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Archive for Precarization

Stuck in the Precariat

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

George Monbiot in the Guardian:

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

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

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

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

 

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

Richard Sennett on Public Issues as Personal Problem

July 4, 2012 by and tagged , , , ,

In the Guardian, as part of the “graduate without a future” series:

“But at a personal level, what should a kid do? One answer I’ve explored with my students is emigration. There are in fact plenty of jobs for British graduates in the Far East and in Latin America, where British degrees are in demand. As always, emigration carries a high personal human cost – loss of connection with family and friends, the risk that life may move on and you may not be able to return. Since I teach a rarified subject – social theory – I put the issue to my own students like this: do you care so much about your work that you would abandon home? Increasingly, many are willing.

A less drastic answer involves dealing with “flexible” labour markets – “flexible” means short-term work with no job security and few prospects for advancement; if the current government has its way and employers are able to fire on a whim, labour will become even more flexible on these terms. One way my students deal with this is to make unstable day jobs tolerable by night work of a more sustained, personally meaningful kind, like writing a book or doing voluntary service. This, however, is a solution only for highly motivated, inner-driven kids, and it requires a thick psychological hide; daytime stress, insecurity and depression can dislodge the night anchor.

Our masters celebrate the entrepreneur, and for a few of my students the startup is an option so long as they do not fear failure. About 60% of small businesses fail in their first year, and 76%-80% in three years, principally for lack of capital. I’ve students of Kant who have set up a co-operative food network, and a Hegel student who has organised a lesbian dating service (what would The Master say?); better, they think, to fail than to regret – but this is no long-term recipe for a whole generation. What galls me about the current situation is that a structural problem of capitalism has been dumped into the lives of young people as their personal problem; even though emigration, the night anchor, and the startup can help some, the system remains intact.”

What he describes here is a trend he himself, along with Zygmunt Bauman, have analyzed for the past 20 years: the idea that system creates contradictions and conundra that have to be solved by individuals with no social assistance. No more salvation by society. Be your own entrepreneur, uproot and leave, or embrace the flexible and thoroughly precarized lifestyle. Of course, one can try any of these (although they do take a bit of social privilege to start with, in terms of economic, social or cultural capital; the underprivileged are already fully precarized with no access to capital to start a business, no means of easy – and legal – emigration). These solutions are the individualized decisions to be made when one lives in the risk society. One is one’s own business project.

To extend on Sennett’s points, I think precarized individualization is what is really going on with the “I’m busy” trend from the privileged corners that has been much discussed after the publication of this article:

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

Being busy and keeping busy, besides being a puritan injunction against shiftlessness, has more to do with continuously working on one’s own self-project (and continuous improvement is a corporate mantra foisted upon a lot of organizations, public and private, as a way of increasing administrative bloat and control as well as shaking the system permanently and generating greater insecurity).

While you’re not busy, someone might be getting a new certificate in the latest social networking platform or ICT. And the more insecure and precarized life is, the busier one must look (without looking tired, hence the increase in plastic surgery for the corporate class, men and women). And as the article mentions, keeping busy is applied to children as well. One has to fill resumes with truckloads of extra-curricular activities, especially now that one might compete with a lot of other students with similar degrees.

And since one must always make a virtue of a necessity, the busyness of Americans is heralded as a mark of superiority over countries with more paid vacations (even less vacation does not translate into greater productivity).

To claim to be busy then is a claim that one is constantly working on oneself as productive project.

Back to Sennett, what solutions does he advocate?

  • Job-sharing
  • Apprenticeships (real ones, not the ever-expanding unpaid internships)… real ones
  • Getting rid of the idea (and practice) that universities should be just vocational centers (a pet peeve of mine):

“Perhaps surprisingly in this regard, I’d like to see universities stop preparing young people for the work world, at least as they now attempt to do. Part of the problem is misplaced specificity: if you have a BA in hotel catering management and there are no jobs for hotel caterers you are, as it were, in the soup. Moreover, universities have expanded massively the numbers of students taking supposedly practical courses, making the problem of scarcity only worse; this year in Britain thousands of students will graduate with MBA’s to then compete for a relatively scant number of jobs. We would do much better to provide young people with intellectual challenge and depth – which is what universities are properly about. The number of jobs would not thereby increase; the integrity of the academic enterprise would.”

A-bloody-men to that.

Of course, this is not the direction of the increasingly corporate-driven higher education where there is a growing “get them in and out quickly with a certificate” trend, thanks to the growing ranks of administrators with no understanding of education.

And this:

“If young people today prove a lost generation, it is only because government, business and academia have failed them. There are remedies to prevent this failure, but Britain has radically to revise its beliefs and labour practices to take this medicine. So far, instead, we’ve made finding one’s place in the work world a personal problem.”

And one that they are expected to solve on their own, in the name of personal responsibility.

Posted in Education, Labor, Precarization, Public Policy, Sociology | No Comments »

21st Century Peasants – Bullied, Criminalized, Pushed Out of the Way, Exploited, and Killed

June 5, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

There is so much more to be done with 21st century peasants than just making them poorer and more precarious. The following is just sample of stories collected over the last few weeks.

Consider it my own, much less smart, version of Gans’s functions of poverty – the functions of the precariat.

1. Gives the upper classes feelings of righteousness and moral outrage that bolster one’s sense of moral superiority:

“We all know that single mothers are immoral scroungers, right? That impression was cemented by last Wednesday’s Newsnight, when Allegra Stratton interviewed young single mother Shanene Thorpe.

Stratton demands to know why Thorpe has chosen to move out of her mother’s two-bedroom flat, since she required housing benefit to do so.

(…)

After the interview, Stratton says directly to camera: “The government is thinking of saying to young people: if you don’t have work, don’t leave home.”

Except, Thorpe is not unemployed. As you may have read by now, she works full time for Tower Hamlets council, but claims housing benefits to help cover the cost of rent. In a series of statements on Twitter (collated byLiberal Conspiracy), Thorpe attempted to tackle the inaccurate portrayal of her situation: “To set the record straight, I work for tower hamlets council, I’ve worked since 16 and I only get help towards my rent because it is so high.”

(…)

It is difficult to see how the BBC – which has yet to comment – will justify the coverage. It breaks basic journalistic tenets of accuracy and fairness, by heavily implying that Thorpe is unemployed when she is not.

More widely, it raises some troubling questions about the way that the media and politicians talk about poverty and benefit claimants. While outrage has, rightly, been focused on the fact that Thorpe was misrepresented since she is not unemployed, that is not the only problem with the interview. It perpetrates lazy assumptions about single mothers: scroungers who should hide themselves away and not ask for anything. On Twitter, Thorpe says that in the full interview, Stratton asked her why she chose to keep her child. Is that ever an acceptable question to ask someone, particularly when the reasoning behind it is so clearly class-based? Stratton is clearly pushing an agenda, and has no interest in the fact that in this case, the issue is the extortionate rents charged by private landlords.”

2. The precariat provides easy targets for predatory lending and other extortionist activities:

“Individually the poor are not too tempting to thieves, for obvious reasons. Mug a banker and you might score a wallet containing a month’s rent. Mug a janitor and you will be lucky to get away with bus fare to flee the crime scene. But as Business Week helpfully pointed out in 2007, the poor in aggregate provide a juicy target for anyone depraved enough to make a business of stealing from them.

The trick is to rob them in ways that are systematic, impersonal, and almost impossible to trace to individual perpetrators. Employers, for example, can simply program their computers to shave a few dollars off each paycheck, or they can require workers to show up 30 minutes or more before the time clock starts ticking.

Lenders, including major credit companies as well as payday lenders, have taken over the traditional role of the street-corner loan shark, charging the poor insanely high rates of interest. When supplemented with late fees (themselves subject to interest), the resulting effective interest rate can be as high as 600% a year, which is perfectly legal in many states.

It’s not just the private sector that’s preying on the poor. Local governments are discovering that they can partially make up for declining tax revenues through fines, fees, and other costs imposed on indigent defendants, often for crimes no more dastardly than driving with a suspended license. And if that seems like an inefficient way to make money, given the high cost of locking people up, a growing number of jurisdictions have taken to charging defendants for their court costs and even the price of occupying a jail cell.

(…)

You might think that policymakers would take a keen interest in the amounts that are stolen, coerced, or extorted from the poor, but there are no official efforts to track such figures. Instead, we have to turn to independent investigators, like Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America, who estimates that wage theft nets employers at least $100 billion a year and possibly twice that. As for the profits extracted by the lending industry, Gary Rivlin, who wrote Broke USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. — How the Working Poor Became Big Business, says the poor pay an effective surcharge of about $30 billion a year for the financial products they consume and more than twice that if you include subprime credit cards, subprime auto loans, and subprime mortgages.

These are not, of course, trivial amounts. They are on the same order of magnitude as major public programs for the poor. The government distributeshttp://www.taxpolicycenter.org/brie… about $55 billion a year, for example, through the largest single cash-transfer program for the poor, theEarned Income Tax Credit; at the same time, employers are siphoning off twice that amount, if not more, through wage theft.”

3. The precariat can be pushed out of the way to reclaim desirable space for wealthier denizens in need of better Lebensraum:

“The world’s largest private yacht looms over the old port of Barcelona – its six-deck, 163m profile offering proof of the love of Russian billionaireRoman Abramovich for a city he will visit again this week as his football team, Chelsea, tries to secure a place in the Champions League final.

But the superyacht, equipped with its own mini-submarine and anti-paparazzi shield, is a symbol of what neighbours in the traditional fishermen’s neighbourhood of La Barceloneta fear will bring about the demise of one of the few city centre barrios to have maintained its traditional working-class character. Old Barcelona is under threat. A British private investment fund has taken control of much of the port area and has asked for an extended licence so that it can turn the Marina Port Vell into the Mediterranean’s prime home for superyachts. Sources close to the group said it wanted the licence to run until 2036.

The Mayfair-based Salamanca Group intends to make the marina home to yachts up to 180 metres long, bringing the planet’s growing club of mega-rich to a marina that it says “dominates the heart of Barcelona”. But Barceloneta residents say the boats will dwarf the neighbourhood’s famously narrow, four- or five-storey blocks of flats, where working-class families live in tiny homes and colourful outdoor washing lines leave the neighbourhood’s laundry on public display.

“I’ve lived here all my life and the barrio has a special identity, precisely because so many working-class people have always lived here,” said 68-year-old pensioner Antonio García, of the L’Ostia neighbourhood group. “But this will price us out, turning the port into a place only for the very rich and changing things for ever.”

Neighbours fear that a huge wall may go up around part of the port to ensure the privacy of a handful of wealthy people, creating a fortress-like billionaires’ ghetto on their doorstep. Protesters have already taken to Barceloneta’s narrow streets, demanding that speculators be kept away from an area renowned for its cheap seafood restaurants and proximity to Barcelona’s colourful urban beach.”

4. The low status of the precariat makes it easier to exploit with impunity and complete illegality:

“The housing charity Shelter says it has seen more evidence of landlords acting unscrupulously and evicting people illegally.

One estate agent said properties typically rented for £350 per week were being marketed for £6,000 per week.

Shelter fears the problem will get worse as the Games approach.

The BBC’s Michael Buchanan says: “The potential profits are leading to some private landlords telling their tenants they have to leave their homes, with little notice.”

(…)

Housing Minister Grant Shapps said: “Landlords should be under no doubt that it is a criminal offence for them to evict a tenant without giving proper notice, and that anyone found guilty of doing this – or of harassing a tenant – could lead to a custodial sentence of up to two years.”"

Right, I expect all this will be diligently prosecuted.

5. The precariat constitutes the bulk of neocolonial labor army, easy to exploit out of sight, in conditions of quasi-slavery:

“Coca-Cola is facing questions about its links to orange harvesting in southern Italy, which campaigners say relies on the cheap labour of African migrants living in squalid conditions.

An investigation into citrus fruit growing in Calabria has revealed how thousands of African workers, many of whom have made the treacherous voyage across the Mediterranean in search of a new life, are earning as little as €25 (£21) for a day’s picking in orange groves in a region that supplies juice concentrates to several multinational companies.

