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Archive for Global Governance

The Visual Du Jour – Open Governance (Or Not)

February 5, 2013 by and tagged ,

I found this interesting set of data via The World Bank Dataviz Tumblr: some good interactive visualizations based on the Open Budget Survey (full report here):

Open Budget Survey from SocProf on Vimeo.

Here are some static images.

The map:

The rankings:

The overall view:

The categorized rankings from the report:

The infographic:

These are all good examples of the changes brought about by global governance mechanisms that allow different international organizations, non-profit, civil society groups, etc., to demand accountability from governments, in this case, on budgetary issues and processes.

Posted in Dataviz, Global Governance | No Comments »

Isn’t This Einstein’s Definition of Insanity?

October 3, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Well:

“Throughout the 1980s and 90s, when many developing countries were in crisis and borrowing money from the International Monetary Fund, waves of protests in those countries became known as the “IMF riots”. They were so called because they were sparked by the fund’s structural adjustment programmes, which imposed austerity, privatisation and deregulation.

The IMF complained that calling these riots thus was unfair, as it had not caused the crises and was only prescribing a medicine, but this was largely self-serving. Many of the crises had actually been caused by the asset bubbles built up following IMF-recommended financial deregulation. Moreover, those rioters were not just expressing general discontent but reacting against the austerity measures that directly threatened their livelihoods, such as cuts in subsidies to basic commodities such as food and water, and cuts in already meagre welfare payments.

The IMF programme, in other words, met such resistance because its designers had forgotten that behind the numbers they were crunching were real people. These criticisms, as well as the ineffectiveness of its economic programme, became so damaging that the IMF has made a lot of changes in the past decade or so. It has become more cautious in pushing for financial deregulation and austerity programmes, renamed its structural adjustment programmes as poverty reduction programmes, and has even (marginally) increased the voting shares of the developing countries in its decision-making.

Given these recent changes in the IMF, it is ironic to see the European governments inflicting an old-IMF-style programme on their own populations. It is one thing to tell the citizens of some faraway country to go to hell but it is another to do the same to your own citizens, who are supposedly your ultimate sovereigns. Indeed, the European governments are out-IMF-ing the IMF in its austerity drive so much that now the fund itself frequently issues the warning that Europe is going too far, too fast.

The threat to livelihoods has reached such a dimension that renewed bouts of rioting are now rocking GreeceSpain and even the usually quieter Portugal. In the case of Spain, its national integrity is threatened by the separatist demand made by the Catalan nationalists, who think the austerity policy is unfairly reducing the region’s autonomy.

Even if these and other European countries (for other countries have not been free of protests against austerity programmes, such as Britain’s university fees riot and the protests by Italy’s “recession widows”) survive this social unrest through a mixture of heavy-handed policing and political delaying tactics, recent events raise a very serious question about the nature of European politics.

What has been happening in Europe – and indeed the US in a more muted and dispersed form – is nothing short of a complete rewriting of the implicit social contracts that have existed since the end of the second world war. In these contracts, renewed legitimacy was bestowed on the capitalist system, once totally discredited following the great depression. In return it provided a welfare state that guarantees minimum provision for all those burdens that most citizens have to contend with throughout their lives – childcare, education, health, unemployment, disability and old age.”

And this is all done on the backs of the poor. This will do nothing to get these countries out of their economic slump. But what this also does is also deepen a crisis of legitimation that opens to the door to fascist parties (see France and Greece).

Posted in Collective Behavior, Economy, Global Governance, Public Policy | 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 »

Book Review – Darkmarket

April 14, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

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

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

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

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

Hacking as crime poses specific problems for law enforcement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Book Reviews, Global Governance, Globalization, Networks, Organized Crime, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – Communication Power – 1

April 7, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

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

The central question of the book?

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

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

So, what is power:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what are exactly the different layers of power?

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

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

So,

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

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

Next up, networks and the network society.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Global Civil Society, Global Governance, Globalization, Networks, Power, Social Change, Social Exclusion, Social Institutions, Social Theory, Sociology, Technology | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – What Caused The Eurozone Crisis?

January 1, 2012 by and tagged , , , ,

A brilliant and clear explanation:

Posted in Corporatism, Economy, Global Governance, Globalization, Politics | No Comments »

The Transnational Capitalist Class: Now Ruling a Country Near You… Or It Will Soon

November 15, 2011 by and tagged , , , ,

And Goldman Sachs is its favorite organization from which to extend its power. Case in point: three former GS men now rule the European Central Bank, Italy and Greece:

“Qu’ont en commun Mario Draghi, Mario Monti et Lucas Papadémos ? Le nouveau président de la Banque centrale européenne, le président désigné du conseil italien et le nouveau premier ministre grec appartiennent à des degrés divers au “gouvernement Sachs” européen. La banque d’affaires américaine a en effet tissé en Europe un réseau d’influence unique sédimenté depuis des lustres grâce à un maillage serré, souterrain comme public.

