License

Recent Comments

Blogroll

Search

Archive for Social Exclusion

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 »

Stigma and Exclusion 101

June 2, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

Do check out this series of stunning photos on a disease of the Middle Ages that persist today even though it is treatable, leprosy in Brazil:

A disease like leprosy, which leaves people with deformities is more likely to generate stigma, exclusion and marginalization especially when it is thought that it is contagious and can be caught through casual contact. At the same time, it is a disease of exclusion and marginality itself.

One cannot help but be reminded of Foucault’s idea that hospitals were not necessarily places of care but as places of deviance management where deviants (whether sick or insane) could be safely guarded out of the way of decent society, under the moral authority of the Church, then, later of the medical profession. It is not surprising that the more deviant categories trigger fears in the general population, the more their institutionalization will be demanded from some corners. The same thing happened at the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic and then, more recently:

A stigma, then, is a two-way phenomenon, cause and effect: based on preexisting stigmatization (whether it is marginalization due to poverty in the case of leprosy or religion in the case of homosexuality), moral entrepreneurs will demand further stigmatization and exclusion from society, with no plan for reintegration at some later point. In all cases, this boils down to a purification of the “normal” population from its deviants but hidden behind rationalizations about health or rehabilitation or some imaginary danger to society.

Posted in Health, Health Care, Poverty, Social Exclusion, social marginality, Social Stigma | No Comments »

Book Review – Communication Power – 1

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

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

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

The central question of the book?

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

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

So, what is power:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what are exactly the different layers of power?

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

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

So,

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

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

Next up, networks and the network society.

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

Protecting Social Privilege = Not Wanting to Share Toys

April 4, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , ,

By now, you have all probably been exposed to the Hunger Games racist fiasco (neatly collected and curated here). The story goes something like this: once upon a time, a lot of young people (mostly white) read a trilogy and much enjoyed it. Unsurprisingly, the books were put into film production. When the initial casting was disclosed… Horror and Abomination… some parts had been given to *gasp* BLACK actors. One was obvious (Rue was described as dark-skinned in the book) but the main other (Cinna, not really described in the book) was shocking.

After all, no racial description means white, by default, right? Especially since Cinna is a good guy. Read the Tumblr entries and note how that is the issue. In our cultural and symbolic universe, white = goodness, purity, innocence, and black = darkness and other ominous qualities. By the time the first movie was released, the white young people were appalled that someone had taken their book and changed that one, all of a sudden, central characteristic… without asking them.

This goes back to a point I have made several times: the cultural schemes that guide and shape our experience and perception of others, cultural products and experiences are discreetly racist. The non-white casting just acted as a trigger for the racist background knowledge (in Alfred Schutz’s sense) and pushed that aspect to the forefront.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

And speaking of that, yesterday, came the earth-shattering news that Instagram had released an app for Android. Oh dear. The cool kids who have been using it through their Apple products were not pleased and they all unleashed their distress on Twitter:

See also here.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

Here is the lesson: when a group enjoys a certain privilege, whether in terms of race, economic or social status, part of the privilege is having, or having access to, something that others don’t have. In typical in-group logic, the “something” in question becomes “ours”, part of who we are, of what we experience and enjoy together, and this enjoyment is based on exclusion. The exclusion makes “us” feel special and deserving (even though the “something” is unearned).

Once a system opens up and the dreaded “others” (racial minorities, lower classes or *egad* Android users – who can also be totally snotty, I should add) have access to “our” special “something”. It feels like “we” are being dispossessed of what is rightfully “ours” even though “we” are the deserving ones and “they” are not. This reaction towards Instagram for Androids is very reminiscent of the resentment towards affirmative action: the resentment is based on the – thoroughly false – idea that whites got in college through exclusively their own merits while blacks had to be pushed there by the government. More than that, for every black making it to college, it is automatically assumed that a more qualified white got excluded.

Now, apps are not educational public policy but the logic of privilege still applies as well as that of ingroup v. out-group dynamics.

That being said, this made me laugh out loud (or LOL as the cool kids say):

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go download Instagram for Android, just because I know it will piss “them” off.

Posted in Culture, Media, Networks, Racism, Social Exclusion, Social Privilege, Technology | 1 Comment »

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 »

Book Review – Chavs

July 12, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I have already posted on Owen Jones‘s Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class (see here and here). Another good subtitle for this book could be “the not-so-hidden injuries of class” (to riff on Richard Sennett’s classic book). If Jones is not a sociologist, he should be one because his book is a perfect illustration of the sociological imagination with its focus on structure / history /power regarding the treatment of the working class.

If one expects an exotic description of the Chav culture, one will be disappointed. What Jones does is take this social phenomenon: the stigmatization of the working class by the political and media sphere (with their capacity to spread prejudice and stereotypes) and retraces the roots of that phenomenon, culturally, structurally and politically. He examines when the concept of Chavs as the target for so much social contempt emerged, who created it, who benefits from it and what are the real social consequences for the targets of such stigmatization.

For Owens, the roots of the stigmatization of the Chavs are to be found in Thatcherism. The policies implemented by Margaret Thatcher and pretty much every British administration have resulted in deliberately breaking the backs of the unions and destroying the industrial working class, thereby succeeding in deindustrializing Great Britain. As a result, and unsurprisingly, these policies left a lot of working class communities devastated with no job prospects, surviving on precarized and low-paying occupations and public benefits.

