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Archive for Commodification

From A Position of Privilege…

September 20, 2012 by and tagged , ,

So, Amitai Etzioni, or someone from his Institute of Communautarian Policy Studies, sent me a link to this short video of the man himself. Go ahead, watch it. It’s about 8 minutes long:

First of all, I wish more sociologists from different countries did this kind of things: short videos on topics relevant to their research or their interests.

Now, as to the topic of the video itself, as much as I understand the sentiment and the whole idea that research shows consumption only makes us happy for a short while and it is the social texture of relationships that brings us the most happiness, something kept bugging me as I watched it.

And then, it kinda of came to me: “easy for you to say”. To be able to give up as much as Etzioni suggests implies a position of material privilege and overall safe living conditions. To be able to engage in all the contentment-generating pursuits that cost nothing involves time for contemplative activities.

People at the bottom of the social ladder are pressed for time not to go earn high incomes but to juggle all the different balls they have to keep in the air at the same time (child care, commute, lack of health insurance and physical safety) but to barely keep afloat on low incomes. I just finished Robert Garot’s Who You Claim. How do you go know on door to get out the votes when you are afraid to leave the house because you leave in a gang-dominated area.

The kind of consumption that Etzioni says we can do without is that of those who are already privileged (like his former academic friend, who might have given up a big chunk of economic capital but still got to keep his cultural and social one, apparently), live in a state of physical security.

Similarly, I think Etzioni stays too micro here, reducing this to a matter of personal asceticism as moral choice rather than turning his attention to the structural and cultural factors that created a mass consuming society and to how much our entire economic system relies on massive consumption (seeing how we are stuck in a recession due to a lack of demand).

Does what Etzioni advocates tie in with the de-growth movement? What are the larger implication of if millions of people make the individual moral choice of de-growing their household?

So, what, on the surface, looks quite easy and unproblematic actually turns out trickier and is based on a preexisting position of privilege.

That being said, though, I do hope Etzioni keeps it up with the short videos.

Posted in Commodification, Consumerism, Culture, Ideologies, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Book Review – Planet Sport

September 8, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

I have to confess that I found Kath Woordward‘s Planet Sport to be a little mess of a book. As I have mentioned before, I am always on the lookout for short books that might make for some interesting readings in sociology for my freshmen / introduction to sociology class.

Naturally, sports is a topic that would definitely generate interest with my students. And this is a very short book (about 90 pages of text). So, my hopes were that I would be able to integrate this one as well, especially with a basic thesis such as this one (Kindle edition):

“This book demonstrates why sport matters and how, by arguing that we should take sport seriously and explore what is social about sport. Sport is not just another domain to which social theories can be applied, sport is also distinctive and generates new ways of thinking about social issues and debates. Sport is affected by the global economy and social, political and cultural processes, but also has effects on the wider social terrain of which it is part. Sport is much more than play.

Sport is particular in its combination of personal pleasures and pain, embodied practices, collective commitment and globalised politics and conflicts. Sporting events are also sites of resistance and protest as well as the reiteration of traditions and conformity. Sport is divisive and collaborative, conflictual and democratic; it combines people in very particular, positive and energising ways, but also recreates tensions, ambivalences, hostilities and conflicts. The role and status of sport in contemporary societies is thus crucial to an understanding of the nature of social and cultural change as part of the iterative practices of micro narratives and encounters as well as being part of global transformations.” (Loc. 92)

But I am afraid, this book will not make it into my list of freshmen readings. My number one and main issue is the writing. Good grief is it convoluted, heavy-handed and full of jargon. I mean, seriously:

“There is some confusion between philosophical and empirical categories of sex gender that could be clarified by exploring some of the specificities of lived experiences and the plasticity of flesh, by combining flesh and experience, perception of self with the perception of others and of situating enfleshed selves within the social world.” (Loc. 835-837).

And yes, I know what she is referring to but who wants to read something like this (the whole repeated reference to “sex gender” throughout the book annoyed me as well).

The second major issue I had was the organization of the book itself. It felt messy to me. I say “felt” because of the fact that Woodward is a famous and much respected sociologist, I perfectly consider the possibility that I missed the point entirely. I understand that when you write a short introduction to something, shortcuts have to be taken and not everything can be put in but I really do question the selection of materials and how they were addressed.

There is, for my taste and, I think, for an introductory book, way too much abstract theoretical stuff that will be incomprehensible to undergraduates. For instance, chapter 6, Everyday Routines – The Ordinary Affects of Sport is a perfect illustration of that, full of phenomenology and is more directed at the researcher in sociology of sports than a reader looking for an introduction to it. It is a very abrupt break from the rest of the book that makes you wonder what it is doing there, in the middle of it.

The issue is not the topic itself, of course, sport is at the center of so many social processes and structures that certainly justify introductory writing as Woodward herself suggests:

“Sport is a central part of contemporary life and widely enmeshed with and constitutive of social relations and social divisions; planet sport is made up of the intersection of very different power axes. For example, whilst in the wider cultural and social terrain of western neoliberal democracies categories of sex gender may be seen as more fluid, in sport the binary logic of sex persists, albeit largely called gender in the contemporary discourse of sport. The vast majority of sports are classified as women’s or men’s competitions, even though men’s are not always marked, as in the football ‘World Cup’; the female counterpart of which is the ‘Women’s World Cup’. The ways in which networks of hegemonic masculinity endure make sport a rich field for research into social and cultural continuities as well as change, especially as more women worldwide are joining in and enjoying the pleasures of sport as well as its rigorous regimes.” (Loc. 151)

All these topics are addressed in the book but in such a confusing and/or repetitive fashion that it makes following the thread of the book rather painful. There are some elements that are really interesting but either they are not pursued or they get a confusing and jargonian treatment. For instance, there are important sociological aspects: sports as disciplinary regimes under rationalized systems of training, sport as bodily projects within the framework of individualized technologies of the self, sports are displays and structuring of hegemonic masculinity. After all there is a whole continuum of sports from individuals working out at the gym to professional athletes training for the Olympics in professional settings and regimes.

There is also the globalized economics of sports and their embedding in global neoliberal logics and logics of commodification, as was amply demonstrated by the just-ended 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

At the same time, sports in embedded within a series of regulatory regimes at the local, national and global level that coexist alongside unregulated sport practices such as parkour:

Sports is also shot through with issues pertaining to gender (or “sex gender” as Woodward puts it), race and social construction of the able body. Of course, the able body, as opposed to the disabled one, are socially constructed categories that get challenged by technology as the case of Oscar Pistorious recently demonstrated as he competed in both the Olympic and the Paralympic Games (Gold in the former, Silver in the latter). The use of blades as effective leg substitute calls into question the clean cut binary of “able / disabled”.

Actually, this binary is not the only one being called into question. The case of Caster Semenyia, already discussed here, also calls into question the neat binary “men / women”, which has been central in the structuring of sports.

As for race,

“The classification of people into racial categories has played a key role in segregation in sport by means of criteria of visible corporeal difference too. Race and racialisation have been elements in the classificatory systems of sport and are constitutive of racialised categories in other social worlds. Racialisation has been a powerful element used to justify exclusion from particular sports historically by formal means and more recently still by biologically determinist essentialist discourses about racial types as well as through social and cultural forces.” (Loc. 262)

It is not hard to find examples of that, especially in the context of the apartheid system. [In addition, social class plays a part in there as well. After all, Pistorious himself enjoys the benefits of technology thanks to his privileged class status.] Moreover, when it comes to race,

“Black athleticism can be used to support theories of racialised difference and the suitability of black people, usually men, not only for particular sports, generally not those with the distinction of association with the upper classes, such as polo and golf, but also for athletic rather than intellectual activity.” (loc. 274)

One only has to remember the utterly stupid commentators arguing that Africans are fast as “natural selection” from slavery. At the same time, blacks have been long excluded from certain sports such as polo and golf. There is, of course, politics at the intersection of race and sports:

“Politics has dominated sport in places as diverse as Nazi Germany, the USA during the period of racial segregation and South Africa in the apartheid era when boycotts became the most powerful tool of resistance. Racism in sport has most strongly militated against competitions between people classified as belonging to particular racial or ethnic groups; fights between black and white boxers were banned in the US for a long period of time (Simmons, 1988). At some periods in sporting history the politics of inequality played out through institutionalised exclusions, at others through less formal mechanisms, such the impossibility of black players joining the clubs of the sports of the affluent, privileged white classes, such as golf clubs. Class and racialisation are widely imbricated in the politics of sport. Recognition of the processes of exclusion has been one step along the way to promoting diversity, albeit a very slow step in many sports.” (Loc. 294-300).

The global aspect of sports is quite obvious and I wish it had been treated better and in more specific. Woodward does note the multilayered aspect of global governance as well as sports loyalties. I wish there had been more on the neo-colonial flows of players from the periphery to the core, especially in soccer, for instance. There are also global flows of money, corporate sponsorship, etc.

At the same time, sports have benefited from the rationalized and bureaucratized (in the Weberian sense) of technologies of performance through pharmacology (hello, Lance Armstrong) as well as scientific training through a variety of professionals in various degrees of specialization (such as physical therapists or sport psychologists or even nutritionists). This leads to the creation of highly paid, scientifically trained athletes getting read for global events (such as the Olympics) where they will perform for (almost) the entire world through the global media (a nexus of corporatism and global communication technologies) in global spectacles.

The global nature of sports also points to the global inequalities in sports. The global flows are far from even in the world-system by class, race and gender. This relates to the fact that sport is big business. I wish more data had been included here:

“Some stakeholders have benefited and these developments have created new stakeholders, media networks, broadcast services, promoters, agents and notably a new class of sports stars, a relatively small number of whom earn massive fees not only for their performance on the field but also in the commercial synergies created by the sport media nexus and expansion of sites for the purveyance of popular cultural products. Such benefits have increasingly been concentrated for example on the celebrity stars, mega leagues and top clubs through sponsorship deals. Many have not benefited, notably the focus and site of the channelling of resource has been in men’s sport while women’s teams and clubs struggle to gain any sponsorship. Global inequalities mean that resources are distributed according to the rationality on irrationality of market forces, which again lead to particular emphasis on sports such as the men’s big team games.” (Loc. 720-726)

Woodward also provides some interesting developments on the deployment of technology and power in order to reduce uncertainty in sports:

“Sport is a field where records and measurement count. It matters that times and speeds are accurately measured in athletics, especially given the high rewards that are now involved. Other sports demand visualisation and filming techniques and heat-sensitive equipment as well as additional human resources; cameras at the wicket in cricket, at the touch line in rugby to adjudicate tries amidst an ever more voluble demand for more and more accuracy to judge outcomes, ensure fair play and redress the inadequacies of the human eye and the lack of all-round vision of the referee. Technologies are constantly developing more sensitive and precise means of ensuring accuracy to ever-higher standards of precision. These developments are inspired by the expanding technoscience that is the motor to much sporting innovation and the quest for certainty.” (Loc. 739-745).

And that is on top of the already-mentioned procedures designed to ensure that a woman is a woman or that a man is not doped up (note the distinction in testing in the context of hegemonic masculinity).

Similarly, if one has followed the preparations to the 2012 Olympics – and any other such global events – it is easy to see how much work went into the reduction of risk and uncertainty on multiple levels: guaranteeing that sponsors would recoup their money, the major emphasis on security and surveillance, crowd control, etc. As such, and this is not something mentioned in the book, the sport megaevent become thoroughly embedded in the surveillance society.

So those are the main aspects of the book that I wanted to highlight. As I said, the issue was not so much the content as the writing and organization. Not recommended for undergraduates. A shame, really, because the sociology of sport is such an interesting field.

I’d be curious to see what Dave Mayeda thinks. Sociology of sports is more his field than mine.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commodification, Corporatism, Gender, Global Governance, Globalization, Nationalism, Sociology, Sports | No Comments »

Book Review – The Outsourced Self

August 1, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

I have long been a fan of Arlie Hochschild’s work ever since I read The Second Shift. I think she has been one of the most readable professional sociologists, combining great insights on gender, labor and family dynamics. Her book co-authored and co-edited with Barbara Ehrenreich, Global Woman, is a brilliant piece of work delineating the way globalization finds its way into family structures in the larger context of workplace changes. So, needless to say, I was eager to grab a copy of The Outsourced Self – Intimate Life in Market Times.

I have to say that I ended up a bit disappointed. As always, the book is very well written and very accessible to an audience broader than academics but there is only one idea in this book and it is contained in the title: the fact that individuals and families can now outsource to the market and the private sector a series of functions that used to be fulfilled by relatives, neighbors or community members.

[I read the book in Kindle edition hence the locations]

“The trend has accelerated particularly in the last forty years, a period when the market came to dominate American life as never before. Voices calling for larger market control— for deregulation, privatization, cuts to government services— grew louder. 15 Accordingly, many aspects of post-1970s American life slipped from the realms of community, commons, and government into the market. Prisons, parks, libraries, sectors of the armed forces, security services, schools, universities— these have moved, in full or part, into for-profit hands. The market, it is said, can do things better— even in the home.

Today, the market offers families an extraordinary array of possibilities. Americans now live within a cycle of market take-away and give-back. While market forces have eroded stability and fostered anxiety at work and at home, it is, ironically, mainly the market that now provides support and relief. Along with the more familiar resources of child care and home help, Americans can now readily employ personal trainers, event planners, life coaches, and dog walkers, to name a few. Once reserved for the elite, personal services have been increasingly extended to the middle class, with more Americans living or being hired to provide them than ever before.” (Loc. 200)

The point is not that using services is new. It is not, of course. It is that the use of services digs deeper and deeper into all facets of our intimate life, as Hochschild demonstrates as each chapter deals with one type of service, from love coaches, to pregnancy surrogates, to household managers, to on-call family therapists, to children birthday party planners, to elder care, etc. There is now an incredible array of services available to families, at least for those who can afford it. To outsource family functions to market actors allows more partners, spouses and parents to put in more and longer hours at work (which increases their earnings and their ability to afford these services). And at the same time as more people purchase these services, there remain shades of discomfort – sometimes ambivalence and guilt – about doing so so that Hochschild’s subjects always take care to point out their boundaries: the parts of their intimate life that they would refuse to privatize and outsource to the market. Ultimately, for Hochschild, the solution to very real needs (due to changes in the labor market and the social stuctures of family life) sh0uld come to greater commitment and investment in community life (good luck with that).

