Book Review – Cop in the Hood

If you enjoyed the first season of the Wire, you will enjoy Peter Moskos‘s Cop in the Hood. The book is the tale of a sociologist going native by going through the Baltimore police academy, becoming a cop and working for over a year. This mix of ethnography and participant observation makes the book highly readable and enjoyable. My freshmen students will be reading it next term.

The book roughly follows Moskos chronological journey, from the academy to the street and the last part of the book is dedicated to a pretty thorough analysis (and indictment) of the War on Drugs.

This book is especially relevant because of one the challenges of teaching freshmen is to show them why they should be interested in sociology and sociological topics, that there is some knowledge to be produced here and that sociology has the tools to produce it.

Why did Moskos choose participant-observation? (All notations are Kindle locations)

“As a sociology graduate student, I took to heart the argument that prolonged participant-observation research is the best and perhaps only means of gathering valid data on job-related police behavior. Because data on policing are iffy at best and cops, like everyone, love to tell a tall tale, the best way to see what happens on the street is to be there as it happens. As an institution, police have been labeled insular, resentful of outsiders, and in general hostile to research, experimentation, and analysis. Official police statistics are notoriously susceptible to manipulation. And as most police activity has no official record at all, the nuances of police work are difficult if not impossible to quantify. Professor and police researcher Maurice Punch wrote, “The researcher’s task becomes, then, how to outwit the institutional obstacle-course to gain entry and . . . penetrate the mine-field of social defenses to reach the inner reality of police work.”” (114)

The first interesting observation from Moskos’s work is his analysis of the police academy as relatively useless for the job:

“So what’s the point of the academy? Primarily, it’s to protect the department from the legal liability that could result from negligent training. To the trainees this appears more important than educating police officers.

(…)

And second, despite the lax approach toward academics, instructors were very concerned with officer safety, the aspect of the job they emphasized most: “The most important part of your job is that you go home. Everything else is secondary.” This philosophy is reinforced at all levels of the police organization. Formal and informal rules concerning officer safety are propagated simultaneously.

(…)

By the end of the academy, less than half the class saw a relation between what police learn in the academy and what police need to know on the street. A strong antimedia attitude, little changed from sociologist William Westley’s observations in the 1950s, grew steadily in the police academy. At the end of training, just 10 percent of trainees believed that the media treat police fairly.

(…)

After six months in the academy, trainees learn to:

  • Respect the chain of command and their place on the bottom of that chain.
  • Sprinkle “sir” and “ma’am” into casual conversation.
  • Salute.
  • Follow orders.
  • March in formation.
  • Stay out of trouble.
  • Stay awake.
  • Be on time.
  • Shine shoes.” (359 – 390)

But Moskos’s conclusion is that the training actually demoralizes trainees even before they start working on the streets. Physical training is not boot camp and provides a poor preparation (after all, most officers will spend their days in their patrol car), and academic training does not really impart knowledge and does not encourage thinking.

Once training is over, the bulk of the book follows Moskos on the beat, on the Eastern side of Baltimore (that’s Proposition Joe’s territory, for you Wire fans following at home) and the constant contradictory demands placed on officers (between following a very strict military-style chain of command and having to make quick decisions). In that sense, the book is also a good study of the necessity of developing informal rules in in highly formal, bureaucratic environments. Working around the rules is the only way to keep the work manageable and within the limits of efficiency and sanity. But for Moskos, the gap between formal and informal norms is especially wide in policing. One could see here the application of Merton’s strain theory: the officers largely agree with the goals of the job they have to do (even though they are aware of the futility of the War on Drugs), but they constantly have to innovate while on patrol because the rules do not work on the streets (of course, some officers do lapse into ritualism especially in a context where protecting one’s pension is THE concern all officers have and that guides their behavior on the street).

These informal rules are constantly at work whether it comes to stopping, frisking, searching, arresting, writing reports. In all of these aspects of the job, covering one’s butt and protecting one’s life and pension are paramount concerns. This means that officers actually have quite a bit of leeway and flexibility when it comes to their job. These informal norms are described in details in Moskos’s book and there is no underestimating their importance.

Once on the streets, police officers mix a culture of poverty approach to “these people” (the communities they are expected to police, where gangs and drugs culture produce poverty with quite a bit of eliminationist rhetoric that reveals an in-group / out-group mentality between police officers and civilians:

“A black officer proposed similar ends through different means. “If it were up to me,” he said, “I’d build big walls and just flood the place, biblical-like. Flood the place and start afresh. I think that’s all you can do.” When I asked this officer how his belief that the entire area should be flooded differed from the attitudes of white police, he responded, “Naw, I’m not like that because I’d let the good people build an ark and float out. Old people, working people, line ’em up, two by two. White cops will be standing on the walls with big poles pushing people back in.” The painful universal truth of this officer’s beliefs came back to me in stark relief during the flooding and destruction of New Orleans, Louisiana. Police in some neighboring communities prevented displaced black residents from leaving the disaster area, turning them away with blockades and guns.” (609)