Out of this devastation emerged the myth that everyone who had the drive and aspiration of becoming middle class did so and that those left behind were the lazy, irresponsible, feckless, etc. Since their being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder is the product of their own failing and moral faults, why should they get help? This myth, because it is a myth, has thoroughly been incorporated into the culture so that it hardly questioned.

And so, where the traditional unionized working class was feared, the post-Thatcher working class is both an easy target for stigmatization as racist throwbacks or as the butt of jokes in the media and popular culture.

Case in point, the Slobs:

Vicky Pollard:

Lauren Cooper:

Stupid, ugly, uncouth, obnoxious and loud-mouthed, filthy, ill-mannered, and happy to spend their ill-gotten taxpayers money on dumb stuff. Have I left anything out?

And they can sometimes be dangerous because they’re out of control (too much sex, too much food, too many kids, too much welfare) and therefore the only legitimate state intervention is disciplinary: slap them with ASBOs or throw them in jail:

And so, the Chavs provide convenient ideological cover:

“It is both tragic and absurd that, as our society has become less equal and as in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased. Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society. What if you have wealth and success because it has been handed to you on a plate? What if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? To accept this would trigger a crisis of self-confidence among the well-off few. And if you were to accept it, then surely you would have to accept that the government’s duty is to do something about it – namely, by curtailing your own privileges. But, if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom. Chav-hate justifies the preservation of the pecking order, based on the fiction that it actually a fair reflection of people’s worth.” (137)

But of course, such a crisis of self-confidence would never occur in the first place as there is the opposite myth that the rich are that wealthy because they deserve it, earned it, and are worth it. It is a toxic mix of Weberian Protestant Ethic, social Darwinism and Ayn Rand thrown in as well. The upper classes and power elite have convinced themselves that they are not at the top because of inherited privilege but because of their own superiority. And this is based, of course, on class denialism, which I have already discussed.

The key here, according to Jones, is that the working class then have been the recipients of devastating public policy that have decimated their communities, and they are now left to find individual solutions to social problems, and will be blamed if they fail to do so. Downward mobility was socially-induced and collectively experienced but survival has been individualized. And, of course, if the solutions they find – informal employment, for instance – are not found to fit within the normative expectations of work and employment, they will be blamed for that too.

Jones also touches upon the political backlash that has not surprisingly emerged out of that state of affairs, namely, the rise of the British National Party, driven mostly by the political marginalization of the working class. After all, which major political party, in England, represents the interests of the working class and working poor? The Tories, never, and New Labour, certainly not:

“The demonization of the working class has also had a real role to play in the BNPs’ success story. Although ruling elites have made it clear that there is nothing of worth in working-class culture, we have been (rightly) urged to celebrate the identities of minority groups. What’s more, liberal multiculturalism has understood inequalities purely through the prism of race, disregarding that of class.” Taken together, this has encourage white working-class people to develop similar notions of ethnic pride, and to build an identity based on race so as to gain acceptance in multicultural society. The BNP has made the most of this disastrous redefinition of white working-class people as, effectively, another marginalized ethnic minority. ‘Treating white working-class as a new ethnic group only does the BNP a massive favour,’ says anthropologist Dr Gillian Evans, ‘and so does not talking about a multiracial working class.’

It is unlikely that the BNP will ever win significant power, not least because of chronic incompetence and infighting, of the kind that crippled the party after the 2010 general election. But its rise is like a warning shot. Unless working-class people are properly represented once again and their concerns taken seriously, Britain faced the prospect of an angry new right-wing populism.” (225)

This issue is not unique to England. As Western economies collapse, so obviously because of the actions of the upper financial classes, and as many countries are implementing drastic austerity measures that will hit the middle and working classes very hard why leaving the actual culprits to their comfortable bailouts, the level of anger is guaranteed to rise. What the crisis has made so blatantly and painfully obvious is that Western governments are dedicated to the protection of the elites and the financial institutions and class, at the expense of everyone else.

I would argue that everything written in Jones’s book shows us that they have been preparing the ground for the past 30 years to neutralize any dissent, from the mechanisms of the surveillance society to the cultural work of stigmatizing the poor and glorifying the wealthy, to the progressive dismantlement of the social protections that had been built in the post-War period.

So, this book is extremely relevant beyond the English case. It is written in a very engaging style but is very well sourced and documented. For sure, it is clear where Jones stands but it does not negate the facts of policy and results that are also presented in details. Highly recommended.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Culture, Economy, Education, Ideologies, Politics, Power, Precarization, Public Policy, Risk Society, Social Change, Social Disadvantages, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, social marginality, Social Mobility, Social Privilege, Social Stigma, Social Stratification, Structural Violence, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

Family Fetishism, Class Denialism and Multicultural Racialization – Reading Chavs 2

July 7, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

This is a second post on Owen Jones‘s Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class. In my previous post, I focused on the sociopathic aspects of the dominant classes as they proceeded to decimate the British industrial working class.

Jones details at length the policies implements not just by Thatcher and the succeeding conservative government but also by the New Labour governments. But these structural factors were underpinned by ideological constructs that were propagated by a fully complicit media.

From what I can see, based on where I am in the book, Owens points to three such ideological constructs that are widespread in conservative thinking: family fetishism, class denialism and the racialization of the working class as white racist counterculture.