A tout concours, il faut une hiérarchie. Le premier prix revient bien sûr à Mario Draghi, vice-président de Goldman Sachs pour l’Europe entre 2002 et 2005. Nommé associé, il est chargé des “entreprises et pays souverains”. A ce titre, l’une des missions est de vendre le produit financier “swap” permettant de dissimuler une partie de la dette souveraine, qui a permis de maquiller les comptes grecs. Vient ensuite Mario Monti, conseiller international depuis 2005. Arrive en troisième position Lucas Papadémos, qui vient d’être nommé premier ministre de la Grèce, qui fut gouverneur de la Banque centrale hellénique entre 1994 et 2002, qui a participé à ce titre à l’opération de trucage des comptes perpétré par GS. Le gestionnaire de la dette grecque est d’ailleurs un certain Petros Christodoulos, un ex-trader de la firme.

Deux autres poids lourds tiennent le haut du pavé dans la défenestration de l’euro, Otmar Issing, ex-président de la Bundesbank et Jim O’Neill, l’inventeur du concept des BRICS, l’acronyme désignant les marchés émergents à fort potentiel de croissance (Brésil, Russie, Inde, Chine et Afrique du Sud). Ex-président de Goldman Sachs International dont il est resté l’un des administrateurs, l’Irlandais Peter Sutherland a joué un rôle-clé dans le sauvetage de l’Irlande. Enfin, Paul Deighton, qui a passé 22 ans chez Goldman Sachs, est directeur général du comité organisateur des Jeux olympiques de Londres en 2012. La lanterne rouge car chacun sait que le sport comme l’amitié est hors concours.”

This is a global power elite that is beyond accountability and democratic governance. sociologist Leslie Sklair calls it the Transnational Capitalist Class. Sklair uses the term transnational to indicate that this class does not derive its power from any particular state or country but precisely from its cross-border capacity to mobilize different forms of capital (economic capital, such as financial assets; political and social capital such as power, influence and connections; technical and organizational capital such program design skills, drafting of trade treaties; cultural capital such as the production of content to promote the consumerist ideology, advertising).

The TCC is composed of four different groups. The corporate fraction is the dominant category in the TCC. It is composed of corporate executives of the major transnational corporations as well as major owners. This fraction’s power derives from its enormous economic and financial power. It is profit-driven and seeks to extend its dominance globally. The other fractions (state, technical and consumerist) are akin to a supporting cast and provide other forms of capital necessary for the global reach of the global capitalist system on top of which the corporate fraction sits.

Leslie Sklair’s Four Fractions of the Transnational Capitalist Class and their Types of Capital
Corporate Fraction Executives from transnational corporations and their local affiliates Economic / Financial
State Fraction Globalizing bureaucrats and politicians Political / Social
Technical Fraction Globalizing professionals Technical / Organizational
Consumerist Fraction Merchants and media

The combination of economic, political, technical and ideological powers translates into the creation of a global system with global capitalism as dominant force. Based on this, Sklair outlines four basic propositions that define the actions of the TCC.

Leslie Sklair’s Four Propositions on the Transnational Capitalist Class (TCC)
“A transnationalist capitalist class based on the transnational corporations (TNCs) is emerging that is more or less in control of the processes of globalization.”
“The TCC is beginning to act as a transnational dominant class in some spheres.”
“The globalization of the capitalist system reproduces itself through the profit-driven culture-ideology of consumerism.”
“The transnational capitalist class is working consciously to resolves two central crises: (i) the simultaneous creation of poverty and increasing wealth within and between communities and societies (the class polarization crisis) and (ii) the unsustainability of the system (the ecological crisis).”

The existence and power of the TCC is made particularly visible every year when the World Economic Forum (WEF) meets at the exclusive ski resort in Davos, Switzerland. The WEF is an organization based in Geneva (Switzerland) that comprises business leaders (such as Bill Gates and the CEOs of the largest transnational corporations), past and present political leaders (such as presidents, prime ministers and other government officials), select intellectuals (Chancellors and professors from the most prestigious universities), journalists, and, sometimes, members of non-governmental organizations, in other words, it is a gathering of the TCC.

At the annual meeting in Davos, under very tight security, this elite discusses the economic and political issues of the world but it is also an opportunity to network and cultivate social capital as well as conduct business and shape policy on a global scale. The membership of the WEF clearly shows its exclusive nature: the vast majority of the membership is from the North America and Europe, with some representatives from developing Asia. One thousand companies, earning over one billion dollars are also invited, as long as they pay a $250,000 fee. Until 2001, there were no women represented to the board. Panels may be public but meetings are held behind closed doors.

The Davos meeting clearly illustrates that the TCC is indeed a class: a category of people who may come different parts of the world but think alike and share a common view of what the world should look like and what economic policies should be implemented. They all share a neo-liberal or globalist ideology.

Apart from the World Economic Forum, the TCC also exercises power through its membership in think tanks (such as the American Enterprise Institute) or corporate associations (such as the World Petroleum Council for the oil industry), and its control of the mass media (very large media conglomerate own most television channels, radio stations, internet service providers as well as book publishing companies), and countless charities and foundations as well as University boards.

And Goldman Sachs rules them all. It extends its power into transnational corporation, functions thanks to the transnational capitalist class, and obviously is thoroughly networked into the transnational state (to use William I. Robinson’s typology).

Posted in Global Governance, Globalization, Transnational Capitalist Class, Transnational State | 2 Comments »

Global Governance and Criminal Plutocracy

November 10, 2011 by and tagged , ,

If you are going to read one author / journalist on the issue of global criminality, it should be Misha Glenny. His two latest books are strong indictments of the global governance system and its lack of teeth when it comes to global criminal organizations as well as national oligarchies’s role in destabilizing economies and profiting from the results.

