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Internet in The US: Slow and Expensive

February 11, 2013 by and tagged ,

Watch and get angry:

A few morceaux choisis:

“It’s fair to say that the U.S. at the best is in the middle of the pack when it comes to both the speed and cost of high speed internet access connections. So in Hong Kong right now you can get a 500 megabit symmetric connection that’s unimaginably fast from our standpoint for about 25 bucks a month. In Seoul, for $30 you get three choices of different providers of fiber in your apartment. And they come in and install in a day because competition’s so fierce. In New York City there’s only one choice, and it’s 200 bucks a month for a similar service. And you can’t get that kind of fiber connection outside of New York City in many parts of the country. Verizon’s only serving about 10 percent of Americans. So let’s talk about the wireless side for a moment, you know, the separate marketplace that people use for mobility. In Europe you can get unlimited texting and voice calls and data for about $30 a month, similar service from Verizon costs $90 a month. That’s a huge difference.”

And:

BILL MOYERS: Why is there such a disparity there?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: The difference in all of these areas is competition and government policy. It’s not magical. Without the intervention of the government there’s no reason for these guys to charge us anything reasonable or to make sure that everybody has services.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that in the course of one generation, from the invention of the internet in this country to falling way behind as you say the rest of the world in our access to internet? How did that happen?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Beginning in the early 2000’s we believed that the magic of the market would provide internet access to all Americans. That the cable guys would compete with the phone guys who would compete with wireless and that somehow all of this ferment would make sure that we kept up with the rest of the world. Those assumptions turned out not to be true. It’s much cheaper to upgrade a cable connection than it is to dig up a copper phone line and replace it with fiber. So the cable guys who had these franchises in many, most American cities, they are in place with a status quo network that 94 percent of new subscriptions are going to. Everybody’s signing up with their local cable incumbent. There is not competition for 80 percent of Americans. They don’t have a choice for a truly high speed connection. It’s just the local cable guy. Competition has just vanished.

BILL MOYERS: Well, the 1996 Telecommunications Act was supposed to promote competition and therefore protect the consumer by bringing prices down. That didn’t happen?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: That didn’t happen because it’s so much cheaper to upgrade the cable line than it is to dig up the copper and replace it with fiber. The competition evaporated because Wall Street said to the phone companies, “Don’t do this, don’t be in this business.” So you may think of Verizon and AT&T as wired phone companies, they’re not. They’ve gone into an entirely separate market which is wireless.

They’re the monsters on the wireless side that control two thirds of that market. So there’s been a division. Cable takes wired, Verizon/AT&T take wireless. They’re actually cooperating. There’s a federally blessed non-compete in the form of a joint marketing agreement between Comcast and Verizon. And so the world is perfect for them, not so great for consumers who are paying more than other people in the rest of the world for slower service.

BILL MOYERS: Since the 1996 Telecommunications Act which I thought was going to lower the price of our monthly cable bill, it’s almost doubled.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Well, that’s because Time Warner controls Manhattan. There’s no competition. The cable guys, long ago, something they call “the summer of love,” divided up—

BILL MOYERS: “The summer of love?”

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Yeah. They clustered their operations. It makes sense from their standpoint. “You take San Francisco, I’ll take Sacramento. You take Chicago, I’ll take Boston.” And so Comcast and Time Warner are these giants that never enter each other’s territories.”

The political consequences:

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Comcast is not only the nation’s largest broadband distributor with tens of millions of customers, it also now owns and controls one of the four media conglomerates in America, NBCUniversal. That means that it has a built-in interest in making sure that it shapes discourse, controls programming all in the service of its own profit-making machine. As both the distributor and a content provider, it’s in its interest to make sure that it can always charge more for discourse we would think isn’t controlled by anybody. So it’s a tremendous risk to the country that we have this one actor who has no interest in the free flow of information controlling so much of high speed internet access.

(…)

SUSAN CRAWFORD: This is a moment when we have to separate out content from conduit. It should not be possible for a local cable actor or any distributor to withhold programming based on volume. That’s what’s going on. The programmers say, “We’ll sell to Comcast cheaply ’cause they’re big. But if you’re an upstart we’re going to charge you three to four times what Comcast is paying for the same programming.” That should not be legal. Everybody should get access to the same stuff at the same price and they should be announced prices.”