That in-group / out-group outlook also involves dehumanization and stigmatization:

“In the ghetto, police and the public have a general mutual desire to avoid interaction. The sociologist Ervin Goffman wrote, “One avoids a person of high status out of deference to him and avoids a person of lower status . . . out of a self-protective concern.” Goffman was concerned with the stigma of race, but in the ghetto, stigma revolves around the “pollution” associated with drugs. Police use words like “filthy,” “rank,” “smelly,” or “nasty” to describe literal filth, which abounds in the Eastern District. The word “dirty” is used to describe the figurative filth of a drug addict. It is, in the drug-related sense, the opposite of being clean.” (633)

The “dope fiend” becomes the loathed representative figure of all this. But the dehumanization applies equally to them and the dealers. In that sense, there is no sympathy for the people who have to live in these communities and have nothing to do with the drug trade. They are put in the same bag. And whatever idea of public service trainees might start with tends to disappear after a year on the streets.

And quite a bit of what goes on in the streets between police and population has a lot to do with forcing respect and maintaining control of the interaction:

“Although it is legally questionable, police officers almost always have something they can use to lock up somebody, “just because.” New York City police use “disorderly conduct.” In Baltimore it is loitering. In high-drug areas, minor arrests are very common, but rarely prosecuted. Loitering arrests usually do not articulate the legally required “obstruction of passage.” But the point of loitering arrests is not to convict people of the misdemeanor. By any definition, loitering is abated by arrest. These lockups are used by police to assert authority or get criminals off the street.” (838)

And, of course, the drug dealers also know the rules and become skillful at working around them, avoiding arrest, challenging the police authority and have structured their trade accordingly. It would indeed be a mistake to look at this illegal and informal economy as anything but a trade structured around specific rules that take into account having to deal with the police and the different statuses of the actors involved in the trade reflect that:

  • lookouts have the simplest job: alert everyone else of police approach,
  • steerers promote the product,
  • moneymen obviously hold the money for the transactions,
  • slingers distribute the drugs after money has been exchanged
  • and gunmen protect the trade.

The transaction is therefore completely decomposed into steps where money and drugs are never handled by the same person while the main dealers watch things from afar, protecting themselves from legal liabilities. For most of these positions, the pay is not much better than fast-food joints, but that is pretty much all there is in these urban areas.

Of course, just like everything in the US, there is a racial component to this. The drug trade is not a “black thing” (like mac and cheese as Pat Robertson would say) and it has its dependency theory taste:

“The archetypal white addict is employed, comes with a friend, drives a beat-up car from a nearby blue-collar neighborhood or suburb such as Highlandtown or Dundalk, and may have a local black drug addict in the backseat of the car. A black police officer who grew up in the Eastern District explained the local’s presence, “White people won’t buy drugs alone because they’re afraid to get out of the car and approach a drug dealer. They’ll have some black junkie with them.” The local resident serves as a sort of freelance guide, providing insurance against getting “burned” or robbed. The local addict is paid informally, most often taking a cut of the drugs purchased.” (1116)

The complete mistrust between the police and the community is also a trademark of impoverished urban environments. And indeed, what would residents gain by interacting with law enforcement and the court system? At the same time, police work is arrest-based (the more the better) which officers all understand to be futile.

For Moskos, part of the problem with policing was the advent of policing-by-patrol-car:

“The advent of patrol cars, telephones, two-way radios, “scientific” police management, social migration, and social science theories on the “causes” of crime converged in the late 1950s. Before then, police had generally followed a “watchman” approach: each patrol officer was given the responsibility to police a geographic area.5In the decades after World War II, motorized car patrol replaced foot patrol as the standard method of policing. Improved technology allowed citizens to call police and have their complaints dispatched to police through two-way radios in squad cars. Car patrol was promoted over foot patrol as a cost-saving move justified by increased “efficiency.”6 Those who viewed police as provocative and hostile to the public applauded reduced police presence and discretion. Controlled by the central dispatch, police could respond to the desires of the community rather than enforce their own “arbitrary” concepts of “acceptable” behavior. Police officers, for their part, enjoyed the comforts of the automobile and the prestige associated with new technology. Citizens, rather than being encouraged to maintain community standards, were urged to stay behind locked doors and call 911. Car patrol eliminated the neighborhood police officer. Police were pulled off neighborhood beats to fill cars. But motorized patrol—the cornerstone of urban policing—has no effect on crime rates, victimization, or public satisfaction.” (1371)

This has encouraged a detachment of officers from the communities they police. Quick response time becomes the goal and officers spend time in their car waiting to be “activated” on 911 calls. The only interaction between officers and residents is limited to such 911 call responses, which can all potentially lead to confrontations. But that is still the way policing is done and the way it is taught at the academies, guided by the three “R”s:

  • Random patrol: give the illusion of omnipresence by changing patrol patterns
  • Rapid response: act quickly, catch the criminals (doesn’t work)
  • Reactive investigation: solve crimes rather than prevent them