In this Financial Times column, he clearly explains the two main issues that have precipitated Greece’s collapse (no quoting from FT articles, you gotta click on the link to read the whole thing):

  • Criminal organizations across the Balkan, milking fuel money out of Greece;
  • Oligarch families that evade taxes while waiting to make a killing on the privatization they are pushing for with global and regional organizations;
  • State corruption;
  • Media;
  • Politicians.

According to Glenny, it is especially these oligarch families that have stashed away Euros. They are waiting for Greece to exit the Eurozone and to start implement what are, in effect, structural adjustment programs, including privatization at basement prices, in Drachma. They will buy the whole lot for close to nothing. Papandreou, who unveiled the pan-Balkan criminality and was going after tax-evaders is the latest victim of their power. And, the media that these families control will cheer on any furthering of austerity measures and vilify anyone who dares trying to get in the way.

But Glenny also blames Western European countries for playing high and mighty with the reckless Mediterranean countries while ignoring what was very obvious for a while. After all, who is now clamoring for Greece to pay its debts to wealthy German investors or else? And which Western European (especially British) banks have turned down the unpaid taxes as well as “running away” Euros from the oligarchs? Yeah.

If one thinks this is a bit far-fetched and fin-foily, check out this other FT article on the dirty dealing of Russian oligarchs.

Who said nation-states no longer mattered.

These facts only reinforce the decade-old idea that the global governance system works only for the powerful of the world, and suffers from a major democratic deficit, a fact amply illustrated by the global panic caused by Papandreou’s proposal of a referendum on austerity measures. As Richard Morris writes, it seems that the price of saving capitalism is democracy.

The extraction of economic policy from the purview of democratic governance (something that did not bother a whole lot of people what that was imposed on developing countries during the lost decade of the 80s) is probably one of the towering achievements of neoliberal global governance as well as the ideological work done by think tanks and corporate media organizations.

Posted in Global Governance, Globalization, Organized Crime | 1 Comment »

The Visual Du Jour – Teaching Small Countries a Lesson

October 15, 2011 by and tagged ,

Via: as you can see, the Greek debt is small potatoes compared to a lot of other things, so why the persistence in pushing it against the wall with measures that actually increase such a debt and make life miserable for the Greeks? And note that the European banks need about twice as much in recapitalization, which they might get without the draconian conditions of the kind imposed on Greece. Of course, the total costs of the war on terror is itself absurd.

Other Mediterranean countries might have to go through the same thing, based, largely on the prejudice that Continental Europeans have against their Southern counterparts (lazy, hedonistic, shades of La Fontaine’s La Cigale et La Fourmi except that the ants lecturing the crickets are not exactly better stewards of public finances and masters of frugality).

Posted in Economy, Global Governance | No Comments »

Durkheim Would Have Predicted That One

September 26, 2011 by and tagged , , , ,

Geez, who could have guessed?

Well, let’s see:

“But after two rescue packages worth ¤210bn, and belt-tightening that has seen the income of the average household drop by 50%, the appetite of Greeks for more measures is clearly running out.

Greece’s great economic crisis has been a gradual war of attrition. Massive job losses, tax increases and galloping inflation have sapped the nation’s energy and, increasingly, Greeks no longer believe what their politicians say. With cuts instead being blamed for slashing consumption, deepening recession and missing deficit-reducing goals, austerity is seen as a pointless exercise that far from exiting the country from crisis has exacerbated its plight.

On the street the view is hardening that the medicine prescribed to rescue Greece’s economy is simply not viable.

“The belt is now at the eighth notch, it’s become so tight there are only two more left, but nothing has improved,” said Georgios Valsamis, a young taxi driver who joined a barrage of strikes that brought public transport to a halt last week. “People in power, MPs, they’re like robots, they do whatever those foreigners [the EU, ECB and IMF] say. We are no longer willing to be a laboratory for failed policies. Low-income earners, those who have been really hit, can’t endure much more.”

That ordinary Greeks, among Europe’s lowest wage earners before the crisis erupted, are being stretched to breaking point is too obvious to ignore. When austerity was first introduced, after the newly elected socialist government discovered the budget deficit to be three times higher than the outgoing conservatives claimed, families took the blow by reining in spending and tucking into savings.

But for pensioners forced to survive on less than ¤500 a month and families hit by unemployment that has reached a record 16%, there is no more room for manoeuvre. The death of faith in the future is the biggest fear.

“The worst part is perhaps psychological because there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no source of hope,” said Dr Thanos Dokos who directs Eliamep, a thinktank in Athens. “When you make sacrifices and you know they will come to something you don’t mind. But that is not the case.”

With the economy set to contract for a fourth year in 2012, Greece is not only mired in a recession not seen since the second world war but has become increasingly unhinged by the crisis. Athens, already strained by a mass influx of immigrants and home to half of the country’s 11 million-strong population, has been the worst hit amid soaring crime and lawlessness.

A new underclass has appeared: in the homeless and hungry who roam the streets; in the spiralling number of drug addicts; in the psychiatric patients ejected from institutions that can no longer offer them a place; in the thousands of shop owners forced to close and board up businesses; in those who forage through municipal rubbish bins at night; and in the pensioners who make do with rejects at fruit and vegetable markets. Suicides have also risen, with help lines reporting a deluge of calls – 5,000 in the first eight months of 2011 compared with 2,500 for all of last year. The announcement this month of a flurry of new taxes, including a draconian duty on real estate, has come as a further shock.