And we also find the familiar revolving door in the power elite:

BILL MOYERS: You describe something in your book that we’ve talked about often at this table. Quote, “The constant easy, friendly flow between government and industry in the communications world centered around Washington D.C.” Describe that world.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: It’s a warm pond of familiarity. Everybody knows everybody else. They’re all very nice people, you’d like to have a drink with them. They go from a job inside the regulator to a job in industry to a job on the hill, one easy flow, nice people. Outsiders have no impact on this particular world.

And it would be– I talked to a cable representative not long ago about the need to change this regulatory state of affairs. And she looked at me and said, “But that would be so disruptive.” And she’s right, it would be disruptive.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you know, the F.C.C. was supposed to be the cop on the beat of the communications world. But for example Michael Powell, who served as F.C.C. chairman for four years in the mid-2000s, is now the cable and telecom industry’s top D.C. lobbyist.

Meredith Attwell Baker who was one of the F.C.C. commissioners who approved Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal, left the agency four months later to join Comcast as a highly paid lobbyist. That move infuriated media groups.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: But that warm pond of familiarity in Washington sees this as absolutely normal behavior. Just yesterday the former chief of staff of the F.C.C. left to be the general counsel of a regulated company. It happens all the time. And so in order to change this you’d have to make regulation of this area not be carried out by such a focused agency. Right now, the F.C.C.’s asymmetry of information is striking. They only talk to the industry. The community is all so close. In order to break that up you’d have to make sure you had a broad based agency seeing lots of different industries.”

Posted in Corporatism, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – The Googlization of Everything

January 14, 2013 by and tagged , , ,

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

And critical it is, right off the bat:

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

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

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

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

But what is the Googlization of Everything?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. Wright Mills, Labor and The Power Elite

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

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

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

“Mills concludes:

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

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

(…)

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

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

Emphases mine.

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

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

Neo-Neo-Colonialism

November 28, 2012 by and tagged ,

Where the colonial masters are financial giant groups, assisted by the means of Western states acting against debt colonies:

“Colonialism is back. Well, at least according to leading politicians of the two most famous debtor nations. Commenting on the EU’s inability to deliver its end of the bargain despite the savage spending cuts Greece had delivered, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the opposition Syriza party, said last week that his country was becoming a “debt colony”. A couple of days later, Hernán Lorenzino, Argentina’s economy minister, used the term “judicial colonialism” to denounce the US court ruling that his country has to pay in full a group of “vulture funds” that had held out from the debt restructuring that followed the country’s 2002 default.

While their language was deliberately incendiary, these two politicians were making extremely important points. Tsipras was asking why most burdens of adjustment for bad loans have to fall on the debtor country and, within them, mostly on its weaker members. And he is right. As they say, it takes two to tango, so those who condemn Greece for imprudent borrowing should also condemn the imprudent lenders that made it possible.

Lorenzino was asking how we can let one court ruling in a foreign country in favour of one small group of creditors (who bought the debt in the secondary market) derail a painfully engineered process of national recovery. The absurdity of this situation becomes clear when we recall that, partly thanks to the default and subsequent debt restructuring, Argentina, expanding at close to 7% per year, has been the fastest growing Latin American economy between 2003 and 2011.

But there is far more at stake here than the national welfares of Greece and Argentina, important though they are. The Greek debt problem has dragged down not just Greece but the whole eurozone, and with it the world economy. Had the Greek debt been quickly reduced to a manageable level through restructuring, the eurozone would be in a much better shape today. In the Argentinian case, we are risking not just an end to Argentina’s recovery but a fresh round of turmoil in the global financial market because of one questionable US court ruling.

(…)

Unfortunately, no mechanism like this [bankruptcy] exists for countries, which is what has made sovereign debt crises so difficult to manage. Because they don’t have any legal protection from creditors in times of trouble, countries typically postpone the necessary restructuring of their economies by piling on more debts in the (usually unfulfilled) hope that the situation will somehow resolve itself. This makes the debt problem bigger than necessary.