But the institutional context very poorly accounts for the interaction rituals that guide the interaction between officers and residents:

“Police officers usually know whether a group of suspects is actively, occasionally, or never involved with selling drugs. Some residents, often elderly, believe that all youths, particularly those who present themselves as “thug” or “ghetto,” are involved with drug dealing. If police respond to a call for a group of people known not to be criminals, police will approach politely. If the group seems honestly surprised to see the police, they may be given some presumption of innocence. An officer could ask if everything is all right or if the group knows any reason why the police would have been called. If the suspects are unknown to a police officer, the group’s response to police attention is used as the primary clue. Even with a presumption of guilt, a group that walks away without being prompted will generally be allowed to disperse. If a group of suspects challenges police authority through language or demeanor, the officer is compelled to act. This interaction is so ritualized that it resembles a dance.

(…)

If temporary dispersal of a group is the goal, the mere arrival of a patrol car should be all that is needed. Every additional step, from stopping the car to exiting the car to questioning people on the street, known as a “field interview,” is a form of escalation on the part of the police officer. Aware of the symbolism and ritual of such actions, police establish a pattern in which a desired outcome is achieved quickly, easily, and with a minimum of direct confrontation. Rarely is there any long-term impact. When a police officer slows his or her car down in front of the individuals, the suspects know the officer is there for them and not just passing through on the way to other business. If a group of suspects does not disperse when an officer “rolls up,” the officer will stop the car and stare at the group. A group may ignore the officer’s look or engage the officer in a stare-off, known in police parlance as “eye fucking.” This officer’s stare serves the dual purpose of scanning for contraband and weapons and simultaneously declaring dominance over turf. An officer will initiate, often aggressively, conversation from the car and ask where the suspects live and if they have any identification. Without proof of residence, the suspects will be told to leave and threatened with arrest. If the group remains or reconvenes, they are subject to a loitering arrest. Police officers always assert their right to control public space. Every drug call to which police respond—indeed all police dealings with social or criminal misbehavior—will result in the suspect’s arrest, departure, or deference.” (1494 – 1507)

And a great deal of these interactions are also guided by the need, on both sides, to not lose face, be seen as weak or easily punked. These interactional factors may often determine whether an officer gets out of his car or not, sometimes triggering contempt from the residents. So, officers tend to like car patrols as opposed to foot patrols which are tiring, leave one vulnerable to the elements, and potentially preventing crime. Rapid response is easier and more popular with officers. People commit crimes, you get there fast, you arrest them.

Overall, Moskos advocates for greater police discretion and more focus on quality of life issues as opposed to rapid response while acknowledging that this is not without problems. I don’t think there ever were a golden age of policing where communities and law enforcement worked harmoniously together for the greater good and the end of broken windows (a discredited theory not questioned by Moskos), especially when minorities were involved.

But the bottom line, for Moskos, that the current War on Drugs is a massive failure and a waste of resources (and Moskos does go into some details of the history of drug policies and enforcement in the US, a useful reminder of the racialization of public policy) and should be replaced by a variety of policies (not all drugs are the same) with three goes in mind:

  • preservation of life (current policies increase the dangerous nature of drugs)
  • reduce incarceration
  • save money (through reduced incarceration, depenalization and taxation).

“We changed our country’s culture toward cigarette smoking. It took effort and did cost money. But most of the money came from legally taxed revenue and the cigarette companies. High taxation discourages new users from starting. Public service messages tell the truth (mostly) about the harms of tobacco. Not only is this a great victory for public health, it is perhaps our country’s only success against any pop u lar addictive drug. Drug policies could follow a similar approach: tax drug sales; treat drug abuse as a medical and social problem; set realistic goals of reduced drug use; and allow localities control over their own drug policies.

(…)

Simply decriminalizing possession is not enough. Legalization must not allow armed drug-dealing thugs to operate with impunity.” (2686 – 91)

Now, none of this deals with urban ghettoization and the lack of economic opportunities in inner cities but that it is not really the goal of criminal policy. This also means that the incentives for officers to do counter-productive work need to be changed and we all know that bureaucracies are not easy to transform. In such cases, resistance is not futile.

So, even though I don’t fully agree with all of Moskos’s recommendations and ideas (I am much more suspect of police discretion than he is), I recommend the book as it does provide extensive food for thought.

My Life As A Feminist – Super 8

So I watched Super 8 in between grading. The movie is directed by J.J. Abrams, but Steven Spielberg has his hands all over it, especially with all the kids stuff. Not to spoil anything but Super 8 = E.T. + Stand By Me 2.0. It is a mix of scifi, disaster / scary monster /coming of age film. Therefore, it is patriarchal through and through:

1. Mothers die or leave (Joe’s and Alice’s mothers)… and Charles’s mother cooks a lot (the kind of mothers that always has food ready for the dang neighborhood) and is very, well, motherly.

2. Failing fathers (Joe’s through his inability to bond with his son, Alice’s father through his drinking and irresponsibility) will learn to become “real men” again thanks to a disaster.

