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Book Review – Going Clear

January 28, 2013 by and tagged , ,

You might think you already know a lot about Scientology, what with the amount of celebrities that are part of the church. Trust me, you know nothing unless you read Lawrence Wright‘s Going Clear – Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief.

The book is an expansion of Wright’s New Yorker article on Paul Haggis, who spent decades in Scientology only to be disillusioned and resigning from it over the Proposition 8 issue in California. Scientology was listed as a supporter of the ban on gay marriage, two of Haggis’s daughters are gay. He asked for the spokesperson of the organization to retract the support. This was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. [Although I cannot personally forgive Haggis for being the initiator of that appalling POS that was Walker: Texas Ranger.]

The book, then, goes beyond Haggis although it starts and ends with him. Wright spends quite a bit of book space on Lafayette Ron Hubbard (LRH). He comes across as a highly creative, chronically lying, abusive con man who figured out how to make a ton of money and exploit a lot of people. His entire life seems to be one carefully constructed lie after another. I am not surprised he was friend with other right-wing unpleasant characters like Robert Heinlein. And he was a terrible, controlling and neglectful at the same time, husband and father, and a creepy character, what with the underage Messengers.

“TO MAKE SURE his orders were carried out, Hubbard created the Commodore’s Messengers Organization. In the beginning, the Messengers were four young teenage girls, including Yvonne Gillham’s two daughters, Terri and Janis, who were thirteen and eleven years old; Annie Tidman, twelve; and, briefly, Hubbard’s youngest daughter, Suzette, who was thirteen at the time. Soon, several more teenage girls joined them, and Suzette went to work on the decks. Two of the girls were always posted outside Hubbard’s office, waiting to take his handwritten directives to the mimeograph machine or deliver his orders in person. He instructed them to parrot his exact words and tone of voice when they were delivering one of his directives— to inform the captain what time to set sail, for instance, or to tell a member of the crew he was “a fucking asshole” if he had displeased him. Hubbard allowed them to create their own uniforms, so in warmer climates they attired themselves in white hot pants, halter tops, and platform shoes. When the Commodore moved around the ship, one or more Messengers trailed behind him, carrying his hat and an ashtray, lighting his cigarettes, and quickly moving a chair into place if he started to sit down. People lived in fear of Hubbard’s teenage minions. They had to call the Messenger “sir” even if she was a twelve-year-old girl.

(…)

The relationship between Hubbard and these girls was intimate but not overtly sexual. They prepared his bath when he retired and would sit outside his room until he awakened and called out, “Messenger!” They would help him out of bed, light his cigarette, run his shower, prepare his toiletries, and help him dress. Some of the children had parents on the ship, others were there alone, but in either case Hubbard was their primary caretaker— and vice versa. When the girls became old enough to start wearing makeup, Hubbard was the one who showed them how to apply it. He also helped them do their hair.” (107)

What is obvious is that the mistreatment that Hubbard inflicted upon his family are clearly reflected, on a larger scale, in the way the organization leaders treat their own members. As much as Wright takes pain to be objective in his depiction of Scientology – there is no mockery of the doctrine and beliefs – the Church comes off as a terrorist organization, and its leader as a violent bully. Frankly, I had no idea of the extent of the abuse and violence going on in there and it is appalling to me that such an organization still enjoys tax exemptions and is pursued criminally for things such as harassment, kidnapping and other charges. But the book is thoroughly sourced despite denials from Church officials.

Again, at no point does Wright engage in derision of the belief system crafted by LRH. After all, as he points out, if one wants to make fun of beliefs, one can do so of any religion and Scientology has common elements with several of them. And actually, from Wright’s writings, it does look like LHR and the other organization leader truly believe their doctrine. So, it is not entirely a massive con game.

Through and through though, the imprint of Hubbard on everything is obvious:

“The years at sea were critical ones for the future of Scientology. Even as Hubbard was inventing the doctrine, each of his decisions and actions would become enshrined in Scientology lore as something to be emulated— his cigarette smoking, for instance, which is still a feature of the church’s culture at the upper levels, as are his 1950s habits of speech, his casual misogyny, his aversion to perfume and scented deodorants, and his love of cars and motorcycles and Rolex watches. More significant is the legacy of his belittling behavior toward subordinates and his paranoia about the government. Such traits stamped the religion as an extremely secretive and sometimes hostile organization that saw enemies on every corner.” (108)

What LHR also initiated was the practice of punishing people for supposed bad thoughts against him or the organization. From people being thrown overboard one of the Church’s ships to solitary confinement to forced labor and imprisonment, to beatings, there is no end to the way the organization leaders, and especially its current Chairman of the Board (COB, as he is called) will torture, torment, bully, and brutalize. The depictions of the punishment inflicted upon members for the slightest (often arbitrarily defined) offense cannot be described as something other than torture.

And child abuse started under Hubbard himself:

“Hubbard increasingly turned his wrath on children, who were becoming a nuisance on the ship. He thought that they were best raised away from their parents, who were “counter-intention” to their children. As a result, he became their only— stern as well as neglectful— parent. Children who committed minor infractions, such as laughing inappropriately or failing to remember a Scientology term, would be made to climb to the crow’s nest, at the top of the mast, four stories high, and spend the night, or sent to the hold and made to chip rust. A rambunctious four-year-old boy named Derek Greene, an adopted black child, had taken a Rolex watch belonging to a wealthy member of the Sea Org and dropped it overboard. Hubbard ordered him confined in the chain locker, a closed container where the massive anchor chain is stored. It was dark, damp, and cold. There was a danger that the child could be mutilated if the anchor was accidentally lowered or slipped. Although he was fed, he was not given blankets or allowed to go to the bathroom. He stayed sitting on the chain for two days and nights. The crew could hear the boy crying. His mother pleaded with Hubbard to let him out, but Hubbard reminded her of the Scientology axiom that children are actually adults in small bodies, and equally responsible for their behavior. Other young children were sentenced to the locker for infractions— such as chewing up a telex— for as long as three weeks. Hubbard ruled that they were Suppressive Persons. One little girl, a deaf mute, was placed in the locker for a week because Hubbard thought it might cure her deafness.” (112)

Wright follows these trajectories of LHR and Scientology relatively chronologically with certain recurrent themes that define the organization’s attitude towards the government, journalists, critiques and celebrities. The principles that the Church follows were all laid out by LHR himself: the belief in government conspiracies which triggered Operation Snow White. What is Operation snow White? Read and be shocked:

“In Hubbard’s absence, Mary Sue exerted increased control over the church’s operations. Hubbard had already appointed her the head of the Guardian’s Office, a special unit with a broad mandate to protect the religion. Among its other duties, the GO functioned as an intelligence agency, gathering information on critics and government agencies around the world, generating lawsuits to intimidate opponents, and waging an unremitting campaign against mental health professionals. It was the GO that Hubbard tasked with Snow White. Under Mary Sue’s direction, the GO infiltrated government offices around the world, looking for damning files on the church. Within the next few years, as many as five thousand Scientologists were covertly placed in 136 government agencies worldwide. Project Grumpy, for instance, covered Germany, where the Guardian’s Office was set up to infiltrate Interpol as well as German police and immigration authorities. In addition, there was a scheme to accuse German critics of the church of committing genocide. Project Sleepy was to clear files in Austria; Happy was for Denmark, Bashful for Belgium, and Dopey for Italy. There were also Projects Mirror, Apple, Reflection, and so on, all drawn from elements of the fairy tale. Projects Witch and Stepmother both targeted the UK, the source of Scientology’s immigration problems.

Project Hunter was the United States, where Scientologists penetrated the IRS, the Justice, Treasury, and Labor Departments, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as foreign embassies and consulates; private companies and organizations, such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Better Business Bureau; and newspapers— including the St. Petersburg Times, the Clearwater Sun, and the Washington Post— that were critical of the religion. In an evident attempt at blackmail, they stole the Los Angeles IRS intelligence files of celebrities and political figures, including California governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and Frank Sinatra. Nothing in American history can compare with the scale of the domestic espionage of Operation Snow White.” (123)

Another principle is the harassment of critiques. Anyone critical of the organization, journalist or former member, will be followed, have their trash searched, their pets disappeared, will be accused of all sorts of “perversions”, and ultimately be buried under an avalanche of lawsuits that will drive them to bankruptcy if they don’t settle or recant. That is actually what happened to the IRS when Scientology’s tax exempt status was in question. In that sense, it is truly a terrorist organization.

But it is not just critiques that are subject to such treatment. Members themselves are subject to blackmail and intimidation. After all, the practice of auditing means that the organization has files on all its members, confessing to their most intimate ideas, fantasies, etc. All things that can be potentially embarrassing if they were not kept confidential. This gives the church tremendous power over its members it they decide to step out of line. And if they do, all sorts of punishments are meted out, from soviet-style confessions, to debasing treatments, to physical punishment. It is actually by punishing many people at the same time that the church gets a lot of free labor.

If church members try to leave, it will be very hard. They will have to “blow”, that is, to escape and disappear because big guys from the church will go after them and intimidate them into returning or use physical force if necessary. And if people do end up leaving, the church will bill them hundreds of thousands of dollars for the “training” they have received (even though people have already paid for that).

Scientology’s interest in Hollywood celebrities was also part of LHR’s big plan:

“When the Church of Scientology was officially founded in Los Angeles, in February 1954, by several of Hubbard’s devoted followers, there was already a history of religious celebrities and celebrity religions. The cultivation of famous people— or people who aspired to be famous— was a feature of Hubbard’s grand design. He foresaw that the best way of promoting Scientology as a ladder to enlightenment was to court celebrities, whom he defined as “any person important enough in his field or an opinion leader or his entourage, business associates, family or friends with particular attention to the arts, sports and management and government.”” (138)

It’s not hard to see why. After all, we know, since Max Weber, that one cannot inherit charisma. Charisma usually disappears when the charismatic leader dies. Any organization faced with this problem can either routinize it and anchor the organization into bureaucratic processes (which the church has done) or, it can “borrow” charisma, something that Hollywood celebrities certainly have. After all, the doctrine of scientology is about saving the entire world, so, one needs big “influencers”. Borrowing celebrity charisma turns out to be especially necessary when an aging LHR disappeared in 1980 (to avoid lawsuits from several countries) and died in 1986 (I didn’t know what had happened in that 6-year period). The importance of celebrities is fairly developed in the book in the chapters dedicated to the church’s treatment of Tom Cruise. It is both fascinating and creepy.

The enlisting of celebrities has helped the church weather bad publicity that comes up on a regular basis, whether it was the IRS suits, the Lisa McPherson suspicious death, to Cruise’s comments on Brooke Shields and psychiatry, and regular scandals that plague the church. At the same time, the church, at least in the US, is relatively protected as it has received support from Bill Clinton to former education secretary Rod Paige who was receptive to Hubbard’s ideas on education and was lobbied by scientology to include some of these ideas in NCLB.

After reading all the accounts of the free or poorly paid labor the church extracts from its members, it is no wonder it is such a wealthy organization that it can bury its enemies in lawsuits. Permanent staff (Sea Org members) are paid $50 a week (minus fees for punishment), are poorly clothed and fed and housed in collective barracks.

“The contrast with the other Sea Org members is stark. They eat in a mess hall, which features a meat-and-potatoes diet and a salad bar, except for occasional extended periods of rice and beans for those who are being punished. The average cost per meal as of 2005 (according to Marc Headley, who participated in the financial planning each week) was about seventy-five cents a head— significantly less than what is spent per inmate in the California prison system. When members join the Sea Org, they are issued two sets of pants, two shirts, and a pair of shoes, which is their lifetime clothing allotment; anything else, they purchase themselves. Although the nominal pay for Sea Org members is fifty dollars a week, many are fined for various infractions, so it’s not unusual to be paid as little as thirteen or fourteen dollars. Married couples at Gold Base share a two-bedroom apartment with two other couples, meaning that one pair sleeps on the couch. In any case, few get more than five or six hours of sleep a night. There are lavish exercise facilities at the base— an Olympic pool, a golf course, basketball courts— but they are rarely used. Few are permitted to have access to computers. Every personal phone call is listened to; every letter is inspected. Bank records are opened and records kept of how much money people have. Cultural touchstones common to most Americans are often lost on Sea Org members at Gold Base. They may not know the name of the president of the United States or be able to tell the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. It’s not as if there is no access to outside information; there is a big-screen television in the dining hall, and people can listen to the radio or subscribe to newspapers and magazines; however, news from the outside world begins to lose its relevance when people are outside of the wider society for extended periods of time. Many Sea Org members have not left the base for a decade.” (273)

That is indeed in contrast with the first class, lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the top if the church’s hierarchy and the celebrities who received indeed star treatment when they stay at the facilities.  And, of course, since many children are born to parents who are in the church, they get to work as well, receive limited education, all in breach of several states’ child labor laws.

Overall, it is a very well-written, well-sourced, and very informative book on this organization. I am curious as to whether Wright will be subject to the same harassment to which other journalists have been subjected when they investigated the church or whether he will be sued into bankruptcy. Because, even though Wright really does not come down hard on the organization, the church still comes off as monstrous. As I mentioned earlier, if you thought you knew all there is to know about scientology, you do not unless you read this book.

From a sociological point of view, it is a fascinating read as a study in the creation of a religious social movement, based on charismatic leadership and the one-man creation of an entire universe of belief.

Posted in Book Reviews, religion, Religious Fundamentalism | 4 Comments »

Book Review – The Googlization of Everything

January 14, 2013 by and tagged , , ,

I was initially suspicious of this book because of its title and how reminiscent it is of similarly coined words, like “McDonalization” or “Disneyification”. But, I finally picked up Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) because, after all, we should all know more about Google. It has become such a major part of our Internet experience that it deserves some critical examination.

And critical it is, right off the bat:

“This book describes the nature of that devotion as well as a growing apostasy, and it suggests ways we might live better with Google once we see it as a mere company rather than as a force for good and enlightenment in the world.

We may see Google as a savior, but it rules like Caesar. The mythology of the Web leads us to assume that it is a wild, ungovernable, and thus ungoverned realm. This could not be further from the truth. There was a power vacuum in the Web not so long ago, but we have invited Google to fill it. Overwhelmingly, we now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values, methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem.

This book argues that we should influence—even regulate—search systems actively and intentionally, and thus take responsibility for how the Web delivers knowledge. We must build the sort of online ecosystem that can benefit the whole world over the long term, not one that serves the short-term interests of one powerful company, no matter how brilliant.” (Loc. 67).

