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Archive for Social Inequalities

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 – 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 »

The Visual Du Jour – The Davos Class

February 13, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

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

The Davos Class is an expression coined by Susan George:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this stunning one as well:

And last, but not least:

Just one more for the road:

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

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 – Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction

January 9, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Philippe Coulangeon‘s Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction: Inégalités Culturelles dans la France D’Aujourd’hui provides an overview of the state of cultural capital and profits of distinction 30 years or so after, well, The Distinction, in the context of massification of higher education and public policies of cultural democratization and democratization of culture (and no, that’s not the same).

This is an interesting book but not an easy read. The writing is quite convoluted with a lot of intricate sentences containing qualifiers and modifiers and sub-propositions. If you are not familiar with French, you are going to need to do a lot of sentence mapping to figure it out. It is a shame because the book has a lot of good points and anyone interested in issues pertaining to cultural capital should read it.

The book explores four main questions:

1. What is today the role of culture is the structuring of class relations?

2. What are the consequences of the mass higher education starting in the 1960s and with even more intensity throughout the 1980s and 90s? Has this massification reduced the cultural dimension of class structuring?

3. What has been the impact of public policy regarding cultural democratization?

4. And finally, have all these developments transformed the norms of cultural legitimacy and the symbolic dimension of social domination?

1. So, is culture still a “classing” factor, or a class marker? Does The Distinction still hold? In the study, Bourdieu and his co-author extends the idea of cultural legitimacy and dominance to a whole range of cultural practices and lifestyles and show that the social stratification of taste, style and modes of consumption is as important that consumed goods and products. In Bourdieu’s terms, there is a structural homology between the space of social positions and the space of lifestyles.

This forms of stratification of taste and lifestyle, combined with reproduction of inequalities in education, contributed to highlight the symbolic dimension of social class relations. And in both contexts, the establishment of norms of “good taste” and proper school dispositions contributes imposing forms of symbolic violence against the subordinate classes. Ways of eating, dressing, talking, etc. mark people along class lines. The imposition of such norms, legitimated as non-class based, serve as mechanisms of closure and exclusion.

Another aspect of symbolic violence is to disguise the arbitrariness of dominant norms of taste as individualized (therefore, a lack of taste is an individual shortcoming) rather than class-based exclusion. The same goes for academic success where class-based legitimate curriculum favors the children of the dominant classes, but success and failure is promoted as a matter of  ”ability” (an individual trait) or other individual characteristics. These forms of class-based institutional discrimination are still quite prevalent in a lot of social settings (such as job interviews, entrance exams and social networks).

But is it the case that class is now less important, as a social marker, than gender or race / ethnicity, for instance? Coulangeon argues that that is not the case. the data on French cultural practices still show significant social distinctions. It should not be forgotten that the consumption of cultural goods takes money. And in the context of increasing inequalities and economic crisis, the upper classes are still the ones with money to spend, as a larger part of their income, in that department. As such, access to the most legitimate cultural practices is still largely marked by strong inequalities whether these practices are public (such as museum visits, attendance at classical music concerts, etc.) or domestic (reading).

At the same time, this inertia of cultural habits has also been accompanied by a relative decline of the most legitimate practices even in the dominant classes without a corresponding democratization (the upper classes may read less but it does not mean that the lower classes read more).

And third evolution: there seems, according to Coulangeon, to have been a lowering of the profits of distinction to be gained from legitimate cultural practices, especially the domestic ones, so that upper classes are then more likely to engage in public practices.

2. What of all this in the context of the massification of higher education. Wouldn’t one expect a greater access to higher education to expand the consumption of dominant cultural practices? Coulangeon makes mince meat of two common criticism of greater access to higher education: (1) a decline in the social value of college degrees as they become more widespread, and (2) a decline in academic ability alongside grade inflation. On the first one, he argues that the fact that young people with college degrees having a hard time finding jobs may have more to do with the labor market and greater precarization than the value of degrees per se. If anything, it is more costly to NOT have a college degree today than ever before. As to the second one, the decline arguments are usually based on data that compare generations that are hardly comparable. Rather compare college students of today with college students of yore, it would be more significant to compare individuals with comparable background, and see the differences between those who received college degrees and those who did not.

Traditionally, there has been a strong correlation between level of education and cultural attitudes and practices. So, logically, the expansion of higher education should have led to a corresponding expansion of the demand for legitimate cultural goods. According to Coulangeon, that has not been the case. Part of this has also to do with the greater porosity between the educational institution and mass media culture. This means that the current generation of college students has high levels of consumption of such mass media and entertainment products, and less of legitimate, scholarly-approved cultural goods. Socially, there has also been a decrease in the  cultural authority of education as a social institution, and its ability to legitimate cultural goods and practices.

What has happened then, according to Coulangeon, is an inverted mimetism: rather than college students from the lower classes adopting the cultural habits – albeit imperfectly – of the upper class, it is students of the upper classes that have absorbed cultural tastes and practices of mass, popular culture. This does not mean that class differences have completely disappeared. Family background, in terms of cultural capital, still matters. But a main effect of the expansion of higher education is that working-class families now realistically consider college as part of the educational aspirations for their children.

However, Coulangeon notes two additional effects of the expansion of higher education: (1) a loosening of class solidarity replaced by a greater individualistic outlook on social mobility, based on equal opportunity, and (2) beyond a relative uniformization (through the irruption of popular culture into academic culture as the numbers of working-class students increased), there is a stark contrast in terms of living conditions: as upper class students see their time as students as a time of innovation and experimentation, working-class students live it as exposure to precarization (rather than the social and financial autonomy an earlier entry into the labor market gave them in previous generations). Class still matters.