3. Smart Alice is relegated to a comatose role waiting to be rescued by a boy and his boy friends.

4. Drugs and alcohol are bad (because they render men less manly… either stone or irresponsible), but pyromania is a useful skill.

5. A boy becomes a man by letting go of his mother and finding his bond with his father.

Alain Accardo on Les Indignés

French sociologist Alain Accardo has penned an interesting essay on the social movement that has spread all over Europe, starting in Spain with Los Indignados, Les Indignés en France, or the whole Occupy movement in the US and elsewhere. For him, analysis of the movement has either focused on the emotional aspects (hence the reference to indignation) or the aspects that most puzzled the media (no clearly designated leaders, no clear platform, etc.). Of course, the sources of said indignation are rooted in a variety of motives, from the most micro (personal unemployment or precarization) to more macro aspects (action / inaction of the government, austerity programs, breakdown of the welfare state to the view of global financial capitalism as a rigged game).

But Accardo adopts a critical stance with the very label of “indignados” or “indignés” (outraged would be an approximate translation) because, rather than capture a political project, it remains at the level psychological or moral state, leaving the door open to a variety of interpretations. The label of “indignados”  is a soft empirical category turned into a pseudo-concept (much like “hipsters”). Such categories are better at designating commercial / advertising targets based on a vaguely defined personality trait where the norm / average is impossible to capture objectively. Such is the case for indignation.

As important as such a psychological or moral state may be, as it is a necessary ingredient to social movements trying to effect systemic change, if such movements stay at that level, governments do not have much to fear. Moral outrage is no substitute, for Accardo, for a lack of doctrine, program, organizational structures, common perspectives and analysis, leaders. And it does not look like this will change. For now, it is more cathartic collective behavior than actual social movement.

Participants may see these things as strengths or, at least, the price to pay to avoid stigmatization and co-optation by traditional political organizations (such as political parties and labor unions). As justified as this rejection, hostility or distrust of the political establishment may be (and, for Accardo, they are), they deprive the collective of the necessary structuring for social mobilization to turn collective behavior into an “ephemeral happening”, as Accardo puts it. The fact that the leftist establishment (especially in Europe) has failed does not mean one can do without any organization or structuring. There is a world of difference between an activist and a soldier, between mass behavior and revolutionary armies. The history of class struggles shows that they are less about flash mobs and fair atmospheres and that there is always a hardening stage where amateurs are quick to leave the field (the dismantling of the camps and the US David pepper spraying aggression partly illustrate this), or, as it is the 21st century, are quick to play concern trolls.

It would not be the first time that we see short-lived eruptions of rebellion, certainly helped by social media technologies but these technologies play mostly the part of amplifying and rapidly propagating emotions, more than anything else. And so, the movement can only persist if it remains vague and undefined as any effort to define and circumscribe it would lead to its dismantling as major differences between the participants would emerge. Indeed, the movement managed to pull together every shade of political left (understood in a very broad sense), from those mostly concerned about unemployment and financial regulations to those who want more radical systemic transformations. And so, the nebulous nature of the movement is both its strength and its weakness, a very fragile equilibrium.

At the same time, Accardo is not satisfied with the idea that this informal movement emerged on the ashes of the establishment left and the legitimation crisis. For him, the rise of the indignados movement is a good illustration of the way the middle classes struggles have been shaped by forty years of neoliberalism. It does not mean that all the participants are from the middle classes but from people who have largely grown up in post-industrial societies, where levels of education are higher and where “middle class” has become fetishized and a hegemonic cultural category as the class that was entitled to reap the benefits of late capitalism (through higher education and investment in ICT skills) and was therefore invested in its maintenance and adaptation. This category has relegated to the back of the bus the struggles of industrial, blue-collar working classes and the wage workers (those that identified the most with labor unions and, in Europe, the traditional constituencies of the communist parties). And so, this petty bourgeoisie was ideologically convinced by the new spirit of capitalism of its right to hedonistic consumerism and individualism.

This ethos of the middle class, present in the Occupy / indignados movement is one that was socialized with the ideology of breaking sclerotic old modes of organization / production / politics. And as analyses of the financial collapse have shown, elite schools and universities have furnished classes of highly educated people to the maintenance of the system, either in government or on Wall Street. This ethos is reformist and has benefited social-democratic parties all over Europe. In the US, I would argue that this has translated into a rejection of the political in favor of the technocratic (or also called pragmatic) as the proper mode of governance, beyond ideology. The promotion of the technocrat has also been at the core of the ideological construction of the EU as neoliberal entity. This is an argument often mentioned regarding the supposed pragmatism of the Obama administration.

So, the Occupy / indignados movement, for Accardo, is more bricolage than stable political force that could potentially shake the political ground in the US/Euro countries. There are no indications that a potential structuring of radical social force advocating for the global commons, or a more equal distribution of resources or for full democratic governance. It is not a revolutionary movement. At it stands, the dominant ideological climate is a mish-mash of equivocal ideas and sentiments having more to do with being able to participate in the system (get rid of the cheaters and the rigging of the game rather than the game itself).