Evidence gathered by The Ecologist shows that many migrants, some of whom are in Italy illegally, live in slum conditions in makeshift camps without power or sanitation and fall prey to gangmasters who in some cases charge a “fee” from their workers’ wages for organising their picking shifts.

Coca-Cola, whose global profits in 2010 stood at $11.8bn (£7.5bn), is one of a number of major buyers of concentrated orange juice in Calabria which it uses for its Fanta brand in Italy. The company said its Calabrian supplier had been given a clean bill of health by an independent auditor as recently as last May but admitted that the length of its supply chain meant it was unable to verify the practices on every farm or consortium whose juice is used in Fanta.”

See also this.

6. The precariat can be made to work at will on anything, as needed, for free:

“A group of long-term unemployed jobseekers were bussed into London to work as unpaid stewards during the diamond jubilee celebrations and told to sleep under London Bridge before working on the river pageant.

Up to 30 jobseekers and another 50 people on apprentice wages were taken to London by coach from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth as part of the government’s Work Programme.

Two jobseekers, who did not want to be identified in case they lost their benefits, said they had to camp under London Bridge the night before the pageant. They told the Guardian they had to change into security gear in public, had no access to toilets for 24 hours, and were taken to a swampy campsite outside London after working a 14-hour shift in the pouring rain on the banks of the Thames on Sunday.”

If they refuse, there is often the threat of benefit loss. Who would not volunteer?

7. And if they get too troublesome, they can be killed without consequences:

“Brazilian police are investigating whether the fatal shooting of three rural activists was linked to their effort to win rights to land also contested by owners of a sugar mill.

The activists were shot on Saturday as they got out of a car near a landless workers’ camp in the south-western Minas Gerais state.

A five-year-old girl, the granddaughter of two of those who were killed, survived the attack. No one has been arrested, a police spokesman said.

Watchdog groups said police were questioning land activists about the possibility the killings could have resulted from an internal conflict within their movement. The groups rejected that idea and accused landowners of paying gunmen to shoot the activists.

Carlos Calazans, head of the Minas Gerais branch of the federal department of land reform, known as Incra, said police were looking into the land dispute as a possible motive.

“It’s definitely one of the theories for the motive behind this barbarous crime,” he said. “I’ve no doubt these activists were summarily executed. But police have to follow all leads until they find the truth.”

Calazans said the killed couple approached Incra last year seeking support in various land conflicts in the region, including the one with the mill owners. He said Incra tried to get the owners and activists to agree on the issue a few weeks ago, but the effort was unsuccessful.

Killings over land in Brazil are common, and people rarely face trial for the crimes.

The watchdog group Catholic Land Pastoral says more than 1,150 rural activists have been murdered in Brazil over the past 20 years. The killings are mostly carried out by gunmen hired by loggers, ranchers and farmers to silence protests over illegal logging and land rights, it says. Most of the killings happen in the Amazon region.”

Meanwhile:

“The study by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) identifies a shift from “owning a luxury to experiencing a luxury” with bespoke treats now accounting for more than half of the $1.4tn spent on luxury goods and services last year.

Luxury sales have boomed in the last two years as the industry recovered from the hiatus caused by 2008 global financial crisis, which provoked a sharp fall in conspicuous consumption.

The sector has also been buoyed by the growing number of millionaire shoppers in markets such as China and Brazil, who are picking up the slack as consumers in traditionally important luxury markets such as western Europe, Japan and the US continue to spend more cautiously.

“The gap in income inequality is growing, which is unfortunate, but there are more and more millionaires every year,” said Jean-Marc Bellaiche, a BCG senior partner who heads the firm’s luxury practice.

Bellaiche said sales of luxury experiences grew 50% faster than demand for physical goods last year. The trend is explained, in part, by demographics – as the consumers who drove the luxury boom in the 1990s start to retire, he said.

“They do not want to own new things, so are the primary customers for experiential luxury offerings,” he said. Their options are not limited to exclusive safaris and spas, they can book themselves in for a five-star hospital stay where they will be waited on by a butler and the en suite facilities include a marble bath.

The attitude to luxury is also apparent among their children who, the report says, now want more than the latest designer fashions. “Members of Generation Y tend to define themselves more by what they’ve done and experienced than by what they own,” said Bellaiche.

“They are drawn to instant pleasure and lavish experiences – helicopter snowboarding in Alaska or a weekend shopping spree in Paris.”

The shift is evident “even in brand-obsessed China” where personal luxury goods serve as a strong badge of status and success, he added.

The business of providing luxury experiences – from art auctions to exclusive travel packages – is now worth $770bn, according to the study. BCG predicts a 7% increase in luxury spending this year, albeit at a slower rate than the industry has enjoyed in the last two years.”

What is interesting is that none of these things actually involve really doing anything (like being pampered in a five-star hotel). Natural spaces will be tamed and customized so that luxury services can be delivered there (as in luxury safari lodges, with complete staff). These “experiences” look more like badges that people accumulate as forms of capital.

The other thing is that the poor are often blamed for their supposed lack of deferred gratification, seen as a defect that keeps them in poverty, as opposed to the middle-class and its Weberian puritan habits.

 

Posted in Labor, Poverty, Precarization, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

The Sociopathic Transnational Capitalist Class

April 2, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

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.

As noted in this article,

“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.”

Now connect the above to this:

“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:

Also, this.

Posted in Economy, Poverty, Power, Precarization, Public Policy, Social Inequalities, Social Psychology, Social Stratification, Structural Violence, Transnational Capitalist Class | No Comments »

Book Review – Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere

March 3, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

[This review is the opening salvo of a blog-to-blog dialogue on the subject of current anti-systemic social movements between this humble blog and the Mighty Corrente building. Corrente has been following the Occupy movement pretty closely, so I expect Lambert will have plenty to say on the subject over there. I also highly recommend David S. Meyer's blog, Politics Outdoors, a solid blog on the sociology of politics and social movements.]

In case  you haven’t noticed, things have indeed been kicking off everywhere in the past year, between the Arab Spring, the Indignados, the British riots and the Occupy movement, to name only some of the most visible social movement of the past year. So, of course, this makes Paul Mason’s book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions highly relevant. Mason claims that the book is journalism, not social science, but he certainly makes use of sociologists of social movements throughout the book. The book itself is an easy and quick read in which chapters alternate between reporting from the ground and analysis from a variety of places where things have indeed been kicking off. So, as much as he might reject the designation, I would consider the book to stand solidly in the sociology of social movements. My only reservation is with the cyber-utopian stance that he adopts towards these movements. I am more of a cyber-crank of the Morozov kind. But again, the book is quite an interesting read and well-worth anyone’s time. Indeed, it is hard to put down. I read it over one weekend.

So, why is it kicking off everywhere? The story starts in Egypt, where, surprise, surprise, some degree of neoliberal policy was involved in heightening the discontent already present there, after decades of corrupt authoritarianism and cronyism:

“For sixty years, the zabbaleen had run Cairo’s trash collection system. They picked up the waste door to door, fed their pigs with the rotting organic matter and recycled the rest for cash, trading with a traditional caste of middlemen. But in 2003, as part of a privatization programme overseen by Mubarak’s son Gamal, three sanitation companies—two Spanish and one Italian—were brought in to ‘modernize’ the city’s waste collection. These outside firms were given cleaning contracts valued at US$50 million a year. Instead of door-to-door collection, they placed big plastic bins on street corners. Instead of recycling 80 per cent of solid waste—as the zabbaleen had managed to do—their contracts required that only 20 per cent be recycled, with the rest tipped into landfill. The transformation of Cairo’s refuse system was to be crowned by the eviction of the zabbaleen, whose slum was adjacent to a new residential property development planned by friends of Gamal Mubarak.

(…)

But the new system wasn’t working. Cairo’s residents refused to use the bins; in fact, many of the high-grade plastic containers were stolen and, with poetic justice, ended up being shredded and recycled by the zabbaleen. People began to dump their rubbish onto the streets or into the disused and abandoned buildings that scar Cairo’s streetscape. So, the new system needed an extra push. When the global swine flu epidemic broke, in 2009, the Mubaraks spotted an opportunity. The Egyptian parliament, circumventing its own health ministry and in defiance of UN advice, ordered all the zabbaleen’s pigs to be slaughtered. There had been no recorded transmission of swine flu from pigs to humans.

(…)

Across Egypt, an estimated 300,000 swine belonging to zabbaleen households were slaughtered; the government paid between $15 and $50 per pig in compensation, compared to the $80 to $300 they’d been selling for on the market. Soon, two things happened. With no pigs to eat the rotting food, the zabbaleen stopped collecting it, leaving it to pile up on the streets. Then malnutrition appeared among their children. For, says Guindi, though the multinational companies were getting $10 a tonne for waste, and the middlemen $2 out of that, the zabbaleen received nothing from the contract—only what they could make from the sale of recycled waste, and their pigs. Now something else happened, equally novel: the zabbaleen rioted. They hurled rocks, bottles and manure (there was plenty of that to hand) at the pig-slaughtering teams. In response, Mubarak deployed riot squads into the slums—followed, as always, by Central Security and its torturers.” (Loc. 170 – 90)

This, of course, is very reminiscent of what happened in Bolivia when the water got privatized under the aegis of the World Bank: service deteriorated, people got poorer (albeit for somewhat different reasons), livelihood got threatened, people took to the streets, governments react with violence. The Bolivia example is not mentioned in the book but here is a quick reminder:

And part 2:

It seems pretty obvious that the same causes lead to the same effects: see – austerity all over Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, especially). But Mubarak had been in synch with the rest of global elites who meets every year in Davos. Actually, most dictators who have been removed from power in the Arab Spring were good friends of Western power. Which is partly why Western media and political classes did not see it coming and were slow to react (I remember the initial reaction of the Sarkozy administration, via the Defense Minister, offering Tunisia’s Ben Ali riot control assistance in the early days of the uprising only to backtrack later in shame and embarrassment). Why?

According to Mason, two reasons explain this blind spot: (1) a stereotypical concept of the Arab world that would make Edward Said turn in his grave (passive but violent, squeezed between terrorism and religious fundamentalism), and (2) when was the last time the mainstream media had a solid discussion of class? For as long as I lived in the US, any suggestion that gross and growing inequalities were going to be a problem at some point was shot down as “class warfare” (as if there had not been a class war since the Reagan era, one that, as Warren Buffett has told us, his class has won already). More broadly, this failure is the inability to conceptualize a systemic failure of capitalism (so, analysis of the crisis was reduced to accusations launched against the lower classes – but not class warfare! – and minorities). The events of the past year, for Mason, reveal the utter failure of capitalist realism but also of the mainstream left.

“If the rule of men like Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad had been seen as somehow separate from the rule of free-market capitalism, maybe political science would not have become trapped in the same fatalism as economics. But support for these pro-Western dictators—or more especially for their sons—had always been sold on the basis that they were ‘liberalizers’: freeing up their home market for corporate penetration and, one day soon, reforming their constitutions. This was the theme of the famous essay by Anthony Giddens, which declared Gaddafi to be a follower of the Third Way and Libya on the road to becoming ‘the Norway of North Africa’.” (Loc 557)

Mason also identifies three major precursors to last year’s social movements: (1) the Greek student riots of 2008 after a police shooting and (2) the Israeli invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead, December 2009) and (3) Iran, of course, where Twitter got its political street creds. In terms of social movements, all three were defeat for the weaker parties but they created a context where populations got galvanized by the capacity of such weaker parties to defy oppressive regimes. These precursors put together the components of the future social movements: secularized, educated youth facing massive precarization, repressed workers’ movements, the urban poor and social networking technologies. These four elements would coalesce more fully a bit later in many more countries. For all these categories of people, the promises of capitalism were not fulfilled, they actually turned out to be lies. From the other side of the table, after decades of outright repression or propagation of an individualistic ideology through the media, leaders probably thought there would be no resistance even in the event of a collapse.

