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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 »

The Visual Du Jour – “What?! I’m Not Doing Anything!”

July 13, 2012 by and tagged , ,

So, the National Geographic regularly publishes the Greendex (Green Index) with 19 countries, ranking them in terms of low Greendex (the “bad” countries) or high Greendex (the “good” countries):

“This is the fourth year National Geographic has partnered with GlobeScan to develop an international research approach to measure and monitor consumer progress toward environmentally sustainable consumption. The key objectives of this unique consumer tracking survey are to provide regular quantitative measures of consumer behavior and to promote sustainable consumption.

Why? We want to inspire action both among the millions that the National Geographic brand touches worldwide and among others who will hear about this study. A chief component of this effort is giving people a better idea of how consumers in different countries are doing in taking action to preserve our planet by tracking, reporting, and promoting environmentally sustainable consumption and citizen behavior.

This quantitative consumer study of 17,000 consumers in a total of 17 countries (14 in 2008) asked about such behavior as energy use and conservation, transportation choices, food sources, the relative use of green products versus conventional products, attitudes toward the environment and sustainability, and knowledge of environmental issues. A group of international experts helped us determine the behaviors that were most critical to investigate.”

The results?

Obviously, the main issue is the number of countries not surveyed, especially in Africa and the Middle East. These are two big regions to be ignored.

At the same time, it is not surprising to find that core countries rank lower on the Greendex. Our consumption practices are certainly far from green.

Equally interesting though is this:

And on this the article notes a twisted little logic at work:

“The study also demonstrates the perverse logic of sustainable thinking: “People in countries that were the least likely to make sustainable choices … were also more likely to feel like they could have a postive [sic] impact on the environment. People in developing countries, while more likely to report practicing sustainable behaviors, also said that they didn’t feel like individuals could do much to affect the environment””

Posted in Consumerism, Environment, Population, Sustainability | No Comments »

In Which Moral Entrepreneurs Should STFU

August 9, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

So, everybody seems to be discussing this:

As Atrios notes,

“BBC News keeps bringing people on to ask them why the rioting in London is happening, and when they try to answer the question and provide an explanation (with any validity or not, who knows) the newscasters chastise them for justifying the violence.”

It is interesting to compare this to the way the quasi-riots organized by the Tea Party in townhall meetings regarding the health care bill were treated with utmost respect. When the riff-raff get restless, it is a riot. When older, wealthier white people get restless, it is due to legitimate grievances. Class matters people.

And in the class war, the media are not neutral observers. They clearly side with the privileged and play the role of moral entrepreneurs, or give much airtime to moral entrepreneurs, to scold the rioters, as is the case in London, and supplying convenient prescriptions as to how disadvantaged people should behave.

For those of you unfamiliar with Howard S. Becker‘s sociology, the concept of moral entrepreneurs refer to these individuals, groups and institutions that take it upon themselves to create, generalize and enforce norms directly or indirectly (through the coercive means of the state, for instance). Moral entrepreneurs are central in the construction and re-definition of certain behaviors are socially problematic. Once they have done so, they usually marshal whatever social power they have to demand immediate action to eliminate or, at least, limit and restrain such behavior. The goal of moral entrepreneurs is to make their morality the morality of society, backed by the major social institutions. It is in this sense that deviance is socially produced and maintained.

And let’s not forget that, according to Becker himself, moral entrepreneurs are usually from the upper classes. Moral entrepreneurship is a way of enforcing class norms on the lower classes. And, of course, if members of the lower classes fail to live up to the standards of more privileged categories, social sanctions and stigma follow. It is especially the case when public policy pulls the rug under disadvantaged people’s feet (as cut and austerity measures do), which makes it impossible to legitimately follow upper middle class norms. Then, moral entrepreneurs shake their heads at the moral decay of the lower classes and ask for further disciplining.

In the case of the London riots, in the same that there are repertoires of contention in social movements, there are repertoires of repression for the state:

Here, it is interesting to see the media play the role of moral entrepreneur through several things:

(1) the reinforcement of the “destruction of private property” is bad narrative;

(2) “looting proves that the motive is not political but purely bad and greedy behavior” (the subtext of this one goes something like this: “poor people just want things handed to them – like welfare – instead of working for them – like middle-class, hardworking, law-abiding, tax-paying people do – and use criminal activities to obtain them”);

(3) an extension of that is that the poor are poor because of defective value systems and lack of proper community socialization, and

(4) the problem is therefore larger their moral shortcomings and bad choices (as one such scold put on Twitter, they should be stealing food rather than TV sets if they were really poor) rather than public policy, so, let’s talk about these shortcomings and their consequences rather than policy.