At the same time, should the Euro crisis deepen (“should”??), the European middle-class may have to give up the double game it has always played (staying on the fence when it came to class struggle, getting the most out of the system by affiliating with upper classes, and distinguishing itself from the working class while engaging with intermittent alliances with it). Faced with precarization and downward mobility, is emulating / serve / imitate the wealthy still a viable social project? As social stratification distribution become more hourglass-shaped, are the middle the classes still “middle”? I think the triumph of right-wing parties in the Euro countries in crisis shows that this is not happening. The media are also working hard to redirect attention to scapegoats (immigrants and minorities, for instance) away from class struggles. The relationships of domination that have characterized class conscience in Europe have not shifted.

As Accardo concludes, the middle classes have certainly been, at different times, a source of social progress. But more often than not, they are also historically, the best defenders of the system against which they might rebel with indignation every once in a while. For Accardo then, it remains to be seen whether this time is different.

How To Create a S@#$ For Brains Populace

This one goes out to my friend and colleague JY who despaired yesterday of her s@#$ for brains students. I think a big chunk of the reason is things like these:

Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy: Americans are assumed to not be interested in international and global affairs (beyond dropping freedom bombs via freedom drones on brown people), ergo, Time decides to replace a perfectly legitimate and newsworthy cover on a significant event in Egypt with some pop psychology item. As a result, Americans are less informed and knowledgeable on global affairs because they do not get intelligent coverage on that topic. Priorities.

Fear of A Brown / Asian Planet

I am somewhat convinced that parts of the fear of globalization in certain circles have to do with the fear of the loss of white people privilege and dominance worldwide.

For instance:

“For the first time, non-white people make up the majority of Brazil’s population, according to preliminary results of the 2010 census.

Out of around 191m Brazilians, 91 million identified themselves as white, 82m as mixed race and 15m as black.

Whites fell from 53.7% of the population in 2000 to 47.7% last year.

The once-a-decade census showed rising social indicators across Brazil as a result of economic growth, but also highlighted enduring inequalities.

The census was conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

“It is the first time a demographic census has found the white population to be below 50%” it said in its report.

The number of people identifying as black rose from 6.2% to 7.6%, while the number saying they were of mixed race rose from 38.5% to 43.1%.

Among minority groups, 2m Brazilians identified themselves as Asian, and 817,000 as indigenous.”

And this:

It is not surprising that we are talking about BRIC countries here, the country block that is on the rise. As the article notes:

“MORE Chinese people live outside mainland China than French people live in France, with some to be found in almost every country. Some 22m ethnic Indians are scattered across every continent. Diasporas have been a part of the world for millennia. But today their size (if migrants were a nation, they would be the world’s fifth-largest) and the ease of staying in touch with those at home are making them matter much more. No other social networks offer the same global reach—and shrewd firms are taking notice. Our map highlights the world’s top 20 destinations for Chinese and Indian migrants.”

On a global scale, things look like this:

And, of course, for full comic effect, there is this:

This perfectly illustrates white anxieties at being (economically) dominated by non-white people (I am old enough to remember the same type of fears when our economies got flooded with Japanese consumer goods in the 1980s).

Globalization was fun when it meant exploiting non-white people out of sight and out of mind, busting unions here, and getting cheap goods for our troubles. But the with the crisis, the now self-imposed structural adjustment policies, the challenges posed by BRIC countries, heck, the EU asking China for help, it’s no fun anymore.

The (Other) Visual Du Jour – Don’t Get Too Hard on Them!

Actually, not really and less and less (via here and here):

I guess it’s more fun going after Wikileaks and Anonymous.

Marcy Wheeler explains:

“The government as a whole has prosecuted 57.7% fewer financial fraud crimes than they did 10 years ago, when 9/11 changed everything.

The report on our government’s growing disinterest in prosecuting banksters should be paired with this FBI report which I reported on some weeks ago (since that time, FBI has removed the link to the report). The FBI report makes it clear that the FBI, at least, has shifted its approach over the last decade from a “case driven” focus to a “threat driven” focus–meaning that it decides what it’s going to look for and then goes to find criminals committing that crime rather than finds crimes and responds to them. Depending on whether you believe this report or Director Mueller’s June reconfirmation hearing, financial fraud is either the 7th or 5th highest priority for the FBI, behind terrorism, counterintelligence, and cybarattacks.

(…)

All of which costs money. The FBI reports that its budget authority–which it notes is driven by the strategy–has more than doubled over the period in which it has found half as many banksters.

Most telling, though, is a stat you get by putting the two reports together. TRAC notes that FBI referred 37.6% of the fraud cases for prosecution so far this year–working out to be roughly 470 cases. But if you work out how many financial cases they say they were tracking last year (they say “more than 2,800″ equates to 57% of the cases), you see they were tracking roughly 4,912 financial fraud cases. If these numbers are correct, it means fewer than 10% of the banksters and other fraudsters they’re tracking ever get charged.

