Book Review – Good Jobs, Bad Jobs

Arne Kalleberg‘s Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s is a very clear and detailed examination of the evolution of the labor market in the United States over the past 40 years, deepening the precarization conceptual framework presented in his 2008 ASA presidential address.

“Work in America has undergone marked transformations in the past four decades. Globalization and deregulation have increased the amount of competition faced by American companies, provided greater opportunities for them to outsource work to lower-wage countries, and opened up new sources of workers through immigration. The growth of  a ‘new economy’ characterized by more knowledge-intensive work has been accompanied by the  accelerated pace of technological innovation and the continued expansion of service industries as the principal source of jobs. Political policies such as the replacement of welfare by workfare programs in the 1990s have made it essential for people to participate in paid employment at the same time that jobs have become more precarious. The labor force has become more diverse, with marked increases in the number of women, non-white, older, and immigrant workers, and growing divides between people with different amounts of education. Ideological changes have supported these structural changes, with shifts towards greater individualism and personal accountability for work and life replacing notions of collective responsibility.

 These social, political, and economic forces have radically transformed the nature of employment relations and work in America. They have led to pervasive job insecurity, the growth of dual-earner families, and 24/7 schedules for many workers. More opportunities for entrepreneurship and good jobs have arisen for some, while others still only have access to low-wage and often dead-end jobs. These changes in have, in turn, magnified social problems such as poverty, work-family conflicts, political polarization, and disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender. The growing gap between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jobs represents a dark side to the booming American economy of the 1980s and 1990s; it has contributed to a crisis for the middle class in the United States in the past decade.” (1)

Every point in this quote then is developed in a full chapter, with a solid amount of empirical data to support the claims of generalized precarization. And all the points mentioned above also highlight an idea that I try really hard to convey to my students: nothing ever happens by chance in society. Things as they are – in this case, more bad jobs and increased precarization and risk shift – are the product of a variety of decision-making processes in various social institutions, shaped by ideologies (Kalleberg identifies neoliberalism here). And here we are, with massive changes in labor relations and work structures, operating under different norms. As a result, we work longer, in worse jobs, with less security and stability, reduced control over work activities and lower compensation.

Kalleberg also uses my favorite framework (Structure / History / Power or SHiP) to note that precarization used to be the norm until the end of the Great Depression. It is only the laws enacted during the 1930s that changed that normal state of precarity for workers. And economic conditions improved considerably during the post-War “Great Compression” until the late 1970s. This is a familiar story.

But what exactly are good/bad jobs? For Kalleberg, a good job is one that:

  • Pays relatively well and provides for increases over time;
  • Provides decent benefits;
  • Provides workers with some degree of autonomy and control;
  • Provides workers with some degree of flexibility and control over scheduling and terms of employment;
  • Provides workers with some degree of control over termination of the job.

Whereas a bad job is one that:

  • Pays low wages with limited prospects of improvements over time;
  • Provides limited benefits if any at all;
  • Does not enable workers to exert control over work activities;
  • Does not enable workers to have flexibility;
  • Does not enable workers to exert control over termination of employment.

This dichotomy used to be the basis for the well-known dual-labor market theory. Good jobs were part of  the primary labor market and bad jobs of the secondary labor market. Kalleberg argues that this labor market structure holds less and less as more good jobs are turning into bad ones (creating what Kalleberg calls a ‘subordinate primary labor market’) although the polarization still somewhat holds. And as the quote above notes, he identifies two major dynamics: (1) the impact of economic, social and political forces that shape social institutions and (2) the changes in the composition of the American workforce, namely, diversification. In other words, what we observe is not the product of uncontrolled market forces but of conditions that led to greater pressure for flexibility in an institutional environment where employers could take advantage of the typically American weakness of labor unions, compared to other Western countries.

These structural changes also led to changes in corporate governance, promoting a short-termist mentality where managers were now expected to manage the short-term bottom line for investors using a new tool at their disposal: human resources, as in investing less in them in favor of short-term profits, which meant the rise of non-traditional labor arrangements based on loose ties and limited loyalty between employers and employees. This was facilitated by the fact that the government progressively reduced its intervention on the labor market (can anyone name one thing done by the current secretary of labor in this administration?).

At the same time, right-wing think tanks worked hard to push for their favorite ideology: individualism, which, in turn, led to risk shift from companies and firms to individuals and households, individualization and a general sense of “you’re on your own.” This ideology provided the moral background for the dismantling of the social structures that had underpinned the post-war economy and its institutions.

The diversification of the American workforce meant that more vulnerable workers were entering the labor market, stimulating the growth of precarious and insecure jobs. This diversification also contributed to greater overall inequalities. Kalleberg notes specific consequences:

“First, education has emerged as the great divider between persons with good jobs and those with bad jobs. The workforce has become more polarized along education and skill lines due to the increasing number of highly educated college graduates, as well as the expansion in the population of low-skilled workers, such as immigrants from Mexico with weak English and less than a ninth-grade education.

