Where Are The Sociologists?

That is the question asked by Aditya Chakrabortty in this Guardian piece:

“At the start of the banking crisis, the air was thick with the sound of lachrymose economists. How did they miss the biggest crash since 1929? Professors at the LSE were asked that very question by the Queen – and were too tongue-tied to reply. A better answer came from Alan Greenspan, until recently the most powerful economist on the planet, who went to Capitol Hill and confessed to a “flaw” in his model of the world. Clearly, the economic crisis was also a crisis of economics.

With the all-powerful dismal-ists temporarily discredited, an opportunity opened up for the sociologists, the political scientists and the rest to charge in, have their say – and change the way public policy is shaped.”

I would argue that political scientists already have enjoyed media access to express their views and that the ideological consensus is that economics is outside of the realm of democratic governance. There is one way to do it right – the Washington Consensus – and it should therefore left to experts (especially those who can do maths and understand complex models). If you need further explanations for behavior, you can always rely on psychologists for some mixed form of rational action theory and individualistic trends.

Then, Chakrabortty gets snarky with sociology:

“Perhaps you have more faith in the sociologists. Take a peek at the website for the British Sociological Association. Scroll through the press-released research, and you will not come across anything that deals with the banking crash. Instead in April 2010, amid the biggest sociological event in decades, the BSA put out a notice titled: “Older bodybuilders can change young people’s view of the over-60s, research says.”

Or why not do the experiment I tried this weekend: go to three of the main academic journals in sociology, where the most noteworthy research is collected, and search the abstracts for the terms “finance” or “economy” or “markets” since the start of the last decade.

Comb through the results for articles dealing with the financial crisis in even the most tangential sense. I found nine in the American Sociological Review, three in Sociology (“the UK’s premier sociology journal”), and one in the British Journal of Sociology. Look at those numbers, and remember that the BSA has 2,500 members – yet this is the best they could do.

Sociologists are reliably good at analysing the fallout from crises: the recessions, the cuts, the dispossessed, the repossessed. I’d expect them to be in for a busy few years. But on the upstream stuff, the causes of this crisis, they are practically silent. Indeed, leave aside three remarkable books from Karen HoDavid Graeber and Alexandra Ouroussoff, all of whom are anthropologists (and all discussed here previously), and the bigger picture is still in the hands of those formerly shamefaced, but now rather assertive, economists. One promising initiative has just begun on the Open Democracy website called Uneconomics, where non-economists do chip in on the upstream causes of the crisis. But that’s it: a cheap and cheerful internet forum. The Second International it ain’t.”

Now wait a minute. This is shifting the goalposts. you can’t deplore on the one hand the lack of purely academic research on a topic because you expected it, and then, on the other hand, snark that you found no revolutionary writing. Those are two different things.

Also, sociology is obviously not economics or political science. The topics under study are much more far-reaching and diverse. Individuals may be working for specific institutions on specific topics and receive funding based on their conducting research in these sub-fields (such as medical sociology, for instance). It is not up to them to drop everything and get to some “sociology of the crisis”. Institutional realities are simply not like that and do not necessarily permit that kind of flexibility.

And not every sociologist is an economic sociologist.

Then, there is the publication calendar. What gets published now is what was researched years ago and went through the peer-review process, which can take quite a bit of time. I remember, years ago, fresh from my dissertation, discussing with active researchers the fact that one may very well have moved on to a very different research topic when an article gets finally published. That time lag is also outside of the control of the researchers.

It is also quite unfair to completely ignore the extensive, really extensive work done by sociologists on rising inequalities over the past thirty years, something that played a significant part on the impact of the economic collapse on individuals, households and communities. For decades, sociologists have tried to raise awareness and sound the alarm on rising inequalities, but largely in vain. Their warnings were ignored as coming from the usual lefty crowds from protected sinecures in academia, frustrated Marxists trying to generate class warfare. In the dominant ideological discourse, sociologists were easy to dismiss, ignore and marginalize as not really scientific (since they don’t really do hard maths). As such, as a dominated discipline in the field of social sciences, their influence was quite small and their access to the media close to non-existent except for a few individuals, mostly on family issues.

And that is also ignoring how other disciplines such as management may use sociological research on economic and organizations in their own publications.

If Chakrabortty had looked for papers and books on inequalities, poverty, marginalization, etc. (all socio-economic phenomena), he would have found a treasure trove of work to use. Add labor sociology and the body of work would have been quite extensive.

Then, Chakrabortty waxes nostalgic:

“It wasn’t always like this. One way of characterising what has happened in America and Britain over the past three decades is that people at the top have skimmed off increasing amounts of the money made by their corporations and societies. That’s a phenomenon well covered by earlier generations of sociologists, whether it’s Marx with his study of primitive accumulation, or the American C Wright Mills and his classic The Power Elite, or France’s Pierre Bourdieu.

But those sociologists were public academics, unafraid to stray outside their disciplines. Compare that with the picture of today’s teacher in a modern degree-factory, forever churning out publications for their discipline’s top-rated journals. Not much scope there to try out a speculative research project that might not fly, or to collaborate with specialists in other subjects.

Nor is there much encouragement to engage with public life. Because that’s what’s really missing from the other social sciences. When an entire discipline does what the sociologists did at their conference last week and devotes as much time to discussing the holistic massage industry (“using a Foucauldian lens”) as to analysing financiers, they’re never going to challenge the dominance of mainstream economics. And it’s hard to believe they really want to.”

Haha, very funny. Nice jab at sociology of the body. Yes, sir, sociology covers pretty much every topic that you can think of, because that is what the discipline is about. How come he is not snarking on religion? Now, maybe one would consider one sub-field more important than the other, but again, as Chakrabortty himself notes, researchers can’t just drop everything and work on topics he has deemed essential. They are indeed required to continue meeting their research and publication requirements. Blame the institution, not the individuals who have to meet these institutional obligations.

Also blame the institutional demands for more and more specialization so that it is harder to get a Mills or Bourdieu. Their public sociology was made possible by an institutional model that was radically different than what we have today, as well as, in the case of Bourdieu, cohorts of doctoral students and research assistants working on different topics that provided him with new data.

Blame institutional closure when interdisciplinary work is not rewarded within academia, especially at times of dwindling resources (and that trend started even before the recession). If you want to find public sociologists, look to the blogosphere but even there, people tend to blog about their speciality, of course.

And finally, blame an ideological climate and reactionary social movements where sociologists are viewed with suspicion and where the slightest foray into the public sphere is met with accusations of brainwashing students, of bias that invalidate academic perspective and where these groups have successfully manage to limit academic speech. If your job is threatened every time you take a public position based on your expertise, then, very quickly, one will be tempted to retreat to the academic sphere and limit one’s intervention to professional journals and conferences.

The condescending attitude that Chakrabortty adopts here is certainly part of the problem. Pointing and snarking does not really help solve it.

Labor Process and Labor Costs

I know I am totally behind on this but this is a very interesting video on how iPads are made at the infamous Foxconn factory:

Of course, the fact that workers are lining up to take these jobs is often used as an argument that the low wages and lousy working conditions (which have improved after much negative publicity) are not an issue, because otherwise, people would simply not apply to work there. Or that as bad as these jobs may be, they are better than what is available in rural China. But these are all after-the-facts rationalizations to make ourselves feel better about the exploitation of oversees workers and they are often followed by the accusatory question regarding whether one would want to pay much, much more for electronic gizmos.

