Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages by Saskia Sassen.
University Press, 2006. 493 pp. $35.00 cloth. ISBN: 978-0-691-09538-7.
Christopher Chase-Dunn and Kirk Lawrence
University of California-Riverside
Category= 12 Global dynamics and social change
Saskia Sassen has written an erudite and incisive analysis of contemporary global social change that significantly
advances the thinking of the “global capitalism” school. Sassen effectively answers many of the objections to the
proposition that world history has entered a qualitatively new phase since the 1980s. She does not ignore history;
instead, she mines it for data as she examines the emergence of the world of the national, and then as she shines much
light on the ways in which the institutions of national world still exist at the same time that the globalized system is
emerging or has emerged.
Her main idea is that the old national institutions have become reconfigured for new global purposes. Institutional
capabilities can "jump tracks" to support new normative orders. While the institutions are serving a new logic, traces
of the old logic more or less remain and new assemblages occur within the structures built with the previous logic. She
provides support for this thesis by focusing on the patterned changes and continuities in the nature of territorial
authority, political economy, and citizenship and law in European and Europe-descended societies since the 11th
century CE. She begins by tracing the emergence of a system of national societies out of a multijurisdictional and
multiscale medieval assemblage of manors, city-states, empires and churches. The divine right of kings (legitimation
from above) became reconfigured as secular national authority based on social contracts with citizens (legitimation
from below). Similarly, in late nineteenth century
, the institutions of the national state, particularly those United States
established at Bretton Woods, began to be reorganized to serve the ends of the neoliberal globalization project.
Directing this shift is an executive branch of government that is using its growing strength relative to the legislature to
privatize the state while simultaneously eroding the privacy rights of the populace.
This historical and “world scale” approach has been noticebly missing from most of the other authors who contend
that a qualitatively new stage of global capitalism has recently emerged. Sassen insightfully portrays the emergence and
empowerment of national capitalist classes and the constitution of workers as disadvantaged citizens in polities that
protect property from democratic claims by defining politics and economics as institutionally separate realms. And all
this occured in, and has been structured by, a context of expanding colonial empires in which each European state has
been competing with others for control over distant resources, markets and peoples.
Sassen’s tale of the emergence of the national is similar in many respects to the one told by Michael Mann, though she
is not so rigid as Mann in insisting that the political and economic institutions were running on separate and
disconnected tracks. But, as with Mann, the notion of systemic world historical evolution is absent. Immanuel
Wallerstein’s claim that capitalism, once it had become predominant in the long sixteenth century, exhibited cycles
and trends but remained basically the same system for hundreds of years, is used by Sassen as a straw man in contrast
to her sequential transformations of world scale logics. She largely ignores Giovanni Arrighi’s model of the evolution
of “systemic cycles of accumulation” and there is no discussion of hegemonic rise and fall as a process that both
repeats and evolves, though the tale of the hegemons (Dutch, British,
) is told as so many different cases of America
national development along with the French and the Germans. As with many other global capitalism scholars (and
most neoliberals), the issue of who has the guns in the contemporary period is almost completely ignored, as if the
rising salience of economic institutions has completely relegated the issue of military power to the dustbin of history.
The fascinating discussion of changes in the construction and practises of citizenship and the emergence of global law
manages to completely avoid mention of an emergent global state by using the metaphor of a multilayered,
multijurisdictional system analogous to the prenational medieval world.
As with Sassen’s earlier studies of global cities and migration, she includes others besides the elites in her
characterization of the emerging global system. Immigrants, disadvantaged low-wage workers and political activists
join the professionals and experts as incipient members of global classes, while most of humanity remains embroiled
in the national. There is an interesting contention that cities are becoming more important loci of political action in
the globalizing world, and Sassen examines both the positive and negative possibilities of digital space (the Internet)
for the future of democracy. Little is said about how humanity is going to deal with imminent ecodisasters or “global
impasse” - the fact that most Third World peoples have become convinced that they want a
First Worldlifestyle but
that this is a physical impossibility under current and probable medium-term technical, ecological and demographic
conditions. The “democratic deficit” of existing institutions of global governance is also not mentioned. Huge
inequalities in a world that has mainly accepted the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” as a sacred text
portends serious challenges to the current global distribution of power and wealth. How are these global problems
going to be solved? A more integrated and systemic evolutionary analysis of institutional change would have
implications for helping to resolve these crises.
That said, Sassen’s book contains much that is valuable about the ways in which the logic of neoliberalism has
penetrated the institutional structures of national states. And she looks hard and in detail about how property rights of
distant owners and long-distance contracts are being backed up by state power. These are important matters both for
those who want to sustain the existing structures and for those who want to contest these structures.