(…)

Second, workers with relatively low-skills and education – such as nonwhites, the foreign-born, and older workers – are more vulnerable than others to these structural changes. […] This has encouraged employers to create jobs that pay poorly and are generally of low quality, since they now have access to a pool of workers who are willing (or forced) to work for low wages and in poor conditions: women, young people, older workers, less-educated workers, immigrants.

(…)

Third, the growth in labor force diversity has increased the variety of job rewards that workers seek to obtain from their jobs. The increase of women and the associated proliferation of dual-earner families in the labor force, along with the growth in educational attainments, have altered the kinds of rewards that people feel are important in their jobs. This growth has also shaped workers’ expectations for the kinds of rewards they feel entitled to obtain. In particular, many workers are now more likely to place greater importance on having more control over their work schedules and flexibility in their work times.” (57-8)

This increased flexibility has also been easier to implement in the growing service industries. But this has led to occupational polarization (between good jobs and bad jobs) thanks to (1) variation in skills required in diverse occupations, (2) a growing difference in the collective market power of occupational groups (power generated by unions or professional gatekeeping mechanisms such as certifications and accreditation), and (3) the increased power of managers by virtue of their control over human capital as resource.

Another factor in the growth of precarization is corporate restructuring. On this, Kalleberg argues that firms have choices between low-road strategies (de-skilling jobs, subcontracting, outsourcing, etc) and high-road strategies (investing in employees, for instance) when facing economic transformations. Most firms in the US have chosen low-road strategies, developing the core-periphery model of employment, with a limited and declining core of permanent workers, working on the firm’s core competencies, as opposed to peripheral workers (fully precarized, often outsources, managed by temporary work agencies, with no expectations of permanent employment and no ties to the employer beyond the contract duration; this includes all the non-standard work arrangements).

The novelty here, as Louis Uchitelle demonstrated in his book, The Disposable American, is that these have become common management strategies, more or less irrespective of economic conditions. Lay-offs and outsourcing and downsizing happen in recessionary as well as expansionary periods.

This leads to leaving workers at the complete mercy of market mechanisms. It is up to individual workers to maintain their skills and improve their social capital to, in turn, improve their employability. This also has multiple features:

“First, open employment relationships sever the psychological contract between employers and employees in which stability and security were exchanged for loyalty and hard work: the employee would exchange his or her loyalty and commitment in return for employers’ promises of job security, earnings and growth, and opportunities for advancement. The psychological contract was characterized by mutual trust and expectations about each other’s obligations and duties. Employers are now likely to terminate the employment relation if business conditions warrant cutbacks through practices such as downsizing, in an attempt to enhance effectiveness, short-term profitability, and other outcomes.

(…)

Second, the market-mediated or open employment relations are characterized by a breakdown of the post-World War II social contract between capital and labor.

(…)

The demise of the old psychological and social contracts is reinforced by a normative context that legitimizes a more individualistic relationship and a decline in collective power. There is also a general decline in job security for all workers due to shifting norms of the employment contract. Employers are now less likely to be able to promise their employees security since their organizations are themselves more insecure. Employers may also not be inclined to offer employees security in exchange for loyalty and hard work since norms regarding the nature of the employment relationship have changed, and there are more options for employers to hire workers on an as-needed basis, such as through temporary help agencies and contract companies. There thus has been a decrease in the norm of lifetime employment with an employer.

(…)

The third feature of the market-mediated or open employment relationship is a transfer of risks away from employers and toward workers.” (84-7)

And one of the consequences of this demise has been more fully analyzed in Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character, whose title clearly depicts the psychological impact of this shift. And this precariousness which used to be limited to the secondary labor market has now spread and become more generalized, to all sectors of the economy and to more occupations and professions.

So, what is to be done in this context of deterioration of working conditions and employment relations?

Kalleberg suggests that what is needed is a new social contract to restore some forms of social security. For instance, the concept of flexisecurity, implemented in a few European countries combines flexibility of the labor force with strong social safety net as workers can be expected to keep shifting from job to job, therefore needing assistance and training. At the same time, the public sector should be source of more secure jobs. There is a need for a global social movement in favor of economic fairness and greater social security. Precarious labor, as neoliberal success, has been built on the ruins of traditional labor organizations. New social movements must emerge with global, national and local activist strategies.

This book is especially relevant because the current recession with its onslaught of austerity measures clearly illustrate the risk shift: while banks and others in the corporate sectors receive government monies and other protections against risks they took, workers are bearing the brunt of this structural adjustment policies that make them shoulder the price of systemic shock. But the current situation is the culmination of a trend started forty years ago, slowly and progressively, and now brutally implemented in its final stages all over developed countries, where the few remnants of social safety nets are being dismantled by national governments.