Well, that last one is a moot point as the cost of labor are lower and lower in these kinds of products. Check this out, from my comrade-in-arms over at Real Sociology:

In other words, this is what was extracted by Apple from its workers. It would be perfectly possible to significantly increase workers’ wages because of this:

Book Review – Darkmarket

The darker side of the global economy is Misha Glenny‘s domain of predilection (see his previous book, McMafia on that). In Darkmarket, Cyberthieves, Cybercops, and You, he tackles the hacking world through an investigation into several Internet forums dedicated by carders for carders (carders are these people who steal your credit card numbers and PINs and use them to make money, a thriving business in the global economic / easy credit age).

While McMafia was about old-fashioned organized criminal networks as they adapted to the borderless, global environment created by the end of communism and the triumph of neoliberalism, Darkmarket is about the new breed of organized criminality, using the tools of 21st century technology.

The structure of the book is roughly similar to that of McMafia. Glenny follows a bunch of individuals, which gives us an insider look at their criminal world. The positive side of this is that it creates a fascinating narrative. The downside is that, at some point, it gets harder to see the forest from the multiplicity of trees. It is hard to get a grip of the larger context, extent of the problem and other objective, macro data on this (if they exist). So, in Darkmarket, we follow the rise and fall of the major carder forums (Carder Planet, Shadowcrew, Carder Market and Darkmarket) as well as that of their major players (minus one, still at large at the end of the book). So, anyhoo, here is what I could tease out on the macro side.

Among the individuals we follow throughout the book are also the cops who try to stop carders around the world, from the US, all over Europe and in Turkey. It is half-amusing, half-depressing to find the old-fashioned bureaucratic patterns being reproduced in law enforcement (with the US Secret Services conducting its own carding-busting operation without telling the FBI, doing the same, of course, and both agencies competing for resources and who will catch carders first).

Hacking as crime poses specific problems for law enforcement:

“We now find ourselves in a situation where this minuscule elite (call them geeks, technos, hackers, coders, securocrats, or what you will) has a profound understanding of a technology that every day directs our lives more intensively and extensively, while most of the rest of us understand absolutely zip about it.” (Loc. 81)

As the book shows, law enforcement agencies are still playing catch-up with technology and knowledge and hackers are always ahead of the game.

And then, of course, the global nature of Internet criminality:

“Most importantly, it is much much harder to identify when people are up to no good on the Web. Laws governing the Internet vary greatly from country to country. This matters because in general a criminal act over the Web will be perpetrated from an IP (Internet Protocol) address in one country against an individual or corporation in a second country, before being realised (or cashed out) in a third. A police officer in Colombia, for example, may be able to identify that the IP address coordinating an assault on a Colombian bank emanates from Kazakhstan. But then he discovers that this is not considered a crime in Kazakhstan, and so his opposite number in the Kazakh capital will have no reason to investigate the crime.” (Loc. 107)

And all this takes place in the context of the ever-expanding surveillance society where both governments and corporations compete over who is going to grab most of our information for their own purposes. Take encryption, for instance:

“The political implications of digital encryption are so immense that the government of the United States started to classify encryption software in the 1990s as ‘munitions’, while in Russia should the police or KGB ever find a single encrypted file on your computer, you could be liable for several years in jail, even if the document only contains your weekly shopping list. As governments and corporations amass ever more personal information about their citizens or clients, encryption is one of the few defences left to individuals to secure their privacy. It is also an invaluable instrument for those involved in criminal activity on the Web.” (Loc. 153)

Pursuing cybercriminality is a tricky game. One can always try to infiltrate forums where carders meet and exchange tricks of the trade and do business with each other. Figuring out with whom one is interacting is incredibly difficult as hackers and carders are justifiably paranoid to an extreme degree. From Glenny’s writing, one would thing that all these guys (and they are all guys) are all 15 year olds that never left high school. Forums are ridden with cliques, ingroup / outgroup conflicts where accusation of being from law enforcement are thrown around, individuals get taken down and thrown out of the forums on the basis of rumors started by business rivals. Trust is the main currency and it is hard to come buy, so, these forums are strictly monitored by administrators (criminals themselves) who manage the whole environment very closely.

And, of course, fighting cybercriminality means having to deal with the banks who issue thee credit cards:

“The attitude of most banks to cybercrime is ambiguous. While writing this book, a gentleman from my bank, NatWest, called me and asked if I had made any recent purchase at a jewellers in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Furthermore, he enquired whether I had spent 4,000 francs settling a bill with Swiss Telecom. I said that I had not. I was then told that my NatWest Visa card had been compromised, that I would need a new one, but that I could be safe in the knowledge that NatWest had cancelled the £3,000 for which the card had been fraudulently used. Like everyone else who goes through that experience, I was hugely relieved when the bank gently reassured me that I was not liable.

But who is actually paying for that? The bank? No, they are insured against such losses. The insurance company? No, because they set the premiums at a level that ensures they don’t lose out. So maybe it is the bank after all, given that they’re paying the premiums? Yes. But they recoup the money by levelling extra charges on all consumers. Essentially, bank fraud is paid for by all bank customers.

This is something that banks understandably do not wish to have widely advertised. Similarly, they do not like the public to learn how often their systems have been compromised by cyber criminals. Journalists find it impossible to get any information out of banks about the cyber attacks that rain down on them daily. That is understandable. What is less excusable is their frequent reluctance to work with police, in case the information be revealed in open court. By refusing to admit that their customers are victims of cybercrime, for fear of losing an edge against their competitors, banks are indirectly assisting the work of criminals.

(…)

Banks like to keep the extent of fraud quiet partly for competitive reasons and partly because they do not want their customers to demand a return to the old ways. Electronic banking saves them huge sums of money because the customer is carrying out tasks that were once the preserve of branches and their staff. If we were all to refuse to manage our finances via the Internet, banks would be compelled to reinvent the extensive network of branches through which they used to serve us. That would cost an awful lot of money and, as we now know, the banks have spent everything they have, along with hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ cash, underwriting egregious speculative ventures and their obscenely inflated bonus payments.” (Loc. 581 – 600)

And in the Age of Plastic, there are billions of cards around, and huge sums of money available for the criminal creative class and a lot of members of carder forums are from former communist countries where they are more or less left alone by law enforcement as long as they don’t mess with Russia.

So Carder Planet was the first of its kind and it lasted four years but it eventually fell, and in its place emerged a whole bunch of new forums dedicated to the same activities with a global reach:

“Websites modelled on CarderPlanet sprang up everywhere: theftservices.com, darknet.com, thegrifters.net and scandinaviancarding.com. There were many more, including one bound by the delightful acronym parodying American academic communities, IAACA (International Association for the Advancement of Criminal Activity).

But none succeeded like Shadowcrew during its two years of existence. And RedBrigade was one of the many carders on Shadowcrew who hit the jackpot. Law enforcement was just beginning to become aware of the extent of the business. Banks were effectively clueless, ordinary folk oblivious.

Hackers were streets ahead, and Mammon ruled everywhere – the hedge-fund managers, the oligarchs, the oil sheikhs, the Latin American mobile-phone moguls, the newly empowered black economic elite in South Africa, the old white economic elite in South Africa, Chinese manufacturers of global knick-knacks, techno gurus from Bangalore to Silicon Valley.

Hundreds of carders made vast fortunes during Shadowcrew, many of them sufficiently naive to piss it all away on the trappings of arriviste wealth. In those days there were no checks on your computer’s IP address when you made purchases over the Web. There was no Address Verification System on the credit card: you could ship goods anywhere in the world (except Russia and other former Soviet countries), regardless of where the card was issued, and nobody would cross-check it at any stage.