It seems pretty clear that the impetus for the book comes in part from Hochschild’s personal circumstances: the fact that she had to figure out 24/7 care for an elderly aunt. Indeed, throughout the book, Hochschild shares bits and pieces of family life that she contrasts with current practices she described. There is no nostalgia for some imaginary good old days of nurturing families versus Americans atomized on the corporate rat race. The point of the book is simply to note and describe these changes and their consequences for the way we think about the ways in which we “do” love, family, parenting, etc. As noted above, each chapter deals with a specific form of intimate outsourcing, focusing on one case study (with some other cases added as needed). This makes for easy and pleasant reading but professional sociologists might long for more hard data. Stories are nice and interesting but it is sometimes hard to discern how significant a trend they illustrate. So, the book feels a bit light on substance even though it is interesting.

One of the key aspects of the book is also the fact that it is not simply people purchasing service to take care of a need, it is the idea that this then brings a market logic into intimate life. Family relations and dynamics become marked by business aspects such as productivity, professionalism: why plan your own kids’ birthday parties when a professional can do it better? Why leave dating to chance when “market” analysis and evaluation processes can bring you better results? Why leave anything to chance when expertise can reduce uncertainty (of which there is enough in the labor market)? And I did not know that there were such things as nameologists (specialists who help parents pick the right name for their child… what would Baptiste Coulmont make of that!) and wantologists (experts in defining people’s wants).

When it comes to parenting, the list of available services is absurdly dizzying:

  • Safety-proof an apartment or house (install safety gates, cord-free window coverings, fireplace barricades, covered electrical outlets; check chemicals and car seat belts)
  • Teach baby sign language
  • Train babies to sleep through the night
  • Train toddlers to stop thumb sucking
  • Potty train a child
  • Pack a child’s school lunch, including personal note
  • Drive a child to after-school games and lessons
  • Control a child’s temper
  • Teach table manners
  • Teach bicycle riding, baseball, Frisbee throwing
  • Locate an appropriate summer camp
  • Locate friends for playdates
  • Plan a child’s birthday
  • Organize a child’s photo album
  • Shop for a child’s birthday gift (Loc. 1759)

In this context, the family becomes a mini-business that has to be managed in every respect which is what a company like Family360 offers:

“Created by LeaderWorks, a management consulting firm based in Monument, Colorado, Family360 was started by two men, one an executive coach at Lockheed and the other a human resources expert at Merck. The service offers to coach busy executives at such corporations as General Motors, IBM, Honeywell, Goodrich, and DuPont on how to become better fathers.

(…)

Family360 was based on a corporate prototype called Management360, wherein one or two consultants—or coaches, as they also call themselves—evaluate an executive through a series of interviews with his secretary, boss, coworkers, and clients. (The company’s brochures/Web site featured only male clients.) The consultants gain a “360-degree view” of the manager, analyze the data, and draw up PowerPoint presentations to describe executive performance in categories such as “develops innovative change strategies,” “identifies potential problem areas,” and “initiates timely responsive action plans.”

Family360 brings these ideas home. With the consultant, the client-dad convenes a meeting of the family—wife or partner, children, mother and father, stepparents, stepchildren, sisters and brothers, grandparents, and, if there is one, nanny. Each family member is handed a pencil or pen and a fifty-five-item questionnaire, or the father can himself read the items aloud. For example, “pays attention to personal feelings when communicating”; “says ‘I love you’ often enough”; “solves problems without getting angry or keeping silent”; “works hard to provide food and a home for the family.” Everyone in the family then rates the father on a scale of 1 to 7 for each item. The numbers correspond to a value that the father is advised to write out on a large pad of paper set on an easel:

  1. Needs Significant Attention
  2. Needs Some Attention
  3. Almost Acceptable
  4. Acceptable
  5. More Than Acceptable
  6. Strength
  7. Significant Strength

After family members record Dad’s scores on 3 by 5 cards, he collects everyone’s answers and later, privately, calculates his average for all fifty-five items. The family then reconvenes for a group discussion and the father is asked to reflect on his “personal and family inhibitors,” as the consultants call them—that is, anything that might a lower a score, such as “treating family members like employees” or “not leaving time for personal conversations.”

(…)

Armed with company-provided bar graphs and pie charts of fathering “behaviors,” the consultants then help the dad implement his Action Plan. In what they describe as a “hard-hitting, personalized change management session,” they specify ways the corporate father can maximize his “high-leverage” family activities. He can join a family game night by speakerphone while on the road. Or he can go for a walk with his child every day, “even if it’s only to the end of the driveway.” Such activities take little time, the team points out, but get good results. A father can even create “communication opportunities” while doing dishes or waiting in line with a child at a store.

Crucially, the advisers propose ways for a man to increase his score on the 7-point “Family Memory Creation” scale, a scale based on the idea—or perhaps fantasy—that a father can engineer the memory his children have of him. The more high-leverage behaviors he performs, the higher a dad’s memory score, and the richer his family “portfolio.”” (Loc. 2081 – 2122)

And the point of all this is to make people more effective at work. After all, if things go smoother at home, then, parents can throw themselves more thoroughly into the corporate work. As Hochschild aptly notes, “The answer to market pressure outside the home? Market thinking inside it.” (Loc. 2145) And that is, I think, the most significant point: management lingo, having thoroughly invaded schools and universities (with such success!) is now free to do the same with families, with all the objective managements techniques, and the scientific thinking behind it (with charts!).

Another interesting aspect of Hochschild’s research is not just the outsourcing of organizational matters but of emotional ones as well. Throughout the book, it is very clear that people who hire a variety of service providers do so in order to divest themselves of certain emotions, as one did with her household managers:

“Could it be, I wondered, that we are dividing the world into emotional types—order-barking, fast-paced entrepreneurs at the top, and emotionally attuned, human-paced mediators at the bottom? Talking one’s way past the protective layers of a top executive, teaching a child to tie her shoelaces, feeding an aging parent, walking a recovering patient down a hospital ward, waiting with a child in a doctor’s office, meeting a teen arriving on a long-delayed air flight—all such acts call for patience, tact, sensitivity, qualities far removed from the bottom line.

Rose and Becka compensated at the bottom for a deficit of patience at the top. Rose didn’t simply accomplish the tasks assigned to her; she created a smooth, calm emotional landscape through which her clients could glide unfazed. It fell to Rose to apologize to the saleswoman after Norma spilled red wine on an expensive gown lent to her to try on at home. It was Rose who gave airport hugs to thirteen-year-old David returning from boarding school, and conveyed Norma’s love to him. It was Rose who gave Norma’s regards to the bake-sale committee and who patiently sold cookies that she, herself, had baked for Norma’s children. In such moments, Rose was required to enact Norma’s better self, while holding her own feelings in check.

Compared to purely physical or mental labor, the performance of such emotional labor is hard to see. But it nonetheless takes its toll. After all, Rose was regularly in situations in which the essence of her job was to transfer sympathy to people who felt anxious, neglected, or distressed. Rose did that on behalf of Norma, who— whether she thought of it that way or not— had effectively purchased the right to keep her distance from anyone who might have unnerved, irritated, or upset her. Unwittingly, Norma had outsourced sympathy itself.” (Loc. 2660 – 71)

Examples of such emotional outsourcing abound in the book especially when the service provided is care of some kind.

But, as Hochschild reflects at the end the book, as we come to rely more and more on “experts” of different kinds, are we not losing the skills to fulfill the functions that are now being outsourced? Are we becoming used to set professional standards to what should remain within the realm of amateurism? In the context of increased competition, parents use all these multiple services to increase their children’s chances and leave nothing to chance. And because all these services are expensive, this how the upper classes use their economic capital to increase their cultural and social capital at the expenses of less privileged classes. The commons are the main casualty, precisely the public spaces where equality prevailed. In that sense, all these services increase stratification and social segregation. So, as some of the anecdotes that Hochschild may be amusing or moving, the end result is rather pessimistic.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commodification, Culture, Globalization, Labor, Social Change, Social Structure, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – Rebel Cities

July 15, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I have already posted quite a bit about David Harvey‘s Rebel Cities: From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution:

It is somewhat of a given that every book by prolific David Harvey is an important book. He is a sharp analyst of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and has the ability to write very clearly about rather complex matters. His writing is engaging, full of examples that illustrate the concepts he uses in his deconstruction of the logic of 21st century capitalism. At the same time, as my previous posts on the subjects have shown, he is not shy about being critical of the left for its fetishism of the local and organizational forms (currently: the horizontal and non-hierarchical).

My previous posts have focused mainly on chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the book. That is where the heart of the argument is and we’ll see why in a minute.

The heart of the book, of course, is the concept of “right to the city” and the centrality of the city as locus of power in 21st century capitalism, but also as locus for potential anti-capitalist movements:

“The city, the noted urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” If Park is correct, then the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. How best then to exercise that right?

Since, as Park avers, we have hitherto lacked any clear sense of the nature of our task, it is useful first to reflect on how we have been made and remade throughout history by an urban process impelled onwards by powerful social forces. The astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years means, for example, that we have been remade several times over without knowing why or how. Has this dramatic urbanization contributed to human well-being? Has it made us into better people, or left us dangling in a world of anomie and alienation, anger and frustration? Have we become mere monads tossed around in an urban sea? These were the sorts of questions that preoccupied all manner of nineteenth-century commentators, such as Friedrich Engels and Georg Simmel, who offered perceptive critiques of the urban personas then emerging in response to rapid urbanization. These days it is not hard to enumerate all manner of urban discontents and anxieties, as well as excitements, in the midst of even more rapid urban transformations. Yet we somehow seem to lack the stomach for systematic critique. The maelstrom of change overwhelms us even as obvious questions loom. What, for example, are we to make of the immense concentrations of wealth, privilege, and consumerism in almost all the cities of the world in the midst of what even the United Nations depicts as an exploding “planet of slums”?

To claim the right to the city in the sense I mean it here is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way. From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while control over the use of the surplus typically lies in the hands of a few (such as a religious oligarchy, or a warrior poet with imperial ambitions).” (3 – 5)

At the same time, capitalism and urbanity have been associated with crises and social movements throughout the 20th and 21st century (and before), so there are clearly capitalist and anti-capitalist dynamics revolving around the urban context that are separate from strictly class / labor dynamics. And that is what Harvey is interested in: to examine the nature of 21st century capitalism and to find interstices and spaces of contention and conflict through which social movements could emerge and challenge hegemonic arrangements. The global city is the perfect nexus for all of this.

“Fast-forward once again to our current conjuncture. International capitalism was on a roller-coaster of regional crises and crashes (East and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001, and so on) until it experienced a global crash in 2008. What has been the role of urbanization in this history? In the United States it was accepted wisdom until 2008 that the housing market was an important stabilizer of the economy, particularly after the high-tech crash of the late 1990s. The property market absorbed a great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction (of both inner-city and suburban housing and new office spaces), while the rapid inflation of housing asset prices, backed by a profligate wave of mortgage refinancing at historically low rates of interest, boosted the internal US market for consumer goods and services. The global market was stabilized partly through US urban expansion and speculation in property markets, as the US ran huge trade deficits with the rest of the world, borrowing around $2 billion a day to fuel its insatiable consumerism and the debt-financed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

But the urban process underwent another transformation of scale. In short, it went global. So we cannot focus merely on the US. Property market booms in Britain, Ireland, and Spain, as well as in many other countries, helped power the capitalist dynamic in ways that broadly paralleled that in the US. The urbanization of China over the last twenty years, as we shall see in Chapter 2, has been of a radically different character, with a heavy focus on building infrastructures. Its pace picked up enormously after a brief recession in 1997 or so. More than a hundred cities have passed the 1 million population mark in the last twenty years, and small villages, like Shenzhen, have become huge metropolises of 6 to 10 million people. Industrialization was at first concentrated in the special economic zones, but then rapidly diffused outwards to any municipality willing to absorb the surplus capital from abroad and plough back the earnings into rapid expansion. Vast infrastructural projects, such as dams and highways—again, all debt-financed—are transforming the landscape. Equally vast shopping malls, science parks, airports, container ports, pleasure palaces of all kinds, and all manner of newly minted cultural institutions, along with gated communities and golf courses, dot the Chinese landscape in the midst of overcrowded urban dormitories for the massive labor reserves being mobilized from the impoverished rural regions that supply the migrant labor.

(…)

China is only one epicenter for an urbanization process that has now become genuinely global, in part through the astonishing global integration of financial markets that use their flexibility to debt-finance urban projects from Dubai to São Paulo and from Madrid and Mumbai to Hong Kong and London. The Chinese central bank, for example, has been active in the secondary mortgage market in the US, while Goldman Sachs has been involved in the surging property markets in Mumbai and Hong Kong capital has invested in Baltimore. Almost every city in the world has witnessed a building boom for the rich—often of a distressingly similar character—in the midst of a flood of impoverished migrants converging on cities as a rural peasantry is dispossessed through the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture.

These building booms have been evident in Mexico City, Santiago in Chile, in Mumbai, Johannesburg, Seoul, Taipei, Moscow, and all over Europe (Spain’s being most dramatic), as well as in the cities of the core capitalist countries such as London, Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York (where more large-scale urban projects were in motion in 2007 under the billionaire Bloomberg’s administration than ever before). Astonishing, spectacular, and in some respects criminally absurd urbanization projects have emerged in the Middle East in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a way of mopping up the capital surpluses arising from oil wealth in the most conspicuous, socially unjust and environmentally wasteful ways possible (such as an indoor ski slope in a hot desert environment).