Again, reminiscent of the culture of poverty argument, the reiteration of these memes solidly places the blame with the unruly rioters, dismissing their grievances out of hand. It demands from individual commentators that they repudiate their actions before any discussion can take place, thereby framing the discussion in such one-sided terms. And the focus on rioters and looters is to be discussed without any context, as irrational eruption of under-socialized hordes. No public policy discussion is allowed to take place except those pertaining to how to end the riots.

Because, if the context is allowed to enter mainstream discourse, then, it might get uncomfortable:

Since the coalition came to power just over a year ago, the country has seen multiple student protests, occupations of dozens of universities, several strikes, a half-a-million-strong trade union march and now unrest on the streets of the capital (preceded by clashes with Bristol police in Stokes Croft earlier in the year). Each of these events was sparked by a different cause, yet all take place against a backdrop of brutal cuts and enforced austerity measures. The government knows very well that it is taking a gamble, and that its policies run the risk of sparking mass unrest on a scale we haven’t seen since the early 1980s. With people taking to the streets of Tottenham, Edmonton, Brixton and elsewhere over the past few nights, we could be about to see the government enter a sustained and serious losing streak.

The policies of the past year may have clarified the division between the entitled and the dispossessed in extreme terms, but the context for social unrest cuts much deeper. The fatal shooting of Mark Duggan last Thursday, where it appears, contrary to initial accounts, that only police bullets were fired, is another tragic event in a longer history of the Metropolitan police’s treatment of ordinary Londoners, especially those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and the singling out of specific areas and individuals for monitoring, stop and search and daily harassment.

One journalist wrote that he was surprised how many people in Tottenham knew of and were critical of the IPCC, but there should be nothing surprising about this. When you look at the figures for deaths in police custody (at least 333 since 1998 and not a single conviction of any police officer for any of them), then the IPCC and the courts are seen by many, quite reasonably, to be protecting the police rather than the people.

Combine understandable suspicion of and resentment towards the police based on experience and memory with high poverty and large unemployment and the reasons why people are taking to the streets become clear. (Haringey, the borough that includes Tottenham, has the fourth highest level of child poverty in London and an unemployment rate of 8.8%, double the national average, with one vacancy for every 54 seeking work in the borough.)

Those condemning the events of the past couple of nights in north London and elsewhere would do well to take a step back and consider the bigger picture: a country in which the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country.”

Nina Power does NOT say that austerity = riots but that the policies implemented by the British government (and other governments around the world) provide the context for this.

A similar point is made here emphasizing the lack of irrationality of the riots (and the incidents of looting are easily explained through the illegitimate opportunity theory)

“In London today people were on the streets tidying up the damage. The hashtag #riotcleanup on Twitter is being used by councils and residents to coordinate the work. The decision to act in this way, to make the streets a little more safe, to reclaim them for peaceful sociability, steps away from the temptation to condemn the violence or explain it in terms that inevitably simplify or distort it. Those who come together like this will be less likely to conclude that the country is on the verge of chaos, less likely to call for harsh measures and the further erosion of liberty in the name of security. It is the one shrewd thing one can do in present circumstances and it is to be celebrated.

So there is no single meaning in what is happening in London and elsewhere. But there are connections that we can make, and that we should make. We have a major problem with youth unemployment. There have already been cuts in services for young people. State education in poor areas is sometimes shockingly bad. Young people cannot afford adequate private housing and there is a shortage of council-built stock. Economic inequality has reached quite startling levels. All this is the consequence of decisions made by governments and there is little hope of rapid improvement. The same politicians now denouncing the mindless violence of the mob all supported a system of political economy that was as unstable as it was pernicious. They should have known that their policies would lead to disaster. They didn’t know. Who then is more mindless?

The global economic crisis is at least as political as the riots we’ve seen in the last few days. It has lasted far longer and done far more damage. We need not draw a straight line from the decision to bail out the banks to what’s going on now in London. But we must not lose sight of what both events tell us about our current condition. Those who want to see law and order restored must turn their attention to a menace that no amount of riot police will disperse; a social and political order that rewards vandalism and the looting of public property, so long as the perpetrators are sufficiently rich and powerful.”