This novel crime took root well beyond its Ukrainian- and Russian-language nursery. It began to globalise spontaneously. RedBrigade recalled how established Asian criminals would now communicate with college kids from Massachusetts who were talking to East Europeans, whose computers overflowed with credit-card ‘dumps’. Behind some of the nicknames on Shadowcrew were criminal agglomerates like All Seeing Phantom, revered among his peers.” (Loc. 1466)

It is amazing that anyone can make any sense of this, let alone infiltrate it and identify the main participants and administrators in these operations.

But carding is only one form of Internet threat. Glenny identifies three:

  1. cybercrime: including carding, the theft and cloning of credit-card data for financial gain;
  2. cyber industrial espionage;
  3. cyberwarfare: the design and manufacture of both defensive and offensive cyber weapons.

And to that last, government have responded with a militarization of cyberspace:

“Computing networks had become so critical a part, both of the Defense Department’s infrastructure and of its offensive and defensive operational capability, that Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, made the momentous decision to create a new military domain – cyberspace. This fifth military domain – a sibling to land, sea, air and space – is the first-ever man-made sphere of military operations, and the rules surrounding combat in it are almost entirely opaque. Along with the domain, the Pentagon has set up USCYBERCOMMAND to monitor hostile activity in cyberspace and, if necessary, plan to deploy offensive weapons like Stuxnet. For the moment, the US is the acknowledged leader in the cyber offensive capability.” (Loc. 2774)

One can only imagine the level of surveillance and violation of any kind of legality happening.

The presence of Turkey as a hub for cybercriminality itself is an interesting example of global development:

“After the millennium Turkey had become an increasingly attractive venue for hackers, crackers and cyber criminals. In the late 1990s much cyber criminal activity had clustered in certain regions of the so-called BRIC countries. An economist from Goldman Sachs had conferred this acronym on Brazil, Russia, India and China as the leading countries of the emerging markets, the second tier of global power after the G8 (though, politically, Russia straddles the two).

The BRICs shared important social and economic characteristics. Their economies were moving and opening after several decades of stagnation. They had large populations whose combined efforts registered huge growth rates, while a resurgence in exuberant and sometimes aggressive nationalism accompanied the transition to the status of dynamic global actor. Their education systems offered excellent basic skills. But, combined with extreme inequalities of wealth, this spawned a new class of young men, poor and unemployed, but – in contrast to earlier generations – with great material aspirations as they absorbed the consumer messages that are an intrinsic part of globalisation. To meet these aspirations, a minority started beavering away in Internet cafés, safe from detection by law enforcement or indeed anyone else, where they found myriad online opportunities to educate themselves in the art of hacking.

Turkey qualified as an honorary BRIC, with an economy that, when compared to Russia’s, for example, looked much more dynamic. The country’s population, at around eighty million, and its growth rates were increasing even faster than those of the acknowledged BRICs. Everyone recognised its strategic importance, nestling against the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea while bordering Bulgaria, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia: there is barely a neighbour that hasn’t experienced a major upheaval or war in the past two decades. The unpredictable has been ever present in Turkish politics but, as the millennium turned, Turkey’s burgeoning economic power and sophistication emphasised its pivotal role in several vital geo-strategic regions – the Middle East, Central Asia, the Black Sea and the Balkans.” (Loc. 2949)

Turkey is where the heart of Darkmarket was and the whole unravelling of the organization makes for a great read, involving kidnapping, beatings, double agents, women, just like any good thriller and the new character of the virtual criminal. But even though traditional criminal organizations tend to look at hackers as amateurs and second class citizens of the underworld, Darkmarket showed that such a conception was no longer sustainable. DM was a complex organization with different circles and divisions of labor:

  • The first were the administrators, moderators and others holding senior ‘bureaucratic’ positions on the site. These tended to be men with advanced hacking skills and certainly fluent computer skills who were not really making money (except for the big honcho).
  • The second circle mostly comprised skilful experienced criminals who worked largely on their own.
  • The third circle was home to highly professional criminals who were virtually invisible – unknown except by myth and reputation to the police and their fellow carders. Those were the ones making the real money.

But the whole operation was so mysterious, even DM has been shut down, no one knows for sure whether all the main actors have been identified and arrested, whether the site has been reconstituted further underground. There is absolutely no certainty in that domain.

So, mix all that with individual cases of hackers and you have a pretty compelling read, divided in 40 really short chapters. That was all well and good until we get to the little steaming pile that Glenny drops towards the end of the book. Throughout the book, you can tell that Glenny has a certain admiration for the hackers he writes about. He finds them intelligent and resourceful. So, his big idea is that throwing them in prison is a waste because they are so smart and they could be used for some other purpose and they are such nice guys after all. The real BS comes when Glenny invokes some evo psych garbage on the male brain versus female brain to explain why hackers are almost exclusively men.

There is no doubt that this is a macho / manly / dudely universe, but it is not because women don’t have the brain for it. It is more because of this:

“By now, it should surprise no one to hear that software development is a bit of a boys’ club. We’ve all read editorials bemoaning the lack of women in tech.

The easy explanation is that programming appeals more to a male mind-set. But while it’s easy, it’s also cheap. Things aren’t nearly so simple.

(…)

Some say the problem is our education system. Schools and colleges should be doing more to encourage girls and young women to explore computing. Right now that’s not happening. Overall enrollment in university computer science programs is up 10 percent from last year, but enrollment among women is down.

Others say companies should provide the encouragement. Some companies already are; Etsy, for example, is offering $50,000 in grants to send women to its Hacker School training program in New York City this summer.

That’s admirable, but it falls short of addressing the real problem, which is that software development isn’t just failing to attract women. It’s actively pushing them away. Worse, they’re not the only ones.

(…)

There are women who have a genuine passion for programming to rival any man. But even if they manage to get hired over their male counterparts, they often find themselves in hostile, male-dominated work environments.

“As the woman, I’ve been the only person in the group asked to put together a potluck,” writes Katie Cunningham, a Python developer at Cox Media Group. “I’ve been the only one asked to take notes in a meeting, even if I’m the one who’s presenting. I once had a boss who wanted to turn me into a personal assistant so badly, it ended up in a meeting with HR.”

Just as harmful, she says, were the casual jokes and comments from her male coworkers. If she didn’t shrug them off with a smile, she was told she had a bad attitude. Cunningham says the subtle sexism she encountered as a programmer was so discouraging that she once considered leaving the field for good. “I almost prefer outright sexism, because at least that you can point out,” she writes.

These problems certainly aren’t limited to programming. Women in all sorts of fields face similar discrimination. But the software development field’s hostility toward women may be symptomatic of a broader malady.”

And there is tons of research on the subject. And those of us old enough to have been around the Internet for a while remember the Kathy Sierra fiasco. There is no need to invoke some mysterious element of the male brain that make them better at coding and hacking. It is good old fashioned mysogyny. That nonsense was a bad way to end an otherwise interesting book.

Hunger Games v. Battle Royale

[Disclaimer: I have read the entire Hunger Games trilogy but have not (yet) seen the movie.]

First off, if you have not watched the analysis videos of the Hunger Games on Feminist Frequency, you should do that. Go ahead:

And comparing film and book:

I pretty much agree with everything in these videos, which is why I actually liked the Japanese film “Battle Royale” better than the Hunger Games even though it is extremely objectionable in terms of gender.

One of the ways in which Battle Royale has a better background story than Hunger Games is in the conflict between youth and adult cultures. In HG, it is hard to envision parents not rebelling every year at the idea of sending two of their children for the Games just like that. BR deals with that aspect much better: both stories involve economic and then social collapse. In BR, the social collapse has been marked by an explosion of deviant youth culture across the country, turning adults against the youthful mobs and their criminal behavior. It is therefore not surprising that the BR Act would be passed and that no one would raise issues with randomly picking a class of 9th graders to fight each other to death. That is seen as generational punishment and complete breakdown between adults and adolescents. In HG, picking young people makes the fights more lively and interesting for the audience. After all, it’s all a spectacle. In BR, it is punishment by proxy.

