In case you wondered to whom I was referring in the video on the transnational capitalist class, it was, of course, Leslie Sklair who also wrote the book The Transnational Capitalist Class. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the sociological study of the dominant class in the global system. Then, you should read William I. Robinson’s A Theory of Global Capitalism.
“The New Men of Power is not a book about the millions of industrial and service workers who swelled the ranks of organized labor during the turbulent 1930s. It does not purport to tell the story of the upsurge. Rather, it presupposes mass unionism and is concerned chiefly with the consequences of the integration of the labor movement into the political economy during the New Deal and the Truman administration. The New Men of Power resumes the tale at the moment when unions are in the process of institutionalization and when a more or less permanent labor bureaucracy is in formation, which, while still ultimately accountable to the membership, has given rise to a new type of elite. The labor elite tends to see the union as a military force in which the lower ranks, the rank and file, are subordinate to the union leaders and their staffs.
It is not a movement by, as well as for, its members and for working people as a whole. Most major unions, according to Mills, are run from the top by people who are part of a power elite. Thus, to grasp the present and future prospects of organized labor, the object of investigation is, necessarily, the labor leader, not the rank and file.” (104)
This emphasis on the consequences of institutionalization very much reflects Weber’s influence (combined with Marx) on Mills. Except that, for Mills, bureaucratization and institutionalization are not neutral processes of modernization or consequences of it. They are very much processes of power. And since Mills is very much a sociologist of the state, it is not surprising to see institutionalization as part of co-optation by the other branches of the power elite.
“Mills’s characterization of the labor leader as a member of the elite of power and far removed from the everyday lives of the workers he represents is a reflection not only of institutionalization but also of the labor leader’s penchant to hobnob with other members of the elites. The national labor leader tends to spend more time with members of Congress, officials in the executive branch of government, other top union leaders, and corporate counterparts than with the rank-and-file leaders of his own union.” (106)
This seems strikingly accurate still today, and, for Mills, this predicts the downfall of the labor movement (no longer a movement then, once institutionalized and bureaucratized).
“If the CIO ideologists are not careful, the managers of corporate property will select only the reasonable concessions that are offered—that labor will not strike, that labor will help with the wars, that labor will be responsible, but they will reject labor’s pretensions to a voice in production, within the plants and in the planning of the U.S. political economy. (120–121)
The prescience of these remarks is all too apparent to students of current industrial relations: having cleared the “extremists and crackpots” from its ranks, labor rarely strikes, generally supports the wars, and has steadily lost power at the workplace. And demanding a voice in the larger political economy is as far from the minds of twenty-first-century American labor leaders as was the idea, in the immediate postwar period, that labor was a movement whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of capital. It took only a few more years after the publication of his study of labor leaders for Mills to consign organized labor to a “dependent variable” in the political economy”.
Mills’s main argument is that union power is doomed unless labor acquires an explicit ideology and has a series of ideas that are fully consistent with an assessment that, far from being benign, business and the political directorate are hostile, only occasionally tolerant of labor, and poised to wage full-scale class warfare on unions and their mass constituents.” (108 - 109)
“While large sections of the liberal center remained pro-union (at least in the general sense but often turning against union militants when they flexed their collective muscle by taking direct action), the tripartite alliance of labor leaders, capital, and the national political directorate forged elements of what the “mass public” perceived to be a new power elite. However, as Mills makes clear, labor leaders were junior partners, accumulating some concessions from the table of the main actors and playing an important part in stabilizing the political and economic systems, largely by controlling the wanton impulses of the rank and file—but never really sharing power.” (111)
Throughout the book, I have never being amazed at the prescience of Mills’s perspective on the labor movements, unions and their leadership in the context of late capitalism.
“Labor leaders are prone to bemoan the apathy of the rank-and-file membership. Mills points out that their complaint carries little weight when they have committed the unions to supporting the two main political parties, which, in his estimation, offer little to the workers: “Such support only takes away their chance to organize politically and alert men to politics as live issues. The activities of these politics alienate people from politics in the deeper meanings and demoralizes those on the edge of political consciousness” (270). The alienation of many workers from politics and from their own union is not surprising; the picture Mills has painted is of a progressively tighter labor bureaucracy that privileges retention of power over a program of encouraging the rank and file to take over the union, let alone encroach on managerial prerogatives in the workplace.
Without the intellectuals and a new surge of rank-and-file involvement in the union, Mills foresees a grim future. As a slump deepens and mass unemployment eats into the moral fabric of society, large corporate capital and the state are likely to respond by inaugurating a major offensive against workers and their unions. Under present circumstances, workers and unions are poorly equipped to offer effective resistance and are likely to enter into a hopeless tailspin.” (115-117)
For Mills, there should have been a labor party in the US, one that would not depend on established political parties and that would have been truly (although non-communist, Mills had no time for them even though he was virulently anti-McCarthy, he did not disapprove of the purging of ranks of organized labor). To align itself with an established party has been a losing strategy and one can very clearly right now the efforts of the other political party to finish off the labor movements in the US, while the other party stands by and does close to nothing except come election time, expecting the union rank-and-file to fundraise and campaign based on nothing more than “the other guys are worse.”
The state of organized labor today then, is the direct results, a few decades later, of the institutionalization of labor within the state and the structures of capitalism (a joint venture, despite illusions to the contrary). By joining the power elite, albeit in subordinate status, the leaders of the labor movement (the new men of power) basically signed the death warrant of a significant and radical component of the American society that had the potential to challenge the power elite.
LaurentDubois‘s excellent Haiti: The Aftershocks of History is a must-read for anyone interested in the social construction of race and race formation, as well as colonialism and its legacy. The book provides the longue durée context for the current situation of Haiti, especially when the devastating earthquake a few years back, and the current damages inflicted by hurricane Sandy.
If we were to consider Haiti a failed state, then it would be a failed state by design. From reading Dubois’s book, one would be tempted to think that no one ever wanted Haiti to succeed on its own terms ever since the slaves rebelled against their French colonizers.
The book is overall a highly readable and very well-written political history of the country from the end of French colony of Saint-Domingue (as it was called under French rule), dominated by a slavery-based plantation economy (especially sugar canes) to the present although the Duvalier II era to now is a bit short.
Indeed, Dubois describes the 19th century in great details, so, by the time the reader gets to the rise of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, it feels like the book is rushing to the end and one is left with many questions regarding the contemporary period (especially the second ousting of Aristide and beyond).
There is also no doubt that Dubois loves Haiti and roots for its success. As a result, you will find a lot of Amazon reviews decrying the lack of objectivity of the book. That did not bothered me all that much because Dubois is not shy about exposing the structural factors that have resulted in so much political instability in Haiti (the urban / rural divide as well as the dominance of a light-skinned, mulatto elite versus their darker skinned compatriots). Dubois actually presents these lines of division as central to Haiti’s persistent problems. Similarly, one can find at the very beginning of the book another major factor in Haiti’s political instability (Kindle locations):
“Haiti is often described as a “failed state.” In fact, though, Haiti’s state has been quite successful at doing what it was set up to do: preserve power for a small group. The constitutional structures established in the nineteenth century made it very difficult to vote the country’s leaders out of office, leaving insurrection as the only means of effecting political change.” (Loc. 126)
That lock on power and the lack of proper constitutional and institutional mechanisms for political alternatives are at the heart of the multiple rebellions and coups. These are the internal factors. There is no doubt that the French never forgave their former slave colony for rebelling and forcing them out. Indeed, the financial compensation that France demanded (and obtained) from Haiti (in order to reimburse plantation owners for the loss of their property… land and slaves… what is the French word for chutzpah? Quel culot, as we French would say) strangled the country financially so badly that it had to go into debt very quickly. This indebtedness was used, a century later, by the US to invade the country and rule it by force for 20 years. In both case, this was brutal expropriation either of direct monies for France, or exploitation of land and labor for the US.
