The Economics of Hostage Exchange and Political Agency

What social factors determined the “value” of this particular hostage?

  • The length of time he has been hostage? (Since 2006)
  • How badly Israel wants him back in one piece because it does not make it look good?
  • The pressure from the soldier’s family to get him back?
  • The strength of the counter-pressure from Israeli groups opposed to the exchange?
  • The possible impact of this exchange on the broader state of the Israel / Palestine conflict?
  • Internal Israeli / internal Palestinian politics?

Another form of calculation os currently taking place regarding the actual identities of the 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to be exchanged as they too carry specific value in the context of this conflict.

The disproportion is unavoidable though, 1 /1000. How close is it to the killing ratio?

In other words, the embeddness of this process is rather obvious.

And note the title too: it seems Israel is the only deciding actor here. And this holds throughout the article: the main actors mentioned are the Israeli government and the German mediation team. Where is the Palestinian side? As if there were no similar calculation on their part regarding the benefits and “market value” of the liberation of this soldier versus getting 1,000 people back (and which ones)? As if they did not see their side of the equation as a liberation negotiation too?

Israel has prisoners (legitimate detention), Palestine has hostages (illegitimate detention).

The Pursuit of Attention: Social Networks, Individualization NOT Isolation

When it comes to new technologies of information and communication, one of the common zombie themes that keeps coming back from the dead is that new communication platforms isolate the individual. There is in this debunked argument the underlying assumption that the only authentic form of social interaction, and the deepest one, is the face-to-face encounter. And so, in a way reminiscent of Putnam’s Bowling Alone, another underlying assumption is that increasing online interaction necessarily comes at the expenses of “real” face-to-face interactions. Again, these assumptions have already been debunked by research but the very fact that important surveys keep asking these questions again and again reveals that these assumptions die hard

See this, for instance (via Chad Gesser):

Or this:

Or even this:

Or when it comes to social isolation:

On this point, I would argue that the United States is a very segregated society, by class and race, and a very polarized one politically. Therefore, it is not surprising that people would belong to networks that reinforce such homogeneity.

But also, look at the way the titles are formulated. These are loaded with negative assumptions regarding virtual networking and interaction and there are every time expressions of surprise when the results do not validate these isolation assumptions but rather complementarity assumptions.

What is undeniable though, is that the mixing of always available networks, social networking platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, transform our sense of self, identity and certainly, our presentation of self. Digital interaction can make us visible all the time and this certainly fosters certain type of behavior, something that has become called the Attention Economy, but I think the Attention Society is better phrase since this goes beyond strictly economic behavior and context, to be seen as an adjunct to the liquid, individualized society described by Zygmunt Bauman.

Consider this, regarding Twitter, for instance, in a very Goffmanian analysis:

The question of attention reminded me of Charles Derber‘s The Pursuit of Attention – Power and Ego in Everyday Life. In this book, Derber argues that attention is both a currency used to evaluate one’s social status and a form of power. With social media platforms, I would argue, and specific social media tools, one can actually measure how much attention one receives beyond googling one’s name. One can use tools to measure a blog traffic. It is easy to count how many followers one has on Twitter and how many friends of fans one has on Facebook.

Attention is a form of currency, reminiscent of Doctorow’s Whuffies. The more one gets, the higher one’s online status even if the attention turns to vilification later on, as illustrated by the Balloon Boy story, and more recently by this:

And so, any attention is better than no attention at all.

Attention is also a form of power: who gives it (a sign of low status as a secretary has to give attention to her boss), who is entitled to it or commands it (higher status / power), who receives it, etc. are all markers of dominant or subordinate social status. However, with new ICTs and social media platforms, attention gets redistributed on both end of the spectrum (production and distribution) and directing attention becomes a source of power more largely available especially when seemingly other-directed attention becomes a form of self-directed attention.

