Book Review – Class Acts

Rachel Sherman‘s Class Acts – Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels represents the best of sociology of labor, occupations and organizations all rolled up in one participant observation study, back by solid sociological concepts and theories. It is a highly readable book, all peppered with interesting anecdotes combined with sociological analysis. It is indubitably a good case of thick description of how social and status inequalities shape one’s identity and behavior.

Why does such a topic matter? According to Rachel Sherman:

“These issues matter for two reasons. First, they are important for our understanding of interactive work and its links to relationships and to selfhood. Second, they are significant for our conception of how work is connected to class. These questions are particularly important given the rise of both service work and economic inequality in the United States.” (3)

For Sherman, this is a “luxury moment”: high-end consumption is relatively recession-proof (it was quick to recover both after 9/11 and after the current depression). She notes several aspect of luxury production and consumption:

  1. the luxury economy is a global one. Luxury nodes (probably often matched with the global cities) in global spaces that are thoroughly networked across the world. The transnational capitalist class, whose one defining trait is its mobility, uses these nodes as they criss-cross the globe.
  2. the luxury economy is part of the larger service economy with even more intense emotional labor. In luxury-consuming settings, customers are limitlessly entitled to worker’s individualized and individualizing attention and effort.
  3. the luxury economy emerged in a context of rising inequality, a trait that thoroughly traverses it.

In this sense, this book is very much written with Hochschild’s work in mind as it looks at

“both the multiple ways workers and guests negotiate asymmetrical relationships and the consequences of these negotiations for the reproduction of unequal entitlements to material resources and attention.” (11)

Especially since, in the context of luxury service work, the worker’s self is highly involved due to the personalized service required. Such subservience may lead to damage to one’s dignity. How do workers deal with that, as a lot of labor research shows that workers value dignity greatly? At the same time, individualized service means that workers have some degree of autonomy as they perform individualized requests that may require creativity and innovative strategies. Structurally, the luxury hotel is its own stratification system in its own right and most interactions are based on such unequal distribution of resources. As a result, a great deal of interactive work is dedicated to the merging of “doing self” and “doing class”.

Sherman uses two central concepts in the book: (1) Consent:

“Used most notably in Michael Burawoy’s study of factory production, consent is active investment in work. In Burawoy’s formulation, workers who have some autonomy become involved in and engaged with their jobs by means of small incentives and choices, which become meaningful in the context of particular shoo-floor status hierarchies and cultures. In consenting to exert labor, workers unintentionally also legitimate the broader conditions of its appropriation.


Like resistance, consent highlights workers’ agency. Unlike the concept of resistance, however, the concept of consent allows us to think of workers as using their agency to participate in work rather than to refuse to participate. Explaining consent entails taking seriously the reasons that workers like their jobs and the rewards they derive from them, without losing a critical perspective on unequal social relations of appropriation. Like resistance, consent has the potential for oppositionality. Workers can withdraw their consent in several ways: by refusing to invest themselves in their work; by quitting; by organizing some kind of collective action that challenges the organization of work or the distribution of rewards from work.” (16-7)

And (2) normalization:

“[Normalization] refers to the taken-for-granted nature of both interactive and structural inequality. Unequal entitlements and responsibilities were not obscured, because they were perfectly obvious and well-known to interactive workers. Nor were they explicitly legitimated, since workers rarely talked about them as such. Rather, they simply became a feature of the everyday landscape of the hotel. Conflicts over unequal entitlement were couched in individual rather than collective terms and in the language of complaint rather than critique.” (17)

And as they are used by workers,

“consent and normalization arose as functions of workers strategies for constituting themselves as not subordinate vis-à-vis managers, co-workers, and especially guests. Rather than negotiate between authenticity and performativity or between agency and passivity, workers drew on a range of complex and sometimes contradictory strategies of self-articulation to cast themselves as powerful. First, they established themselves as autonomous, skilled, and in control of their work, especially by playing games. Second, they cast themselves as superior, both to their coworkers and to the guests they served, by using comparisons and judgments. Finally, they constituted themselves as equal to guests by establishing meaningful relationships with them on the basis of a standard of reciprocal treatment.” (17)

And in order to pursue these strategies, workers used the structure of the hotels as resources at their disposal to be used skillfully. In other words, and in very Goffmanian terms, the hotel is a space divided between front stage (performing workers) and backstage (invisible workers, often minorities) in a luxury service theater where class is performed constantly.