With the prospect of austerity for years to come, a growing number of young Greeks are either returning to their rural roots or fleeing to countries that can offer them a job in what is described as the biggest emigration wave since the 1960s.

“The measures are the blood price Greeks have to pay so that countries like Germany can convince their own constituents they are being punished for years of reckless spending,” said Dokos. “The government’s failure to implement reforms has made the situation worse, but the measures are also counter-productive. The negative impact on the economy is higher than the cash-flow the country needs.”

With desperation has come a collective sense of guilt and depression – more dangerous, say analysts, than even the social tensions that threaten to tear the country apart.

And yet, regional and transnational institutions behave like medieval doctors, prescribing yet more bloodletting or more leeches, focused as they are on a few economic indicators and no obvious concern for the real-life effects of their failed policy prescriptions. And as the Greek society collapses, the witch doctors keep on going “more cuts! more cuts!”.

The state, having been hollowed of its policy-making functions by larger institutions, is now simply administering the toxic medicine to the patient even though it is clear that patient is not responding. As Atrios notes almost daily, we are governed by idiots who do not seem to know what they are doing and are therefore just following the familiar script of neoliberal prescription that they have been imposing on the developing countries. The results will be, surprisingly, the same: developing countries had their lost decade in the 1980s, Western countries are getting theirs now.

In addition, and that is a major ideological giveaway, all this is couched in moral terms: failing countries and their people are accused of sloth, and in need of puritan belt-tightening and lesson in humility and frugality.

In the meantime, “more shields!”:

At least Captain Picard had the good sense of trying something different when the usual prescription kept producing worse effects.

Posted in Anomie, Global Governance, Hollow States | No Comments »

Talk About Being Late To The Party…

September 23, 2011 by and tagged , , , ,

Better late than never, I guess:

How long have feminists argued such a thing, which is rather obvious:

“Gender equality is shrewd economics as well as a human right, the World Bank has said in a report that showed countries with better opportunities for women and girls can boost productivity and development.

The most glaring disparity is the rate at which girls and women die relative to men in developing countries, according to The World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development.

“Blocking women and girls from getting the skills and earnings to succeed in a globalised world is not only wrong, but also economically harmful,” said Justin Yifu Lin, World Bank chief economist.

“Sharing the fruits of growth and globalisation equally between men and women is essential to meeting key development goals.”

Monday’s report cited the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s estimates that equal access to resources for female farmers could increase agricultural output in poorer countries by up to four per cent.

It also said eliminating barriers preventing women working in certain occupations would cut the productivity gap between male and female workers by a third to a half, and increase output per worker by three to 25 per cent in some countries.

“We need to achieve gender equality,” said World Bank President Robert Zoellick.

Zoellick said that over the past five years, the bank has provided funds to support girls’ education, women’s health, and women’s access to credit, land, agricultural services, jobs and infrastructure.

“This has been important work, but it has not been enough or central enough to what we do,” he said.

“Going forward, the World Bank Group will mainstream our gender work and find other ways to move the agenda forward to capture the full potential of half the world’s population.”"

Specifically, the World Bank recommends:

“• addressing human capital issues, like the higher mortality of girls and women, through investment in clean water and maternal care and persistent disadvantages in education through targeted programs;

• closing the earning and productivity gaps between women and men — by improving access to productive resources; water and electricity, and childcare;

• increasing participation by women in decisions made within households and societies; and

• limiting gender inequality across generations, by investing in the health and education of adolescent boys and girls, creating opportunities to improve their lives and offering family planning information.

We have seen that focused policy attention can make a difference. Sustainable solutions are best grounded in partnerships including families, the private sector, governments, development agencies and religious and civil society groups.”

Which is all nice and everything but none of this will happen without full reproductive rights including access to safe abortions and the World Bank just tap dances around that issue without directly addressing it beyond the lame “offering family planning information.”

Posted in Development, Gender, Global Governance, Patriarchy, Sexism | 1 Comment »

The Visual Du Jour – Food Fights

August 28, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , ,

The idea of riots exploding when food becomes scarce or unaffordable is not new. This is something that has been discussed before in the context of what used to be called the “IMF riots”, that is riots caused by the implementation of structural adjustment programs in developing countries (“structural adjustment” is roughly equivalent to austerity + privatization). Often, it is when these measures impacted food and water that riots would explode.

So, it is not that far-fetched to suggest a correlation between food prices and revolts in the Middle East:

Maybe we are witnessing the internal version of resource wars combined with decades of bad governance where the “panem and circenses” rule of dictators does not work anymore. There is more entertainment to be had via satellite TV and the Internet and if food prices go up, then things explode.

As the article notes:

“Seeking simple explanations for the Arab spring uprisings that have swept through Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, is clearly foolish amidst entangled issues of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and water stress. But asking “why precisely now?” is less daft, and a provocative new study proposes an answer: soaring food prices.

Furthermore, it suggests there is a specific food price level above which riots and unrest become far more likely. That figure is 210 on the UN FAO’s price index: the index is currently at 234, due to the most recent spike in prices which started in the middle of 2010.