Watch this:

The quote above is excerpted from a post on the so-called citizen-journalists during the massacre at Fort Hood:

In the Fort Hood case, Moore was actually spreading as much untruth as the media at the time (and violating privacy regulations at the same time. And there is indeed an individualized “I was there” quality to these amateur videos of specific events shot without context, analysis and therefore depoliticized and therefore void of actual content beyond the bare images. Which is why these images have ultimately no agency power. They do not change the course of events (in Iran, for instance).

Individualized gazes do not create global social movements for peace or democracy. That still takes old-fashioned organizing. these videos do not translation into social actions but greater social attention on social media platforms for those fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. They might be interviewed on television and see their Twitter following scores swell along with the number of comments for their videos on YouTube.

It is then all about the person behind the camera or the cell phone, and no longer about the subject of the video whose value is only in terms of how much attention it gets for the person filming it.

And as much as mass mobilization is possible online, it does not translate into collective action as it is individualized mobilization:

And online activism may have lowered the political participation threshold but again in an individualized fashion. Similarly, all the citizen-journalist videos, because they are depoliticized (extracted from a critical understanding of their context), appear therefore no different than these oh-so popular cat videos: as objects of entertainment that will gain their filmmakers attention credit for a while… a short while as Twitter trending threads tend to be short-lived, before the next video comes out, cat, political event or natural disaster, makes no difference.

Social Inequalities 101 – Inequalities Have Nothing to Do With Moral Character And Everything to Do With Wealth Transfer Up The Social Ladder

Via Richard Florida on Twitter.

This is how you create a more unequal society… by transferring money directly from the average population to the wealthy at the same time that the practices of said wealthy precarize the conditions of everyone else:

So much for free market, huh?

Which reminded me of this:

“Most market institutions were the outcome of political struggles whereby one group of capitalists captured government and created rules to favor themselves over their political opponents.”

Neil Fligstein (2001), The Architecture of Markets – Economic Sociology for the Twenty-First-Century Capitalist Societies, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 38.

Markets as Bourdieusian fields, people. Let’s never forget that. And the level of inequalities is a reflection of the success of certain groups in capturing state capacity to ensure and maintain their dominance.

Social Exclusion 101 – Discreet Discomfort

How can a town or a city make sure that the sight of homeless people does not offend the good, hard-working citizens? Especially in these bad economic times when there might be more of them hanging around the cities of France? Easy, make it impossible for them to sit down where they normally would, but not obviously, of course. This mode of exclusion has to be stealth and not esthetically unpleasant.

That is what this series of photos over at Rue 89 shows. For instance, these discreet little spikes:

Or even these small pyramids:

Or the falling dominoes:

When it comes to making it uncomfortable for homeless people to sit down and take the load off, cities can be very creative. Do check out the entire series of photos:

These devices clearly delimit who is a legitimate participant in the public space and therefore who is a legitimate urban denizen.

Dubai, Money, Smuggling and Organized Crime

Dubai has been in the news a lot these past few days, mostly because it is near bankrupt:

But when I read this, I was reminded of something else about Dubai:

“When Dawood [Mumbai organized crime hotshot] skipped India for Dubai in 1984, few Westerners could have located the city-state on a map, let alone talk authoritatively about the place and its people. Arabs, Iranians, Baluchis, East Africans, Pakistanis and West Coast Indians, by contrast, had a deep historical acquaintance with Dubai. At the end of World War II, it was barely more than a coastal village that had survived largely on its wits, since its only indigenous industry, pearl fishing, had been wiped out by the war and by the Japanese development of cultured pearls.

In the barren years between pearls and petrodollars, Dubai quietly resurrected its trading links across the Strait of Hormuz with Iran and across the Arabian Sea to Bombay. Because of both Iran and India pursued policies of severe protectionism to build up their domestic industries, Dubai’s traders found they could exploit their own light taxation regime by importing all manners of material into Dubai and then exporting it to Iran and the subcontinent. “The bottomless pit that is Indian demand for gold funded many, many people here in those years,” explained Francis Matthew, an ex-pat for decades and editor of Dubai’s largest publishing company. “Almost every Indian woman needs it for her trousseau and her dowry; different kinds of gold, different kinds of plate for the various areas of India.”