Vaidhyanathan’s also acknowledges the great deal of good that Google has done to our Internet experience. We should just never forget that, despite its “Don’t Be Evil” motto, Google is a for-profit corporation that feeds on data that we provide.

But what is the Googlization of Everything?

“Googlization affects three large areas of human concern and conduct: “us” (through Google’s effects on our personal information, habits, opinions, and judgments); “the world” (through the globalization of a strange kind of surveillance and what I’ll call infrastructural imperialism); and “knowledge” (through its effects on the use of the great bodies of knowledge accumulated in books, online databases, and the Web).” (Loc. 141)

In that sense, Google is way more than a search engine. The multiplication of its applications means that one’s experience of the Internet may be completely inseparable and indistinguishable from Google if one uses Gmail for emails, Youtube as video service, Reader for aggregator, Google + for social networking, and Google Docs, as well as Nexus devices. Then you are thoroughly embedded in the Google universe.

The price to pay for access to all these goodies that truly do make our lives easier is our privacy, our surrendering to this private and corporate aspect of the surveillance society. And that is Vaidhyanathan’s main critique of Google, how it contributes to our loss of privacy and our invisible surrendering of our data if we want the ordered experience of the Internet rather than the chaotic mess it would be without Google. After all, we are not Google’s users. We are its product.

In effect, for Vaidhyanathan, Google is doing what should have been (and still could and should be) the job of an organization (or organizations) dedicated to the public good. But there was never much political will to establish that, so, Google stepped in and ordered the Internet for us. This public failure is a BIG problem.

But Google’s actions, algorithms and practices are far from neutral and that is something we should be concerned about considering how dominant it is:

“If Google is the dominant way we navigate the Internet, and thus the primary lens through which we experience both the local and the global, then it has remarkable power to set agendas and alter perceptions. Its biases (valuing popularity over accuracy, established sites over new, and rough rankings over more fluid or multidimensional models of presentation) are built into its algorithms.12 And those biases affect how we value things, perceive things, and navigate the worlds of culture and ideas.” (Loc. 233)

An interesting perspective that Vaidhyanathan uses to examine Google is what he calls the Technocultural Imagination (not coincidentally reminiscent of C. Wright Mills’s Sociological Imagination). The technocultural imagination strives to answer the following questions:

“Which members of a society get to decide which technologies are developed, bought, sold, and used? What sorts of historical factors influence why one technology “succeeds” and another fails? What are the cultural and economic assumptions that influence the ways a technology works in the world, and what unintended consequences can arise from such assumptions? Technology studies in general tend to address several core questions about technology and its effects on society (and vice versa): To what extent do technologies guide, influence, or determine history? To what extent do social conditions and phenomena mold technologies? Do technologies spark revolutions, or do concepts like revolution raise expectations and levels of effects of technologies?” (Loc. 247)

Those are indeed central questions and they are often ignored in the cyber-utopian literature.

And there is another rather ominous aspect to Google and its charismatic leaders:

“The company itself takes a technocratic approach to any larger ethical and social questions in its way. It is run by and for engineers, after all. Every potential problem is either a bug in the system, yet to be fixed, or a feature in its efforts to provide better service. This attitude masks the fact that Google is not a neutral tool or a nondistorting lens: it is an actor and a stakeholder in itself. And, more important, as a publicly traded company, it must act in its shareholders’ short-term interests, despite its altruistic proclamations.” (Loc. 256)

At the same time, Google and its leaders provide ideological cover for the fall of the idea of public good (replaced by the fuzzy concept of corporate responsibility).

“Of course Google is regulated, and Schmidt knows it. Google spends millions of dollars every year ensuring it adheres to copyright, patent, antitrust, financial disclosure, and national security regulations. Google is promoting stronger regulations to keep the Internet “neutral,” so that Internet service providers such as telecommunication companies cannot extort payments to deliver particular content at a more profitable rate. But we have become so allergic to the notion of regulation that we assume brilliant companies just arise because of the boldness and vision of investors and the talents of inventors. We actually think there is such a thing as a free market, and that we can liberate private firms and people from government influence. We forget that every modern corporation—especially every Internet business—was built on or with public resources. And every party that does business conforms to obvious policy restrictions.” (Loc. 923)

The other social issue relating to Google then is what Vaidhyanathan calls techno-fundamentalism: the belief that all social problems have technological solutions (an iPad for every pupil in the US!).

After these general framing comments, Vaidhyanathan goes into deeper details of Google’s activities whether it’s the search algorithms and monetization system, Streetview or Google Books as well as the Google Buzz fiasco related to a central aspect of Google’s way of doing things: the power of default (all systems are turned on by default and one has to actually opt out of those, but at the cost of degraded Internet experience). All of these relate to the massive issue of privacy.

For Vaidhyanathan, we have five privacy interfaces that we have to negotiate and maintain in order to preserve our privacy and reputation (among other things):

  1. Person to peer: our family and friends
  2. Person to power: our teachers, employers, professional superiors, administrators. There is information about us we generally don’t want to share with them.
  3. Person to firm / corporation: the information we agree / don’t agree to share with the businesses we patronize.
  4. Person to state: the state gets to know some things about us through our tax returns, car registration forms, census responses,  immigration information, etc.
  5. Person to public: this last one is the least understood but has become crucial as we live our lives online.

“At this interface, which is now located largely online, people have found their lives exposed, their names and faces ridiculed, and their well-being harmed immeasurably by the rapid proliferation of images, the asocial nature of much ostensibly “social” Web behavior, and the permanence of the digital record. Whereas in our real social lives we have learned to manage our reputations, the online environments in which we work and play have broken down the barriers that separate the different social contexts in which we move.” (Loc. 1806)

Of course, one of the issues is that data collected in one corner of the Internet usually does not stay there. It is not simply that the government can access it but also other “partners” of the companies we use. as a result, the Googlized subject, as Vaidhyanathan puts it, voluntarily surrenders her information – in bits and pieces – as she goes about her business (public and private) to a variety of public and private entities, each getting its relevant chunk of data. The Panopticon has become a public-private partnership on steroids. This segmented subject fits the needs of market segmentation where customization is essential.

Vaidhyanathan also goes into some details in the controversy related to Google and its Chinese adventure to demonstrate the uneasy relationship between such companies and non-democratic regimes and to renew his plea for a truly global civil society and a global public sphere (obligatory invocation of Habermas included) and the ways in which Google is not contributing to that.

“But the most significant gap separating potential citizens of the world is not necessarily access to Internet technologies and networks. It is the skills needed to participate in the emerging global conversation. Being able to use a search engine, click on a link, and even post to Facebook does not require much skill or investment, but producing video, running an influential blog, participating in the Wikipedia community, hosting a proxy server, and even navigating between links and information sources on the Internet demand much more  money and knowledge than most people in the world have. To acquire such skills, people need at least minimal free time and significant means, and many with disabilities are excluded regardless of education or means. The barriers to entry for such productions are lower than ever in human history, but they are far from free, open, and universal.

(…)

Despite its global and universalizing ambitions and cosmopolitan outlook, Google’s search functions are not effective in connecting and unifying a diverse world of Web users. Instead, its carefully customized services and search results reinforce the fragmentary state of knowledge that has marked global consciousness for centuries. Over time, as users in a diverse array of countries train Google’s algorithms to respond to specialized queries with localized results, each place in the world will have a different list of what is important, true, or “relevant” in response to any query.” (Loc. 2601)

Vaidhyanathan also spends a great deal of space discussing the controversy over Google Books and the legal intricacies that might lead to a settlement between publishers and Google in the context of the fear of the privatization of knowledge if Google were to replace public libraries. This leads Vaidhyanathan to the exposition of what seems clearly to be he thinks should be the public response to Google: the Human Knowledge Project.

This is a very pleasant read but my main issue with the book is this: it already feels dated. Google has already evolved since this book was published. As a result, some of the controversies mentioned by Vaidhyanathan are somewhat forgotten, and other issues are not mentioned: not much on the Buzz and Wave fiascos, nothing on G+, nothing on Vevo.  Things seem to be ever-changing for Google:

Google is abusing its dominant place in the search market, according to Europe’s antitrust chief Joaquin Almunia.

In an interview with the Financial Times of London, Google could be forced to change the way that it provides and displays search results or face antitrust charges for “diverting traffic,” in the words of Almunia, referring to Google’s self-serving treatment to its own search services.

Despite the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s move earlier this month to let off Google with a slap on the wrist – albiet, a change to its business practices, a move that financially wouldn’t dent Google in the short term but something any company would seek to avoid — the European Commission is looking to take a somewhat different approach: take its time, and then hit the company hard.”

And last December (which kinda seems to prove Vaidhyanathan’s point:

“Google’s Eric Schmidt went all out yesterday, saying he was “very proud” of his company’s tax “structure”, and that “it’s called capitalism.”

Inevitably, this had led to calls for a boycott of Google until it starts to pay its fair share of corporation tax.

Of course, these calls have also marked out part of the folly of such boycotts. It’s easy to boycott Starbucks: within 30 seconds walk of most UK branches you’ll find more coffee. We are basically a nation of people selling coffee to each other with a bit of banking on the side.

Google is… harder. If you use any of its web services, you are likely to feel locked in (everyone knows your gmail address! Think how much work it would be to change your address books!); if you have an Android phone, you are probably contracted in without even a choice to leave; and if you use their web search, you’ll probably have finished the search and clicked on a link before you even remember that you were supposed to be boycotting in the first place.

On top of that, of course, a boycott doesn’t look like it would be as effective for Google as it was for Starbucks. Within days of the first allegations about the coffee company coming out, it had posted an open letter on its website; and then even before the big UK Uncut protests, it had already agreed to radically restructure the way it declares its taxes. Comparing that to Schmidt’s bombastic comments, we can infer that Google might put up a bit more of a fight.

The thing is, people ought to be boycotting Google, especially their main cash cow, web search. Not because of tax avoidance, but because it makes a terrible product used only through exactly the same inertia which will kill any political action.

Once upon a time, Google search was the unambiguous best. Its page-rank system, which replaced manually editing search results with an ingenious methodology which used links to a site as guarantors of that site’s quality, meant that it gave more accurate results than many of its now-defunct (or nearly so) competitors like Alta Vista or Yahoo! Search; its simple UI made it easier to use, as did its massive step up in speed, a fact reflected in its show-off display of how many hundredths of a second the search took.

Most importantly, Google refused to offer paid placement, a relatively common practice at the time which mixed advertising with editorial content: companies would literally pay to appear in the search results for a given keyword.

Those principles lasted a long time; even when Google started “personalising” searches, it was still aimed at reducing bad results. Someone who always clicks on cars after searching for “golf” probably wants different results than someone who clicks on sports sites.

Then came Google+. Terrified by Facebook, the company launched a rival social network, and in an attempt to catch up, decided to leverage its existing businesses. Personalised searches are no longer based just on what you have previously searched for. They’re also based on your Google+ contacts, and what they’ve posted about and discussed.”

So, as necessary as this book is, (1) there is too much reference to faith, (2) it is in dire need of an update, and (3) I’m not convinced about the Human Knowledge Project and this needs an update too. Has it stayed as Vaidhyanathan’s dream of a global civil society or have there been developments? Without a new edition soon, this book, which should be important, is in danger of losing relevance even though it makes important points beyond the specific case of Google.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Surveillance Society, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – Existence

January 11, 2013 by and tagged ,

Us science-fiction fans have been waiting for a long time for a new full-fledged novel by David Brin since Kiln People. It is finally here: Existence. I think Existence is on a par with the Uplift trilogy or Earth. It does indeed read like a more elaborate version of Earth. I remember re-reading Sundiver a few years ago and thinking how great it still is.

Existence is a big book. And by that, I don’t just mean that it’s long (although it is, clocking in at 553 pages on my Kindle) but that it aims at big ideas about… wait for it… existence. At the same time, it is an entertaining sci-fi work on the “first contact” theme starting when astronaut / space garbage cleaner Gerald Livingstone grabs a crystal out of orbit and brings it back to Earth, and it turns out that the crystal contains alien avatars and they are sending a message, “Join Us”. Somewhere in China, an impoverished salvage collector makes a similar discovery in an underwater abandoned mansion, except the alien in his crystal is calling the other liars.

But that is only one story line in a book that weaves many threads (and ends up with a lot of loose ends as a result). Brin has created a futuristic world that has obviously suffered massive environmental and social catastrophes (Awfulday, the Autism plague). Global warming has drowned big chunks of the world.

Not everything has been lost, the Mesh (the Internet) connects everybody. Most people have implants that constantly plug them in with AIs, information from the web, smart mobs, and varieties of overlays. Different social movements have emerged, the so-called God-makers (the technology makers and pushers), the Renunciation movement who wants to slow things down and rejects some technology advancements, various religious movements. It sometimes felt like Brin was more interested in the whole gadgetry than his characters or his “world”.

Overall, the world seems to be stratified according to a hierarchy of estates. The First estate is that a global caste of super-wealthy oligarchs who rule behind the scenes but are depicted as benevolent yet possessing a quite clear sense of entitlement. But Brin leaves this stratification system quite incomplete. Most of the characters are privileged people (except for the Chinese salvage collector). Even though it is mentioned in the book at some point that starvation has disappeared, this Chinese example shows that not to be true. And as global as the novel is, Africa is remarkably absent.

Somewhere, in there, one also finds the roots of Uplift, although that storyline is abruptly brought up, then abandoned, and does not do much for the whole book except give the Brin faithful the Origin story of Uplift. Abrupt changes of direction and loose ends left hanging abound in Existence. One such brutal change in direction is when the alien storyline really gets interesting, then, the book fastforwards decades out of nowhere… and then does it again until the end. I guess this last one is supposed to bring all the plotlines together but does not really and the book ends with no ending. Those last 30 pages were a bit of a slug for me.

Oh yeah, and there is a cloned Neanderthal child in there as well.

The cast of character is vast is it is not hard to keep track but one never knows if any of them will make another appearance once a chapter is over. And a lot of them don’t. Hence the loose ends impression. To add to the confusion, supposed “excerpts” from books, manifestos, etc. are interspersed between chapters.

Up until the abrupt fast-forward, I was really enjoying the book although never knowing whether a character would reappear or had been dropped was annoying. After the fast-forward, I confessed to losing interest and I really had to drag myself across the finish line.

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C. Wright Mills – Taking It Big and Speaking Truth To Power

January 5, 2013 by and tagged ,

The last parts of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals deal with The Sociological Imagination and Mills’s overall impact as a public sociologist, his successes and failures as such.