What’s more, because they cannot officially go bankrupt, countries face a stark choice. Either they default and risk exclusion in the international financial market (although countries can overcome it quickly, as Russia and Malaysia did in the late 1990s) or they have to opt for a de facto default, in which they pretend that they have not defaulted by making full repayments on their existing loans with money borrowed from public bodies, like the International Monetary Fund and the EU, while trying to negotiate debt restructuring.

The problem with this solution is that, in the absence of clear rules, the debt renegotiation process becomes lengthy, and can push the economy into a downward spiral. We have seen this in many Latin American countries in the 1980s, and we are seeing it today in Greece and other eurozone periphery economies.

Meanwhile, the absence of rules equivalent to the protection of wage claims in corporate bankruptcy law means that claims by weaker stakeholders – pensions, unemployment insurance, income supports – are the first to go. This creates social unrest, which then threatens recovery by discouraging investment.”

Also, go spend 10 minutes watching / listening to this.

Posted in Corporatism, Neo-Colonialism | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – The Growth of Walmart

September 13, 2012 by and tagged

Via The Sociological Imagination, a very nice animation:

Rapid Growth of Walmart from Nathan Yau on Vimeo.

Posted in Corporatism | No Comments »

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 »

Death By A Thousand Buzzwords

August 16, 2012 by and tagged ,

So, my workplace has three convocation days before the beginning of the term. Or, as I call them, “three days of doing nothing useful” where most of us would like it much better to be finalizing our preparations for the classes we will meet on Monday. During these days, we get exposed, courtesy of our multiplying administrators, to the latest trends in corporatizing public education. Today was not exception. We got a keynote speaker who was supposed to enlighten us on the latest trends in innovation and networks as related to higher ed. I should have made a bingo card with all the buzzwords flying around:

  • MOOCs – check! (never mind that deliver no credits, people will take the course and test out of credit classes that way)
  • flipped classrooms – check! (you mean we don’t lecture ALL the time?)
  • obligatory and laudatory references to the Gates Foundation and TED talks – check! (again just read this)
  • unquestioned mention of the greatness of the Khan Academy – check! (never mind this)
  • Awesome generational generalizations – check! (The Millenials, they like the technology, you know, and you have to entertain in 5 minutes increments)

Although, frankly, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of references to black swans and long tails.

Also, please update your vocabulary: data are now called analytics. That sounds much cooler. And technology will save education… but not from the technocrats, I’m afraid. And beware of the cave people (Colleagues Against Virtually Everything, how clever) – a label I will proudly claim – and the true believers (those who embrace all the latest trends… our speaker saw no irony here).

The other irony is that our speaker spoke of the use of these technologies to increase critical thinking on the part of our students, without a shred of critical analysis on his part. I suspect these kinds of talks are proliferating across the higher education world and they are highly problematic. Here is why.

Generational generalizations

I have already blogged about this. These presentations are usually based on “how the millenials” behave, how they use technology, etc. But speakers like these are not talking about millenials as an age cohort. They are talking about a category of individuals who have money to keep up with the latest devices and technologies (such as gaming platforms), and the time to spend online. This involves a certain level of affluence. In this context, generation substitutes for class and actually allows for the elision of class altogether.

It has been successful in fueling some political divide and conquer where it’s all the Boomers fault (the current US campaign is full of it) :

Why?

Because to reintroduce class would involve asking some disturbing questions and looking back as decades of sociological research on social stratification in general and within the education world in particular. That means talking about student debt and for-profit racketeering operations. In our talk today, inequalities were only mention to indicate that higher education was the only social ladder available in the context – another one of my pet peeves – of education reduced to job training.

But generations are not homogeneous groups. They are socially-constructed categories of analysis that push other to the back ground, not only class, but also race and gender. For instance, our speaker discussed gaming as educational strategy. No mention of the fact that even though women represent 47% of gamers, they have to deal with an enormous amount of misogyny and men and women do not entirely game the same. Some nuance beyond the “wow… 47% of gamers are women” stats would have been useful.

At the same time, once generations have been produced as category of analysis, they are then reified into a set of traits that apparently cannot be changed so we might as well adjust to them.

Salvation by networking technology

This one goes beyond education and is at the heart of Evgeny Morozov’s critique of the cyber-utopians. Founders of technology companies see social problems as problems that can all be solved by technology. That is the essence of TED talks. If we unleashed social networking technologies across societies, with the right hardware / software / tech skills, solutions are at hand. Technocracy, buzzwords and hype go together. Give every child an iPad.