Finally, for Mason, the last reason why no one saw this coming is that all these movements are really something different:

“First, probably, it’s because there is no ideology driving this movement and no coherent vision of an alternative society. Second, the potential for damage arising from violence is larger than before: the demos, when they get violent, immediately expose the participants to getting jailed for serious offences, so they will go a long way to avoid getting angry. Third, and most important, it seems to me that this generation knows more than their predecessors about power. They have read (or read a Wikipedia summary of) political thinkers like Foucault, Deleuze, Dworkin. They realize, in a way previous generations of radicals did not, that emotion-fuelled action, loyalty, mesmeric oratory and hierarchy all come at an overhead cost.” (Loc. 791)

This, of course, takes place in a larger context of crisis of legitimacy, intensified by the economic crisis because the close ties between political and corporate power have been brutally exposed in its full disconnect from the rest of the population. And when the youth in London rioted, the lack of comprehension was extreme (I wrote quite a bit about that):

“All across the developed world, the generation that leaves university in the 2010s will have to work longer because the guarantee of a comfortable income in retirement can no longer be met, either by private investment or the welfare state. Their disposable income will fall, because the financialization of public services demands a clutch of new debt repayments that eat into salaries: student loan repayments will be higher, private health insurance costs will rise, pension top-up payments will be demanded. They will face higher interest rates on home loans for decades, due to the financial crash. They will be burdened with the social costs of looking after the ageing baby boomers, plus the economic costs of energy depletion and climate change.

(…)

For the older generation it’s easy to misunderstand the word ‘student’ or ‘graduate’: to my contemporaries, at college in the 1980s, it meant somebody engaged in a liberal, academic education, often with hours of free time to dream, protest, play in a rock band or do research. Today’s undergraduates have been tested every month of their lives, from kindergarten to high school. They are the measured inputs and outputs of a commercialized global higher education market worth $1.2 trillion a year—excluding the USA. Their free time is minimal: precarious part-time jobs are essential to their existence, so that they are a key part of the modern workforce. Plus they have become a vital asset for the financial system. In 2006, Citigroup alone made $220 million clear profit from its student loan book.” (Loc. 1141 – 6)

And individualization ultimately proved it had failed as well as any form of domination will generate resistance, as Richard Sennett (cited a lot by Mason… which is good) noted:

“The sociologist Richard Sennett describes how, starting in high-tech industries, a particular type of employee has become valued by corporations: ‘Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions … a self oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability [rather than actual skill], willing to abandon past experience.’3 For employers, Sennett writes, the ideal product of school and university is a person with weak institutional loyalty, low levels of informal trust and high levels of anxiety about their own competence, leading to a constant willingness to reinvent themselves in a changing labour market. To survive in this world of zero loyalty, people need high self-reliance, which comes with a considerable sense of individual entitlement and little aptitude for permanent bonding. Flexibility being more important than knowledge, they are valued for the ability to discard acquired skills and learn new ones.

(…)

However, Sennett observes, such workers also need ‘a thick network of social contacts’: their ideal habitat is the global city, at whose bars, coffee shops, Apple stores, dance clubs and speed-dating events they can meet lots of equally rootless people..” (Loc 1157 – 66)

And these conditions of resistance were:

  • the global city as major site for social unrest (paging Saskia Sassen) – this is where networks are and where gross inequalities coexist along with the three components of these new social movements (slum dwellers, precarized educated youths and the working class);
  • the “graduate with no future” as Mason calls hir, is by definition is global denizen (students have participated in these movements practically everywhere); one of the consequences of globalization is the diffusion of a global culture based on disillusionment that is easy to spread all over Twitter;
  • and there are more college students than ever before. Quantity does matter.

The urban poor and the working class have been important components of these movements but it is students who have kicked them off. Add to this the power and networks and communication technology and all the ingredients are there. Mason is a big believer of the network effect (what gets created as additional product of people’s interaction). So, Twitter, pay-as-you-go access, photo / video-sharing services and blogging were essential tools of social movements. As a result, journalists were also engulfed in the crisis of legitimacy as their status carried limited weight on Twitter (much to the dismay of some media celebrities). Again, Mason is much more cyber-utopian as I am.

Mason then goes on at length on the economic crisis itself. There is not much that has not been already written about this, so, I won’t belabor this. One thing I had not read before is the assertion that the Federal Reserve precipitated the Arab Spring with QEII, which led to the rise in commodity prices, which led pushing a lot of people in the global South into deeper poverty.

Another interesting analytical point that Mason makes is to postulate that the correct historical precedent for these current social movements is the European Revolutions of 1848 (especially what led to the French Second Republic):

“On 22 February 1848 the ‘men in smocks’—the Parisian workers— overthrew the monarchy and forced the middle class to declare a republic. It was a shock because, like Saif Gaddafi and Gamal Mubarak long afterwards, King Louis-Philippe had counted himself something of a democrat. In 1848 a wave of revolutions swept Europe: by March, Austria, Hungary, Poland and many states of the future Germany were facing insurrections, often led by students and the radicalized middle class, with the small, mainly craft-based, working class in support. Elsewhere —as in Jordan and Morocco in 2011—riots and demonstrations forced beleaguered monarchs into constitutional reform. Within months, however, class conflict tore the revolutionary alliance apart. In Paris, the newly elected assembly was dominated not by the radicals who’d made the revolution, but by social conservatives. They hired a general to crack down on unrest; that June, he crushed the working class in four days of intense barricade fighting.

(…)

But by 1851 the revolutionary wave in Europe was over, its leaders exiled or dead. A military coup ended the French revolution, the president rebranding himself as Emperor Napoleon III. The Prussian army crushed the German states that had voted for radical democracy. Austria defeated the Hungarian uprising, put down its own and enlisted Napoleon III to suppress the republic that had sprung up in Rome. In each case, the survivors observed a similar pattern of events. Once the workers began to fight for social justice, the businessmen and radical journalists who had led the fight for democracy turned against them, rebuilding the old, dictatorial forms of repression to put them down.

(…)

Eighteen forty-eight, then, forms the last complete example of a year when it all kicked off. As with 2011, it was preceded by an economic crisis. As today, there was a level of contagion inexplicable to governments. But in hindsight, it was actually a wave of revolution and reaction, followed pretty swiftly by a wave of war. Even if today’s situation defies parallel, the events of 1848 provide the most extensive case study on which to base our expectations of the present revolts.

(…)

The demographics of 2011 resemble those of 1848 more than any other event. There is an expanded layer of ‘graduates with no future’, a working class weakened by the collapse of the organizations and lifestyle that blossomed in the Fordist era, and a large mass of slum-dwelling urban poor. As today, 1848 was preceded by a communications revolution: the telegraph, the railway and the steam boat formed part of an emerging transport and communications network clustered around the cities that became centres of the social revolution. As today, 1848 was preceded by the rapid formation of networks—in this case, clubs and secret societies. The students, worker-intellectuals and radical lawyers who led them were indeed part of an international network of activists. As today, 1848 was a revolution in social life as well as politics.” (Loc 2992 – 3038)

That is not very encouraging because these movements ended badly. And indeed, Mason anticipates some possible negative outcomes (such as the military / religious alliance and crackdown in Egypt):

  • There will be a time where the middle class will break the class alliance with the working class and turn against it (as indeed happened in 1848) and the social and economic justice agenda will tone down basic labor demands;
  • The rise of ‘strongmen’ from within revolutionary ranks, comparable to rise of the organized criminal networks after 1989;
  • War or authoritarian backlash.

On top of this, Mason sees the culture war in the US and Israel as additionally worrisome.

And then, where is the left?… *sounds of crickets chirping*

So, where does that leave us?

“Everything depends on the outcome of the economic crisis. Before 2008, globalization ‘delivered’ in a rough-and-ready way to the poor of the developing world. It dragged one billion people out of rural poverty and into urban slums, and created an extra 1.5 billion waged workers. It provided access to life-changing technology. And it offset the decline in prosperity and status for the manual workers of the rich world with unlimited access to credit. At the same time it made the rich of every country richer, and inequality greater—even in the developing world, where real incomes rose.

(…)

What becomes of the present wave of revolts—political, social, intellectual and moral—now depends completely on what the global economy delivers. If it is nothing but heartache and penury, we are in the middle of a perfect storm.” (Loc. 3353 – 68)

As I stated earlier, if you can stomach the sometimes hyperbolic cyber-utopianism, I highly recommend the book… also, it shows sociologists are the most relevant social scientists to read.

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Globalization, Ideologies, Media, Networks, Precarization, Risk Society, Social Change, Social Movements, Technology | 4 Comments »

Book Review – Good Jobs, Bad Jobs

February 25, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Arne Kalleberg‘s Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s is a very clear and detailed examination of the evolution of the labor market in the United States over the past 40 years, deepening the precarization conceptual framework presented in his 2008 ASA presidential address.

“Work in America has undergone marked transformations in the past four decades. Globalization and deregulation have increased the amount of competition faced by American companies, provided greater opportunities for them to outsource work to lower-wage countries, and opened up new sources of workers through immigration. The growth of  a ‘new economy’ characterized by more knowledge-intensive work has been accompanied by the  accelerated pace of technological innovation and the continued expansion of service industries as the principal source of jobs. Political policies such as the replacement of welfare by workfare programs in the 1990s have made it essential for people to participate in paid employment at the same time that jobs have become more precarious. The labor force has become more diverse, with marked increases in the number of women, non-white, older, and immigrant workers, and growing divides between people with different amounts of education. Ideological changes have supported these structural changes, with shifts towards greater individualism and personal accountability for work and life replacing notions of collective responsibility.

 These social, political, and economic forces have radically transformed the nature of employment relations and work in America. They have led to pervasive job insecurity, the growth of dual-earner families, and 24/7 schedules for many workers. More opportunities for entrepreneurship and good jobs have arisen for some, while others still only have access to low-wage and often dead-end jobs. These changes in have, in turn, magnified social problems such as poverty, work-family conflicts, political polarization, and disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender. The growing gap between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jobs represents a dark side to the booming American economy of the 1980s and 1990s; it has contributed to a crisis for the middle class in the United States in the past decade.” (1)

Every point in this quote then is developed in a full chapter, with a solid amount of empirical data to support the claims of generalized precarization. And all the points mentioned above also highlight an idea that I try really hard to convey to my students: nothing ever happens by chance in society. Things as they are – in this case, more bad jobs and increased precarization and risk shift – are the product of a variety of decision-making processes in various social institutions, shaped by ideologies (Kalleberg identifies neoliberalism here). And here we are, with massive changes in labor relations and work structures, operating under different norms. As a result, we work longer, in worse jobs, with less security and stability, reduced control over work activities and lower compensation.

Kalleberg also uses my favorite framework (Structure / History / Power or SHiP) to note that precarization used to be the norm until the end of the Great Depression. It is only the laws enacted during the 1930s that changed that normal state of precarity for workers. And economic conditions improved considerably during the post-War “Great Compression” until the late 1970s. This is a familiar story.

But what exactly are good/bad jobs? For Kalleberg, a good job is one that:

  • Pays relatively well and provides for increases over time;
  • Provides decent benefits;
  • Provides workers with some degree of autonomy and control;
  • Provides workers with some degree of flexibility and control over scheduling and terms of employment;
  • Provides workers with some degree of control over termination of the job.

Whereas a bad job is one that:

  • Pays low wages with limited prospects of improvements over time;
  • Provides limited benefits if any at all;
  • Does not enable workers to exert control over work activities;
  • Does not enable workers to have flexibility;
  • Does not enable workers to exert control over termination of employment.

This dichotomy used to be the basis for the well-known dual-labor market theory. Good jobs were part of  the primary labor market and bad jobs of the secondary labor market. Kalleberg argues that this labor market structure holds less and less as more good jobs are turning into bad ones (creating what Kalleberg calls a ‘subordinate primary labor market’) although the polarization still somewhat holds. And as the quote above notes, he identifies two major dynamics: (1) the impact of economic, social and political forces that shape social institutions and (2) the changes in the composition of the American workforce, namely, diversification. In other words, what we observe is not the product of uncontrolled market forces but of conditions that led to greater pressure for flexibility in an institutional environment where employers could take advantage of the typically American weakness of labor unions, compared to other Western countries.