Finally, the decline in cultural authority of the institution of higher education is also a product of its expansion. As more working class students gained access to college, the aura of prestige enjoyed by the institutions declined. The greater the social distance between the working class and the institution, the greater the prestige. And vice versa. Social proximity led to reduced prestige.

3. Public policy in the cultural domain has been based on two different conceptions: (1) cultural democratization, that is, increasing access to “high” culture for the masses, such greater access being defined as a universal social good; and (2) greater democratic culture, that is, legitimizing of erstwhile marginalized cultural forms (originating from specific ethnic minorities, for instance, or lower-class forms). How has this worked?

Coulangeon argues that, when it comes to cultural practices, social origins (generating dispositions) may still exert a heavy weight compared to social position (hence, greater weight to cultural habits inherited during family socialization than through education). But this needs to be qualified somewhat in the context of plural socialization that creates a volatility of cultural tastes. At the same time, with a lessening of the level of prestige and legitimacy enjoyed by the educational institution, there has a been a corresponding decline of the profits of distinction connected to the possession of high cultural capital alongside the emergence of new culturally-valued goods and practices (such as a cosmopolitan outlook and soft skills).

There is therefore a redefinition of what cultural legitimacy means.

4. Regarding this configuration of the meaning of cultural legitimacy, Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphore of the omnivore, as opposed to the parochial working classes, univores. Therefore, cultural stratification would now look like an inverted pyramid where the upper classes are characterized by the diversity of their cultural repertoires and the lower classes by their limited ones. The definition of the cultural omnivore covers both quantity and quality (greater practice across a more varied repertoire that includes both high and mass cultural products, with a global / cosmopolitan outlook). Here again, of course, one should note that such eclecticism is facilitated by economic resources.

However, this does not mean that there is absolutely no exclusionary element to this eclecticism. Certain popular genres are still excluded (such as hip hop or heavy metal) from this more diversified repertoire that is defined more by its aversion to certain products and practices, than by its inclusion. Therefore, another distinction in cultural capital is between the active aversion of upper classes for certain practices and products as opposed to the passive ignorance of popular classes of the more traditional high culture. The lines of exclusion may have shifted but they are still present.

Coulangeon also associates this cultural eclecticism of the dominant classes to contemporary management practices, based on human capital and diversity, and in which some sort of multicultural communicative capital may be useful. But it is also connected to globalization as the cultural (and economic and political and social) elites have become more globalized (the transnational capitalist class, in all its components). Therefore, the possession of such multicultural capital is clear class marker as it reflects exposure to, and possession of, the cultural resources of globalization. This is where the profits of distinction now are located, and no longer in the classical humanities. And the acquisition of such multicultural capital is built through world travel, exchange and therefore a symbolic and material domination of space, beyond the “old” forms of distinction and cultural capital, more marked by a domination of time.

So, where does this leave us? It is rather clear that we should no bury the cultural dimension of class too quickly. This symbolic dominance attached to cultural capital is alive and well, but in reconfigured dimensions that take into account greater access to higher education, globalization, a decline in the traditional prestige of education as social institution, and the rise of new forms of cultural legitimacy, no less symbolically violent than their predecessors.

Posted in Book Reviews, Cultural Capital, Culture, Education, Public Policy, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociology, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

Social mobility, Social Inequalities and Precarization as Social Pollution

January 5, 2012 by and tagged , ,

Via this article from the New York Times… If there is one positive thing that has come out of the economic mess and social movements worldwide, it is a well-deserved focus on social inequalities and social mobility (or lack thereof):

As the article notes:

“Benjamin Franklin did it. Henry Ford did it. And American life is built on the faith that others can do it, too: rise from humble origins to economic heights. “Movin’ on up,” George Jefferson-style, is not only a sitcom song but a civil religion.

But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.

(…)

One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

(…)

Despite frequent references to the United States as a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.

By emphasizing the influence of family background, the studies not only challenge American identity but speak to the debate about inequality. While liberals often complain that the United States has unusually large income gaps, many conservatives have argued that the system is fair because mobility is especially high, too: everyone can climb the ladder. Now the evidence suggests that America is not only less equal, but also less mobile.”

Also: less unions, expensive education and no serious public health. this is the house that neoliberalism built: based on structural violence.

And, you know, this:

However, the big question is then, what can be done, and on that one, the current ideological drawing board is pretty empty beyond a mix of individualist exhortations and social darwinism:

“We are no longer concerned with parity, but do our best to encourage competition between schools (a system that is based on disparity).  Free schools are the latest addition to an overall provision that is almost deliberately unsystematic.  In this new (dis)order, variations in school status have transformed in our perception from potential danger to principle of organisational enhancement.  Schools vie for esteem as they endlessly compete for more pupils and a better position in the league-table.

Social mobility has lost its earlier attachment to grand mechanisms of social redistribution.  The idea that psychological experts and central agencies should administer the distribution of talent (through the distribution of education) is a rapidly fading early twentieth-century dream.  This has been replaced by theexhortation:  “We’ve tried equality.  We’ve tried social engineering… But what about just letting people get on with it?”.

According to the ideology of our times, social mobility has been elevated as if it were some sort of life-force, that will always be, by its very nature, beyond the control of the social engineer.  The most we can hope to achieve is a small amount of regulation.  Small battles are fought for a little more openness, a little more fairness, a little less patronage and so on.  But the grander projects of the social engineer are no longer in vogue.

Last year three Italian academics predicted that organisations could become more efficient if they promoted people at random.  Whether their mathematical models are to be believed or not is unimportant.  The research question itself betrays our dominant ideology: natural social systems are often better ‘left alone’.

So how exactly are people ‘left alone’ when the social engineer retreats, when wegive up on the idea that all talent must be perfectly rewarded by an appropriate position and income?  Do we end up with a situation close to Hobbes’ state of nature: ‘every man, against every man’?  Are we left with nothing more than a chaotic battle of social repositioning?