In both cases, there was a clash of economic models. From the independence on, there has been, in Haiti, a strong rejection of the plantation model, so associated with slavery. So, the rural population has tried to develop alternative modes of agricultural production based on subsistence agriculture (rather than cash crops for export) in small cooperatives. These competing models have been a source of conflicts between the urban / port elites and foreign investors and the rural population. In a way, Haiti was constantly pressure to agree to structural adjustment programs before those even existed, especially from the US. And, big surprise, these neoliberal measures avant la lettre worked no better there than they did anywhere in the late 20th century. They explain the persistent stratification between the cities and the rural areas, forcing a lot of peasants to leave the land and flock to city slums.
“As more and more U.S. agricultural companies entered Haiti, they deprived peasants of their land. The result was that, for the first time in its history, large numbers of Haitians left the country, looking for work in nearby Caribbean islands and beyond. Others moved to the capital of Port-au-Prince, which the United States had made into Haiti’s center of trade at the expense of the regional ports. In the decades that followed, the capital’s growth continued, uncontrolled and ultimately disastrous, while the countryside suffered increasing immiseration.” (Loc. 157)
These unpopular policies were supported by the US, who also (along with France), supported the various authoritarian governments, especially the dreadful Duvalier dictatorship (father and son) in all their atrocities at the same time that the US denied Haitian refugees political asylum.
The end result?
“Ever since popular president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was violently overthrown in 2004, Haiti has been policed largely by foreign troops under U.N. command. Haiti’s proud independence has been eroded, too, by the thousands of foreign organizations that have flocked to the country over the years with projects for improvement and reform. For all their work, though, hunger, poverty, and disease still stalk much of the population. In the cities, the last decades have seen an increase in violent crime, including drug trafficking and kidnapping, while the situation in rural Haiti, where the majority of the population still lives, is increasingly desperate. The soil is severely depleted; generations of intensive agriculture and deforestation have taken their toll. As the population has grown and parcels of land have been divided into smaller and smaller bits, the social and agricultural strategies that worked well for Haitian peasants into the early decades of the twentieth century have become increasingly unsustainable. At the same time, the solutions prescribed by foreign powers and international organizations have largely turned out to be ineffective, or worse.” (Loc. 172)
But the theme that Dubois delineates throughout the book, and the source of his obvious affection for Haitians and hopes for Haiti are as such:
““Haiti disturbs,” sociologist Jean Casimir likes to say. It disturbs, of course, because of its poverty and its suffering. But it also disturbs because, throughout its history, Haiti’s people have repeatedly turned away from social and political institutions designed to achieve profits and economic growth, choosing to maintain their autonomy instead. The Haitian population has been told for two centuries, as it is told today, that it must change, adapt, modernize. No doubt some change is needed; but what has largely been offered to Haiti’s population in the guise of foreign advice is simply a precarious place at the bottom of the global order.
Haitians have consistently refused such offers.” (Loc. 192)
And, of course, White racism has been the source of much violence inflicted upon Haitians, first through the slavery system and later during the US occupation. The first country of free blacks has been depicted by the Western press and seen by Western political classes as a bunch of cannibalistic, voodoo-practicing savages. For instance, Dubois uses the example Marcus Rainsford’s drawings:
The one on the left, much reproduced, portrays the hanging of white officers by Maroons, the one on the right, much omitted, depicts a French officer throwing Haitians overboard to drown them, as if brutality was one-sided.
Similarly, racism was at the root of the constant religious persecution, especially against voodoo, seen as both superstitious paganism as well as somewhat scary.
As I was reading the book, especially regarding the repression of voodoo, and especially the figure of Baron Samedi, I was reminded of the persistence of stereotype and underlying racism that one can find in popular culture. Take a look at these two representations of Baron Samedi:
And remember this guy?
Yup, that’s right. When depicting Doctor Facilier, Disney designers tapped into the stereotypes of Haitian culture and voodoo for their main villain:
So, if you want to explore the roots of all this, then, Dubois’s book is what you want. It is full of rich details about 19th and early 20th century Haiti. As I mentioned before, it rushes a bit to the end, but Dubois seeks to highlight the origins of our views of Haiti, its persistent challenges, poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and natural disaster and its constant harassment by outsiders, from France, to the US, to the UN and a multiplicity of NGOs. It is also a great expose of cultural and structural racism and its consequences, as well as the fight for a non-market driven model of development.
It is somewhat of a given that every book by prolific David Harvey is an important book. He is a sharp analyst of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and has the ability to write very clearly about rather complex matters. His writing is engaging, full of examples that illustrate the concepts he uses in his deconstruction of the logic of 21st century capitalism. At the same time, as my previous posts on the subjects have shown, he is not shy about being critical of the left for its fetishism of the local and organizational forms (currently: the horizontal and non-hierarchical).
My previous posts have focused mainly on chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the book. That is where the heart of the argument is and we’ll see why in a minute.
The heart of the book, of course, is the concept of “right to the city” and the centrality of the city as locus of power in 21st century capitalism, but also as locus for potential anti-capitalist movements:
“The city, the noted urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” If Park is correct, then the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. How best then to exercise that right?
Since, as Park avers, we have hitherto lacked any clear sense of the nature of our task, it is useful first to reflect on how we have been made and remade throughout history by an urban process impelled onwards by powerful social forces. The astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years means, for example, that we have been remade several times over without knowing why or how. Has this dramatic urbanization contributed to human well-being? Has it made us into better people, or left us dangling in a world of anomie and alienation, anger and frustration? Have we become mere monads tossed around in an urban sea? These were the sorts of questions that preoccupied all manner of nineteenth-century commentators, such as Friedrich Engels and Georg Simmel, who offered perceptive critiques of the urban personas then emerging in response to rapid urbanization. These days it is not hard to enumerate all manner of urban discontents and anxieties, as well as excitements, in the midst of even more rapid urban transformations. Yet we somehow seem to lack the stomach for systematic critique. The maelstrom of change overwhelms us even as obvious questions loom. What, for example, are we to make of the immense concentrations of wealth, privilege, and consumerism in almost all the cities of the world in the midst of what even the United Nations depicts as an exploding “planet of slums”?
To claim the right to the city in the sense I mean it here is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way. From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while control over the use of the surplus typically lies in the hands of a few (such as a religious oligarchy, or a warrior poet with imperial ambitions).” (3 – 5)
At the same time, capitalism and urbanity have been associated with crises and social movements throughout the 20th and 21st century (and before), so there are clearly capitalist and anti-capitalist dynamics revolving around the urban context that are separate from strictly class / labor dynamics. And that is what Harvey is interested in: to examine the nature of 21st century capitalism and to find interstices and spaces of contention and conflict through which social movements could emerge and challenge hegemonic arrangements. The global city is the perfect nexus for all of this.