These structural changes also led to changes in corporate governance, promoting a short-termist mentality where managers were now expected to manage the short-term bottom line for investors using a new tool at their disposal: human resources, as in investing less in them in favor of short-term profits, which meant the rise of non-traditional labor arrangements based on loose ties and limited loyalty between employers and employees. This was facilitated by the fact that the government progressively reduced its intervention on the labor market (can anyone name one thing done by the current secretary of labor in this administration?).

At the same time, right-wing think tanks worked hard to push for their favorite ideology: individualism, which, in turn, led to risk shift from companies and firms to individuals and households, individualization and a general sense of “you’re on your own.” This ideology provided the moral background for the dismantling of the social structures that had underpinned the post-war economy and its institutions.

The diversification of the American workforce meant that more vulnerable workers were entering the labor market, stimulating the growth of precarious and insecure jobs. This diversification also contributed to greater overall inequalities. Kalleberg notes specific consequences:

“First, education has emerged as the great divider between persons with good jobs and those with bad jobs. The workforce has become more polarized along education and skill lines due to the increasing number of highly educated college graduates, as well as the expansion in the population of low-skilled workers, such as immigrants from Mexico with weak English and less than a ninth-grade education.

(…)

Second, workers with relatively low-skills and education – such as nonwhites, the foreign-born, and older workers – are more vulnerable than others to these structural changes. [...] This has encouraged employers to create jobs that pay poorly and are generally of low quality, since they now have access to a pool of workers who are willing (or forced) to work for low wages and in poor conditions: women, young people, older workers, less-educated workers, immigrants.

(…)

Third, the growth in labor force diversity has increased the variety of job rewards that workers seek to obtain from their jobs. The increase of women and the associated proliferation of dual-earner families in the labor force, along with the growth in educational attainments, have altered the kinds of rewards that people feel are important in their jobs. This growth has also shaped workers’ expectations for the kinds of rewards they feel entitled to obtain. In particular, many workers are now more likely to place greater importance on having more control over their work schedules and flexibility in their work times.” (57-8)

This increased flexibility has also been easier to implement in the growing service industries. But this has led to occupational polarization (between good jobs and bad jobs) thanks to (1) variation in skills required in diverse occupations, (2) a growing difference in the collective market power of occupational groups (power generated by unions or professional gatekeeping mechanisms such as certifications and accreditation), and (3) the increased power of managers by virtue of their control over human capital as resource.

Another factor in the growth of precarization is corporate restructuring. On this, Kalleberg argues that firms have choices between low-road strategies (de-skilling jobs, subcontracting, outsourcing, etc) and high-road strategies (investing in employees, for instance) when facing economic transformations. Most firms in the US have chosen low-road strategies, developing the core-periphery model of employment, with a limited and declining core of permanent workers, working on the firm’s core competencies, as opposed to peripheral workers (fully precarized, often outsources, managed by temporary work agencies, with no expectations of permanent employment and no ties to the employer beyond the contract duration; this includes all the non-standard work arrangements).

The novelty here, as Louis Uchitelle demonstrated in his book, The Disposable American, is that these have become common management strategies, more or less irrespective of economic conditions. Lay-offs and outsourcing and downsizing happen in recessionary as well as expansionary periods.

This leads to leaving workers at the complete mercy of market mechanisms. It is up to individual workers to maintain their skills and improve their social capital to, in turn, improve their employability. This also has multiple features:

“First, open employment relationships sever the psychological contract between employers and employees in which stability and security were exchanged for loyalty and hard work: the employee would exchange his or her loyalty and commitment in return for employers’ promises of job security, earnings and growth, and opportunities for advancement. The psychological contract was characterized by mutual trust and expectations about each other’s obligations and duties. Employers are now likely to terminate the employment relation if business conditions warrant cutbacks through practices such as downsizing, in an attempt to enhance effectiveness, short-term profitability, and other outcomes.

(…)

Second, the market-mediated or open employment relations are characterized by a breakdown of the post-World War II social contract between capital and labor.

(…)

The demise of the old psychological and social contracts is reinforced by a normative context that legitimizes a more individualistic relationship and a decline in collective power. There is also a general decline in job security for all workers due to shifting norms of the employment contract. Employers are now less likely to be able to promise their employees security since their organizations are themselves more insecure. Employers may also not be inclined to offer employees security in exchange for loyalty and hard work since norms regarding the nature of the employment relationship have changed, and there are more options for employers to hire workers on an as-needed basis, such as through temporary help agencies and contract companies. There thus has been a decrease in the norm of lifetime employment with an employer.

(…)

The third feature of the market-mediated or open employment relationship is a transfer of risks away from employers and toward workers.” (84-7)

And one of the consequences of this demise has been more fully analyzed in Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character, whose title clearly depicts the psychological impact of this shift. And this precariousness which used to be limited to the secondary labor market has now spread and become more generalized, to all sectors of the economy and to more occupations and professions.

So, what is to be done in this context of deterioration of working conditions and employment relations?

Kalleberg suggests that what is needed is a new social contract to restore some forms of social security. For instance, the concept of flexisecurity, implemented in a few European countries combines flexibility of the labor force with strong social safety net as workers can be expected to keep shifting from job to job, therefore needing assistance and training. At the same time, the public sector should be source of more secure jobs. There is a need for a global social movement in favor of economic fairness and greater social security. Precarious labor, as neoliberal success, has been built on the ruins of traditional labor organizations. New social movements must emerge with global, national and local activist strategies.

This book is especially relevant because the current recession with its onslaught of austerity measures clearly illustrate the risk shift: while banks and others in the corporate sectors receive government monies and other protections against risks they took, workers are bearing the brunt of this structural adjustment policies that make them shoulder the price of systemic shock. But the current situation is the culmination of a trend started forty years ago, slowly and progressively, and now brutally implemented in its final stages all over developed countries, where the few remnants of social safety nets are being dismantled by national governments.

This book makes it clear that this was a long time coming and here we are.

Posted in Book Reviews, Globalization, Ideologies, Labor, Precarization, Public Policy, Risk Society, Social Change, Social Inequalities, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Re-Embedding The Greek Crisis

February 5, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

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.”

And beyond Greece, Italy:

“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.”

Posted in Culture, Economy, Embeddedness, Hollow States, Ideologies, Poverty, Power, Precarization, Public Policy, Sociology | 1 Comment »

World-System 2.0 – In Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Pricing Beauty

December 12, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

If you are looking for good primary sources to introduce undergraduate students to real sociology, then Ashley Mears‘s Pricing Beauty is the perfect choice. At its core, the book is a participant observation study where the sociologist becomes a fashion model for a period of time and uses the opportunity to also conduct series of interviews with the different actors involved in that field (there us a nice methodological appendix at the end of the book so, if you are so inclined, you can have your students look at the nitty gritty work of putting together a sociological study).

But in addition to the participant observation / interview aspects of the study, Mears maps the social structure of that particular field (you know, my Structure / History / Power holy trinity of sociological thinking). She covers its internal stratification as well as gender and racial / ethnic issues. She discusses the field as a subculture, with its own norms, values, and the overarching dominance of the concept of “the look” (which is impossible to define but to which everyone refers). She treats the fashion world as a Bourdieusian field of practices, with its power dynamics, its dominant and dominated categories, and its specific habitus.

In the process, she brings in quite a few sociological concepts and theories, but it is always done in a highly readable fashion, with a lot of quotes from her interviews, and observations from her field notes, which makes reading the book a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The book is also partly a story, her story of life as a model for a short period of time.

And most of all, she shows very clearly why a sociological outlook is necessary and relevant (all citations from the Kindle edition):

“Success in markets such as fashion modeling might on the surface appear to be a matter of blind luck or pure genius. But luck is never blind, nor does genius work alone. Behind every winner in a winner-take-all market such as fashion modeling is a complex, organized production process. The secrets to success have much less to do with the models themselves than with the social context of an unstable market. There is little intrinsic value in a model’s physique that would set her apart from any number of other similarly built teens.

(…)

Rather, an invisible social world is hard at work behind the scenes of fashion to bequeath cultural value onto looks. The backstage of fashion reveals a set of players—models, agents, and clients—and the peculiar rules of their game that usually remain hidden behind the brilliantly lit runways, the glossy magazine pages, and the celebrated glamour of fashion.” (Loc. 222-8)

And a sociological outlook is necessary precisely because, behind the glamour, the social construction of the fashion world and the figure of the fashion model, is completely eclipsed and made invisible, and hidden from view:

“As glamour is cast upon the model’s look, all of her work—and the work of her agents, clients, their assistants, and their whole social world—gets juggled out of sight. This social world is enormously important in determining the realm of beauty and fashion ideals; after all, the relations of cultural production determine the possibilities of cultural consumption. Ultimately the clandestine world of fashion teaches us about much more than beauty and apparel; it holds lessons for the nature of modern work, markets, decision making, and new forms of racial and gender inequality.

(…)

We usually can’t see it, but there is an entire world of work that goes into producing that which appears to be a natural state: a model’s “look.”” (Loc. 231-7)

And that is precisely what Mears exposes throughout her book. And at the center of this social world, what drives actors’ practices is “the look”:

“The term “look” seems to describe a fixed set of physical attributes, such as how a person actually looks. It’s true that models conform to basic Western standards of attractiveness, for instance, youthfulness, clear skin, healthy teeth, and symmetrical features. Within this frame, they adhere to narrow height and weight specifications. The female model is typically at least 5′9″ with body measurements close to a 34″ bust, a 24″ waist, and 34″ hips. The male model is typically 6′ to 6′3″ with a 32″ waist and a 39″ to 40″ chest. This framework is, as one stylist explained to me, a “good ol’ formula” for a model. But this formula does not, by itself, constitute a look. Beyond this basic physique, small and subtle differences lead clients to prefer one model over another. Models, bookers, and clients refer to these differences as a model’s “look.”7 Talking about the look proves exceptionally difficult for fashion insiders. Bookers and clients often grapple for the right words when asked to define a look. They struggle to explain that a look is a reference point, a theme, a feeling, an era, or even an “essence.” A look is decidedly not the equivalent of beauty or sexual attractiveness.” (Loc. 252)

But beyond these parameters, “the look” seems almost impossible to define and an elusive concept to capture in interviews. The above just defines the kind of bodily capital one needs to minimally have to work in fashion. But “the look” seems to constitute a Schutzian specialized stock of knowledge, shared by all actors in the fashion world, and generates relations between actors and organizations within the field.

At the same time, the field of fashion is part of the larger creative economy, based on aesthetics and whose products are designed to generate desire and fill consumer demands. In that context, models are cultural products whose value is quite volatile. As a result, most models are part of the precariat and are the product of the work of a cohort of other fashion actors:

“While models reap plenty of attention as pop culture icons, no model gets far without the campaigning efforts of a booker and a few key clients. Networks of agents, scouts, assistants, editors, stylists, photographers, and designers constitute a production world that links models to fashion consumers. Scouts and agents “discover” raw bodily capital and then filter it to clients—photographers, designers, art and casting directors, stylists, and catalog houses. These clients “rent” models for short periods of time, maybe a few hours, days, or weeks, during which time they deploy this capital to appear in media outlets such as catalogs, showrooms, advertisements, magazines, catwalks, showrooms, and “look books,” which are booklets that feature a designer’s new clothing collection. In these media outlets, models’ images serve to entice store buyers and, ultimately, to seduce fashion shoppers, the final consumers of the look, into making a purchase.” (Loc. 293)

This also means that the world of fashion is highly unstable. Models never know (except for the few big time stars) when and where they are going to work, for how long, and when their careers will end. Most models are freelancers, working in Arne Kalleberg’s bad jobs (I certainly did not know that the median income for models is less than $30,000 and careers last less than five years) but with high potential prestige for women.

So, it is not all about the good genes but about social structure and social relations (including relations of power). There is also a basic division between the aesthetic actors of the field, and the economic ones (those whose interest is to make money, as opposed to art).