It is certainly tempting to see things this way, but that would be a mistake.  Social mobility is still wrapped up within systems of coercion, though these systems are undoubtedly becoming harder to see.  This is because mobility is taking the form of a personal responsibility to achieve and advance.  At the same time, failure is also personalised as being down to a lack of aspiration.  All of this unfolds within a well-articulated framework of power, and one of the key devices in use here is the instrument of hope.”

And that is, hope in the context of increasing precarization:

“La qualité de l’emploi s’est détériorée”, selon cette étude, qui relève qu’en Italie, Hongrie, République tchèque et Pologne, la probabilité de devoir se contenter d’un emploi précaire pour les personnes cherchant du travail a augmenté “plus que la moyenne”.

Le nombre de personnes trouvant un CDI au sortir d’une période de chômage ou d’inactivité a par exemple diminué de 14 % en dix ans en Italie, de 15 % en Hongrie et de 27 % en République tchèque. En Allemagne, les chances de signer un CDI pour un chômeur ou un inactif ont, elles, baissé de 7 %.

L’institut IAB dit avoir constaté “une forte segmentation” du marché du travail dans les pays étudiés, avec d’un côté les personnes en contrat à durée indéterminée, relativement protégées, et de l’autre les emplois précaires, qui sont les premiers àfaire les frais des crises économiques.

Les auteurs de l’étude jugent qu’il faudra à l’avenir que les gouvernements “mettent davantage en avant la question de la qualité de l’emploi”, au lieu de se focaliser sur la seule quantité (de chômeurs ou d’actifs).”

Which leads to this increase in mental illness, directly linked to precarization:

“Sur fond de crise économique, de mondialisation et de nouvelles organisations du travail, la santé mentale des travailleurs se dégrade. Tel est le constat de l’Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques (OCDE) pointé dans une étude publiée le mercredi 14 décembre, “Mal être au travail ? Mythes et réalités sur la santé mentale au travail “.

Selon l’organisation, qui regroupe 34 pays parmi les économies les plus avancées, mais aussi quelques émergents comme le Chili, la Turquie ou le Mexique, “la précarisation croissante des emplois et l’augmentation actuelle des pressions au travail pourraient entraîner une aggravation des problèmes de santé mentale dans les années à venir”. Et l’OCDE n’hésite pas à qualifier la santé mentale de“nouveau défi prioritaire pour le marché du travail”.

Par “mauvaise santé mentale”, l’OCDE entend les dépressions graves, les toxicomanies sévères (alcool, drogue), les troubles maniaco-dépressifs… tous ces maux étant établis par un diagnostic médical.

La mauvaise santé mentale des salariés, et celle des demandeurs d’emploi, encore plus vulnérables, intéresse l’OCDE, parce qu’elle coûte cher. “Selon une estimation prudente de l’Organisation internationale du travail, écrivent les auteurs du rapport, les coûts d’une mauvaise santé mentale pour les individus concernés, les employeurs et la société représentent 3 à 4 % du produit intérieur brut dans l’Union européenne.” Les taux de chômage élevés, la “forte incidence de l’absentéisme pour maladie et d’une moindre productivité du travail” expliquent les coûts de ce fléau grandissant.

Car la plupart des personnes souffrant de troubles mentaux travaillent. Leur taux d’emploi oscille, selon les pays, entre 60 % et 70 %, soit une quinzaine de points de moins que les personnes en bonne santé. “Ces salariés sont plus souvent malades, plus longtemps, et, surtout, quand ils sont au travail, ils ne font rien, ce qu’on appelle “présentéisme”", explique Miranda Veerle, économiste et responsable du rapport.

La crise économique et ses conséquences apparaissent comme l’une des explications majeures de la détérioration de la santé mentale des salariés. Ainsi, établit l’étude, “la perte de l’emploi aggrave la détresse psychologique plus que n’importe quel autre événement de la vie, comme un accident ou la perte d’un conjoint”.

Mais le chômage n’est pas seul en cause. “Les récessions peuvent en effet s’avérer très stressantes pour les salariés qui conservent leur emploi.” Le risque de perte d’emploi a augmenté pour tous les travailleurs. Cette “insécurité” est passée de 14 % en 2005 à 17 % en 2010, et de 21 % à 40 % chez les travailleurs temporaires, qui sont “plus nombreux à souffrir de troubles mentaux”.”

Posted in Social Inequalities, Social Mobility, Social Stratification | 1 Comment »

Book Review – Les Rémunerations Obscènes

January 3, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Philippe Steiner‘s Les Rémunerations Obscènes is a pamphlet more than a book per se. With a 134 pages of text, it a short and clear read on the topic of the stratospheric compensations received by corporate CEOs and their lack of justification. However, the book is not just a rant against these compensations packages. Steiner systematically debunks one by one, armed with both economic and organizational sociology and some solid references to research, all the justifications commonly employed to rationalize the levels of CEO compensation.

The book is also shock full of data detailing the various levels of compensations, their evolution and trajectories, alongside some more well-known data on the increase of inequalities and wage stagnation for the rest of the population. The icing on the cake comes from some morceaux choisis from CEOs themselves, in their own words, explaining why they should be paid such obscene compensations. Finally, the book ends with a few suggestions as to what should be done.

The sociologists will also find in the book some constant references to classical (Weber, Durkheim) and more contemporary sociologists as Steiner goes through some SHiP (Structure / History / Power) demonstration to explain how we got to these levels of compensation, why the upward trend has been so steep and continues to this day irrespective of objective factors such as performance. Steiner has done his homework and the bibliographical references are quite extensive for such a short book.