In other words, it’s not that they’re not seeing the crime. They’re just not referring it for prosecution, choosing instead to look for young Muslim men to entrap.”

Bottom line is law enforcement, at that level, has more to do with protecting the system (with a few egregious cases prosecuted every once in a while because either they’re too big to ignore – see: Madoff – or the public needs to be convinced that something is being done as a legitimation boosting mechanism… that ain’t working anymore).

Going after Wikileaks and Anonymous is going after organizations that really threaten the system. So, prosecution knows no bounds and allies itself with corporations (to deny these organizations funding even in the absence of convictions).

The Transnational Capitalist Class: Now Ruling a Country Near You… Or It Will Soon

And Goldman Sachs is its favorite organization from which to extend its power. Case in point: three former GS men now rule the European Central Bank, Italy and Greece:

“Qu’ont en commun Mario Draghi, Mario Monti et Lucas Papadémos ? Le nouveau président de la Banque centrale européenne, le président désigné du conseil italien et le nouveau premier ministre grec appartiennent à des degrés divers au “gouvernement Sachs” européen. La banque d’affaires américaine a en effet tissé en Europe un réseau d’influence unique sédimenté depuis des lustres grâce à un maillage serré, souterrain comme public.

A tout concours, il faut une hiérarchie. Le premier prix revient bien sûr à Mario Draghi, vice-président de Goldman Sachs pour l’Europe entre 2002 et 2005. Nommé associé, il est chargé des “entreprises et pays souverains”. A ce titre, l’une des missions est de vendre le produit financier “swap” permettant de dissimuler une partie de la dette souveraine, qui a permis de maquiller les comptes grecs. Vient ensuite Mario Monti, conseiller international depuis 2005. Arrive en troisième position Lucas Papadémos, qui vient d’être nommé premier ministre de la Grèce, qui fut gouverneur de la Banque centrale hellénique entre 1994 et 2002, qui a participé à ce titre à l’opération de trucage des comptes perpétré par GS. Le gestionnaire de la dette grecque est d’ailleurs un certain Petros Christodoulos, un ex-trader de la firme.

Deux autres poids lourds tiennent le haut du pavé dans la défenestration de l’euro, Otmar Issing, ex-président de la Bundesbank et Jim O’Neill, l’inventeur du concept des BRICS, l’acronyme désignant les marchés émergents à fort potentiel de croissance (Brésil, Russie, Inde, Chine et Afrique du Sud). Ex-président de Goldman Sachs International dont il est resté l’un des administrateurs, l’Irlandais Peter Sutherland a joué un rôle-clé dans le sauvetage de l’Irlande. Enfin, Paul Deighton, qui a passé 22 ans chez Goldman Sachs, est directeur général du comité organisateur des Jeux olympiques de Londres en 2012. La lanterne rouge car chacun sait que le sport comme l’amitié est hors concours.”

This is a global power elite that is beyond accountability and democratic governance. sociologist Leslie Sklair calls it the Transnational Capitalist Class. Sklair uses the term transnational to indicate that this class does not derive its power from any particular state or country but precisely from its cross-border capacity to mobilize different forms of capital (economic capital, such as financial assets; political and social capital such as power, influence and connections; technical and organizational capital such program design skills, drafting of trade treaties; cultural capital such as the production of content to promote the consumerist ideology, advertising).

The TCC is composed of four different groups. The corporate fraction is the dominant category in the TCC. It is composed of corporate executives of the major transnational corporations as well as major owners. This fraction’s power derives from its enormous economic and financial power. It is profit-driven and seeks to extend its dominance globally. The other fractions (state, technical and consumerist) are akin to a supporting cast and provide other forms of capital necessary for the global reach of the global capitalist system on top of which the corporate fraction sits.

Leslie Sklair’s Four Fractions of the Transnational Capitalist Class and their Types of Capital
Corporate Fraction Executives from transnational corporations and their local affiliates Economic / Financial
State Fraction Globalizing bureaucrats and politicians Political / Social
Technical Fraction Globalizing professionals Technical / Organizational
Consumerist Fraction Merchants and media

The combination of economic, political, technical and ideological powers translates into the creation of a global system with global capitalism as dominant force. Based on this, Sklair outlines four basic propositions that define the actions of the TCC.

Leslie Sklair’s Four Propositions on the Transnational Capitalist Class (TCC)
“A transnationalist capitalist class based on the transnational corporations (TNCs) is emerging that is more or less in control of the processes of globalization.”
“The TCC is beginning to act as a transnational dominant class in some spheres.”
“The globalization of the capitalist system reproduces itself through the profit-driven culture-ideology of consumerism.”
“The transnational capitalist class is working consciously to resolves two central crises: (i) the simultaneous creation of poverty and increasing wealth within and between communities and societies (the class polarization crisis) and (ii) the unsustainability of the system (the ecological crisis).”