Also central to the world of fashion is a basic division between editorial fashion and commercial fashion:

“We can think of editorial and commercial fashion as “circuits of value” because players in each share different measures of success and value. Editorial and commercial producers have distinctive understandings of what counts as good taste, good work, and fair payment. In fact, a large sum of money from catalog clients, when looked at from the editorial circuit, is worthless compared to the few hundred dollars to be earned on a magazine shoot. Editorial and commercial producers share different ideas about what counts as the “look” at all. Within this field, models, bookers, and clients all grapple for better footing in what amounts to a prestige hierarchy.” (Loc. 719)

Commercial modeling involves posing for catalogs. The work is less precarious, pays decently but brings no prestige. It is actually a bit stigmatized in the field. In commercial modeling, models’ looks are to be non-threatening average audience, be wholesome and all American. In editorial modeling (walking the most famous runways, posing for famous photographers for fashion magazine shoots), the work is more uncertain, the pay relatively lousy, except for the few big names, but this is where the prestige is. The concept of capital is relevant here:

“Models who specialize in editorial work, so named after “editorial” pages that showcase editors’ opinions, book predominantly magazine shoots and catwalk shows. These are by far the poorest-paid jobs in modeling. But payment in a cultural production field takes several forms, and in modeling, not all monies are equal. Though editorial jobs pay low immediate economic returns, or “economic capital,” they are rich in prestige, or “symbolic capital.” Prestige is valuable in its own right, as it enables one to “make a name for oneself” and grants authority to consecrate “good taste.” Agencies and models are betting against the odds that symbolic capital will eventually pay off in the long run should the model score a luxury-brand campaign.” (Loc. 930)

This means that commercial careers may last a bit longer than editorial career. After all, an “edgy” look may change very rapidly while a commercial look is relatively constant and is seen as conventionally attractive. This symbolic hierarchy of models correspond to a hierarchy of consumers as well. Commercial models target mass consumers. The point is simply to sell stuff.  On the contrary, the edgy look of the editorial model matches the high status of fashion consumers, field insiders, high-fashion producers and people who read avant-garde magazines. The point is to build brand identity.

The work of an editorial model is to produce art, detached from economic conventions. There is higher symbolic capital to be earned there.  Mears uses Bourdieu’s expression of “economic world reversed” to describe this:

“Nonmonetary payments are crucial to the pricing system in the aesthetic economy. Cash is just one recognized type of currency, and not necessarily the most valued kind. Payment could come in forms ranging from thousands of dollars to a free handbag, pictures, the promise of publicity, and the association with high-status clients such as Vogue and photographer Steven Meisel.” (Loc. 1079)

But it is only through the editorial circuit that models can hope to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune, not the commercial circuit. And yet, the editorial circuit highly risky and precarious. Catalog work is bread and butter but is despised at the same time:

“If we break down these earnings by hourly rate, we end up at $12.50/hour for an eight-hour editorial job, $166/hour for the catwalk (an average five-hour, $1,000 runway show), $200/hour for showroom work, $343.75/hour for catatog work (an eight-hour, $2,750 catalog), and $2,287.50/hour for advertising.” (Loc. 1139)

Prestige is the currency of the editorial world, and this factor contributes to driving wages down further as models are often paid in goods. At the same time, Mears shows that most Fashion Week shows generate no money for designers, the profit is in brand-building. Again, the profits are symbolic, which means, in terms of prestige. At the same time, the cost of maintaining one’s lifetime as a model are quite high, as Mears demonstrates and the models are constantly in debt to their agencies.

This division between commercial and editorial also shapes the agency business: too many commercial models and an agency might make money but will have low prestige and credibility. Too many editorial models, and the agency will lose money. So, agencies have to strike the right balance.

And it is all these social factors that create the fashion product we see on newsstands:

“Belief in the editorial game, the illusio, keeps the producer committed to the production of the “edgy” look, an ambiguous achievement that when at last it happens, it appears as if by magic! The miraculous “look” that leaps up to the editorial jackpot is no supernatural talent. It is a product of organized and orchestrating producers: models, bookers, and clients struggling among themselves and with each other. In this struggle, the value of the look and the belief in that value are continuously generated. Like all miracles, the look is born out of social alchemy.” (Loc.1614)

After going over the economics of fashion, Mears spends a fascinating chapter on her socialization into the fashion world, learning to walk, dress, move, behave, etc., all in the name of learning to use her bodily capital and get shoots. And it is a perfect illustration of  socialization as a process of interaction with a variety of agents of socialization and of some of the theories presented in introduction to sociology courses (looking-glass self, etc.).

The bodily socialization aspect is especially interesting as we tend to think of the body as this biological thing we carry around but this chapter clearly shows how social our bodies are and how they get “trained” in interaction, in a variety of contexts. The body of the model embodies (really) the norms of the fashion world:

“My experience of (almost) going to meet a superstar photographer was instructive with many lessons: be dressed; defer to your bookers; expect to be watched; embody rock and roll; be young; be your best self. Such lessons are part of the repertoire of bodily and emotional habits that models pick up and incorporate into their work routines. Some lessons are harder to learn than others. Some are pleasurable, others quite painful. The look is a social status that models work hard to achieve, though ultimately they are doomed to failure: no model can ever be the “right” look forever.” (Loc. 1699)

This is bodily labor, or body work. And it also involves some emotional labor where the whole body is involved. What seems specific about models’ bodily labor, is that, as freelance workers in precarious environment, they are largely on their own. And because this is such a volatile and unpredictable field, Mears argues that class is not a barrier of entry.

This socialization also involves learning to negotiation the casting, as equally uncertain social context. Fans of Goffman will have a field day with the whole presentation of self, problematic encounter and other dramaturgical concepts that are relevant here. And being socialized into modeling means having to learn to deal with rejection. Dealing with this means trying to control the only aspect models can control, their body and bodily capital. In that sense, models are in the same category of workers as athletes, professional dancers, strippers. But having one’s body as main working tool means being constantly subjected to various forms of bodily surveillance and sanctions but different actors in the field:

“Models are first mobilized into looks through routine objectification, floating norms of bodily perfection, infantilization, surveillance, and the threat of embarrassing reprimands. Models must have standard perfect bodies yet simultaneously project a unique, special kind of self. This self—both physical and emotional—must manage to fit within a proscribed general framework, and it must be distinctive. Both requirements take considerable work and manipulation to achieve.” (Loc. 2009)

And because models’ bodies are commodities, they are constantly touched, prodded, gazed at (see Foucault on the gaze as mechanism of social control), and manipulated in all sorts of poses by photographers and other actors. But there is one thing that differentiates the model from, say, the boxer:

“The difference is between being an instrument, that which does work, and an object, that which is worked upon. The boxer transforms his body for an active means toward a self-controlled end. The model’s body is more of a passive object, waiting to be chosen and put to use for other people’s ends in advertising and fashion displays. The boxing ring and the catwalk are both corporeal and competitive, but the champion boxer has a more tangible value than the fashion model: he is either knocked out or does the knocking. Models, however, have little sense of what will make for a “knockout” in the market for looks. That’s because, unlike the boxer, the model is not primarily in control of her wins and losses.” (Loc. 2038)

And in the case of models, managing one’s bodily capital means fighting one’s body to keep it skinny. Models internalize the gaze and engage in constant body monitoring and criticizing. And such self-regulation can be maddening when the standards are not clear and ever-fluctuating. And lack of effective self-monitoring is met with swift criticism from bookers, agents, photographers and other models. Every comment, look, gesture carries a hint at what a model may be doing wrong in the monitoring department. And the comments may be devastating (oh, and everybody lies on the measurements of the models):

“Such criticism, while usually subtle, threatens the model at every turn, as bookers, stylists, and designers feel entitled to make pointed comments about models’ appearances. Among the dozens of brutal comments I heard: one has thick ankles; one’s head is asymmetrically shaped; one is too “street-looking”; one has a bad mustache; one’s shoulders are too narrow; one’s scar is too prominent; one’s nose is “busted”; one has too many freckles; one’s ass is too big. Comments that would otherwise be dismissed as sexual harassment in most workplaces are routinely deployed, propelling models to keep on their toes lest they stray too far from the floating norms of the look.

These daily confrontations with objectification, floating norms, infantilization, the gaze, and abuse form a set of work routines and expectations through which models learn to embody the “right” look or, at least, to stay beyond the parameters of the “wrong” look. Under relentless surveillance and the threat of embarrassing ordeals, freelance aesthetic labor requires an adherence to floating norms. Bookers and clients need not exert managerial force—the impromptu taking of measurements, an embarrassing comment, a pair of too-tight jeans. The rest is up to the workers’ own devices. But work on the body involves considerable effort of the mind, and bodily capital can only be sold in the presence of another soft skill, the personality.” (loc. 2382)

After the socialization chapter, Mears follows with a chapter on the non-model actors of the fashion field, the tastemakers, as she calls them, those who define “the look” and decide who will make it to the next stage of an editorial career and who won’t: bookers, clients (either in the editorial or commercial circuits), photographers, stylists, casting directors, designers. All of them require not just a great body but also a “personality” that the models need to put on display (emotional labor, the managed heart and all that stuff). These different actors have various amounts of power in the field and various capacity to shape what “the look” of the year will be.

It is in this complex web of social relations that “the look” and jobs for the models will be found. All these actors play strategic games for both symbolic and financial gains, to place products (including models), earn and repay favors, etc. In this context buzz and gossip are two major forms of contextual knowledge that is produced, distributed and manipulated based on actors’s interests.

Take bookers, for instance:

“When high-status clients work with lower-status models, they inflate the status of that model, bringing them up with a level of prestige that can be passed on to other clients. Models are, in this sense, vessels of status, and they can transfer prestige between clients, as quality differences in other uncertain markets have been shown to do. Likewise, low-status models can bring down clients’ position in the hierarchy. One casting director told me about having to field phone calls from irate bookers after one Fashion Week show in which top models shared the catwalk with low-status showroom models. The bookers demanded to know, “Who was that girl in the show?,” and his trustworthiness was briefly called into question.

Employing the wrong models, those who are not recognized as “really good” by the right people, will detract from a client’s status. Finally, low-status clients can damage or detract from a model’s prestige. A “really good” model can lose some luster by shooting low-status catalogs or magazines. Bookers therefore carefully screen clients before confirming models. This status hierarchy and the bookers who guard it can be troublesome to lower-status clients hoping to book the “really good” models.” (Loc. 3637)

Mears also dedicates a chapter to the issue of race. One would think that the editorial side of the business would be more open to racial diversity, but that is not the case. There is slightly more diversity on the commercial side (mostly for commercial reasons). Bottom line: even for the edgy look, black women have the wrong bodies:

“Several other bookers saw the backside as particularly problematic when booking black models. The black backside has recently received plenty of attention in the press concerning First Lady Michelle Obama, whose entire body has been dismembered into arms, legs, butt, and hair, each part becoming a portal to read conflict, disorder, guile, and class. A black family in the White House has not eradicated bodily racial stereotypes but allowed for closer public inspection of them.

What matters is not the truth or falsehood of physical differences between white and non-white women but, rather, bookers’ presumption that such differences are unattractive and problematic. The implicit frame of beauty is so firmly rooted in whiteness that any deviation from a white, bourgeois body is viewed with disdain” (Loc. 4591)

And the assumption is that elite white audiences will not black women who are perceived as overly sexy/sexual. The editorial, edgy look should be idealized and unattainable, two characteristics that are historically impossible to associate with black women (colonialism oblige). The only way that blackness is accepted is through what is defined as “high end ethnic look”: just black skin, but everything else is white. High-end ethnicity means either (1) ethnicity lite (just a touch of ethnicity, not too much) and (2) exotic ethnicity (radical departure from white norm and where the exotic look is still a white – colonial – fantasy).

At the same time, the fashion world does not like the idea that it is racist, so, there are, of course token exceptions that legitimize exclusion (just like every once in a while, you will see non-size zero models). But these exception make it actually harder for others to get in as these exceptions permit the actors in the field to pat themselves on the back and bask in their accomplishments on diversity so that more does not need to be done.