Using Weber, Steiner argues that the obscene levels of compensation have nothing to do with capitalism, which is supposed to temper the irrational passion for profit-seeking through a variety of mechanisms. The unleashing of greed is not part of such mechanisms. The corporate übermenschen (as Steiner calls them, “surhommes”) have managed to disconnect themselves from social ties that would link them to social norms and a general sense of the way the mere mortals live. The strong ties to the political world also increase the amount control that these men (yes, men) exercise over their own enrichment. And has been recently exposed, it is Goldman Sachs world. The rest of us just live in it.

The strongest parts of the book are those where Steiner explains the organizational processes at work in determining CEO compensations, especially the work of compensation committees. These committees may be composed of other CEOs, and they may use information provided by consulting firms specialized in constructing remuneration packages. This is where social capital and social networks analysis is central. These compensation committees look like a game of revolving door and mutual back-scratching disguised under rationalizations such as preventing CEOs from leaving the country if they do not get a globally-competitive level of compensation, the ability to attract the best and brightest. In reality, this looks more like CEOs looking at each other’s compensation and saying “I want at least what they have!” The processes are those of a very close and tight-knit in-group.

What of the argument that compensations packages are often tied to performance (in terms of stock value) and therefore, there is a level of accountability? Steiner reviews the research and shows that that is simply not the case. First of all, there are all the anecdotes of golden parachutes. Second of all, compensations never decrease based on bad performance. They might not increase but that is it. Steiner shows that salaries and bonuses rise in ways unconnected to stock prices and values.

So, are CEOs so rare and so incredibly talented that their compensation levels have exploded? Steiner invokes his Micromégas regime of competition, with reference to Voltaire: minuscule differences between individuals translate into massive differences in compensation between CEOs and the rest. At the same time, CEO contribution to the value of firms is minimal. At the same time, throughout organizations and recruiting firms, there is the belief in extreme individual agency, that is, the belief that whatever firm results are fully attributable to CEO decisions. This belief is taken as religious dogma (except, of course, when the company collapse and all of a sudden, someone like Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling argues that he didn’t know anything that was going on in the firm). If “I” did all this, then, “I” deserve to appropriate such a high share of profits, not the hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of people who have contributed to innovation, productivity, etc. And this appropriation has to be at a level comparable to that of other CEOs, worldwide.

On the other side of things, firms that design compensation packages tend to think that (1) they will not be able to attract the “right” candidates if compensation packages are not tempting enough, and (2) that a company would symbolically debase itself if it did not come up with a phenomenal compensation package (one that is more impressive than that of comparable firms). This triggers compensation inflation as chain reaction.  Companies offer enormous compensation packages as status signals that reflect on them.

Steiner also analyzes the current indignation regarding executive compensation using Durkheim’s concept of moral economy, that is, the social evaluation of the functions and compensation. The level of contestation has to do with the legitimation crisis that has been intensified by the economic crisis, itself revealing the disconnect between compensation levels and the collapse of their justifications. Of course, politicians have grabbed the theme of a moralization of executive compensation, but the tangled web of political/corporate connections guarantees that said moralization will not go beyond rhetoric.

Invoking The Spirit Level, Steiner ends by noting that obscene compensation is a social pollution, contributing to rising inequalities and their deleterious effects. The book is a bit short on solution (fiscal policy), which is a shame but changing the structural nature of obscene compensation probably would take a whole book in itself.

In light of the current crisis and the imposition of “sacrifices” on populations across the Western world, this topic is highly relevant. In the context of the upcoming French presidential election, and as the main candidates start to unveil their platforms, this book comes out at the right time and should be mandatory reading to said candidates.

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Corporatism, Economic Sociology, Ideologies, Networks, Organizational Sociology, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

American Exceptionalism in One Image

January 2, 2012 by and tagged , ,

This one:

Posted in Corporatism, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification | 1 Comment »

Intouchables and Hegemonic Masculinity

January 2, 2012 by and tagged , ,

While I was spending the holidays in France, I had the opportunity to go see this blockbuster on the left. Intouchables has been a tremendous success in France. It is largely a feel-good movie. Philippe (the character played by François Cluzet) is a very wealthy, quadriplegic man who hires Drisse (Omar Sy), from the projects, to be his caretaker. The setup involves some very obvious “clash of the classes” where Drisse gets exposed to, and consistently derides, the high culture Philippe enjoys (from contemporary painting, to classical opera and music).

But ultimately, Drisse’s low class no-nonsense, no-pity attitude grows on Philippe (and the audience) as he treats Philippe like a human being, and not a near-vegetable. Ultimately, the friendship between the men transcends class differences and improves them both. Like I said, a feel-good movie. One can see why audiences would enjoy it. The dialogues are sharp, there is quite a bit of humor in-between a few clichés. But it is a bit à l’eau de rose, as we say in France. And any movie that has Earth, Wind and Fire’s September as its opening soundtrack has won me over right off the bat. Seriously, there is no better song.

It is a theme one has seen many times over: individualization can destroy class differences as people from different background get to know each other individually. That, in itself, is a cliché and the critiques have indeed pounced a bit on the unrealistic nature of the main plot (see here, here, and here, for instance). Most critiques have focused on the “it’s not that easy” aspect of transcending class relations.

However, there is one aspect of the film, that is central to me, and that all the critiques I have read failed to mention: the film is a promotion of hegemonic masculinity. Of course, several critiques have mentioned the casual machismo of Drisse as he flirts more or less seriously with women around him. But the central theme of the film is how Drisse, the hegemonic male, helps Philippe (whose masculinity is gone, nor just because of impotence but because of his paralysis and complete dependency on women and non-hegemonic men – the parade of hesitant, barely competent home health care assistants is both funny and rather obvious) reclaim his masculinity (the movie ends with Philippe finally meeting face to face the woman with whom he has corresponded through letters and phone calls, hiding his condition).