Lastly, the researchers argue that current underlying food price trends – excluding the spikes – mean the index will be permanently over the 210 threshold within a year or two. The paper concludes: “The current [food price] problem transcends the specific national political crises to represent a global concern about vulnerable populations and social order.” Big trouble, in other words.

Now, those are some pretty big statements and I should state right now that this research, by a team at the New England Complex Systems Institute, has not yet been peer reviewed. It has been published because, Yaneer Bar-Yam, NECSI president, told me, the work is relevant now but peer review is slow.

The first part of the research is straightforward enough: plotting riots identified as over food against the food price index. The correlation is striking, but is it evidence of causation?

Bar-Yam says this conundrum can be tackled by asking the question in clear ways. Could the riots be causing high food prices, rather than the reverse? No, the former is local, the latter global. Could the correlation simply be a coincidence? Yes, there’s only a tiny chance of that, Bar-Yam’s team argues in the paper.

Lastly, could other factors be causing both the violence and the high food prices? “No-one has suggested any other factor that can do both,” says Bar-Yam. For example, oil and tin both show similar price patterns to that of food, but seem unlikely to prompt the violence. The similarity, says Bar-Yam, is because all the commodity price peaks are being driven by speculation in global markets.

Posted in Collective Behavior, Development, Global Governance, Resource Wars, Social Movements | No Comments »

Legitimation Crisis 2.0

August 8, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Cue London Calling references:

But let us not play clueless here. Things have been brewing for a while in England. Remember the Vodaphone protests? Or the anti-university fees protests?

So, whatever the initial reason for the uprising in Tottenham, it is clear that many of the countries where austerity policies are being imposed from above on the general population are facing socially explosive situations.

Israel:

“About 250,000 Israelis have marched for lower living costs in an escalating protest that has catapulted the economy onto the political agenda and put pressure on the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu planned to name a cabinet-level team on Sunday to address demands by the demonstrators, who in under a month have swollen from a cluster of student tent-squatters into a diffuse, countrywide mobilisation of Israel’s burdened middle class.

Israel projects growth of 4.8% this year at a time of economic stagnation in many western countries, and has relatively low unemployment of 5.7%. But business cartels and wage disparities have kept many citizens from feeling the benefit.

“The People Demand Social Justice” read one of the march banners, which mostly eschewed partisan anti-government messages while confronting Netanyahu’s free-market doctrines.

Police said at least 250,000 people took part in Saturday’s march in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities, a greater turnout than at marches on the two previous weekends.

Demonstrations on such a scale in Israel – which has a population of 7.7 million – have usually been over issues of war and peace. In a Peace Index poll conducted by two Israeli academics, around half of respondents said wage disparities – among the widest of OECD countries – should be the government’s priority, while 18% cited the dearth of affordable housing.”

Chile:

“It began as a series of peaceful protests calling for reform of the Chilean government’s education system, with students staging mass kiss-ins, dressing up in superhero costumes and running laps around the presidential palace. But on Thursday these surreal protests exploded into violence as school and university students clashed with police and seized a TV station, demanding the right to a live broadcast in order to express their demands.

The Chilean winter, as it is being called, appears to have captured the public mood, just as the Arab spring did six months ago.

After a day of street clashes, 874 people had been arrested and department store in the capital was smouldering after being attacked by protesters. Outrage against the rightwing government of Sebastiàn Piñera boiled over, with polls showing he is more unpopular than any leader since the fall of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Striking school students led the charge as they tried to march on the presidential palace early on Thursday, only to be thwarted by hundreds of police in riot gear and clouds of teargas. Tucapel Jiménez, a member of the Chilean congress, called for sanctions against government authorities who authorised what he called “brutal repression” by riot police.

“This is unacceptable, the centre of Santiago is a state of siege,” said university student leader Camila Vallejo, tears rolling down her face after being doused in teargas. “The right to congregate has been violated.”

And one must not forget the protests in Greece and Spain as well as the Arab Spring.

What we see is the global civil society rising up against what is clearly exposed as the alliance of the corporate sector (as opposed to small businesses who are as much on the receiving end of austerity policies) and Western governments (along with global governance institutions, the BCE, etc.). What we are are witnessing, to borrow Habermas’s phrase, is a major crisis of legitimation, where governments are blamed for making everybody pay for the failures and excesses of the financial sectors.

It is not just that national government are complying with corporate demands but that they turn repressive in the process leaving the image of the state-as-institution in cahoots with the wealthy and ready to strike at the slightest sign of process or even anticipating trouble through massive surveillance. The message is clear: dissent will not be tolerated as the whole anti-terror apparatus is used not against terrorists but against cyber-dissenters and protesters:

“DOJ indicted 16 alleged hackers today, 14 of whom were purportedly involved in hacking PayPal after it refused to accept payments for WikiLeaks.

(…)

Now, I’m not surprised DOJ indicted these folks. I’m not arguing that, if they did what DOJ alleged they did, they didn’t commit a crime.

But I can’t help but notice that DOJ has not yet indicted anyone for the DDoS attacks–the very same crime–committed against WikiLeaks 8 days earlier than the crime alleged in this indictment.

I’m guessing DOJ has a very good idea who committed that crime. But for some reason (heh), they haven’t indicted those perpetrators.

In fact, I’ll bet you that DOJ also has a better explanation for why PayPal started refusing WikiLeaks donations on December 4, 2010–two days before this alleged crime–than they describe here.