And the specific context of police actions certainly points to the crisis of legitimacy I was discussing yesterday:

“This scepticism toward the potency of democratic politicians – and therefore democratic politics itself – is oddly echoed by the looters themselves. Certainly no one outside the Iranian state media is calling them “protesters”, but even “rioters” seems the wrong word, carrying with it a hint of political purpose. For some, especially at the start in Tottenham, there was clearly a political dimension – with the police the prime focus of their anger. But many of the copycat actions across London and elsewhere have no apparent drive beyond the opportunistic desire to steal and get away with it. It’s striking that the targets have not been town halls or, say, Tory HQ – stormed by students last November – but branches of Dixons, Boots and Carphone Warehouse. If they are making a political statement, it is that politics does not matter.

And while the revulsion at the looting has been widespread and bipartisan – with plenty of liberals admitting to “coming over all Daily Mail” at the ugliness of the vandalism – that sense of the impotence of politics is widespread, too. One aspect of the phone-hacking scandal that went deep was its revelation that those we might think exert authority – police and politicians – were in fact supine before an unelected media corporation. The sheer power of News Corp contrasted with the craven behaviour of those we elect or entrust to look out for us.

Even if few years have brought the news congestion of 2011, there has been trouble before, with 1981 an obvious precedent. But in previous periods of instability the assumption was that if only political power was in different hands, or if key institutions like the police modified their behaviour, things would be better. Now what small glimmers of optimism there are come from pockets of communal action, like the collective clean-ups that started in London . Democratic institutions themselves are seen as weak or broken.

The irony of all this is that outside Britain, Europe and the US, the great story of 2011 has been the Arab spring, as the people of Syria, Yemen and beyond have taken to the streets. It seems that just as those nations demand the tools of democracy, we are finding them rusting and blunt in our hands.”

Finally, one last point, to those who deplore the looting and the apparent lack of proper socialization of the looters and rioters, and sometimes wax nostalgic that old working class communities of yore where the youngsters were kept on the straight and narrow by their elders, as Owen Jones has amply demonstrated in Chavs, they only have conservative policies to blame. Indeed, who systematically destroyed the centers of community life in working class areas, at the time of accelerated deindustrialization? Who pushed instead for a culture of individualization and mass consumerism? Who created a cultural context where one’s social status is determined by one’s ability to consumer (as Zygmunt Bauman pointed out today)?

So, to all the moral entrepreneurs who have been filling the airwaves, Twitter timelines and Facebook feeds:

Posted in Collective Behavior, Consumerism, Culture, Ideologies, Media, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Zygmunt Bauman on The London Riots

August 9, 2011 by and tagged , , , ,

Here:

“These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.

Revolutions are not staple products of social inequality; but minefields are. Minefields are areas filled with randomly scattered explosives: one can be pretty sure that some of them, some time, will explode – but one can’t say with any degree of certainty which ones and when. Social revolutions being focused and targeted affairs, one can possibly do something to locate them and defuse in time. Not the minefield-type explosions, though. In case of the minefields laid out by soldiers of one army you can send other soldiers, from another army, to dig mines out and disarm; a dangerous job, if there ever was one – as the old soldiery wisdom keeps reminding: “the sapper errs only once”. But in the case of minefields laid out by social inequality even such remedy, however treacherous, is unavailable: putting the mines in and digging them up needs to be done by the same army which neither can stop adding new mines to the old nor avoid stepping on them – over and over again. Laying mines and falling victims of their explosions come in a package deal.

All varieties of social inequality derive from the division between the haves and the have-nots, as Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra noted already half a millennium ago. But in different times having or not having of different objects is, respectively, the states most passionately desired and most passionately resented. Two centuries ago in Europe, a few decades ago still in many some distant from Europe places, and to this day in some battlegrounds of tribal wars or playgrounds of dictatorships, the prime object setting the have-nots and the haves in conflict was bread or rice. Thank God, science, technology and certain reasonable political expedients this is no longer the case. Which does not mean though that the old division is dead and buried. Quite on the contrary… The objects of desire, whose absence is most violently resented, are nowadays many and varied – and their numbers, as well as the temptation to have them, grow by the day. And so grows the wrath, humiliation, spite and grudge aroused by not having them – as well as the urge to destroy what have you can’t. Looting shops and setting them on fire derive from the same impulsion and gratify the same longing.

We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty. The day after the 11/9 outrage George W. Bush, when calling Americans to get over the trauma and go back to normal, found no better words than “go back shopping”. It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops.