This goes back to Rashid, the legendary founder of Dubai, who revived its dormant tradition of trading, including the sector of “independent trading,” as it is known in the Emirates, or “smuggling,” as the rest of us call it. Sheikh Rashid, the early visionary of Dubai, was on Indira Gandhi’s personal list of wanted smugglers for many years. But although he could not step a toe in India, he took a cut from the profits of every trinket or gold bar sold into the country. This is when the big trading families in Dubai made friends with the big trading families in Bombay, and in Karachi. These friendships lasted.

In terms of influence, Dubai’s ruling Al-Maktoum family ranked second only to the Al-Nahyans of Abu Dhabi. The discovery of huge oil reserves on Abu Dhabi territory proved a godsend to Dubai and the other five emirates that formed the new state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1973 after the British decided to withdraw all its forces east of Suez. (…) Dubai itself has modest oil reserves, which even so account for 15% of the city-state’s income. But thse will dry up within the next decade. In the 1980s, the al-Maktoums decided to diversify (…). Thus they did conceive the plan to build the Jebel Ali port, its sixty-six berths making it the largest marine facility in the Middle East.

While critics scoffed at the grandiose project, the decision to create the new port was quickly vindicated. In 1979, Dubai had learned a valuable lesson from the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: trouble has its bright side. Frightened by the instability of their own countries, Iranian and Afghan traders moved to Dubai, bringing with them their businesses, thereby bolstering the local economy. With neither income nor sales tax, Dubai steadily developed a reputation for being a safe place in the Middle East to stash your money. Since then Dubai has always boomed during a regional crisis.

For Dawood Ibrahim, Dubai was the perfect retreat. The city welcomes the wealthy; it welcomes Muslims; and it was not the least bit interested in how people had acquired their money or what they intended to do with it. Dubai also had long-standing contacts with Bombay, and a large part of its elite were involved in the trade that Dawood wanted to make his core business activity – gold smuggling. Furthermore, thanks to their strategic vision, the al-Maktoums were making the city-state a very comfortable place to live. Before long, Dawood’s house had become a place of pilgrimage for Bollywood celebrities and the stars of Indian and Pakistani cricket, two of Dawood’s abiding passions. Stil, he had to be circumspect. Dubai had proved to be a civil host to many gangsters in the past two decades, provided they behave with discretion. (…) And the fact that Dawood and his people thrived and prospered in Dubai, well, it could not have happened without the knowledge and – in a sense – the complicity of the ruling family.”

Misha Glenny (2008), McMafia – A Journey through The Global Criminal Underworld, New York: Knopf, 131-3.

Needless to say, the presence of extremely wealthy “businessmen” in Dubai contributed to funding these humongous real estate projects that the city-state is known for as it provided them an outlet to launder smuggling money out of India into legitimate projects in Dubai. I would be interested to know what these investors think now.

See also Ian Welsh:

And Apparently, everyone expects a bailout ofrm Abu Dhabi so the investors can start playing again. And again, let’s rescue rich people from their own crazy ambitions while talking moral hazard when it comes to normal folks. And does anyone think a bailout would include strings attached regarding human and labor rights? Yeah, me neither.

Book Review – Makers

Cory Doctorow‘s Makers has a lot in common with the previous books I have read from him and the themes developed throughout the stories are also familiar to many regular Doctorow readers. As in previous novels, Doctorow locates his story in a futuristic United States / Western hemisphere where capitalism as we know it has collapsed in one way or another.

Makers is no exception as the story unfolds in a world of affluence that still has wreaked havoc on the social structure. Indeed, the story starts with the merging and dismantling of big blue-collar companies Kodak and Duracell by entrepreneur Landon Kettlewell to be replaced by a completely precarized workforce working on small-scale projects with profit potential subsidized by grant-type money that the corporation provides.