“Mills’s refusal of psychoanalytic interpretations of history and politics and the absence of references to Nietzsche’s conceptions of power and history in his writings were by no means frivolous. His own idea of the politics of truth was anchored in a belief that reason could eventually govern human affairs if only beleaguered intellectuals stepped up to their moral responsibilities. In this sense, he exhibited an abiding faith in the Christian imperative to “speak truth to power,” although, in the end, Mills was less interested in taking power than in abolishing it. For Mills, it was not merely a matter of hectoring, although he did quite a bit of that. In the last years of his life, he was determined to live as a political and public intellectual. Or, to be more exact, he wanted to bring the political implications of critical social theory and commentary into the public sphere. And, perhaps more importantly, he assumed a mission to bring his writing and ideas into the mainstream as well as to audiences in and out of academia in the hopes of creating, despite the odds, a new public, which could be a catalyst for the emergence of a new Left from the shards of a confused and fragmented liberal center.” (196-197).

Public intellectuals, though, have always had a hard time in the US (as opposed to Europe where there are more of them, including quite a few hacks though).

“Mills held fast to the power of ideas to effect change, but he was not so naïve to believe that a relatively small band of intellectuals armed with a culture of critical discourse could by themselves be more than catalysts. Despite his critique of the massification of the public, he was still in Dewey’s camp and not Lippmann’s, insofar as he retained hope in the reemergence of a genuine public that could decisively affect the course of national politics from below.” (197).

This is especially interesting. because, after all, Mills missed the boat on the social movements of his time, such as the Civil Rights (Aronowitz states that Mills found the movement intellectually uninteresting but he supported it), the women’s movement (although he might have already been dead by the time Second Wave feminism really took off) as well as other community-based movements (and he had already pretty much given up on the labor movement).

“He regarded the American intelligentsia as totally lacking in “moral courage” and condemned intellectuals for their “moral cowardice” in the face of McCarthyite attacks on civil liberties and academic freedom and for their failure to grapple with the dark consequences of the permanent war psychosis.” (214-215)

Nothing really changed here.

But in addition to wanting to be a public intellectual, with The Sociological Imagination, Mills also engaged the social sciences in general and sociology in particular, in his own cranky way.

“The Sociological Imagination is nothing short of a program for a new social science. It was written in opposition to what Mills perceived as the two dominant tendencies in social science: what he called “abstracted empiricism” and “grand theory.” Even though his main targets are some of the most influential sociologists of the post–World War II era, they are, as he makes clear, representative of social science as a whole. But what is new for Mills is the imperative to return to the classical tradition of Marx, Simmel, Durkheim, and Weber, all of whom, despite their differences, wanted to understand the social structure, its relation to history, and to the individuals who inhabit it.” (216)

And Mill’s classical definition:

“No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history and their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey.

What is the sociological imagination?

The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social position.” (216).

Everybody is familiar with the concept of “false consciousness”:

““False Consciousness” is a category of the Marxist theory of ideology. Among other things, it connotes the inability of individuals and, perhaps, entire social formations to locate “their position” in the social structure or even their interests. It may mean, for example, that the poor identify with the rich rather than with their own class or that ordinary people patriotically follow their rulers in conducting brutal wars and genocidal annihilations against whole populations or, as Mills was wont to reiterate, to experience their public problems as private troubles.” (216-217)

But it is the practitioners of the discipline that bear the brunt of his critique:

“He critiques social scientists for their penchant for “abstraction,” for beginning with categories rather than social problems (i.e., grand theory), or for employing methodologies of research that have little or no substantive content (i.e., abstracted empiricism).

(…)

He is not concerned primarily with correcting these tendencies for the sake of merely reforming the discipline(s). True to the entirety of his writings—beginning with his study, almost twenty years earlier, of pragmatism in the context of the university—he is obsessed with the conditions under which the public can become vital participants in the political sphere. The manipulation of the public—its reduction to a mass of individuals who feel “trapped” in a welter of “private” troubles that for Mills must become public issues—remains the genuine object of the sociological imagination. But this transformation cannot be effected unless and until social studies—including journalism—begin with the premise that the task is to understand social structures in their historical context as the framework within which individuals experience everyday life, however falsely. The claim for “social studies” (we shall see why he wants to jettison the term “science” in this respect) is that they must go back to the future by resuming the world-historical project of classical social theory.

(…)

“The practice of social scientists has been and continues to be focused on discrete studies of a variety of social problems and phenomena. These studies fail to draw the implications of the results for an understanding of social structure and the “historical scene” within which they occur.

(…)

“Mills writes: “Specialists in method tend also to be specialists in one or another species of social philosophy. The important point about them, in sociology today, is that they are specialists, but that one of the results of their specialty is to further the process of specialization within social sciences as a whole.” A consequence of this specialization is that it tends to obscure the study of problems of social structure.” (221)

How many sections are there in the American Sociological Association these days?

“Sociological and political theory have been relegated to specialties within their respective disciplines and, for the most part, consist of histories and commentaries on past social and political thought. With only some exceptions, theorizing about the global present has migrated to Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The United States does not have its Pierre Bourdieu, Edgar Morin, Norbert Elias, Jürgen Habermas, or Anthony Giddens. But Polish, French, and British sociologies have their Mertons, Lazsarfelds, and Parsonses. American positivism and empiricism have become global phenomena in those societies where intellectuals wish to free themselves from the burdens associated with theories, particularly historical materialism, pointing to social transformation.” (221)

I find Aronowitz’s assessment a bit harsh here. What of Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen? (Do they count as Americans or as fully global – highly privileged – intellectuals) I would add though Manuel Castells and Zygmunt Bauman to the list and be more skeptical of Edgar Morin. What of Southern theorists?

The general point, though, is still valid when one looks at the training future sociologists get not just in the US higher education system but in Europe as well (even though there is indeed greater tolerance for “taking it big”).

“Those who do not address problems of humans from the perspective of social structures and historical contexts that condition their troubles have tacitly or explicitly accepted the current setup and seek only to tinker with it to make it more just.

(…)

It means “taking it big,” by which Mills meant that social studies must be bold enough to grasp the whole social world.” (239)

The last part of Mills’ critical sociology involved culture and its apparatus of production.

“Mills left unfinished the project of a comprehensive study of the cultural apparatus. He was less interested in the aesthetic dimension of cultural production than its political salience. Specifically, he wanted to understand the relation of cultural products to political consciousness and the place of its producers to possible social and political transformations. Mills had come to the conclusion that it was not the economy or even self-interest in general that drove contemporary social agents to action or inaction. Mills concluded that in the epoch of what he termed “overdeveloped” capitalism, the masses were moved more broadly by “culture” than by reason. He had become convinced that the cultural apparatus played a central role in reproducing the entire “set-up.”

(…)

Mills’s invocation of the cultural apparatus, paralleling Horkheimer and Adorno’s idea of the culture industry, signaled that culture was no longer the spontaneous creation of the people but instead was an aspect of the organization and reproduction of social and political domination. If social transformation was at all possible, its protagonists were obliged to understand the process of the production and distribution of the key cultural forms, especially the mass media. Clearly, the implication of his projected study was to argue for a new counterhegemonic strategy of the Left that matched the force of the culture industry.” (242)

“However, a half-century after Mills outlined a project for the critical study of the cultural apparatus, dominant disciplines, even the relatively recent domain of cultural studies, lack the grandeur of Mills’s proposal to ask the crucial question of the relation of the cultural apparatus to political and social power. Perhaps the major exception was the Birmingham School—Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Dick Hebdidge, Judith Williamson, Paul Willis, and Richard Hoggart, among others—whose ethnographies of working-class youth subculture and television analysis were remarkably in sync with Mills. In contrast, many scholars of postmodernism have chosen to follow the broader tendency among the social sciences to confine their research to narrow topics and have failed to connect the implications of what they find to the larger questions of social theory. In fact, among the new generation of practitioners of cultural analysis there developed a suspicion of theory, relegating its main tenets to an outmoded modernism.” (243)

I’m willing to bet that Mills would have no patience of postmodernists. They would make him especially cranky.

But Aronowitz see a few signs of hope and more reason to stay cranky:

“For example, the ethnographer Michael Burowoy’s inaugural 2005 address as incoming president of the American Sociological Association was a plea for sociologists to become public intellectuals. Some listeners understood that the speech was a tribute to the almost forgotten legacy of C. Wright Mills, who exemplified the category. Burowoy neglected to mention Mills, but he did invoke Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the “organic” intellectual—whom he defined as a person closely tied to social movements. Although careful to avoid criticizing his interlocutors, Burowoy’s implicit message to the gathering was that sociologists should enter the public sphere not mainly as experts subservient to prevailing powers but as allies of the agents of change. He argued that sociologists should orient their intellectual work to questions of concern to social movements. Burowoy listed four categories of intellectuals: professional, policy, critical, and public. He called for the “hegemony” of the last two, a project that at best remains a Sisyphean endeavor.

Half a century after Mills’s death, public intellectuals dedicated to fundamental social transformation have become a rarity in American political life, along with the exclusion of a radical politics in the public discourse. Journalists are trained to believe they are ideologically neutral and are warned that reporting from a leftist standpoint is a violation of ethics (the right and center perspectives are far less proscribed, however). Despite Burowoy’s plea, the training of intellectuals in universities tends to discourage students from embarking on a dissident path if, in an ever-tightening academic employment market, they expect to obtain and hold academic jobs. Given these pressures, most academics are content to remain teachers and scholars or, if inclined to politics and other forms of public discourse, are obliged to confine their efforts to tweaking the existing setup.” (243-244)

This is far from speaking truth to power (and let’s not forget the fiasco of the APA dealing with torture):

“The knowledge generated by the policy intellectuals is, frankly, done in behalf of the national, state, and local power elites.

Sociologists are among the main sources of social-welfare knowledge, much of it funded by public and nonprofit agencies. Knowledge is dedicated to assisting the state to regulate, in the first place, the poor. Having forsaken theoretical explorations aimed at explaining social events, the disciplines of economics and political science have, with the exception of a small minority of practitioners, become policy sciences. Economists assist and advise governments and corporations to anticipate and regulate the “market,” raise and spend tax revenues, and help direct investments abroad as well as at home. Political science has virtually become an adjunct to the political parties and to the foreign policy establishment; its polling apparatuses are guides to candidates on how to shape their messages and to whom to target their appeals.” (248)

This seems to parallel Mills’s view of labor leaders.

“Mills spurned the temptation to tailor his skills to the powerful but chose to study them using some of the tools of social research. While many socially conscious colleagues studied “down”—the poor, single mothers, homelessness, for example—Mills insisted on looking power directly in the face.” (248)

I think French sociologists Monique Pinçon-Charlot and Michel Pinçon provide a good example of sociology of the elite that Mills would have approved of.

In the final analysis, Aronowitz sees Mills in 3D: (1) political intellectual, (2) a theorist of American social structure, and (3) a meta-theorist of the social sciences, especially sociology. Because he died so young, it is hard to tell how successful he truly was in all three respects. It is also hard to see who walks in his footsteps today. Anybody? In Mills’s (and Aronowitz’s) view, it could not be someone from academia.

So, where are the public sociologists today? Those trying to take it big? The stars of sociology of globalization? Castells? Bauman? Sennett? Sassen? Stephanie Coontz (albeit in a very specialized way, on marriage and families)?

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C. Wright Mills and The Power Elite

December 30, 2012 by and tagged ,

It is in its fifth chapter that Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals deals with the power elite. The power elite seems an obvious concept and reality to many of us but maybe we forget how against-the-grain the idea was when Mills put it on the sociological table:

“The Power Elite is a description of the structure of power in American society that disagrees with most sociology and academic political science by denying that power is widely dispersed among a welter of interest groups. Mills argues that at the national level power is highly concentrated among large corporations, the military, and the highest political “directorate.”” (168).

… And the critical reception the idea got:

“In his reply to critics, published almost two years after the appearance of the book, Mills states that its contents should be understood as an “elaborated hypothesis but based on acknowledged fact. There is no other way to write now, as a social student, about such large topics.” Taken as a whole, reviewers who criticized Mills from the liberal center and from professional disciplinary standpoints were, with few exceptions, taken aback by the boldness of the thesis and the scope of the analysis. As Mills well understood, this was a period when “social students” had retreated from taking on large topics and were settling in to a regime of truth that confined itself to what were called “measurable” hypotheses. This will to scientism inevitably condemned social studies to the intellectual politics of the small scale, a place that Mills refused to go.” (169)

It is indeed a bit funny that now pretty much every introduction to sociology textbook starts with Mills (especially the sociological imagination, of course), but, from Aronowitz’s book, one gets the clear view that Mills was always the odd man out of American sociology in the era of Parsons / Merton dominance. And also, one should also keep in mind that there is a definite conservative bent to the “will to scientism” (and probably an implicit recognition of the subordinate status of sociology in the field of social sciences).