From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common. Shops and shopping acquire thereby a fully and truly eschatological dimension. Supermarkets, as George Ritzer famously put it, are our temples; and so, I may add, the shopping lists are our breviaries, while strolls along the shopping malls become our pilgrimages. Buying on impulse and getting rid of possessions no longer sufficiently attractive in order to put more attractive ones in their place are our most enthusing emotions. The fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life. I shop, therefore I am. To shop or not to shop, this is the question.

For defective consumers, those contemporary have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled – and of own nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just the absence of pleasure: absence of human dignity. Of life meaning. Ultimately, of humanity and any other ground for self-respect and respect of the others around.”

Posted in Collective Behavior, Consumerism, Social Stigma, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

Economic Growth – Game Over

August 3, 2011 by and tagged , , , ,

A very smart video narrated by Richard Heinberg:

Posted in Consumerism, Corporatism, Economy, Environment, Sustainability | No Comments »

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 »

Public Policy as Individual Disciplining v. Systemic Change

February 28, 2011 by and tagged , , , ,

In this article, French magazine Rue89 goes over the various policies Western governments are trying out to reduce their levels of obesity:

As the article notes, there are roughly four approaches to dealing with obesity:

1. Prevention. This involves campaign encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables or to implement aggressive labeling to let customers know what they are buying (something the food industry vehemently opposes, by the way). In England, this has taken the form of vouchers given to low-income people for healthy products from selected brands (like big food companies).

2. Regulations on advertising and limit on advertising on soda and other unhealthy products (they are already banned in Sweden and Canada). In France, unhealthy and sugary snacks and sodas are no longer allowed in public schools. In Mexico, low quality food is not allowed to be sold in schools and 30 minutes of exercise a day are mandatory.

3. Taxation. We have heard over and over that obesity is socially and economically costly. So, obese people should be taxed to somewhat offset the cost of accommodating them through higher health care premiums (implemented in some US states). A “fat tax” would obviously hit the poorest harder. An alternative would be to tax more heavily unhealthy and fast food products.

4. Incentives. Pay people to lose weight (pilot tested in the UK).

See what’s missing here?

What is missing is

1. Why are people overweight? The measures above clearly assume that it is all about individual behavior, with limited social influence (through advertising). Social explanations are grossly missing: suburbanization and the pervasive use of cars because walking in impossible. How many kids walk to schools outside of inner cities? How many people walk to the market or the grocery store? It is probably not possible because of housing development patterns and the lack of pedestrian structure.

Also, we do not work in farms or factories, anymore. Most of us work in service jobs, in fornt of computers for a significant amount of time every day. Joining gyms is expensive and out of reach for low-income people.

2. Who makes the food we eat? Where is the critical examination and evaluation of the role of agribusiness, Big Food and Big Corn in putting unhealthy food, loaded with high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified vegetables, hormone-growth-and-antibiotics-laden sick meat.?

Basically, what is missing is this (full film):

And this (playlist):

What is missing is an analysis of the food system in which we exist and that feeds us. So, on this again, public policy takes the form of punishment and shaming, and disciplining of the lower classes rather than actual policy that involves critically examining the social structure of food and overall living conditions that foster obesity. This would also mean reexamining the agricultural policy of the US, with its subsidies to agribusiness.

And such initiatives are doomed to fail for several reasons: (1) the poor have less leisure time than the wealthy. When would they find the time to exercise? (2) They cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods. Eating healthy is dreadfully expensive. (3) These policies do not touch the roots of obesity. They do not offer to reorganize workplaces / work rhythms / work life.

Posted in Consumerism, Corporatism, Health, Public Policy | No Comments »

Your [Big Chain Cardboard-Tasting] Pizza is Killing Farmers

November 27, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , ,

Via Mitch Wagner, you must read this (yes, fairly longish but well worth it) article on the global social and economic consequences of Big Pizza. I’ll extract just a few snippets:

“But what if that large pie delivered to your doorstep costs more than you think? A number of economists, sociologists, and food scholars claim that the $36 billion-a-year success of Big Pizza has ominous undertones and implications that reach far beyond weighty matters like deciding between extra cheese and anchovies. They argue that the unrelenting push for ever-cheaper pizza ingredients is hurting the planet and driving small and medium-size farms out of business. Some of these farmers feel they have no choice but to move to the megacities sprouting across the globe. Once relocated to urban slums, many find themselves among the estimated 1.1 billion people earning less than $1 a day, an amount that makes it hard to survive, let alone afford Domino’s recent special offer of $5.99 a pie for two medium pizzas. Of the farmers that decide to stay put, some opt for a quicker death, at their own hand.