Everything about Drisse is exposing what a “real man” is and does. Drisse bullies his way into Philippe’s office not to interview for the job but get his unemployment benefits, pushing the “real” candidate aside. On the first day on the job, he frets about having to dress Philippe and putting stockings on him (for blood circulation). He very clumsily flirts with the attractive assistant (who turns out to be a lesbian, “bye dudes” – yells Drisse – as he leaves the job, to the assistant and her partner) and we now all understand why she resisted his advances. He makes fun of the unspoken attraction between the other main assistant (who is older, so, he does not flirt with her) and the gardener (another dominated male who has longed for the Yvonne for a long time, in silence).

Rather than pick the minivan equipped for the wheelchair, he picks the Maserati. When he can’t get it out of the driveway because the neighbor always parks his car in front of the entrance, despite “no parking” signs, he drags the offender out of his car and bangs his head against the sign. He roughly does the same with the ex-boyfriend of Philippe’s daughter. In other words, Drisse, by proxy, rebuilds Philippe masculinity by brutalizing other men and boys. He even asks Philippe permission to slap his daughter around a bit (she’s a spoiled brat) because he is Philippe’s arms and legs, after all. Philippe refuses but does give his daughter a tongue-lashing, reclaiming his parental authority. It certainly helps that Drisse is physically more impressive than all the other men in the film and he unashamedly throws his physicality around. He becomes the body that Philippe no longer has.

And, of course, Drisse allows Philippe to get some sexual satisfaction by hiring prostitutes that trigger Philippe’s remaining erogenous points (his ears, while Drisse gets it the usual way). The only reversal of the relationship between Philippe and Drisse occurs in two occasions: the flight in a private jet, and the parasailing. In both occasions, Drisse is reduced to a passive position which makes him insecure (in the plane, he can do nothing about the turbulence, and during the parasailing, he has to leave it all to the instructor who controls the whole thing). But for everything else, Drisse pushes his hegemonic masculinity through Philippe’s (highly feminized) household. He consistently bullies non-hegemonic males. And it is precisely this hegemonic masculinity that Philippe misses when Drisse has to go to resolve a family situation.

So, this is an aspect of the film that most critiques seem to have missed as, again, it is central to the film. Is it because most critique are men or because gender analysis still has a long way to go in France? Probably both.

Posted in Gender, Movies, Patriarchy, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification | 2 Comments »

The Visuals Du Jour – Stratification Across The OECD

December 13, 2011 by and tagged ,

And that is bad news.

Across the OECD:

As the report notes, The Gini coefficient ranges from 0 (when all people have identical incomes) to 1 (when the richest person has all the income). Market incomes are labor earnings, capital incomes and savings. Disposable income is market income plus social transfers less income taxes. Incomes are adjusted for household
size. Data refer to the working-age population.

Starting with the US:

“The United States has the fourth-highest inequality level in the OECD, after Chile, Mexico and Turkey. Inequality among working-age people has risen steadily since 1980, in total by 25%. In 2008, the average incomeof the top 10% of Americans was 114 000 USD, nearly 15 times higher than that of the bottom 10%, who had an average income of 7 800 USD. This is up from 12 to 1 in the mid 1990s, and 10 to 1 in the mid 1980s.

Income taxes and cash benefits play a small role in redistributing income in the United States, reducing inequality by less than a fifth – in a typical OECD country, it is a quarter. Only in Korea, Chile and Switzerland is the effect still smaller.”

And check out the video:

The full report with truckloads of data, tables and graphs here.

The annoying part is that, when it comes to public policy, the report reads like it has been written by a crusty and unimaginative functionalist:

“Rising income inequality creates economic, social and political challenges. It can stifle upward social mobility, making it harder for talented and hard-working people to get the rewards they deserve. Intergenerational earnings mobility is low in countries with high inequality such as Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and much higher in the Nordic countries, where income is distributed more evenly (OECD, 2008). The resulting inequality of opportunity will inevitably impact economic performance as a whole, even if the relationship is not straightforward. Inequality also raises political challenges because it breeds social resentment and generates political instability. It can also fuel populist, protectionist, and anti-globalisation sentiments. People will no longer support open trade and free markets if they feel that they are losing out while a small group of winners is getting richer and richer.

Reforming tax and benefit policies is the most direct and powerful instrument for increasing redistributive effects. Large and persistent losses in low-income groups following recessions underline the importance of well-targeted income-support policies. Government transfers – both in cash and in-kind – have an important role to play in guaranteeing that low-income households do not fall further back in the income distribution.

At the other end of the income spectrum, the relative stability of higher incomes – and their longer-term trends – are important to bear in mind in planning broader reforms of redistribution policies. It may be necessary to review whether existing tax provisions are still optimal in light of equity considerations and current revenue requirements. This is especially the case where the share of overall tax burdens borne by high-income groups has declined in recent years (e.g. where tax schedules became flatter and/or where tax expenditures mainly benefitted high-income groups).

However, redistribution strategies based on government transfers and taxes alone would be neither effective nor financially sustainable. First, there may be counterproductive disincentive effects if benefit and tax reforms are not well designed. Second, most OECD countries currently operate under a reduced fiscal space which exerts strong pressure to curb public social spending and raise taxes. Growing employment may contribute to sustainable cuts in income inequality, provided the employment gains occur in jobs that offer career prospects. Policies for more and better jobs are more important than ever.

A key challenge for policy, therefore, is to facilitate and encourage access to employment for under-represented groups, such as youths, older workers, women and migrants. This requires not only new jobs, but jobs that enable people to avoid and escape poverty. Recent trends towards higher rates of in-work poverty indicate that job quality has become a concern for a growing number of workers. Policy reforms that tackle inequalities in the labour market, such as those between standard and non-standard forms of employment, are needed to reduce income inequality. The lessons from the Restated Jobs Strategy (OECD, 2006), adapted to recent experience, provide important guidelines in this respect, e.g. with regard to more balanced policy measures between temporary and permanent employment contracts.”