Because this is a Japanese film, there is no avoidance of violence and gore but there is also a lot more humanity in all the contestants whereas in the HG, a few contestants are humanized (mainly, Katniss, Peeta and Rue) and the rest are largely either not explored or dehumanized (like the career tributes, depicted as sadistic and murderous sociopaths, even though it is not really their fault, they were socialized to be like that). Anita Sarkeesian makes the good point that in the film, though, the female tributes are depicted as especially sociopathic whereas Cato gets some humanization towards the end.

So, yes, BR is much more gruesomely violent (audiences under 15 were not allowed, whereas the HG film limited the violence to get a PG13 rating). One could debate the issue of glamorizing the violence or emphasizing other aspects. What I thought was interesting in BR is how much of the violence is horrifying to the teenagers themselves. And that is one of the major aspects of BR: a lot of the killings are clumsy, inadvertent, and side-effects of other dynamics than just pure murderous intent, such as just being scared s!@#$less.

Many deaths occur because teenagers just plucked from their school life simply do not know how to become competent killers. Some give up right away and commit suicide (fatalistic suicide), some kill each other by mistake because they were afraid (as when Kotohiki kills Sugimura even though he was coming to get her to safety). But even the one girl who gets closed to being seen as a sociopathic killer gets humanized and we get an explanation for her behavior (her addicted, prostituting mother selling her to men).

It is also noteworthy that right away, several of the teenagers constitute themselves in teams not to kill more effectively but to figure out solutions even though that is done along traditional gender lines: two girls just shout out to the other to just not fight and meet to talk it over (before being killed by one of the two former winners still in the game) while three geek boys get to work on a computer solution, hacking into the surveillance system of the game.

Finally, the main couple, Shuya and Noriko, play the traditional role: he protects her, she falls ill and slips into a mild coma for a while while he runs around trying to find a way out, ending up locked up in the lighthouse with a bunch of girls who end up killing each other based on old grudges from schools and also based on a stupid mistake… pfft… girls.

In a way, the concept of the game in BR is worse than HG as it takes an entire class of 9th graders who know each other and may be friends and then make them kill each other, as opposed to the tributes who only know the other tribute from their own districts thanks to the absolute segregation between districts. And BR does a good job of presenting the existing relations and collective primary groups feelings between the students with flashbacks to the basketball games (although, again, highly gendered: the boys play the game, the girls cheer from the sidelines).

And as in the HG, the main couple does survive but instead of the Gamemakers bending the rules this one time and declaring them both victors, in BR, they end up wanted for murder, completely alienated from the rest of the culture and living on the run. And even though they are still teenagers, their maturing is obvious. Because the game, in BR, is a punishment for a loathed generation, there are no rewards for the victors except that they get to go home whereas in HG, the Games are one of the means through which the Capitol maintains control (the whole Panem and circenses thing) through a divide and conquer institution that provides entertainment for the Capitol and reinforced powerlessness for the districts.

Interestingly, in BR, we, the real audience, are the audience for the game as we get to see the countdown of deaths (from 42 to the end) on our screen. That is, we are made to be the adult audience watching the teenagers killing each other with no chance of escape. That is a deliberate directorial choice. Note that the same thing sorta happens inadvertently in the HG movie with the death of Foxface whose killing made real movie audience cheer. BR does not expect such cheering on any death. Every single death, in BR is truly portrayed as tragic and useless in that annual culling, which is why we are made to watch them all, with blood and gore.

In that sense, BR makes a stronger point to the audience than HG.

The Long Version

That is the rule of the game: when you get interviewed by the media, what you say / write always get reduced to a couple of points and that is very frustrating. Us academics don’t do short soundbites. So, I was interviewed for a piece in major newspaper on the subject of teens asking celebrities to be their prom dates. Here is the longer version of my contribution on the interaction of social networking platforms and celebrity culture.

1. Social networking platforms have a leveling effect and tend to make hierarchies disappear. So, whether on Twitter or Facebook, people talk back to public figures, be they politicians, public officials, journalists or celebrities. And by talk back, I mean challenge their expertise or status. No one can throw their weight around and hide behind a status to be exempt from such challenges. Twitter users enjoy arguing and discussing, so, there is no point in using one’s status as a joker card.

2. Social networking platforms also amplify what sociologist Mark Granovetter (back in the 80s) has called “the strength of weak ties”: the idea that weak ties (loose and intermittent connections) can have stronger benefits for individuals in terms of building social capital (your network of connections which you can activate at any time for a variety of purposes, such as finding a job or finding a prom date) than strong ties (deep, continuous connections, such as those you have with you parents, close relatives, etc.). So, smart users of social networking platforms do not just use them to reinforce already existing strong ties (such as befriending your siblings and already-existing friends on Facebook) but to develop broad and wide weak ties.

3. As such, social networking platforms reduce the “6 degrees of separation” story (I think it is actually between 3 and 4 degrees now); we can get connected to a lot of people, including celebrities in just one click of a “follow” (on Twitter) or “like” (on Facebook) button. So, no more playing the Kevin Bacon game, just tweet the guy or “like” him on Facebook.

4. All this also takes place in the larger context of the celebrity culture. However, the celebrity culture was always shaped by institutions and organizations that regulated relationships between celebrities and their fans. In the older studio era, Hollywood stars’ interactions with their fans were structured by groups and organizations that maintained a certain distance between the two.  Before the age of global media, if you wanted to get in touch with a celebrity, you have to write to a studio office or their agent. Your letter would land in a PO Box and an administrative assistant would send you back a signed photo or something like that. Even things like the Hollywood Canteen were carefully crafted and part of the whole “we’re in this together” that marked the WWII era celebrity culture. There was always a buffer between celebrities and fans so that celebrities were portrayed as both unattainable (the glamorous photo shoots) and “just like us” (movie stars cooking at home, just like “normal” Americans). This changed with the end of the studio era and the rise of the paparazzi-fed media.

5. The buffer has now pretty much disappeared. Put all those things together with a preexisting media culture (maintained through ‘traditional’ media such as magazine, TV channels such as TMZ or E!) and it is not surprising to see members of the general public taking the quick step of asking straight out a celebrity for a prom date. It is so quick and easy. Now, once a celebrity has a verified Twitter account, users know it is HIM or HER and they are only one link away from that celebrity. Add to that my #1 above leveling effect and they feel completely entitled to just ask (on Twitter, users are continuously asking celebrities for retweets and #FF for their causes or opinions, etc.)

6. One final thing: just asking a celebrity for a prom date is also part of the idea users share a lot (across social networking platforms), and there is also an expectations that celebrities should share more of themselves as well, on a personal level (not the carefully crafted photo shoots for magazines) but they do retain their status as celebrity. To have a verified account on Twitter is a sure sign that someone is somebody.

Again, the network society (an expression coined by sociologist Manuel Castells back in 1996 when he published a book by the same title) makes social capital and network connections a highly valued currency (something that scifi writer Cory Doctorow captured very well in his novel Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom) and so, even if the celebrity turns down the prom date request, the status of the person who asked is enhanced because the celebrity will have to also connect with the user, if only to say no. To receive retweets or mentions from celebrities on Twitter is a status marker. After all, if it is easier for users to talk back to celebrities and public figures, it is also easier for celebrities and public figures to talk back as well (as some have learned rather unfortunately… see: Anthony Weiner).