It seems absurd when I put it that way, it is amazing how easily accepted this has become.

But there is a bigger problem, I think.

None of this is politically neutral or benign

Because these trends in innovation are rooted in technology and analytics, they are presented to us as objective and neutral. This neatly depoliticizes them. TED talks have that approach as well, which is why they canned a talk on social inequalities as too political and controversial.

Most of these trends in education / higher education talks avoid any discussion of social class, inequalities, stratification, gender and race. Instead, they reduce students to either the networked individual who should receive a customized education or the upper middle class generational archetype who is intensely tuned to latest trends in information technologies. Issues of costs are reduced to technological discussions (e-books can be rented for cheap, MOOCs are free, etc.). Online classes, in this view, are populated by the neoliberally-imagined student as consumer who knows exactly what she is doing and wants, has a clear educational plan and an instrumental / consumerist approach to education-as-job-training.

And you can what / who is neatly disappeared from the stage. Yeah. That is never really mentioned clearly but that is what is at the root of so much technological innovation supposed to salvage education.

There is also no mention of the different ways in which all these technologies require extensive surveillance processes and data mining on the students. But the students don’t mind, we have been told. They love it. After all, they post pictures of themselves drunk on Facebook, so, it’s all good.

And the bottom line of the speech was one power point slide after another (after the speaker had promised no death by power point) of corporate logos of a range of products that have already made the rounds for those of us who keep track of that, including non-critical mention of a certain site that where students can anonymously rate professors which should have ended the credibility of our speaker right there. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Selling brands.

The speech gimmicks

The speech techniques that such speakers deploy are themselves problematic. Here again, you could have a bingo card of items you are guaranteed to get in such speech: the little interactive activity to ensure everybody is paying attention, except you couch making people clap their hands and cross their fingers in neuroscientific terms and it sounds a lot cooler than just “clap your hands”.

Somewhere, you are going to have the amusing yet insightful anecdote about the speaker’s children which will lead to a generalizing from “kids these days” to something about the Millenials and how cool it is that they get stuff on the Internet where we had to trudge to the library and use typed cards and microfiche (how quaint).

Then, you will also get the sad and moving story that will pull at your heart strings, usually at the end so you leave the speech with an emotional high so you’ll forget that a whole lot of stuff you heard was nonsense.

And then, today, we got something that was disturbing. somewhere earlier in the speech, the speaker asked those of us who were using mobile devices (yours truly, guilty as charged) to give it or swap with the person next to you. The point was to show how attached we are to these devices and how long it would take before we all freaked out and started yelling “gimme back my iPhone”. To amuse the crowd, the speaker told us a little story of how he had done this exercise with another group and a young man went pale when he had to pass his device to the person next to him. Turns out the person next to him was his boss that everybody had nicknamed ‘Satan” because he was vile and mean. How amusing! The speaker thought the young man was totally addicted to his device when in fact, it had to do with something else entirely!

And the something else entirely is what is also always missing from these talks: power. The little, seemingly innocent exercise would lead to pretty nasty consequences in the context of power differentials. But in the world of these speakers, power dynamics do not exist. Networks have erased them. The professor now uses technology that erase his presence in the context of “content delivery” (as opposed to teaching). It’s as if colleges and universities are not ruled by strict hierarchies overlaid over class, race and gender stratification.

One would think that the Satan incident would have put an end to this activity, but apparently not since we had to do it this morning. Fortunately for me, I was seated next to a friend.

Posted in Corporatism, Education | 1 Comment »

Stuck in the Precariat

July 16, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

George Monbiot in the Guardian:

To be young in the post-industrial nations today is to be excluded. Excluded from the comforts enjoyed by preceding generations; excluded from jobs; excluded from hopes of a better world; excluded from self-ownership.

Those with degrees are owned by the banks before they leave college. Housing benefit is being choked off. Landlords now demand rents so high that only those with the better jobs can pay. Work has been sliced up and outsourced into a series of mindless repetitive tasks, whose practitioners are interchangeable. Through globalisation and standardisation, through unemployment and the erosion of collective bargaining and employment laws, big business now asserts a control over its workforce almost unprecedented in the age of universal suffrage.