(…)

But this urbanization boom has depended, as did all the others before it, on the construction of new financial institutions and arrangements to organize the credit required to sustain it. Financial innovations set in train in the 1980s, particularly the securitization and packaging of local mortgages for sale to investors world-wide, and the setting up of new financial institutions to facilitate a secondary mortgage market and to hold collateralized debt obligations, has played a crucial role. The benefits of this were legion: it spread risk and permitted surplus savings pools easier access to surplus housing demand, and also, by virtue of its coordinations, it brought aggregate interest rates down (while generating immense fortunes for the financial intermediaries who worked these wonders).” (11 – 13)

This is the initial state of affairs. In the following chapters, Harvey, then, goes digging for the contradictions in this system in order to carve out spaces of contention for alternative social movements, especially since the dynamics quoted above have created vast inequalities of wealth and power (what with triumphant neoliberalism) that are highly visible in the global cities, with their cosmopolitan and privileged core and their peripheral slums, with their mass consumption levels and therefore, their great dependency on labor for both goods and services and the necessity of absorption of surplus value (so central to capitalism). Where neoliberalism is the most visibly dominant is also where it is most vulnerable. The amount of displacement and dispossession taking place in global city can be matched by counter-dynamics of anti-capitalist movements, IF they can organize around a new definition of what the working class is.

Those were basically the premises laid out in chapter 1. For those of us who had read Harvey’s previous book, The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism, chapter 2 will feel very familiar as it summarizes the current crisis. The core of Harvey’s argument really takes off in chapter 3, all through chapter 5 (so, you can refer to my blog posts listed at the beginning of this post). Chapters 6 and 7 read like columns that were published when things started heating up in Spring 2011, and especially during the London riots in Summer 2011 (I blogged about it at the time). They are very short, much less analytical and in-depth than the preceding chapters. This is where Harvey introduced the concept of feral capitalism:

“The problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all it’s worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shopkeepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.

A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery—particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected—has become the order of the day.

(…)

Every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way—more blatantly and visibly, in the streets. They mimic on the streets of London what corporate capital is doing to planet earth.” (155 – 6)

Chapter 7, also short and column-ish rather than full-on analysis, address Occupy Wall Street:

“But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront the Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and, by putting human bodies in that place, to convert public space into a political commons—a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and ongoing struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, and now the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked. What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook, that really matter.” (161 – 2)

It is not hard to see why Harvey would be interested in OWS, which is why I was a bit disappointed to not find a full-fledged analysis of the movement in the book. Apart from this two-page chapter, there is nothing on OWS, at least not explicitly. Of course, one can easily read between the lines of his analysis in chapters 3, 4 and 5 and see what applies to OWS (the organizational fetishism, for instance), which makes this absence all the more remarkable.

Nevertheless, Harvey offers a few recommendations for the OWS movement:

“To succeed, the movement has to reach out to the 99 percent. This it can do and is doing, step by step. First there are all those being plunged into immiseration by unemployment, and all those who have been or are now being dispossessed of their houses and their assets by the Wall Street phalanx. The movement must forge broad coalitions between students, immigrants, the underemployed, and all those threatened by the totally unnecessary and draconian austerity politics being inflicted upon the nation and the world at the behest of the Party of Wall Street. It must focus on the astonishing levels of exploitation in workplaces—from the immigrant domestic workers who the rich so ruthlessly exploit in their homes to the restaurant workers who slave for almost nothing in the kitchens of the establishments in which the rich so grandly eat. It must bring together the creative workers and artists whose talents are so often turned into commercial products under the control of big-money power.

The movement must above all reach out to all the alienated, the dissatisfied, and the discontented—all those who recognize and feel in their gut that there is something profoundly wrong, that the system the Party of Wall Street has devised is not only barbaric, unethical, and morally wrong, but also broken.

All this has to be democratically assembled into a coherent opposition, which must also freely contemplate the future outlines of an alternative city, an alternative political system, and, ultimately, an alternative way of organizing production, distribution, and consumption for the benefit of the people. Otherwise, a future for the young that points to spiraling private indebtedness and deepening public austerity, all for the benefit of the 1 percent, is no future at all.

(…)

In the face of the organized power of the Party of Wall Street to divide and rule, the movement that is emerging must also take as one of its founding principles that it will be neither divided nor diverted until the Party of Wall Street is brought either to its senses—to see that the common good must prevail over narrow venal interests—or to its knees. Corporate privileges that confer the rights of individuals without the responsibilities of true citizens must be rolled back. Public goods such as education and health care must be publicly provided and made freely available. The monopoly powers in the media must be broken. The buying of elections must be ruled unconstitutional. The privatization of knowledge and culture must be prohibited. The freedom to exploit and dispossess others must be severely curbed, and ultimately outlawed.” (162 – 3)

As I mentioned above, any book by David Harvey is an important book and I would consider him one of the most important “translators” of Marxian thought (I don’t really like the term “vulgarizer”). He does provide a deep yet clear analysis of both the workings of 21st century capitalism, locates them in the longue durée, sniffs out the contradictions and exposes them for all to see, hopefully (for him) leading up to social movements rushing through these interstices opened by these contradictions.

This book should be mandatory reading for activists and anyone interested / involved with the anti-capitalist movements around the world.

In the end, whatever the future of capitalism, it will be an urban future, so, any movement that hopes to contest the hegemony had better have some urban planning of its own ready. This book offers a good starting point.

I should end by noting that Harvey, as he recommends a redefinition of the working class beyond the factory workers, offers The Salt of the Earth as example of the kind of broad mobilization that is needed. In the case of the film, it is rural communities. Harvey thinks the same should be done for urban communities:

Posted in Activism, Book Reviews, Commodification, Corporatism, Economy, Global Cities, Globalization, Labor, Power, Public Policy, Social Change, Social Movements, Sociology, Urban Ecology | No Comments »

World-System 2.0 – In Time

February 4, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Commodification, Corporatism, Economy, Globalization, Labor, Movies, Poverty, Precarization, Risk Society, Science-fiction, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Social Theory, Sociology | 2 Comments »

Would The Members of The Precariat Please Stand up?

September 4, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This is another installment in a series of posts (herehere and here) I intend to write as I work my way through Guy Standing‘s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. In this section, the main topic is the composition of the precariat and the consequences of such categories for society as a whole, in terms of social integration and social solidarity (how very durkheimian).

So, who is in the precariat?

“One answer is ‘everybody, actually’. Falling into the precariat could happen to most of us, if accidents occurred or a shock wiped out the trappings of security many have come to rely on. That said, we must remember that the precariat does not just comprise victims; some members enter the precariat because they do not want the available alternatives, some because it suits their particular circumstances at the time. In short, there are varieties of precariat.

Some enter the precariat due to mishaps, some are driven in it, some enter hoping it will be a stepping stone to something else, even if it does not offer a direct route, some choose to be in it instrumentally – including old agers and students simply wishing to obtain a little money or experience – and some combine a precariat activity with something else, as is increasingly common in Japan. Others find that what they have been doing for years, or what they were training to do, becomes part of an insecure precariat existence.” (59)

Standing then distinguishes between two categories within the precariat: the grinners (those who enter the precariat more or less voluntarily, such as students taking casual jobs and expect that to be temporary) and the groaners (those pushed into the precariat). Every demographic category of the precariat has its grinners and groaners. Among old agers, the grinners are those with decent pensions and benefits who get temporary jobs for the extra money or to fund some leisure activity. The groaners are those deprived of such benefits and who have to work for a living. For women, the grinners are those who have a partner with a solid and well-paying job in the salariat and who take jobs also for the extra money and treat them as a sideline. The groaners are those who have no such flexibility and need to work full-time.

Indeed, there is a major gender aspect to the precariat. The feminization of labor and of globalization has pushed more women into the workforce, often in a precarized fashion. Export processing zones are home to a generation of young women. Interestingly, the precariat has long been the norm for women in the workforce while it is relatively new for men (who were the ones who got the stable, unionized and well-paying jobs of the post-War period of expansion). The precariat becomes an major issue when it affects more men. As the ‘family wage’ (a feature of the industrial age, a man’s wage) has been more and more replaced with the individualized wage, women have seen their obligations multiply: forget about Arlie Hochschild’s second shit, enters Standing’s triple burden (paid work, housework / child care and eldercare)… these are the same women that experts in development have charged with meeting the MDGs (shall we consider that the quadruple burden).

So, let’s compare and contrast: women, who get a greater share of precariat jobs have to deal with the triple burden (and a host of other issues such as abusive bosses, horrendous working conditions, and the violence they are more likely to experience… see Juarez); as Standing shows, men, on the other hand, pushed into the precariat, have to adjust to the blow to their masculinity. Allow me to not feel too bad. Downward mobility is never fun but the ledger is still a lot longer on women’s side.

The youth are another major category of the precariat. The Global South has very large young cohorts but the same cohorts in the Global North, while smaller in numbers, do not have it easy either. And part of the reason for that is something that really is at the heart of the precariat: the commodification of education. Standing does not mince his words or mask his contempt for the promoters of education-as-business:

“The neo-liberal state has been transforming school systems to make them a consistent part of the market society, pushing education in the direction of ‘human capital’ formation and job preparation. It has been one of the ugliest aspects of globalisation.

Through the ages education has been regarded as a liberating, questioning, subversive process by which the mind is helped to develop nascent capacities. The essence of the Enlightenment was that the human being could shape the world and refine himself or herself through learning and deliberation. In a market society, that role is pushed to the margins.

The education system is being globalised. It is brashly depicted as an industry, as a source of profits and export earnings, a zone of competitiveness, with countries, universities and schools ranked by performance indicators. It is hard to parody what is happening. Administrators have taken over schools and universities, imposing a ‘business model’ geared to the market. Although its standards have plunged abysmally,  the leader of the global ‘industry’ is the United States. Universities tend to compete not by better teaching but by offering a ‘luxury model’ – nice dormitories, fancy sports and dancing facilities, and the appeal of celebrity academic, celebrated for their non-teaching achievements.

Symbolising the loss of Enlightenment values, in the United Kingdom in 2009, responsibility for universities was transferred from the education department to the department for business. The then business minister, Lord Mandelson, justified the transfer as follows: ‘I want the universities to focus more on commercialising the fruits of their endeavour… business has to be central’.

Commercialisation of schooling at all levels is global. A successful Swedish commercial company is exporting a standardised schooling system that minimises direct contact between teachers and pupils and electronically monitors both. In higher education, teacher-less teaching and ‘teacher-less classrooms’ are proliferating (Giridharadas, 2009). The Masschusetts Institute of Technology has launched Open Courseware Consortium, enlisting universities around the world to post courses online free of charge, including professors’ notes, videos and exams. The iTunes portal offers lectures from Berkeley, Oxford and elsewhere. The University of the People. founded by an Israeli entrepreneur, provides tuition-free (tuition-less) bachelor degrees, through what it calls ‘peer-to-peer teaching’ – students learning not from teachers but from fellow students, trading questions and answers online.

Commercialisers claim it is about ‘putting the consumers in charge’. Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems and an investor in the Western Governors University, which delivers degrees online, argued that teachers should re-position themselves as ‘coaches, not content creators’, customising materials to students while piping in others’ superior teaching. This commodification and standardisation is cheapening education, denuding the profession of its integrity and eroding the passing on of informal knowledge. It is strengthening winner-take-all markets and accelerating the dismantling of an occupational community. A market in human capital will increase emphasis on celebrity teachers and universities, and favour norms and conventional wisdom. The Philistines are not at the gates; they are inside them.” (68-9)

And further:

“This commodification of education is a societal sickness. There is a price to pay. If education is sold as an investment good, if there is an unlimited supply of certificates and if these do not yield the promised return, in terms of access to good jobs and high income with which to pay off debts incurred because they were nudged to buy more of the commodity, more entering the precariat will be angry and bitter. The market for lemons comes to mind. As does the old Soviet joke, in which the workers said, ‘They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work’. The education variant should be as follows: ‘They pretend to educate us, we pretend to learn’. Infantilising the mind is part of the process, not for the elite but for the majority. Courses are made easier, so that pass rates can be maximised. Academics must conform.” (71-2)

And so, community colleges and their multitudes of vocational, narrow certificates are declared the wave of the future. This commercialisation of education is coupled with two precarity traps: (1) a debt trap and therefore, (2) low-income trap in order to pay these debts. And that is on top of the internship explosion I have discussed elsewhere. Interns are part of the precariat and they may be grinners (if they are the privileged few who can afford to NOT work and get a prestigious internship) or groaners (if they have to work and intern at the same time, for degree requirements).

The precariatization of the youth puts them also in competition with another generation: the elderly (or, to use the British phrase, the old agers). And on this, Standing’s predictions are rather gloomy:

“It is the idea of retirement that will fade, along with the pension, which was suited to an industrial age. The reaction to the fiscal crisis has been to roll back early retirement schemes and age-related incapacity benefits, to lower state pensions, to push back the age at which people can claim a state pension and the age at which they can claim a full state pension. Contribution rates have been climbing and the age at which people can receive a pension has gone up, more for women than for men to approach equality. The number of years of contributions to gain entitlement to a state pension has gone up, with the number required to receive a full pension increasing even more. In some countries, notably in Scandinavia, the legal retirement age for eligibility for a state pension is now pegged to life expectancy, so that access to a pension will recede as people on average live longer and will recede with each medical breakthrough.