But mostly, the concept of the power elite is an obliteration of the then-dominant pluralistic thesis:

“By suggesting a hierarchical model of power, pluralism has a place in his paradigm, but only at the middle and local levels. Mills vehemently denies that national power is subject to the influence of interest groups. The main reason is that foreign policy has assumed an overwhelming importance in the constitution of national power, and few, if any, of these interest groups are even concerned with the issues of war, the attendant military ascendancy, or the economic position of key U.S. corporations in world affairs. In fact, as discussed earlier, Mills had discovered that organized labor, the most important of these interests after 1946, willingly fell in line with its government’s global economic and military policies. Apart from patriotism and profound anticommunist sentiments, workers gained from defense contracts, while the “labor aristocracy” of skilled workers benefited from U.S. economic global hegemony.” (170)

On that basis, Mills is very (philosophically) pragmatic in his conception of power:

“Mills is not making any claims about the nature of power, except to identify the men of power by their “position to make decisions having major consequences. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure.” There is no attempt to define power in terms of “human nature” or invariant laws.” (171)

And Aronowitz makes clear the place of The Power Elite in the larger project by Mills of defining power in the social structure as a way of identifying potential agents of change (even if this ends up with pessimistic gloom). There is truly a trilogy of social structure / power and /change that runs through all three major works:

“Almost all of Mills’s writing had a political intent. As we have seen, beyond exploring the social and political dimensions of their subjects, The New Men of Power and White Collar were steps in Mills’s project of finding and evaluating potential agents of social change. In this respect, The Power Elite, the third volume of his trilogy on social structure, continues the project, but with some fundamental differences. The giant financial corporations, the political directorate, and the military are the real decision makers of society and generally understand themselves as powerful on the national stage. A decade after he began work on labor leaders, Mills finds them “integrated” into the dominant institutional orders rather than as independent social actors leading a potential army of regime changers. Thus, labor leaders and their organizations have become “dependent variables” of the three major institutional orders of power. “The United States now has no labor leaders who carry any weight of consequence in decisions of importance to the political outsiders now in charge of the visible government.” Like portions of the fading “old” middle class (mainly but not exclusively farmers), the unions, once insurgent, had settled after the war for places in what Mills terms the “middle levels” of power. As for the various strata of white-collar employees of the new middle class, Mills concludes that, far from forming a new pole of economic and political power, they constitute a primary base for the emerging mass society: slaves of consumerism, fragmented by occupational hierarchies and differential credentials, alienated from themselves as much as their work, and even more powerless than unions.” (172)

Here, the influence of the Frankfurt School is pretty obvious. In addition, the middle level of the power fulfills an ideological and legitimizing function more than an actual active one. This is indeed still very much the case today:

“By “middle level of power,” Mills connotes the Congress, which generally responds to the welter of interest groups—farmers, unions, educational interests, consumer groups, veterans, and so forth—seeking benefits or redress of their grievances from the federal government. In an age when executive authorities have all but monopolized the crucial decisions, mainly those that have to do with war and the direction of the national economy, Congress is the main site of the middle level of national power. It is called upon to ratify decisions—and preemptive actions—taken by the political directorate, in close consultation with the military and the leading corporate capitalist interests. But even the leaders of Congress, who are legally empowered—and obliged—to review and revise executive decisions, are often kept in the dark about policies and initiatives taken unilaterally by government agencies, especially intelligence services and the military.” (172)

There is also a propagandistic dimension to this (and while this is not mentioned in the book, it is clear it is the main function of the media systems):

“The elevation of the very rich and corporate executives to celebrity status alongside the usual glitterati of entertainers and politicians was for Mills a marker of the degree to which American civilization has been given over almost entirely to money and power.” (176)

I would argue that celebrity status is now granted not just to corporate superstars like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates but also to higher ranking members of the military establishment, often described as intellectual and physical Übermenschen. Think about the media fawning over the intellectual prowess of David Petraeus (before his downfall) or the fact that Stanley McCrystal ate only once a day (once a day!!). In previous decades, the same was granted to Colin Powell.

Interestingly, elevation to celebrity status is only granted to two out of three types of actors of the power elite: corporate and military, but not political actors. These always suffer from a legitimation crisis even though they might receive celebrity status while campaigning as Barack Obama did (I would argue that Obama’s elite function is to neutralize significant rising systemic opposition in the context of economic collapse where there might be a political opening for truly alternative movements, while pursuing neoliberal policies with liberal support despite massive legitimation crisis). This is a marker, I think, of their subservient status to corporate and military elites, often seen as free from criticism (unless they defraud other celebrities, like Bernie Madoff did).

“Today, many members of the U.S. Senate are certified millionaires, and a few major public officials are, like Bloomberg, billionaires. Following Mills’s schema, their fortunes derive either from inheritance or from their positions as corporate investors and executives. In either case, their direct entrance into political office signifies the merger of powerful institutional orders. Along with the rise of the tycoon-politician, there was also the advent of the soldier-politician.” (177)

Think again about Colin Powell and David Petraeus (and to a lesser extent, Wesley Clark). And obviously, corporate celebrities do not need to actually bother to run for office (and win) to influence public policy. They can create influential foundations to push their agenda without any mechanisms of accountability or legitimacy to do so (see: Bill and Melinda Gates, and the other wealthy members of the elite who write them big checks, like Warren Buffett).

This also reminds me of this infographic on the rise of the Goldman Sach’s men as masters of the Eurozone:

“The top of the economic order is indeed dominated by the corporate rich, which includes property owners and high managers. Together they make the decisions that rule much of the U.S. economy and are participants in “broader economic and political interests” that go beyond those of a single firm or managerial stratum. So the concept of “elite” includes but does not repudiate class; it redefines it.” (179)

I would argue that it not only redefines class but it integrates gender and race as well.

“Most professional politicians and the institutions they control have been relegated to the middle level of power. So, perhaps with the exception of the president of the United States and some key members of his cabinet who interact with the military and economic orders, the political directorate appears not to be distinct from the military or the large corporate elites.” (179-180)

As neatly illustrated by this other infographic (click on it for ginormous view):

So, what does this leave us with?

“As for the individual voter—the ultimate ideal sovereign of democratic societies—under conditions where the active public is all but dissolved, she is far removed from centers of decision, even though required to confer consent on those occupying decisive positions of national power. And even if Congress remains, at least constitutionally, the necessary institution of consent of the broad policies of the executive, it has lost its role as the main source of initiative and decision, especially at a time when the global rather than national politics is the main center.” (180)

Now, I am sure one could argue that this is not true and just look at what the evil Republicans are doing in Congress right now, obstructing presidential initiatives, etc. However, especially in these days of “fiscal cliff”, we all know this is political theater, right? This a manufactured crisis designed to push through further austerity, and provided media ideological cover.

And for Mills, intellectuals and academics are not blameless (even though he had some hope for them as agents of change… we all know better now, don’t we?):

“Beyond ideology, there are practical motives for the power elite to try to win the loyalty of intellectuals. Technology has become the bread and butter of business as much as war. Humanists—those trained in literature, philosophy, and history—have, in addition to scientists and engineers, been among the pioneers of new technologies associated with communications such as cybernetics and other electronic innovations. We are familiar with the phrase “knowledge is power,” but Mills was skeptical of the assertion that the bearers of knowledge were fated to occupy high positions in the power arrangements of U.S. society. Instead, he argued that even as industry, the military, and the state increasingly relied on expertise, especially those who possessed scientific and technological knowledge, the power elite was in a position to buy knowledge and employ those who possessed it, thereby placing intellectuals and experts in a subordinate position. Moreover, the growing importance of information technology by the 1950s provided major incentives to giant corporations to engage actively in education and increase their role and control of scholars and intellectuals.” (182)

And, of course, any elite, as Bourdieu taught us, must have mechanisms guaranteeing its reproduction:

“But there is another set of motives for the emergence of what Martin Kenney, following the suggestions of Mills and Thorstein Veblen, termed “the university/industrial complex.” The elite is interested in guaranteeing its own continuity and survival. Its formation, in addition to inherited wealth, relies heavily on a select group of elite prep schools, Ivy League universities, and other select institutions, such as Stanford. Mills notes that becoming a Harvard, Yale, or Princeton graduate is taken by corporate executives as a sign of candidature for entrance into the elite just as the high military officer corps is recruited, overwhelmingly, from the three main military academies: West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy. We might add that of the many professional schools that train business executives, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Wharton School of Pennsylvania, and Stanford also occupy special positions. Additionally, the law programs of these institutions confer elite status to its students. So it is not only the ties of practical technological alliances that bind some universities to the power elite; it is also what Pierre Bourdieu was later to term the acquisition of various forms of intellectual and social “capital,” whose components go beyond the curriculum. The Harvard or Yale undergraduate and professional student typically acquires a set of values, attitudes, and orientations that prepares him or her for being considered potential members of the power elite.” (182-183)

Add habitus to social capital as well.

“The fundamental condition for preventing the rise of a highly centralized power elite—and the concomitant submergence of the institutions of popular will—is for Mills, as for Dewey, democracy, which entails rough political equality for individuals and which is not necessarily fulfilled by the practice of voting or by representative institutions such as legislatures. As we have seen, these representative institutions retain their limited viability at a level below national power, but given the position of the main elites atop a world in which wars—actual and potential—and the global economy dominate politics, only an alert, critical, and active public can hope to thwart the further erosion of democratic participation.” (184)

I would also add that local politics is just as problematic as the national level. One need only look at the nonsense that comes out of state legislatures and school boards to realize that subsidiarity is not always best.

“Mills assures us that America is not fully a mass society nor was it ever mainly a community of publics. But he is plainly disturbed to discover that a highly effective media of mass communication (later he is to term these “the cultural apparatus”), consumerism, the decline of voluntary associations that once afforded people the chance to articulate their concerns and views, and the segregation and isolation of large chunks of the population have combined to vitiate the chance that an “articulate public” can challenge the power elite. Rejecting a connotation of conspiracy, the institutional trends that together contribute to making the public a “phantom” are a consequence of drift rather than motive. Equally important is Mills’s analysis of the demise of the old middle class as an independent social and political force—the historical public in American life—and the failure of the new middle class to fill that space, which prepared the ground for the massification process now in full swing.” (185-186)

Heck, that is a question to which Brad Delong still can’t find an answer. The system is delegitimized thanks to the economic collapse triggered by elite behavior but, at the same time that cultural battles are going the liberal way (gay marriage), the cultural underpinnings of the world system are still solidly in place through media concentration and successful propagation of the neoliberal and individualistic ideologies (what Bauman calls “the liquid society”).

And then, there is this (a perfect illustration, in my view):

“It was more sophisticated than we had imagined: new documents show that the violent crackdown on Occupy last fall – so mystifying at the time – was not just coordinated at the level of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and local police. The crackdown, which involved, as you may recall, violent arrests, group disruption, canister missiles to the skulls of protesters, people held in handcuffs so tight they were injured, people held in bondage till they were forced to wet or soil themselves –was coordinated with the big banks themselves.”

How can one not get cranky in the face of a triumphant power elite?

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C. Wright Mills – Middle Class, Ideology, and Mass Consumer Society

December 15, 2012 by and tagged , ,

Having examined the weakest component of the power elite in the third chapter, in Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, in chapter 4, the focus is on another major work of Mills’s: White Collar – The American Middle Classes, considered the second volume of his social structure trilogy after The New Men of Power:

White Collar stands, after sixty years, as the most comprehensive work that American social science has produced in the study of the new middle class. Mills does nothing less than to formulate a detailed stratification system of the new middle class, from state and corporate bureaucracies embodied in the “managerial demiurge” at the top of the status hierarchy, to intellectuals in intermediate positions, to what he describes as the “enormous file” of clerical labor.” (134)

The middle class, in American collective imaginary, holds a special place. Where the concept of working class never really took hold, the middle class is both aspirational and ideological. It is aspirational in that it reformulates the social stratification system in terms of capacity to consume en masse, and represents the achievement of the American Dream.

It is ideological in that it is a category constructed by the rising mass media and its main target. It is ideologically constructed as a specific class of workers. To define it, Mills uses several inspirations:

“As Mills demonstrates in White Collar, the “new” salaried middle class was highly stratified, ranging in status and income from managers at the pinnacle, followed by qualified professionals (no longer able to hang out their shingle and become small entrepreneurs but instead are obliged to work for salaries), to clerks, mostly women, who perform routine and repetitive tasks. At the turn of the twentieth century and not only in the United States, the new middle class was on the road to outstripping, in size and social importance, the old, entrepreneurial, self-employed middle class, which was being cut down to size by large-scale corporate capital. By the 1960s, this new middle class also outnumbered industrial workers.

One of the earliest examples of scholarly attention to white-collar employees appeared in 1912. Emil Lederer, a German sociologist, was one of the first observers of the “middle position” of salaried employees, those between owners and wage workers. He identified this stratum as a “new” middle class, new because it differed from the “old” middle-class of owners of small productive and commercial property. Members of the new middle class worked for salaries and were generally employed by large corporations and the state.” (130)

And:

“Kracauer is mostly concerned with the more-or-less complete recruitment of salaried employees to capital’s side by means of “the ideologies that fetter them.” These ideologies appealed to the salaried masses’ feeling of superiority based on their schooling, which awards them a degree of status but no concrete material rewards. On the contrary, far from the individuality promised by high capitalism, Kracauer shows that the salaried employee has become the crucial element of the increasing massification of contemporary society exemplified in the “standard character.” These characters “adapt themselves more or less easily to the firm,” continuously aware of the distinction between themselves and the proletariat, and their adoption of “bourgeois ideology” masks the gap between their self-conception and their actual living and working conditions.” (131)

And so, white collar workers become the adjuncts of the state and capital rather than challengers to them. However, being workers as much as their industrial counterparts, they do experience the same alienation.

“Alienation remains, for Mills, the basis for the popular acceptance of mass culture and mass consumption as the real purposes of life. The implication of Mills’s analysis is that the demise of the “gospel of work” as meaningful activity and its replacement by instrumentalism in which income is its only “meaning” constitutes the foundation of his judgment that leisure reigns supreme as the object of human activity in the modern world. But Mills also calls attention to the decline of the family and the community as the principal sites of human relationships.” (136)

And contrary to the current anti-union narratives, unions, in the US, have been a disciplining force for workers, into not challenging the system but getting more secure positions in unfavorable conditions and removing uncertainties from the convulsions of capital.

“The 1960s and early 1970s was an era of intense white-collar organizing, first in health care and then among the millions of government employees at federal, state, and local levels. Some of the most dramatic gains were made among teachers, whose two major unions, taken together, are now America’s largest, with a combined membership of almost four million. But, chiefly at the municipal and state governments, unions made huge strides among clerical workers, including in universities. By the mid-1970s, more than a third of public employees were in unions, and the proportion was much higher in education. Unionism sank roots among the professoriate as well. But it did not take long before these organizations fit themselves into the already established union models forged in production and transportation: the point of work was now to enable the worker to consume more on the basis of a labor contract that secured her job from the ups and downs of the economy and the arbitrary whims of the managers and that provided steady raises and a measure of health and pension benefits. Their chief goal was job and retirement security and, only occasionally, did they concern themselves with the totality of their members’ lives, let alone the lives of working people in general.” (137)

The rewards for this were greater access to social goods: education and mass consumption. The trade-offs?

“But if intellectuals are the seat of critical thinking and new ideas with which to confront the new conditions of life, Mills finds them wanting, mainly because they have lost their freedom to think against the grain. (…) They have been thoroughly incorporated as part of the bureaucracies of the media and other corporate organizations.

(…)

Mills ends by challenging the judgment according to which the postwar intellectual is a free agent in the age of corporate capitalism. Mature capitalism extends its reach beyond the market for ordinary commodities into culture. Insofar as culture is a contested ideological terrain, its transformation into a commodity and crucial aspect of power goes hand in hand with the subordination of the free intellectual into a well-paid salaried employee. Even the Hollywood writer is a servant of the company; Mills allows that perhaps the playwright remains autonomous, but not the academic.

(…)

The passing of the free intellectual has given rise to the “technician” of existing powers. “Intellectual activity that does not have relevance to established money is not likely to be highly valued” (156). The intellectual cum administrator, “idea man,” and publicist has been made solidly middle class, part of the apparatuses of power rather than their independent critic.” (140)

Rings a familiar bell, my fellow academics?