This book makes it clear that this was a long time coming and here we are.

The Visual Du Jour – Urban Futures

Via the Guardian, this beautiful and ginormous graphic projecting urban populations and megacities (click on image for full view):

As the article notes:

“Chengdu made the headlines in Britain late last year when it exported two pandas to Scotland, and it is developing a reputation as the centre of Sichuan’s prized cuisine. But few in the west have paid much attention to the astonishing rise of Chengdu, despite a population (including its rural hinterland) of more than 14 million and its evident economic power and growing sense of self-confidence. Few have heard much either of cities like Ghaziabad, Surat or Faridabad in India, or of Toluca in Mexico, Palembang in Indonesia or Chittagong, the Bangladeshi port. Or of Beihai, another Chinese city on the northern coast. But this is likely to change. Each of these cities is among the fastest-growing settlements in the world. Their cumulative growth is set to usher in a new era of city living, changing the face of the planet. Beihai, which already has 1.3 million inhabitants, is set to double its population in seven years. The municipality of Chengdu will reach 20 million. Ghaziabad, now itself part of the urban sprawl of the Indian capital Delhi, is already home to nearly four million people.

Crucially, though experts estimate that the number of megacities of more than 10 million inhabitants will double over the next 10 to 20 years, it is these less well-known cities, particularly in south and east Asia, that will see the biggest growth. Predicting what the new era will bring is taxing economists, senior businessmen, security experts and strategists across the world.

Optimists see a new network of powerful, stable and prosperous city states, each bigger than many small countries, where the benefits of urban living, the relative ease of delivering basic services compared to rural zones and new civic identities combine to raise living standards for billions. Pessimists see the opposite: a dystopic future where huge numbers of people fight over scarce resources in sprawling, divided, anarchic “non-communities” ravaged by disease and violence.

Nowhere is this more evident than in India, where years of underinvestment, chaotic development and rapid population growth have combined with poor governance and outdated financial systems to threaten an urban disaster.”

Now go read Saskia Sassen’s The Global City and Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums. The future will be urban.

A Crisis AND A Trick

One of my Twitter followers pointed me to this documentary:

It is quite nice, for a change, to listen to social scientists that are neither psychologists nor economists discuss the current crisis. And I would argue that only sociologists are properly equipped to discuss social movements as the one that have been taking emerging all over the world.

It is indeed interesting to listen to Craig Calhoun, John B. Thompson or Michel Wievorka discuss the crisis and offer some sociological insights on the subject. I was surprised to not see Richard Sennett or Saskia Sassen. After all, they are the sociological power couple on this.

But the real star of this film is Manuel Castells, who perceived before anyone else the importance of the Indignados that sparked massive protests against austerity all over Europe as various institutions imposed the 2.0 version of structural adjustment programs, with the same results as the version 1.0 imposed on developing countries 30 years ago.

Castells is a thinker as important as Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman, with broader sociological insights than strictly economics. He is my sociologist of the semester, whose Information Age trilogy certainly is on a par with most important sociological works, such as Max Weber’s Economy and Society.

This is why I think could have gained from using more of, and singling out, Castells in order to have a tighter focus. The film delineates a lot of threads but leaves a lot of loose ends. There should have been more precise and detailed analysis of the movements themselves rather than what sparked them. The story of the causes has already been told. The analysis of social movements, using the tools of sociology, still needs to be propagated far and wide.

I really liked the film but would consider it a first draft that is promising but needs some improvements.

Bowling Alone v. Playing Words With Friends – Sociability 2.0

The reason why social conservatives have declared a “culture war” is because their faulty understanding of society is that it rests on an imaginary conception of the family as the moral and economic pillar of society, based on patriarchal values and structure, a model that existed for a brief period of time and was the exception, not the traditional family. In reality, family structures vary and change based on larger structural factors such as the economy, technology and cultural factors as well. But, having posited this faulty model as the one and only that works and is functional for society, any variation is perceived as a dysfunction and deviance from the norm, especially if such variations challenges patriarchal ideas and structures.

And yet, these structures change for a variety of reasons that d not mean decline of the Western civilization.

Case 1: divorce legislation is social progress, as sociologist François de Singly notes here. For him (and as research has shown), divorce does not mean disruption or decetering of the notion of coupling but it does mean a right to say no and a right to end bad relationships if they do not satisfy the partners (one should always remember that low-divorce countries are usually countries where women do not have access to divorce and if they do, are placed at a monumental socioeconomic disadvantage, along with the stigma attached, thanks to religious conservatives). Therefore, it is not surprising that financially autonomous women are more likely to avail themselves of the opportunity. Progress! Divorce today is largely based on two individuals making decisions about their respective lives. There are heavy economic and financial consequences, but the real problem is the persistence inequalities between men and women that tend to be exacerbated by marriage. The more a couple has children, the more a man invests in his career, the more the wife’s career slows down and stalls. This is marriage costs mostly borne by women and that is largely hidden as long as the couple stays married and becomes highly visible when they get divorced.