“Fast-forward once again to our current conjuncture. International capitalism was on a roller-coaster of regional crises and crashes (East and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001, and so on) until it experienced a global crash in 2008. What has been the role of urbanization in this history? In the United States it was accepted wisdom until 2008 that the housing market was an important stabilizer of the economy, particularly after the high-tech crash of the late 1990s. The property market absorbed a great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction (of both inner-city and suburban housing and new office spaces), while the rapid inflation of housing asset prices, backed by a profligate wave of mortgage refinancing at historically low rates of interest, boosted the internal US market for consumer goods and services. The global market was stabilized partly through US urban expansion and speculation in property markets, as the US ran huge trade deficits with the rest of the world, borrowing around $2 billion a day to fuel its insatiable consumerism and the debt-financed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the first decade of the twenty-first century.
But the urban process underwent another transformation of scale. In short, it went global. So we cannot focus merely on the US. Property market booms in Britain, Ireland, and Spain, as well as in many other countries, helped power the capitalist dynamic in ways that broadly paralleled that in the US. The urbanization of China over the last twenty years, as we shall see in Chapter 2, has been of a radically different character, with a heavy focus on building infrastructures. Its pace picked up enormously after a brief recession in 1997 or so. More than a hundred cities have passed the 1 million population mark in the last twenty years, and small villages, like Shenzhen, have become huge metropolises of 6 to 10 million people. Industrialization was at first concentrated in the special economic zones, but then rapidly diffused outwards to any municipality willing to absorb the surplus capital from abroad and plough back the earnings into rapid expansion. Vast infrastructural projects, such as dams and highways—again, all debt-financed—are transforming the landscape. Equally vast shopping malls, science parks, airports, container ports, pleasure palaces of all kinds, and all manner of newly minted cultural institutions, along with gated communities and golf courses, dot the Chinese landscape in the midst of overcrowded urban dormitories for the massive labor reserves being mobilized from the impoverished rural regions that supply the migrant labor.
China is only one epicenter for an urbanization process that has now become genuinely global, in part through the astonishing global integration of financial markets that use their flexibility to debt-finance urban projects from Dubai to São Paulo and from Madrid and Mumbai to Hong Kong and London. The Chinese central bank, for example, has been active in the secondary mortgage market in the US, while Goldman Sachs has been involved in the surging property markets in Mumbai and Hong Kong capital has invested in Baltimore. Almost every city in the world has witnessed a building boom for the rich—often of a distressingly similar character—in the midst of a flood of impoverished migrants converging on cities as a rural peasantry is dispossessed through the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture.
These building booms have been evident in Mexico City, Santiago in Chile, in Mumbai, Johannesburg, Seoul, Taipei, Moscow, and all over Europe (Spain’s being most dramatic), as well as in the cities of the core capitalist countries such as London, Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York (where more large-scale urban projects were in motion in 2007 under the billionaire Bloomberg’s administration than ever before). Astonishing, spectacular, and in some respects criminally absurd urbanization projects have emerged in the Middle East in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a way of mopping up the capital surpluses arising from oil wealth in the most conspicuous, socially unjust and environmentally wasteful ways possible (such as an indoor ski slope in a hot desert environment).
But this urbanization boom has depended, as did all the others before it, on the construction of new financial institutions and arrangements to organize the credit required to sustain it. Financial innovations set in train in the 1980s, particularly the securitization and packaging of local mortgages for sale to investors world-wide, and the setting up of new financial institutions to facilitate a secondary mortgage market and to hold collateralized debt obligations, has played a crucial role. The benefits of this were legion: it spread risk and permitted surplus savings pools easier access to surplus housing demand, and also, by virtue of its coordinations, it brought aggregate interest rates down (while generating immense fortunes for the financial intermediaries who worked these wonders).” (11 – 13)
This is the initial state of affairs. In the following chapters, Harvey, then, goes digging for the contradictions in this system in order to carve out spaces of contention for alternative social movements, especially since the dynamics quoted above have created vast inequalities of wealth and power (what with triumphant neoliberalism) that are highly visible in the global cities, with their cosmopolitan and privileged core and their peripheral slums, with their mass consumption levels and therefore, their great dependency on labor for both goods and services and the necessity of absorption of surplus value (so central to capitalism). Where neoliberalism is the most visibly dominant is also where it is most vulnerable. The amount of displacement and dispossession taking place in global city can be matched by counter-dynamics of anti-capitalist movements, IF they can organize around a new definition of what the working class is.
Those were basically the premises laid out in chapter 1. For those of us who had read Harvey’s previous book, The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism, chapter 2 will feel very familiar as it summarizes the current crisis. The core of Harvey’s argument really takes off in chapter 3, all through chapter 5 (so, you can refer to my blog posts listed at the beginning of this post). Chapters 6 and 7 read like columns that were published when things started heating up in Spring 2011, and especially during the London riots in Summer 2011 (I blogged about it at the time). They are very short, much less analytical and in-depth than the preceding chapters. This is where Harvey introduced the concept of feral capitalism:
“The problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all it’s worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shopkeepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.
A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery—particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected—has become the order of the day.
Every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way—more blatantly and visibly, in the streets. They mimic on the streets of London what corporate capital is doing to planet earth.” (155 – 6)
Chapter 7, also short and column-ish rather than full-on analysis, address Occupy Wall Street:
“But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront the Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and, by putting human bodies in that place, to convert public space into a political commons—a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and ongoing struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, and now the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked. What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook, that really matter.” (161 – 2)
It is not hard to see why Harvey would be interested in OWS, which is why I was a bit disappointed to not find a full-fledged analysis of the movement in the book. Apart from this two-page chapter, there is nothing on OWS, at least not explicitly. Of course, one can easily read between the lines of his analysis in chapters 3, 4 and 5 and see what applies to OWS (the organizational fetishism, for instance), which makes this absence all the more remarkable.
Nevertheless, Harvey offers a few recommendations for the OWS movement:
“To succeed, the movement has to reach out to the 99 percent. This it can do and is doing, step by step. First there are all those being plunged into immiseration by unemployment, and all those who have been or are now being dispossessed of their houses and their assets by the Wall Street phalanx. The movement must forge broad coalitions between students, immigrants, the underemployed, and all those threatened by the totally unnecessary and draconian austerity politics being inflicted upon the nation and the world at the behest of the Party of Wall Street. It must focus on the astonishing levels of exploitation in workplaces—from the immigrant domestic workers who the rich so ruthlessly exploit in their homes to the restaurant workers who slave for almost nothing in the kitchens of the establishments in which the rich so grandly eat. It must bring together the creative workers and artists whose talents are so often turned into commercial products under the control of big-money power.
The movement must above all reach out to all the alienated, the dissatisfied, and the discontented—all those who recognize and feel in their gut that there is something profoundly wrong, that the system the Party of Wall Street has devised is not only barbaric, unethical, and morally wrong, but also broken.