Let me take them in order.

Family fetishism refers to the positioning of the family, as social institution, as the main pillar of society, a structure whose essence should never vary for the sake of social stability. From this point of view, everything begins and ends with the family to which the other institutions are just adjuncts, if not unwanted interlopers. And by family, of course, what is meant is the monogamous, heterosexual, two-parent, middle-class family. In conservative thought, the family has as much place of choice as the individual. The only collective loyalty an individual has should be to his/her family. Needless to say, this conception is completely false. History and world cultures tell us that family structures are a function of power mechanisms, politics and economics. But in conservative thought, the family is this societal invariant aroudn which society revolves.

To give an example (not from Jones’s book), this conception is perfectly illustrated by Robert Heinlein’s puke-worthy novel, Farnham’s Freehold. In the novel, Farnham tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic world controlled by *OMG* BLACKS! who castrate his son, enslave whites and practice cannibalism.

The freehold from the title is the family compound he ends up creating with his family, though only having abandoned his castrated son, and dumped his whiny and aging wife (his daughter conveniently died in childbirth, from an pregnancy out of wedlock, the slut), for a younger and more attractive model. Hugh Farnham is the typical patriarch who sees his duty as only extending to his family (once conveniently recomposed more to his liking… he cheats on his wife with the younger woman during the nuclear explosions… why waste time).

Anyway, take this passage from Jones’s book:

“As the darling of the Tory grass roots, right-wing Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan put it: ‘It follows that you do not end poverty by giving money to the poor; a theory that British welfarism has amply demonstrated over 60 years.’ David Cameron himself welcomed one CSJ report with a highly questionable statement: ‘Families matter because almost every social problem that we face comes down to family stability.’ Not the lack of jobs or class division: ‘family stability’ explains all. If you are less well off, then, it is your behaviour that has to be changed, according to this Tory vision.

These ideas are the foundation stones of Cameron’s semi-apocalyptic vision of ‘Broken Britain’. Social problems affecting particular poor working-class communities are first exaggerated and then  portrayed as representative. Each time a tragic incident hit the headlines, Cameron seized on it as evidence.” (77-8)

Of course, the same is never true of incidents involving upper-class individuals who are seen not as representative of a rotten class, but as exceptions.

One could see the same reasoning in Thatcher’s now famous statement that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families. This family fetishism then permits to recast socially-induced issues as moral failings tied to families: single-motherhood, divorces, working mothers, too many unruly children with bad manners. All these things point to collapsing family structures, with lack of parental authority over unsocialized children.

And so, the solution to these moral failings is moral discipline, not socio-economic policy. And there are a lot of TV programs dedicated to exposing the moral turpitude of working-class families and individuals. In a typically social Darwinist way, these people belong at the bottom of society because of their lack of middle-class values. And indeed, social classes are now matters of culture, and not socioeconomic status.

That is, when classes are mentioned at all because class denialism is another pillar in the cultural demonization of the Chavs. Class, as socio-economic, life-chance category must be eliminated from the discourse as irrelevant. This was accomplished through (1) the real destruction of the industrial working-class through the elimination of their jobs and devastation of their communities and organizations (such as unions), and (2) the proclamation that “we’re all middle-class now”.

The very idea of the concrete plight of the working-class has been evacuated from the discourse, especially the fact that the conditions in which some working-class individuals and communities face must be attributed not to deliberate policies but turned inwards: their own failures, bad decisions, lack of self-control. After all, if ‘we’re all middle class”, it is because most of us worked to get there. Those left behind are there because of their laziness, fecklessness. They deserve to be where they are and they do not deserve help but control.

The third nail in that coffin is to resurrect the working-class but as a racialized category: the white working-class… the racist throwbacks in a multicultural society:

“Because multiculturalism became the only recognized platform in the struggle for equality, Dr Evans [anthropologist specialized in social class] argues that, on the one hand, we fail to acknowledge ‘the existence of a multi-racial working class’, and on the other, the white is ‘forced to think of themselves as a new ethnic group with their own distinctive culture’. Most dangerously of all, middle-class people have ended up ‘refusing to acknowledge anything about white working class as legitimately cultural, which leads to a composite loss of respect on all fronts: economic, political and social.’

We are rightly encouraged to embrace and celebrate ethnic minority identity, not least as a counterweight to continued entrenched racism. But a racialized ‘white’ working class is not seen as having a place in this classless multiculturalism. There are, after all, no prominent, respected champions for the working class in the way that there are for many minority groups. The interests of working-class ethnic minority people end up being ignored too, because the focus is on building up the ethnic minority middle class by ensuring diversity within the leading professions.” (102)

And of that, the liberal and Labour are guilty. Their turn to identity politics is exactly what is described above. Working class bread-and-butter issues are of no more interest to the progressive groups in the US than they are to New Labour. One needs only remember the mockery and jeers that accompanied Hillary Clinton’s higher scores with the white working class during the 2008 Democratic primary.

