle that matters to me is the territorial — which is not simply material but rather a mix of material conditions and embedded logics of power and of contestation. Seen this way — that no territory is simply land or ground — opens up the notion of claims to that territory. The big challenge is how a society builds the legitimacy of the claims by those who lack power. In my reading (I may be wrong!), Matthew’s research shows us how far we are from ensuring that, and how complex a challenge it is to secure the legitimacy of those claims by the powerless.
49 Is the role of sociologist to promote this “upside?” More generally, to conclude, what is the role of social scientists in the society in trying to explain the processes of eviction? What should be the role of social scientist in society?
51 M. Desmond: I think our role should be at least twofold. One is that we should bear witness to the sins of the nation and the sins of the world. I think there is a great tradition of bearing witness in sociology, one that we should be proud of, that matters a lot. The second thing we should do, I think, is have a lot of catch in our voice. Especially with the complexity of financialization and housing. A lot of social scientists go on about arguments that are not empirically validated. One thing I really loved about Saskia’s latest book is how empirical it is. Table after table, chart after chart, it really grounds you in the evidence.
52 Sociology started as a branch of moral philosophy. And sociology should not forget its intellectual heritage. When you see children getting evicted after their mother died and the sheriff pilling their things in the sidewalk, when you see parents trying to decide between paying the heat or food for their children… there should be a normative claim to that. And I think sociological resistance to engaging in normative debate is problematic. Because we think that it somehow comes at the cost of empiricism, but that’s not true. You can subscribe fully to the scientific imperative and the normative imperative. I think that without that normative impulse, sociology remains muted to issues of moral imperative.
53 S. Sassen: Yes, and too timid as well. Many, not all, academics only want to stick closely to the paradigm’s core and find the little wrinkle that is a bit different but still functions within that very narrow context. There is so much that needs to be researched that lies outside the paradigmatic center.
Cet entretien, réalisé le vendredi 17 novembre 2017 à Paris, a réuni par visioconférence Saskia Sassen (à Londres), Matthew Desmond (à Princeton), et Thomas Aguilera, Florence Bouillon et Martin Lamotte, coordinateurs de ce numéro, qui remercient les deux auteurs pour leur disponibilité, leur enthousiasme à contribuer à ce projet et pour s’être prêtés au jeu du dialogue à distance. L’entretien, mené en anglais, a été retranscrit par les coordinateurs, puis édité par Laura Bini Carter (PhD candidate, Anthropology Department, CUNY Graduate Center), dont l’aide a été cruciale. Les coordinateurs remercient également Katia Rio de les avoir accueillis dans les meilleures conditions au Centre d’études européennes et de politique comparée de Sciences Po.
Sassen S., 2008, Territory, Authority, Rights. From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Sassen S., 2014, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Desmond M., 2016, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, London, Penguin Books.
Desmond M., 2016, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, London, Penguin Books, p. 399, footnote .
A. Stinchcombe, 1972, “The Social Determinants of Success,” Science, n° 178, pp. 603-604.
S. Sontag, 2013 , Against Interpretation and Other Essays, New York, Penguin Books.