All this has to be democratically assembled into a coherent opposition, which must also freely contemplate the future outlines of an alternative city, an alternative political system, and, ultimately, an alternative way of organizing production, distribution, and consumption for the benefit of the people. Otherwise, a future for the young that points to spiraling private indebtedness and deepening public austerity, all for the benefit of the 1 percent, is no future at all.
In the face of the organized power of the Party of Wall Street to divide and rule, the movement that is emerging must also take as one of its founding principles that it will be neither divided nor diverted until the Party of Wall Street is brought either to its senses—to see that the common good must prevail over narrow venal interests—or to its knees. Corporate privileges that confer the rights of individuals without the responsibilities of true citizens must be rolled back. Public goods such as education and health care must be publicly provided and made freely available. The monopoly powers in the media must be broken. The buying of elections must be ruled unconstitutional. The privatization of knowledge and culture must be prohibited. The freedom to exploit and dispossess others must be severely curbed, and ultimately outlawed.” (162 – 3)
As I mentioned above, any book by David Harvey is an important book and I would consider him one of the most important “translators” of Marxian thought (I don’t really like the term “vulgarizer”). He does provide a deep yet clear analysis of both the workings of 21st century capitalism, locates them in the longue durée, sniffs out the contradictions and exposes them for all to see, hopefully (for him) leading up to social movements rushing through these interstices opened by these contradictions.
This book should be mandatory reading for activists and anyone interested / involved with the anti-capitalist movements around the world.
In the end, whatever the future of capitalism, it will be an urban future, so, any movement that hopes to contest the hegemony had better have some urban planning of its own ready. This book offers a good starting point.
I should end by noting that Harvey, as he recommends a redefinition of the working class beyond the factory workers, offers The Salt of the Earth as example of the kind of broad mobilization that is needed. In the case of the film, it is rural communities. Harvey thinks the same should be done for urban communities:
Thank Manuel Castells for that one (adapted from Entman, 2004:10):
So what does this mean, exactly? This diagram was used to illustrate the way influence is exercised in society, what Castells calls a hierarchy of influence because not all players have the same ability to set the agenda, prime the public, frame issues and index them. Actually, these four processes (agenda-setting, priming, framing, and indexing) are the main mechanisms through which influence is exercised.
In the diagram, Castells was using the example of the shaping of opinion in the running up to the war in Iraq where the public opinion was fed a daily dose of untruths cascading downwards from the administration. Many people continue to this day to believe some of these lies even though they have been since thoroughly debunked. The full arrows mark the cascading hierarchy, with the administration setting the agenda. Other elites (such as other foreign governments or the UN and other such international fora) contribute to priming the agenda (something also done by the media). Priming refers to the process of creating determined associations in people’s minds between element of the agenda the administration wants to push and certain benchmarks or standards through which events or actions by leaders will be evaluated. Like priming a pump, the public has to be primed to think in certain ways about certain issues. Associated with this is the more familiar process of framing, that is, of selecting and highlighting elements of events, connecting them into a coherent narrative that supports the set agenda. And finally, the process of indexing that is, how actors in the media rank the importance of issues based on governments statements.
The dotted arrows mark the potential for resistance against this hierarchy of influence. For instance, the public can resist the framing done by the media by either selecting other media (such as watching the BBC or Al-Jazeera in English coverage of specific events like the assassination of Osama bin Laden or the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya) or “talk back” to the media through social networking platforms such as Twitter. Other elites can also resist the agenda-setting of the administration (as a few governments did before Operation Iraqi Freedom… remember the Freedom Fries).
Nevertheless, as Castells argues, frame dominance (usually by whichever entity is at the top of the cascade) is the norm and frame parity (the successful challenge of a dominant frame by less powerful groups) is the exception.
As Castells puts it:
“Activation at each level of the cascade depends on how much information is communicated in a particular set of framings. What passes from one level to another is based on selective understanding. Motivations play a key role in effectiveness of framing at each level of the cascade. Participants in the process of communication are cognitive misers who will select information on the basis of the habits. (…) Elites select the frames that advance their political careers. Media professionals select the news that can be most appealing to audiences without risking retaliation from powerful players. People tend to avoid emotional dissonance, thus they look for media that support their views. For instance, when people try to escape the cascading process in one media system because of their disagreement with the frames, they search for online news from foreign sources. (…) The global network of news media offers the public an alternative when framing in one particular media context fails to win acceptance or subdue resistance. Indeed, media framing is not an irresistible determination of people’s perceptions and behavior.” (Communication Power, 164 – 5)
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).
“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).
I have blogged pretty extensively on what I have called the New Sociopathy (see here) referring to the lack of empathy from the wealthy (and wealthier) towards the less fortunate. That theme has been since more discussed as a study came out pretty much validating the idea that wealth makes one less compassionate and less able to empathize.
“In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.
As voters consider which presidential candidate to support in November, one thing is for sure: Whoever wins is going to have money and power to spare. In a world where our politicians are inevitably better off than most of the people they govern, the new research sheds fresh light on the nature of our elected leaders—and offers insight into why they so often seem oblivious to our problems.”
The studies themselves are interesting,
“Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, started working on the issue of “feeling rich” in 2006 along with coauthors Nicole Mead and Miranda Goode. In their research, subjects were given subliminal suggestions to think about money—a clue in a descrambling puzzle, a dollar-bill screensaver on a computer screen, a sheaf of Monopoly bills on a table—before being asked to make a number of decisions: How soon do you ask for help on an impossible drawing task? Do you help the clumsy lab assistant who just dropped all her pencils? Do you donate to a made-up charity? Do you choose to work in a team or alone?
The mere hint of money, the researchers found, made people less likely to ask for help, less helpful in gathering the lab assistant’s pencils, significantly less generous to the made-up charity, and far less likely to look for teammates. “When people are reminded of money, they get better at pursing their personal goals,” Vohs said. “On the negative side, they become poor at interpersonal functioning. They’re not all that nice to be around. They’re not openly mean or disagreeable, but they can be insensitive.”
Insensitivity can cover a range of sins, from the minor (being unhelpful) to the more serious—say, treating others like they are less than human. Further studies by Vohs and her colleagues have shown that prompting people to think about money—a technique known as “priming”—makes them less likeable and friendly, and more likely to agree with statements that support an unjust, social-Darwinist status quo (for example, “Some groups of people are simply inferior to others”). In a particularly disturbing part of one study, the team primed people with money, then gauged their empathy by eliciting reactions to a theoretical scenario involving a belligerent homeless person. The researchers offered the subjects a chance to agree with statements that dehumanized others (“Some people deserve to be treated like animals”). The money-primed group was more likely to agree.”
So, just thinking about money makes people less empathetic. On the flip side, there are significant empathy differentials by income levels:
“In 2009, Michael Kraus, Paul Piff, and Dacher Keltner, all then of Berkeley (Kraus is now at University of California, San Francisco), published research that divided up sample groups by family income as well as self-reported socioeconomic status. People of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to explain success or failure as a result of individual merit or fault; lower-class people, on the other hand, felt less control in their own lives and were more likely to blame events on circumstance. In other words, higher-status people were more likely to feel that they’d earned their high place in society, and that poorer people hadn’t.
More recently, similar research—involving not just surveys, but heart-rate measurements —has found that higher-status people tend to be less compassionate toward others in a bad situation than people of lower-class backgrounds.