This is the ultimate result of a fully precarized society / risk society where everybody is a permanent temporary worker: love it or become a slum dweller as many of the characters do in Makers. This is a geek economy for  young skillful and creative engineers who have very little need for regular salaries and benefits, as are main character Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks.

The pair of geek pals is also a recurring theme in Doctorow’s books, with the ulterior addition of a woman (or women) into the mix as the story develops. Such core pairs are present in Little Brother, Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom as well as Eastern Standard Tribe, with one über geek and one more business / rationality oriented, with other characters, including villains that belong to the State or the Corporation as major Surveillance and fun-killing entities.

And in all these novels, the main characters have a hard time growing up and resist it as much as they can, hence the fascination in both Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom and Makers, with Disneyworld. Indeed, in Makers, the Perry / Lester dynamic duo’s main goal in life is to manufacture cool geeky stuff for people to by but making money is not much of a concern of theirs. Throughout the book, “adults” will do that for them. It is actually when they are faced with adult responsibilities that things fall apart. So, it is not surprising that the happy ending has them back shoulder to shoulder in a makeshift lab, many years later, back to doing geeky stuff, under the loving gaze of the journalist (and later wife of one of them) who has followed their careers, noting with a little sadness, that her “little boys” have grown… actually, they have not. They are just older. Throughout the book, they both get angry, sulk, stop talking to each other, act on impulse, etc. In other words, they behave like teenagers, as most main characters in Doctorow’s novels do and all complain when the world does not bend to their adolescent geeky dreams.

As always, when reading futuristic / scifi books, I am interested in the social context that constitutes the background for the story. As mentioned above, Makers’ society is a society that is fully precarized, the educated and skilled in computer creativity are the one who survive or even thrive in the precarized environment. Big corporations are seen as evil forces, enforcing their rule through IP lawsuits. In Makers, there is no government to speak of, and certainly not one that provides a safety net for those who have the misfortune of not being creative AND educated / skilled / enjoying the “freedom” of being precarized. And so, Lester and Perry jump from one creative idea to the next, chafing against corporate pressure, grudgingly agreeing to a business side to their ventures, all for open source and sharing. Whatever they do is inconsequential as there are always a millionaire, a business manager and a journalist to clean up the messes they (inadvertently) create in such anomic environments.

In Makers, the good guys create an open source economy where everyone can share the benefits, contribute ideas and all together generate cool projects for this post-utilitarian society where entertainment seems to be a major goal (again, a theme highly reminiscent of Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom). The introduction of 3D printers manufacturing objects allows for the mass production of fads that are short-lived and easily replaced. In this society, people have to make their own job. It is ultimate precarization and individualization mixed with the loose communautarism of the network society. There is no doubt that such a loose social structure would leave a lot of people behind not just in the US but around the world but the novel celebrates the joining together of individual creative forces combined with high-flying technological skills.

It was for me a source of frustration with the book: the celebration of the cool and geeky precarized labor structure based on making tchotkes for those who can afford them, with the pretense that corporate structures are an impediment to creativity and networked solidarity. Unsurprisingly, as shown in the novel, this is a loose social structure that is attractive to the young and unattached who can connect / disconnect / reconnect in this truly liquid society. At the same time, as much as corporations are loathed, the whole open source society is still backed by financial investors and millionaires (or the Mafia in the small part of the story that takes place in Russia).

But what of those left behind? There is a certain romanticization in the novel as the slum dwellers of Miami also have their condition unleash their creative forces and they create their own social structure and it does not feel that it is a slum at all. Again, who needs state services and support when there is always a high-tech, environmentally-friendly solution to be designed.

Now, I do not fault Doctorow for glaring omission in his depiction of this futuristic society, but as I mentioned, there are major sources of frustration for the sociologist in me because this type of complete societal dismantlement and every man for himself is presented as apolitical. Sure, kids on the Internet fight the big bad corporation that is trying to kill their cool “ride”. But apparently, the general precarization has been embraced by everybody and has not generated any resistance (except for a brief mention of the Kodak and Duracell unionized workforce at the very beginning) or any significant social movement against the inevitable destruction of the livelihood of what must be significant proportion of the population.