“We are faced with two possible futures,” says sociologist Harriet Friedmann, Ph.D., a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto. “One is a diversity of crops, of cultures, and of cuisines that can inhabit ecosystems sustainably and produce healthy food for urban centers. The other is long-distance food from nowhere, monocultural systems that aren’t sustainable, and simplified diets, especially for the poor. Global pizza typifies the second option.”

Another outspoken opponent of the circumstances underlying the worldwide pizza trade has been Philip McMichael, Ph.D., a professor of development sociology at Cornell University. He believes that the combined processes of bioindustrialization, the ever-increasing reliance of agro-industry on fossil fuels, and the relentless search for the most rapidly expanding overseas markets has led to a phenomenon he calls “the food regime.” The machinations that lie behind this new world order perform very well when it comes to churning out profits for transnational corporations, but that success comes at considerable social and economic expense, says McMichael. “It’s undermining people who make their living off the land everywhere.”"

Sheesh, leave it to the sociologists to be wet blankets. And like Cassandra, they’re never believed, so, the reporter decided to investigate the whole “Big Pizza” process himself.

Tomatoes:

“It may come as no surprise that the customer base and the economic challenges that concern Peters and Paradise Tomato Kitchens belong to Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and Little Caesars–not to the world’s tomato growers. Indeed, as Big Pizza’s preference for globalized sauce has matured, many of the other farmers who used to make a living growing and selling tomatoes have been pushed out of business.

In Ghana, for example, locally harvested tomatoes were once a staple. But tomato concentrate has destroyed the market there–not to mention the lives of the nearly 2 million people involved in tomato cultivation in one region of the country. Despite Ghana’s farming tradition, it has become the world’s second-largest importer of process tomatoes, after Germany. As a result, according to the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana, more than 700 tomato farmers have gone belly-up.

“We do not get good prices for the little harvest,” said Comfort Mantey, a tomato farmer in the Ghanaian community of Matsekope, when she was interviewed for a report on poverty in the region. “The traders tell us their customers now mix fresh tomatoes with imported tomato paste.”

Another tomato farmer, Martin Pwayidi, defaulted on the $2,000 loan he had secured from a bank and sunk into his 4 acres in 2008; no one would buy locally grown tomatoes from him. “I lost everything,” said Pwayidi to one African news outlet. “There was absolutely no reason to live.”

Sadly, this is the same conclusion arrived at by many of Pwayidi’s neighbors: Annual waves of suicides have washed across Ghana’s northern growing regions as some desperate farmers ingested the insecticide they no longer needed for their tomatoes.”

Cheese:

“About half the U.S. milk supply is used to manufacture cheese, and last year’s 10 billion pounds broke all previous production records. Mozzarella recently topped Cheddar as the most popular cheese variety. And where does all that mozzarella go? Onto your pizza, of course.

(…)

According to the most recent data, Leprino must buy an astonishing 5 to 7 percent of the total available U.S. milk in order to supply mozzarella to Domino’s and Pizza Hut and everybody else in global pizza.”

And, of course, mozzarella comes from milk and milk farmers are being squeezed by Big Cheese:

“”Farmers have never received less money for their milk,” says John Bunting, a dairyman from the western foothills of the Catskills, in New York State, who also writes a blog that focuses on the plight of dairy farmers. For instance, the area where Bunting lives used to be rich in milk production; as the price of milk has touched bottom, though, it has been plagued by debt and bankruptcy. “There is no one in the country making a living milking cows,” he says. “Not this year, and not last year, either. I get calls every day from just plain desperate farmers. Nobody knows what to do.”

Of course, as the country’s small dairy farmers head into bankruptcy, the largest producers of cheese have prospered. “Kraft and Leprino are on tight margins,” says Bunting. “But they have so many units running past the cash register that Jimmy Leprino can get rich.”

Last year was the worst in at least 30 years for small-scale dairymen, who lost money on every cow on every day of every month, says Bunting. Despite the losses, one upstate New York farmer, Dean Pierson, refused to let go of the 51 milking cows on the land his father had bought. Instead, Pierson took a small-caliber rifle and went through the barn he had built and shot each of his cows through the head. Then he sat down on a chair and put a bullet through his chest.”