How these strategies are deployed by front stage workers, and with what results, within the luxury theater constitutes most of the book. The chapters are rich with observations and excerpts from interviews that are too thick to go into here. But such strategies towards guests involve

  1. personalization and recognition,
  2. anticipation and legitimation of needs,
  3. pampering as display of labor
  4. deference and sincerity

One theme that deserves particular attention though is that of games played by workers:

“These games do not involve cards, chips, or dice, but they do entail strategy – about how to finish tasks quickly, control the pace of work, and maximize tips. In playing these games, workers make their jobs meaningful, become invested in them, and construct images of themselves as skilled and autonomous.” (111)

Workers then are able to recast themselves not as subservient but as in control of their work and of the guests as they can manipulate the amount of tips they receive. Games were of various kinds:

Games of speed, service and control:

  • Controlling unpredictability (speed control of conversation with guests over the phone)
  • Maximizing sales
  • Room blocking
  • Needs anticipation (who can best recall details about guests demands)

Money games mostly through maximizing tips through a variety of strategies such as:

  • visible effort and guest recognition
  • highlighting labor
  • discreetly reminding guests that work had been done by a particular worker
  • various forms of performativity (such as joking with guests)

All of these strategies are risky, though, because workers have to walk fine lines. For instance, joking can easily go from friendliness to inappropriate with guests.

Other strategies to maximize tips involve creating typologies of guests in order to increase predictability of their requests and demands (“the sport”, “the blowhard”, “the lady shopper”). Sherman notes that unpredictability was the heart of the game. If that was removed, the game was over. For instance, workers often refused tips paid in advance because the intellectual play and the strategizing was removed.

“Playing money games not only helped workers avoid ‘unrelieved drudgery,’ as Davis put it, but also deflected the experience of interactive subordination by recasting asymmetrical relations as favorable to workers. Rather than highlight stratification and subordination, the large tip or high rate indicated that the worker had won the game.” (134)

At the same time, of course, these games could be a source of conflict with coworkers and managers. But they were also sources of comparison and evaluation and therefore played a major part in self-conception based on skills, control and autonomy. A great deal of self-work and performativity was also dedicated to recasting hierarchies:

“[Workers] invoked multiple, symbolic hierarchies of worth and advantage – status, privilege, intelligence, competence, morality, and cultural capital – and mobilized these hierarchies selectively to establish themselves as superior to others. Asserting capacities and advantages that others lacked allowed workers to resituate themselves as powerful. Ironically, this move led them to constitute guests’ entitlement as legitimate.” (155)

For instance, workers tended to often recast their job as superior to that of their coworkers, emphasizing their control and authority over entire segments of the service, or entire sections of the hotel. Concierges emphasized their vast cultural and social capital through their knowledge of the best restaurants or art galleries.

Workers also engaged in quite a bit of what C. Wright Mills called “borrowing prestige”, that is, gaining status by association: the high status of the guests allowed workers to recast themselves as exceptional compared to other hotels and their workers. And then, there were all the different ways of recasting themselves as superior to the guests:

  • guests as needy (strategy of empathy and condescension)
  • guests as incompetent in the basic operations of life (strategy of entertainment and judgment)
  • guests as in need of gatekeeping (controlling entitlement)
  • guests as unworthy (of luxury service because of boorish behavior)

In many ways, workers “calculated” how much service a guest deserved and symbolically enforced limits on how much they received.

There is also a major moral dimension to all this performativity. Workers expected some degree of recognition, respect and reciprocity with respect to their personhood and professionalism. Of course, guests had always the upper end in interaction but should they fail to show proper respect and reciprocity, workers could engage in revenge (and rewards for those guests who behaved in ways that recognized such things). When it came to revenge, workers engaged in what Goffman calls negative deference or standard forms of ritual contempt. This involves some passive-aggressive strategies (rolling one’s eyes to the back of the guest, giving them the finger from under the desk, giving them nicknames, making fun of them behind their backs.