De Singly does not believe that people just practice consumerist marriage (getting into and dumping marriage like one dumps consumer goods). Studies show that women, especially, go to great lengths to maintain and not lose their relationships. Individuals do need some stability but there is no reason to think that can only come through coupling and marriage. We tend to forget that marrying for love is a very recent idea, and, as Stephanie Coontz has demonstrated over and over, this is a factor of destabilization for couples, not a lackadaisical attitude towards marriage.

And for anyone harping about divorce because “OMG, what about the children?”, reading this book should be mandatory.

Case 2: singlehood on the rise, and it is not the end of the world for long-term singles. Singles are on the rise (a 50% increase – includes widows though – since 1990, according to this article) and this trend reveals behavioral changes. Young adults are less eager to move in as couples and are more likely to go solo. In the middle years, this is where there is a large increase of living single, especially for men (especially divorced men who are less likely to have custody of their children).

And as always, social classes matter. White collar workers are more likely to go solo, followed by blue-collar workers. There are still quite a few farmers in France and they are less likely to live alone. They either are married or also live with their parents on the family farm. Up the social ladder, one finds more coupling. Nothing surprising there either: for small business owners, spouses often work together, for the upper classes, greater economic security of two higher incomes makes coupling a more attractive option.

One real consequence of this trend is the lack of affordable and adapted housing.

And since I mentioned Eric Klinenberg’s book, there was also this article in the New York Times on the subject:

“MORE people live alone now than at any other time in history. In prosperous American cities — Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Minneapolis — 40 percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and in Washington, nearly one in two households are occupied by a single person.

By international standards, these numbers are surprising — surprisingly low. In Paris, the city of lovers, more than half of all households contain single people, and in socialist Stockholm, the rate tops 60 percent.

The decision to live alone is common in diverse cultures whenever it is economically feasible. Although Americans pride themselves on their self-reliance and culture of individualism, Germany, France and Britain have a greater proportion of one-person households than the United States, as does Japan. Three of the nations with the fastest-growing populations of single people — China, India and Brazil — are also among those with the fastest growing economies.

The mere thought of living alone once sparked anxiety, dread and visions of loneliness. But those images are dated. Now the most privileged people on earth use their resources to separate from one another, to buy privacy and personal space.

Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization — all prized aspects of contemporary life.

It is less feared, too, for the crucial reason that living alone no longer suggests an isolated or less-social life. After interviewing more than 300 singletons (my term for people who live alone) during nearly a decade of research, I’ve concluded that living alone seems to encourage more, not less, social interaction.

Paradoxically, our species, so long defined by groups and by the nuclear family, has been able to embark on this experiment in solo living because global societies have become so interdependent. Dynamic markets, flourishing cities and open communications systems make modern autonomy more appealing; they give us the capacity to live alone but to engage with others when and how we want to and on our own terms.

In fact, living alone can make it easier to be social, because single people have more free time, absent family obligations, to engage in social activities.

Compared with their married counterparts, single people are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors, go to restaurants and attend art classes and lectures. There is much research suggesting that single people get out more — and not only the younger ones. Erin Cornwell, a sociologist at Cornell, analyzed results from the General Social Survey (which draws on a nationally representative sample of the United States population) from 2000 to 2008 and found that single people 35 and older were more likely than those who lived with a spouse or a romantic partner to spend a social evening with neighbors or friends. In 2008, her husband,Benjamin Cornwell (also a sociologist at Cornell), was lead author of “The Social Connectedness of Older Adults,” a paper in the American Sociological Review that showed that single seniors had the same number of friends and core discussion partners as their married peers and were more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors.”

In other words, single does not mean alone or lonely.

But this shows that culture may produce trends that social structure need to catch up to:

“Activists say that unmarried people are systematically discriminated against. They pay more for health and car insurance than married people do. They don’t get the same kind of tax breaks. Co-op boards, mortgage brokers, and landlords often pass them over. So do the employers with the power to promote them. “Single-ism—stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single—is largely unrecognized and unchallenged,” says activist Bella DePaulo, the author of Singled Out.”

In the context of risk society and global mobility, certain social structures (marriage, homeownership) may become less adapted to economic realities while others (singlehood and renting) might be more adapted. Because, as I mentioned above, patterns of sociability tend to be a function of the economy.