One needs only remember that formulation of the future of the Democratic party by a leading progressive bloggers. Replace “middle class values” with “creative class background” and it’s exactly what is mentioned above (although the appeal to rich donors is still solidly there):

“Cultural Shift: Out with Bubbas, up with Creatives: There should be a major cultural shift in the party, where the southern Dems and Liebercrat elite will be largely replaced by rising creative class types. Obama has all the markers of a creative class background, from his community organizing, to his Unitarianism, to being an academic, to living in Hyde Park to shopping at Whole Foods and drinking PBR. These will be the type of people running the Democratic Party now, and it will be a big cultural shift from the white working class focus of earlier decades. Given the demographics of the blogosphere, in all likelihood, this is a socioeconomic and cultural demographic into which you fit. Culturally, the Democratic Party will feel pretty normal to netroots types. It will consistently send out cultural signals designed to appeal primarily to the creative class instead of rich donors and the white working class.”

And finally, I should mention that this seems to me to be main reason why the main critique launched against Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level and their very detailed analysis of the impact of poverty, was that they were ignoring culture, which is assume to explain more about all the negative impacts detailed in the book than social inequality. Because such ideas cannot be allowed into public discourse.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Ideologies, Media, Poverty, Power, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, social marginality, Social Stigma, Social Stratification | No Comments »

Book Review – Intern Nation

July 4, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Welcome to the brave new world of work, where you work more and get paid nothing! Travailler plus pour ne rien gagner (maybe that should be Sarkozy’s slogan for his reelection campaign!). This is the reality experienced by more and more people in the US, and thoroughly explored by Ross Perlin in Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.

The premise of the book is that internships have exploded in numbers as they have become an almost mandatory of someone’s education in order to gain legitimate entry on the labor market. But Perlin considers them to be “a form of mass exploitation hidden in plain sight” (xiv), with roughly 9.5 million college students, roughly 75% will participate in at least one internship before graduation. He argues that a significant share of those are unethical if not illegal.

In other words, interns are becoming the fastest-growing category of American workers, the largely unpaid ones.

The simple fact of non-payment, for Perlin, also points to the fact that internships have become a site of reproduction of privilege as only those of financially comfortable background can hope for the glamorous internships in Congress, in Hollywood or television and journalism that truly open doors for permanent (and paid) jobs, guaranteeing that the upper-classes will remain the major cultural producers in the mass media. In that sense, internships contribute to both exploitation and reproduction of inequalities in opportunities.

Finally, Perlin argues that internships devalue labor, especially for young people and at entry-level positions at the same time that interns may displace workers.

The book itself is full of a variety of examples in a diversity of settings. The first chapter is dedicated to the Disney internships whose promotion is so present at so many college campuses, as Disney runs one of the largest internship program, with 7,000 to 8,000 interns every year:

“In its scale and daring, the Disney Program is unusual, if not unique – a “total institution” in the spirit of Erving Goffman. Although technically legal, the program has grown up over thirty years with support from all sides with almost zero scrutiny to become an eerie model, a microcosm of an internship explosion gone haywire. An infinitesimally small number of College Program “graduates” are ultimately offered full-time positions at Disney. A harvest of minimum-wage labor masquerades as an academic exercise, with the nodding approval of collegiate functionaries. A temporary, inexperienced workforce gradually replaces well-trained, decently compensated full-timers, flouting unions and hurting the local economy. The word “internship” has many meanings, but at Disney World it signifies cheap, flexible labor for one of the world’s largest and best-known companies – magical, educational burger-flipping in the Happiest Place on Earth.” (3-4)

Needless to say, Perlin is merciless in his investigation of the world of internships, and Disney is not the only entity getting a drubbing, but is presented as somewhat representative of the trend: “a summer job with a thin veneer of education, virtually unleavened by substantive academic content.” (8).

Perlin identifies two major post-War trends that contributed to the internship explosion:

1. The rise of the “new” economy, post-industrialism, service jobs and networked capitalism along with its cohort of contingent labor. This casualization of the workforce is a well-known trait of the post-fordist regime based on flexibility and exploitation and the rise of the ubiquitous “independent contractor”, a catch-all category.

2. The rise of the field of Human Resources and the “Human capital” approach to education.

What this boils down to is what Bauman and Beck have described as individualization in the post-modern era. Students now have to see themselves as having to cultivate individually their own human capital and internships do just that. The student is his/her own entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of one’s self, one’s own independent contractor.

This is also part of the trend of vocationalism in education, that is, seeing education as job training rather than, well, education.

Perlin also notes that internships have also risen on the ashes of traditional apprenticeships that have a medieval connotation and have long been associated with industry and the trades. There are still a few apprenticeships in the US, they are usually paid, with benefits and unionization. There is still an Office of Apprenticeship as part of the government but it seems to be a well-kept secret and the trades are not the hot career when one dreams of working for Google.

I was also surprised to learn that a great deal of internships might actually be illegal (not that anyone is watching). The Fair Labor Standards Act is still the law of the land and, based on a US Supreme Court decision and explained by the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, one category of people is exempt from the FLSA provisions: trainees. And since the USSC has never ruled on interns, they are considered trainees, therefore exempt. Except that there are six condition that must ALL be met for trainees to be exempt, as listed by Perlin:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee.
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wage for the time spent in training.

All six criteria have to be met for a position to be considered exempt. If one of these provisions is not met, then, it’s a job and it falls under the provision of the FLSA. How many internships actually meet all six criteria? Who knows. So, employers just looking for cheap labors should not get interns or their internships are illegal. But again, who’s checking? Although Perlin does mention that the Obama administration did increase the number of DOL inspectors.