But we mere citizens are privy to none of that. As far as we know–because of choices about secrecy the government has made–a crime was committed against a media outlet on November 28, 2010. That crime remains unsolved. Indeed, DOJ has never made a peep about solving that crime. Meanwhile, today, 14 people were indicted for allegedly committing the very same crime the government–inexplicably, at least according to its public statements–has not pursued.

According to the public story, at least, the rule of law died with this indictment today. The government has put itself–the hackers it likes, if not employs–above the law, while indicting 14 people for the very same crime committed just weeks before those 14 people allegedly committed their crime.”

And this as well:

“In March this year, more than 150 UK activists were arrested while occupying Fortnum & Mason in a protest against tax avoidance. They were held in cells overnight and charged with aggravated trespass. Earlier this month, the charges against all but 30 were dropped, as it emerged the chief inspector at the store had given protesters assurances they would be allowed to leave the store unhindered.

The incident generated widespread fear about crackdowns on the right to protest, against a backdrop of strikes and protests against government cuts. Similar cries have not occurred in the wake of arrests of individuals allegedly linked to the hacker collectives Anonymous and LulzSec in the UK, United States and Europe.

Yet if the criminalisation of dissent is happening anywhere, it is here.

The maximum penalty the Fortnum & Mason activists faced for aggravated trespass is three months in prison. Participating in even the simplest of hacking operations is punishable by up to 10 years in prison in the UK, and up to 20 years in the US.

Since December, Anonymous and LulzSec have engaged in a series of politically motivated hacks, often in support of WikiLeaks, including attacks taking the Visa and Mastercard websites offline in the wake of the WikiLeaks blockade, a hack on security firm HBGary revealing a proposal to Bank of America to discredit hostile journalists and activists, and attacks against the CIA and the UK’s Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca).”

And, as any reader of Max Weber knows,the most essential monopoly of the state is that of legitimate physical violence. In order to exercise power, the state must have the ability to force compliance with laws and judicial decisions. Ultimately, then, the state monopoly over physical violence is considered legitimate. For Weber, this is the monopoly that all states have in common and it is a considerable resource as it allows the state to enforce all its other monopolies. In most states, violence is not the main means of governance, especially in democracies but it is a means available nonetheless. Indeed, in most societies, except in rare cases of self-defense, most members of society or groups are not allowed to use physical force against others. Only the state, through its agents and specialized institutions (law enforcement and the criminal justice system,) has the right to arrest, incarcerate or even execute. However, for this monopoly over physical force to be considered legitimate, it must be (1) moderate and controlled, and (2) exercised within the limits of the law. If state violence goes beyond these limits, then, it tends to not be considered legitimate by members of society and to trigger adverse reactions against the excesses of the state. Practices of repression (such as kettling) and secret jurisdiction fail on both count. And without legitimacy, violence is just violence.

And in aligning its interests and policies with that of the financial sector (the “banksters”, for short), the state has chosen a partner that has no more legitimacy and has been exposed in all its dysfunctions. Three examples will suffice:

Will Hutton:

“”No major advanced economy is doing anything to promote growth and jobs,” says George Magnus, a senior policy adviser to investment bank UBS. He is right. Wherever you look, it is an economic horror story. Put bluntly, too many key countries – the UK in the forefront, with private debt an amazing three and half times its GDP, but followed by Japan, Spain, France, Italy, the US and even supposedly saint-like Germany – have accumulated too much private debt that cannot be repaid unless there is exceptional global growth.

(…)

The markets’ reaction is made worse by herd effects – magnified by the many instruments, so-called financial derivatives, that have been invented supposedly to hedge and lower risks but which in truth are little more than casino chips. Long-term saving institutions such as insurance companies and pension funds now routinely lend their shares – for a fee – to anybody who wants to use them for speculative purposes. The financial system has become a madhouse – a mechanism to maximise volatility, fear and uncertainty. There is nobody at the wheel. Adult supervision is conspicuous by its absence.

What is required is a paradigm shift in the way we think and act. The idea transfixing the west is that governments get in the way of otherwise perfectly functioning markets and that the best capitalism – and financial system – is that best left to its own devices. Governments must balance their books, guarantee price stability and otherwise do nothing.

This is the international common sense, but has been proved wrong in both theory and in practice. Financial markets need governments to provide adult supervision. Good capitalism needs to be fashioned and designed. Financial orthodoxy can sometimes, especially after credit crunches, be entirely wrong. Once that Rubicon has been crossed, a new policy agenda opens up. The markets need the prospect of sustainable growth, along with sustainable private and public debt.”

Ha-Joon Chang:

“The debate focuses on how budget deficits should be controlled, with the dominant view saying that they need to be cut quickly and mainly through reduction in welfare spending, while its critics argue for further short-term fiscal stimuli and longer-term deficit reduction relying more on tax increases.

While this debate is crucial, it should not distract us from the urgent need to reform our financial system, whose dysfunctionality lies at the heart of this crisis. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the rating agencies, whose incompetence and cynicism have become evident following the 2008 crisis, if not before. Despite this, we have done nothing about them, and as a result we are facing absurdities today – European periphery countries have to radically rewrite social contracts at the dictates of these agencies, rather than through democratic debates, while the downgrading of US treasuries has increased the demands for them as “safe haven” products.