 

The Patriarchy Continuum – Elders

And in Kashmir, girls are just things to stick their penises in (if they can) along with domestic servitude:

“Sakina, 22, was a teenager when she was sold by her family for 1,200 rupees (£15) to a stranger over the age of 60. Her sister, who organised the deal, had duped Sakina by presenting a “young good-looking” chap before the marriage ceremony. She was shocked at seeing the elderly man on the wedding night. Rendered helpless by youth and poverty, there was no escape for the bride. “Nobody helped me,” she said.

Uprooted from her home in Kolkata, Sakina was sent to live far away in Pakharpora, a small village in the Budgam district of the Kashmir valley. The journey 1,200 miles from east to north meant getting used to an entirely different culture and climate.

Time has passed but Sakina cannot reconcile herself to a husband who fails to emotionally or sexually satisfy her. “For the last two years he has become totally impotent,” she said.

The young woman still dreams of marrying someone she loves. But the fear of being torn apart from her two children prevents her from leaving.

There are more stories like Sakina’s in Pakharpora and the surrounding villages nestled in the Himalayas. Muslim girls have been given away by their families to Kashmiri men for amounts ranging from 500 to 20,000 rupees. These girls, who are barely educated, belong to poor families from different parts of the country. “I have heard heartbreaking tales and this practice should be stopped,” said Lubna Khan, a female doctor who makes a weekly visit to the rural outback, which is seldom visited by outsiders.

“What is wrong with these old men?” asked Khan, the sole confidante to many of the sold brides in the area. Local activists say the selling of brides became prevalent in rural areas during the past decade. They attribute it to the rise in poverty due to the 20-year conflict between the Indian army and the militants, who want Kashmir to be independent.”

Of course, widows are used goods, so, who wants them anyway. They can just die alone and poor.

And in Afghanistan (where we, Westerners supposedly liberated women from the patriarchal Taliban):

“Shakila, 8 at the time, was drifting off to sleep when a group of men carrying AK-47s barged in through the door. She recalls them complaining, as they dragged her off into the darkness, about how their family had been dishonored and about how they had not been paid.

It turns out that Shakila, who was abducted along with her cousin as part of a traditional Afghan form of justice known as “baad,” was the payment.

Although baad (also known as baadi) is illegal under Afghan and, most religious scholars say, Islamic law, the taking of girls as payment for misdeeds committed by their elders still appears to be flourishing. Shakila, because one of her uncles had run away with the wife of a district strongman, was taken and held for about a year. It was the district leader, furious at the dishonor that had been done to him, who sent his men to abduct her.

Shakila’s case is unusual both because she managed to escape and because she and her family agreed to share their plight with an outsider. The girl’s father’s reaction to the abduction also illustrates the difficulty in trying to change such a deeply rooted cultural practice: He expressed fury that she was abducted because, he said, he had already promised her in marriage to someone else.

(…)

The strength of the traditional justice system and the continuing use of baad is a sign both of Afghans’ lack of faith in the government’s justice system, which they say is corrupt, and their extreme sense of insecurity. Baad is most common in areas where it is dangerous for people to seek out government institutions. Instead of turning to the courts, they go to jirgas, assemblies of tribal elders, that use tribal law, which allows the exchange of women.

”There are two reasons people refuse the courts — first, the corrupt administration which openly demands money for every single case, and second, instability,” said Haji Mohammed Nader Khan, an elder from Helmand who often participates in judging cases that involve baad. “Also, in places where there are Taliban, they won’t allow people to go to courts and solve their problems.””

Such a progressive father.

“During her de facto imprisonment, Shakila and her cousin were allowed out of their dark room after three months and then only so that they could haul firewood from the mountains and lug pails of water from the river. For the entire year or so that they were kept, neither girl was given a fresh set of clothes. For the first six months they were not even allowed to wash the ones they arrived in, making them into dirty-looking urchins who were that much easier for the family to hate. They were fed bread and water every other day.

”They tortured us in a way that no human being would treat another,” Shakila said.

She spoke softly and hid her face when a reporter asked her about the white scars on her forehead. “When they threw me against the stone wall,” she said.”

Sociologist Anthony Giddens  reminds us of one central fact: “all traditions are invented traditions. No traditional societies were wholly traditional, and traditions and customs have been invented for a diversity of reasons. (…) Moreover, traditions always incorporate power, whether they are constructed in a deliberate way or not. Kings, emperors and priests and others have long invented traditions to suit themselves and legitimize their rule.” In other words, when people invoke traditions, they imply certain things that are significant from a sociological point of view:

  • they refer to ideas and practices that apply to groups and collectivities. Traditions are always collective concepts;
  • they mean to strengthen power arrangements they feel are threatened by modernity;
  • they invoke tradition to defend practices that are questionable but that they do not want questioned.