“Mills’s ruminations on the transformation of intellectuals into technicians of power in modern U.S. society and their middle-class identity, combined with his general skepticism of the possibility of the emergence of an effective radical opposition party in which intellectuals could play a critical role, poses significant questions for the future of democratic society. He concluded that the institutions of mass communications, of culture, and of economic, political, and social organizations have little or no room for critical thought, much less self-criticism. What is left is a politics of despair manifested in the absurd claim that American politics is ruled by consensus.” (141)

That last one is a dig at the pluralistic thesis. But the institution that comes for a real beating here is the media as the ideological shaper of mass culture based on consumption as the remedy to alienation. His criticism is again strikingly prescient:

“Mills insists that “the forms and contents of political consciousness [including class consciousness] or their absence, cannot be understood without reference to the world created and sustained by these media, [which are] the common denominator of American experience, feeling, belief and aspiration” (334). The media “trivialize issues into personal squabbles rather than humanizing them by asserting their meaning for you and me.” Mills’s main criticism of the media is that it holds “a monopoly on the ideological dead; they spin records of political emptiness” (335).” (143)

Can you say “reality TV”?

By extension, this leads to a fake pluralism within the polity, ruled by consensus within the power elite, behind illusions generated by the media:

“While noting rising living standards and the remarkable postwar economic growth fueled by technological innovation, Mills strikes a dissident chord: “there is very little difference between the two parties that monopolize American politics” (346), and there has never been a real alternative political formation to challenge them. The reason: the social structure that supports this arrangement has “drained” nearly all of the opposition leaders. In the absence of a significant opposition, American politics is virtually a one-party system in which “impersonal manipulation has replaced authority” (345). In this vortex, the individual feels powerless to change anything; his voice is silenced. Thus there is, for the most part, no public debate about fundamental principles or, indeed, vital political issues of any sort.

So the problem for the new middle class is that neither political awareness nor political organization is present to oppose the monopoly of knowledge and power that prevails in American society.” (143)

And Mills is merciless in noting the massive failure of social scientists, including sociologists in pointing this out.

“Most sociologists, political scientists, and journalists were busy celebrating economic prosperity and asserting that social rule was dispersed by a multiplicity of interest groups, none of which, according to them, remotely held a monopoly of political power. And they ignored the concentration and centralization of economic power or, if duly noted, insisted that phenomena such as oligopoly were decoupled from politics and the state.” (144)

Needless to say, this is a dig at the dominant sociology of the day back then: Parsons’s and Merton’s functionalism.

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C. Wright Mills, Labor and The Power Elite

December 14, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

It is with the third chapter of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, that things get more sociological and critical. This chapter is largely dedicated to Mills’s The New Men of Power – America’s Labor Leaders, published in 1948.

“The New Men of Power is not a book about the millions of industrial and service workers who swelled the ranks of organized labor during the turbulent 1930s. It does not purport to tell the story of the upsurge. Rather, it presupposes mass unionism and is concerned chiefly with the consequences of the integration of the labor movement into the political economy during the New Deal and the Truman administration. The New Men of Power resumes the tale at the moment when unions are in the process of institutionalization and when a more or less permanent labor bureaucracy is in formation, which, while still ultimately accountable to the membership, has given rise to a new type of elite. The labor elite tends to see the union as a military force in which the lower ranks, the rank and file, are subordinate to the union leaders and their staffs.

(…)

It is not a movement by, as well as for, its members and for working people as a whole. Most major unions, according to Mills, are run from the top by people who are part of a power elite. Thus, to grasp the present and future prospects of organized labor, the object of investigation is, necessarily, the labor leader, not the rank and file.” (104)

This emphasis on the consequences of institutionalization very much reflects Weber’s influence (combined with Marx) on Mills. Except that, for Mills, bureaucratization and institutionalization are not neutral processes of modernization or consequences of it. They are very much processes of power. And since Mills is very much a sociologist of the state, it is not surprising to see institutionalization as part of co-optation by the other branches of the power elite.

“Mills’s characterization of the labor leader as a member of the elite of power and far removed from the everyday lives of the workers he represents is a reflection not only of institutionalization but also of the labor leader’s penchant to hobnob with other members of the elites. The national labor leader tends to spend more time with members of Congress, officials in the executive branch of government, other top union leaders, and corporate counterparts than with the rank-and-file leaders of his own union.” (106)

This seems strikingly accurate still today, and, for Mills, this predicts the downfall of the labor movement (no longer a movement then, once institutionalized and bureaucratized).

“Mills concludes:

“If the CIO ideologists are not careful, the managers of corporate property will select only the reasonable concessions that are offered—that labor will not strike, that labor will help with the wars, that labor will be responsible, but they will reject labor’s pretensions to a voice in production, within the plants and in the planning of the U.S. political economy. (120–121)

The prescience of these remarks is all too apparent to students of current industrial relations: having cleared the “extremists and crackpots” from its ranks, labor rarely strikes, generally supports the wars, and has steadily lost power at the workplace. And demanding a voice in the larger political economy is as far from the minds of twenty-first-century American labor leaders as was the idea, in the immediate postwar period, that labor was a movement whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of capital. It took only a few more years after the publication of his study of labor leaders for Mills to consign organized labor to a “dependent variable” in the political economy”.

(…)

Mills’s main argument is that union power is doomed unless labor acquires an explicit ideology and has a series of ideas that are fully consistent with an assessment that, far from being benign, business and the political directorate are hostile, only occasionally tolerant of labor, and poised to wage full-scale class warfare on unions and their mass constituents.” (108 - 109)

“While large sections of the liberal center remained pro-union (at least in the general sense but often turning against union militants when they flexed their collective muscle by taking direct action), the tripartite alliance of labor leaders, capital, and the national political directorate forged elements of what the “mass public” perceived to be a new power elite. However, as Mills makes clear, labor leaders were junior partners, accumulating some concessions from the table of the main actors and playing an important part in stabilizing the political and economic systems, largely by controlling the wanton impulses of the rank and file—but never really sharing power.” (111)

Emphases mine.

Throughout the book, I have never being amazed at the prescience of Mills’s perspective on the labor movements, unions and their leadership in the context of late capitalism.

Labor leaders are prone to bemoan the apathy of the rank-and-file membership. Mills points out that their complaint carries little weight when they have committed the unions to supporting the two main political parties, which, in his estimation, offer little to the workers: “Such support only takes away their chance to organize politically and alert men to politics as live issues. The activities of these politics alienate people from politics in the deeper meanings and demoralizes those on the edge of political consciousness” (270). The alienation of many workers from politics and from their own union is not surprising; the picture Mills has painted is of a progressively tighter labor bureaucracy that privileges retention of power over a program of encouraging the rank and file to take over the union, let alone encroach on managerial prerogatives in the workplace.

(…)

Without the intellectuals and a new surge of rank-and-file involvement in the union, Mills foresees a grim future. As a slump deepens and mass unemployment eats into the moral fabric of society, large corporate capital and the state are likely to respond by inaugurating a major offensive against workers and their unions. Under present circumstances, workers and unions are poorly equipped to offer effective resistance and are likely to enter into a hopeless tailspin.” (115-117)

For Mills, there should have been a labor party in the US, one that would not depend on established political parties and that would have been truly (although non-communist, Mills had no time for them even though he was virulently anti-McCarthy, he did not disapprove of the purging of ranks of organized labor). To align itself with an established party has been a losing strategy and one can very clearly right now the efforts of the other political party to finish off the labor movements in the US, while the other party stands by and does close to nothing except come election time, expecting the union rank-and-file to fundraise and campaign based on nothing more  than “the other guys are worse.”

The state of organized labor today then, is the direct results, a few decades later, of the institutionalization of labor within the state and the structures of capitalism (a joint venture, despite illusions to the contrary). By joining the power elite, albeit in subordinate status, the leaders of the labor movement (the new men of power) basically signed the death warrant of a significant and radical component of the American society that had the potential to challenge the power elite.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Labor, Organizational Sociology, Politics, Power, Social Institutions, Social Theory, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – To Free A Family

November 22, 2012 by and tagged , , , ,

Sydney Nathans’s To Free A Family: The Journey of Mary Walker was a birthday gift. What a great reading it turned out to be. As the title indicates, the book is about Mary Walker’s struggle to get her children and her mother out of slavery after she herself had escaped it. It took her 17 years. This is a book that perfectly reveals the connections between biography and history, personal troubles and public issues, and the necessity to place individual trajectories and events in their contextual nexus of structure, history and power. In other words, this book beautifully illustrates, deliberately or not, the sociological imagination.

It is first and foremost a very well written, very engaging, work of history (fully sourced and all that stuff), following the fate of Mary Walker, a slave from a prestigious and wealth family from Raleigh, NC. Mary Walker was take to Philadelphia by her owners as they went there annually so that their invalid daughter receive medical treatment. After an argument with her owner and under the threat of being sent from Raleigh to the deep South, and therefore being separated from her family (owned by the Camerons for generations), Mary decided to escape. As the author notes, such threats of separation were often the main motivation for slaves to escape while leaving relatives behind, because they had at least some hope that they might manage later to get them out of bondage.

Once fugitives, escaped slaves had then to use the underground system to obtain cover and protection until they could reach a safe (i.e. free) state… that is, until the passage of the Federal Fugitive slave law.

So, Mary Walker escaped slavery in 1848, was reunited with her children at  the end of the war in 1865 and died in 1872. The book is her story as recomposed through the massive correspondence and diaries of her (mostly) white friends from Philadelphia and Cambridge (MA) for whom she worked and who helped her in her quest to reunite with her family. Mary Walker herself only left behind three letters. So, we learned about her, throughout the book, through other people’s writings. This renders her a a bit of a passive character in her own story as she never really “speaks”, she is mentioned, spoken about, sometimes cited, but more often than not, a third-person character.

In many ways, Mary Walker was fortunate in that right after her escape, she was helped, taken in, and employed by the Lesley family. Peter and Susan Lesley are central characters in the book because it is mostly through their letters that we get to know Mary. It is their extensive correspondence over the years that gives us a sense of who Mary was and their own perception of her. Mary Walker spent many years caring for Susan Lesley’s mother (who happened to be FDR’s great grandmother). It is the Lesleys who will try to organize a buy out of the remaining Walkers still in bondage and it is them who also attempted to set up an escape for Mary Walker’s children and mother (that failed).

What makes the book important, beyond the extremely moving story of Mary Walker, is to be provided with the historical context and legal background necessary to understand the situation of escaped slaves and the risks they were running even in free states. More than that, what the book successfully shows is that people, abolitionists of various degrees, whites and blacks, did not patiently sit on their hands, waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation. Long before the war, there was a tremendous amount of activism, advocacy and agitation in favor of abolition (and the corresponding, often legislatively successful, backlash from slave states).

Of course, everybody is familiar with the Underground Railroad, but this required a tremendous amount of organization, networking, and resources to pull off successfully. And indeed, success was never guaranteed and getting people out of the South could take years, as it did for Mary’s children. And once out of the South, relocation and integration into Northern society was not easy either. The book describes in great details the challenges related to all these aspects and how much persistence it required from all the parties involved.

The elimination of slavery was not Lincoln’s individual gift to the nation. It was the patient and persistent product of the actions of a large number of people who slowly worked to undermine the institution of slavery, through direct action but also publication, activism, lobbying and networking and raise consciousness on this issue. It is the great strength of this book to seamlessly connect one individual story to this web of social change.

Posted in Book Reviews, Racism, Slavery, Social Discrimination, Social Movements | No Comments »

C. Wright Mills in Context – The Roots of The Cranky

November 17, 2012 by and tagged ,

The first two chapters of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, are devoted to early intellectual career, his philosophical roots and his place in the New York intellectual scene. I have to confess that these were, to me, the least interesting chapters because I couldn’t wait to get into the real kick-a$$ material. These first two chapters reflect the fact that, being a young academic, Mills had to pretty much fit within the system but never really felt comfortable doing so (hence, the hiding from Lazarsfeld).

The first chapter, then, retraces Mills’s pragmatic roots, especially Mead (with some reservations):

“Mead’s psychology is social, because humans are defined as a communicating species in which the capacity for speech takes pride of place. Since language is the chief way in which humans communicate with one another, both expressively, that is, in terms of emotions, and intellectually, in the transmission of ideas, speech is the key interpersonal mediation and the mediation between mind and society. The individual communicates with “society” by internalizing not only a particular other but also by internalizing the “generalized other.” Society therefore enters individual consciousness via an inner dialogue between the subject “I” and the “me” that connotes a subject who is able to take herself as a social object.

Mills argues, in partial disagreement with Mead, that the individual as a social being internalizes not society as a whole but only a segment of it, namely the social networks and institutions that constitute the salient references for social life.” (35)

There also seems to be some (not mentioned) reference to Wittgenstein and Kenneth Burke:

“By acquiring the categories of a language, we acquire the structured “ways” of a group, and along with the language, the value-implicates of those “ways.” Our behavior and perception, our logic and thought, come within the control ambit of a system of language…. A vocabulary is not merely a string of words; immanent within it are societal textures—institutional and political coordinates. Back of a vocabulary lie sets of collective action.” (From Mills dissertation)

Or here:

“Vocabularies of motive are situational but also limit the range of action. Situations, then, are always conditioned by anticipated consequences as they are embodied in certain vocabularies. In turn, vocabularies are not merely descriptions; they are attempts to influence consequences by controlling the response of others; they are “strategies of action.” If these strategies fail to achieve desired consequences, new vocabularies of motive may be adopted, but under ordinary circumstances they are quite stable, because the unanticipated is an exception.

(…)

Our actions are conditioned by the vocabularies that inform perception, the strategies we employ to achieve desired outcomes, as well as by what we think is likely to result from a series of actions. These are all elements of social life, not individual consciousness, and the operative concept is the interaction of language that is largely derived from prior situations, the situation itself, and anticipated consequences.” (36)

But even though Mills seems to have admired Dewey and other pragmatists, he was critical of their reformism and projects such as Hull House (Addams) and Dewey’s education projects as not radical enough.

Aronowitz summarizes Mills’s thesis as such:

“Taken in its entirety, Mills’s Sociology and Pragmatism may be understood as a Marxist-Weberian inspired analysis and critique of America’s dominant philosophical paradigm of the first half of the twentieth century and of its leading protagonists. At the same time, it is a demonstration of the view that ideas have no internal history of their own and can only be understood within the historically specific frameworks in which they are conceived and elaborated. These frameworks have economic, social, and political specifications and, in the case of the professionalization of philosophy, are entwined with the rise of higher learning in America in the wake of industrialization and the attempt of traditional liberal ideology to come to terms with the industrializing era.” (51)

As mentioned above, the following chapter is devoted to a mapping of the New York intellectual scene in which Mills navigated. I have to admit that I am almost completely unfamiliar with this context (not my generation, not my culture). I recognized a couple of names here and there, but that was it.