More visibly, workers could withhold emotional labor through overly formal behavior. Conversely, workers can become what they call “fake nice”, a kind of “kill them with phony kindness” strategy. Another strategy is to deliberately waste the guest’s time or to withdraw attention. And then, there is “reverse customization” as mode of punishment: giving a guest a bad rate or a “bad” room (less than what he wants). Guests then can find themselves downgraded if they become difficult.

The book also goes into some details as to how the guests produced their entitlement. For instance, leisure travelers claimed some distance between themselves and the luxury of the hotel by claiming that it did not matter to them and engaged in some degree of denial by ignoring the hierarchies involved in the service. On the other hand, business travelers evaluated the service they got in “strictly business” terms, for instance, by recognizing the techniques of recognition and personalization used by the workers and therefore recasting themselves as quasi-managers rather than guests.

And both categories made a point of emphasizing how much they engaged in reciprocity and they saw “being nice” as emotional compensation for financial disparities. These guests also all stated that luxury consumption was their reward for their own hard work and men, especially, were keen on trying to elicit compassion from the workers by providing stories of how hard their life was, what with often away from home.

There is a lot more in the book. As with any participant observation or ethnographic work, the book is full of stories, descriptions, interviews that make the reading very pleasant and at the same time, Sherman does a great job of working in concepts, theories and other sociological work in a very approachable way.

Highly recommended.

Global Class Warfare: It’s ON

One would have to be living in a cave to not notice that things are grumbling: protest movements in the Middle East, where Tunisia and Egypt were the spark that also lit things up in other MENA countries.

But there are also protests in the UK against tax-dodging corporations and in the US against union-busting Republican governors, with something similar pushed by corporate interests in the UK:

“Business organisation the Institute of Directors (IoD) has called for collective bargaining to be scrapped for teachers and NHS staff.

They are among a set of proposals the trades unions have described as a “Thatcherite fantasy world”.

The IoD put a series of recommendations to government to cut red tape and boost private sector growth.

It also wants an automatic right to ask for flexible working to be removed, in order to increase productivity.

The IoD has put forward 24 “freebie” proposals, which it says would cost the government nothing but would benefit growth, particularly in the private sector.

Among the most controversial would be the call to curb trade union negotiating power in large public sector bodies, said BBC business correspondent Joe Lynam.

The IoD also suggests that workers should pay a deposit of £500 when taking their employers to industrial tribunals to deter what it describes as “vexatious claims”.

A spokesman for the Trades Union Congress said the IoD’s real aim was to make life easy for directors at the expense of their workforce and to lower pay and conditions in the NHS.”

The bottom line is: it is a global class warfare. The transnational capitalist class is going for broke on the rest of us, using its wealth, political clout, complicit media figures and proxy movements like the Tea Party to conclusively complete the capture of a decaying system.

The impetus for this is not hard to grasp: a massive financial crisis caused by the financial sector, but blamed on the poor and the not-white, that made quite visible the growth of social inequalities that have been papered over by easy credit that sustained consumption.

“As the dramatic events in North Africa continue to unfold, many observers outside the Arab world smugly tell themselves that it is all about corruption and political repression. But high unemployment, glaring inequality and soaring prices for basic commodities are also a huge factor. So observers should not just be asking how far similar events will spread across the region; they should be asking themselves what kind of changes might be coming at home in the face of similar, if not quite so extreme, economic pressures.

Within countries, inequality of income, wealth and opportunity is arguably greater than at any time in the last century. Across Europe, Asia and the Americas, corporations are bulging with cash as their relentless drive for efficiency continues to yield huge profits. Yet workers’ share of the pie is falling, thanks to high unemployment, shortened working hours and stagnant wages.

Paradoxically, cross-country measures of income and wealth inequality are actually falling, thanks to continuing robust growth in emerging markets. But most people care far more about how well they are doing relative to their neighbours, than to citizens of distant lands.

The rich are mostly doing well. Global stock markets are back. Many countries are seeing vigorous growth in prices for housing, commercial real estate, or both. Resurgent prices for commodities are creating huge revenues for owners of mines and oil fields, even as price spikes for basic staples are sparking food riots, if not wholesale revolutions, in the developing world. The internet and the financial sector continue to spawn new multimillionaires, and even billionaires, at a staggering pace.”