This is why invoking traditions is at the heart of conservative thinking even though they refer to “ways we never were”, to paraphrase the title of Stephanie Coontz’s brilliant book on this subject in relation to family structures. In this context, it is not surprising that traditions are always marshaled in defense of patriarchal rule and social structures.

As Giddens indicates, traditions have guardians who are supposed to be the only ones able to interpret the truths perpetuated by traditions. Such guardians can be clerics interpreting sacred texts for their followers or self-appointed “experts” on the family in the United States, for instance. Consistently, such guardians of tradition oppose the ultimate modern and cosmopolitan value of autonomy and individual freedom. Religious fundamentalism, which we examine below, is “beleaguered tradition” as Giddens puts it.

In other words, what the elders above are doing is no different than what the elders below are doing, and they all use the same “traditions” to sustain their power:

Elders: defending and promoting the patriarchy everywhere. It’s a hard job but someone has to do it.

Sociology Wins!

HA! This should warm our collective little sociologists’ hearts when some hotshot economist acknowledges that sociology it right (as opposed to, y’know…):

One more thought: The real winner in this controversy is the distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson.

Back in 1996, the same year Ms. Himmelfarb was lamenting our moral collapse, Mr. Wilson published “When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor,” in which he argued that much of the social disruption among African-Americans popularly attributed to collapsing values was actually caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas. If he was right, you would expect something similar to happen if another social group — say, working-class whites — experienced a comparable loss of economic opportunity. And so it has.

So we should reject the attempt to divert the national conversation away from soaring inequality toward the alleged moral failings of those Americans being left behind. Traditional values aren’t as crucial as social conservatives would have you believe — and, in any case, the social changes taking place in America’s working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause.”

Of course, the sad thing is that none of this will matter because the modern day protestant ethic is by now well-entrenched and a comfortable ideological narrative that justifies using hectoring the poor in guise of social policy and only moralizing and punitive policies are allowed to make it to public discourse (cut off their unemployment checks, that’ll force them to get jobs!… global austerity for the masses!)

The Visual Du Jour – The Davos Class

Via Resources Research, this great visual from the Transnational Institute, a perfect illustration of corporate power:

The Davos Class is an expression coined by Susan George:

“‘All for ourselves and nothing for other people” seems in every age of the world to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind,’i wrote Adam Smith in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, universally considered the first comprehensive inquiry into the nature and practice of capitalism.

The masters of mankind are still with us: I call them the Davos class because, like the people who meet each January in the Swiss mountain resort, they are nomadic, powerful and interchangeable. Some have economic power and usually a considerable personal fortune. Others have administrative and political power, mostly exercised on behalf of those with economic power, who reward them in their own way. Contradictions among its members can most certainly exist – the CEO of an industrial company does not always have exactly the same interests as his bankers – but generally speaking, when it comes to societal choices, they will agree.

I’m not impugning anybody’s individual morality here – there are surely plenty of kind-hearted bankers, generous traders and socially responsible CEOs. I am simply saying that, as a class, they can be counted on to behave in certain ways if only because they serve a single system. The Davos class, despite its members’ nice manners and well-tailored clothes, is predatory. These people cannot be expected to act logically because they are not thinking about longer-term interests, usually not even their own, but about eating, right now.

You can find the Davos class in every country – its members do not belong to a conspiracy and its modus operandi can be readily observed and identified. Why bother with conspiracies when the study of power and interests will do the job? The Davos class is always extremely small relative to the society and its members naturally have money – sometimes inherited, sometimes self-made. More importantly, they have their own social institutions – clubs, top schools for their kids, neighbourhoods, corporate and charity boards, holiday destinations, membership organizations, exclusive fashionable social events, and so on – all of which help to buttress social cohesion and collective power. They run our major institutions, including the media, know exactly what they want and are much more united and better organized than we are.

But this dominant class has weaknesses too; one is that it has an ideology but virtually no ideas and no imagination. Their programme since the 1970s, usually called ‘neoliberalism’, is based on freedom for financial innovation, no matter where it may lead, on privatization, deregulation, and unlimited growth; on the supposedly free, self-regulating market and free trade that gave birth to the casino economy. This economy has failed spectacularly and is now thoroughly discredited, at least in the public mind.”

It is very reminiscent of Leslie’s Sklair’s transnational capitalist class.

And this stunning one as well:

And last, but not least:

Just one more for the road:

Re-Embedding The Greek Crisis

I am always suspicious of broad generalizations about entire populations or generations. So, I am not entirely sure what to make of this argument by sociologist Sophia Mappa. Something to think about. It is in French, so here is the gist of it in English.