The promise the old hold out to the young is a lifetime of rent, debt and insecurity. A rentier class holds the nation’s children to ransom. Faced with these conditions, who can blame people for seeking an alternative?

But the alternatives have also been shut down: you are excluded yet you cannot opt out. The land – even disused land – is guarded as fiercely as the rest of the economy. Its ownership is scarcely less concentrated than it was when the Magna Carta was written. But today there is no Charter of the Forest (the document appended to the Magna Carta in 1217, granting the common people rights to use the royal estates). As Simon Moore, an articulate, well-read 27-year-old, explained, “those who control the land have enjoyed massive economic and political privileges. The relationship between land and democracy is a strong one, which is not widely understood.”

 

Posted in Corporatism, Precarization, Public Policy, Social Exclusion, social marginality, Structural Violence | 1 Comment »

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 »

David Harvey on Monopoly Rent and Local Capitalism

July 9, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

In chapter 4 of Rebel Cities, Harvey focuses on what he takes to be the essence of capitalism: the establishment of monopoly rent.

“All rent is based on the monopoly power of private owners over certain assets. Monopoly rent arises because social actors can realize an enhanced income stream over an extended time by virtue of their exclusive control over some directly or indirectly tradable item which is in some crucial respects unique and non-replicable. ” (90)

There are two types of situation where monopoly rent arises: (1) when one exclusively controls some special quality resource, commodity, or location and can therefore extract rent from others. If you are the only one who has a specific Picasso, you can charge people to take a look at it. The same goes if you have a London apartment with an exclusive view over a great Olympic location. Uniqueness is key here long with particularity and tradability. But one has to be careful that one’s product or location or resource is too unique so as to lose tradability. At the same time, using marketing and advertising to increase tradability might reduce uniqueness. So, tradability must never turn into commodification, which involves homogeneity and mass consumption.

On the other hand, marketing and advertising may be used to generate a false sense of uniqueness for mass produced goods and define them as particular enough that monopoly rent can be extracted out of them.

But there is a contradiction here:

“Why, in a neoliberal world where competitive markets are supposedly dominant, would monopoly of any sort be tolerated, let alone seen as desirable?

(…)

The fiercer the competition, the faster the trend towards oligopoly, if not monopoly. It is therefore no accident that the liberalization of markets and the celebration of market competition in recent years have produced incredible centralization of capital.

(…)

This structural dynamic would not have the importance it does were it not for the fact that capitalists actively cultivate monopoly powers. They thereby realize far-reaching control over production and marketing, and hence stabilize their business environment to allow for rational calculation and long-term planning, the reduction of risk and uncertainty, and more generally guarantee themselves a relatively peaceful and untroubled existence.

(…)

Market processes crucially depend upon the individual monopoly of capitalists (of all sorts) over ownership of the means of production, including finance and land. All rent, recall, is a return to the monopoly power of private ownership of some crucial asset, such as land or a patent. The monopoly power of private property is therefore both the beginning-point and the end-point of all capitalist activity.

(…)

Pure market competition, free commodity exchange, and perfect market rationality are therefore rather rare and chronically unstable devices for coordinating production and consumption decisions.” (92-4)

However, for Harvey, the left often makes the mistake of associating monopoly rent with large corporations. If location can be a source of monopoly rent, then, small business may very well have a local monopoly out of which they extract rent. Such a monopoly then would be challenged by the opening of the local market to foreign corporations. Here again, the nostalgia for the local, rooted, small business is misplaced.

“In the nineteenth century, for example, the brewer, the baker, and the candlestick maker were all protected to considerable degree from competition in local markets by the high cost of transportation. Local monopoly powers were omnipresent (even though firms were small in size), and very hard to break, in everything from energy to food supply. By this measure, small-scale nineteenth-century capitalism was far less competitive than now. It is at this point that the changing conditions of transport and communications enter in as crucial determining variables. As spatial barriers diminished through the capitalist penchant for “the annihilation of space through time,” many local industries and services lost their local protections and monopoly privileges.” (94)

No doubt though, that these locally-based monopolies were the big losers of globalization (as annihilation of time and space). One can then see the concentration of capital and the political neoliberal push for liberalization at the heart of global governance as the current means to regain the means of monopoly rents on a different scale. Another attempt to recompose monopoly privileges may be over culture by adding originality and authenticity in the definition of what can provide monopoly rent. Arts and culture would fall into that category. Harvey goes at some length over the struggle in the field of wine between French and Australian producers over what makes a wine more authentic and unique than other products. As capitalists look for other way to recreate monopoly powers, they will also create discursive constructs to highlight authenticity and exclusivity (“appellation d’origine contrôlée” in the case of wine, references to “terroir”, etc.).