Geez, and how is this going to happen when other institutions are going full-blast the austerity way, that is, implementing the exact opposites of what is being suggested above?

Posted in Social Inequalities, Social Stratification | No Comments »

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 »

Book Review – Cop in the Hood

November 28, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

If you enjoyed the first season of the Wire, you will enjoy Peter Moskos‘s Cop in the Hood. The book is the tale of a sociologist going native by going through the Baltimore police academy, becoming a cop and working for over a year. This mix of ethnography and participant observation makes the book highly readable and enjoyable. My freshmen students will be reading it next term.

The book roughly follows Moskos chronological journey, from the academy to the street and the last part of the book is dedicated to a pretty thorough analysis (and indictment) of the War on Drugs.

This book is especially relevant because of one the challenges of teaching freshmen is to show them why they should be interested in sociology and sociological topics, that there is some knowledge to be produced here and that sociology has the tools to produce it.

Why did Moskos choose participant-observation? (All notations are Kindle locations)

“As a sociology graduate student, I took to heart the argument that prolonged participant-observation research is the best and perhaps only means of gathering valid data on job-related police behavior. Because data on policing are iffy at best and cops, like everyone, love to tell a tall tale, the best way to see what happens on the street is to be there as it happens. As an institution, police have been labeled insular, resentful of outsiders, and in general hostile to research, experimentation, and analysis. Official police statistics are notoriously susceptible to manipulation. And as most police activity has no official record at all, the nuances of police work are difficult if not impossible to quantify. Professor and police researcher Maurice Punch wrote, “The researcher’s task becomes, then, how to outwit the institutional obstacle-course to gain entry and . . . penetrate the mine-field of social defenses to reach the inner reality of police work.”” (114)

The first interesting observation from Moskos’s work is his analysis of the police academy as relatively useless for the job:

“So what’s the point of the academy? Primarily, it’s to protect the department from the legal liability that could result from negligent training. To the trainees this appears more important than educating police officers.

(…)

And second, despite the lax approach toward academics, instructors were very concerned with officer safety, the aspect of the job they emphasized most: “The most important part of your job is that you go home. Everything else is secondary.” This philosophy is reinforced at all levels of the police organization. Formal and informal rules concerning officer safety are propagated simultaneously.

(…)

By the end of the academy, less than half the class saw a relation between what police learn in the academy and what police need to know on the street. A strong antimedia attitude, little changed from sociologist William Westley’s observations in the 1950s, grew steadily in the police academy. At the end of training, just 10 percent of trainees believed that the media treat police fairly.

(…)

After six months in the academy, trainees learn to:

  • Respect the chain of command and their place on the bottom of that chain.
  • Sprinkle “sir” and “ma’am” into casual conversation.
  • Salute.
  • Follow orders.
  • March in formation.
  • Stay out of trouble.
  • Stay awake.
  • Be on time.
  • Shine shoes.” (359 – 390)

But Moskos’s conclusion is that the training actually demoralizes trainees even before they start working on the streets. Physical training is not boot camp and provides a poor preparation (after all, most officers will spend their days in their patrol car), and academic training does not really impart knowledge and does not encourage thinking.

Once training is over, the bulk of the book follows Moskos on the beat, on the Eastern side of Baltimore (that’s Proposition Joe’s territory, for you Wire fans following at home) and the constant contradictory demands placed on officers (between following a very strict military-style chain of command and having to make quick decisions). In that sense, the book is also a good study of the necessity of developing informal rules in in highly formal, bureaucratic environments. Working around the rules is the only way to keep the work manageable and within the limits of efficiency and sanity. But for Moskos, the gap between formal and informal norms is especially wide in policing. One could see here the application of Merton’s strain theory: the officers largely agree with the goals of the job they have to do (even though they are aware of the futility of the War on Drugs), but they constantly have to innovate while on patrol because the rules do not work on the streets (of course, some officers do lapse into ritualism especially in a context where protecting one’s pension is THE concern all officers have and that guides their behavior on the street).

These informal rules are constantly at work whether it comes to stopping, frisking, searching, arresting, writing reports. In all of these aspects of the job, covering one’s butt and protecting one’s life and pension are paramount concerns. This means that officers actually have quite a bit of leeway and flexibility when it comes to their job. These informal norms are described in details in Moskos’s book and there is no underestimating their importance.

Once on the streets, police officers mix a culture of poverty approach to “these people” (the communities they are expected to police, where gangs and drugs culture produce poverty with quite a bit of eliminationist rhetoric that reveals an in-group / out-group mentality between police officers and civilians:

“A black officer proposed similar ends through different means. “If it were up to me,” he said, “I’d build big walls and just flood the place, biblical-like. Flood the place and start afresh. I think that’s all you can do.” When I asked this officer how his belief that the entire area should be flooded differed from the attitudes of white police, he responded, “Naw, I’m not like that because I’d let the good people build an ark and float out. Old people, working people, line ’em up, two by two. White cops will be standing on the walls with big poles pushing people back in.” The painful universal truth of this officer’s beliefs came back to me in stark relief during the flooding and destruction of New Orleans, Louisiana. Police in some neighboring communities prevented displaced black residents from leaving the disaster area, turning them away with blockades and guns.” (609)

That in-group / out-group outlook also involves dehumanization and stigmatization:

“In the ghetto, police and the public have a general mutual desire to avoid interaction. The sociologist Ervin Goffman wrote, “One avoids a person of high status out of deference to him and avoids a person of lower status . . . out of a self-protective concern.” Goffman was concerned with the stigma of race, but in the ghetto, stigma revolves around the “pollution” associated with drugs. Police use words like “filthy,” “rank,” “smelly,” or “nasty” to describe literal filth, which abounds in the Eastern District. The word “dirty” is used to describe the figurative filth of a drug addict. It is, in the drug-related sense, the opposite of being clean.” (633)

The “dope fiend” becomes the loathed representative figure of all this. But the dehumanization applies equally to them and the dealers. In that sense, there is no sympathy for the people who have to live in these communities and have nothing to do with the drug trade. They are put in the same bag. And whatever idea of public service trainees might start with tends to disappear after a year on the streets.