This amounts to tearing up the old social compact. But the picture is even more complex, for while governments are convinced that they are in a fiscal hole with pensions, they are worried about the effect of ageing on labour supply. Bizarre though it may seem in the midst of recession, governments are looking for ways of keeping older workers in the labour force rather than relying on pensions because they think there will be a shortage of workers. What better way to overcome this than to make it easier for old agers to be in the precariat.” (81)

And it is a double whammy: since more jobs are in the precariat, old agers are more likely to be placed in them (because they might not need a full income from a full time job, for instance, or they are no longer concerned with building a career), and because there are more old agers around, more jobs are created in the precariat. As a result, old agers employment rate did not decline with the 2008 recession.

In addition, the whole pension system is now being individualized through another risk shit as pension schemes are being replaced with individual 401k-type plans where individuals bear all the risk. This move, of course, was pushed for by governments in the Western countries and this has resulted in putting two generations in competition and the odds are not in favor of the young. Governments have been instrumental in three ways, according to Standing, in fostering this intergenerational competition:

  1. Governments have subsidized investments in private pension plans with tax incentives, which is guaranteed to increase inequalities as only those who have enough disposable income can afford to properly fund a 401k or an IRA or any of such kind of plans. And those old agers who have access to pensions can then afford to take jobs that have low wages, thereby exercising a downward pressure on wages.
  2. Governments, such as in Japan, actively encourage firms to retain older employees or recruit them back, again using tax schemes and subsidies, at low status, no seniority.
  3. The anti-discrimination protections for old agers and other forms of anti-age discrimination actually work to maintain old agers in the workforce.

And, of course, old agers do not require maternity leaves, child care arrangements, and other benefits that younger workers might need. The lower costs of older workers erode the bargaining power of younger workers.

And then, there is one last category in the precariat (migrants and other minorities are discussed later in the book): the incarcerated masses.

“The precariat is being fed by an extraordinary number of people who have been criminalised in one way or another. There are more of them than ever. A feature of globalisation has been the growth of incarceration. Increasing numbers are arrested, charged and imprisoned, becoming denizens, without vital rights, mostly limited to a precariat existence. This has had much to do with the revival of utilitarianism and a zeal for penalising offenders, coupled with the technical capacity of the surveillance state and the privatisation of security services, prisons and related activities.

(…)

Criminalisation condemns people to a precariat existence of insecure career-less jobs, and a degraded ability to hold to a long-term course of stable living. There is double jeopardy at almost every point, since beyond being punished for whatever crime they have committed, they will find that punishment is accentuated by barriers to their normal involvement in society.

However, there is also growth of a precariat inside prisons. We consider how China has resorted to prison labour in chapter 4.  But countries as dissimilar as the United States, United Kingdom and India are moving in similar directions. India’s largest prison complex outside Delhi, privatised, of course, is using prisoners to produce a wide range of products, many sold online, with the cheapest labour to be found, working eight-hour shifts for six days a week. Prisoners with degrees can earn about US$1 a day, others a little less. In 2010 the new UK justice minister announced that prison labour would be extended, saying he wanted prisoners to work a 40-hour week. Prison work for a pittance has long been common in the United States. The precariat outside will no doubt welcome the competition.” (88)

This is very reminiscent of Loic Wacquant’s thesis of the neoliberal combination of workfare + prisonfare.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commodification, Corporatism, Education, Gender, Globalism, Globalization, Ideologies, Labor, Poverty, Precarization, Risk Society, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, social marginality, Social Stratification, Sociology, Structural Violence | 1 Comment »

The Market Says The Global South Must Starve

September 1, 2011 by and tagged , ,

You must read this four-part article in Der Spiegel:

“Here, in the trading room of the world’s largest commodity futures exchange, decisions are made about the prices of food — and, by extension, the fates of millions of people. Those decisions affect both hunger on the planet and the wealth of individual investors.

For Alan Knuckman, there is hardly a nicer place than the CBOT trading floor. “This is capitalism in its purest form,” the commodities expert raves. “This is where millionaires are made.” The 42-year-old’s face shines with a boyish glow — perhaps because he has never stopped playing.

Knuckman arrived here 27 years ago, and quickly advanced from his first job as a runner in the trading room to a trader. He worked for brokerage firms, soon established his own firm and is now an analyst with Agora Financials, a consulting firm specializing in commodities investments. He also writes a newsletter that offers investment tips. “I trade in anything you can get in and out of quickly,” he says candidly. “I’m here to make money.”

How he makes money doesn’t make any difference to Knuckman. He draws no distinctions among commodities like petroleum, silver or food products. “I don’t believe in politics,” he says. “I believe in the market, and the market is always right.”

How does he feel about exploding food prices? For Knuckman, they are purely a reflection of supply and demand. And speculators? They’re good for the market, because they predict developments early on. Is there excessive speculation? “I don’t see it.”

It’s a surprising comment. Never before has so much cash flowed into financial transactions involving agricultural commodities. In the last quarter of 2010 alone, the amount of money invested in these commodities tripled compared with the previous quarter. There has been a lot of money in the market since the countries of the world tried to overcome the financial crisis with massive economic stimulus programs and bailout packages.

Agricultural commodities attract investors who are no more interested in grain than they were previously in dot-com companies or subprime mortgages. They range from giant pension funds to small private investors searching for new, safer investment options.

The large index and agriculture funds now being offered by the banks seem to have come along just at the right time to satisfy this demand. All of a sudden, the world’s food supplies have become a tradable commodity, as easy to handle as stocks.

The downside is that food prices are rising in parallel to the ravenous demand for agricultural securities. In March, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported new record high prices, which even surpassed the prices during the last major food crisis in 2008. According to the FAO’s Food Price Index, overall food costs rose by 39 percent within one year. Grain prices went up by 71 percent, as did prices for cooking oil and fat. The index had reached 234 points in July, only four points below its all-time high in February.

“The age of cheap food is over,” predicts Knuckman, noting that this can’t be such a bad thing for US citizens. “Most Americans eat too much, anyway.”

For his fellow Americans, who spend 13 percent of their disposable income on food, the price hike may be an annoyance. But for the world’s poor, who are forced to spend 70 percent of their meager budgets on food, it’s life-threatening.

(…)

Since last June alone, higher food prices have driven another 44 million people below the poverty line, reports the World Bank. These are people who must survive on less than $1.25 (€0.87) a day. More than a billion people are starving worldwide. The current famine in the Horn of Africa is not only the result of drought, civil war and corrupt officials, but is also caused by prohibitively high food prices.

Knuckman refers to the fact that the poorest of the poor can no longer pay for their food as “undesirable side effects of the market.” Halima Abubakar, a 25-year-old Kenyan woman, is experiencing these supposed side effects at first hand.

She is sitting in her corrugated metal hut in Kibera, Nairobi’s biggest slum, wondering what to put on the table this evening for her husband and their two children. Until now, the Abubakars were among the higher earners in Kibera. The family managed to feed itself adequately with the monthly salary of €150 that Halima’s husband earns as a prison guard.

But that has suddenly become difficult. The price of corn meal, the most important food staple in Kenya, is now at a record high after increasing by more than 100 percent in only five months. Potato prices went up by a third, milk is also more expensive, and so are vegetables.

Abubakar doesn’t know why this is the case. She only knows that she suddenly has to pay close attention to how she spends the family’s meager daily food budget of about 300 shillings (€2.30). Her first step was to switch to a cheaper brand of corn meal. It doesn’t taste of much, but at least it fills one’s stomach. She sometimes goes without her own lunch so that her children can have enough to eat.”

Well, because the masters of the universe have decided that, having exhausted the mortgage financialization, they needed to find another source of rent extraction, so, sorry Kenyan lady,  but the market says you need to pay more for food.

Of course, the article also lists the usual litany of possible other factors. However:

“Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, is one of the few who is trying to set the record straight. The production of biofuel and other “supply shocks” — such as crop failures and export bans — were “relatively minor catalysts,” he wrote recently. “But they set off a giant speculative bubble in a strained and desperate global financial environment.” He identifies the true culprits as major investors who, as the financial markets have dried up, have invested heavily in the commodities trade, expanding it beyond all proportion. According to de Schutter, excessive speculation is the primary cause of the price increases. Indeed, closer inspection reveals that the reasons cited to date for the price hikes on food products are somewhat dubious.”

Also, this:

And doesn’t this sound like a familiar story?

“But in order for the financial industry to tap this new business area, market access had to first be expanded. It was strictly regulated, and for good reason. The finance industry’s lobbyists got to work, and succeeded in 1999, when the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission substantially deregulated the futures markets. Now banks were permitted to hold large positions in commodities securities.

In 2004, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) expanded the banks’ scope for action when it approved a petition by the investment banks Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Bear Stearns and JP Morgan to relax equity capital rules. From then on, the financial professionals were able to trade with 40 times as much capital as they held in collateral. Even more play money flowed into the market.

But bets on individual commodities are highly risky, which initially deterred many investors. The banks needed a marketing idea, and Goldman Sachs had one, namely to bundle products together — an idea that seems suspiciously familiar in the wake of the subprime crisis. Index funds were created that contained a wide range of commodities futures, from oil to wheat. This spreads the risk and enables the funds to obtain a high credit rating, thereby heightening the appeal of the construct for major investors.

The trick is that speculators never convert the futures into real goods. The fund companies sell the contracts, which run for about 70 days, shortly before their maturity dates and use the fresh cash to invest in new futures. The system operates like a perpetual motion machine, with investors never coming into contact with the real market prices.

That’s precisely the point, say those who question whether speculators are responsible for rising commodity prices. They argue that the laws of supply and demand remain in force on the real, or spot, market, thereby bringing everything into equilibrium. In their view, whatever happens in the futures markets is irrelevant.

This is a fallacy. In reality, futures prices do affect real market prices, as Maximo Torero, director of the IFPRI’s Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division has learned. After taking a close look at the markets for corn, soybeans and wheat, he found that, in most cases, real prices followed futures prices. The anticipated future began changing the present.

Another factor is that rising futures prices encourage those who actually do own real goods to hoard their reserves, fueling prices even more.

In this manner, the financial industry’s involvement has thrown the once predictable food market completely out of balance.”

And we know that parts of the Arab uprisings have to do with rising food prices.

And this also leads to what Amartya Sen long ago called a failure of entitlements:

“The problem is particularly glaring in Ethiopia, a country whose name is associated with starvation for many people. Even though 5.7 million Ethiopians are dependent on international food aid, the government sells or leases large tracts of fertile land to foreign investors. They, in turn, export most of the food they produce to other countries.

Since 2007, the Ethiopian government has approved 815 foreign-funded agricultural projects. Saudi firms, multinational agricultural companies and British pension funds act as investors. Some 3.6 million hectares of land are up for grabs, much of it in the Gambela region, the proposed site of a national park. Now virgin forest is being cleared to produce food for other countries. Fifty kilometers (31 miles) outside the capital Addis Ababa, Jittu Horticulture, a subsidiary of a Spanish agricultural group, produces 180,000 kilograms (396,000 pounds) of vegetables a week. The produce is exported to the Middle East, supplying multinational oil companies and five-star hotels in Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

“We bring foreign currency into the country, enabling the government to buy wheat for the hungry,” Dutch manager Jans Brins told the Berlin daily newspaper Tagesspiegel. “It’s the government’s responsibility to feed people who are unable to buy anything for themselves.”

That is precisely the problem: There is enough food, but it’s unaffordable for many people. Investors do not believe it is their responsibility to produce affordable food. Their job is to turn a lot of money into even more money. The British hedge fund Emergent Asset Management, for example, expects a 25 percent return on harvest profits and increases in the cost of farmland.

This much profit is normally unattainable with fallow land far from roads and water. Investors are usually drawn to developed areas with fertile soil, where they pursue intensive agricultural methods that tend to exacerbate rather than solve the problem of feeding the world in the long term.

As a result, the harm inflicted on the undernourished people of the world by investors and speculators is not limited to price increases. “It isn’t just that the wrong people are investing; they are also investing in the wrong things,” says Angelika Hilbeck of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.”

All these investors should be made to go live one year in these areas, without being allowed to use any of their bonuses to survive. See how they like the market then.

Anyway, read the whole thing. It will turn your stomach but it is worth it.

Posted in Commodification, Globalization | No Comments »

Explaining The Growth of The Precariat: Global Commodification, Flexibility, Precarity Trap and The Subsidy State

August 15, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

This is another installment in a series of posts (here and here) I intend to write as I work my way through Guy Standing‘s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. In this section, the main topic will be the causes of the growth of the precariat. Standing identifies several causes.

Global Commodification

“A central aspect of globalisation can be summed up in one intimidating work, ‘commodification‘. This involves treating everything as a commodity, to be bought and sold, subject to market forces, with prices set by demand and supply, without effective ‘agency’ (a capacity to resist). Commodification has been extended to every aspect of life – the family, education system, firm, labour institutions, socia protection policy, unemployment, disability, occupational communities and politics.”

In the drive for market efficiency, barriers to commodification were dismantled. A neo-liberal principle was that regulations were required to prevent collective interests from acting as barriers to competition. The globalisation era was not one of de-regulation but of re-regulation, in which more regulations were introduced than in any comparable period of history.” (26)

This sounds a lot like Jurgen Habermas’s idea of colonization of the lifeworld by the system.

According to Standing, firms and companies themselves have been commodified through accelerating and multiplying mergers and acquisitions. This means an end to Ronald Coase’s conception of firms as reducing costs and risks of doing business while increasing trust and long-term relationships. In investing frenzies, there is no incentive to building up long-term relationships based on trust and deep knowledge. This, of course, makes life more insecure for employees as overnight mergers and acquisitions can completely disrupt organizations and individual careers through offshoring (within firms) and outsourcing (to other firms). The relationship between employer and employee is then also one of limited trust and short-term in outlook and careers and skill acquisition become individualized projects:

“The disruption feeds into the way skills are developed. The incentive to invest in skills is determined by the cost of acquiring them, the opportunity cost of doing so and the prospective additional income. If the risk increases of not having the opportunity to practise skills, investment in them will decline, as will the psychological commitment to the company. In short,  if firms become more fluid, workers will be discouraged from trying to build careers inside them. This puts them close to being in the precariat.