And pepperoni:

“”Meat has moved from the periphery of human diet to its center,” says Tony Weis, Ph.D., a geography professor at the University of Western Ontario. “The least efficient converter of feed-to-flesh output is beef cattle,” he adds. He points out that this inefficiency means cattle have much larger land, water, and energy budgets than most people realize. Diverse small farms tend to be much better converters of land and resources into protein and other nutrients than are the grain-fed cattle. As more than a billion farmers in the developing world are going broke, more than a billion cattle are reared on the backs of subsidies. And as the world’s desire for cheap meat increases, so does the need for more acres of corn and wheat for feed, along with devastating increases in all the accompanying diesel fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. In fact, overall, agriculture is responsible for about 30 percent of total emissions of greenhouse gases, and livestock accounts for more than half of that.

“You have an increasing global demand for pepperoni pizza,” says Weis. “How is this going to be sustained with near-term rising energy costs when so much fossil energy is embedded in the pepperoni?”"

And, of course, this does not even take into account the health consequences of this. For instance, the fact that more and more people are acid reducers on a permanent basis, the obesity issue due to eating that stuff. So, cheap pizza comes at the price of increased health care costs.

And as a French person, I would add that it comes at the cost of younger generations not knowing what real food tastes like, which is a shame.

Anyway, as they say, go read the whole thing.

Posted in Biodiversity, Consumerism, Economy, Environment, Globalization, Precarization | No Comments »

The Story of Electronics

November 21, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

Via DJ Academe, another great animated short video from Annie Leonard and the makers of The Story of Stuff, this time, The Story of Electronics:

Posted in Consumerism, Corporatism, Environment, Globalization, Health, Labor, Social Stratification, Sustainability, Technology | No Comments »

Habermas on Nasty Times in Germany

October 29, 2010 by and tagged , ,

Via Peter Levine, from the New York Times, it is not a big surprise for the social theorist who brought us the legitimation crisis to take note of the nasty times in his own country:

“SINCE the end of August Germany has been roiled by waves of political turmoil over integration, multiculturalism and the role of the “Leitkultur,” or guiding national culture. This discourse is in turn reinforcing trends toward increasing xenophobia among the broader population.

These trends have been apparent for many years in studies and survey data that show a quiet but growing hostility to immigrants. Yet it is as though they have only now found a voice: the usual stereotypes are being flushed out of the bars and onto the talk shows, and they are echoed by mainstream politicians who want to capture potential voters who are otherwise drifting off toward the right.

(…)

To the present day, the idea of the leitkultur depends on the misconception that the liberal state should demand more of its immigrants than learning the language of the country and accepting the principles of the Constitution. We had, and apparently still have, to overcome the view that immigrants are supposed to assimilate the “values” of the majority culture and to adopt its “customs.”

That we are experiencing a relapse into this ethnic understanding of our liberal constitution is bad enough. It doesn’t make things any better that today leitkultur is defined not by “German culture” but by religion. With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism — and an incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany — the apologists of the leitkultur now appeal to the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” which distinguishes “us” from the foreigners.

(…)

I don’t underestimate the scale of the accumulated nationalistic sentiment, a phenomenon not confined to Germany. But in the light of current events, another trend is of greater concern: the growing preference for unpolitical figures on the political scene, which recalls a dubious trait of German political culture, the rejection of political parties and party politics.

(…)

Of even greater concern is the sort of street protests we are now witnessing in Stuttgart, where tens of thousands of people have come out against the federal railway corporation’s plan to demolish the old central train station. The protests that have been continuing for months are reminiscent of the spontaneity of the extraparliamentary opposition of the 1960s. Unlike then, though, today people from all age groups and sectors of the population are taking to the streets. The immediate aim is a conservative one: preserving a familiar world in which politics intervenes as the executive arm of supposed economic progress.

(…)

The motivations underlying each of the three phenomena — the fear of immigrants, attraction to charismatic nonpoliticians and the grass-roots rebellion in Stuttgart — are different. But they meet in the cumulative effect of a growing uneasiness when faced with a self-enclosed and ever more helpless political system. The more the scope for action by national governments shrinks and the more meekly politics submits to what appear to be inevitable economic imperatives, the more people’s trust in a resigned political class diminishes.”

Emphasis mine. However, Habermas is wrong about his assessment of the US. He has obviously not been paying much attention.