The result of these differences, say researchers who work on money and social class, is that people who are confident in their status have a completely different worldview from those who lack that confidence: more self-involved, self-justifying, and even, as the dehumanization study suggests, crueler. And the higher up the spectrum you get, the stronger the effect: “It’s on a continuum,” Kraus said. In other words, a subject whose family income is over $75,000 will show more compassion and generosity than a subject with a family income over $150,000, and less than a subject with an income of $30,000.
You might think that electing poor or low-status people to positions of power could help solve the problem, but it turns out not to be so easy: Power itself can trigger similar changes.”
“Cast your mind back to the euro crisis talks last year, when the future ofGreece was being decided. How much Athens should pay its bailiffs in the banks, on what terms, and the hardship that ordinary Greeks would have to endure as a result.
There were times when the whole of 2011 seemed to be one long European summit, when you heard more about Papandreou and Merkozy than was strictly necessary. Yet you probably didn’t catch many references to Charles Dallara and Josef Ackermann.
They’re two of the most senior bankers in the world – among the top 1% of the 1%. Dallara served in the Treasury under Ronald Reagan, before moving on to Wall Street, while Ackermann is chief executive of Deutsche Bank. But their role in the euro negotiations, and so in deciding Greece’s future, was as representatives of the International Institute for Finance.
The IIF is a lobby group for 450 of the biggest banks in the world, with members including Barclays, RBS and Lloyds. Dallara and Ackermann and their colleagues were present throughout those euro summits, and enjoyed rare and astounding access to European heads of state and other policy-makers. EU and IMF officials consulted the bankers on how much Greece should pay, Europe’s commissioner for economic affairs Olli Rehn shared conference calls with them.
You can piece all this together by poring over media reports of the euro summits, although be warned: you’ll need a very high tolerance threshold for European TV, and financial newswires. But Dallara and co are also quite happy to toot their own trumpets. After a deal was struck last July, the IIF put out a note bragging about its “catalytic” role and claiming its offer “forms an integral part of a comprehensive package”.
By now you’ll have guessed the punchline: that July agreement was terrible for the Greeks, and brilliant for the bankers. It was widely panned at the time, for slicing only 21% off the value of Greece’s loans, when Angela Merkel and many others agreed that financiers ought to be taking a much bigger hit. As the German government’s economic adviser, Wolfgang Franz, later remarked in an interview: “If you look at the 21% and our demand for a 50% participation of private creditors, the financial sector has been very successful.” Another way of putting it would be to say that the bankers overpowered even the strongest state in Europe.”
So, the financial element of the Transnational Capitalist Class flexed its muscles against the political component, and won. Meanwhile, the peasants didn’t think it was such a great idea but who cares:
“None of these voters, none of these opinions got even a fraction of the consideration, let alone the face time, that was extended to Dallara and Ackermann. At Corporate Europe Observatory in Brussels, Yiorgos Vassalos has been tracking the negotiations over Greece: by his reckoning only the IIF got to have such personal, close-up access. These were summits settling how much misery would be imposed on the Greek people – and no trade unions or civil society groups got a say in them. “The only key players in those meetings were European governments and the bankers,” says Vassalos.
So the bankers whose excesses helped land Europe in this mess then get to sit round the big EU table, like any other government, and decide who should pay for it. And the answer, unsurprisingly, is: not them. The bigger question is: why finance has been granted such power? In a forthcoming paper entitled Deep Stall, the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change gives one compelling reason: because so many countries across Europe are, through both their public and private sectors, so dependent on financiers in other countries for credit. That includes Britain, which relies on 10 eurozone countries for loans worth over 70% of its annual national income – a higher proportion even than Italy. The tale of the IIF and how it got such a powerful say on the fate of ordinary Greeks is really a chapter in a much bigger story of how governments across the western world got swallowed up by their finance industries.”
The effects of this plutocratic and sociopathic governance based not just on economic but also on social capital are unsurprising and constitute the most obvious form of structural violence:
“Europe’s long-running euro crisis may be cooling. But the economic distress it has left in its wake is pushing a rising tide of workers into precarious straits in France and across the European Union. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are living in campgrounds, vehicles and cheap hotel rooms. Millions more are sharing space with relatives, unable to afford the basic costs of living.
These people are the extreme edge of Europe’s working poor: a growing slice of the population that is slipping through Europe’s long-vaunted social safety net. Many, particularly the young, are trapped in low-paying or temporary jobs that are replacing permanent ones destroyed in Europe’s economic downturn.
Now, economists, European officials and social watchdog groups are warning that the situation is set to worsen. As European governments respond to the crisis by pushing for deep spending cuts to close budget gaps and greater flexibility in their work forces, “the population of working poor will explode,” said Jean-Paul Fitoussi, an economics professor at L’Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris.
To most Europeans, and especially the French, it seems this should not be happening. With generous minimum wage laws and the world’s strongest welfare systems, Europeans are accustomed to thinking they are more protected from a phenomenon they associate with the United States and other laissez-faire economies.
But the European welfare state, designed to ensure that those without jobs are provided with a basic income, access to health care and subsidized housing, is proving ill-prepared to deal with the steady increase in working people who do not make enough to get by.
The trend is most alarming in hard-hit countries like Greece and Spain, but it is rising even in more prosperous nations like France and Germany.
“France is a rich country,” Mr. Fitoussi said. “But the working poor are living in the same condition as in the 19th century. They can’t pay for heating, they can’t pay for their children’s clothes, they are sometimes living five people in a nine-square-meter apartment — here in France!” he exclaimed, speaking of an apartment of about 100 square feet.“
And France is not the worst-off country in this respect.
However, it would be wrong to blame all this on the 2008 recession. The seeds were planted 30 years ago by the rising neoliberal economic and political class with predictable results, such as concentration of wealth at the very top of the social ladder, mass consumption maintained through high levels of credits and precarization through the progressive lowering of social safety nets and destruction of organized labor:
One of my Twitter followers pointed me to this documentary:
It is quite nice, for a change, to listen to social scientists that are neither psychologists nor economists discuss the current crisis. And I would argue that only sociologists are properly equipped to discuss social movements as the one that have been taking emerging all over the world.
It is indeed interesting to listen to Craig Calhoun, John B. Thompson or Michel Wievorka discuss the crisis and offer some sociological insights on the subject. I was surprised to not see Richard Sennett or Saskia Sassen. After all, they are the sociological power couple on this.
But the real star of this film is Manuel Castells, who perceived before anyone else the importance of the Indignados that sparked massive protests against austerity all over Europe as various institutions imposed the 2.0 version of structural adjustment programs, with the same results as the version 1.0 imposed on developing countries 30 years ago.
Castells is a thinker as important as Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman, with broader sociological insights than strictly economics. He is my sociologist of the semester, whose Information Age trilogy certainly is on a par with most important sociological works, such as Max Weber’s Economy and Society.
This is why I think could have gained from using more of, and singling out, Castells in order to have a tighter focus. The film delineates a lot of threads but leaves a lot of loose ends. There should have been more precise and detailed analysis of the movements themselves rather than what sparked them. The story of the causes has already been told. The analysis of social movements, using the tools of sociology, still needs to be propagated far and wide.
I really liked the film but would consider it a first draft that is promising but needs some improvements.