It is in this context that Mills honed some of the ideas that he will fully develop in his subsequent books and started integrated Marxist concepts into his writings. In a Veblenian (if there is such a word) vein, Mills (and Gerth) argues that the salaried middle-class cannot be the carriers of radical social transformation but are more or less completely beholden to the corporate system and subservient to the capitalist class (a position held by some in the New York scene). The experts, scientists and technicians are political dupes, and the more so that their training is rigorous and rigid. They are the functionaries of the political system, consciously or not, especially as their role in the exercise of power is disguised through objective expertise. Mills had also limited sympathy for intellectuals of retreated to the universities in the face of the McCarthy witch hunts.

“Whether the intellectual is a salaried employee of a university or of a large media or other industrial corporation, being “told what to do”—and, one might add, how to do it—undercuts the conventional wisdom, underlined by Foucault and, in a somewhat different mode, by the Frankfurt School, that knowledge is power and that artistic and intellectual work is still an autonomous activity in contemporary capitalist society. Instead, the system has made nearly all intellectuals and artists dependent on salaries, contracts, and concepts that are delivered as commands from powerful institutions. Whether applying for grants from the government or from private foundations, the intellectual is on “assignment.” Thus, much academic and commercial research is conducted only based on the willingness of those in power. The artist is no less constrained by the dictates of the art market. To paint or sculpt in ways that violate current fashions is likely to condemn the creator, regardless of her talent, to the margins of the art world or to oblivion. Clearly, we can see that Mills is nostalgic for a time when the independent intellectual and artist was still possible; when the question of how to support oneself was not an overriding consideration; or, to be more precise, when the cost of living, especially rents, made the existence of a coterie, if not a class, of independent intellectual craftsperson possible. Tacitly, he mourns the passing of the traditional intellectual, if not the conditions that made his existence possible.” (60)

Mills was undoubtedly anti-communist but completely opposed to anything related to the Cold War. He did not mince his words against liberal intellectuals who seemed to go along with the rising consumer society and as they vocally (and cowardly, for Mills) threw the baby out with the bathwater by denouncing socialist ideas they had erstwhile held. This was the reason why Mills called for a New Left that would generate a typically American brand of radicalism, untainted by communism but unafraid of the climate of the time.

It is in this context that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. gets a special beating in Aronowitz’s book as representative of this intellectual cowardly trend:

“In fact, as early as the publication of Mills’s first major work, The New Men of Power (1948), the wave of accommodation and collaboration with liberalism by these erstwhile intellectual radicals was already in full force. In 1947, Schlesinger wrote in Partisan Review that the United States was on the brink of socialism, a logical outcome of the incremental progress that had been initiated by the New Deal. In Schlesinger’s conception, socialism was little more than an expanded welfare state within the parameters of liberal democratic institutions, a characterization that was later to fit most of Western Europe’s social-democratic parties. The optimism expressed in this article could not have been more divergent from Mills’s view, expressed forcefully in his book on labor leaders, that corporate America was gearing up to steamroll over labor’s hard-won gains of the 1930s, an insight fueled by the Republican-dominated eightieth Congress’s enactment of the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act in 1947. Two years later, Schlesinger went on to publish a full-length liberal manifesto, The Vital Center, in which radical traditions are decisively rejected—not only those associated with communism but also those of independent Marxism. Schlesinger’s book was also a signature statement of the doctrine of American exceptionalism, according to which the United States, an open, democratic society, has circumvented the conditions that produced powerful European socialist and communist movements.” (71-72)

These, I think, are the roots of Mills’s crankiness: the quick betrayal of radical idea under the not-so-courageous, and very fashionable rejection of Stalinism and the uncritical to the submission to the ideology (disguised as end of ideology) of the triumph of democratic pluralism in the exceptional American society.

This is why Mills’s subsequent work take on the structures of power in their different dimensions as they co-opt more and more categories of people that should have opposed the system, from intellectuals to labor union leaders.

More to come.

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C. Wright Mills – Ranting Sociologist

November 13, 2012 by

I have finished reading Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, which is an intellectual biography of Mills, in the context of the post-War New York intellectual / radical scene. It is a very dense book. I don’t think it is meant for larger, non-academic audiences. It is not the easiest read but, if one is used to academic reading, it is quite readable.

However, if you expect to learn a lot about Mill’s personal life, you will be disappointed because there is practically nothing in that regard. And the reason seems to be that there wasn’t much to explore in the first place. The only thing one can discern is that Mills was a rather cranky, ill-tempered man with whom it was not easy to get along and that he spent a bit a of time, early in his academic career, hiding from his boss, Paul Lazarsfeld (but then, who wouldn’t! :-) ).

So, the focus of the book is the intellectual works of Mills as well as his relationship with the academic and intellectual scene of his time. Accordingly, the book is structured by chapters analyzing each of his major publications, with a concluding chapter, reflecting on Mills’s influence over contemporary American sociology.

Because it is such a dense book and because I took a ton of notes, I intend to dedicate a series of posts to the book so that it will not be a one-post book review but rather, probably, one post per chapter, with a focus on one publication in some depth. In the present post, I will just confine myself to the opening of the book and some general comments.

First of all, I think Mills would have made a great blogger and twitterer, for the following reasons (Kindle location):

“C. Wright Mills defies classification in the neat compartments of scholarly disciplines and ideology. His was a restless mind in the classical traditions of Marx, Thorstein Veblen, and Max Weber, all of whom broke through methodological rituals and drew widely from philosophy, social science, and the arts. Mills culled such sources as newspapers, census data, and ethnographic studies. He sometimes invoked popular novels to illustrate his points. Yet even as he performed some sociological procedures early in his career, he sharply criticized what he later termed “abstracted empiricism”—the practice of confining social science to small studies or specific domains without drawing them together in broad generalizations about society as a whole. From the beginning, he employed social and cultural analysis to make sense of what he termed the “main drift” of politics and social relations.” (Loc. 70)

I think he would have written excellent blog posts based on a multiplicity of sources. He would have used all sorts of social media to get his message across and would have had no problem ditching the regular academic publications. And mostly, he was cranky:

“Unlike many contemporary, or current, public intellectuals, he was neither a servant nor a supplicant of power but, in the sense of the seventeenth-century English radical, was a “ranter”: his job was to sound the alarm. Indeed, some of his writings recall the pamphlets of the American Revolution, wherein numerous and often anonymous writers addressed the “publick” of small farmers and artisans as much as they did those holding political and economic power. Much of Mills’s later writing can also be compared to that of turn-of-the-twentieth-century American populist and socialist pamphleteers, whose aim was simultaneously to educate and arouse workers and farmers to the evils of corporate power.” (Loc. 204)

And I was wondering whom Aronowitz had in mind in the quote above. Who does he think the servants and supplicants of power are. Power, of course, is at the heart of Mills’s work, in all its dimensions, and as it is exercised by the elites. His work sought to expose these mechanisms of power. In that sense, his work touches upon dominant ideologies (spread through mass culture… the inspiration from the Frankfurt School is clear), domination through institutions (the iron law of oligarchy), and the working of the men of power (the power elite).

“Throughout his intellectual life, he soundly rejected the dominant ideology of American pluralism, the view that American society and politics were constituted by a plurality of competing but ultimately compatible and conciliatory forces, none of which dominated the state and the economy. He drew instead on Veblen’s idea that political and economic power was constituted through those who control “institutional orders” and call the shots of public and economic policy. ” (Loc. 83)

And, when analyzing power, Mills did not believe in the Weberian scientific neutrality thing, especially when said neutrality is in reality a subservience to power, a cop out.

“In these days, when most members of the professoriate have retreated from public engagement except when they act as consultants for large corporations, media experts, and recipients of the grant largesse of corporate foundations and government agencies who want their research to assist policy formulation—or confine their interventions to professional journals and meetings—Mills remains a potent reminder of one possible answer to the privatization of legitimate intellectual knowledge.

(…)

Mills rejects as spurious the doctrine according to which the social investigator is obliged to purge his work of social and political commitment. His values infuse his sociological research and theorizing, and he never hid behind methodological protestations of neutrality. Mills was a partisan of movements of social freedom and emancipation while, at the same time, preserving his dedication to dry-eyed critical theory and dispassionate, empirical inquiry. He was an advocate of a democratic, radical labor movement but, nevertheless, was moved to indict its leadership not by fulmination but by a careful investigation of how unions actually worked in the immediate postwar period.” (Loc. 467)

This indictment of labor leaders is part of the larger analysis of the power elite. And one only needs to watch Inside Job to know how accurate that first paragraph is on the selling out of the academic elite:

More generally, Mills had a rather hegemonic view of the system:

“The institutions of the liberal state still need, and must solicit, the consent of the governed. But Congress and the executive are increasingly tied, both ideologically and financially, to the holders of institutional power, not to their electors, except insofar as the public refuses to confer consent to policies that they perceive to be contrary to their interests and succeeds in staying the hand of legislators beholden to corporate power, at least for a time. Having entered into an alliance with the military and corporate orders, the political directorate becomes a self-contained body, undemocratic in both the process of its selection and its maintenance.” (Loc. 400)

It is amazing how still relevant this is.

And I’ll end with this:

“In his analysis of the commanding heights, Mills is not content only to describe the three institutional orders that constitute the power elite. He shows that the scope of its power embraces wide sections upon which the legitimacy of American society depends. Chief among them are the celebrities who, as the premier ornaments of mass society, are routinely recruited to lend prestige to the high officials of the three principal institutions of power. Political parties and their candidates eagerly showcase celebrities who support them; corporate executives regularly mingle with famous people in Hollywood and New York at exclusive clubs and parties; and “the warlords”—high military officers, corporate officials, their scientists and technologists engaged in perfecting more lethal weapons of mass destruction, and the politicians responsible for executive and congressional approval of military budgets—congregate in many of the same social and cultural spaces as well as in the business suites of warfare.” (Loc. 344)

And he wrote this before Davos.

One question emerges right away and does not leave the reader all the way to the end of the book: where are the ranting sociologists today? Because Maude knows we need them.

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Book Review – Haiti: The Aftershocks Of History

November 12, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

Laurent Dubois‘s excellent Haiti: The Aftershocks of History is a must-read for anyone interested in the social construction of race and race formation, as well as colonialism and its legacy. The book provides the longue durée context for the current situation of Haiti, especially when the devastating earthquake a few years back, and the current damages inflicted by hurricane Sandy.

If we were to consider Haiti a failed state, then it would be a failed state by design. From reading Dubois’s book, one would be tempted to think that no one ever wanted Haiti to succeed on its own terms ever since the slaves rebelled against their French colonizers.

The book is overall a highly readable and very well-written political history of the country from the end of French colony of Saint-Domingue (as it was called under French rule), dominated by a slavery-based plantation economy (especially sugar canes) to the present although the Duvalier II era to now is a bit short.

Indeed, Dubois describes the 19th century in great details, so, by the time the reader gets to the rise of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, it feels like the book is rushing to the end and one is left with many questions regarding the contemporary period (especially the second ousting of Aristide and beyond).

There is also no doubt that Dubois loves Haiti and roots for its success. As a result, you will find a lot of Amazon reviews decrying the lack of objectivity of the book. That did not bothered me all that much because Dubois is not shy about exposing the structural factors that have resulted in so much political instability in Haiti (the urban / rural divide as well as the dominance of a light-skinned, mulatto elite versus their darker skinned compatriots). Dubois actually presents these lines of division as central to Haiti’s persistent problems. Similarly, one can find at the very beginning of the book another major factor in Haiti’s political instability (Kindle locations):

“Haiti is often described as a “failed state.” In fact, though, Haiti’s state has been quite successful at doing what it was set up to do: preserve power for a small group. The constitutional structures established in the nineteenth century made it very difficult to vote the country’s leaders out of office, leaving insurrection as the only means of effecting political change.” (Loc. 126)

That lock on power and the lack of proper constitutional and institutional mechanisms for political alternatives are at the heart of the multiple rebellions and coups. These are the internal factors. There is no doubt that the French never forgave their former slave colony for rebelling and forcing them out. Indeed, the financial compensation that France demanded (and obtained) from Haiti (in order to reimburse plantation owners for the loss of their property… land and slaves… what is the French word for chutzpah? Quel culot, as we French would say) strangled the country financially so badly that it had to go into debt very quickly. This indebtedness was used, a century later, by the US to invade the country and rule it by force for 20 years. In both case, this was brutal expropriation either of direct monies for France, or exploitation of land and labor for the US.

In both cases, there was a clash of economic models. From the independence on, there has been, in Haiti, a strong rejection of the plantation model, so associated with slavery. So, the rural population has tried to develop alternative modes of agricultural production based on subsistence agriculture (rather than cash crops for export) in small cooperatives. These competing models have been a source of conflicts between the urban / port elites and foreign investors and the rural population. In a way, Haiti was constantly pressure to agree to structural adjustment programs before those even existed, especially from the US. And, big surprise, these neoliberal measures avant la lettre worked no better there than they did anywhere in the late 20th century. They explain the persistent stratification between the cities and the rural areas, forcing a lot of peasants to leave the land and flock to city slums.

“As more and more U.S. agricultural companies entered Haiti, they deprived peasants of their land. The result was that, for the first time in its history, large numbers of Haitians left the country, looking for work in nearby Caribbean islands and beyond. Others moved to the capital of Port-au-Prince, which the United States had made into Haiti’s center of trade at the expense of the regional ports. In the decades that followed, the capital’s growth continued, uncontrolled and ultimately disastrous, while the countryside suffered increasing immiseration.” (Loc. 157)

These unpopular policies were supported by the US, who also (along with France), supported the various authoritarian governments, especially the dreadful Duvalier dictatorship (father and son) in all their atrocities at the same time that the US denied Haitian refugees political asylum.

The end result?