But that last paragraph is important because it points, to me, to a related phenomenon: the dream of consumer society without democracy:

“In Dubai ‘there is no such thing as society’. Dubai, instead, is one of the real-existing authoritarian market societies of today, according to Syed Ali in his Dubai. Gilded Cage (Yale University Press, 2010). Dubai’s limitless consumers culture attracts people from all over the world. Freedom is the freedom of consumption.

Dubai became the Middle East center of financial services, tourism and real estate, a paradise for developers, architects and construction companies. Here we find the highest skyscraper in the world, the biggest shopping mall and the most beautiful gated communities.

In Dubai exists a dual class system for ’expats’. Construction workers from Pakistan and India live in worn out camps. A huge amount of Indian shopkeepers, underpaid nannies from Indonesia and the Philippines and lawless prostitutes live in Dubai as well. Labour protest is punished by expulsion from the country.

The well-off expats, working in the financial services and real estate, share the same legal residential situation with the nannies and construction workers. They are all subordinated to the so-called kafala-system of the Gulf States:  ’a system of modern slavery’, according to Syed Ali. Kafala, whose purpose is that migrants cannot profit from Dubai wealth, implies that in all companies Dubai-natives must have a majority share. Visa (3 years maximum) for foreign workers are only given to the Dubai-employers, not to individual workers. Change of jobs therefore in fact is impossible, so is becoming a Dubai national.

By the kafala-system all foreigners in Dubai (up to 90 percent) are deliberately transformed into temporary citizens, suffering from ‘permanent impermanence’. They are not allowed to engage, as citizens in political or social affairs, risking expulsion, but are restricted to be consumers of luxury only. Dubai is the wet dream of global market fundamentalism. An authoritarian state governs a market society for rootless, non-participatory consumers-inhabitants.

The signs are already very clear in many Western societies with the extension and deepening of surveillance mechanisms (justified in the name of security) from both the state (reduced to its oppressive functions: police and military) and the private sector, often in joint partnership for data-gathering. This is combined with the rise of reactionary and xenophobic social movements and complicit politicians. To use Habermas’s concept, this is the last state of the colonization of the lifeworld by the system.

Posted in Consumerism, Corporatism, Nationalism | No Comments »

The Visual du Jour – Where Our Electronic Crap Goes

October 12, 2010 by and tagged , ,

It’s all fun and games to get a new smartphone every six months, but there is an environmental cost to that (plus the labor issue, of  course).

Via Good,

Posted in Consumerism, Environment, Technology | No Comments »

“Some” Revolution Will be Twittered and Facebooked – Snark Edition

October 12, 2010 by and tagged ,

Like my comrade-in-arms Todd Krohn, I am skeptical of the power of social networking sites to single-handedly push for progressive social change.

But look Todd, things do too happen thanks to social networking sites, real change!

“US clothes retailer Gap has scrapped a new logo just one week after its introduction following an “outpouring of comments” online.

The original logo, which has used been used for more than 20 years, has a blue box with “GAP” written in white inside.

The new logo on the website had “Gap” written in black against a light background with a small blue square laid over the top of the letter “p”.

But critics attacked the rebranding on social networks and online forums.

More than 2,000 comments were posted on the company’s Facebook page on the issue, with many demanding the return of the traditional logo.

In a statement released on the Gap website, Marka Hansen, president of Gap Brand North America, said the company’s customers always came first.

Customers called for a return to the blue box logo

“We’ve been listening to and watching all of the comments this past week. We heard them say over and over again they are passionate about our blue box logo, and they want it back.”

THAT, my friends, is the power of Facebook, the (very limited) power of the consumer. So, to all these people who complained about the logo, about trying to get the Gap to pay living wages to overseas workers and see how that works out?

Posted in Consumerism, Networks, Sociology | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – High Fructose Corn Syrup Oligopoly

August 20, 2010 by and tagged , ,

Oligopoly, economic concentration, whatever you wanna call it (via):

Posted in Consumerism, Corporatism | No Comments »

Market Failures and Inefficiencies, Culture and Control

July 11, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , ,

A while back, Brooke Harrington, over at Economic Sociology, posted on how the best products do not always prevail on markets, using as example the Qwerty keyboard. It is a familiar story that, according to Harrington, economics is ill-equipped to explain, as opposed to economic sociology:

“But these cases also showcase the value that economic sociology can add to our understanding of markets, particularly through the lens of culture—the sort of variable that gets thrown into the dreaded black box of “preferences” in economic models. Black boxes exist in the world of academic theory to contain factors that are unknown, perhaps unknowable; this often gets interpreted to mean that the factors are not worth knowing about. Thus, the origins of preferences, and the ways preferences change, are treated by most economists as uninteresting and irrelevant.