Bottom line is as much as I enjoyed the book, it reminded me too much of the endless presentations I have had to endure as to how to deal with the Millenials. It seems this book is written for them and maybe by one of them (even if he is not the right biological age). Perry and Lester, the main characters of Makers, are the ultimate Millenials (as they have been stereotyped in the media and the educational consulting business).  In this fictional society, there is not much room for the elderly, the non-creative or anyone who wishes for stability (and who knows what happens to the societies of the periphery as only Russia and Brazil are mentioned). At the same time, the apolitical outlook erases some of the bitter conflicts that would be bound to happen (extreme nationalism and religious fundamentalism). It seems that everybody has embraced some sort of networked cosmopolitanism revolving around white American geeks.

Again, I enjoyed the book. It is a page-turner and the multiplicity of characters creates a diversity of storylines that keeps one interested, in spite of sociologically frustrating aspects mentioned above. The subtitle of the book is “A Whirlwind of Changes to Come” that seem to add up to a dystopia where only a few can make it and too bad for the global rest.

My Commenters Are Smarter Than Me – Football, Capitalism and Branding Edition

After my previous post on sport and stigma regarding L’Affaire Henry, commenter Pat wrote the following (bumped from the comments):

“Football is a global business with huge vested interests.What we are looking at in France’s case,via vi Henry, is a commodity brand who generates massive revenue streams,via its lucrative fanbase in Asia and beyond.

It is no coincidence that FIFA(football’s governing body that includes the former French player,Platini) broke competition conventions to ensure that Portuagal(brand:Christiano Rinaldho),and France(brands: Henry and Anelka)were in the world cup play-offs.For to lose the aforementioned brands would be to lose a potential global audience of 1-2 billion people.

In contrast, a non-celebrity football team like Ireland has no financial benefits for FIFA.

Whilst the game itself was dictated by the Bourdieuian ” rules of the game”,so to speak,the power dynamics were ultimately driven by the hegemony of teams like Portugal and France. In other words,despite the denigrating rhetoric,people had to stubbornly consent to Frances inclusion in the competition.

In Bourdieuian terms,France and Portugal are implicted in powerful global fields with the required economic ,social and cultural capital to legitimate a game like the world cup.

In the Irish context,the scandalous vilification of Henry is a good example of “ritual scapegoating”.For René Girard such scapegoats help to resolve social tensions produced by conditions of ontological insecurity and existential crises.”

Quite so. It is correct on all counts:

  • Celebrity players are brands on their own
  • The football world is a field in Bourdieu’s sense with power plays, dominant and dominated actors, and a dominant doxa
  • This field is not separate from the global capitalist system

And sure enough:

See also my previous article reviews on globalization and sports:

The Pursuit of Attention: Social Networks, Individualization but NOT Isolation

When it comes to new technologies of information and communication, one of the common zombie themes that keeps coming back from the dead is that new communication platforms isolate the individual. There is in this debunked argument the underlying assumption that the only authentic form of social interaction, and the deepest one, is the face-to-face encounter. And so, in a way reminiscent of Putnam’s Bowling Alone, another underlying assumption is that increasing online interaction necessarily comes at the expenses of “real” face-to-face interactions. Again, these assumptions have already been debunked by research but the very fact that important surveys keep asking these questions again and again reveals that these assumptions die hard

See this, for instance (via Chad Gesser):

Or this:

Or even this:

Or when it comes to social isolation:

On this point, I would argue that the United States is a very segregated society, by class and race, and a very polarized one politically. Therefore, it is not surprising that people would belong to networks that reinforce such homogeneity.

But also, look at the way the titles are formulated. These are loaded with negative assumptions regarding virtual networking and interaction and there are every time expressions of surprise when the results do not validate these isolation assumptions but rather complementarity assumptions.