“Ever since popular president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was violently overthrown in 2004, Haiti has been policed largely by foreign troops under U.N. command. Haiti’s proud independence has been eroded, too, by the thousands of foreign organizations that have flocked to the country over the years with projects for improvement and reform. For all their work, though, hunger, poverty, and disease still stalk much of the population. In the cities, the last decades have seen an increase in violent crime, including drug trafficking and kidnapping, while the situation in rural Haiti, where the majority of the population still lives, is increasingly desperate. The soil is severely depleted; generations of intensive agriculture and deforestation have taken their toll. As the population has grown and parcels of land have been divided into smaller and smaller bits, the social and agricultural strategies that worked well for Haitian peasants into the early decades of the twentieth century have become increasingly unsustainable. At the same time, the solutions prescribed by foreign powers and international organizations have largely turned out to be ineffective, or worse.” (Loc. 172)

But the theme that Dubois delineates throughout the book, and the source of his obvious affection for Haitians and hopes for Haiti are as such:

““Haiti disturbs,” sociologist Jean Casimir likes to say. It disturbs, of course, because of its poverty and its suffering. But it also disturbs because, throughout its history, Haiti’s people have repeatedly turned away from social and political institutions designed to achieve profits and economic growth, choosing to maintain their autonomy instead. The Haitian population has been told for two centuries, as it is told today, that it must change, adapt, modernize. No doubt some change is needed; but what has largely been offered to Haiti’s population in the guise of foreign advice is simply a precarious place at the bottom of the global order.

Haitians have consistently refused such offers.” (Loc. 192)

And, of course, White racism has been the source of much violence inflicted upon Haitians, first through the slavery system and later during the US occupation. The first country of free blacks has been depicted by the Western press and seen by Western political classes as a bunch of cannibalistic, voodoo-practicing savages. For instance, Dubois uses the example Marcus Rainsford’s drawings:

The one on the left, much reproduced, portrays the hanging of white officers by Maroons, the one on the right, much omitted, depicts a French officer throwing Haitians overboard to drown them, as if brutality was one-sided.

Similarly, racism was at the root of the constant religious persecution, especially against voodoo, seen as both superstitious paganism as well as somewhat scary.

As I was reading the book, especially regarding the repression of voodoo, and especially the figure of Baron Samedi, I was reminded of the persistence of stereotype and underlying racism that one can find in popular culture. Take a look at these two representations of Baron Samedi:

And remember this guy?

Yup, that’s right. When depicting Doctor Facilier, Disney designers tapped into the stereotypes of Haitian culture and voodoo for their main villain:

So, if you want to explore the roots of all this, then, Dubois’s book is what you want. It is full of rich details about 19th and early 20th century Haiti. As I mentioned before, it rushes a bit to the end, but Dubois seeks to highlight the origins of our views of Haiti, its persistent challenges, poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and natural disaster and its constant harassment by outsiders, from France, to the US, to the UN and a multiplicity of NGOs. It is also a great expose of cultural and structural racism and its consequences, as well as the fight for a non-market driven model of development.

Absolute must-read.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Development, Economy, Failed States, Institutional Racism, Mass Violence, Militarism, Neo-Colonialism, Power, Structural Violence | No Comments »

Eco-Fiction Rising

October 23, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

The inspiration for this post came from my just having finished Tobias Buckell‘s Arctic Rising. I have been a fan of Buckell’s work ever since I read Crystal Rain. Arctic Rising is part mystery / thriller, part what Yannick Rumpala has called eco-fiction (as opposed to strict science-fiction, like Crystal Rain), borrowing the term from Christian Chelebourg’s Mythologies De La Fin Du Monde. Eco-fiction refers to these stories that refer to a future where environmental collapse has dramatically altered societies, leading to dystopian social formations.

Arctic Rising takes the reader not to a distant future, as his previous novels had, but to a close future where it would still be possible to reverse environmental degradation, but enough damage has already occurred to create ecological damage and transformations (such as warming all the way to the Arctic as well as land loss South due to rising sea levels).

So, new lines of conflicts have opened as new trafficking routes became available (such as the Northwest Passage). New balances of power are being negotiated between declining powers and rising ones (the “Arctic Tigers”). And there are also corporate powers involved as well, in particular, the Gaia Corporation whose name will be familiar to Buckell’s regular readers. And there is also a mystery man from Anegada… there has to be one or it wouldn’t be a Buckell novel!

The Gaia corporation – which resembles a lot a fictional version of Google (I couldn’t help thinking that the name of the founders, gender aside, Ivan Cohen and Paige Greer sounded a lot like Sergey Brin and Larry Paige) with an environmental twist. In the context of generalized legitimation crisis and inability of governments to collaborate to stop the ecological predicted catastrophe, corporate actors decide to flex their muscles, but they are not exactly the good guys.

The atmosphere of the whole novel is that of impending doom as people try to figure out what to do in an increasingly anomic context. That is the backdrop. The main character is Anika Duncan, a Nigerian, bi-sexual, UN pilot (how cool is all this?) whose job is to patrol the new routes opened by the melting of the Arctic to monitor for smuggling. One day, she detects something fishy on a ship, decides to investigate only to have her plane blown out of the sky and her partner killed. She is later herself victim of assassination attempts. All this tells her she has bumped into something big (a super weapon in the form of high-tech terraforming little balls initially designed to stop the warming, it turns out) and soon, she’s on the run trying to figure things out.

The story was a bit too much shoot-’em up action and there are some convenient plot points (the Anegadan spy always comes up with the right resources at the right time thanks to mystery contacts that just happen to always be available and always come through at the right time with the right stuff). I really disliked the “torturing the torturer” stuff (especially the “I’m so ashamed of what I have done to other that I need to be tortured to expiate my sins” stuff, I really did not like that, it was both convenient – it allowed the “good guys” to engage in brutal violence with immediate moral exoneration – and contrived).

That being said, I really liked the main character, Anika. How often does one get a black woman, with a fluid and non-problematic sexuality, with intelligence and skills as lead? Close to never. I also really liked the whole social / global / environmental background to the story. I wish there had been more of that. But then, I always wish for more context. Part of the issue for me was that, on balance, it was a bit too much on the thriller side, and not enough on other aspects, such as life in the world-risk society. But again, that is my bias.

Actually, Arctic Rising feels like the original point for all the other novels that Buckell has written (kinda like when Brin wrote Startide Rising before Sundiver). I wonder if his plan is to progressively plug the gaps between these two and finally giving us the full story in-between. I certainly hope so.

So, Buckell’s book takes the readers to the turning point, where things still could change but won’t because of political inability to act collectively and globally. This is the time before manure really hits the fans, destroys societies, leading to radical social transformations of the dystopian type which seems to be the theme du jour. But the dystopian genre, very present in the young adult literature, usually picks up at a much later time: all the bad stuff has happened. Society as we knew it has disintegrated into chaos and conflict. Some new power rose to reestablish order, but did so in a not-too-pretty fashion: enter The Hunger Games.

By now, the whole background story is well-known. After The Dark Days (initiated by weapons of mass destruction and environmental degradation), the Capitol rose to claim control over Panem, creating its own world-system, with a strict division of labor between 12 districts (D13 having been destroyed, or so denizens of the other districts are told) who produce everything needed for the Capitol denizens to be a well-kept leisure class.

And every year, each districts has to send two teenagers (boy and girl) to fight to the death in the Arena both as entertainment for the Capitol and clear reminder to the districts that they’d better not mess with the Capitol again or try to rise up in rebellion.

See my comparative analysis of the Hunger Games v. Battle Royale (also a product of anomie and social disintegration where generations turn on each other and adults take it out on teenagers perceived as responsible for the persistent chaos).

In HG, one can detect a theme that one finds in other dystopian, young adult, ecofiction: the rise of the youthful hero, incarnating a rejuvenation of humankind, symbolically, politically, and environmentally. The youthful hero (boy or girl) is always “different”, not politically aware (often thrown somehow against its will into the politics of his/her world), but questioning of the system at the micro level, and somewhat on the deviant side. This is true for Katniss Everdeen in HG, what with her hunting skills that could get her killed. But this is a theme pursued also in Divergent.

Now, as I mentioned in my review, I never made it past the first book of the as-of-yet incomplete trilogy and Roth does not provide much context for the structure of society  but it seems clear that something environmentally catastrophic has happened. And the current social structure, then, is an attempt to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past by avoid them. Hence the different castes, based on which human trait is identified as the one most detrimental to humankind and therefore to be avoided at all costs.

In Divergent, the rise of the youthful hero, always marked for her difference, is clear. The author takes great pains to make her readers understand that Beatrice is special, not fitting in, out of sync with her caste, etc. but bound to have a great destiny.

The theme of the eco-fiction combined with the rise of the youthful here is also what drives Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. In my review, I wrote the following:

JC’s 22nd century America (actually, the Earth) is environmentally devastated. The planet finally has run out of oil which triggered catastrophic conflicts, plagues, mass sterility and death and therefore major population reduction. In this context, human societies have regressed, having to give up most of the oil-related technology. The end of oil has meant major social, economic and political upheavals.

In the United States, political power is divided between the official power structure of the Executive and the Senate, and the unofficial authority of the Dominion, a theocratic organization that rules society and has engaged in tremendous historical revisionism and controls what gets published, and pretty much everything pertaining to culture and religion. Needless to say, it is extremely powerful and fundamentalist and often plays the role of Inquisition, with torture and all against those it defines as deviants.

Julian Comstock, the main character, is the nephew of the current President. Julian’s father, the brother of the President, a war hero, had been executed for treason on trumped charges as his brother feared his popularity. For fear for Julian’s safety, his mother sent him away under the protection and mentorship of a veteran soldier, Sam Godwin. It is in this exile in what is today Alberta. It is there that Julian meets the narrator of the story, Adam Hazzard. It is this threesome that the story follows.

22nd century America is a highly stratified and conflicted society. At the top are the Aristos, those who had property when society collapsed. Then are the leased people, those who lost everything in the collapse and had to sell their labor to the aristos. At the bottom are the indentured servants. This arrangement has the stamp of approval of the Dominion. It is a caste system based on a highly unequal distribution in an economy of scarcity.

On top of it, America is at war with what is now called Mittleeuropa over control of parts of Canada. Resource wars indeed. Julian, Sam and Adam get caught in their attempt to avoid drafting into the war and end up there anyway. Julian becomes a war hero and therefore a threat to his uncle who then puts him in charge a suicide operation with no reinforcement, hoping he will die. He does not but this last maneuver cost his uncle the loss of military support. He is deposed and Julian is appointed President in his place.

Julian always resented the Dominion for their suppression of the past and of knowledge, scientific or otherwise. As president, he takes it on. All the political maneuvering that is required to handle the different power groups (the Senate, the Dominion, and the military) take a toll on Julian and his presidency, along with his life, are short, having only managed to weaken the Dominion but not destroy it as he had hoped. This is a coming of age and its costs story not just for Julian but for Adam, the narrator as well. And Julian also has another reason to resent the Dominion. He is gay.

In many ways, the rise of the youthful / rejuvenated hero as legitimate ruler on the ashes of a decaying world ruled by illegitimate tyrants is  a theme out of the medieval mythology (all the way back to Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable). Take this scene from John Boorman’s Excalibur where, having drunk from the Holy Grail, Arthur, the legitimate king, is back in the saddle and nature recovers as he rides into battle:

I had issues with the war hero theme of the book and the fact that military exploits seemed a bit repetitive to me. But Yannick Rumpala had some stronger issues with the book. His blog is in French so, I’ll just summarize his thoughts: the book never really explains how total resource depletion of fossil fuels would lead to such a dramatic technological regression. Basically, it’s back to horse and buggies, and old-fashioned trains (like in the old Westerns). Electricity seemed to have completely disappeared from collective conscience of the majority of the population, especially in rural areas. Rumpala asks how it is possible to so completely forget all accumulated knowledge so quickly, even in the context of the dominance of religious fundamentalists. It seemed the past just disappeared, leaving no traces whatsoever, ruins of any kind. Where are all the abandoned cars, planes, etc.? Was nothing recycled?

And then, there was Ship Breaker. As I wrote before, the setting is a dystopian future where climate change has run its course and drowned parts of the Earth and civilization has run out of oil. It is an environmental and social mess of a world with extreme stratification. At the bottom of the social ladder are the ship breakers, who dismantle old oil tankers – remnants of what people call the Accelerated Age, our age – to scrap for whatever is valuable for larger scavenging firms like Lawson & Carlson.

The ship breakers themselves are divided between heavy and light crews (mostly kids small enough to crawl through pipes and small spaces). This is work highly reminiscent of The Devil’s Miner. The main characters of the book are kids from one such light crew, mainly Nailer and his friend Pima.

Nailer’s world is one that is dangerous for poor kids like him, subjected to violence at the hands of a variety of adults, including his father and his crew employer. The work itself would never lift anyone out of poverty and is highly dangerous. At the same time, to be part of a crew means to have taken a blood oath and involves some mechanical solidarity and Gemeinschaft-type bonds between crew members (“Ship breaking was too dangerous to not have trust.” Loc. 634). There are strong sanctions imposed on those who break these loyalty bonds, as one of Nailer’s crew learns the hard way after leaving Nailer to die in an oil tank still full of oil.

Geographically, the story takes place mainly in the Gulf Coast. New Orleans has disappeared under water and in its place is a bunch of slums where people eke out a living. This is where Nailer ends after he and Pima rescue a “swank” girl (one of the über-wealthy few that manage to make tons of money through maritime freight using clippers). She and Nailer become crew and he calls her ‘lucky girl”. She herself is the victim of a corporate conspiracy to overthrow her family’s control of a giant shipping corporation. This is what the action in the book revolves around: getting Lucky Girl back to a ship whose crew is still loyal to her father. It does not turn out that way and the adventure begins, as they say.

But as Rumpala asks on his blog, does the post-oil age doom us to dystopian futures? Is there no collective, ecological imaginary where everything does not collapse miserably? For Rumpala, there is a literary, imaginary space to be occupied that would envision a more positive, non-dystopian future where sustainability would have won the day. Why does it matter? Rumpala argues that the science-fiction or eco-fiction of today can shape the technological imaginary of tomorrow and related concrete technological developments. After all, the dystopian terrain has been pretty well covered by now.

I would argue, though, that a less-dystopian future is not necessarily a matter of technology, but of political legitimacy as well. In these dystopian futures, the issues are not predominantly technological (technology still exists but is restricted in HG and Divergent). They are social and related to concentration of power in few illegitimate hands. And I also think that there is still territory to cover on the dystopian side especially as the reality of climate change and peak oil sets in, where world risk society meets legitimation crisis and economic stagnation for the masses.

And I also think there is a lot to investigate on the Planet of Slums theme, as was done in Metatropolis, in the urban-fiction genre.

Posted in Book Reviews, Environment, Science-fiction, Social Change, Sustainability, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – The Functional Art

October 22, 2012 by and tagged

Life is funny sometimes. A few weeks back, I was mulling over the concept of MOOCs and how much they can potentially suck but also how much they represent a lot of what we, teachers, like: free, state of the art education, if done right. Then I started thinking that I should really take one to see what it’s like from a student’s point of view.