The starting point of her argument is that Angela Merkel’s inflexibility is incomprehensible to ordinary Greeks. The reason is that such inflexibility is rooted in the protestant culture of the 16th century, something well-known thanks to Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This moral culture is one of individual obedience to divine law, disregarded due to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a culture of glorification of labor as a means of salvation which led to human dominion over nature (and other humans) in order to generate wealth and where frugality and puritanism are the norms of individual moral conduct. According to Weber, this is what led to the rise of capitalism. For Mappa, this is what explains its persistence in Germany, even as this system is being questioned all over Europe, as part of both the economic crisis and the legitimation crisis. From this perspective, the laborious and strong Germans’s views of the weakening of their European neighbors stems from these protestant roots.

Mappa argues that German culture is both close and very different from European Latin cultures. It has produced grandiosity and misery at the same time, including a certain intolerance to other cultures and a desire to dominate them and force them to accept the German model. Merkel’s policies reflect such an attitude. Her position seems to push for the punishment of the heretic rather getting out of the crisis.

At the same time, Greek history has different roots, linked to the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. After all, according to Mappa, Greece did not directly contribute to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Westphalian order or capitalism (except as historical remembrance but not as active power player, if I may use that expression). The Greek state, set up in the 19th Century, was not a product of its people’s will. As with all colonized countries, the state apparatus, the constitutions, the kings, the polity and their financing, were provided, right off the bat, by the European chanceries.

The spirit of these institutions never took hold in Greek society. There was no adaptation or emergence of alternatives in order to get closer to Europe. The Greek society then invested these foreign institutions with its own culture, and especially with the centrality of the Church. And so, if it accepted Europe-approved kings, it opposed the emergence of central governance mechanisms, typical of the modern nation-state.

For Mappa, Greek political power is rooted, even to this say, in the imaginary of the Ottoman Empire, that of the beys and other clan chiefs, reigning over their clients and kinship networks, trading material welfare for political allegiance. The now-famous refusal to pay taxes, so widespread in this society, stems this imperial past where taxation was domination, and not construction of a central authority, for the common welfare (at least in theory) beyond particularisms. For the past two centuries, this state has been regulated from the outside: the European chanceries, the US after WWII, and since 1981, the European Commission.

For the past two centuries, then, those in charge of the state have submitted to the diktats from the outside, while adapting them to their own benefit and those of their clients and cronies. That is what the lat Prime Minister – Georges Papandréou – did, and that is what his successor, Loukas Papadimos, will do despite his much vaunted technocratic credentials.

Economically speaking, according to Mappa, there was never any collective acceptance of the spirit of capitalism. Economic activity remained tied to Greek history and traditional trade: agriculture, commerce, fishery, banking and tourism, but not industry. It is not that the Greeks are lazy, as Merkel and other might think. But, despite the common – yet false – idea that capitalism is part of human nature and therefore universal, the Greeks, as many others on this planet, do not get its spirit and mechanisms. And Greece’s entrance into the European Union has not changed that.

And quite predictably, European financial flows, allocated by the European Economic Community were used not for production, for clientelism and and consumption of European-made goods, including weaponry from France and Germany. And under neoliberal governance, the liberalization of the markets and competition from Western goods, the traditional gap between production and consumption led to the current disaster. For Mappa, without a doubt, there is a great deal of responsibility from the Greek society and especially its elite.

BUT… (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you)

European leaders are also to blame for their simplistic economic dogma and the illusion of their omnipotence in governing other countries. They are currently ruining their own societies and preventing EU peripheral countries from recovering from the crisis.

At this point, an EU commissioner would bring nothing to Greece. Quite the opposite. This would only be seen as yet another humiliation that would aggravate the despair and rebellion that are already quite widespread.

So, certain ideas need to be questioned: austerity measures, Merkel’s illusion that one can just shape societies at the snap of a finger, with some stern disciplining from the hegemon. It is not just the destruction of Greece that is at stake, but that of the entire European Union.

And if that was not convincing enough, there is this:

“Homelessness has soared by an estimated 25% since 2009 as Greece spirals further into its worst post-war economic crisis.

The country is now in its fifth straight year of recession and the official unemployment rate is nudging 20%, exacerbated by the austerity measures being pushed through in return for more bail-out money.

Greeks now speak of another section of society: the “new homeless”.

“They don’t have the ‘traditional profile’ of homeless people,” says Ms Nousi.

“They are well dressed and well educated. Until last year they had a good flat or a nice car – and now they have nothing.

“So it’s another kind of misery – another kind of poverty. We were not prepared for this poverty, but it exists.”

One of the new regulars at the kitchen is Vicky Kolozi.

A former journalist with the state broadcaster ERT, she lost her job a year ago and now cannot afford to feed herself and her daughter.

“It is hard to feel that I have to depend on this now,” she tells me.

And that reality is particularly harsh at the moment as Greece shivers in freezing temperatures.”

And beyond Greece, Italy:

“With around one in three young Italians now unemployed, many of its younger generation are contemplating emigrating to destinations as far afield as Africa and South America, in the hope of better employment prospects.”