The existence and power of the TCC is made particularly visible every year when the World Economic Forum (WEF) meets at the exclusive ski resort in Davos, Switzerland. The WEF is an organization based in Geneva (Switzerland) that comprises business leaders (such as Bill Gates and the CEOs of the largest transnational corporations), past and present political leaders (such as presidents, prime ministers and other government officials), select intellectuals (Chancellors and professors from the most prestigious universities), journalists, and, sometimes, members of non-governmental organizations, in other words, it is a gathering of the TCC.

At the annual meeting in Davos, under very tight security, this elite discusses the economic and political issues of the world but it is also an opportunity to network and cultivate social capital as well as conduct business and shape policy on a global scale. The membership of the WEF clearly shows its exclusive nature: the vast majority of the membership is from the North America and Europe, with some representatives from developing Asia. One thousand companies, earning over one billion dollars are also invited, as long as they pay a $250,000 fee. Until 2001, there were no women represented to the board. Panels may be public but meetings are held behind closed doors.

The Davos meeting clearly illustrates that the TCC is indeed a class: a category of people who may come different parts of the world but think alike and share a common view of what the world should look like and what economic policies should be implemented. They all share a neo-liberal or globalist ideology.

Apart from the World Economic Forum, the TCC also exercises power through its membership in think tanks (such as the American Enterprise Institute) or corporate associations (such as the World Petroleum Council for the oil industry), and its control of the mass media (very large media conglomerate own most television channels, radio stations, internet service providers as well as book publishing companies), and countless charities and foundations as well as University boards.

And Goldman Sachs rules them all. It extends its power into transnational corporation, functions thanks to the transnational capitalist class, and obviously is thoroughly networked into the transnational state (to use William I. Robinson’s typology).

Protecting Privileged People’s Sensitivity

Which is why, as demonstrated by this Cracked article (Cracked tend to be a mixed bag but this one hits the nail on the head) regarding five persistent prejudice in movies that contribute to, you guessed it, the reproduction of racism and patriarchy:

5. They Still Can’t Show a Black Man Dating a White Woman (Unless That’s What the Whole Movie Is About):

“It’s not just our imagination. The “Audiences Don’t Want to See Black Men Taking Our White Women” thing is so ingrained that Will Smith claims that Cameron Diaz lost the lead role opposite him in the movie Hitch because producers were worried about “the nation’s problem of seeing a black man and a white woman getting intimate.” So, Cuban-American Eva Mendes was cast instead. Hollywood has apparently decided that Mendes is a nice compromise to the black man/white woman problem — she gets those roles again and again and again.”

4. Only the Pretty Girls Are Allowed to Live AKA, the Vasquez always dies meme.

“We’ve convinced ourselves that there’s such thing as “ass-kicking supermodels” for the same reason female slasher movie survivors tend to spend the last hour of every film running and screaming at the top of their lungs. There is so much psychology behind that concept of the lone female slasher movie survivor that there is an entire book about the phenomenon and what it means (Men, Women and Chain Saws). The author points out that when the last person standing in a horror movie is a man, you never see him screaming or crying with fear (imagine Arnold’s character in Predator doing that), but with women, it’s required. For the most part, we won’t sympathize with her unless she spends a certain amount of time helpless and terrified.”

3. Movies Are Still Weirdly Prudish About Some Subjects, mostly, women having fun with their sexuality and enjoying it. And abortion too. You can make as many rape jokes as you want, but abortion is a big no-no.

2. If It’s a Blockbuster, the Star Better Be White (or Will Smith). Well, that one is pretty much self-explanatory. And even when it’s Will Smith (or Denzel Washington, but he’s getting older), the black stars tend to be of lighter-skinned with fine features.

1. We Still Don’t Care About History That Doesn’t Involve White People, which is something I have discussed under the “white savior” heading. Only white people can liberate oppressed minorities or indigenous peoples (see the Guarani in The Mission or the Naavi in Avatar), only white people clear agency and the guts to make the tough moral decisions that need to be made based on the lessons taught by minority characters (with limited agency and dysfunctional cultures).

If you put this all together, you can clearly see that all of these memes protect privileged people’s sensitivities and reproduce their privileged position, whether it is class, gender, race and heteronormativity. They assign agency, capacity for action and leadership to already privileged category and erase challenges to privilege. And in all of them, the only moral viewpoint that matters is that of the privileged category. Which is why these memes persist: because they allow the main audience’s viewpoint to prevail, and therefore, makes privileged audiences more comfortable and allows greater potential for identification with main characters.

A good example of what happens when that is not the case is the mini-controversy that has erupted over the casting of the upcoming Hunger Games movie:

And especially these two posters:

See this post for the full controversy which boils down to: how dare they make these characters I like BLACK!! And read the rationalization for the outrage: the (mostly white) readers had imagined these characters as good, gentle and ultimately victims of the Capitol’s oppressive system, as, of course, white (like them). The book is rather clear in its description of Rue that she is black. For Cinna (the character played by Lenny Kravitz), there is no particular description, so, it was open. It is especially revealing that some commenters assumed that Cinna was white because the book depicts him as sweet and lovable (and therefore, not possibly black). you can go read the whole sorry thread at the link.