More than that, because they are not considered workers, unpaid interns receive none of the protection against discrimination or harassment that regular employees get (however inadequate) and they have no legal recourse. On the other hand, corporations receive $124 million annual contribution in the form of free labor.

Perlin is also severe in his critique with regards to what he considers the complicity of colleges and universities in the explosion of exploitative internships. Schools endorse internships without a second thought. Sometimes, they make money off of deal with employers or non-profit organizations. And they provide the academic cover in the form of academic credit for sometimes questionable internships. Often, academic credit is supposed to replace the pay that anyone would normally receive for the same work that interns do. So, not only do students pay for credit, but they don’t get any pay for the internship. They pay to work for free.

“In certain cases, paying college tuition to work for free can be justified – particularly if the school plays a central role in securing the internship and makes it a serious, substantive academic experience. Providing credit certainly can cost the school in terms of supervision time and administrative work, although the costs are unlikely to match those of a classroom experience. And in the most miserable, increasingly common scenario, employers use the credits in an attempt to legitimize illegal internships while universities charge for them and provide little in return, and interns are simply stuck running after them, paying thousands of dollars for the privilege of working for free.” (86)

Instead, of course, colleges and universities actively promote internships  just like they have online education as a low-cost (for them) option to get money from students. The worst offenders, in my view, have the (often for-profit) colleges and universities who offer their credits to highly expensive private internship-abroad organizations (both shall remain nameless, as in, no free publicity, but their practices are truly disgusting) who charge thousands of dollars for unpaid internships outside of the US, but there are also all the non-profit organizations, largely staffed by interns in the name of “service-learning” or the start-ups that wouldn’t even get off the ground if they didn’t use free labor. How many NGOs or such companies would not function without free labor? Or maybe they would need to revise their activities or business plans or pay interns minimum wage.

The other issue that is central, in my view, and that Perlin discusses at length, is this: what about the students who have mandatory internships in their curriculum but cannot afford unpaid work? Or whose parents cannot support them? Well, they get left behind in the race to pad one’s résumé with prestigious internships. In other words, the ability to engage in unpaid internships is yet another privilege that the already-privileged enjoy, at the expense of other students. While privileged students might spend the summer on Capitol Hill, interning for a Congressperson for free (even though there is a big bogus element to these internships, as Perlin shows), others actually have to work to pay for next year’s tuition.

And in addition to the experience and the lengthening of one’s CV, these privileged students get to network and accumulate social capital, something that their less privileged counterparts do not get to do. And finding prestigious internships in the first place is a matter of social connections. For instance, the donor to an NGO can pretty much impose to have a child or relative or friend as intern. Access matters a lot, when it comes to internships.

“Many internships, especially the small but influential sliver of unpaid and glamorous ones, are the preserve of  the upper-middle class and the super rich. These internships provide the already privileged with a significant head start that pays professional and financial dividends over time, as boosters never tire of repeating. The rich get richer or stay rich, in other words, thanks in part to prized internships, while the poor get poorer because they’re barred from the world of white-collar work, where high salaries are increasingly concentrated. For the well-to-do and wealthy families seeking to guarantee their offspring’s future prosperity, internships are a powerful investment vehicle, and an instrument of self-preservation in the same category as private tutoring, exclusive schools, and trust funds. Meanwhile, a vast group of low- and middle-income families stretch their finances thin to afford thankless unpaid positions, which are less and less likely to lead to real work, and a forgotten majority can’t afford to play the game at all.” (162)

And did I mention that women are more likely to get unpaid internships than men?

And you wonder why there is an ideological continuity between politics, news and think tanks and other organizations. It is a Village and they’ve interned there before.

Part of the issue is that there is a high demand for internships (as a result of becoming an academic / graduation requirement), so much so there are now internship auctions where employers auction an internship and potential interns bid on it, and it goes to the highest bidder but not the most qualified candidate.

Of course, other countries are getting on the action as well, exploiting interns. Remember Foxconn, the company that makes your iPad and other Apple goodies, that became famous because its working conditions were so awesome that workers kept killing themselves? So much so that they now have to sign contracts promising not to commit suicide? Yup, that Foxconn… Check this out:

“Foxconn seems to have become the world’s biggest abusers of internships. According to a detailed report recently compiled by university researchers in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the company uses interns extensively in at least five of its major plants, compensating them at the lowest possible pay grade (under $200 per month) and often forcing them against the law to work nights and overtime. In order to avoid paying for the medical and social welfare owed to regular employees, Foxconn has in some cases reportedly filled more than half of its assembly line jobs with interns – usually with the cooperation of hundreds of schools that stand to receive a fee in return.” (196)

Welcome to the new world of labor casualization, precarization and flexibility. These global workers now have their very own patron saint: San Precario

Also, San Precario is transgender. The five icons represent income, housing, health, communication and transport. That is, there is, hopefully, a rising movement against precarization, that includes interns, as part of the global civil society.

Perlin himself offers a series of recommendations to make internships more meaningful and more fair, based on the six criteria above. But most of all, his book is a wake-up call to a major trend that has gone largely unrecognized and unexamined, and one can see why. It is an important book for anyone interested in labor issues and the future of work.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Economy, Education, Labor, Precarization, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Selection, Social Stratification, Socialization | 2 Comments »

Inadvertently Sociological Comic du Jour

January 26, 2011 by and tagged , ,

In-group / out-group!