We Need More Sociologists

I got this thanks to Bob Ertishek, founder of the shiny new Profology network, and it’s actually more of a defense of liberal arts education than sociology per se:

“As the new year begins and humanities and social science undergraduates across Canada return to campus, they will face the usual robust combination of academic pressure, parental anxiety over their future employability, nervousness over mounting debts and the inevitable recitation of that tired and toxic mantra: “How many sociologists do we need, anyway?”

(…)

They will have been steeled to face the scrutiny of their professors and the apprehension of their parents. However, the incomprehension and parochialism of the commentators, policy wonks and self-labelled enlightened pragmatists who call into question the validity of their studies is both dispiriting and frustrating.

Unpersuaded by the compelling philosophical and social arguments that undergird the continuing relevance of a liberal arts education, and determined to place utility and rationalization of services as the premier determinants of higher education, the critics can easily assail the productivity value of a traditional liberal arts education. They simply point to economic data that shore up theirs as the only common-sense position in a time of global upheaval.

In other words, reading Schopenhauer, exploring the relationship between Freud and Jung, studying patterns of exile in the new breed of Canadian novelist or probing the sublime beauty of a late Beethoven piano quartet are nice, but indulgent – a waste of taxpayers’ money and a dereliction of responsibility at a time when the economic engine requires nothing higher than entrepreneurial spirit.

But here’s an idea: a social sciences and humanities education as a corrective to political tyranny.

(…)

So, when next a young sociology undergraduate is critiqued in the manner of Peter Shaffer’s Austrian emperor in Amadeus, who observes to a puzzled Mozart that his just-debuted work has “too many notes,” the student might respond that there are as many sociologists as it takes to keep us free.”

If only… We are nowhere near as radical as people think. But at a time where education is too often reduced to job training (increase your employability / human capital / lifetime earning!!), I certainly appreciate the sentiment (of course, it’s in a Canadian newspaper).

World-System 2.0 – In Time

Sorry about the lack of recent posts, guys. Between the beginning of the term and the massive amount of academic writing I have foolishly and irresponsibly agreed to do, I will be swamped until February 15th.

That being said, while taking a break from The Writing, I watched this film, scifi fan that I am:

The movie was directed by Andrew Niccol who also directed Gattaca (which I really loved) and Lord of War (ditto). Now, the main plot is rather stupid and the main characters were poorly cast, in my view, but, as usual, I got more interested in the social background underlying the story.

For those of you who have not seen it, the story takes place in a dystopian future (aren’t they all?) where the dominant currency is time. People are genetically programmed to grow up until they reach 25, then, a clock embedded their arms starts and they have one year to live unless they can get extra years through labor, gambling, prostitution, or financial dealings. Everything is bought and paid for in time (minutes, hours, days, etc.). The whole language reflects the prevalence of time. When your clock gets down to zero, you just (literally) drop dead.

This society is highly stratified in a very Wallersteinian way. Financial investors are at the top of the social ladder and they live in wealthy (gated and highly secured) time zones that resemble Wallerstein’s core areas. There are middle time zones (the semi-periphery) and the ghettos (the periphery) where people are fully precarized in terms of time. They work for a few extra days, take out loans that deplete their clocks. The whole time system (financial system) is controlled by very large corporation, controlled by time-financiers who continuously extract time-value from the less wealthy time-zones (through labor, loans and control of the costs of living… when they need a time boost, the wealthy – in New Greenwich, a major core time zone – bump up the cost of living in the ghetto which extracts more time from the poor, that is transferred to the wealthy.

This translates in different behavior. In the ghetto, people are constantly checking their clock and rushing and running everywhere. That is how the main character gets spotted as “different” when he crosses into wealthier time zones. In the wealthy time zones, people move slowly. They have time.

There is more than enough time for everybody but the wealthy want to live forever, so, in that zero-time game, someone has to die for that to happen. And so, while the poor live highly precarized lives, doing anything to live a few more days, including engaging in fights through organized criminal groups where the goal of the fight is to deplete the other guy’s clock, the wealthy live lives surrounded by luxury but also lots of bodyguards in order to avoid the only deaths they can expect, through crime or their own stupidity (accidents).

In this society, law enforcement takes the form of poorly paid (based on a limited per diem allotment of time) time-keepers who keep track of time and maintain the stratification system. They are what Guy Standing would call the salariat, ideologically aligned with the global time elite, and making sure the precariat in the ghetto does not steal someone’s time even though they are economically closer to the precariat.

As I mentioned, the rest of the film is pretty much either garbage (the rich have it hard too!) or teenage nonsense (the bad boy from the ghetto and the poor little rich girl fall for each other and turn into Bonnie and Clyde 2.0). Apart from that, I think it is definitely meant as a metaphor for our times.