Suicide as Social Action – Putting Durkheim and Merton to Work

Let me bring my handy graph again (and a quick shout out to Simple Diagrams, a software I could not blog and teach without). It was one of the very first insights I learned in my very first sociology course, reading my first sociology book, Durkheim’s Suicide: suicide is not an individual act but a social action, that is, an act embedded in social institutions and cultural values and norms, producing stable suicide rates. Hence, in society, the whole is greater than the sum of its part. Society is a reality sui generis. And social facts influence how we act and respond to social contexts.

So,

“An elderly man killed himself in Athens’s main square yesterday in protest at the debt crisis.

The incident was raised in parliament and an anti-austerity group called for a peaceful protest, accusing politicians of driving people to despair with harsh budget cuts.

The 77-year-old shot himself in the head in Syntagma Square during the morning rush hour. The square, opposite parliament, is a focal point for protests. Police said a handwritten note was found on the retired pharmacist’s body in which he said he was taking his own life due to the debt crisis.”

And then, this as well.

Note the public nature of these suicides and their mode of killing as public spectacles, especially the shooting in Syntagma Square. And, especially the first one was clearly understood as a public action. I am tempted to see those as anomic suicides, that is, as suicides prompted by the removal of regulations and social protections, triggering downward social mobility where individuals are left to fend for themselves, without any road map to figure out how to do it, especially, for the elderly.

The caption for the photo reads:

“Mourners applaud as the coffin of Dimitris Christoulas is carried during a funeral procession. His suicide note said that he had preferred to die rather than be forced to scavenge for food: AP”

And these are not isolated cases:

“The suicide of Dmitiris Christoulas, which triggered a new bout of rioting in the Greek capital, threw a spotlight on the fact which European authorities have gone to considerable lengths to obscure as they struggle to come up with ways to get European economies back on an even keel.

As the British researcher David Stuckler has spelt out in a series of shocking reports in The Lancet, suicide rates have risen right across Europe since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, with strict correlation between the intensity of the crisis and the rise in the statistics.

In 2006 he predicted that the new economic crisis would result in “increased suicides among people younger than 66 years”. Two years on the prediction was vindicated: as job losses increased rapidly, to about 37 per cent above the 2007 level in both parts of Europe, “the steady downward turn in suicide rates… reversed at once.

“The 2008 increase was less than 1 per cent in the new member states, but in the old ones it increased by about 7 per cent. In both, suicides increased further in 2009,” he reported.

The examples of debt-crisis suicides in Greece and Britain have been replicated across the European Union, with Italy, where the state has imposed effective tax rises after many years of empty threats from Silvio Berlusconi, especially badly hit. The suicide rate for economic reasons has increased by 24.6 per cent between 2008 and 2010, it is reported, while attempted suicides have gone up 20 per cent in the same period.

In recent cases, a 78-year-old pensioner threw herself from her third-floor balcony in Gela, in the south of Sicily, blaming a pension cut from €800 to €600, while last Thursday a young construction worker from Morocco set himself on fire outside Verona’s town hall.

The international media’s slowness to notice and draw attention to the suicide epidemic reflects state power to present the crisis and its cure in their preferred fashion, but it has long been obvious to many that you cannot simply downsize a state whose rampant growth has been the obsession of half a century of government policy without consequences.

Mr Stuckler finds that suicide and attempted suicide rise in close conformity with economic hardship, with Greece and Ireland suffering the worst increase over the past three years, and with the loss of dignity and the sense of being the prey of newly empowered state agencies exacerbating the pain in Europe’s south.”

If we were to use Robert Merton’s strain theory to look at these, we would then find forms of retreatism in these suicides as people cope differently to the strain caused by anomic conditions where cultural goals have not changed but the legitimate means have become unattainable due to austerity policies being implemented in these countries.

In other cases, some try innovation:

“In the grimy dockland suburb of Alcantara, Lisbon, a heavy, grey frosted-glass door in an equally forbidding office block currently offers an entrance to what has become the new El Dorado for a growing sector of the Portuguese workforce: Angola.

For centuries, the former colony was as ruthlessly exploited by its European masters as any other in Africa. But today, with the Portuguese economy floundering, the boot is firmly on the other foot. For most of the past decade, Angola’s diamond-mining and oil-rich economy has grown by 10 per cent a year. With 7,000 Portuguese businesses already established there and clear linguistic, human and political links, too, when Angola started looking for a huge range of skilled workers from abroad to help rebuild the country, the old “mother nation” stood head and shoulders above the rest.

But for the recession-struck Portuguese to make it out there, there is only one legal path: head to Alcantara and that grim-looking door, behind which the Angolan consulate is currently processing Portuguese immigration papers at an average of more than 20,000 a year.

“It’s for one reason: in Portugal, the recession is here to stay, and that’s true for everybody,” says Ricardo Bordalo, a Portuguese journalist from the Lusa news agency. Based in Angola between 2008 and 2011, he watched the number of his compatriots there increase from 20,000 to 130,000. “In Angola, after the war, the country was completely destroyed, and they needed people there. And many thousands of Portuguese had already lived there before independence. There’s always been a special relationship between Portugal and Angola. Sometimes we hate each other, sometimes we love each other, and now it’s our turn to go there. But it’s not easy to get a visa: they make us suffer a little bit.”

(…)

Migration: Europe loses skilled workers as Indians return

Spain: The economic crisis is forcing 1,200 young Spaniards to emigrate to Argentina each month, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claimed last year. Around 30,000 Spaniards moved to Argentina between June 2009 and November 2010. Some 6,400 went to Chile and 6,800 headed for Uruguay.

Italy: The Italian economy has been at a virtual standstill since 2000 and around 600,000, often highly educated young Italians, have gone abroad in the past decade. Most have emigrated to North and South America. Many blamed Silvio Berlusconi for their country’s rising unemployment rates.

India: India’s rapidly growing economy has triggered a reverse migration of its diaspora previously settled in the UK and US, said a recent report. About 300,000 Indians employed overseas are expected to return to the country by 2015.”

That is indeed interesting. When developing countries were subjected to structural adjustment programs, the downward mobility that followed triggered emigration to wealthier countries. And now, we see the reverse: austerity (the Western equivalent of structural adjustment programs) triggers the same mechanism, but this time, emigration out of mainly Western countries to semi-peripheral or peripheral countries. It will be interesting to see how the recipient countries perceive these new immigrants and whether there is a significant impact to a potential brain drain.

Book Review – Communication Power – 1

Since Manuel Castells is my sociologist of the semester, it is only fair that I devote some blogging space to his latest opus magnum (does he ever write any other kind?), Communication Power. Reviewing this book is probably going to take more than one post as Castells’s writing is so dense, it is hard to summarize and unpack in just a few words. Castells, of course, is the Max Weber of our times and is the one who most thoroughly studies the network society, and started doing so before it was cool.

So, I will dedicate the first few posts to the conceptual background of Castells’s theory of power in the network society. These concepts are the tools needed to follow along and truly get the depth of Castells’s thinking.

The central question of the book?

“Why, how, and by whom power relationships are constructed and exercised through the management of communication processes, and how these power relationships can be altered by social actors aiming for social change by influencing the public mind.” (3)

For Castells, the capacity to shape minds is the most fundamental form of power as it allows for the stabilization of domination, something that pure coercion cannot accomplish. Consent works better than using fear and makes it easier to actually exercise institutional power. And if, as Erik Olin Wright tells us, human behavior is mostly driven by norms, then, the more institutionalized these norms are, the more they will be embedded in our thinking and applied in everyday life as what comes naturally rather than compliance to power. It is in this sense that control of communication processes is a fundamental mechanism of power.

So, what is power:

“Power is the most fundamental process in society, since society is defined around values and institutions, and what is valued and institutionalized is defined by power relationships.