(…)

For a growing number of workers in the twenty-first century, it would be folly to regard a firm as a place for building a career and gaining income security. There would be nothing wrong with that, if social policy were adapted so that all those working for companies are able to have basic security. At present, this is far from the case.” (30-1)

Flexibility: Commodification of Labor

Anyone who has paid attention to what neo-liberal globalists have been saying for the past thirty years knows that flexibilization of labor has been their mantra. The idea is that labor, especially in the Global North, was too rigid and regulated and protected to be truly efficient. Remove these cumbersome regulations and the firms’ power to compete on the global stage would be unleashed. Flexibility of labor relations is a necessary condition for Western countries to be able to compete with emerging countries. Needless to say, much flexibility has already been accomplished but flexibilization is a work-in-progress, a never-ending project as there are always pockets of labor that have not been completely subjected to the neo-liberal regime (in the US, for instance, the time has come for public workers). Obviously, this has been a major cause of growth of the precariat. For Standing, flexibility is the commodification of labor, or rather re-commodification of labor – that is, the progressive dismantlement of labor protections that had been fought for over the past hundred and fifty years or so.

This flexibility of labor relations is multi-faceted. It involves numerical flexibility through what used to be called non-traditional forms of labor that are now becoming the norm such as temporary labor, underemployment, offshoring and outsourcing, unpaid furloughs, “zero-hour contracts” and the expansion of internships (something discussed here). In the well-known division between primary and secondary labor market and there is no doubt that the secondary labor market is growing with the loss of training opportunities, benefits and pensions. Walmart is the future of work but it is a global trend.

“In the 1960s,  a typical worker entering the labour market of an industrialised country could have anticipated having four employers by the time he retired. In those circumstances, it made sense to identify with the firm in which he was employed. Today, a worker would be foolish to do so. Now, a typical worker – more likely to be a woman – can anticipate having nine employers before reaching the age of 30. That is the extent of the change represented by numerical flexibility.” (36)

Another form of labor flexibility is functional flexibility, that is, a change in the division of labor and shifting workers between positions. Functional flexibility creates job insecurity (as opposed to numerical flexibility which generates employment insecurity) through contractual individualization (or contractualization, as opposed to collective bargaining) and the general casualization of work. This also involves what Standing calls tertiarisation:

“Tertiarisation summarises a combination of forms of flexibility, in which divisions of labour are fluid, workplaces blend into home and public places, hours of labour fluctuate and people can combine several work statuses and have several contracts concurrently.

(…)

The flexibility involves more work-for-labour; a blurring of workplaces, home places and public places; and a shift from direct control to diverse forms of indirect control, in which increasingly sophisticated technological mechanisms are deployed.” (38)

Another source of the growth of precariat is wage flexibility. The precariat is especially reliant in wage income in the whole social income typology, so any shift in income – from fixed to flexible or through different schemes such as variable pay or merit pay. For instance,

“As workers in China agitated for higher wages and better conditions, multinationals grandly conceded large money wage increases but took enterprise benefits. Foxconn’s penned workers in Shenzhen had received subsidised food, clothing and dormitory accommodations. In June 2010, on the day he announced a second big rise in wages, the head of Foxconn said, ‘today we are going to return these functions to the government’. The company was shifting to money wages, giving the impression that workers were gaining a lot (a 96 per cent wage increase), but changing the form of remuneration and character of labour relationship. The global model was coming to China.” (43)

And this, of course, means greater insecurity at a time where globalization also shatters community ties that also constituted part of social income.

Unemployment is also re-construed through neo-liberal filters, and individualized as personal characteristics:

“In the neo-liberal framework, unemployment became a matter of individual responsibility, making it almost ‘voluntary’. People came to be regarded as more or less ‘employable’ and the answer was to make them more employable, upgrading their ‘skills’ or reforming their ‘habits’ and ‘attitudes’. This made it easy to go to the next stage of blaming and demonising the unemployed as lazy and scroungers.” (45)

And the logical next step is a call for a reduction of unemployment benefits which leads to a vicious circle: a insecure and part-time employment rose especially for the low-en of the labor market, then unemployment benefits represented a higher percentage of income replacement. The conclusion should be that work does not pay enough, but no, media commentators would harp that benefits were too high and should be cut further and that the unemployed should be forced to take lower-paying jobs. But as Standing puts it, “the rich world’s job-generating machine is running down” (46) and this predates the 2008 recession. If anything, the recession has accelerated this trend by creating more zones of precariat:

“The unemployed also experience a form of tertiarisation. They have multiple ‘workplaces’ – employment exchanges, benefit offices, job-search training offices – and have to indulge in a lot of work-for-labour – filling in forms, queuing, commuting to employment exchanges, commuting in search of jobs, commuting to job training and so on. It can be a full-time job being unemployed, and it involves flexibility, since people must be on call all the time. What politicians call idleness may be no more than being on the end of the phone, chewing nails nervously hoping for a call.” (48)

The Precarity Trap

To live in precarious conditions means to have a lot of expenses that will keep one there, or what Standing call high transaction costs (time spent applying for benefits, temporary job loss and search for new ones, time and cost of learning on the new job and adjustment of all the other activities – such as child care – around that new job) that may very well gobble up a greater share of income. This is the precarity trap. And that is not counting the fact that living in the precariat means experiencing the full force of the risk society individually.

The Subsidy State

The global economy is a heavily subsidized economy (so much for free market) and again, that is without counting the bailouts triggered by the recession. These subsidies can take the form of tax holidays, various forms of tax relief or tax credits. For instance, schemes such as the Earned Income Tax Credit were subsidies offsetting low wages (gotta keep people consuming, even and especially at the bottom of the social ladder).

“Labour subsidies, including earned-income tax credits and marginal employment subsidies, are also in reality subsidies to capital, enabling companies to gain more profits and pay lower wages. They have no economic or social equity justification. The rationale for the main labour subsidy, tax credits, is that as the poor and less educated in countries face the stiffest competition from low-cost labour in developing countries, governments need to subsidise low wages to provide adeequate incomes. But while intended to offset wage inequality, these subsidies encourage the growth or maintenance of low-wage precariat jobs. By topping up wages to something like subsistence, tax credits take pressure off employers, giving them an incentive to continue to pay low wages.” (55)

Along with easy credit, and additional household income through women work, one can file subsidies are “ways in which we can keep people consuming and demand high with declining wages” which has come crashing down in 2008. That is also part of the may ways in which the state is VERY involved in sustaining the economy.

Under these conditions, of course, the precariat has an ultimate recourse: the shadow economy, no matter how dangerous or exploitative.

Or there can be riots.

Posted in Commodification, Globalism, Globalization, Labor, Precarization, Social Change, Social Mobility, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Book Review – Fugitive Denim

July 27, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Rachel Snyder’s Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade is an interesting book but boy would the author have benefited from a sit-down with a good editor who would have told her that it needed a tighter structure and line of thinking. I initially picked up the book because I thought it was going to be about a specific global commodity chain (jeans) and it is partly that and it should have been that. But then, the author starts running in all sorts of direction that completely dilute that initial premise. So, at various points in the book, I was still wondering where the author was going.

So, starting from an environmentally and labor-conscious brand of jeans associated with Bono and his wife, Snyder retraces the global steps of what it takes to produce denim as a reflection of the the rules of global trade and mechanisms of global governance as they trickle down to local factories in various parts of the world. For instance, Snyder starts with the way the end of the quota system by the US:

“Part of the problem, at least as it pertains to global trade, is something known to the industry as the quota system. On January 1, 2005, a few months after Scott and Rogan’s meeting with Ali and Bono, a decades-old system called the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA) expired, in accordance with rules established by the World Trade Organization under something they called their Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC). Members of the WTO were signatories of the agreement to end the MFA. In place for the better part of the post–World War II era under various aliases and auspices (the WTO took over the administration of the quotas when it was created in 1994), this system evolved as borders became more porous, consumers more aware, and organizations more global. Basically, the MFA set limits on the amount of textiles and apparel any one country could export to the United States. For example, of the roughly 365 million sweaters imported to the United States every year, the Philippines got to manufacture and export 4.2 million of them.2 The quota given to each country varied, and for the bigger manufacturers like China and India, a void was left when they reached their quotas—a void other, smaller countries like the Philippines gladly stepped in to fill.

From 1974 to 1994, the MFA dictated the global terms of the textile and apparel industry. It began as a way to protect manufacturing in industrialized countries in the face of competition from textile industries first in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan after World War II, then in China, India, and other developing nations. The quotas ensured that no single developing country ever captured a monopoly of the developed world’s market by limiting what could be exported to countries like the United States. What this meant, in real terms, was that countries like Cambodia, recuperating from decades of war and genocide, had a clear entrée into a market that otherwise might have been prohibitively competitive. The same applied to Mauritius, Nepal, Laos, Lesotho, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Indonesia, Tunisia, and dozens of other countries. Left on its own, the textile production market may have concentrated in just a handful of countries, rather than the sixty or so that compose it today. Ending the quotas was an attempt to rebalance our first attempts at, well, rebalancing. We would eradicate the trade laws we’d written and revised to partly protect the impoverished countries and thereby give the impoverished countries a chance to make it on their own, with not much more than their own pluck. What the World Trade Organization is doing by eliminating the MFA and eradicating the convoluted quota system is, in essence, pretty simple.” (23-24)

Snyder then examines the anticipated consequences of the removal of the quota for small countries that risk to be squeezed out by China. So, the first stop in Snyder’s examination is Azerbaijan, which is a major producer of cotton and where cotton growing and picking is still done in the old-fashioned way, mostly by women. Actually, throughout the whole global production chain, one finds women in the trenches and men in the offices. In the case of Azerbaijan, cotton experts (those who evaluate the quality and rating of the cotton) are men.

Compared to US growers, of course, Azeri farmers are at the usual disadvantage: US growers are heavily subsidized, while they get to experience the joys of “free trade”. And, of course, most of these subsidies go to large agribusiness firms, not family farms. The US is not the only culprit. The EU and Japan are also heavy subsidizers. The Azeri think they should move up the commodity chain and produce the finished jeans and other cotton products rather than limit themselves to growing cotton. The World Bank disagrees:

“The World Bank wanted Azerbaijan to sell only raw cotton and would subsidize this, but Vasif feels if the World Bank really wanted to help the country, it would give subsidies to start small factories to weave fabric or make finished garments.4 Ready-made thread sells for nearly double cotton’s price on the world market. Vasif and other Azeris who put forth this argument may never have heard of the quota system, but they all knew about the subsidies paid to U.S. cotton farmers by the American government. It’s a system that has helped keep farms in America afloat since the 1930s and which infuriates farmers around the globe, from Burkina Faso to Uzbekistan to Brazil. “Basically, the World Bank doesn’t want you to improve,” Vasif says. “The more finished a product is, the more money it demands from the global market. The World Bank gives credit if we do what they want, but we lose our freedom.” (63)

And so, Azeri growers remain poor because the rich countries’ subsidies depress the price of cotton on the world market. Never mind that the WTO has declared these subsidies to be illegal. That double standard has been a source of contention in world trade for a while.

Not only is growing and picking cotton hard work, but it is also one of the most toxic crops as well:

“THOUGH COTTON MAKES UP ONLY ABOUT 3 PERCENT of our global agricultural land, it consumes nearly a quarter of the world’s insecticides and 10 percent of the world’s pesticides—more than any other crop—with cost estimates for the pesticides alone totaling $2.6 billion. The average pair of jeans carries three quarters of a pound of chemicals.1 Pesticides, of course, allow for the global cotton empire by killing the pests that would otherwise kill the cotton; but in short order, these pests build up a resistance and farmers need ever-increasing amounts of chemicals to combat the insects. Most of the conventional cotton in the United States is genetically modified, or Bt, cotton—with insecticides contained inside the seeds. (73)

Emphasis mine.

And the need for pesticides is a major source of debt for farmers in the Global South (in parts of India, indebted farmers kill themselves by swallowing the very pesticides that got them in a financial hole to begin with). Add to that the environmental devastation caused by the growth of cotton (the disappearance of the Aral sea as a result of cotton fields in Uzbekistan) or simply the death of farm workers from exposure to pesticides (in the US as well), and the picture that emerges is that of a production chain that is badly in need of sustainable practices:

“Aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos, and endosulfan were pesticides developed during World War I as toxic nerve agents; all are allowed under the EPA’s ruling.8 Another particularly nasty organophosphate called chlorpyriphos was also a World War I nerve gas and is used in more than a hundred registered products in the United States alone.9 While the EPA has banned it from home use because of “its negative impact on children’s health,” it remains commonly used in agriculture.10 Methyl parathion is also common, though it is listed as “extremely hazardous” and nineteen countries have banned it, while another forty-three make importing it illegal.11 The United States is not one of them. Nor is China, which has become the world’s biggest user of pesticides.

(…)

This does not preclude the United States from exporting products that it considers too harmful for use in American homes. The EPA has even ruled that banned pesticides are not prohibited from being imported into the United States so that they may be repackaged for export. Between 1997 and 2000 forty-five tons of pesticides that were either “severely restricted” or “forbidden” altogether were exported every hour, totaling roughly 3.2 billion pounds. More than half these products—many of which are classified as extremely hazardous by the World Heath Organization—were shipped to the developing world.” (74)

There is now a movement to get more organic cotton grown (Turkey is the leader in that) but organic cotton only represents 1% of the global production although that percentage is growing slowly because organic cotton is more labor intensive and of lower quality. And as Snyder shows, a lifetime of picking cotton is devastating on the health and life expectancy of the pickers.