As Rogoff notes, political corruption and pool leadership does not help, but inequalities are at the core of these global movements.

It’s a plutocrats’ world, and the rest of us are just potential sources of rent.

And things can only get worse with food prices rising to critical levels:

“At one time food was considered a poor speculative investment, because it was too perishable to be stored until market conditions were right for resale. But that changed with the development of ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and other financial innovations.


As first devised, speculation in food futures was fairly innocuous, since when the contract expired, somebody actually had to buy the product at the “spot” or cash price. This forced the fanciful futures price and the more realistic spot price into alignment. But that changed in 1991. In a revealing July 2010 report in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away with It,” Frederick Kaufman wrote:

The history of food took an ominous turn in 1991, at a time when no one was paying much attention. That was the year Goldman Sachs decided our daily bread might make an excellent investment….

Robber barons, gold bugs, and financiers of every stripe had long dreamed of controlling all of something everybody needed or desired, then holding back the supply as demand drove up prices.


Some economists said the hikes were caused by increased demand by Chinese and Indian middle-class population booms and the growing use of corn for ethanol. But according to Professor Jayati Ghosh of the Centre for Economic Studies in New Delhi, demand from those countries actually fell by 3 percent over the period; and the International Grain Council stated that global production of wheat had increased during the price spike.

According to a study by the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, index fund speculation jumped from $13 billion to $260 billion from 2003 to 2008. Not surprisingly, food prices rose in tandem, beginning in 2003. Hedge fund manager Michael Masters estimated that on the regulated exchanges in the US, 64 percent of all wheat contracts were held by speculators with no interest whatever in real wheat. They owned it solely in anticipation of price inflation and resale. George Soros said it was “just like secretly hoarding food during a hunger crisis in order to make profits from increasing prices.”

An August 2009 paper by Jayati Ghosh, professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, compared food staples traded on futures markets with staples that were not. She found that the price of food staples not traded on futures markets, such as millet, cassava and potatoes, rose only a fraction as much as staples subject to speculation, such as wheat.”

This predatory rent-seeking behavior knows no limit, financial, moral or geographical. The flip side of this is a deliberate strategy, once explicitly stated by Alan Greenspan, to maintain higher levels of insecurity for workers, after all, the Transnational Capitalist Class (TNC) does not need workers from any specific country, especially not the US. It needs to be able to freely roam the globe for financial opportunities to extract more rent.

But the gap in wealth along with the severing of national ties have also led to ideological hardening: the TNC (or the Cloud Minders, as I often call them, following David Korten and based on a Star Trek episode) thinks very poorly of the mere mortals.

This is something I have called elsewhere The New Sociopathy. As the article where the video comes from notes,

“The ranks of the very seriously wealthy grow and grow, and the gap between them and the societies they once belonged to, grows wider and wider.

Could it be that the Arab sheikh, the Russian oligarch and the American internet magnate have more in common with each other than they have with the people they purport to live among?”

Well, yes, that is why they are the TNC. The TNC’s control of wealth allows them to live lives completely disconnected from the rest of the world’s population (even the upper middle classes of the West). Their political clout allows them to  have national governments divest themselves of their social responsibilities towards their populations while virtually wiping out taxation in the TNC. And their control of the media makes it possible for them to build and propagate narratives that blame the various dimensions of the crisis to the poor, the regulators (if only) and the minorities.

Narrative 1:

“There has been a concerted effort to bash public sector employees by either highlighting the few instances where pensions actually are exorbitant or just making things up. Untruths about Goldman Sachs, General Electric or any other major company rarely appear in the media, and are usually quickly corrected when they do. However, exaggerations or outright fabrication are a standard practice for those who report on state and local budgets when it comes to public employees.

The public has been bombarded with stories of public employees retiring with six-figure pensions while still in their early 50s. There may be some instances of such inflated pensions, but that is far from the typical story. If we look to New York State, the hotbed of bloated public budgets, we find that the state’s main retirement system pays an average pension of $18,300 a year. For many workers this is their whole retirement income since they were not covered by Social Security.