And quite a bit of what goes on in the streets between police and population has a lot to do with forcing respect and maintaining control of the interaction:

“Although it is legally questionable, police officers almost always have something they can use to lock up somebody, “just because.” New York City police use “disorderly conduct.” In Baltimore it is loitering. In high-drug areas, minor arrests are very common, but rarely prosecuted. Loitering arrests usually do not articulate the legally required “obstruction of passage.” But the point of loitering arrests is not to convict people of the misdemeanor. By any definition, loitering is abated by arrest. These lockups are used by police to assert authority or get criminals off the street.” (838)

And, of course, the drug dealers also know the rules and become skillful at working around them, avoiding arrest, challenging the police authority and have structured their trade accordingly. It would indeed be a mistake to look at this illegal and informal economy as anything but a trade structured around specific rules that take into account having to deal with the police and the different statuses of the actors involved in the trade reflect that:

  • lookouts have the simplest job: alert everyone else of police approach,
  • steerers promote the product,
  • moneymen obviously hold the money for the transactions,
  • slingers distribute the drugs after money has been exchanged
  • and gunmen protect the trade.

The transaction is therefore completely decomposed into steps where money and drugs are never handled by the same person while the main dealers watch things from afar, protecting themselves from legal liabilities. For most of these positions, the pay is not much better than fast-food joints, but that is pretty much all there is in these urban areas.

Of course, just like everything in the US, there is a racial component to this. The drug trade is not a “black thing” (like mac and cheese as Pat Robertson would say) and it has its dependency theory taste:

“The archetypal white addict is employed, comes with a friend, drives a beat-up car from a nearby blue-collar neighborhood or suburb such as Highlandtown or Dundalk, and may have a local black drug addict in the backseat of the car. A black police officer who grew up in the Eastern District explained the local’s presence, “White people won’t buy drugs alone because they’re afraid to get out of the car and approach a drug dealer. They’ll have some black junkie with them.” The local resident serves as a sort of freelance guide, providing insurance against getting “burned” or robbed. The local addict is paid informally, most often taking a cut of the drugs purchased.” (1116)

The complete mistrust between the police and the community is also a trademark of impoverished urban environments. And indeed, what would residents gain by interacting with law enforcement and the court system? At the same time, police work is arrest-based (the more the better) which officers all understand to be futile.

For Moskos, part of the problem with policing was the advent of policing-by-patrol-car:

“The advent of patrol cars, telephones, two-way radios, “scientific” police management, social migration, and social science theories on the “causes” of crime converged in the late 1950s. Before then, police had generally followed a “watchman” approach: each patrol officer was given the responsibility to police a geographic area.5In the decades after World War II, motorized car patrol replaced foot patrol as the standard method of policing. Improved technology allowed citizens to call police and have their complaints dispatched to police through two-way radios in squad cars. Car patrol was promoted over foot patrol as a cost-saving move justified by increased “efficiency.”6 Those who viewed police as provocative and hostile to the public applauded reduced police presence and discretion. Controlled by the central dispatch, police could respond to the desires of the community rather than enforce their own “arbitrary” concepts of “acceptable” behavior. Police officers, for their part, enjoyed the comforts of the automobile and the prestige associated with new technology. Citizens, rather than being encouraged to maintain community standards, were urged to stay behind locked doors and call 911. Car patrol eliminated the neighborhood police officer. Police were pulled off neighborhood beats to fill cars. But motorized patrol—the cornerstone of urban policing—has no effect on crime rates, victimization, or public satisfaction.” (1371)

This has encouraged a detachment of officers from the communities they police. Quick response time becomes the goal and officers spend time in their car waiting to be “activated” on 911 calls. The only interaction between officers and residents is limited to such 911 call responses, which can all potentially lead to confrontations. But that is still the way policing is done and the way it is taught at the academies, guided by the three “R”s:

  • Random patrol: give the illusion of omnipresence by changing patrol patterns
  • Rapid response: act quickly, catch the criminals (doesn’t work)
  • Reactive investigation: solve crimes rather than prevent them

But the institutional context very poorly accounts for the interaction rituals that guide the interaction between officers and residents:

“Police officers usually know whether a group of suspects is actively, occasionally, or never involved with selling drugs. Some residents, often elderly, believe that all youths, particularly those who present themselves as “thug” or “ghetto,” are involved with drug dealing. If police respond to a call for a group of people known not to be criminals, police will approach politely. If the group seems honestly surprised to see the police, they may be given some presumption of innocence. An officer could ask if everything is all right or if the group knows any reason why the police would have been called. If the suspects are unknown to a police officer, the group’s response to police attention is used as the primary clue. Even with a presumption of guilt, a group that walks away without being prompted will generally be allowed to disperse. If a group of suspects challenges police authority through language or demeanor, the officer is compelled to act. This interaction is so ritualized that it resembles a dance.