I am always suspicious of broad generalizations about entire populations or generations. So, I am not entirely sure what to make of this argument by sociologist Sophia Mappa. Something to think about. It is in French, so here is the gist of it in English.
The starting point of her argument is that Angela Merkel’s inflexibility is incomprehensible to ordinary Greeks. The reason is that such inflexibility is rooted in the protestant culture of the 16th century, something well-known thanks to Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This moral culture is one of individual obedience to divine law, disregarded due to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a culture of glorification of labor as a means of salvation which led to human dominion over nature (and other humans) in order to generate wealth and where frugality and puritanism are the norms of individual moral conduct. According to Weber, this is what led to the rise of capitalism. For Mappa, this is what explains its persistence in Germany, even as this system is being questioned all over Europe, as part of both the economic crisis and the legitimation crisis. From this perspective, the laborious and strong Germans’s views of the weakening of their European neighbors stems from these protestant roots.
Mappa argues that German culture is both close and very different from European Latin cultures. It has produced grandiosity and misery at the same time, including a certain intolerance to other cultures and a desire to dominate them and force them to accept the German model. Merkel’s policies reflect such an attitude. Her position seems to push for the punishment of the heretic rather getting out of the crisis.
At the same time, Greek history has different roots, linked to the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. After all, according to Mappa, Greece did not directly contribute to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Westphalian order or capitalism (except as historical remembrance but not as active power player, if I may use that expression). The Greek state, set up in the 19th Century, was not a product of its people’s will. As with all colonized countries, the state apparatus, the constitutions, the kings, the polity and their financing, were provided, right off the bat, by the European chanceries.
The spirit of these institutions never took hold in Greek society. There was no adaptation or emergence of alternatives in order to get closer to Europe. The Greek society then invested these foreign institutions with its own culture, and especially with the centrality of the Church. And so, if it accepted Europe-approved kings, it opposed the emergence of central governance mechanisms, typical of the modern nation-state.
For Mappa, Greek political power is rooted, even to this say, in the imaginary of the Ottoman Empire, that of the beys and other clan chiefs, reigning over their clients and kinship networks, trading material welfare for political allegiance. The now-famous refusal to pay taxes, so widespread in this society, stems this imperial past where taxation was domination, and not construction of a central authority, for the common welfare (at least in theory) beyond particularisms. For the past two centuries, this state has been regulated from the outside: the European chanceries, the US after WWII, and since 1981, the European Commission.
For the past two centuries, then, those in charge of the state have submitted to the diktats from the outside, while adapting them to their own benefit and those of their clients and cronies. That is what the lat Prime Minister - Georges Papandréou – did, and that is what his successor, Loukas Papadimos, will do despite his much vaunted technocratic credentials.
Economically speaking, according to Mappa, there was never any collective acceptance of the spirit of capitalism. Economic activity remained tied to Greek history and traditional trade: agriculture, commerce, fishery, banking and tourism, but not industry. It is not that the Greeks are lazy, as Merkel and other might think. But, despite the common – yet false – idea that capitalism is part of human nature and therefore universal, the Greeks, as many others on this planet, do not get its spirit and mechanisms. And Greece’s entrance into the European Union has not changed that.
And quite predictably, European financial flows, allocated by the European Economic Community were used not for production, for clientelism and and consumption of European-made goods, including weaponry from France and Germany. And under neoliberal governance, the liberalization of the markets and competition from Western goods, the traditional gap between production and consumption led to the current disaster. For Mappa, without a doubt, there is a great deal of responsibility from the Greek society and especially its elite.
BUT… (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you)
European leaders are also to blame for their simplistic economic dogma and the illusion of their omnipotence in governing other countries. They are currently ruining their own societies and preventing EU peripheral countries from recovering from the crisis.
At this point, an EU commissioner would bring nothing to Greece. Quite the opposite. This would only be seen as yet another humiliation that would aggravate the despair and rebellion that are already quite widespread.
So, certain ideas need to be questioned: austerity measures, Merkel’s illusion that one can just shape societies at the snap of a finger, with some stern disciplining from the hegemon. It is not just the destruction of Greece that is at stake, but that of the entire European Union.
And if that was not convincing enough, there is this:
“Homelessness has soared by an estimated 25% since 2009 as Greece spirals further into its worst post-war economic crisis.
The country is now in its fifth straight year of recession and the official unemployment rate is nudging 20%, exacerbated by the austerity measures being pushed through in return for more bail-out money.
Greeks now speak of another section of society: the “new homeless”.
“They don’t have the ‘traditional profile’ of homeless people,” says Ms Nousi.
“They are well dressed and well educated. Until last year they had a good flat or a nice car – and now they have nothing.
“So it’s another kind of misery – another kind of poverty. We were not prepared for this poverty, but it exists.”
One of the new regulars at the kitchen is Vicky Kolozi.
A former journalist with the state broadcaster ERT, she lost her job a year ago and now cannot afford to feed herself and her daughter.
“It is hard to feel that I have to depend on this now,” she tells me.
And that reality is particularly harsh at the moment as Greece shivers in freezing temperatures.”
“With around one in three young Italians now unemployed, many of its younger generation are contemplating emigrating to destinations as far afield as Africa and South America, in the hope of better employment prospects.”
One of the things that we dutifully teach sociology undergraduate students is the functionalist idea that social institutions fulfill functions for society as a whole but this is (1) profoundly annoying, and (2) wrong. This gives a sense of monolithic arrangement that is “just the way it is”. In reality, institutional arrangements are structured as product of history and power relations. As a result, institutional change is notoriously difficult not because “it throws the system out of equilibrium” (good grief, why do we even still teach functionalism?), but because (1) historically produced institutional arrangements have a “natural”, “traditional” feel, (2) no one gives up power easily, and (3) these arrangements are sustained by ideologies promoted by other institutions (such as the media or the educational system).
And that is especially the case for the family, as social institution, where all this ideological baggage has so pervaded the collective representations that teaching a class on marriage and family is practically like doing deprogramming. Students show up in your class convinced that (1) the family is the institutional and moral pillar of society, (2) there a “traditional” family structure, and it is the heterosexual breadwinner / homemaker + children model, (3) this model has its roots (depending on the type of students) in religion or biology (thank you, functionalists, for the instrumental / expressive distinction that so fit this model, as if it were not socially constructed), and that therefore, (4) any change is a cause of moral decline and social instability, caused by deviant actors and practices. Seriously, how many books on the subject that Stephanie Coontz need to write for this to sink in?
At the same time, the family, as social institution, is treated as if it were socially and politically neutral, which it is not. Family structures and relations are shot through with power dynamics, from patriarchy to heteronormativity. But in the context of social change, especially in the economic sphere, and increased inequalities, the persistent insistence on defending or protecting the social centrality of family (i.e. the conservative ideal of the family) through surrounding institutions is socially detrimental.