I rejected the idea of taking a sociology course, because, really, I’d be bored. And then, someone posted on my Tweeter timeline something about this new MOOC on data visualization taught by Alberto Cairo (don’t try to get in, folks, it’s already closed and it has not even started yet). I thought the theme sounded interesting and I might actually learn something while exploring the MOOC format, a win-win situation. In addition, those of you who follow the blog know that I like visuals (after all, I am known among my colleagues and friends for my doodles at work and in class). So, infographics it would be.

I decided to start early on the readings with the first two chapters of The Functional Art – An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization (Amazon), the book by Alberto Cairo. Well, I did not stop at the first two chapters. I read the whole thing because the book is so enjoyable and informative. I would recommend it to anyone in any sector, academia, non-profit, teaching, etc. How does not need some visual data skills, either as infographic designers or as competent users?

The book itself is really a highly readable, crystal clear, and unbelievably informative introduction to infographics and data visualization. It is full of great examples from the author’s work but also of other graphic designers. It is structured in two main sections. The first section is the introduction per se, where Cairo gives the “tricks of the trade” and offers the basic principles of graphic design in data presentations. It also includes chapters on designing graphics based on the way the human brain functions (the fact that the human brain processes certain shapes, shades and patterns better than others) based on the latest cognition research.

The second main section is a series of profiles of the Big Names of the graphic design world through interviews with the author and selected work from them. If you get the book in paper format, you’ll get a CD with additional goodies on it, such as short lessons with the authors. If, like me, you’re hip and cool, and you read the book on Kindle, you can download the lectures and play them with your basic media player. That is a nice addition to the book.

[Note: I read the book on Kindle on my Thinkpad Android tablet (10.1") and I wish the format allowed for zooming in and out of the graphics used as examples there, but then, you can't do that with a paper copy either, except by getting the book close to your nose. Other than that, the graphics were really nice and readable on the tablet.]

A central thesis of the book is as follows:

“The fact that an information graphic is designed to help us complete certain intellectual tasks is what distinguishes it from fine art. Rather than serving as a means for the artist to express her inner world and feelings, an infographic or visualization strives for objectivity, precision, and functionality, as well as beauty. In short: The function constrains the form.”(Loc. 590)

This turns into the practical injunction that infographics should present (the variables under examination), compare (the different units of analysis according to the variables at hand), organize (information in a logical fashion), and correlate (present relationships between the different variables and units). The related idea is that one should select a tool based on the data at disposal, the story to tell, and the audience to tell it to, visualized using knowledge of the way the brain processes information (visual and other). The more the design gets the audience to “play” with the data and explore the dimensions of the visualized phenomena, the better.

In other words, data visualization involves making a series of decision that Cairo summarizes through his own tension wheel, delineating a series of polar axes that include different dimensions of designs (abstraction / figuration, functionality / decoration, density / lightness, multi-dimensionality / uni-dimensionality, originality / familiarity, novelty / redundancy). All this is under the general idea that graphics should not be meant to simplify information but to clarify it and make it more understandable. Of course, the book itself follows that logic by providing a lot of examples of successful and not-so-successful graphics and explaining in details what works and what does not.

After having finished the book, you will never look at an infographic the same way again. You won’t be able to help yourself and do your little analysis of it and look for the properties explored in the book. Heck, I was doing that for class just today as I was looking through my series of infographics on global stratification, I kept wondering which ones told “the story” best for my audience of undergraduates, within a rough lecture format. I was also thinking of all the possibilities of assignments that would involve students exploring some interactive infographics and find their ways through them.

I also ended the book deeply regretting that these skills are not taught in the traditional sociology curriculum. After all, data is our daily bread. We create, generate, process, analyze, publish and share data all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice if we acquired the skills to present them in a functional but also attractive way. I know peer-reviewed journals may not be the proper place to get fancy with infographics but blogs (*ahem*) and other web 2.0 platforms certainly are. And I think this would go a long way towards making the whole public sociology endeavor more attractive and palatable to audiences outside of academia. After all, most of us got through classes of statistics, learning high-level skills that many of us will never use and that would be unintelligible to non-academic audiences. Infographics would help spread the idea of sociology as science while letting people explore what sociologists really do and the kind of insights they can provide on society.

[Note: That being said, I also think there should be more sociology in traditional journalism curriculum because I think they should know more content so as not to rely on the "some say A but others say B" format without being able to distinguish and state which is correct. It would be nice if, on major social issues, journalists had more substance and context in hand, and resources to use if necessary when writing on given topics. Social scientific research skills would be nice too.]

But hey, maybe Alberto Cairo could create lessons / workshops / MOOCs on graphic designs and data visualization for social scientists!

Anyway, read the book, read the blog. You won’t regret it.

Posted in Book Reviews | No Comments »

Book Review – Naughts and Crosses

October 1, 2012 by and tagged , ,

I read Malorie Blackman‘s Naughts & Crosses because it got a lot of hype on my Twitter timeline and on the blogs I regularly read and also because, again, I am looking for a replacement to the Hunger Games as class project in my freshmen introduction to sociology class.

Of course, the premise intrigued me. It is based on a counterfactual: what if the British society’s racial composition were reversed and Blacks (“Crosses”) were the dominant racial groups and whites (“naughts”) were a minority, subject to individual and institutional discrimination, as well as prejudice and stereotypes? It is nice to have white people decentered and on the receiving end of treatment usually reserved for minorities of various kinds. Since the book is written for young adults, obviously, there is a lesson to be learned here.

In the story, naughts used to be slaves to the Crosses. After slavery ended, a system of segregation was established, very much apartheid-like: separate schools, racial IDs, residential segregation, racial stratification.

The plot itself revolves around two families: one Cross family, the Hadleys (Kamal, the father, also high political official, his alcoholic wife, and their two daughters, Minerva and main character, Persephone), and a naught family, the McGregors (Ryan and Meggie, the parents, Lynette, the traumatized daughter after an attack by a mob of naughts because she was dating a Cross who died in the attack, Jude, the rebellious adolescent, and Callum, the other main character).

The narrative is à deux voix, alternating between Sephy and Callum. The two families are connected as Meggie McGregor used to work for the Hadleys before being fired unfairly, so Sephy and Callum spent part of their childhood together. On top of that, due to outside pressure, Crosses were forced to desegregate their schools and Callum is scheduled to start going to Sephy’s school, along with a handful of other naughts. Things go downhill from there.

There would be all the ingredients for some sociological analysis here, from the entire structuring of society under black supremacy, to the names each group calls the other (“dagger” for the Crosses, “blankers” for the naughts). The book goes through all the day-to-day humiliations naughts have to endure at the hands of the Crosses in every settings.

Here is a sampling:

““But the school explained why. You’re all at least a year behind and …” “And whose fault is that?” Callum said with erupting bitterness. “Until a few years ago we were only allowed to be educated up to the age of fourteen—and in naughts-only schools at that, which don’t have a quarter of the money or resources that your schools have.”” (Loc. 240)

““They don’t sell pink Band-Aids. Only dark brown ones.” (…) I’d never really thought about it before, but she was right. I’d never seen any pink Band-Aids. Band-Aids were the color of us Crosses, not the naughts.” (Loc. 917)

““They smell funny and they eat peculiar foods and everyone knows that none of them are keen to make friends with soap and water.”” (Loc. 1048)

““Blank, white faces with not a hint of color in them. Blank minds that can’t hold a single original thought. Blank, blank, blank.”” (Loc. 1069)

“Why was it that when naughts committed criminal acts, the fact that they were naughts was always pointed out? The banker was a Cross. The newsreader didn’t even mention it.” (Loc. 1135)

“How dare a naught sit in first class? It’s outrageous. Its a scandal. It’s disgusting. Disinfect that seat at once.” (Loc. 1299)

“I didn’t want to hold her responsible for the way security guards and store detectives followed me around every time I entered a department store. And I’d stopped going into bookshops and toy shops and gift shops when I realized that no matter where I went in them, all eyes were upon me. After all, it was one of those well-known Cross-initiated facts that we naughts didn’t pay for anything when there was the chance of stealing it instead.” (Loc. 1322)

“How come in all the early black-and-white films, the naught men were always ignorant drunkards or womanizers or both? And the women were always near-brainless servants? Naughts used to be our slaves, but slavery was abolished a long time ago. Why were naughts never in the news unless it was bad news?” (Loc. 1343)

“It was the same story up and down the country. In the few schools into which us naughts had been allowed, we were dropping like flies. Expelled, or what the authorities euphemistically called “excluded,” for those things that would get Crosses detention or a severe telling off. The odd Cross or two may even have got suspended once in a while. But they certainly weren’t being expelled with anything like the frequency we were.” (Loc. 3151)

The problem, from my utilitarian perspective here, is that the book is written at to low a level to not feel a bit insulting to college students. As for the book itself, it turns too quickly into some sort of Montaigus v. Capulets as Callum and Sephy slowly figure out what has been obvious since page 1 of the book. And, of course, teenagers are annoying and it seems authors cannot write them any other way. Actually, other characters, I thought, were more interesting, Jude McGregor and Kamal Hadley, for instance. Each was involved politically, Hadley as part of the Cross establishment that tries to maintain Cross supremacy in spite of outside pressure, and Jude, joining with the naught equivalent of the black Panthers. But too much of the book is dedicated to heart-throbbing between Callum and Sephy as their families disintegrate.

I would give credit to the author though for not copping out of a harsh but logical ending.

And so, the search continues.

Posted in Book Reviews, Racism, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – Ship Breaker

September 24, 2012 by and tagged , , , ,

I read Paolo Bacigalupi‘s Ship Breaker as part of my never-ending quest to find good science-fiction books for my sociology classes. I have to go with young adult materials as my students’ reading skills vary widely (from absolutely college-ready to students who are not regular readers and might need some developmental reading). Right now, I am using The Hunger Games but the shelf life of this book is fast expiring so, I need a replacement or replacements. Hence Ship Breaker.

The setting is a dystopian future where climate change has run its course and drowned parts of the Earth and civilization has run out of oil. It is an environmental and social mess of a world with extreme stratification. At the bottom of the social ladder are the ship breakers, who dismantle old oil tankers – remnants of what people call the Accelerated Age, our age – to scrap for whatever is valuable for larger scavenging firms like Lawson & Carlson.

In addition, the opening of new maritime shipping routes creates social changes and new conflicts:

“Pole Star was a trading vessel but also a warship, accustomed to fighting Siberian and Inuit pirates as it made the icy Pole Run to Nippon. The pirates were bitter enemies of the trading fleets and perfectly willing to kill or sink an entire cargo as revenge for the drowning of their own ancestral lands. There were no polar bears now, and seals were few and far between, but with the opening of the northern passage a new fat animal had appeared in the polar regions: the northern traders, making the short hop to Europe and Russia, or over to Nippon and the wide Pacific via the top of the melted pole.

(…)

With the disappearance of the ice, the Siberians and the Inuit became sea people. They pursued their new prey the way they had once hunted seals and bears in the frozen north, and they hunted with an implacable appetite.” (Loc. 3321)

The ship breakers themselves are divided between heavy and light crews (mostly kids small enough to crawl through pipes and small spaces). This is work highly reminiscent of The Devil’s Miner. The main characters of the book are kids from one such light crew, mainly Nailer and his friend Pima.

Nailer’s world is one that is dangerous for poor kids like him, subjected to violence at the hands of a variety of adults, including his father and his crew employer. The work itself would never lift anyone out of poverty and is highly dangerous. At the same time, to be part of a crew means to have taken a blood oath and involves some mechanical solidarity and Gemeinschaft-type bonds between crew members (“Ship breaking was too dangerous to not have trust.” Loc. 634). There are strong sanctions imposed on those who break these loyalty bonds, as one of Nailer’s crew learns the hard way after leaving Nailer to die in an oil tank still full of oil.

“They all looked down the beach to where Sloth had been dumped. She’d be hungry soon, and needing someone to protect her. Someone to share scavenge with, to cover her back when she couldn’t work. The beach was a hard place to survive without crew.” (Loc. 534)

This ship breaking world is composed of motley crews of half-men (genetically modified mix of men and dogs), smelter clans, life cults, organ harvesters, and medical buyers all at the bottom of the social ladder (of whatever is left of it). This is a society based on accumulation by dispossession that looks a lot like the core / periphery of Wallerstein’s theory. After a “city killer” storm passes through Nailer’s beach, the entire economic ecosystem gets disrupted:

“All the scrap and rust buyers who contracted with Lawson & Carlson had fled inland to wait out the storm. With no companies like GE buying scrap for their manufacturing operations, or shipping companies like Patel Global Transit looking to buy scavenge to sell overseas, the ship-breaking yards were idle. The accountants and assayers and corporate guards who weighed and purchased the raw materials that came off the wrecks had left, and with no one around to buy their product, the ship breakers used their days cutting and renewing their shacks, scavenging the jungle, and fishing for food in the ocean. Until things got organized, people were on their own.” (Loc. 904)

Geographically, the story takes place mainly in the Gulf Coast. New Orleans has disappeared under water and in its place is a bunch of slums where people eke out a living. This is where Nailer ends after he and Pima rescue a “swank” girl (one of the über-wealthy few that manage to make tons of money through maritime freight using clippers). She and Nailer become crew and he calls her ‘lucky girl”. She herself is the victim of a corporate conspiracy to overthrow her family’s control of a giant shipping corporation. This is what the action in the book revolves around: getting Lucky Girl back to a ship whose crew is still loyal to her father. It does not turn out that way and the adventure begins, as they say.

This book has a loose companion volume: The Drowned Cities (which I have not read). I may have to check it out because, unfortunately, Ship Breaker does not have enough social content to be of use in my class. I liked the story. Nailer and Pima are attaching and interesting characters and unlikely heroes. But, and this is not the first time, I wish the author had provided more background in terms of history (what exactly happened) and the current social structure of the society as a whole beyond Bright Sands Beach and Orleans II.

It does not mean that book is not good and not worth reading but for college students, several things might not work: even though the reading level would be fine but the characters are a bit too young and there is too much action and not enough society.

I might actually try The Wind Up Girl as well. Since Bacigalupi writes pretty clearly (something that prevents me from ever using China Mieville’s work), it might be a book that would work.

In the meantime, I’m moving on to Malorie Blackman‘s Naughts and Crosses (which is quite good so far).

Posted in Book Reviews, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Sociology | 5 Comments »

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