Posted in Microsociology, Social Exclusion, Social Interaction | No Comments »

Social Statuses and Stigmas

September 21, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , ,

Here are just a couple of things from Monday’s lectures (mine) on social statuses and stigmas.

Case 1: stigmatization based on ascribed status

And the discussion I had with the students, summarized as this (which is where I wanted to go!)

Ascribed Status and Stigma

And case number 2, stigmatization based on achieved status:


Watch Saving Africa’s Witch Children in Activism & Non-Profit |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

And a comparable discussion which got us here:

Achieved Status and Stigma

Both cases are perfect illustration of the contrast between interpersonal (direct) violence and structural (systemic) violence.

Posted in Social Deviance, Social Exclusion, social marginality, Social Stigma, Structural Violence, Teaching Sociology | No Comments »

Sociology of The World Cup – Capitalist Pigs and Political Opportunity

June 22, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

So there was this relatively uninteresting tiff between Terry Eagleton (football is the crack cocaine of the masses!) and Dave Zirin (but football is fun… which is, by the way, why it works as presumably crack cocaine of the masses, if it weren’t fun, no one would care).

Anyhoo, I have just finished reading Gabriel Ondetti‘s Land, Protest, and Politics: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for Agrarian Reform in Brazil which is a history of the ups and downs of the MST using the political opportunity theory of social movements. The book is less an entertaining read than Wendy Wolford’s as there are fewer descriptions of actual occupations and no interviews with settlers, sem terra or MST and other leaders.

Basically, Ondetti argues that by and large, the ebbs and flows in movement mobilization, in the case of the landless movement, are well explained by the political opportunity structure: the rise of the movement for agrarian reform when political space opened up at the end of the military dictatorship, why the MST grew during the following conservative administration while other movements declined (answer: because the tactical choices of using occupation and getting land for those who had participated in occupations sidestepped the free rider problem and because land is something you can actually occupy as opposed to gender wage equality or labor rights), the major takeoff period followed by decline as the Cardoso administration engaged in strict crackdown, and the resurgence with the election of Lula.

Now, what does this have to do with the World Cup? Well, the World Cup may very well constitute a structure of political opportunity for demands for agrarian reform in South Africa, as noted by Raj Patel:

“The poor are being used by the World Cup. But the other point I wanted to argue was that World Cup can also, in a clearly asymmetric way, be used by the poor. This isn’t a story that makes it either to the press, or to the analysis about the ills of Fifa. Protests in Durban recently have tried to get the world’s press to shine a light on how apartheid remains, and to provide cover for street marches that would have been illegally shut down in the past.”

He gives this example:

And specifically as well this example of World Cup activism by The food Sovereignty Program in favor of agrarian reform:

“The needs and challenges faced by small scale farmers in South Africa have not been taken seriously by the South African government. In times of huge government spending on the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the Right to Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign (Food Sovereignty Campaign) arranges a march to parliament to remind the politicians of the urgent needs of marginalized farm workers, emerging farmers, farm dwellers and landless people.

Demands are going to be handed over to President Jacob Zuma, the ministers of Agriculture as well as the MEC for Human Settlements. The main demands include land redistribution, an end to the commercialization of water, decent public housing for all, that government supports a move towards more sustainable agro-ecological agriculture and stop the experiments with genetically modified organisms in South Africa.”

One could argue that, in terms of tactical repertoire, marches during the World Cup make sense as no government would want to crack down brutally on protesters while the world media are watching. Usually, crackdowns and clean-ups occur before international events. Once these events are under way, governments try to be on their best behavior.

Global events give an opportunity for groups that are socially excluded or marginalized to make themselves heard on a global scale in a relatively safe fashion. The agrarian reform issue is indeed a global one.

Posted in Activism, Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Corruption, Development, Economy, Globalization, Ideologies, Labor, Politics, Power, Public Policy, Social Exclusion, Social Institutions, social marginality, Social Movements, Sociology, Sports | No Comments »

Social Exclusion 101 – Discreet Discomfort

November 27, 2009 by and tagged ,

How can a town or a city make sure that the sight of homeless people does not offend the good, hard-working citizens? Especially in these bad economic times when there might be more of them hanging around the cities of France? Easy, make it impossible for them to sit down where they normally would, but not obviously, of course. This mode of exclusion has to be stealth and not esthetically unpleasant.

That is what this series of photos over at Rue 89 shows. For instance, these discreet little spikes:

Or even these small pyramids:

Or the falling dominoes:

When it comes to making it uncomfortable for homeless people to sit down and take the load off, cities can be very creative. Do check out the entire series of photos:

These devices clearly delimit who is a legitimate participant in the public space and therefore who is a legitimate urban denizen.

Posted in Social Exclusion, Urban Ecology | 9 Comments »

Physical Mobility as Privilege, Being Stuck as Structural Violence, and Some Lousy Writing

October 30, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , ,

I know that some degree of condescension and amusement is a requirement when it comes to writing about France but this is just a lousy way to start an article about what is successful (albeit not without problems) public policy. After all, we know that Paris, like all (especially European) large cities is a traffic nightmare despite a very thick network of public transportation and air and noise pollution is definitely an issue. So, the bike-rental program is not a bad idea and it has been in place in Amsterdam for a very long time. But here is how the article starts:

See what I mean? “Utopia” (never mind the precedents for this)? “Parisian psyche” (whatever the hell that is)? Oh, those French, don’t they know that government policy NEVER works? Like health care?