But for Mears, this is not just a matter of individual sexism or racism:

“Fashion is an easy target of cultural criticism. The parade of size zero white girls down the catwalk affords fresh fodder for critiquing every six months, but charges of racism and sexism on the catwalk miss the larger sociological point. Fashion producers do not select models according to sexist or racist agendas; rather, looks materialize out of institutional arrangements and conventions that vary systematically across fashion’s two spheres of production, the editorial and the commercial. Within these two spheres, models are chosen to embody market-specific visions of femininity and masculinity that relate to the class positioning of an imagined audience. The look thus articulates ideas of gender, sexuality, and race that are mediated by class.” (Loc. 4889)

That is one of the most powerful sociological lessons, and yet, it gets ignored or forgotten or distorted as “making excuses”. One should always look at structural arrangements first, often embedded in subcultural norms that shape institutions. And because we are socialized in such social arrangements, we find it hard to see what is in the black boxes and harder to figure out how to change things. Many actors that Mears interviewed feel exactly that way.

And then, there is gender. When it comes to modeling, this is one case where anti-feminists would go “Aha!” as women make more money than men, and where men act gay to get jobs, are put on display, subjects to the same gaze as women. There is, of course, a long history of examining gender dynamics in the workplace beyond the wage gap.

In the fashion world, there is simply less demand for male models and they are seen as having less value than women models because cultural norms associate women and fashion. Bookers therefore are less likely to fight for men’s fees. Also, when men want to be models, they are seen with suspicion: being gay or, interestingly, hyper-straight (modeling as a way to get attractive women), hence the strategy of “going gay for pay”:

“Fashion today is perceived to be gay by industry insiders and outsiders alike.29 Everyone I interviewed—models, bookers, and clients alike—guessed that upward of 75 percent to 90 percent of men in the fashion industry are gay, excluding the male models. Working in an industry dominated by women and gay men, male models’ sexuality is on the line. Bookers explain that men, just like women, have to “work it” to get jobs—that is, they have to flirt with clients.

This entails male models going “gay for pay,” a phenomenon that sociologist Jeffrey Escoffier has found to be widespread in the porn industry, where straight men take on gay roles in higher-paying gay sex scenes. Gay for pay in fashion means strategically performing a homosexual identity at castings.” (Loc. 5396)

Men in modeling are also seen as unprofessional, more willing to accept lower payment because they have less to offer. To be a model is the opposite of the “doing gender” that boys and men are socialized into.

So, male models are perceived as debasing their masculinity and they must be something with them for pursuing that kind of career. And, as Mears describes it, there is just much less interest in the field when it comes to male modeling, at every level and with every category of actors:

“Agents devalue them. Clients mock them. And the market—as a conjunction of culture, social ties, and institutionalized conventions—generally punishes them. Male models know all of this, and for the most part they accept their lower pay and undermined potential, adhering to discourses that draw on traditional tropes of masculinity. The “boys” redefine their “worthlessness” as a privilege and a perk, and in the end they too devalue their own labor to resist a feminized role.” (Loc. 5655)

As a result, many male models describe their modeling not as a career but as a temporary stage, a stepping stone to something else (like acting), but not as something to be taken thoroughly seriously. Women are more likely to consider modeling as an end in itself, to be pursued as long as it lasts.

And, as such, this all reproduces male privilege and hegemonic masculinity:

“Such sentiments exemplify what sociologist Judith Stacey has called a postfeminist turn in culture, in which feminist ideas of equality have been incorporated into popular discourse only to be revised, depoliticized, and, ultimately, undermined.33 How innocently “the boys” ignore the systemic nature of masculine privilege and its historical legacy in structuring institutions ranging from law, family, work, and education; how happily they celebrate women as “rulers of the world,” as “the sex,” the eye candy, and the possessions! Modeling is a safe place for women to excel because they are not a real threat to men’s structural dominance. In fact, they confirm it, and they bolster it, by proving that women are better suited as bodies to look at.” (Loc. 5871)

As this ginormous review shows, I think this is a fascinating and important book that covers a lot of sociological ground in a highly accessible way (no small feat). I will make my intro students read it. Hopefully, they will get it. It is a great illustration of what sociology can do and show about society, culture, interaction and inequalities. It is also a great work in the sociology of work and precarization. And it is also a great read in sociology of gender.

Highly recommended.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Gender, Labor, Precarization, Sexism, Social Interaction, Social Norms, Social Structure, Sociology, Teaching Sociology | Comments Off

Book Review – Games of Empire

December 10, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter‘s Games of Empire – Global Capitalism and Video Games is a very interesting and well-written book that uses the conceptual apparatus laid out by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (with a touch of Deleuze and Guattari thrown in for good measure) in Empire and Multitude and apply them to the social world of video games as they are embedded in the global capitalist system. The book might be a bit advanced for an undergraduate audience with constant references to more abstract theories but is ultimately fascinating in relating the ins-and-outs of the videogame industry and culture to the workings of the world system.

The main argument of the book is this:

“The “militainment” of America’s Army and the “ludocapitalism” of Second Life display the interaction of virtual games and actual power in the context of Empire, an apparatus whose two pillars are the military and the market (Burston 2003; Dibbell 2006). Consider that the virtualities of Second Life feed back into the actualities of capital via the medium of the Linden dollar, and that the virtualities of America’s Army cycle into the actualities of combat via the Web link to the U.S. Army home page. Add, moreover, that the two games are connected: the high energy consumption and consumer goods of Second Life are what America’s Army recruits soldiers to fight and die for.  The two games reassert, rehearse, and reinforce Empire’s twin vital subjectivities of worker-consumer and soldier-citizen: Second Life recapitulates patterns of online shopping, social networking, and digital labor crucial to global capitalism; America’s Army is but one among an arsenal of simulators that the militarized states of capital – preeminently the United States – depend on to protect their power and use to promote, prepare, and preemptively practice deadly operations in computerized battlespaces (Blackmore 2005). Yet the examples of digital dissent in Second Life and America’s Army show that not all gamers accept the dominion of what James Der Derian (2001) terms “MIME-NET” – the military-industrial-media-entertainment network. Minor gestures that they are, these protests nevertheless suggest a route from game virtualities to another sort of actualities, that of the myriad activisms of twenty-first-century radicals seeking to construct an alternative to Empire.

Our hypothesis, then, is that video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire – planetary, militarized hypercapitalism – and of some of the forces presently challenging it.” (xiv – xv)

This connection is pretty obvious to make, after all, virtual games, along with the computer and the Internet, were products of military research. And more than just universes where otakus spend their lonely lives, virtual environments have gone legit by being used in the corporate world as training and surveillance tools.

Of course, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter go over Hardt and Negri’s conceptual apparatus and provide some clear definitions and examinations, especially Empire (the planetary regime of economic, military and technological power with no outside) whose global governance is multilayered, involving global institutions, nation-states and various agencies. The counterreaction to the power of Empire is Multitude, which covers all the forms of activism that, also in a multilayered and decentralized fashion, challenge the logic and processes of Empire. This is TINA (there is no alternative) versus AWIP (another world is possible).

A major process of empire is its capacity to extract energy from its subjects: as workers, as consumers, as soldiers, and as gamers, through immaterial labor, that is, the labor that involves use of information and communication and produces the affective component of commodities. Immaterial labor reveals the centrality of marketing, advertising and media in creating new products and managing workplaces that produce them.

Why virtual games?

“Virtual games are exemplary media of Empire. They crystallize in a paradigmatic way its constitution and its conflicts. Just as the eighteenth century novel was a textual apparatus generating bourgeois personality required by mercantile colonialism (but also capable of criticizing it), and just as twentieth-century cinema and television were integral to industrial consumerism (yet screened some of its darkest depictions), so virtual games are media constitutive of twenty-first century global hypercapitalism and, perhaps, also lines of exodus from it.” (xxix)

The first part of the book is a pretty extensive history of video games and the rise of the corporate giants that currently dominate the market (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo). In that section, the authors deal with the issue of gender in video games. Two main developments are central to this: (1) with the massive entry of women in the workforce and the relative absence of equalization of domestic work by men (the whole Second Shift thing), the deficit in care work has been compensated through technology (including game consoles that are perfect for latchkey kids). (2) As deindustrialization pushed men away from manufacturing into the computer and information technology sectors, it left women stuck in the service sector that involved most of the emotional work. These service jobs pay less, are more physically demanding and are less prestigious. Even when women got into the ICT sector, it was in different, less “fun”, functions than men and the gendered division of labor persisted.

And despite technology, the second shift was still there, leaving women with less leisure time than men, and therefore less time to invest in video games that involve long hours of practice and involvement in building characters, accumulating goodies and reaching level after level. In other words, male privilege may have been challenged in a lot of spheres of social life but video games created a domain of “remasculinization” where the in-game experience is thoroughly based on the tropes and cultural scripts of hegemonic masculinity where sexism is rampant. As a result, there are fewer women gamers, a fact then used to claim that women are “naturally” less into gaming, a convenient justification that avoids looking into the structural dynamics of gaming. Actually, when given the opportunity and not drowned in sexist and misogynistic abuse, a lot of women love to game.

How does that fit with Empire?

“The world market is a dynamo at drawing people into the circuit of production and consumption, but it neglects, to a catastrophic degree, social and ecological reproduction – care for households, community, and environment. The ongoing sexism of virtual play mirrors this imbalance. Reproductive work, material and immaterial, has historically been performed overwhelmingly by women, and this, even after successive waves of feminism, still largely continues to be the case. The virtual play industry addresses itself to an ideal male subject, a ‘digital boy’ (Burrill 2008, 15) who can spend hours at game play and game production, and positions women, of not now as completely invisible other, still as a subsidiary participant, a ‘second sex’, making the dinner, sustaining relationships, and gaming occasionally, ‘casually’. It is precisely this non-universality, this prioritization of consumption and production over social and ecological reproduction, that males virtual play so symptomatic of Empire.” (23)

What is especially introduced by virtual play is the concept of playbor (play as labor as a form of immaterial labor). Players are free laborers, toiling for fun and for a price but they offer their free labor. Playbor has four aspects;

  • microdevelopment ( a lot of games are created by small teams in someone’s garage, being micro-developed until a select few get bought by giant corporations while millions of others just crash and burn)
  • modding (modifications and improvements on already commercialized and released games by altering the codes)
  • MMOs (massive multiplayer online games where the players are running massive experiments in community- and team-building for free)
  • machinima (players creating cinema from games)

Playbor is the version 2.0 of the hacker culture based on autoproduction, networked cooperation and self-organization. All four modalities of playbor are free labor provided by the players to the companies commercializing the games. Playbor is now also a tool used in corporate training and the knowledge economy in general.

Similarly, the virtual game industry is paradigmatic of cognitive capitalism:

“Cognitive capitalism is the situation where workers’ minds become the ‘machine’ of production, generating profit for owners who have purchased, with a wage, its thinking power.

(…)

To speak of cognitive capitalism is specifically to suggest the recent rise to prominence of a set of industries for whom the mobilization, extraction, and commodification of advanced forms of collective  knowledge are foundational: the computer hardware and software industries; the biotechnology, medical, and pharmaceutical sectors; the financial analysis sector, marketing, and data mining; and an array of media and entertainment enterprises, including video games. All these industries, in turn, presuppose a socially ‘diffuse intellectuality’, generated by an increasingly vast educational apparatus. (Vercellone 2007b).” (37-8)

Cognitive capital has specific characteristics:

  • production of software to record, manipulate, manage, simulate and stimulate cognitive activity;
  • intellectual property rights, patents, trademarks, and copyrights become the main mode of revenues in an increasingly rent economy, or turning living knowledge into dead knowledge (studied unoriginality)
  • globalization: sectors of cognitive capital aim for the global market in both production and consumption;
  • dependence on the cognitariat: a workforce with intellectual, technological and affective skills that needs to be organized, disciplined, and ultimately exploited (through three devices: creativity, cooperation and cool)
  • cognitive capital is also the terrain where owners and workers conflict.

In that respect, the whole chapter dedicated to EA is highly enlightening.