Yet for sociologists, these are the most interesting things about economic behavior. Culture, class, identity and ideology—core issues in sociological research—all play a role in shaping preferences. These forces are not easy to model, which is a major reason they get left out of economic scholarship, where elegance and parsimony are valued above empirical verisimilitude. So, as one classic article put it, sociologists get “dirty hands” from dealing with lots of data and variables, while economists construct “clean models” that exclude such messy complexities.

What sociological theories may lack in “cleanliness,” however, they make up for in explanatory power. I was struck by this recently while contemplating a puzzling business failure in my own backyard: the Belgian supermarket chain Delhaize shut its doors in Cologne and Aachen, the two cities where the firm had tried to gain a foothold in Germany. Here were stores vastly superior to their competition—selling a much broader and higher-quality range of goods than anything available in local grocery chains, all at very reasonable prices—and yet the business failed.”

Better products, loyal customer base, why did it fail? Using Bourdieu’s classical Distinction to note that taste is part of habitus so that the presence of better quality goods may not be enough if such goods have not been integrated into a class-based habitus. Which means that we associate all sorts of consumer goods with our ideas of what feels / tastes right, and we make these part of our identity. These associations are deep and hard to change, even if faced with the fact that other goods are of better quality. I would argue that it works the other way around as well, consumption practices that distinguish from the top would also be equally hard to change if even if one could show equal quality, lower-prices similar goods.

In other words, market successes or failures may have to do with non-economic factors such as class habitus and national culture in which market practices are embedded. But this failure was not deliberate.

Another example of expected market inefficiency regards broadband in the United States (via Corrente):

“Even the oldest US Senators have gotten the message—the US wants fast broadband. And they have started to ask FCC Chair Julius Genachowski some hard questions about why the new National Broadband Plan sets such apparently modest goals for the US as 4Mbps universal service by 2020.

Octogenarian Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) put it most bluntly in a recent set of written questions (PDF) to Genachowski from the Senate Commerce Committee.

“The National Broadband Plan (NBP) proposes a goal of having 100 million homes subscribed at 100Mbps by 2020,” he wrote, “while the leading nations already have 100Mbps fiber-based services at costs of $30 to $40 per month and beginning rollout of 1Gbps residential services, which the FCC suggests is required only for a single anchor institution in each community by 2020. This appears to suggest that the US should accept a 10- to 12-year lag behind the leading nations.”"

Why plan for something inefficient and non-competitive right off the bat? Bring in the power elite and ask the usual sociological question, cui bono? Well, the companies that would stand to lose if they had to give up their original (and still money-making) business because of increased competition (television and phone both of which could be replaced by broadband) and had to adapt by providing high-speed broadband comparable to that of other countries. This would be damaging to the f!@# you conception of control.

Needless to say, this goes against innovation, and Avedon explains why avoiding innovation is a necessity as class strategy:

“The truth is that since economic “conservatives” have taken over running our economy, there hasn’t been any real innovation at all. And that stands to reason, since this environment is one in which the ordinary people who do things for themselves and do the real work – and are therefore the most likely to be inspired to real innovation – are simply not in a position to put their ideas into practice, to bring them forward. The very rich do not like real innovation because it destabilizes their order, it makes change possible – change that could weaken their position, or make the behavior of the masses less predictable. They like us to be predictable. But now, here we are, in a situation where we have allowed a few people to amass most of our nation’s wealth and refuse to spread it around where it can do some good, and, well, bad things happen to unequal people. But of course, the remedy, we are told, is to apply leeches to stem the blood loss, and if you haven’t stopped losing blood, bleed you some more.”

Which makes it entirely not surprising that a great deal of corporate and governmental activity has been dedicated to limiting what people can online (such as urging customers to NOT use the product they paid for and blaming them for high usage, or make them pay more rather than fix a problem, or eliminating unlimited plans, to fighting against net neutrality, to extensive surveillance of our online activities). In these cases, as Avedon notes, innovation means loss of control.

So, market inefficiencies may operate as stratification consolidation.

Posted in Consumerism, Culture, Economic Sociology, Embeddedness, Social Inequalities, 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.

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