Power is the relational capacity that enables a social actor to influence  asymmetrically the decisions of other social actor(s) in ways that favor the empowerment of the actor’s will, interests and values. Power is exercised by means of coercion (or the possibility of it) and/or by the construction of meaning on the basis of the discourses through which social actors guide their action. Power relationships are framed by domination, which is the power that is embedded in the institutions of society.” (10)

I have emphasized the key concepts here. Social actor refers to not just individuals but also groups, organizations and institutions as well as any other kind of collective actors, including networks. Relational capacity, obviously, reflects that power is a relationship, not an attribute. There is no power outside of relationships between actors, some empowered and other subjected to power. And, in a very foucauldian way, Castells emphasizes right off the bat that power always involve resistance that can alter power relationships if it becomes strong enough to surpass compliance. If the powerful lose power, then, there is also institutional transformation, that is, structural change triggered by relational change.

For Castells, the imposition of power through sheer coercion is relationally non-social:

“If a power relationship can only be enacted by relying on structural domination backed by violence, those in power, in order to maintain their domination, must destroy the relational capacity of the resisting actor(s), thus canceling the relationship itself. (…) Sheer imposition of by force is not a social relationship because it leads to the obliteration of the dominated social actor, so that the relationship disappears with the extinction of one of its terms. It is, however, social action with social meaning because the use of force constitutes an intimidating influence  over the surviving subjects under similar domination, helping to reassert power relationships vis-à-vis these subjects.” (11)

Hence, the Capitol constantly reminding all 12 Districts of what happened to District 13 in the Hunger Games.

But for Castells, coercion is only one mechanism in a multilayered conception of power. And the more human minds can be shaped on behalf of specific interests and values, the less coercion and violence will be needed.  The construction of meaning to shape minds and to have these meanings embedded in institutions is important as they produce legitimation (see: Habermas) and legitimation is key to stabilize power relations, especially under the aegis of the state.

If there is no such construction of meaning, then, the state’s intervention in the public sphere will be exposed as an exercise in the defense of specific interests and naked power, triggering a legitimation crisis (does this sound familiar?). That is, the state will be seen as an instrument of domination rather than an institution of representation. There is no legitimation without consent based on shared meaning. This is why, under conditions of legitimation crisis, the state (or adjunct organizations) quickly relies on coercive mechanisms (macing, kettling, etc. all reflect this).

So, what are exactly the different layers of power?

“Violence, the threat to resort to it, disciplinary discourses, the threat to enact discipline, the institutionalization of power relationships as reproducible domination, and the legitimation process by which values and rules are accepted by the subjects of reference, are all interacting elements in the process of producing and reproducing power relationships in social practices in organizational forms.” (13)

And so, societies are not nice Parsonian communities sharing values and norms and interests, in a very Gemeinschaft / mechanical solidarity way. Social structures are, as Castells puts it, crystallized power relationships reflecting the state of never-ending conflict between opposing social actors and whose capacity to institutionalize their values and interests prevailed. And these social structures are themselves the products of processes of structuration that are multilayered and multiscalar (global, regional, national, local… that was a mouthful).

So,

“Power is not located in one particular social sphere or institution, but it is distributed throughout the entire realm of human action. Yet, there are concentrated expressions of power relationships in certain social forms that condition and frame the practice of power in society at large by enforcing domination. Power is relational, domination is institutional.” (15)

Power through multilayered and multiscalar structuration processes has a lot to do with globalization, which has not eradicated the nation-state but changed its nature (“the post-national constellation” as David Held – pre-disgrace – coined it) as part of global assemblages (Saskia Sassen). In that sense, Castells thinks that Michael Mann’s definition of societies as “constituted of multiple, overlapping and interacting sociospatial networks of power” still holds true. In the global age, the state is just one node of overlapping networks (military, political or institutional).

Next up, networks and the network society.

Should Every Sociologist Blog? My Take

Philip Cohen started it. No one asked me but I’ll butt in anyway.

The answer is, of course, yes. Sociologists should also be all over Twitter, Tumblr and other social networking platforms. To all the reasons Cohen mentions in his post, let me add a few.

First of all, in the context of the field of social sciences, sociology is not the most powerful discipline. It is not the one most featured by traditional media. This is a topic I have blogged about before. When the media when to discuss social issues, they tend to call on psychologists, economists or political scientists. Sociologists are the bottom the list for several reasons. One is that reporters and journalists may not be clear as to what sociologists actually do. The discipline is so diverse in coverage that it might be hard to pin down and to provide the standard definition (systematic / scientific study of human behavior…) is not really helpful.

Two: sociology has a reputation of being a discipline populated by hippies and lefties (not that there is anything wrong with that but that certainly does not do justice to the diversity of the sociological population, after all Peter Berger and Charles Murray are considered sociologists, so there.). This means, it is not considered a “serious” discipline (like economics, which has a lot of maths). And I would argue the media is more comfortable with the individualist narrative provided by psychology that fits more neatly in preexisting cultural frames of explanation for social phenomena and issues.

So, faced with a situation where media presence is sketchy at best, and caricatural at worst, why not make use of the web 2.0. to try to fulfill the promises of public sociology. It is then up to us to claim our media space on our own terms thanks to the technological tools available to us.

Blogging is a good way to start because the price of entry is low. The platforms have gotten easier and easier (think Posterous and Tumblr) for those who are reluctant to fully set up their own websites and get their hands dirty with coding. Blogging is a good way to promote the sociological perspective on current events as well as research going on in our field without the barriers of peer-reviewed publication, the jargon and overall awful academic writing.

Blogging is an easy way to showcase what is distinctive about the sociological outlook on phenomena and issues, and the toolbox that we use to analyze them. These conceptual and theoretical tools should be guiding our blogging practice.  I would also argue that sociology (thanks to the concepts and theories) is best equipped among the social sciences to deal with social change and social movements. Maude knows these are now central topics on which to point the sociological spotlight. No other discipline can fully grasp the dynamics at work in a variety of social movements from the Tea Party to Occupy to indigenous peoples struggle.

While sociology’s thematic diversity may be a problem for traditional media, it should provide for a diversity of blogging on pretty much every topic. And that is a good thing, the more the merrier. Years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich was a keynote speaker at the ASA. She mentioned that she would love to have a list of sociologists working on different topics handy so that when she would write a piece on, say, poverty and gender, she would immediately know who to contact. I don’t know if any initiative emerged out of that but one can easily see how a list of blogs could be created and curated with their corresponding specialization, if any. It is not hard to figure out what the main theme of Philip Cohen’s blog is, or mine, for that matter.

The next issue with blogging is whether or not the genre is dead (it’s not) what with Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. I think there is still space for more developed thinking and analysis that cannot really be accommodated by Twitter. On the other hand, Twitter is great for networking with other sociologists and circulate links, ideas or just hang out and have fun. There are 351 people on the sociology list I created on Twitter. I would never have found these people by just blogging, not to mention all the other people who have some more peripheral interests in sociology without being sociologists themselves. Twitter puts the strength of weak ties on steroids. That is all well and good but we still need stuff to share over that network. We still need to generate content and that is what blogging is for.

Such content can come from multiple sources, and it should. Whether we review books, report on professional papers or conferences, analyze current events or focus on illuminating sociological concepts and theories, or a mix of all that, this is all useful public sociology. We are making the discipline more relevant by showcasing its relevance (if that makes any sense). If there is one thing that public discourse needs is more rationality and analytical clarity while challenging commonsense tropes, and exposing unearned privilege.