Next stop down the commodity chain is Italy where jeans (fabric and models) are designed for the major store brands of Europe and the US. It is quite a contrast compared to the rough life of the Azeri farmers. Snyder describes a hectic life of design shows across the major cities of Europe and their various fashion weeks. It is pretty much the only part of the production process that takes place in the Global North. The designed models are then sent to independent contractors in the Global South, for production. And that is even a battle that Italy is losing to China as well.

Fabric design is itself quite a process:

“There are almost endless combinations of things that can be done to treat jeans, using a surprising array of materials: glass, sandpaper, diamond dust, pumice stones, enzymes, chemical or mechanical abrasion, and many others. Stonewashing, which requires the harvest of pumice from around the world, has come under fire from environmental groups, particularly when stones are first dipped in bleach and then used to treat jeans. Plastic balls and enzymes are used more and more in “stonewashing,” though the effect is still often disappointing. This washing and finishing is almost unquestionably the least environmentally friendly part of the entire manufacturing process. Clothes are sprayed with chemicals to create a variety of effects, or overdyed (with one color layered over another or an excess of color applied to the fabric), or coated in resin and baked in enormous ovens. Polymer resin is commonly used to coat creases and folds in clothing, thereby making them permanent, and to set color; it also sometimes contains formaldehyde. Workers in the laundry industry must don an array of contraptions—special respirators, boots, coveralls, gloves, protective eyewear—to shield them from the myriad chemicals in use in nearly every operation. Buckets and buckets of chemicals with names wholly unrecognizable to me sat lined up in a warehouse where purple spray—potassium permanganate—was hosed onto jeans as they dangled on metal hangers from the ceiling.” (121)

Something that has been dramatically illustrated by photographs such as these (see the rest here):

it is well known that many countries of the Global South do not have strict environmental regulations or, if they do, they may suspend them in export zones to attract contracts from Western companies. That is especially the case for Indonesia and Thailand. As we know, when it comes to such contracting, there is a race to the bottom going on and contractors in the Global South have to compete with each other and cut costs in whichever way they can, mostly on environmental and labor costs. After all, we want our jeans cheap. That cost is borne by someone else’s environment, health and wages.

Next stop in Cambodia where jean factories are pulling a generation of daughters out of the countryside to the main cities where the money they make is still better than what their families earn on farms, although Cambodia is one of the countries most likely to be on the losing side of the end of the quotas.

This is where the book gets a bit off-track. While Snyder takes a lot of time describing the lives of two factory workers (which is really interesting), she starts focusing more on corporate responsibility and standards than on the commodity chain per se. This has to do with the fact that Cambodia is a special case for the ILO through the Better Factories Cambodia program:

“Better Factories Cambodia is a unique programme of the International Labour Organization. It benefits workers, employers and their organizations. It benefits consumers in Western countries and helps reduce poverty in one of the poorest nations of the world.

It does this by monitoring and reporting on working conditions in Cambodian garment factories according to national and international standards, by helping factories to improve working conditions and productivity, and by working with the Government and international buyers to ensure a rigorous and transparent cycle of improvement.

The project grew out of a trade agreement between the United States and Cambodia. Under the agreement the US promised Cambodia better access to US markets in exchange for improved working conditions in the garment sector. The ILO project was established in 2001 to help the sector make and maintain these improvements.”

And the program seems to work and Cambodia uses its good labor practice as its comparative advantage, because otherwise, there is no way it can compete with the giant next door, China and its monumental export zones. And from the way Snyder describes it, it seems that there are improvements but there are still enormous labor issues:

“Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that problems, generally termed noncompliance, were not still rampant in the industry as a whole. Numerous examples of child labor, forced labor, abhorrent conditions, and abysmal pay abound. In the spring of 2006, the National Labor Committee put out a report on widespread industry abuses in Jordan in factories that contract with Wal-Mart, Kmart, Kohl’s, Gloria Vanderbilt, Target, and Victoria’s Secret, among others. The report cites instances of forced labor, indentured servitude, physical and mental abuse, rape, mandatory pregnancy testing (mothers-to-be are often fired so the factory won’t have to pay maternity costs), withholding payment, and unsanitary conditions. Of 60,000 factory workers in Jordan’s export processing zone, more than half are immigrants (often illegal) and thus particularly vulnerable. Jordan also receives preferential access to the U.S. consumer market as part of the U.S.-Israel free-trade deal. The report told of workers locked in a single room at night and forced to work until 2:00 or 3:00 A.M.; factories had withheld meals and in one case punished a handful of workers by locking them for several hours in a deep freezer.” (257)

But part of the improvement is because monitoring and indexing working conditions in factories has become a big business in itself. The certification processes are proliferating but there is no uniform standard so, different indexes might mean different things or countries might pick and choose which index or certification process to be part of.

In the end, as Snyder reiterates several times throughout the book, it comes down to the prices that consumers are willing to accept in exchange for jeans that are produced in a sustainable and fair fashion.

As I mentioned above, the book would have benefited from some tighter editing and greater consistency of topic. I really liked the development on the different kinds of workers involved in the global commodity chain but I don’t give a damn about Bono and his wife. Sometimes, the focus on individuals was much too strong (who cares that one of the Italian designers was pregnant and the whole story around that) compared to the big picture. Too many times, as I was reading the book, I asked myself “where is she going with this?”. Other than that, the book is an easy read.

Again, the accounts of the lives and working conditions of Azeri cotton picker and Khmer factory workers were quite interesting and moving. These are the people on whose shoulders we’re standing when it comes to our quality of life. They do deserve the exposure.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commodification, Consumerism, Corporatism, Gender, Global Governance, Globalization, Health, Health Care, Labor, Patriarchy, Poverty, Public Policy | No Comments »

Book Review – Traȋtres A La Nation

April 16, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Stephane Béaud’s Traîtres À La Nation – Un Autre Regard Sur La Grève Des Bleus en Afrique du Sud (en collaboration avec Philippe Guimard) is perfect and great example of public sociology. It very nicely and powerfully shows what sociological analysis can do, especially with respect to a very high-profile event, such as the “strike” by the French football team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

I really do hope that this book will get an English edition. If that were the case, I would jump on it and make my students use in my undergraduate classes. It is written at the perfect level, uses a lot of concrete examples. There isn’t too much jargon but the sociological analysis is crystal clear and very powerful. And, of course, the topic is guaranteed to get people’s attention. One can point at this book and say “this is what sociology does.”

The starting point of the book, obviously, is the strike by the players of the national French team during the World Cup, followed by their shameful exit from that competition in the early stages (after a very controversial qualification), and the social and political fallout from these events. Considering how discussed these events have already been, what does sociology have to bring to the table? First off, most of the discussion has been tainted by moral, classist and racist considerations. Exit the glorious days of the “black, blanc, beur” winning team of 1998, now, the strike is denounced by politicians as the work of low-class, highly-paid little bosses and the hapless followers. The media and politicians engaged in moral condemnations. Putting oneself in the position of judge, prosecutor and jury is not what sociology does. The job of the sociologist, for Béaud, is the Weberian injunction of Verstehen.

The point of sociological analysis then is to put these events in the proper context (what I call SHiP – structure, history, power) and to retrace the sociological factors that shaped this French national football team (especially in contrast with the 1998 team). What Béaud engages in is what he calls “live sociology” in which moral judgment is suspended and social action is re-situated in is (muli-layered) context, understood as a system of constraints in which individual behavior occurs. That is, the challenge is to treat this event as a social fact (in Durkheim’s sense): the strike is a product of the deregulation of French professional football, structural causes, changes in recruitment, training and socialization of French footballers, the internationalization and precarization of football careers (based on changes in the legal framework). Alongside these structural factors are more institutional and symbolic factors, such as relationships between players and the media, as well as the group dynamics within the French team.

For those of you who don’t remember, the strike of the French team occurred after France’s main sports daily newspaper published the photo to the right, on its front page, after the defeat against Mexico. The comment between quotation marks is supposed to have been said by Anelka against French coach Domenech in the locker rooms. Following the alleged incident, Anelka was expelled from the team by the French Federation.

Arguing the fact that what goes on in the locker rooms is supposed to stay there, and never be divulged to the public, the players went on strike and issues a communiqué (actually drafted by the attorney of one of the players) also blaming the Federation for mismanaging the situation.

For Béaud, this reflects the growing tensions that have been building up between players and the media as well as the changes in these relationships. Whereas these relationships used to be simple and straightforward, if not friendly, they have become more formal, complex and marked by the professionalization of the players. While players used to be approachable, and locker rooms were not closed off to the press, interactions with players are now mediated by the entourage that is characteristic of the main players (attorneys, PR consultants, etc.) and the creation of mixte zones in stadiums is a perfect reflection of that. As a result, it is more difficult to get more than canned talking points out of the players who are already uncomfortable with public speaking.

At the same time, Béaud shows that what happened was not the product of the “little bosses” from the projects pushing the other players into the strike. The French team was indeed divided but not along racial and ethnic lines but rather into group statuses such as established players (incumbent players, those more or less guaranteed to play) versus substitutes. The established group is composed of players who have the most sport legitimacy and credibility, which puts them in positions of leadership.

Compared to other players also from the project, the established players are more sensitive to any feeling of symbolic humiliation and injustice, and they are more likely to experience a relative frustration with the poor game strategy of the French team in recent years, under the leadership of a discredited coach. So, in the 2010 French team, one finds the dominated group, the newcomers, and the recently selected players from African origin. Their lack of either integration in the team or football capital reduced the probability that they would go against the decisions of the established group. And the newspaper frontpage gave the team a unity it had never achieved before.

Add to this the role of the French Football Federation and its incomprehensible to reappoint a discredited coach (which appointing his successor right before the World Cup, thereby undermining him even further), the respective relationships between the players and this coach (certainly, several players from the established group had a grudge against him), the conflict between the FFF and the other major institution involved, the Professional Footballers League. And finally, the infiltration of the political and social tensions from the housing projects into the team all created a bundle of tensions that were bound to explode at some point… and did.

These events are also a reflection of the change in recruitment of players in French football. In the post-War period, one finds most French football players came from the blue-collar working-class (especially the clubs from Northern France). The trajectories of these players are quite different than what they are today. They usually spent their youth years in amateur football, still going to school to obtain technical and vocational qualifications. They become professional relatively late (in their 20s). Therefore, they receive a rather typical working-class socialization. The 1998 team is basically the last fling of that generation of players, with a specific sport and social ethos based on humility, collectivism, respect for the elders and explicit patriotism. This is the working-class before the precarization of the working-class of the deindustrializing years and the defeat of its political power. And the players of the 1998 team who did grow up in the housing projects did so before the ethnic contraction and marginalization of these areas and increased polarization.

There are three major differences between the 1998 team and the 2010 team, sociologically speaking:

(1) There are now more players in the great and economically powerful European teams of England, Italy and Spain. A minority of them now play for French teams.

(2) Players are now recruited by training centers (famous institutions that detect football talents and develop them over several years, with hopes of professionalization right after graduation. These centers have made France the second exporting countries – after Brazil – when it comes to footballers, but they also close off earlier and earlier any real education and occupy a greater part of the players’ socialization) at an earlier and earlier age, and especially from the lower classes. Fewer players now come from the working-class French heartland, and more and more from the housing projects on the outskirts of France’s largest cities.

(3) There are now more players of African origin, especially sub-saharan Africa, as opposed to the Maghreb, and from players from France’s territories (Antilles, Guadeloupe, etc.).

This greater internationalization of football out of France is directly connected to the legal context created by the Bosman Ruling, which allowed players to have greater freedom of movement from one club to the next. This greater freedom has also led to the massive inflation of footballer compensation. All of a sudden, the most powerful European clubs were able to recruit players from all over Europe, and the players were able to demand higher pay for their services. These teams have been accused of pillaging other countries for their own benefit. If French football creates great players, the French teams are not economically strong enough to retain them once these players fully develop their potential. This has led former players to deplore the lack of “fidelity to the jersey”. This also means that teams are less likely to have a trademark style of play, as the recruitment is no longer local and long-term.

Now, a player will typically enter a training center around 15 years old (if not pre-training centers that recruit even younger players) and they may leave for a non-French team even before their training is complete to start playing for the club that has recruited them. And the Bosman Ruling allows these young players to change club more easily (making more money in the process). As a result, their trajectories are much less smooth and their socialization more chaotic as they leave their families at a fairly young age. For the lower-class parents of these players, to sign a professional contract is a way out of the project for their son and club scouts start contacting parents as early as possible (the competition is extreme), making them incredible offers. From the clubs’ perspective, these young players are commodities, and they expect rather rapid returns on investment, so as to re-sell the players at an even higher price than they paid for him.

This means that, at a young age, players have to be surrounded by a whole entourage of agents, attorneys for themselves and their parents, along with the usual trainers, PR people, etc. But in the context of increased precarization for the lower classes, social tensions in the projects, and the ever-more repressive policies put in place by the Sarkozy government, who could resist?

So, Béaud argues that the strike of 2010 in South Africa is an act of civil disobedience and also a reflection of all these structural and cyclical factors: the changes in socialization of the players, transformation of the labor market for French football players, the impact of geographical and sport migration and the corresponding social uprooting, along with the pressures tied to the obligation to perform earlier, faster and better in a very competitive context… on top of the group dynamics and the interpersonal and institutional issues mentioned above.

Béaud wraps up his study with an analysis of the evolution of the players of Maghreb origin in French football, inserting it as well in the social context of immigration and integration. The last two chapters of the book are less directly related to the 2010 fiasco but they additional layers to an understanding of French football in its social context.

As I mentioned above, this book is a great read (something that does not happen enough in sociology!) and a great example of public sociology and live sociology. Highly recommended… if you can read French.