(…)

If temporary dispersal of a group is the goal, the mere arrival of a patrol car should be all that is needed. Every additional step, from stopping the car to exiting the car to questioning people on the street, known as a “field interview,” is a form of escalation on the part of the police officer. Aware of the symbolism and ritual of such actions, police establish a pattern in which a desired outcome is achieved quickly, easily, and with a minimum of direct confrontation. Rarely is there any long-term impact. When a police officer slows his or her car down in front of the individuals, the suspects know the officer is there for them and not just passing through on the way to other business. If a group of suspects does not disperse when an officer “rolls up,” the officer will stop the car and stare at the group. A group may ignore the officer’s look or engage the officer in a stare-off, known in police parlance as “eye fucking.” This officer’s stare serves the dual purpose of scanning for contraband and weapons and simultaneously declaring dominance over turf. An officer will initiate, often aggressively, conversation from the car and ask where the suspects live and if they have any identification. Without proof of residence, the suspects will be told to leave and threatened with arrest. If the group remains or reconvenes, they are subject to a loitering arrest. Police officers always assert their right to control public space. Every drug call to which police respond—indeed all police dealings with social or criminal misbehavior—will result in the suspect’s arrest, departure, or deference.” (1494 – 1507)

And a great deal of these interactions are also guided by the need, on both sides, to not lose face, be seen as weak or easily punked. These interactional factors may often determine whether an officer gets out of his car or not, sometimes triggering contempt from the residents. So, officers tend to like car patrols as opposed to foot patrols which are tiring, leave one vulnerable to the elements, and potentially preventing crime. Rapid response is easier and more popular with officers. People commit crimes, you get there fast, you arrest them.

Overall, Moskos advocates for greater police discretion and more focus on quality of life issues as opposed to rapid response while acknowledging that this is not without problems. I don’t think there ever were a golden age of policing where communities and law enforcement worked harmoniously together for the greater good and the end of broken windows (a discredited theory not questioned by Moskos), especially when minorities were involved.

But the bottom line, for Moskos, that the current War on Drugs is a massive failure and a waste of resources (and Moskos does go into some details of the history of drug policies and enforcement in the US, a useful reminder of the racialization of public policy) and should be replaced by a variety of policies (not all drugs are the same) with three goes in mind:

  • preservation of life (current policies increase the dangerous nature of drugs)
  • reduce incarceration
  • save money (through reduced incarceration, depenalization and taxation).

“We changed our country’s culture toward cigarette smoking. It took effort and did cost money. But most of the money came from legally taxed revenue and the cigarette companies. High taxation discourages new users from starting. Public service messages tell the truth (mostly) about the harms of tobacco. Not only is this a great victory for public health, it is perhaps our country’s only success against any pop u lar addictive drug. Drug policies could follow a similar approach: tax drug sales; treat drug abuse as a medical and social problem; set realistic goals of reduced drug use; and allow localities control over their own drug policies.

(…)

Simply decriminalizing possession is not enough. Legalization must not allow armed drug-dealing thugs to operate with impunity.” (2686 – 91)

Now, none of this deals with urban ghettoization and the lack of economic opportunities in inner cities but that it is not really the goal of criminal policy. This also means that the incentives for officers to do counter-productive work need to be changed and we all know that bureaucracies are not easy to transform. In such cases, resistance is not futile.

So, even though I don’t fully agree with all of Moskos’s recommendations and ideas (I am much more suspect of police discretion than he is), I recommend the book as it does provide extensive food for thought.

Posted in Book Reviews, Labor, Poverty, Social Deviance, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Research, Social Stigma, Social Stratification, Social Structure, Sociology, Structural Violence, Teaching Sociology, Trafficking | 6 Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – The 1%

November 16, 2011 by and tagged , ,

This awesome animation from The Guardian is an absolute must-see:

A very clear explanation of inequalities.

Posted in Poverty, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification | No Comments »

After The New Sociopathy, The New Psychopathy

November 7, 2011 by and tagged ,

Courtesy of George Monbiot:

“If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire. The claims that the ultra-rich 1% make for themselves – that they are possessed of unique intelligence or creativity or drive – are examples of the self-attribution fallacy. This means crediting yourself with outcomes for which you weren’t responsible. Many of those who are rich today got there because they were able to capture certain jobs. This capture owes less to talent and intelligence than to a combination of the ruthless exploitation of others and accidents of birth, as such jobs are taken disproportionately by people born in certain places and into certain classes.

The findings of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, are devastating to the beliefs that financial high-fliers entertain about themselves. He discovered that their apparent success is a cognitive illusion. For example, he studied the results achieved by 25 wealth advisers across eight years. He found that the consistency of their performance was zero. “The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.” Those who received the biggest bonuses had simply got lucky.

Such results have been widely replicated. They show that traders and fund managers throughout Wall Street receive their massive remuneration for doing no better than would a chimpanzee flipping a coin. When Kahneman tried to point this out, they blanked him. “The illusion of skill … is deeply ingrained in their culture.”"

But, as always, there are structural factor at work in addition to social-psychological ones:

“In their book Snakes in Suits, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare point out that as the old corporate bureaucracies have been replaced by flexible, ever-changing structures, and as team players are deemed less valuable than competitive risk-takers, psychopathic traits are more likely to be selected and rewarded. Reading their work, it seems to me that if you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family, you’re likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family, you’re likely to go to business school.

This is not to suggest that all executives are psychopaths. It is to suggest that the economy has been rewarding the wrong skills. As the bosses have shaken off the trade unions and captured both regulators and tax authorities, the distinction between the productive and rentier upper classes has broken down. Chief executives now behave like dukes, extracting from their financial estates sums out of all proportion to the work they do or the value they generate, sums that sometimes exhaust the businesses they parasitise. They are no more deserving of the share of wealth they’ve captured than oil sheikhs.

The rest of us are invited, by governments and by fawning interviews in the press, to subscribe to their myth of election: the belief that they are possessed of superhuman talents. The very rich are often described as wealth creators. But they have preyed on the earth’s natural wealth and their workers’ labour and creativity, impoverishing both people and planet. Now they have almost bankrupted us. The wealth creators of neoliberal mythology are some of the most effective wealth destroyers the world has ever seen.”

This is highly reminiscent of this:

Posted in Social Inequalities, Social Stratification | No Comments »

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