So, to blog or not to blog… yes, a thousand times, yes. I know, I know, tenure, promotion, institutional realities (rather nasty), etc. But look, if one has something to say, and if it looks like blogging should be the right platform to say it, then why not. It is true that, at this point, there are no institutional rewards for blogging (maybe for people who blog for major publishers?). That is true. Hopefully, this might change. But the only way this can change is if there is a critical mass of good sociological blogging to justify it.

So, start socblogging.

Protecting Social Privilege = Not Wanting to Share Toys

By now, you have all probably been exposed to the Hunger Games racist fiasco (neatly collected and curated here). The story goes something like this: once upon a time, a lot of young people (mostly white) read a trilogy and much enjoyed it. Unsurprisingly, the books were put into film production. When the initial casting was disclosed… Horror and Abomination… some parts had been given to *gasp* BLACK actors. One was obvious (Rue was described as dark-skinned in the book) but the main other (Cinna, not really described in the book) was shocking.

After all, no racial description means white, by default, right? Especially since Cinna is a good guy. Read the Tumblr entries and note how that is the issue. In our cultural and symbolic universe, white = goodness, purity, innocence, and black = darkness and other ominous qualities. By the time the first movie was released, the white young people were appalled that someone had taken their book and changed that one, all of a sudden, central characteristic… without asking them.

This goes back to a point I have made several times: the cultural schemes that guide and shape our experience and perception of others, cultural products and experiences are discreetly racist. The non-white casting just acted as a trigger for the racist background knowledge (in Alfred Schutz’s sense) and pushed that aspect to the forefront.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

And speaking of that, yesterday, came the earth-shattering news that Instagram had released an app for Android. Oh dear. The cool kids who have been using it through their Apple products were not pleased and they all unleashed their distress on Twitter:

See also here.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

Here is the lesson: when a group enjoys a certain privilege, whether in terms of race, economic or social status, part of the privilege is having, or having access to, something that others don’t have. In typical in-group logic, the “something” in question becomes “ours”, part of who we are, of what we experience and enjoy together, and this enjoyment is based on exclusion. The exclusion makes “us” feel special and deserving (even though the “something” is unearned).

Once a system opens up and the dreaded “others” (racial minorities, lower classes or *egad* Android users – who can also be totally snotty, I should add) have access to “our” special “something”. It feels like “we” are being dispossessed of what is rightfully “ours” even though “we” are the deserving ones and “they” are not. This reaction towards Instagram for Androids is very reminiscent of the resentment towards affirmative action: the resentment is based on the – thoroughly false – idea that whites got in college through exclusively their own merits while blacks had to be pushed there by the government. More than that, for every black making it to college, it is automatically assumed that a more qualified white got excluded.

Now, apps are not educational public policy but the logic of privilege still applies as well as that of ingroup v. out-group dynamics.

That being said, this made me laugh out loud (or LOL as the cool kids say):

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go download Instagram for Android, just because I know it will piss “them” off.

Hey Kids, Remember the Mancession?

Well, not really:

“At a TUC event last month we lamented: we are going backwards. Women are leaving the workforce in ever greater numbers, to meet the usual fate of women who don’t work in a shrinking state divesting itself even of free access to the Child Support Agency and legal aid – poverty, and indifference to poverty. When the current vogue for retro style rolled in –cupcakes and Mad Men and Julian Fellowes‘s reactionary fantasies – I thought it was a trend. I didn’t realise it was a prophecy, hung with other assaults on women’s needs, such as protesters standing like righteous zombies outside British abortion clinics. (Be pregnant, is their message. Be grateful).

The truth is an irrelevance here; women do not plead for special treatment, begging to enter the workplace so they can buy pretty things. It is established wisdom that working women benefit the economy, their families and themselves. Just last week it emerged that depression is more widespread in non-working women and, in the long-hours macho working culture that thrills business because it enables men’s psychological dominance, what is the cost to them? Even the prime minister acknowledges the benefit of working women as he legislates to make them unemployed, in that strange childish way he has of wishing for something with one hand, and demolishing it with the other, which brings to mind the rage of Shulman’s tiny son: “If we fail to unlock the potential of women in the labour market,” he said, “we’re not only failing those individuals, we’re failing our whole economy.” He said it and forgot it because the budget came – £10bn more in cuts.

So, some facts that won’t make it into Vogue, with or without topless actresses and birds: this is a perfect storm of growing inequality. Last month, there were 1.13 million unemployed women in Britain, a 19.1% increase since 2009, and the highest figure for 25 years. (In the same period, male unemployment has risen by a mere 0.32%). According to data collected by the Fawcett Society, in the last quarter 81% of those losing their jobs were women; in some local councils 100% of those fired were female and, as ever, the poorest are hit most: black and minority ethnic women and those in the north-east are the first to go, and in the greatest numbers.

Many women are leaving work due to the cuts in child tax credit and child benefit. Unable to pay for childcare, they cannot afford to work, which is senseless and destructive, and will keep alive the dogma that women should not work into the next generation and beyond. A survey conducted by the charity Working Mums last year found that 24% of mothers have left employment and 16% have reduced their hours to care for their children; this is regressive, poverty in poverty, depression into depression.

These cuts should be overturned, but how to pay? With the 50% tax rate a historical anomaly, who knows or cares? A strategy for women’s employment is necessary, encompassing women’s security in the workplace, decent provision of childcare and the scandal of occupational and gender segregation, which, together, bring forth the pay gap.

The private sector will boom, says the government, and employ (some of) these women, although it doesn’t have the nerve to promise more. Well, maybe. Was it Emma Harrison, the jobs tsar (now tarnished), who said: “There are always jobs” – adding, as is customary, the scent of blame to the welfare claimant? If they are lucky, women can look forward to their time in the private sector, with its disgraceful full-time pay gap of 20.4%, its inflexible working hours and, of course, its smiling walls of Alexandra Shulmans, telling them “it’s hard”. Down at the TUC last week, all was misery; we are walking, too swiftly, into the past.”

It is funny how forms of inequalities are usually ignored when they put women at a disadvantage and maintain patriarchal privilege (like the wage gap or the greater impact of economic recessions on women and are attributed to something other than patriarchal structures (like women’s individual choices). But when a situation benefit women (like the larger number of women college graduates), then, it is a crisis and we must do something about it (implicitly, to restore male supremacy… you can find the many garbage books on the subject of how schools have become feminized institutions, what with all the “political correctness” that prevents men from being men). Conversely, look at how much traction the concept of “mancession” got despite being a mirage.

The Sociopathic Transnational Capitalist Class

I have blogged pretty extensively on what I have called the New Sociopathy (see here) referring to the lack of empathy from the wealthy (and wealthier) towards the less fortunate. That theme has been since more discussed as a study came out pretty much validating the idea that wealth makes one less compassionate and less able to empathize.

As noted in this article,

“In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.

As voters consider which presidential candidate to support in November, one thing is for sure: Whoever wins is going to have money and power to spare. In a world where our politicians are inevitably better off than most of the people they govern, the new research sheds fresh light on the nature of our elected leaders—and offers insight into why they so often seem oblivious to our problems.”

The studies themselves are interesting,

“Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, started working on the issue of “feeling rich” in 2006 along with coauthors Nicole Mead and Miranda Goode. In their research, subjects were given subliminal suggestions to think about money—a clue in a descrambling puzzle, a dollar-bill screensaver on a computer screen, a sheaf of Monopoly bills on a table—before being asked to make a number of decisions: How soon do you ask for help on an impossible drawing task? Do you help the clumsy lab assistant who just dropped all her pencils? Do you donate to a made-up charity? Do you choose to work in a team or alone?