<p style=”text-align: justify;”><a href=”http://www.amazon.fr/Tra%C3%AEtres-nation-autre-regard-Afrique/dp/2707167169/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&amp;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1302999785&amp;sr=1-1″ target=”_blank”><img style=”margin: 5px;” src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41FnLegOc1L._SL500_AA300_.jpg” alt=”" width=”300″ height=”300″ /></a>Stephane Béaud’s <a href=”http://www.amazon.fr/Tra%C3%AEtres-nation-autre-regard-Afrique/dp/2707167169/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&amp;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1302999785&amp;sr=1-1″ target=”_blank”>Traîtres À La Nation – Un Autre Regard Sur La Grève Des Bleus en Afrique du Sud</a> (en collaboration avec Philippe Guimard) is perfect and great example of public sociology. It very nicely and powerfully shows what sociological analysis can do, especially with respect to a very high-profile event, such as the “strike” by the French football team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>I really do hope that this book will get an English edition. If that were the case, I would jump on it and make my students use in my undergraduate classes. It is written at the perfect level, uses a lot of concrete examples. There isn’t too much jargon but the sociological analysis is crystal clear and very powerful. And, of course, the topic is guaranteed to get people’s attention. One can point at this book and say “this is what sociology does.”</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>The starting point of the book, obviously, is the strike by the players of the national French team during the World Cup, followed by their shameful exit from that competition in the early stages (after a very controversial qualification), and the social and political fallout from these events. Considering how discussed these events have already been, what does sociology have to bring to the table? First off, most of the discussion has been tainted by moral, classist and racist considerations. Exit the glorious days of the “black, blanc, beur” winning team of 1998, now, the strike is denounced by politicians as the work of low-class, highly-paid little bosses and the hapless followers. The media and politicians engaged in moral condemnations. Putting oneself in the position of judge, prosecutor and jury is not what sociology does. The job of the sociologist, for Béaud, is the Weberian injunction of Verstehen.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>The point of sociological analysis then is to put these events in the proper context (what I call SHiP – structure, history, power) and to retrace the sociological factors that shaped this French national football team (especially in contrast with the 1998 team). What Béaud engages in is what he calls “live sociology” in which moral judgment is suspended and social action is re-situated in is (muli-layered) context, understood as a system of constraints in which individual behavior occurs. That is, the challenge is to treat this event as a social fact (in Durkheim’s sense): the strike is a product of the deregulation of French professional football, structural causes, changes in recruitment, training and socialization of French footballers, the internationalization and precarization of football careers (based on changes in the legal framework). Alongside these structural factors are more institutional and symbolic factors, such as relationships between players and the media, as well as the group dynamics within the French team.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”><a href=”http://e-blogs.wikio.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/LEquipe_Anelka_Domenech_UNE1.jpg” target=”_blank”><img style=”margin: 5px;” src=”http://e-blogs.wikio.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/LEquipe_Anelka_Domenech_UNE1.jpg” alt=”" width=”320″ height=”217″ /></a>For those of you who don’t remember, the strike of the French team occurred after France’s main sports daily newspaper published the photo to the right, on its front page, after the defeat against Mexico. The comment between quotation marks is supposed to have been said by Anelka against French coach Domenech in the locker rooms. Following the alleged incident, Anelka was expelled from the team by the French Federation.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>Arguing the fact that what goes on in the locker rooms is supposed to stay there, and never be divulged to the public, the players went on strike and issues a communiqué (actually drafted by the attorney of one of the players) also blaming the Federation for mismanaging the situation.</p>
<p align=”center”><object classid=”clsid:d27cdb6e-ae6d-11cf-96b8-444553540000″ width=”480″ height=”390″ codebase=”http://download.macromedia.com/pub/shockwave/cabs/flash/swflash.cab#version=6,0,40,0″><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true” /><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always” /><param name=”src” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/GBl8Ia5_dCA?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US” /><param name=”allowfullscreen” value=”true” /><embed type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” width=”480″ height=”390″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/GBl8Ia5_dCA?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true”></embed></object>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>For Béaud, this reflects the growing tensions that have been building up between players and the media as well as the changes in these relationships. Whereas these relationships used to be simple and straightforward, if not friendly, they have become more formal, complex and marked by the professionalization of the players. While players used to be approachable, and locker rooms were not closed off to the press, interactions with players are now mediated by the entourage that is characteristic of the main players (attorneys, PR consultants, etc.) and the creation of mixte zones in stadiums is a perfect reflection of that. As a result, it is more difficult to get more than canned talking points out of the players who are already uncomfortable with public speaking.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>At the same time, Béaud shows that what happened was not the product of the “little bosses” from the projects pushing the other players into the strike. The French team was indeed divided but not along racial and ethnic lines but rather into group statuses such as established players (incumbent players, those more or less guaranteed to play) versus substitutes. The established group is composed of players who have the most sport legitimacy and credibility, which puts them in positions of leadership. Compared to other players also from the project, the established players are more sensitive to any feeling of symbolic humiliation and injustice, and they are more likely to experience a relative frustration with the poor game strategy of the French team in recent years, under the leadership of a discredited coach. So, in the 2010 French team, one finds the dominated group, the newcomers, and the recently selected players from African origin. Their lack of either integration in the team or football capital reduced the probability that they would go against the decisions of the established group. And the newspaper frontpage gave the team a unity it had never achieved before.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”></p>

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Commodification, Globalization, Identity, Institutional Racism, Media, Migration, Nationalism, Organizational Sociology, Racism, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Sanctions, Social Stigma, Social Structure, Socialization, Sociology, Sports, Teaching Sociology | No Comments »

In The Surveillance Society, Big Brother is a Public-Private Partnership

August 11, 2010 by and tagged ,

Under the guise of the national security state, we already know the extent of government surveillance at all levels, from the surveillance apparatus under the Patriot Act to ubiquitous closed circuit cameras. In addition, ever since David Lyon started working on the surveillance society, he has noted the extent to which online presence opens one to all sorts of spying mechanisms, often for commercial purposes.

Over time, the tools of online surveillance have sharpened:

“The Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

• The study found that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.

• Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to “cookie” files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.

• These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.

The new technologies are transforming the Internet economy. Advertisers once primarily bought ads on specific Web pages—a car ad on a car site. Now, advertisers are paying a premium to follow people around the Internet, wherever they go, with highly specific marketing messages.”

And if that does not scare you:

“The Journal examined the 50 most popular U.S. websites, which account for about 40% of the Web pages viewed by Americans. (The Journal also tested its own site, WSJ.com.) It then analyzed the tracking files and programs these sites downloaded onto a test computer.

As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal’s test computer. Nearly a third of these were innocuous, deployed to remember the password to a favorite site or tally most-popular articles.

But over two-thirds—2,224—were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold.”

Quite frankly, I would have been surprised if there had not been an opportunity for profit in mass stalking.

Maybe there is already bundling and derivatives involved, who knows, but this is getting close:

“Information about people’s moment-to-moment thoughts and actions, as revealed by their online activity, can change hands quickly. Within seconds of visiting eBay.com or Expedia.com, information detailing a Web surfer’s activity there is likely to be auctioned on the data exchange run by BlueKai, the Seattle startup.

Each day, BlueKai sells 50 million pieces of information like this about specific individuals’ browsing habits, for as little as a tenth of a cent apiece. The auctions can happen instantly, as a website is visited.”

But that is also why, more and more, one sees targeted ads on pretty much every website one visits.

Posted in Commodification, Surveillance Society | 1 Comment »

The F!@#$ You Conception of Control – Starvation and Derivatives

July 5, 2010 by

Is anyone really surprised that investors, including the ubiquitous Goldman Sachs used basic food staples to turn into derivatives, irrespective of what it would mean for real people in countries of the Global South?

Step 1: take a basic (but not perfect) human activity

“For over a century, farmers in wealthy countries have been able to engage in a process where they protect themselves against risk. Farmer Giles can agree in January to sell his crop to a trader in August at a fixed price. If he has a great summer, he’ll lose some cash, but if there’s a lousy summer or the global price collapses, he’ll do well from the deal. When this process was tightly regulated and only companies with a direct interest in the field could get involved, it worked.”

Step 2: what?? Regulations? We don’t need no regulation! Let’s unleash the power of deregulated markets (by deregulated, it means, controlled by powerful interests from the Global North) and let’s turn everything into derivatives”

“Then, through the 1990s, Goldman Sachs and others lobbied hard and the regulations were abolished. Suddenly, these contracts were turned into “derivatives” that could be bought and sold among traders who had nothing to do with agriculture. A market in “food speculation” was born.

So Farmer Giles still agrees to sell his crop in advance to a trader for £10,000. But now, that contract can be sold on to speculators, who treat the contract itself as an object of potential wealth. Goldman Sachs can buy it and sell it on for £20,000 to Deutsche Bank, who sell it on for £30,000 to Merrill Lynch – and on and on until it seems to bear almost no relationship to Farmer Giles’s crop at all.”

Step 3: ignore the real life effects

“Here’s how it happened. In 2006, financial speculators like Goldmans pulled out of the collapsing US real estate market. They reckoned food prices would stay steady or rise while the rest of the economy tanked, so they switched their funds there. Suddenly, the world’s frightened investors stampeded on to this ground.

So while the supply and demand of food stayed pretty much the same, the supply and demand for derivatives based on food massively rose – which meant the all-rolled-into-one price shot up, and the starvation began. The bubble only burst in March 2008 when the situation got so bad in the US that the speculators had to slash their spending to cover their losses back home.”

For anyone paying attention, derivatives have opened the era where everything can be commodified, bundled and sold for profit. Let us not be surprised. As Saskia Sassen noted, this is savage extraction, an extreme form of structural violence.

Posted in Commodification, Economy, Globalization, Poverty, Sociology | No Comments »

Sociology of the World Cup

June 16, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

First, to put us all in the mood for this, here is Acoustic Alchemy, The Beautiful game:

As the first games of the World Cup are being played, a lot has already been written about the social aspects of the competition itself that illustrate the fact that there is more to sport events than sport and the embedding of this major event into social, economic and political processes and structures.

Which is why what looks like an old-fashioned functionalist view seems quite naive:

“Why do we love watching sport so much? Because it lifts our loneliness. We feel that we are participating in something huge and communal.

When a big sporting event is on, the world feels a bit less chaotic, fragmented, various. There is a focus. A focus that can be understood – by contrast the meaning of politics is contested and obscure. Here is something that matters (sort of), and that a 10-year-old can fully grasp.

(…)

And international football offers the most intense version. The experience spills out beyond the actual viewing of the game. Before and after the game there is something to talk about, with those acquaintances I usually just mumble hello to, and even with complete strangers. All the complications of the class divide suddenly melt away: we’re all in this together. And for the game itself I have cause to get together with my old mates, for some beer and banter. There will be thousands of little parties, all wired up to the same action.

What else in our culture can create this mood of social togetherness? I suppose there is a common mood at Christmas, and a big royal event makes most of us feel connected to something big and grand – that’s about it.

What about religion? Going to church, or mosque or temple, certainly gives one a regular dose of communal spirit, common purpose with one’s fellow worshippers. But can it provide a sense of solidarity with society in general? Only if there is a dominant form of religion, such as the C of E used to be. In some churches there is still a sense that worship unites the local community, but one has to suspend disbelief a bit to feel that this is the ritual lynchpin of society at large. The fact is that most people see religious worship as strange, naff, alien, politically suspect. It marks one out as a bit unusual. Religion is too awkward, contested. It divides rather than unites. Express interest in religion round a pub table, and you’ll get an awkward silence or a brittle argument. Mention a big sporting event and bonhomie is likely to descend.

So in our culture sport is the only form of ritual that really works, on a large scale. It is really capable of conjuring up a sense of social harmony. The grand occasions of state have struggled to do this for decades, we just have a few relics of that national religious culture, like Remembrance Day.”

That is certainly a very simplistic and superficial understanding. First off, the World Cup is not some collective ritual but the product of an international organization (FIFA) with specific interests. Also, one can only watch the games because rights have been negotiated and sold at a very high price to a variety of television networks around the world, and this is big money we are talking about here. Advertising revenues are expected. There will be a ton of World Cup related merchandise sold before, during and after the competition. Such a collective ritual is facilitated by information and communication technologies that have shrunk distances (although there is no abolishing the time zones).

As Fabien Ollier notes in this interview in Le Monde, the World Cup can be seen as planetary alienation:

“Il suffit de se plonger dans l’histoire des Coupes du monde pour en extraire la longue infamie politique et la stratégie d’aliénation planétaire. Le Mondial sud-africain ne fait d’ailleurs pas exception à la règle. L’expression du capital le plus prédateur est à l’œuvre : les multinationales partenaires de la FIFA et diverses organisations mafieuses se sont déjà abattues sur l’Afrique du Sud pour en tirer les plus gros bénéfices possibles. Un certain nombre de journalistes qui ont travaillé en profondeur sur le système FIFA ont mis en évidence le mode de fonctionnement plutôt crapuleux de l’organisation. Ce n’est un secret pour personne aujourd’hui. De plus, il y a une certaine indécence à faire croire que la population profitera de cette manne financière. Le nettoyage des quartiers pauvres, l’expulsion des habitants, la rénovation luxueuse de certains townships ont été contrôlés par des “gangs” qui n’ont pas l’habitude de reverser les bénéfices. Avec la majorité de la population vivant avec moins de 2 euros par jour, cet étalage de richesse est pour le moins contestable.

Le déploiement sécuritaire censé maintenir l’ordre, assurer une soi-disant paix civile n’est autre en réalité que la construction d’un véritable Etat de siège, un Etat “big brother”. Les hélicos, les milliers de policiers et de militaires ne sont là que pour contrôler, parquer la misère et protéger le luxe, pour permettre aux pseudo-passionnés de football de vibrer. La mobilisation de masse des esprits autour des équipes nationales induit la mise en place d’une hystérie collective obligatoire. Tout cela relève d’une diversion politique évidente, d’un contrôle idéologique d’une population. En temps de crise économique, le seul sujet qui devrait nous concerner est la santé de nos petits footballeurs. C’est pitoyable.”