This is the general story of public pensions. Public sector workers are often better situated than their private sector counterparts, in that they even have pensions. But study after study shows that these workers paid for their pensions with lower wages than their private sector counterparts. It is tragic that so many private sector workers cannot count on a secure retirement, but it won’t help them to make workers in the public sector equally insecure.”

Narrative 2:

“When families take out a mortgage in the middle of a housing bubble, which may have been misrepresented at the time of sale, the homeowner has an obligation to repay the money to the bank. When people take on credit card debt, they absolutely have an obligation to repay the bank — even if it means changing the rules after the fact.

However, when the government signs a contract with workers, it doesn’t have to pay the workers’ pensions if it proves to be inconvenient. Of course, we may also throw in the fact that when the flood of bad mortgage loans issued by the banks threatened to push them into bankruptcy, the Treasury and the Fed give them trillions of dollars of loans at below market interest rates.”


“There certainly seems to be a pattern here. The story has nothing to do with preferences for the market or government intervention. The picture here is very simple: The rules get changed whenever it is necessary to make sure that money flows upward from ordinary workers to the rich. In 21st century America, upward redistribution seems to be the guiding principle.”

Narrative 3: the public debt

“Nothing better shows corporate control over the government than Washington’s basic response to the current economic crisis. First, we had “the rescue”, then “the recovery”. Trillions in public money flowed to the biggest US banks, insurance companies, etc. That “bailed” them out (is it just me or is there a suggestion of criminality in that phrase?), while we waited for benefits to “trickle down” to the rest of us.

As usual, the “trickle-down” part has not happened. Large corporations and their investors kept the government’s money for themselves; their profits and stock market “recovered” nicely. We get unemployment, home-foreclosures, job benefit cuts and growing job insecurity. As the crisis hits states and cities, politicians avoid raising corporate taxes in favour of cutting government services and jobs – witness Wisconsin, etc.

Might government bias favouring corporations be deserved, a reward for taxes they pay? No: corporations – especially the larger ones – have avoided taxes as effectively as they have controlled government expenditures to benefit them.”

In other words, the states are short of money not because they are too burdened by pensions and benefits but because corporations do not pay their proper share of taxes, as the rest of us (including public employees) do. It is the ideological triumph of the TNC that the general public has accepted their narrative of bad teachers, lazy government workers who need to be trimmed down.

And this how the Cloud Minders think of us.

The only solution is massive, global protest movements, a reverse shock doctrine directed at the TNC. It is in this context that the existence of organizations like Wikileaks become essential along with Net Neutrality. But that, in itself will not be enough. Fighting this means putting boots on the grounds and protesting not just the individuals (such as the Governor of Wisconsin or the Koch Brothers) but the entire system. And yes, such affairs are usually bloody. But what are the options? Obama is not going to be the labor’s knight in a shining armor.

How The “War on (Whatever)” Always Ends Up Hurting The Already Disadvantaged

Compare and contrast these two items.

War on fake drugs:

“There is a lot of talk about the dangers of counterfeit medicines these days and, indeed, counterfeit drugs are dangerous things. But, says Oxfam in a new report today, the war on fake drugs in the developing world is being waged in a way that may suit the big pharmaceutical companies but poses very grave dangers to the health of the poor.

“Fake drugs and sub-standard drugs, such as antibiotics with too little of the active ingredient to do any good, are sold all over the developing world. They can do real harm, but the strategy against counterfeits will not stop much of that trade, according to Oxfam, because its focus is to strengthen the patent system. Patents prevent legal copies of new drugs from being made for a period of up to 20 years – but many of the fake and sub-standard drugs going around in Africa and Asia are not in patent anyhow.

“Oxfam says rich countries, which are pushing for stronger patents in the interest of the pharmaceutical companies which contribute to their GDP, should instead be helping poor countries to strengthen their drug regulatory and policing systems.”

How is that accomplished? By conveniently confusing generics (which poor countries need) and counterfeit medicines.

“Oxfam is particularly critical of the European Union, but also of the World Health Organisation. There is confusion between counterfeits and generics – legally-made, cheap copies of medicines that, particularly in the case of Aids drugs, have saved lives in the developing world. A WHO-led initiative called IMPACT (International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce) is unclear on the difference between them.


