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Can Complexity Camouflage Violence?

“There is a growing notion, if it is complex, then it must be good.”

by Samuel Pablo Pareira

Complexity has always been a part of our advancing civilization. From our education system, democracy, trade and supply chains, to our effort in solving existential crises like climate change, common people are told that it is complex and therefore we shouldn’t spend too much time overthinking it, let alone criticizing it. They should just leave it in the hands of certain people. 

“There is a growing notion: if it is complex, then it must be good,” Professor Saskia Sassen said in the Opening Lecture 2020-2021 Academic Year, last Tuesday. Prof. Sassen, who received the 2020 Edgar de Picciotto International Prize from the Institute, has spent much of her career researching on the social, economic, and political dimensions of globalizations, issues of immigration, global cities, new technologies, and changes within the liberal state as a result from current transnational conditions. Her lecture focused on the issue of complexity within our current globalized world, as explained in her most recent book, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy.

She started the lecture by stressing how we must change some of the foundational elements in our life. We have lived long enough in a system that made us admire complexity. It has been embedded deep down within our life and knowledge even since we are children, through the formal education system. This complexity can camouflage violence, and they have also coexisted from time to time. Complexity can hide its own negatives and destructive capabilities. 

“Complexity functions as secrets that we need to disrupt. A complex condition can lend itself to brutality. I found this particularly alarming,” she warned.

Take one of the most banal concepts in our economy: value chains. It has become arguably the most critical element in our economy, and such an important one of our period. The problem with value chains is that we cannot track them. These chains are so long and embedded, where even the simplest commodity or service today is not simply going from point A to B.

Sassen criticized the rising and strong presence of intermediaries within our value chains. This intermediary is an example of the complexity we are forced to accept, not only in the global trade scheme but also in global finance. She argued that intermediaries have a particular position in our economy in which they rarely lose, for example how big firms control the global food industry. 

“Farmers who produce good food, they are going to lose something to take it to the market. They have to pay certain amounts, to have insurance, etc. Farmers who usually sell their milk straight to the market, now have to go through some intermediaries. For me it’s not right– there is something dodgy there. The two other ends, producer and final buyers, they lose. These intermediaries, they never lose.”

The Dutch-born sociologist then gave another example: how financial firms are involved in managing retirement funds. There is a whole intermediary process that allows financial firms to take a bit of money from this process. In the end, financial firms gain exponentially, while many other people lose, although they don’t realize it because it’s such a small amount.

“It’s just too little. But if you consider the amount of funds they manage, their profit is huge. We are talking about millions and billions. It is unacceptable, it is rendered invisible.”

So, can complexity camouflage violence? The answer is yes, it can. It is a violence that is marked by intermediaries and it is rarely found guilty. It looks beautiful, yet in the epoch we live in, it covers a lot of violence. It is true that these complexities as some form of extractive modes have always existed throughout history. Yet, today, we observe the proliferation of those extractive modes. 

The Institute’s new director, Marie-Laure Salles, who moderated the lecture, asked a very relevant question as to whether the current COVID-19 pandemic serves as a mechanism to cut intermediaries and middlemen as much as possible, to which Sassen agreed. She believes that COVID-19 somehow has served as a natural mechanism to simplify these complexities, despite all its negatives. 

“We respect our neighbors more. People suddenly survive some kind of incarceration. I think it is a good thing”.

Sassen, currently teaching as Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology in Columbia University, concluded her lecture by asking the audience to reflect on the global economic system today.

“I see a new mode of economic and social ways of doing things, I tend to think we are entering a new period which is not great. Social justice is suffering in our current world. My question today is, how can we create an alternative system to avoid that?”

Featured Photo by Samuel Pablo Pareira

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