Was this inevitable? Hardly. We could have created a public rating agency (a UN agency funded by member states?) that does not charge for its service and thus can be more objective, thereby providing an effective competition to the current oligopoly of Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch. If the regulators had decided to become less reliant on their ratings in assessing the soundness of financial institutions, we would have weakened their undue influence. For the prevention of future financial crises we should have demanded greater transparency from the rating agencies – while changing their fee structure, in which they are paid by those firms that want to have their financial products rated. But these options weren’t seriously contemplated.

Another example of financial reforms whose neglect comes back to haunt us is the introduction of internationally agreed rules on sovereign bankruptcy. In resolving the European sovereign debt crises, one of the greatest obstacles has been the refusal by bondholders to bear any burden of adjustments, talking as if such a proposal goes against the basic rules of capitalism. However, the principle that the creditor, as well as the debtor, pays for the consequences of an unsuccessful loan is already in full operation at another level in all capitalist economies.

When companies go bankrupt, creditors also have to take a hit – by providing debt standstill, writing off some debts, extending their maturities, or reducing the interest rates charged. The proposal to introduce the same principle to deal with sovereign bankruptcy has been around at least since the days of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. However, this issue was tossed aside because the rich country governments, under the influence of their financial lobbies, would not have it.

There are other financial reforms whose absence has not yet come back to haunt us in a major way but will do so in the future. The most important of these is the regulation of complex financial products. Despite the widespread agreement that these are what have made the current crisis so large and intractable, we have done practically nothing to regulate them. The usual refrain is that these products are too complicated to regulate. But then why not simply ban products whose safety cannot be convincingly demonstrated, as we do with drugs?

Nothing has been done to regulate tax havens, which not only depriven governments of tax revenues but also make financial regulations more difficult. Once again, we could have eliminated or significantly weakened tax havens by simply declaring that all transactions with companies registered in countries/territories that do not meet the minimum regulatory standards are illegal.

And what have we done to change the perverse incentive structure in the financial industry, which has encouraged excessive risk-taking? Practically nothing, except for a feeble bonus tax in the UK.

A correct fiscal policy by itself cannot tackle the structural problems that have brought about the current crisis. It can only create the space in which we make the real reforms, especially financial reform.”

David Harvie and Keir Milburn:

“Neoliberalism no longer “makes sense”, but its logic keeps stumbling on, without conscious direction, like a zombie: ugly, persistent and dangerous. Such is the “unlife” of a zombie, a body stripped of its goals, unable to adjust itself to the future, unable to make plans. It can only act habitually as it pursues a monomaniacal hunger. Unless there is a dramatic recomposition of society, we face the prospect of decades of drift as the crises we face – economic, social, environmental – remain unresolved. But where will that recomposition come from when we are living in the world of zombie-liberalism?

In the midst of such hopelessness the phone-hacking scandal seemed to offer a moment of redemption, but as the news cycle moves on we are left wondering what effect it will really have.

Hackgate cannot be treated in isolation. Since the financial “meltdown” of 2007-08 we have witnessed similar scenes, and similar outrage, around MPs’ expenses and bankers’ bonuses. We have witnessed not one but two media feeding frenzies around the repression of protest. The first followed the police attack on the G20 protests in 2009 and the death of Ian Tomlinson, with the second erupting around the outing of undercover police officer Mark Kennedy, leading to the unprecedented unmasking of another five undercover police officers acting within the environmental and anti-capitalist movements. The refusal of the Metropolitan police to investigate the full extent of phone hacking is, then, the third scandal revealing the political character of contemporary policing.

The phone-hacking scandal, and particularly the web of complicity revealed in its cover-up, is undoubtedly more significant than some of these other scandals, but positioning it among them allows us to raise a question that has rarely been asked: why now?

The answer is inescapable: we are living through something epochal. These scandals are part of a more general social and economic crisis sparked by the financial crisis. What’s less clear is the exact nature of the relationship between crisis and scandals, and therefore the scandals’ political significance.

Hackgate reveals the mechanisms of a network of corruption whose broad outlines were already understood. What we see, however, is not a distortion of an otherwise functional system but one element of a system that can only operate through such corrupt mechanisms. What we are seeing, through its moment of decomposition, are the parochial arrangements through which neoliberalism was established in the UK.

Neoliberal governance has common traits across the planet. But its instantiation in each country has been shaped by the peculiarities of that country’s history. In each, a different (re)arrangement emerged between sections of the ruling class that would enable the imposition of neoliberal policies on populations that, on the whole, didn’t want them.

Rupert Murdoch, and the tabloid culture he helped to establish, was central to this process in the UK, not least with the defeat of the print unions at Wapping. Other elements of that compact include a Thatcherite Conservative party and a neoliberalised Labour party, a highly politicised police force and, especially after 1986′s big bang deregulation of the stock market, the dominance of finance capital. It is no coincidence each of these elements has been racked with scandal in the past few years.

Neoliberalism, however, requires more than the internal realignment of a national ruling class. Every semi-stable form of capitalism also needs some sort of settlement with the wider population, or at least a decisive section of it. While the postwar Keynesian settlement contained an explicit deal linking rising real wages to rising productivity, neoliberalism contained an implicit deal based on access to cheap credit. While real wages have stagnated since the late 1970s, the mechanisms of debt have maintained most people’s living standards. An additional part of neoliberalism’s tacit deal was the abandonment of any pretence to democratic, collective control over the conditions of life: politics has been reduced to technocratic rule. Instead, individuals accepted the promise that, through hard work, shrewd educational and other “life” choices, and a little luck, they – or their children – would reap the benefits of economic growth.