Look, this is nothing new to life in a French city. Try leaving your car unlocked or with the radio / CD player in (in France, cars come with plug-in / plug-out radio / CD players) and see what happens. France is a society where there is much less police presence and social classes are not as residentially segregated than in the US where, if one leaves in the upper-middle class suburbs, one will hardly ever be exposed to “the riff-raff”. So, petty delinquency and vandalism are much more visible.

At the same time, French authorities have definitely tried to keep the youth from the French “banlieues” from spending time downtown Paris (it’s bad for the city’s image and for tourism), so these youth often get pulled out of the subway before getting to Paris, hence the sense of exclusion as subways do not run 24/7. This aspect of structural violence is part of the explanation for vandalism, as reaction of the powerless, as a sociologist explains:

So, basically, it’s a success with some problems related to larger social issues that France has been facing for many years… so much for utopia and Parisian psyche.

Actually, Bruno Marzloff has much more nuanced views when it comes to bike-sharing and bike-riding programs for large cities (note that he created his own private consultant practice, specialized in transportation issues… so, there is work for sociologists outside of academia) but these do not eliminate preexisting stratification barriers:

The issue here, also, is that such agency and mobility is based on a certain level of affluence and social status in the stratification system. Monitoring one’s mobility is often not an option for banlieues dwellers whose movements and physical mobility tend to be more limited by the availability of public transportation and greater weight of police presence. Marzloff’s bike-sharer is most likely an upper-middle class professional who can afford to live in Paris (hence the convenience of door-to-door bike ride) or an affluent suburb dweller who does not fall into the category of suspicious population.

Moreover, the network-building that Marzloff mentions definitely involves choices and options that are not available to the entire population. The notion of sharing transportation relies on a certain degree of trust (Putnam’s social capital) which tends to not exist across social classes (especially in the class-segregated suburbs) as well as equal playing field where the parties both have something of equal value to exchange. Building social capital and networks in situations of social asymmetries is much more difficult.

In the end, mobility as privilege and being stuck as structural violence at the local level is a mirror image of the same at the global level, as studied by Manuel Castells and Saskia Sassen: the transnational capitalist class moves seamlessly from international airport terminals to expensive hotels at the core of global cities, witohut much impediment from the authorities whereas the global poor tends to be stuck in place or stigmatized when they try to move (see all anti-immigration discourse) and much more strictly controlled in their limited mobility.

Posted in Environment, Public Policy, Social Disadvantages, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociology, Structural Violence | No Comments »

Book Review – Punishing The Poor

October 25, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I cannot emphasize enough what an important book Loïc Wacquant‘s Punishing The Poor – The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity is. Except, I have already done that by posting various quotes that I thought were important and made essential points as I was reading the book.

The main argument made by Wacquant is that the social policy of transition from welfare to workfare cannot be understood unless it analyzed in conjunction with the rise of prisonfare (mass incarceration of certain categories of the population). Workfare and prisonfare are two sides of the same coin: the areas where the neoliberal state can still assert its authority once depleted of its economic and social policy functions.

As neoliberal policies get implemented (in the name of globalization or moralization of society through work or punishment), a lot of people find the rug pulled from under their feet, mostly the poor and more specifically single women with children and minorities. What to do with these? Well, for the women, it will be workfare. For the men, it will be prisonfare.  This seems a bit simplistic but the data clearly show such a trend. In the United States, this is combined with the inherent structural and institutional racism at the heart of society. Prisonfare is the lastest mode of black subjugation and control along with ghettoization.

For Wacquant, the combination of workfare and prisonfare fulfills both economic and symbolic functions for the neoliberal punitive state (as workfare is equally punishing as prisonfare) fight the crisis of legitimacy that pervades all developed democracies as the state divests itself from its capacity to set economic policies and abandons policies of social justice and redistribution. With the help of the media, public attention is directed not at the massive transfer of wealth to the top of the social stratification ladder but rather on designated “incorrigible” deviants: welfare cheats and parasites, criminals and pedophiles against whom the ever-more intrusive mechanisms of the surveillance society are applied.

Of course, this all is based on a series of lies that nonetheless produced and dispersed throughout society, mostly, again, through the media: that the US is spending enormous amounts of money on welfare (False: AFDC never accounted for more than 1% of the federal budget) or that crime is on rise, perpetrated by ever younger and more dangerous “predators”. Here again, this is false: crime has been on the decline for a long time irrespective of the policies implemented or not. See below, for instance as Americans still believe that there is MORE crime (and by that, they think street crime):

Wacquant himself explains it in this video:

Regulating the poor is indeed the major outcome of these policies but there is not, according to Wacquant, some large-scale conspiracy as such a conspiracy would require much more competent coordination and centralization as is available in the United States. What we see are the logical conclusions and results of separately adopted neoliberal policies: liberalization / privatization on the economic domain, shrinking of the state in the name of efficiency, and de-socialization of waged labor (along with waves of outsourcing and off-shoring) along with a moral cultural outlook on social deviance. Such economic policies are bound to be devastating on certain segments of the population which then need to be controlled for their individual moral failings, largely depicted in terms of lack of self-control and responsibility.