Generic medicines are vital to the health of the poor. Enforcing patents, in a way that might restrict their manufacture, will do more harm than good, says Oxfam. Instead, developing countries should be helped to strengthen their own monitoring and regulation so that the drugs their citizens use are safe and effective.”

But by focusing on the intellectual property side of the issue (which is very small in terms of damage but important to Western pharmaceutical companies), no problem gets solved: the public health and access to cheap generics are not addressed.

War on Drugs (we don’t like):

“For nearly two years, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz led a one-woman campaign to bring the murderer of her 16-year-old daughter to justice. Ms Escobedo was outraged after a three-judge panel ignored overwhelming evidence pointing to her daughter’s then boyfriend, cartel member Sergio Barraza, as the killer. The judges’ decision was eventually overturned – but not before Barraza was released and Escobedo herself murdered this past December, while protesting in front of the Chihuahua state governor’s office.

Escobedo’s death was recorded by a security camera and broadcast throughout the country, outraging the Mexican public and leading to the suspension of the three judges involved in the original trial. Her case is not only representative of the impunity with which activists are silenced in Mexico, but also highlights the marked increase in violence toward women as the country has been drawn deeper into its battle with organised crime.”

Interestingly, the article denies that these femicides have anything to do with drugs without providing any other explanation. However, in these Mexican states, everything has to do with drugs (and every institution is involved, from local police, to state police, to federal military). It also has to do with NAFTA, the rise of maquiladoras where a lot of young women work and where young men see greater prospects for themselves in drug trafficking.

And the militarization of the drug conflict has made life more insecure for women who are less likely to be involved in the trafficking. To think that somehow, women are unaffected by this, yet killed in large numbers for either unknown reasons or just because that is the way Mexican men have always behaved explains nothing and obscures the gendered nature of contemporary conflicts.

It would be like saying that the mass rapes in the Congo have nothing to do with the conflict. In case there were any doubts (via DJ Academe):

So, being caught in the crossfires, either in terms of fighting fake drug trafficking, or in the middle of a drug war, or in the middle of a resource conflict, is a social disadvantage. To be exempt from it, or to be among the aggressive parties is a social privilege. Needless to say, women are very much likely to be on the losing end every time, along with, often, the poor.

And in every case, there is very little opportunity for the disadvantaged to defend themselves (against fake drugs or expensive brand drugs in the absence of generics, or against the drug gangs or the Mexican military, or against Congo militiamen) or even fight back (as Marisela Escobedo Ortiz tried to do.

Book Review – La Démocratie Internet

Dominique Cardon‘s La Démocratie Internet: Promesses et Limites reads like Sociology of the Internet 101, which is a good thing. It is a short (as all books in this series are), and highly readable introduction to the state of research on Internet interactions and practices. It is also a good example of what sociology does and how it approaches specific social phenomena.

A central argument of the book is that the Internet, and the various platforms it offers, is reshaping how we understand public and private spaces of interactions and what we consider proper public discourse. In this sense, the Internet is much more than the next stage in the evolution of media technologies (from the printed press, to the radio, to television and now the Internet).

As Cardon notes (rough translation):

“Two ways of communicating are joined on the Internet: the first one facilitates exchanges between individuals, the second one facilitates the diffusion of information to large audiences. The first one, through the postal mail, the telephone or the email, allows one to interact with one or several specific recipients. The second, with the press, the radio or television, sends messages from a few to a vast and undifferentiated public. The reconciliation of these two forms of communication did not happen just like that. It even produced novel effects once the borders between these two modes become porous.” (9)

And this is not just a matter of different technologies. The Internet unites under the same interface tools for interpersonal and mass communication thereby creating a new type of relationship between conversation and information diffusion. By the same token, the Internet also changes the role of traditional gatekeepers of information, editors and journalists. One only needs to see the reaction by traditional media organizations to the Wikileaks revelation to understand that their complaints are about being displaced from the privileged status of exclusive dispensers of information.

After all, the separation between gatekeepers and experts, on the one hand, and the general public on the other hand, has deeply structured the public space (in Habermas’s sense) as the former long decided what was appropriate for the public to see and know. In this sense, public space was neatly separate from the private domain. The Internet has shattered these separations by joining and broadening the public space, not without risks, to be sure. With this, privileged access to information and publication has been somewhat eliminated. At the same time, what used to be considered private conversations have emerged on to public space.