The financial crisis shattered the central component of this deal: access to cheap credit. Living standards can no longer be supported and, for the first time in a century, there is widespread fear that children will lead poorer lives than their parents. With the deal broken, parochial ruling arrangements in the UK have started to lose coherence.

The scandals, therefore, are symptoms not of renewal but rather of neoliberalism’s zombie status. The scandals represent the zombie’s body decomposing even as it continues its habitual operation.”

It is indeed ironic that neoliberals have been harping for the last three decades on the need for a flexible workforce, for the need for individual adaptation to market diktats against agents of stability (seen as bad and archaic) such as unions and anyone reluctant to embrace the brave new world of work. And yet, neoliberals are the most rigid people in their thinking and policy-making. The policies they demand are always the same, albeit with different names. But whether one calls one’s preferred policies austerity, shock therapy or structural adjustment, it is the same model imposed the world over, with the same disastrous consequences: people on the streets, repressed by failing states whose main functions are now to appease the financial sector through continuation of the Great Risk Shift, cool the mark out, and failing that, good old-fashioned repression (and then, you can use prison labor as the ultimate flexible workforce).

And the article mentioned above does emphasize the role of the cultural and information industries in the neoliberal project as well as its dark underbelly. But what is also striking is the lack of accountability all around while making other people pay in a variety of ways:

As Ian Welsh has mentioned many times, in the US, the only acceptable form of stimulus is military spending. indeed, this matches Michael Mann’s prescient view of the US based on his typology of power: a military giant, an economic backseat driver, a political schizophrenic and an ideological phantom. Hence, there has to be a next war (except, they won’t be called wars because that does not sound very nice) because that is all the political class accepts and understands. File that under the militarization of everything:

“The United States is expanding its role in Mexico’s bloody fight against drug trafficking organizations, sending new C.I.A. operatives and retired military personnel to the country and considering plans to deploy private security contractors in hopes of turning around a multibillion-dollar effort that so far has shown few results.

In recent weeks, small numbers of C.I.A. operatives and American civilian military employees have been posted at a Mexican military base, where, for the first time, security officials from both countries work side by side in collecting information about drug cartels and helping plan operations. Officials are also looking into embedding a team of American contractors inside a specially vetted Mexican counternarcotics police unit.

Officials on both sides of the border say the new efforts have been devised to get around Mexican laws that prohibit foreign military and police from operating on its soil, and to prevent advanced American surveillance technology from falling under the control of Mexican security agencies with long histories of corruption.

(…)

The United States has trained nearly 4,500 new federal police agents and assisted in conducting wiretaps, running informants and interrogating suspects. The Pentagon has provided sophisticated equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters, and in recent months it has begun flying unarmed surveillance drones over Mexican soil to track drug kingpins.”

And in case it’s not clear enough:

“Several Mexican and American security analysts compared the challenges of helping Mexico rebuild its security forces and civil institutions — crippled by more than seven decades under authoritarian rule — to similar tests in Afghanistan. They see the United States fighting alongside a partner it needs but does not completely trust.

(…)

When violence spiked last year around Mexico’s industrial capital, Monterrey, Mr. Calderón’s government asked the United States for more access to sophisticated surveillance technology and expertise. After months of negotiations, the United States established an intelligence post on a northern Mexican military base, moving Washington beyond its traditional role of sharing information to being more directly involved in gathering it.

American officials declined to provide details about the work being done by the American team of fewer than two dozen Drug Enforcement Administration agents, C.I.A. officials and retired military personnel members from the Pentagon’s Northern Command. For security reasons, they asked The New York Times not to disclose the location of the compound.

But the officials said the compound had been modeled after “fusion intelligence centers” that the United States operates in Iraq and Afghanistan to monitor insurgent groups, and that the United States would strictly play a supporting role.”

So, in more and more countries, the nasty mechanisms of the neoliberal state – reduced to its repressive functions on behalf of financial interests – are being exposed, should we really be surprised that the world is catching fire? (Well, except the US for reasons already discussed) It still remains to be seen whether the much-vaunted civil society is up to the challenge.

Posted in Corporatism, Economy, Global Governance, Globalization, Politics, Power, Public Policy, Risk Society, Social Theory, Sociology, Structural Violence | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – Danger Zones

July 30, 2011 by and tagged , ,

(Via)

The country-by-country review points to systemic failure.

Also:

“The IMF believes there are three conditions for a mega recession: it should affect the core of the global economy, have its genesis in the financial sector and should involve a large number of countries. A budgetary crisis in the US would, according to analysts, fulfil all those criteria, rippling out to the rest of the world and producing a wave of fresh losses for banks. Although the IMF believes the global economy will grow this year, it thinks the risks are skewed to the downside and that potential problems lurk in every continent.”

And of course, the social consequences would be devastating and point to global chaos.

Posted in Economy, Global Governance, Globalization | No Comments »

Book Review – Fugitive Denim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emphasis mine.

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

Fabric design is itself quite a process:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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