“This example of transgender parenthood very vividly teases out how our ideas about law, gender and parenthood are not as straightforward as we might intuitively believe. While the law in its current form may ‘make sense’ for the vast majority of people, it does not really grapple with the fundamental question of what makes someone a parent and why. Is it a person’s intent to become a parent? Is it their bio-genetic relationship with the child? Is it an inevitable mixture of a number of factors? Is being a ‘mother’ different from being a ‘father’, or indeed a ‘parent’? Who should decide? The current law sends mixed messages on a number of these questions. However, what does seem clear is that in the context of assisted reproduction our legislators have very deliberately sought to reserve the right of law to prescribe who is entitled to parental status. This may be justified in the interests of legal certainty, but only if the legal framework is deemed fair and fit for purpose.
The transgender parenthood example highlights a number of existing problems and it is not difficult to imagine further situations where the framework will prove inadequate. For example, the emphatic grounding of motherhood in gestation and the prohibition of legal motherhood or indeed female parenthood on the basis of the genetic link means that a woman who ‘donates’ her eggs to another woman who has agreed to act as a surrogate, has no direct claim to parental status on the basis of her genetic link. Instead, she must apply for a parental order for legal parenthood to be transferred. While this provides some protection for a surrogate mother who changes her mind about relinquishing parenthood once the child is born, it also arguably leaves an agreeable surrogate in a difficult legal situation if the commissioning parent(s) change their mind. Moreover, it puts the genetic mother in a fairly precarious legal situation. Only couples can apply for a parental order, so if the genetic mother and her partner were to separate (or her partner to die) before the birth of the child or the award of the parental order, she would have to adopt her own genetic child. Social and adoption services may well be sympathetic to such an adoption application, but the outcome is difficult to predict, especially if the surrogate (and legal) mother raises objections to the child being adopted by a single person rather than a couple. While single persons have been allowed to adopt a child in the UK since the 1970s, being single is not a protected status in equality and anti-discrimination law. Any ‘right’ of the genetic mother to adopt the child in question, therefore, cannot be guaranteed.
While this example of surrogacy, like transgender parenthood, may seem to relate to only a small proportion of births in the UK, it too raises fundamental questions about law, gender and parenthood.”
This is in the UK but has larger implications regarding how deeply embedded our ideas about gender, family and parenthood are power arrangements so that it is extremely hard to find a proper legal or conceptual framework once we crack that institutional nut. And this is not just a matter of time passing and technology changing things but of social redefinition that would happen even in the absence of technological change.
French sociologist of the family Irène Théry, in this interview for Télérama, lays out the concept of “pluriparentalités” (I don’t need to translate that one, you get the idea). For her, the family is not in crisis (I think that is part of the ideological work that is done to keep the institution intact) but, as always, in mutation. In the context of individualization and deinstitutionalization, studies show that people still value the idea of primary group with specific intimacy. The main difference is the greater acceptance of sexual equality (not perfect but still) which has become a central part of democratic societies. The conjugal hierarchy has lost a lot of legitimacy (hence the shrillness of its supporters). But since its supporters can only conceive of their value system, anchored in patriarchal arrangements, any change, by definition, implies a loss of values. What one sees, rather, is a value shift.
Legally, in France, the couple is now equal. Parental authority has replaced paternalistic power. The principle of co-parenting is more accepted in divorce cases. And a central phenomenon, for the sociologist, is that of demarriage, that is, marriage is losing its status as the indispensable horizon of intimate relationship for many men and women, it is no longer the framework for sexual morality. It used to be that legally, family was based on marriage. To not get married meant social marginality and stigma, especially for women. That is no longer the case. Marriage is no longer the basis for family. To marry or not marry, to demarry or not have become matters of individual decisions.
Even coupling is now a multi-faceted phenomenon: simply living together, under civil partnerships, same-sex, opposite sex. This diversity is based on the idea that couple constitutes a valuable relationship in and of itself, outside of the parent-children relationship, more outside of the patriarchal frame.
But things have also changed dramatically in the linearity department. It was not such a long time ago that a social and legal abyss separated legitimate children from illegitimate ones. This distinction has largely been erased. Socially, the distinction is between coupling challenges, which are seen as contractual and should be relatively easy to dissolve as opposed to linear ties that are supposed to be permanent and indissoluble.
Most of these changes are irreversible. There is no return to the patriarchal family norms as their weakening is tied to increased democratization. We are living under a different familial regime. Now, there is a need for clearer conceptual and legal frameworks to deal with these changes (such as co-parenting after separation or divorce). New structures create new problems, of course, such as the over-investment of parents towards their children such that many parents reformat their relationship with children as a friendship form, outside of authority. And as noted in the case above, parenting itself is no longer the straightforward structure it used to be. What is certain is that we can no longer base our laws and institutions on a parental structure that was never traditional in the first place, and no longer reflect contemporary realities.
At the same time, families still exist in a system of stratification and economic crises. Divorce and separation exist in all social classes but the price to pay is not the same. A divorce is a major cause of impoverishment. In Western countries, a disproportion of the poor are single / divorced / separated mothers. And in times where equality has been so much part of social movements (between sexes, races, children, homo / heterosexuals), one has tended to forget the increasing economic inequalities. The educational, cultural and material gap between families is widening and tackling it is a matter of public policy, not a private trouble to be solved individually. Public policy, according to the sociologist, should compensate for these inequalities.
as this analysis by sociologist Bernard Lahire, reported by the Observatoire des Inégalités shows, families are a major vector in the persistence and increase in inequalities. This is something that I discussed yesterday on the topic of cultural capital. It is through family lines that inequalities are transmitted on the cultural and symbolic register. This is the immaterial inheritance we all get, and it is as powerful as the material form.
In other words, time for throw out the obsolete institutional model and its ideological underpinnings, and open up the black box of the social structure and institution for some badly needed airing.
So, of course, everyone and their brothers is talking about this article by Joe Nocera:
“On Friday, the law firm of Steven J. Baum threw a Halloween party. The firm, which is located near Buffalo, is what is commonly referred to as a “foreclosure mill” firm, meaning it represents banks and mortgage servicers as they attempt to foreclose on homeowners and evict them from their homes. Steven J. Baum is, in fact, the largest such firm in New York; it represents virtually all the giant mortgage lenders, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
The party is the firm’s big annual bash. Employees wear Halloween costumes to the office, where they party until around noon, and then return to work, still in costume. I can’t tell you how people dressed for this year’s party, but I can tell you about last year’s.
That’s because a former employee of Steven J. Baum recently sent me snapshots of last year’s party. In an e-mail, she said that she wanted me to see them because they showed an appalling lack of compassion toward the homeowners — invariably poor and down on their luck — that the Baum firm had brought foreclosure proceedings against.
When we spoke later, she added that the snapshots are an accurate representation of the firm’s mind-set. “There is this really cavalier attitude,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that people are going to lose their homes.” Nor does the firm try to help people get mortgage modifications; the pressure, always, is to foreclose.”
Is anyone really surprised by this? If anything, what the current economic crisis have made plainly clear is the sociopathic nature of the system that trickled down to individual behavior. I blogged about this several times here, here and here.
And there were clues to this sociopathy even before the collapse of 2008. Remember this?
This was a taste of things to come. The behavior of the traders, and their socially-acceptable sociopathy is something that I also discussed a while back here, here, and here, using as a basis this excellent post by Denis Colombi. Which is why it is somewhat ironic that the truth about neoliberal governance comes from a trader:
And, again, these photos (in response to Occupy Wall Street) have also made the rounds and are pointing in the same direction:
It is not hard to grasp the symbolic nature of these images, where the Cloud Minders are having a good laugh, drinking on the job, while looking down at the Troglytes.