For my non-French readers, the history of the World Cup is one more expression of political infamy and predatory capital with transnational corporations partnering with FIFA and the presence of organized criminal organizations. They will be the true beneficiaries of the Cup, not the local population. Indeed, as with the Olympics, ghettos and poor urban areas will be “cleaned up”, their dwellers expelled. In South Africa, townships will be renovated and gentrified under the control of gangs.

Also, any international sports events inevitably involves the technologies of the surveillance society that turns the hosting country into a state of siege that mostly has to ensure that the “right” people have access to the games and that misery and poverty remain invisible. This involves a great deal of militarization.

And then, there is the political diversion and the channeling into nationalistic ideologies. In times of economic crisis, for two weeks, there will be much talk about everything regarding “our” players. In France, this is the time that the government has chosen to “reform” retirement, a topic that normally triggers general strikes. Probably not this time.

Moreover, as Tony Karon noted, far from being the temporary forgetting of political conflict, the World Cup can be a reflection of it:

“Payback for wartime humiliation was also the Argentine narrative for Diego Maradona’s notorious “hand of God” goal against England at the 1986 World Cup (and the “goal of the century” he added later in the game). Sure, Maradona used his fist to prod the ball over Peter Shilton for the opening goal, but for a country still smarting from the wounds of the Falklands/Malvinas War four years earlier, England had to be beaten by any means necessary. As Maradona said afterwards: “We knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys (in the Malvinas), killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.” Sure, Maradona had cheated, but so had the British, in Argentine minds, by sinking an Argentine warship outside the zone of exclusion around the islands, killing some 323 sailors. Jorge Valdano, who was on the field that day, knew Maradona had cheated, but said “at that moment we only felt joy, relief, perhaps a forced sense of justice. It was England, let’s not forget, and the Malvinas were fresh in the memory.””

Moreover, the World Cup is one of these global sports events that reflect the thickening of global governance structures that have designed global rules and regulations, similar to the WTO and other such global institutions. There is indeed no doubt that globalization and the rules of global governance have affected football, the rules regulating movements of players and other aspects of the game. Tony Karon:

“International football often demonstrates just how fluid and fungible the notion of nationality can be. In the same 2006 World Cup, when Croatia played Australia, three players in the Croatian squad were actually Australian, while seven of the Socceroos were eligible to represent Croatia.

And then there are the Brazilians: not those representing their own country, but the likes of Portugal’s Deco and Pepe, Spain’s Marcos Senna, Croatia’s Eduardo da Silva, Poland’s Roger Gurreiro, Turkey’s Mehmet Aurelio, Tunisia’s Francileudo Dos Santos and dozens more who have represented a total of 26 other national teams.

Switzerland’s electorate may be increasingly hostile towards immigrants, but the country’s fortunes in South Africa in June will depend heavily on the Turkish forwards Gokan Inler and Hakan Yekin, Cabo Verdean holding midfielder Gelson Fernandes, Ivorian defender Johan Djorou, Kosovar Albanian wide man Valon Behrami and a half-dozen other players from former Yugoslavia. Let’s just say that in international football, these days, the Zulu Scotsman named Makhathini in the Cadbury’s Lunchbar TV ad would no more raise an eyebrow than does Scottish striker Chris Iwelumo, whose dad is Nigerian.

Many of these shifts in identity are enabled by Fifa policies allowing a player to effectively “choose” a country to represent at senior level (even if they’ve played for a different one all the way up to under-21 level). But they are also the fruits of accelerated human migration that has accompanied economic globalisation. So eroded are national boundaries in the modern game that it mocks the very idea of a flag, anthem and passport that distinguishes “us” from “them”.”

For instance, as Tony Karon notes, the game is thoroughly globalized in terms of movement of peoples. This is anything but a neutral process. Power is at work here as well as core clubs (in Wallerstein’s sense of “core”) plunder the Global South from their most promising players and treat them as valuable investments and national considerations do not apply:

“The fact that the European game now features all the world’s soccer heroes is the reason you’re as likely to see a Chelsea or Arsenal shirt being worn at a mall in Shanghai or San Diego as in a Baghdad demonstration or Mogadishu firefight.

Almost without exception, today the world’s best players play their club football in Europe. Brazil’s and Argentina’s World Cup squads will be picked almost entirely from Europe-based players, and those will also be the mainstay of the likes of Uruguay, Chile and Honduras. Ivory Coast took just one home-based player to the recent African Nations Cup in Angola, and Ghana is likely to do the same at the World Cup. Don’t expect any in Cameroon’s squad, while there are unlikely to be more than two or three in Nigeria’s squad.

Although there are comparatively few South Africans playing in Europe, they’ll be among the key players for Bafana Bafana.

Having assembled so much of the world’s football talent at considerable cost, Europe’s top clubs have begun to organise themselves to protect their investment. They are pushing back against Fifa rules that force them to make players available for international matches, particularly friendlies, often returning home crocked.

The European clubs are particularly irked by the African Cup of Nations, during which they lose many key players for up to six weeks at the height of the European season. (The fact that so many African players now play their “domestic” football in Europe makes it likely that Fifa will eventually succumb to pressure to reschedule the Nations Cup to coincide with the European summer.) But tension between the clubs and national teams is likely to intensify in the years ahead.”

So here again, we face more than just a benign globalization process. Indeed, a lot of ink has been devoted to detailing the winners and losers of globalization. The dividing lines run across and between societies and countries. This is reflected in the world Cup as well, except that this is an aspect that the organizers would rather remain invisible.

Actually, structuring processes are designed to ensure that only the “right” kind of businesses and traders benefit from the World Cup:

“Under strict bylaws enforced at the insistence of football’s governing body, informal traders – a crucial part of any African economy – have been banned around the 10 stadiums where matches will be played. Even the future of the most important legacy project of the tournament – public bus transport – is in the balance, amid government reticence to stand up to South Africa’s powerful minibus-taxi industry.”

And then there is the “softer” discrimination, that of the digital divide and the neglect of the fact that a lot of people in the world do not have easy access to the Internet and credit cards to book tickets:

“The African credentials of the event have also been called into question after it became clear that Fifa’s ultra-secure internet ticketing system had left most of the continent unable to buy seats. With Visa as a major sponsor, Fifa kept ticket sales online until 15 April when poor sales forced them to open ticketing booths in the host country. As a result, only 11,000 African fans outside South Africa have purchased tickets, even though a record six African teams – the hosts, as well as Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria – have qualified. Local organising committee chairman Danny Jordaan admits the African sales have been a disappointment. “Tickets sold best in countries like the United States, where internet penetration is the highest. Yet we know that African fans often do not have credit cards and access to the internet, and they prefer to hand over their cash and get their ticket. It is a lesson for the future.”"

So, for the locals, it is hard to avoid the impression that the World Cup is “just for the rich.”

But surely, there are economic benefits to hosting such an event, right? Well, according to The Grumpy Sociologist, that in itself, is questionable:

“Those who support major sporting events going to various locales often argue the events will bring in international money via tourists and build a long-term infrastructure that supports the local economy. That might be true for locales that are already well off, but for regions that are hurting, the sporting events do little if anything in the form of long-term sustenance. The 2004 Olympics were held in Greece, and look at Greece now.”

After all, who will be footing the $4bn bill for the World Cup, South Africa itself, in the context of declining revenue.

“In 2004, when Fifa awarded the tournament to the country, consultants Grant Thornton predicted costs of just $300m on stadiums and infrastructure and a boost to gross domestic product of $2.9bn.

Today we know that $300m would not have even covered the cost of rebuilding Soccer City, where the opening game and final will be held, let alone the other $1bn needed to build and refurbish the other stadiums.

When the costs of upgrading airports, inner city transport, telecoms infrastructure and the actual running of the show are counted, the total bill for the World Cup has risen more than tenfold, to almost $4bn.

So, as the costs have increased, have the likely economic gains for South Africa also increased?

At this stage, it looks like South Africa may struggle to make the $3bn originally forecast.

On the other side of the global economic downturn, the projected figures on visitor numbers and their anticipated spend look very optimistic.

Fifa’s ruthless defence of its brand and the interests of its main sponsors mean that there are restricted opportunities for traders and small businesses to get a slice of the tourist pie.”

So, the World Cup already has winners and losers, and I don’t mean the winning and losing teams.

Posted in Collective Behavior, Commodification, Consumerism, Corporatism, Economy, Embeddedness, Global Governance, Globalization, Labor, Nationalism, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Stratification, Social Structure, Sociology, Sports | No Comments »

The Value of Nothing

June 1, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , ,

Shame on me for not having had the time to read Raj Patel‘s The Value of Nothing. I must say, the man is as funny as he informative.

Here are a couple of videos anyway (below the fold because they auto-start and it’s annoying):

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Commodification, Consumerism, Corporatism, Culture, Economy, Globalization, Sociology | No Comments »

Failing Global Food System: Failure of Entitlement, Land Grab and Neocolonialism

May 27, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Let’s start with Amartya Sen’s insight on entitlements:

“Economist Amartya Sen (1990:374) suggested that people command food through entitlements – that is, their socially defined rights to food resources. Entitlement might consist of the inheritance or purchase of land on which to grow food, employment to obtain wages with which to buy food, sociopolitical rights such as the religious or moral obligation of some to see that others have food, or state-run welfare or social security programs that guarantee adequate food to all. Not all of these kinds of entitlements exist in all societies, but some exist in all.  From this perspective, hunger is a failure of entitlement. The failure of entitlement may come from land dispossession, unemployment, high food prices, or lack or collapse of state-run food security programs, but the results are that people may starve to death in the midst of a food surplus.

Viewing hunger as a failure of entitlements also corrects ideological biases in the culture of capitalism, the tendency to overemphasize fast growth and production, the neglect of the problem of distribution, and hostility to government intervention in food distribution. Thus, rather than seeing hunger or famine as a failure of production (which it seems not to be), we can focus on a failure of distribution (see Vaughn 1987:158). Furthermore, we are able to appreciate the range of possible solutions to hunger. The goal is simply to establish, or reestablish, or protect entitlements, the legitimate claim to food. Seeing hunger as a failure of entitlements also focuses on the kinds of public actions that are possible. For example, access to education and health care are seen in most core countries as basic entitlements that should be supplied by the state, not by a person’s ability to pay. And most core countries see basic nutrition as a state-guaranteed entitlement, in spite of recent attempts in countries such as the United States to cut back on these entitlements. Thus, by speaking of entitlements, we can focus on the importance of public action in dealing with world hunger.” (Robbins 2008: 186)

In this article, what Felicity Lawrence describes is precisely a pattern of failure of entitlement alongside a neocolonial system of food production, resulting in overproduction of some items, and scarcity of others:

“The root cause of hunger and famine is rarely crop failure alone. It is about who controls and benefits from the land and its resources. About 1 billion people, or one in six of the global population, go hungry today, even though more food is being produced than ever. And yet, around the same number of people are overweight or obese and likely to have their lives cut short by diet-related disease. We have, in other words, a food system that is failing.

It is a food system that is profligate with finite resources – with fossil fuels for agrochemicals, artificial fertiliser, processing, packaging and transport, with water that is increasingly scarce, and with soil that is being eroded and degraded.

It delivers an excess of food that is unhealthy for the affluent and yet is incapable of producing enough calories for the poor. And it is a system in which the value of the food chain has been captured at each point, from seed to field to factory to shop, by powerful transnational corporations. (Rich countries don’t like to do empire these days so they have privatised it.)”

One should add that the IMF and the World Bank, as their structural adjustment program requirement, often demanded that government end subsidies or price support for food products, often resulting on food riots (IMF riots already mentioned in previous posts).

This is indeed a neocolonial system that we can see at work in Africa, for instance, where a new land grab is at work:

The World Bank is still promoted land grab programs that it acknowledges have no benefits for the affected communities:

Presentation of initial results fo the World bank study during the  panel, "Is there a global land rush?" at the World Bank Land  Conference, April 26, 2010.“The partial glimpse of the [World Bank] study presented in Washington last week sheds some light on an answer. The Bank initially wanted to do a comprehensive study of 30 countries, the hot spots for the land grabs. But it had to cut back severely on its expectations because, as it admits, the governments would not provide them with information. The corporations wouldn’t talk either, we were told by people writing the country chapters. This in itself is a powerful statement that says volumes about the hush-hush nature of these deals. If the World Bank can’t get access to the information, who can?

The Bank decided instead to base its study on the projects that have been reported by the media and captured on the farmlandgrab.org website. The Bank identified nearly 400 projects in 80 countries in this way, nearly one quarter (22%) of which are already being implemented. The study thus makes it plain that the global land grab is very real and moving along faster and further than many have assumed  (See box for a basic glimpse of what the study is expected to say.)”

The Bank’s most significant findings, however, are about the impacts of these projects on local communities. Its overwhelming conclusion, shared at the land conference last week, is that these projects are not providing benefits to local communities. Environmental impact assessments are rarely carried out, and people are routinely booted off their land, without consultation or compensation. The Bank even revealed that investors are deliberately targeting areas where there is “weak land governance”.”

Euphemism du jour: “weak land governance”. I am currently working on a piece on landless peasants and this directly apply to most such movements, from the Brazilian MST to Via Campesina. The conditions and deprivation of entitlements may vary but the results tend to be the same at the local, national and global levels:

“It is a system of extraordinary sophistication and yet also of startling fragility, vulnerable to climate shocks and energy price spikes. But it has not been created by accident. US and European government policies postwar have fostered it – with agricultural subsidies that have encouraged surplus of their own commodity crops, and with trade agreements and loans through international financial institutions that have forced markets in poorer countries open to take those crops and the processed junk diets their manufacturers like to make of them.”

Posted in Biodiversity, Commodification, Consumerism, Corporatism, Economy, Environment, Globalization, Neo-Colonialism, Population, Poverty, Sustainability | No Comments »

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