Another aspect of Empire is the use of social machines:

“A social machine is a functionally connected assemblage of human subjects and technical machines, people and tools.” (70)

In the case of virtual games, the assemblage goes as follows:

  • technical machine: the console (replaced by the human body with Wii and then Kinect)
  • corporate machine: the EULA, patents and copyrights attached to any device, the flows of capital, labor and technology
  • time machine: the profitable using up of software and other virtual commodities that have a limited life (consoles are sold at a loss, all the money is in the software that have a planned obsolescence)
  • machinic subjects: the mobilization of hard core gamers (mostly in the trope of  the hypermasculine “man of action”)
  • transgressive war machines of hacking and piracy
  • machine wars between the three corporate giant of the gaming world
  • global biopolitical machine of Empire:

“The Xbox, the PS3, and even the charming Wii are machines of Empire; their technological assemblages of circuitry and cell processors build the corporate territories of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, which in turn are components in the worldwide capitalist machine.

(…)

Consoles are intimate machines, seamlessly inserted into our domestic or personal space or even carried close to our skin, responsive to our skills and prowess, becoming, with the Wii, remote body extensions.” (93)

Hence is extended a society of control or surveillance society, with our consent and enjoyment.

Having laid out the structural context of gaming in the first part of the book, the authors move on, in the second part, to the actual games that banalize the idea of permanent war by socializing boys early on through war play. This is especially crucial in the aftermath of the War on Terror, which officialized a state of permanent conflict everywhere against elusive, never quite clearly defined enemies. For Hardt and Negri, after all, war is not for conflict resolution between countries but for control and order in the global system.

In this context, war is

  1. interminable and therefore becomes a general phenomenon and a permanent mode of social relations
  2. lacking boundaries as ‘security’ becomes the rationale for incursions everywhere and anywhere and where the boundaries between domestic and international become blurry
  3. legitimizing a permanent state of exception, which requires the suspension of rights
  4. the new normal

Virtual games provide an important agent of socialization to all of this. War becomes part of the culture of everyday life and joins, again, the video game culture and the military apparatus and the overlaps are rather obvious. For instance, developments in military thinking involve Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT), a scenario that is often played out in different games (such as the Full Spectrum series) and in real life (in the cities of Iraq, for instance or the US cities by a more and more militarized police).

Banalization of war not only habituates and socializes the population to permanent war, but it also maintains its will to fight. Through the exercise of virtual violence, the games train, discipline and disinhibit deadly aggression against enemies, or at least, socialize people to indifference to torture, mass killing of these “others”. The mass media play their part in that process as well.

And then, there was World of Warcraft as illustration of biopower. The makers of the game try to control the game “from above” and in most aspects of the game while the gamers organize themselves “from below”. Running an MMO requires tight governance in the face of constant violations, hacking and modding with specific sanctions and surveillance mechanisms while being careful to not kill the fun out of the game through too much control and sanctions. And this gets trickier as the gaming population increases with a gaming boom in Asia, especially China.

In WoW, Gold is what matters and gold farming is booming but gold farmers are reviled and stigmatized by other players as fake players. At the same time, one forgets that gold farmers are also real-life super-exploited workers by corporations that supply a demand, mostly from wealthier players. This is a rather perfect illustration of the relationship workers / consumers of core countries have to workers from the periphery and semi-periphery.

This phenomenon (along with the exploitation of peripheral workers to work up the levels – power leveling – by western players) was nicely illustrated in Cory Doctorow’s novel, For The Win.

“Here the intersection of Blizzard’s [the company that produces WoW] digital biopower with the material biopower of Chinese capitalism snaps into sharp focus. Wgen Blizzard polices the digital realm of Azeroth (a kingdom created from the commercial enclosure of cyberspace) for virtual gold farmers, the offenders it seeks are likely to be actual peasant farmers who have left or been thrown off their fields by Chinese capitalism’s enclosures, abandoning an impoverished and ecologically devastated countryside for its cyber-connected cities. Some have probably been displaced by megaprojects such as the Three Gorges Dam, supplying insatiable demand for electrical power, primarily for industry, but also for Internet servers, in China’s eastern’s coastal cities.” (145)

And corporations do not like gold farming because it impedes on the free labor provided by paying players. And so, the super-exploited players bear the brunt of exploitation AND discipline so that playbor can prevail and continue to provide massive quantities of free labor. As a result, the production relations of the real world are reproduced in virtual world as well in hyper-subsumption (the gradual full colonizing of every sphere of life by capitalist social relations).

If there is one thing that is clear, whether with the success of Slumdog Millionaire or the current occupation movement, it is that the city (especially the global city) is a key site of Empire, and Grand Theft Auto is a perfect illustration of the centrality of the urban environment. The global cities are where we can see the full spectrum of global stratification and the consolidation of global hierarchies, where massive wealth but also surveillance and repression take place. GTA is a perfect representation of the neoliberal urbanism:

“GTA’s constitution of a metropolitan entirely enveloped by, and subsumed within, crime also performs a normalization of corporate criminality. Its game world asserts that crime is the way the universe is – the way money changes hands, business is done, society organized; it is the nature of reality. Why be outraged when the financial rulers of the world disregard the pettiness of the law, since all of this just reveals their superior grasp of the rules of the game? The omnipresence of crime in Liberty City is thus one more cultural contribution to the generalized indifference that greets the news of corporate crimes in Empire,  an indifference whose rational kernel is perhaps, as David Harvey observes, the popular assumption that criminal behavior is hardly ‘easily distinguishable from the normal practices of influence-peddling and making money in the marketplace.’ (2007, 166)” (178)

And if GTA presents a world that is thoroughly corrupt, it does not offer any alternative than to be really good at the rotten game. There is no way out of Empire. GTA may be satirical but it also normalizes the state of affair as “that’s just the way it is”.

But for the authors, there are alternatives to the games of Empire, the games of Multitude, which are the subject of the final part of the book. Multitude is the counterreaction to Empire, all the forms of resistance and activism to the logics of Empire. Multitude manifests itself in different ways:

  • through new subjectivities, new forms of producing, cooperating and communicating on a global scale and mobilizing skills to subvert Empire – subjective capacity
  • through new social movements opposing global capital – social movements
  • through the development and protection of alternatives such as open source, indymedia and other forms of freeing information from global capital – political project

The key is to have all three coalesce.

In the case of video games, resistance from the multitude takes a variety of forms all subsumed under the concept of countergaming:

  • Counterplay: acts of contestation within the established games of Empire and their ideologies
  • Dissonant development: emergence of critical content in a few mainstream games, dissident infiltration
  • Tactical games: dissemination of radical social critique through game designed by activists
  • Polity simulators: serious educational and training projects
  • Self-organized worlds: independent production of game content in MMOs
  • Software commons: challenges on the whole intellectual property rights regime

This follows rather closely the logic of “another world is possible” made famous by the World Social Forum. And all six paths are part of repertoires of contention within the game world. And all of them may contribute potential paths to exodus from Empire. The authors present a whole variety of examples of the ways this can be accomplished. After all, Empire is a contested terrain and multiple forms of resistance are always at work in the minutiae of social life as well as the major social institutions.

It is a very dense book but a very important one to understand the logic of Empire, as a good introduction to the work of Hardt and Negri, as well as new social movements.

Highly recommended.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Culture, Globalization, Ideologies, Mass Violence, Media, Militarism, Neo-Colonialism, Networks, Precarization, Racism, Sexism, Social Inequalities, Social Movements, Social Privilege, Social Theory, Surveillance Society, Technology | 2 Comments »

Exposing The New Sociopathy

October 30, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , ,

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.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/29/opinion/what-the-costumes-reveal.html?scp=8&sq=joe%20nocera&st=cse

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.”

Bonus visual:

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.

It’s their world. We just live in it.

Posted in Collective Behavior, Corporatism, Globalization, Ideologies, Poverty, Power, Precarization, Risk Society, Social Norms, Structural Violence, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

La Fuite En Avant (A Post in English and French)

October 13, 2011 by and tagged ,

So it’s all a big mess and people still have to survive and therefore have to find solutions to their present and individual, but socially-produced predicaments. Depending on their characteristics and circumstances, they may tap into repertoires of survival (something akin to repertoires of contention but directed at finding survival solutions). For instance, packing it up and moving on might be one such strategy when one’s national economy has collapsed and does not show any signs of recovering (mostly because one’s country is now subject to recessionary policies).

Or maybe it’s time to dust off Robert Merton’s Strain theory where socially-produced anomie and strain find resolutions in different ways, for instance, innovation in the form of exodus.

Example 1 – Greece:

“Depuis le début de la crise économique, en 2008, environ 50 000 Grecs ont migré, confirme Savas Robolis, également expert en migration. Le professeur estime à environ 80 % la part des jeunes dans ces départs. Une dynamique qui se serait accélérée ces derniers mois. “Les ingénieurs, les informaticiens, les architectes partent surtout en Grande-Bretagne, où il existe des opportunités avec la préparation des Jeux olympiques”, note le chercheur. Si les flux sont difficiles à mesurer, il estime à environ 10 000 personnes les départs vers le Royaume-Uni. “Les autres partent en Allemagne, environ 8 000 personnes, dans les pays européens et enfin en Australie, avec environ 4 500 départs”.

Un attrait pour l’étranger confirmé par les statistiques du site Europass qui doit faciliter la mobilité des Européens : sur la même période entre 2008 et 2011, le nombre de Grecs ayant utilisé ce service a quasiment doublé (pdf 2008). Plus de 60 % des personnes ayant publié leur CV sur le site ont moins de 30 ans (pdf 2011).

Contrairement aux années 1960 où des milliers de Grecs quittaient leurs pays vers l’Europe du Nord pour occuper des emplois peu qualifiés, il s’agit cette fois d’une poignée de jeunes gens hautement diplômés. L’Australie vient ainsi de lancer, en Grèce, le programme intitulé “Les personnes qualifiées dont l’Australie a besoin”. Le secrétariat de l’immigration organise ainsi des journées d’information le mois prochain pour les citoyens intéressés par l’émigration, rapporte le quotidien grec I Kathimerini. Le département de l’immigration de Canberra a déjà posté en ligne les secteurs dans lesquels la demande est forte, notamment l’ingénierie et la santé. “C’est plus compliqué pour les diplômés en sciences humaines”, commente Savas Robolis, qui rapporte ces scènes récentes : des étudiants “pessimistes” et “nerveux” s’enquérant de contacts pour un travail, quelque part en Europe.

“Il s’agit d’un véritable ‘brain drain’”, commente le chercheur, qui anticipe des conséquences très négatives sur l’économie : “d’après nos estimations, à partir de 2013, on notera une légère reprise de la croissance. C’est à ce moment là qu’on aura besoin de personnes qualifiées. Mais elles seront déjà parties.”"

Roughly, for those of you still not reading French, 50,000 Greeks have left since the beginning of the economic crisis. But contrary to the 1960s where low-skilled Greeks would migrate in search of better-paying but still low-skilled jobs, the current emigration is a brain drain where educated and skilled young people are leaving. If/when the economy recovers, the Greek society will need them but they will simply not be there. And, this also means that the Greek government will have subsidized the education of these workers but that another country will benefit from that investment.

Those that remain though join the ranks of The Precariat.

Example 2 – Italy:

“History is repeating itself. In the past 10 years, some 580,000 people have left southern Italy, driven out by the financial crisis and rising poverty.

The population of Naples has fallen by 108,000, Palermo has lost 29,000 residents and Bari 15,000. In 2010 alone, 134,000 terroni (a derogatory term used by Northern League supporters, which originally meant “farmer”) moved to northern Italy, with 13,000 others going abroad.

These alarming figures were published last month by Svimez, an agency that has been monitoring the region’s economy since 1946. “If nothing is done, there will be a demographic tsunami,” the report concludes.

The 15-34 age group accounts for the largest number of emigrants. If the trend continues, only 5 million people will be left in this age group by 2050, compared with 7 million at present. Over-75s would represent 18% of the total population, up from 8% currently.

With 0.7% growth forecast for Italy as a whole this year, the southern economy will grow by just 0.1%. Only farming has a few jobs to offer. Industry is on the verge of completely disappearing. For the south to catch up with the rest of the country, some €60bn ($80bn) would have to be invested, according to Svimez.”