Of course, what they are laughing is not so much a bunch of hippies on the ground. They are laughing at this:
“Greeks are seeing an unprecedented collapse in their standard of living. The official unemployment rate is 16.5 per cent, but the real number out of a job is believed to be much higher. Sitting in Father Christodoulos’s office is ‘Makis’ Prothremos Kastikidis, an unemployed shipyard worker who now helps organise the distribution of food by the church. Some 4,000 people lost their jobs when his yard closed three years ago and he says 90 per cent are still jobless. His own situation is becoming desperate. The electricity, water and gas in his apartment have been cut off for non-payment of bills, and, since he has no money, he has reconnected them illegally. “I still can’t pay the mortgage,” he says. “The future is very dark.”
For some in Athens the darkness is already closing in. Beside a park in the centre of Athens, Mary Pini, a journalist by profession, comes six days a week to organise the feeding of a thousand people. The distribution of food, managed and organised by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Athens, the Anglican Church and the Nigerian community, started off at Easter 2009 as a temporary measure to feed out of work immigrants. Ms Pini says that at first she fed immigrants, homeless and drug addicts “but now 35 per cent of the people who come here are Greeks, and they are just the sort of people who might be your next door neighbour.”
There is no doubt that the people she is feeding are hungry. As they crowd around her snatching at loaves of bread she is taking out of cardboard box, Ms Pini shouts at them to get back in line. Others who have already received their ration sit in a nearby park and wolf down food from tin foil containers. “I think things will get a lot worse,” she says. “They’ve taxed Greeks too much and they can’t survive on the money they get.” Even before the crisis Greece was one of the poorest and most unequal of the Eurozone countries and safety nets for the poor are limited Ms Pini complains that “help, which the government should have provided, has been left to the NGOs and the church.”
Sitting close by was a woman who gives her name as Elena and spoke fluent English with a strong American accent. She said “I was brought up in New York and in Belgium and my father, who was Greek, later admitted it was the worst mistake in his life when he brought me back here as a young girl.” She has lived for the last 25 years in Greece and, until 2009, though she speaks French as well as Greek and English, had a job in a cake factory, but was laid off. She worked for a company giving out leaflets in the street advertising shops, but her employers kept on not paying her. She says “it is very difficult to get a job here and Greece is worst place in Europe to be unemployed.” Mary, her sick husband and their seven year daughter come to the feeding point to be sure of at least one meal a day. “They let my daughter sit in their office so she doesn’t see all the people grabbing for food,” she says. “People like us never saw any of the money the government borrowed.”
Greeks of every kind agree that the economic depression is getting worse and the government is incapable of providing solutions. George Tzogopoulos, an expert on the Greek media and public opinion at the Bodossakis Foundation think tank in Athens, says the message from the public is that “the politicians who led Greece into the crisis cannot save the country.”
He believes one of the problems is that the Greek media portrays the crisis as the fault of foreigners intent on dominating the country. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a favourite target. Conspiracy theories abound, explaining why Greece has been singled out for punishment. “If you look at the Greek media you would not think we were not responsible in any way for what happened,” he says. “It never portrays the crisis as an opportunity for Greece to change.”
Austerity measures insisted upon by the Troika – the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and IMF – have been introduced, but not the structural reforms that are part of the same package. Greece is still a long way from cutting the size of its Byzantine state machine and forcing the wealthiest 20 per cent of Greeks to pay taxes.”
They are also laughing at this (which entrenches their power):
“Economists and political scientists believe the US has entered a new Gilded Age, a period of systematic inequality dominated by a new class of super-rich. The only difference is that, this time around, the super-rich are hedge fund managers and financial magnates instead of oil and rail barons.
Even for a country that loves extremes, this is a new and unprecedented development. Indeed, as Hacker and Pierson see it, the United States has developed into a “winner-take-all economy.”
The political scientists analyzed statistics and studies concerning income development and other economic data from the last decades. They conclude that: “A generation ago, the United States was a recognizable, if somewhat more unequal, member of the cluster of affluent democracies known as mixed economies, where fast growth was widely shared. No more. Since around 1980, we have drifted away from that mixed-economy cluster, and traveled a considerable distance toward another: the capitalist oligarchies, like Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, with their much greater concentration of economic bounty.”
This 1 percent of American society now controls more than half of the country’s stocks and securities. And while the middle class is once again grappling with a lost decade that failed to bring increases in income, the high earners in the financial industry have raked in sometimes breathtaking sums. For example, the average income for securities traders has steadily climbed to $360,000 a year.
Still, that’s nothing compared to the trend in executives’ salaries. In 1980, American CEOs earned 42 times more than the average employee. Today, that figure has skyrocketed to more than 300 times. Last year, 25 of the country’s highest-paid CEOs earned more than their companies paid in taxes.
By way of comparison, top executives at the 30 blue-chip companies making up Germany’s DAX stock market index rarely earn over 100 times the salaries of their low-level employees, and that figure is often around 30 or 40 times.
In a medium-term, the consequences of this societal divide threaten the productivity of the entire economy. Granted, American economists in particular have long espoused the view that inequality is simply a necessary side effect of above-average growth. But that position is now being called into question.
In fact, recent research indicates that the economies of countries experiencing periods of pronounced inequality often show considerably less growth and more instability. On the other hand, it also finds that economies grow faster when income is more evenly distributed.
In a study published in September, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also concluded that: “The recent global economic crisis, with its roots in US financial markets, may have resulted, in part at least, from the increase in inequality” in the country.
Differences between rich and poor are tolerated as long as the rags-to-riches story of the dishwasher-turned-millionaire remains theoretically possible. But studies show that increasing inequality and political control concentrated in the hands of the wealthy elite have drastically reduced economic mobility and that the US has long since fallen far behind Europe on this issue. Indeed, only 4 percent of less-well-off Americans ever successfully make the leap into the upper-middle class.”
And such consolidation of wealth has also been accompanied by corporate concentration:
“AS PROTESTS against financial power sweep the world this week, science may have confirmed the protesters’ worst fears. An analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.
The study’s assumptions have attracted some criticism, but complex systems analysts contacted by New Scientist say it is a unique effort to untangle control in the global economy. Pushing the analysis further, they say, could help to identify ways of making global capitalism more stable.
Previous studies have found that a few TNCs own large chunks of the world’s economy, but they included only a limited number of companies and omitted indirect ownerships, so could not say how this affected the global economy – whether it made it more or less stable, for instance.
The Zurich team can. From Orbis 2007, a database listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide, they pulled out all 43,060 TNCs and the share ownerships linking them. Then they constructed a model of which companies controlled others through shareholding networks, coupled with each company’s operating revenues, to map the structure of economic power.
The work, to be published in PLoS One, revealed a core of 1318 companies with interlocking ownerships (see image). Each of the 1318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. What’s more, although they represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues, the 1318 appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms – the “real” economy – representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues.
When the team further untangled the web of ownership, it found much of it tracked back to a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies – all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity – that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth in the network. “In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 per cent of the entire network,” says Glattfelder. Most were financial institutions. The top 20 included Barclays Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The Goldman Sachs Group.“