It is in this context that  traditions may be reinvented (as traditions are always invented in the first place) in urban locales, with neighborhood renovation to attract tourists in search of authenticity:

“The most avid globalizers will support local developments that have the potential to yield monopoly rents even if the effect of such support is to produce a local political climate antagonistic to globalization.” (99)

Although that is a fine line to walk as one might want tourists from all over the world to come experience urban local tradition and culture. Sometimes, it might even mean paying tours of slums as happened after the worldwide success of the movie City of God. One could even choose the level of danger to be exposed to. I suspect the success of Slumdog Millionaire might have had a similar effect.

“Urban entrepreneurialism has become important both nationally and internationally in recent decades. By this I mean that pattern of behavior within urban governance that mixes together state powers (local, metropolitan, regional, national, or supranational) with a wide array of organizational forms in civil society (chambers of commerce, unions, churches, educational and research institutions, community groups, NGOs, and so on) and private interests (corporate and individual) to form coalitions to promote or manage urban or regional development of one sort or another.” (100)

In this case, these different actors all look to generate what Harvey calls collective symbolic capital (using Bourdieu’s concept but extending it beyond individuals):

“The collective symbolic capital which attaches to names and places like Paris, Athens, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and Rome is of great import and gives such places great economic advantages relative to, say, Baltimore, Liverpool, Essen, Lille, and Glasgow. The problem for these latter places is to raise their quotient of symbolic capital and to increase their marks of distinction so as to better ground their claims to the uniqueness that yields monopoly rent. The “branding” of cities becomes big business.16 Given the general loss of other monopoly powers through easier transport and communications and the reduction of other barriers to trade, this struggle for collective symbolic capital has become even more important as a basis for monopoly rents. How else can we explain the splash made by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, with its signature Gehry architecture? And how else can we explain the willingness of major financial institutions, with considerable international interests, to finance such a signature project?

The rise to prominence of Barcelona within the European system of cities, to take another example, has in part been based on its steady amassing of symbolic capital and its accumulation of marks of distinction.” (103 – 4)

But Harvey considers that there is, in this process, space for contestation of the logic of capitalism:

“The struggle is on to accumulate marks of distinction and collective symbolic capital in a highly competitive world. But this brings in its wake all of the localized questions about whose collective memory, whose aesthetics, and whose benefits are to be prioritized. Neighborhood movements in Barcelona make claims for recognition and empowerment on the basis of symbolic capital, and can assert a political presence in the city as a result. It is their urban commons that are appropriated all too often not only by developers, but by the tourist trade. But the selective nature of such appropriations can mobilize further new avenues of political struggle.” (105)

But there is also the potential for reactionary nationalism which is equally anti-globalization as some localist movements can be. The risk then is for communities to advocate turning inwards and retreat into imaginary nostalgia and advocate exclusionary politics (see all these movements at work in Europe right now). At the same time, the branding of a city, as that’s what it is, might require the exclusion and evacuation of any category of people that does not fit with the new local environment (see the cleaning up of the slums in Rio in anticipation of the Olympic Games, or as was done in Beijing, the muzzling of political opponents during the same events, and London might not have enough security forces to ensure perfect conformity with the branding). And in all cases, all actors have to navigate the double risk of too much commercialization or too much specificity that is no longer tradable. But for Harvey, this is where there is a weapon for class struggle (which can swing both ways).