But then, guess who is leaving as well? The Cloud-minders! The British wealthy have apparently grown afraid of the riff-raff who rebelled a few months ago and so, they have decided to move to… (wait for it) FRANCE.. high-taxing, king-killing, constantly-striking France! No, seriously:

“Selon une étude publiée lundi 10 octobre par la banque Lloyds TSB, les riches Britanniques sont plus nombreux à envisager de quitter le Royaume-Uni à la suite des émeutes du mois d’août. Plus étonnant, la France serait dans ce cas leur destination préférée pour leur nouvelle vie.

Ils sont désormais 17 % à souhaiter quitter le pays dans les deux prochaines années, contre 14 % il y a six mois, d’après une étude de Lloyds TSB International Wealth effectuée auprès de 1 057 personnes faisant partie des 5 % des Britanniques les plus aisés.”

The new sociopaths have a harder time living with the rest of us.

Posted in Migration, Precarization | No Comments »

The Precariat as Denizens 2.0

September 11, 2011 by and tagged , , , , ,

This is another installment in a series of posts (hereherehere and here) I intend to write as I work my way through Guy Standing‘s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. In this section, the main topic is about another major component of the precariat: migrants. Migrants are both a cause of the growth of the precariat and its main victims as well:

“Having dipped in the mid-twentieth century, when economies were more closed, the mobility of people around the world has soared with globalisation. One billion people cross national borders every year, and the number is rising. According to the International Organisation for Migration, there were 214 million international migrants in the world in 2010, there per cent of the global population. That is probably an underestimate, as undocumented migrants are obviously hard to count. In addition, perhaps 740 million are ‘internal’ migrants, including the 200 million rural migrants to China’s industrial cities who share many of the characteristics of international migrants (House 2009).” (90)

Standing distinguishes between different categories of migrants tied to global transformations and the growth of the precariat:

(1) the growing share of undocumented migrants that constitute the shadow reserve army of labor:

“Undocumented workers provide cheap labour and can be fired and deported if necessary or if the prove recalcitrant. They do not appear on the payrolls of firms and households, and fade into the nooks and crannies of society when recession hits. Productivity appears to rise wonderfully in a boom, as more are recuited without appearing in the statistics, and unemployment mysteriously drops less than the drop in output and demand in recessions.” (91)

(2) Circulants moving to take temporary jobs and who usually send back remittance to their families and often move back and forth.

(3) Women: the feminization of migration is a known topic. Women occupy a greater share of international and internal migrants. Documented migrants may become nannies and maids or fill up the ranks of nursing home personnel in the US. But this category also includes victims of sex trafficking, more or less forced labor and modern slavery.

(4) Students: the mobility of the student population has increased significantly over time, but since 9/11 the share of such students coming to the US has gone down.

(5) Migrants within transnational corporations, oftentimes, executives living between global cities.

(6) Refugees whose number are increasing dramatically: 15 million refugees, 27 million internally displaced peoples. Many of them are stuck in squalor whether in tent cities, camps of various kinds or anywhere they can be stuck and forgotten or assisted, sometimes for decades, depending on whether they got there through a stealth conflict or a chosen conflict (my addition):

“Somalia is now suffering its worst drought in 60 years. A quarter of the population has fled famine and conflict, heading west into Kenya. More than 1,300 people a day stream into the complex of refugee camps at Dadaab, Kenya, which is now housing more than 430,000 people in camps designed for 90,000. Many Somalis arrive near death after journeys of weeks with little food. Large numbers of them are children, often without parents.

At Dadaab they receive food, medical care, basic shelter — the emergency relief they need. But they will probably spend years in that desolate grid of white tents, eating gruel that gets thinner toward the end of the month. The camp lacks the money to provide even subsistence rations. In exchange, the refugees give up their rights to move freely and to work.

The history of refugee camps tells us that they are likely to suffer cholera and other diseases and that rape and domestic violence are widespread. Refugees in Dadaab face lives of enforced idleness and dependency; children born there may grow up there. This is what we have come to expect for refugees: a place one step removed from hell.

Contrast Dadaab with the situation of the roughly 1.6 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Instead of living in camps, they live in Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut and Amman. They get help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with an A.T.M. card that allows them to withdraw money every month. Some can work legally, but others work in the informal economy, as do locals.

They buy their own food and rent their own apartments. They use the local schools and health clinics. In areas where Iraqi refugees are concentrated enough to strain those services, the refugee agency spends money to refurbish and supply them, helping both the refugees and their neighbors.

Most Iraqi refugees are educated and middle class. They fled to relatively prosperous cities, and they get an unusually large amount of aid because of donations from the United States. They are in a very different position than the destitute Somali farmers.”

(7) Environmental refugees, which is pretty self-explanatory, but more of them can be expected in the near future.

And Standing also mentions another category: the deterritorialized migrants: those who look like migrants and get treated as such  with their national borders (think the immigration bill in Arizona where every brown person is immediately suspected of being undocumented migrant).

For him, these varieties of migrants warrant the recycling of the concept of denizen:

“In the Middles Ages, in England and other European countries, a denizen was an alien who was discretionarily granted by the monarch or ruler some – but not all – rights that were automatically bestowed to citizens. Thus, in return for payment, an alien would be granted ‘letters patent’, enabling him to buy land or practice a trade.” (93)

By definition, all migrants are denizens to a smaller or greater extent. At the worst-off end of the spectrum are the asylum seekers who have practically no rights at all.  Then the undocumented migrants who have some civil rights, but no social, political or economic rights. Visa-holders have their rights restricted based on the type of visa they hold. Permanent residents have all except, mainly, political rights and some social rights.

“Denizenship has grown most in China, where 200 million rural migrants have lost rights in moving to the cities and industrial workshops that serve the world. They are denied the hukou, the residence passbook that would give them resident rights and the right to receive benefits and be employed legally in their own country.” (96)

Even more crucially,

“Unlike in the early twentieth century, much of today’s migration is not assimilation to new citizenship but is more of a de-citizenship process. Instead of being settlers, many migrants are denied several forms of citizenship – rights held by local national, rights of citizenship from where they come and rights that come with legal status. Many also lack occupational citizenship, with the right to practise their occupation denied. They are also not on a trajectory to gain these rights initially denied to them, making them super-exploitable. And they are not becoming part of a proletariat, a working class of stabilised labourers. They are disposable, with no access to state and enterprise benefits.

This highlights the fragmented labour process in which varieties of the precariat have different entitlements and a different structure of social income. It feeds through into the issue of identity. Natives can display multiple identities, legal migrants can focus on the identity that gives them most security and illegals must not display, for fear of being exposed.” (96)

These characteristics make them more vulnerable to fall into the precariat but it also turns migrants into a kind of “floating” precariat, the ultimate deterritorialized, flexible and liquid workforce. Their presence increases inequalities within the host society and resentment among the working class, both of which can be profitably exploited economically and politically. At the same time, in low-population-growth societies (think Western Europe), they are the indispensable workforce.

In developing countries, the supposed economic miracles of the Asian tigers was built on a precariat composed of young rural women:

“Global capitalism has been built on migrant labour, first in what used to be called the NICs (newly industrialised countries). In the 1980s, I recall many visits to the export processing zones of Malaysia to factories run by some of the great names of global capital, such as Motorola, Honda and Hewlett Packard. It was not a proletariat being formed but a temporary precarious labour force. Thousands of young women from the kampongs (villages) were housed in shabby hostels, labouring for incredibly long workweeks and then expected to leave after several years, once their health and capacities had deteriorated. Many left with poor eyesight and chronic back problems. Global capitalism was built on their backs.” (106)

And China is a leader of that pack even now moving to an export labor regime where it buys depressed industrial assets in Europe (thanks to the financial crisis and favorable foreign exchange), and uses them as Chinese firms, using Chinese labor. this has been especially the case in Italy and Greece. From then, these firms compete and often outbid European firms for public infrastructure contracts.

In this context then, sovereignty then is used a disciplining tool to decide who can live and work where and under what conditions. The mechanisms of the nation-state are policing entities, managing the masses of flexible, deterritorialized and precarized labor pushing and pulling migrants according to the needs of global capitalism.

Posted in Book Reviews, Globalization, Labor, Migration, Precarization, Sociology | No Comments »

Cash Transfer Programs for The Poor Work

September 5, 2011 by and tagged , ,

Hey kids, remember when I reviewed Just Give Money to the Poor, a book that analyzes the different cash transfer programs in the Global South, their modalities, consequences, limitations, and more importantly, their successes. These programs almost completely obliterate the stereotypes conservatives have regarding the poor and their supposed irresponsibility and laziness.

Well well:

“Conditional cash payments to poor families with children in Argentina “have had a very positive impact”, says an enthusiastic Graciela Dulcich, the principal of a primary school in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

“Once the kids are enrolled in school, the responsibility is ours, and if they miss class for more than three days, we have to move heaven and earth to find out what’s going on, and to make them start coming again,” she explained.

For the past 35 years, Dulcich has worked in public schools in low-income neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the capital, such as school number 34, which she currently heads in San Isidro, a Buenos Aires district marked by strong social contrasts.

In late 2009, the centre-left government of Cristina Fernández introduced the Universal Child Allowance (AUH), which now grants 220 pesos ($53) a month for each child under 18, up to a maximum of five, to parents who are unemployed or work in the informal sector of the economy.

In the case of disabled children, the monthly allowance is four times that. The AUH was later expanded to the children of domestics, pregnant women, and low-earning members of co-operatives.

The cash transfer, which is now received by the families of more than 3.6 million children and adolescents, is conditional on school attendance and keeping up to date on vaccines and health checkups.

Independent studies show that the AUH has led to a drastic – between 55% and 70% – reduction in extreme poverty, as well as a less significant drop in the levels of poverty and inequality.

But the impact has not only been felt by the families who have been helped out of poverty thanks to the monthly cash payment that tops off the income they are able to make by working. The effects have also been felt in schools, especially at the primary level, where the AUH has led to a big jump in enrolment.

And, according to Dulcich, “once the school got the kids to come in, it won them back – in other words, even if they skip school one week out of three, they are in the system, and are followed up on.

“We do all sorts of things to get them to attend class,” from cheering and applauding every day for the ones who show up, to phoning or even visiting the homes of the children who miss class, the principal said.

She explained that the education ministry requires monthly reports on attendance. “If I report to the ministry that there are kids who have dropped out, or that many have repeated the year, they reprimand me and ask for detailed reports. This is the pressure we face, which is why everything possible must be done to make sure the kids come to class,” Dulcich said.

Primary schools can also refer children to psychologists or social workers, and offer the families guidance on medical or dental questions, as well as advice on different problems.

With regard to the families of children who habitually miss class, and “who do not have a culture of regular school attendance”, a bigger effort is made in terms of following up on their situation, Dulcich explained. Many of these families make a living by sorting garbage on the street for sellable recyclable materials like paper and cardboard – they are known as “cartoneros” in Argentina – work that the children often do alongside their parents.

“But for the mothers who never give up, the ones who ask us if they can give the address and phone number of the school as a reference when they go to look for a job, the AUH is highly appreciated,” she said.”

This perfectly illustrates the importance of not just giving money but also not overburden with conditionality (like making mothers attend tons of workshop) and focus on one or two very specific conditions and help parents meet those with adapted services. This is the way poor families can escape the poverty trap: if having a child in school brings income to the parents, then that child no longer has to beg on the streets or sort garbage with her parents. It embeds education and healthcare into family subcultures. It makes life less uncertain, precarious and risky for these people and therefore helps them make longer-term plans rather than just survive on a day by day basis.

And no, this is not a magic bullet against poverty. It should be one program among others, one that has proven its success though. And yes, maybe a few will take advantage of it. But that, in itself, does not invalidate the value of a particular public policy. But let’s not forget that Western countries, especially in Western Europe, have massively use cash transfer programs in building up their middle and working classes, with success. On top of it: these programs are not that costly, especially considering the social benefits.

Posted in Development, Education, Poverty, Precarization, Public Policy | 3 Comments »

Would The Members of The Precariat Please Stand up?

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

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

So, who is in the precariat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And further:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

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

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