All these commenters lamenting that Cinna is, OMG, black which does not fit with a nice, gentle, sweet, and good character are tapping into a whole trough of media representations of black as the opposite of all these things, without a shred of awareness. And I am sure they would all deny any racism on their part. It is just not the way they imagined the character. And being white, they must be right. And now they are stuck with an impossibility to identify.

How dare the movie producers do that to them?

Nostalgic Past or Dystopian Future: Both Imaginary, Both Toxic

This poster from the French National Front (a fascist political party) is a perfect illustration of using visual elements to convey political messages based on racism, nostalgia for a reconstructed past, as well as a dystopian future (if people vote the wrong way!). Of course, both images are themselves, well, imaginary: this is a past that never really existed and a future that is by no means certain or necessary. But the Manichean message is strong.

So, we’re supposed to choose: the France on the left is that of burning banlieues (set on fire by “these people”… the re-islamicized youth) with darkened silhouettes (never humanize one’s stigmatized out-group, never give them a face, always present them as threatening masses or gangs) that obviously have been destroying card in front of a more or less typical housing project somewhere in a working class suburbs. The France on the left is also that of the despairing homeless, no jobs, no hopes, a few dirty-looking possessions. The whole image looks like it was part of the movie The Road with its burning and/or ashen landscapes.

And then, on the right, is the ideal, imaginary, nostalgic France… oh so very white, heterosexual, at peace, where old-timers can do their shopping at the local market, under the sun. Of course, in this France, everybody lives in a small, semi-rural town, with bucolic background (although the scale is wrong in the composition of the different elements… probably photoshopped… a very shoddy job at that). The market is a local, small-scale one, vive le commerce de proximité! And the little shops and commerces, so dear to Pierre Poujade‘s heart. The place is colorful with blooming flowers, clean air, no car traffic, no poverty, and no dark-skinned people.

And the whole thing is not presented as a question but as an injunction: choose your France. And these are the only two options. The roaming immigrant bands of Rue Barbare or the peaceful France, with its français de souche. Apparently, it’s either one or the other.

It is pretty obvious that this is playing on fear: fear of immigration, of social chaos, of a social order that no longer keeps things under control. It is the image of a population that fears anything coming from the outside, whether it is immigrant populations or globalization that destroys local flavors (even though the local imagery used here is generic to the point of being a complete cliché). It is a fetishism of the local where everything is controllable and under control.

And the ideal France on the right (haha) is a patriarchal France where a man can take his woman outside without fear of violence from dark-skinned hordes, sit on a bench with his arm, paternalistically, around her shoulder, as opposed to the hopeless, and lonely bum on the left.

Global Governance and Criminal Plutocracy

If you are going to read one author / journalist on the issue of global criminality, it should be Misha Glenny. His two latest books are strong indictments of the global governance system and its lack of teeth when it comes to global criminal organizations as well as national oligarchies’s role in destabilizing economies and profiting from the results.

In this Financial Times column, he clearly explains the two main issues that have precipitated Greece’s collapse (no quoting from FT articles, you gotta click on the link to read the whole thing):

  • Criminal organizations across the Balkan, milking fuel money out of Greece;
  • Oligarch families that evade taxes while waiting to make a killing on the privatization they are pushing for with global and regional organizations;
  • State corruption;
  • Media;
  • Politicians.

According to Glenny, it is especially these oligarch families that have stashed away Euros. They are waiting for Greece to exit the Eurozone and to start implement what are, in effect, structural adjustment programs, including privatization at basement prices, in Drachma. They will buy the whole lot for close to nothing. Papandreou, who unveiled the pan-Balkan criminality and was going after tax-evaders is the latest victim of their power. And, the media that these families control will cheer on any furthering of austerity measures and vilify anyone who dares trying to get in the way.

But Glenny also blames Western European countries for playing high and mighty with the reckless Mediterranean countries while ignoring what was very obvious for a while. After all, who is now clamoring for Greece to pay its debts to wealthy German investors or else? And which Western European (especially British) banks have turned down the unpaid taxes as well as “running away” Euros from the oligarchs? Yeah.

If one thinks this is a bit far-fetched and fin-foily, check out this other FT article on the dirty dealing of Russian oligarchs.

Who said nation-states no longer mattered.

These facts only reinforce the decade-old idea that the global governance system works only for the powerful of the world, and suffers from a major democratic deficit, a fact amply illustrated by the global panic caused by Papandreou’s proposal of a referendum on austerity measures. As Richard Morris writes, it seems that the price of saving capitalism is democracy.

The extraction of economic policy from the purview of democratic governance (something that did not bother a whole lot of people what that was imposed on developing countries during the lost decade of the 80s) is probably one of the towering achievements of neoliberal global governance as well as the ideological work done by think tanks and corporate media organizations.