The mere hint of money, the researchers found, made people less likely to ask for help, less helpful in gathering the lab assistant’s pencils, significantly less generous to the made-up charity, and far less likely to look for teammates. “When people are reminded of money, they get better at pursing their personal goals,” Vohs said. “On the negative side, they become poor at interpersonal functioning. They’re not all that nice to be around. They’re not openly mean or disagreeable, but they can be insensitive.”

Insensitivity can cover a range of sins, from the minor (being unhelpful) to the more serious—say, treating others like they are less than human. Further studies by Vohs and her colleagues have shown that prompting people to think about money—a technique known as “priming”—makes them less likeable and friendly, and more likely to agree with statements that support an unjust, social-Darwinist status quo (for example, “Some groups of people are simply inferior to others”). In a particularly disturbing part of one study, the team primed people with money, then gauged their empathy by eliciting reactions to a theoretical scenario involving a belligerent homeless person. The researchers offered the subjects a chance to agree with statements that dehumanized others (“Some people deserve to be treated like animals”). The money-primed group was more likely to agree.”

So, just thinking about money makes people less empathetic. On the flip side, there are significant empathy differentials by income levels:

“In 2009, Michael Kraus, Paul Piff, and Dacher Keltner, all then of Berkeley (Kraus is now at University of California, San Francisco), published research that divided up sample groups by family income as well as self-reported socioeconomic status. People of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to explain success or failure as a result of individual merit or fault; lower-class people, on the other hand, felt less control in their own lives and were more likely to blame events on circumstance. In other words, higher-status people were more likely to feel that they’d earned their high place in society, and that poorer people hadn’t.

More recently, similar research—involving not just surveys, but heart-rate measurements —has found that higher-status people tend to be less compassionate toward others in a bad situation than people of lower-class backgrounds.

(…)

The result of these differences, say researchers who work on money and social class, is that people who are confident in their status have a completely different worldview from those who lack that confidence: more self-involved, self-justifying, and even, as the dehumanization study suggests, crueler. And the higher up the spectrum you get, the stronger the effect: “It’s on a continuum,” Kraus said. In other words, a subject whose family income is over $75,000 will show more compassion and generosity than a subject with a family income over $150,000, and less than a subject with an income of $30,000.

You might think that electing poor or low-status people to positions of power could help solve the problem, but it turns out not to be so easy: Power itself can trigger similar changes.”

Now connect the above to this:

“Cast your mind back to the euro crisis talks last year, when the future ofGreece was being decided. How much Athens should pay its bailiffs in the banks, on what terms, and the hardship that ordinary Greeks would have to endure as a result.

There were times when the whole of 2011 seemed to be one long European summit, when you heard more about Papandreou and Merkozy than was strictly necessary. Yet you probably didn’t catch many references to Charles Dallara and Josef Ackermann.

They’re two of the most senior bankers in the world – among the top 1% of the 1%. Dallara served in the Treasury under Ronald Reagan, before moving on to Wall Street, while Ackermann is chief executive of Deutsche Bank. But their role in the euro negotiations, and so in deciding Greece’s future, was as representatives of the International Institute for Finance.

The IIF is a lobby group for 450 of the biggest banks in the world, with members including Barclays, RBS and Lloyds. Dallara and Ackermann and their colleagues were present throughout those euro summits, and enjoyed rare and astounding access to European heads of state and other policy-makers. EU and IMF officials consulted the bankers on how much Greece should pay, Europe’s commissioner for economic affairs Olli Rehn shared conference calls with them.

You can piece all this together by poring over media reports of the euro summits, although be warned: you’ll need a very high tolerance threshold for European TV, and financial newswires. But Dallara and co are also quite happy to toot their own trumpets. After a deal was struck last July, the IIF put out a note bragging about its “catalytic” role and claiming its offer “forms an integral part of a comprehensive package”.

By now you’ll have guessed the punchline: that July agreement was terrible for the Greeks, and brilliant for the bankers. It was widely panned at the time, for slicing only 21% off the value of Greece’s loans, when Angela Merkel and many others agreed that financiers ought to be taking a much bigger hit. As the German government’s economic adviser, Wolfgang Franz, later remarked in an interview: “If you look at the 21% and our demand for a 50% participation of private creditors, the financial sector has been very successful.” Another way of putting it would be to say that the bankers overpowered even the strongest state in Europe.”

So, the financial element of the Transnational Capitalist Class flexed its muscles against the political component, and won. Meanwhile, the peasants didn’t think it was such a great idea but who cares:

“None of these voters, none of these opinions got even a fraction of the consideration, let alone the face time, that was extended to Dallara and Ackermann. At Corporate Europe Observatory in Brussels, Yiorgos Vassalos has been tracking the negotiations over Greece: by his reckoning only the IIF got to have such personal, close-up access. These were summits settling how much misery would be imposed on the Greek people – and no trade unions or civil society groups got a say in them. “The only key players in those meetings were European governments and the bankers,” says Vassalos.

(…)

So the bankers whose excesses helped land Europe in this mess then get to sit round the big EU table, like any other government, and decide who should pay for it. And the answer, unsurprisingly, is: not them. The bigger question is: why finance has been granted such power? In a forthcoming paper entitled Deep Stall, the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change gives one compelling reason: because so many countries across Europe are, through both their public and private sectors, so dependent on financiers in other countries for credit. That includes Britain, which relies on 10 eurozone countries for loans worth over 70% of its annual national income – a higher proportion even than Italy. The tale of the IIF and how it got such a powerful say on the fate of ordinary Greeks is really a chapter in a much bigger story of how governments across the western world got swallowed up by their finance industries.”

The effects of this plutocratic and sociopathic governance based not just on economic but also on social capital are unsurprising and constitute the most obvious form of structural violence:

“Europe’s long-running euro crisis may be cooling. But the economic distress it has left in its wake is pushing a rising tide of workers into precarious straits in France and across the European Union. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are living in campgrounds, vehicles and cheap hotel rooms. Millions more are sharing space with relatives, unable to afford the basic costs of living.

These people are the extreme edge of Europe’s working poor: a growing slice of the population that is slipping through Europe’s long-vaunted social safety net. Many, particularly the young, are trapped in low-paying or temporary jobs that are replacing permanent ones destroyed in Europe’s economic downturn.

Now, economists, European officials and social watchdog groups are warning that the situation is set to worsen. As European governments respond to the crisis by pushing for deep spending cuts to close budget gaps and greater flexibility in their work forces, “the population of working poor will explode,” said Jean-Paul Fitoussi, an economics professor at L’Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris.

To most Europeans, and especially the French, it seems this should not be happening. With generous minimum wage laws and the world’s strongest welfare systems, Europeans are accustomed to thinking they are more protected from a phenomenon they associate with the United States and other laissez-faire economies.

But the European welfare state, designed to ensure that those without jobs are provided with a basic income, access to health care and subsidized housing, is proving ill-prepared to deal with the steady increase in working people who do not make enough to get by.

The trend is most alarming in hard-hit countries like Greece and Spain, but it is rising even in more prosperous nations like France and Germany.

“France is a rich country,” Mr. Fitoussi said. “But the working poor are living in the same condition as in the 19th century. They can’t pay for heating, they can’t pay for their children’s clothes, they are sometimes living five people in a nine-square-meter apartment — here in France!” he exclaimed, speaking of an apartment of about 100 square feet.

And France is not the worst-off country in this respect.

However, it would be wrong to blame all this on the 2008 recession. The seeds were planted 30 years ago by the rising neoliberal economic and political class with predictable results, such as concentration of wealth at the very top of the social ladder, mass consumption maintained through high levels of credits and precarization through the progressive lowering of social safety nets and destruction of organized labor:

Also, this.