What is undeniable though, is that the mixing of always available networks, social networking platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, transform our sense of self, identity and certainly, our presentation of self. Digital interaction can make us visible all the time and this certainly fosters certain type of behavior, something that has become called the Attention Economy, but I think the Attention Society is better phrase since this goes beyond strictly economic behavior and context, to be seen as an adjunct to the liquid, individualized society described by Zygmunt Bauman.

Consider this, regarding Twitter, for instance, in a very Goffmanian analysis:

The question of attention reminded me of Charles Derber‘s The Pursuit of Attention – Power and Ego in Everyday Life. In this book, Derber argues that attention is both a currency used to evaluate one’s social status and a form of power. With social media platforms, I would argue, and specific  social media tools, one can actually measure how much attention one receives beyond googling one’s name. One can use tools to measure a blog traffic. It is easy to count how many followers one has on Twitter and how many friends of fans one has on Facebook.

Attention is a form of currency, reminiscent of Doctorow’s Whuffies. The more one gets, the higher one’s online status even if the attention turns to vilification later on, as illustrated by the Balloon Boy story, and more recently by this:

And so, any attention is better than no attention at all.

Attention is also a form of power: who gives it (a sign of low status as a secretary has to give attention to her boss), who is entitled to it or commands it (higher status / power), who receives it, etc. are all markers of dominant or subordinate social status. However, with new ICTs and social media platforms, attention gets redistributed on both end of the spectrum (production and distribution) and directing attention becomes a source of power more largely available especially when seemingly other-directed attention becomes a form of self-directed attention.

Watch this:

The quote above is excerpted from a post on the so-called citizen-journalists during the massacre at Fort Hood:

In the Fort Hood case, Moore was actually spreading as much untruth as the media at the time (and violating privacy regulations at the same time. And there is indeed an individualized “I was there” quality to these amateur videos of specific events shot without context, analysis and therefore depoliticized and therefore void of actual content beyond the bare images. Which is why these images have ultimately no agency power. They do not change the course of events (in Iran, for instance).

Individualized gazes do not create global social movements for peace or democracy. That still takes old-fashioned organizing. these videos do not translation into social actions but greater social attention on social media platforms for those fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. They might be interviewed on television and see their Twitter following scores swell along with the number of comments for their videos on YouTube.

It is then all about the person behind the camera or the cell phone, and no longer about the subject of the video whose value is only in terms of how much attention it gets for the person filming it.

And as much as mass mobilization is possible online, it does not translate into collective action as it is individualized mobilization:

And online activism may have lowered the political participation threshold but again in an individualized fashion. Similarly, all the citizen-journalist videos, because they are depoliticized (extracted from a critical understanding of their context), appear therefore no different than these oh-so popular cat videos: as objects of entertainment that will gain their filmmakers attention credit for a while… a short while as Twitter trending threads tend to be short-lived, before the next video comes out, cat, political event or natural disaster, makes no difference.

Two Tales of The Patriarchy

Both involve the issue of control of women’s lives in the context of patriarchal religion.

First:

Note the very patriarchal photograph. The article itself is interesting in that it reveals a mix of religious fundamentalism and nationalism. The women themselves may reclaim suicide terrorism as a form of regaining control over their own lives but it is clear that these operatives function completely under the control of men… only to be arrested by more men (the smiling guys in the photo) when they fail to blow themselves up. Moreover, as the article notes, it is only once the US and Iraqi military started suspecting pretty much every man of being a potential suicide bomber that the insurgent groups turned to women.

Another ultimately futile attempt at regaining control has to do with the ever-so-important-to-the-patriarchy virginity of girls… Meet the artificial hymen, made in China:

In both cases, ultimately, these women end up submitting to the patriarchy.

In case you’re wondering:

http://blairwaldorfs.tumblr.com/post/213215425/no-more-worry-about-losing-your-virginity-with

Artificial Hymen Kit via kwout