“But monopoly rent is a contradictory form. The search for it leads global capital to value distinctive local initiatives—indeed, in certain respects, the more distinctive and, in these times, the more transgressive the initiative, the better. It also leads to the valuation of uniqueness, authenticity, particularity, originality, and all manner of other dimensions to social life that are inconsistent with the homogeneity presupposed by commodity production. And if capital is not to totally destroy the uniqueness that is the basis for the appropriation of monopoly rents (and there are many circumstances where it has done just that and been roundly condemned for so doing), then it must support a form of differentiation and allow of divergent and to some degree uncontrollable local cultural developments that can be antagonistic to its own smooth functioning. It can even support (though cautiously and often nervously) transgressive cultural practices precisely because this is one way in which to be original, creative, and authentic, as well as unique.

It is within such spaces that oppositional movements can form, even presupposing, as is often the case, that oppositional movements are not already firmly entrenched there. The problem for capital is to find ways to co-opt, subsume, commodify, and monetize such cultural differences and cultural commons just enough to be able to appropriate monopoly rents from them. In so doing, capital often produces widespread alienation and resentment among the cultural producers who experience first-hand the appropriation and exploitation of their creativity and their political commitments for the economic benefit of others, in much the same way that whole populations can resent having their histories and cultures exploited through commodification. The problem for oppositional movements is to speak to this widespread appropriation of their cultural commons and to use the validation of particularity, uniqueness, authenticity, culture, and aesthetic meanings in ways that open up new possibilities and alternatives.” (109 – 10)

But again, the warning against local, traditionalist fetishism:

“This does not mean that attachment to “pure” values of authenticity, originality, and an aesthetic of particularity of culture is an adequate foundation for a progressive oppositional politics. It can all too easily veer into local, regional, or nationalist identity politics of the neofascist sort, of which there are already far too many troubling signs throughout much of Europe, as well as elsewhere.” (111)

So, it is important to never forget that a great deal of what capitalists do is to look for ways to recompose monopoly privileges out of which they can extract monopoly rents. There is a lot that makes sense right now if one keeps this basic principle in mind.

Or, as Lambert Strether would say, “it’s all about the rents.”

Posted in Corporatism, Culture, Globalization, Public Policy, Social Movements, Urban Ecology | 2 Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – The Amazon Model of Accumulation By Dispossession

July 8, 2012 by and tagged

David Harvey defines capitalism as accumulation by dispossession. The idea that accumulation is obtained through the raiding and exploiting of someone else’s resources and labor. I think the Amazon model fits the bill quite nicely (via):

Note that the dispossession occurs at several levels.

This is also a example of what Saskia Sassen calls savage sorting.

This is brutal.

Posted in Corporatism | 1 Comment »

Best Documentary on the Crisis

July 8, 2012 by

Now available on Vimeo (via Barry Ritzhold):

 

Posted in Corporatism, Economy, Embeddedness, Globalization, Media, Public Policy, Social Institutions, Social Privilege | No Comments »

And Thank FSM for That…

May 14, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

From Manuel Castells’s Communication Power, discussing the regulatory framework of the digital communication system:

“The impromptu evolution of Internet regulation and management parallels the serendipitous maturation of the Internet as the communication commons of the network society (Abbate, 1999; Castells, 2001; Movius, forthcoming). When first deployed in 1969, ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet, was an experimental computer networking program originated in DARPA, the US Defense Department research agency, and largely run by the scientists and engineers who created it. In 1970, the Defense Department offered to transfer its operation and property ATT. After weighing the possibility for a few weeks, ATT did not see any commercial interest in ARPANET, and declined the offer (Abbate, 1999). Thanks to this monumental shortsightedness of ATT’s part, and to the inability of Microsoft to understand the significance of the Internet, the world became what it is today. So much for technological determinism.” (103)

As Todd Krohn would say, LOL. Also, thank FSM (or whichever imaginary friend one may believe in) for corporate incompetence.

Now, just for fun, imagine, if you will, an Internet completely designed and controlled by AT&T. Now, go have nightmares. You’re welcome.

Posted in Corporatism, Networks, Public Policy, Technology | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – Walmart’s Ecological Footprint

March 26, 2012 by and tagged , ,

And how big it really is (here):

Now, really, and it has a pretty large ecological footprint:

Posted in Corporatism, Environment, Sustainability | 2 Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – The Davos Class

February 13, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

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

The Davos Class is an expression coined by Susan George:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this stunning one as well:

And last, but not least:

Just one more for the road:

Posted in Corporatism, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Transnational Capitalist Class | No Comments »

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