Either way, the victims of neoliberal policies are irresponsible, unproductive individuals who need to be disciplined (in Foucault’s sense) and that is the job left to the state, with the recourse of private sector actors such as private welfare / child welfare administrations and private prisons. In this sense, in this punitive environment, structural conditions leave the most vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves even though their ghettoization prevents them from improving their conditions. Then, they are blamed for their lack of ability to get out of them.

There is, of course, one type of economic activity which would lead to better economic results: illegal economy. This is where the policies of the War on Drugs work to prevent those deprived of socialized wage labor from one exit from poverty, lending them, of course, in prison, serving large sentences for which there is no parole.

These very real economic impact of the neoliberal state on the poor is coupled with a persistent stigmatization that successfully covers the fact that these policies, workfare and prisonfare, do not have much to show for themselves almost 15 years after their implementation. But this is also the one weak point I found in Wacquant’s book: it needs some major statistical and data updating. Most of the data date back from the 1980s and the most recent date from the 1990s. One would want to know the state of these trends now. A lot can happen over 10 years, especially since these 10 years cover the entire Bush presidency.

Moreover, Wacquant also demonstrates that this double regulation of poverty (through workfare and prisonfare) has been exported to Europe, stating with the liberalization of the state through Thatcherism in the UK, the Kohl years in Germany and the oh-so memorable Chirac years as PM in France. Even the various left-of-center parties, such as the socialist parties in Western Europe have embraced the law-and-order view of the state and neoliberal economic “reforms” all the way to Sarkozy’s slogan to “work more to earn more”… we all know what happened to that in these past years.

In a way, this book truly illustrates the best of sociological analysis: it is a combination of solid data analysis, identification of patterns and trends and use of theory to pull it all together and a very convincing and critical demonstration. In this, this is a powerful book. I am not sure it is readable at the undergraduate level though and that is unfortunate because I am always on the lookout for great sociological books for my students to read to get a sense of how powerful sociological analysis is. Or at the very least, it should be offered as guided reading, with a lot of work to be done on the instructor’s part to guide the students through it many levels of analysis.

A very powerful book.

.

Posted in Corporatism, Culture, Economy, Globalization, Human Rights, Ideologies, Institutional Racism, Labor, Media, Politics, Poverty, Precarization, Privacy, Public Policy, Racism, Risk Society, Social Change, Social Deviance, Social Disadvantages, Social Discrimination, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, social marginality, Social Norms, Social Research, Social Sanctions, Social Stigma, Social Stratification, Social Theory, Sociology, Structural Violence, Surveillance Society, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

Ethnoracial Prison and Judicial Ghetto

October 15, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“To grasp the kinship between the ghetto and the prison, which helps explain how the structural decline and functional redundancy of the one led to the unexpected ascent and astonishing growth of the other during the last quarter of the twentieth century, it is necessary first accurately characterize the ghetto. But here we come upon the troublesome fact that the social sciences have failed to develop a robust analytic concept of the ghetto; instead they have been content to borrow the folk concept current in political and popular discourse at each epoch. This has caused a good deal of confusion, as the ghetto has been successively conflated with – and mistaken for – a segregated district, an ethnic neighborhood, a territory of intense poverty, a zone of housing blight and even, with the rise of the policy myth of the ‘underclass’ in the more recent period, a mere accumulation of urban pathologies and antisocial behaviors.

A comparative and historical sociology of the reserved Jewish quarters in the cities of Renaissance Europe and of America’s ‘Bronzeville’ in the Fordist metropolis of the twentieth century reveals that a ghetto is essentially a sociospatial device that enables a dominant status group in an urban setting to simultaneously ostracize and exploit a subordinate group endowed with negative symbolic capital, that is, an incarnate property perceived to make contact with members of the category degrading by virtue of what Max Weber calls a ‘negative estimation of honor.’ Put differently, the ghetto is the materialization of a relation of ethnoracial control and closure built out of four elements: (i) stigma, (ii) constraint, (iii) territorial confinement, and (iv) institutional encasement. The resulting formation is a distinctive space, containing an ethnically homogeneous population, which finds itself forced to develop within it a set of interlinked institutions that duplicates the organizational framework of the broader society from which that groups is banished and supplies the scaffoldings for the construction of its specific ‘style of life’ and social strategies. This parallel institutional nexus affords the subordinate group a measure of protection, autonomy, and dignity, but at the cost of locking it in a relationship of structural subordination and dependency.

The ghetto, in short, operates as an ethnoracial prison: it encages a dishonored category and severely curtails the life chances of its members in support of the ‘monopolization of ideal and material goods or opportunities’ by the dominant status group dwelling on its outskirts. (…) Note next the structural and functional homologies with the prison conceptualized as judicial ghetto: a jail or penitentiary is in effect a reserved space which serves to forcibly confine a legally denigrated population and wherein this latter evolves its distinctive institutions, culture, and sullied identity. It is thus formed of the same four fundamental constituents – stigma, coercion, physical enclosure, and organizational parallelism and insulation – that make up a ghetto, and for similar purposes.” (204-5)

Posted in Institutional Racism, Precarization, Public Policy, Racism, Social Discrimination, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, social marginality, Social Stigma, Social Stratification, Social Structure, Structural Violence, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

« Previous Entries