Cardon considers this a double revolution: (1) the right to speak (in a broad sense) in the public space has been extended to entire societies and, (2) parts of what belonged to the private sphere has been incorporated in the public domain. In order to explain how this came to be, Cardon begins the book with a brief history of the Internet and the set of values that animated its founders: free speech, autonomy, availability for free, tolerance and consensus. As he shows, the development of what ended up being the Internet was not linear, neatly advancing from one step to the next. Rather, it combined professional teams alongside expert amateurs as well as military research groups.

Through this horizontal development, the initial network was founded on relatively libertarian values. Central to this have been things such as Usenet and open source software, fueled by the “wisdom of crows” and Creative Commons. The Internet, right from the start, was designed as open public space where people are judged by their contributions (often anonymously, with such presentation of self tools as avatars). At the same time, in these early stages, the Internet was enormously homogeneous in terms of social characteristics of users.

Unsurprisingly then, the next stage was the massification of the Internet (digital divide notwithstanding). With this comes what Cardon calls the realistic turn of the Internet where the initial anonymous avatar-identified user is replaced by users claiming their real identities. At the same time, of course, the population of users becomes more heterogeneous.

As Cardon notes,

“Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello have shown how, following the protest movements of 1968, critique of capitalism took two different directions: ‘social’ when it demanded a modification of prevalent power relationships, ‘artist’ when it seeks to liberate individuals in order for them to be more authentic and creative. There is no doubt that, in the American context, the Internet has been carried by the ‘artist critique’. Its libertarian center of gravity is based on individual autonomy, self-organization and a refusal of collective constraints.” (31)

In other words, the Internet was founded by hippies (no, really) in search of self-actualization.

Regarding the central theme of broadening public space, Cardon considers four modes of public speaking:


Cardon considers (4) to be where the real transformations brought about by the Internet are in terms of social interactions that shatter the traditional boundaries of the public space. In that space, users move seamlessly from private conversation with relatives to political discussions with like-minded users. This is what happens all the time on Facebook, Twitter, Digg or Reddit (this is a major part of the Web 2.0 phenomenon). This combines democratization with large-scale exposure of subjectivities while at the same time claiming to retain a right to privacy (hence the periodical kerfuffles regarding Facebook ever-changing privacy policies).

This bring said, Cardon emphasizes over and over how unequal the Internet is. First, of course, even though the price of entry is low, it is not entirely free and entire regions of the world are still largely excluded. Also, not everyone can contribute equally (even though the price of entry to contribution is repeatedly lowered and simplified, as with a simple “like” button). And, of course, not everyone is equally visible. The web is highly hierarchical in terms of high and low visibility. But in the web in chiaroscuro, the web has moved away from being a giant documentary library to becoming a territory and a major source of sociability and social capital. Bridging and bonding capital mix seamlessly through a variety of platforms.

Cardon then distinguishes between different kinds of ties beyond the usual weak / strong dichotomy:

  • strong ties (friends, relatives)
  • ex-strong ties (acquaintances and ex-es found on social networking platforms)
  • contextual ties (colleagues or other individuals known in real life through shared memberships or activities)
  • opportunistic ties (vague acquaintances or acquaintances of acquaintances)
  • virtual ties (people met on the Internet through shared interests)

This completely fits within Zygmunt Bauman’s liquidity thesis as the self is constantly a work in progress, carefully constructed and presented to the world, one contribution at a time, be it a blog post, a photo on Flickr, a series of tweets or “likes” on Facebook.

“A loose web of debating micro-spaces is being constantly woven and displaced across the Internet. Internauts grab local or global issues. They monitor, comment, discuss and critique a thousand topics. In no particular order, it’s all about a trendy singer, a new movie, a cooking recipe, a legal or technical problem, vacations spots, pets – to limit to the most popular subjects of conversation. But this anchoring in daily life is also an opportunity to debate public issues: local politics, environmental controversies, wage inequalities, the role of women in politics, violence in schools, insecurity, etc. With the development of remix and mash-up creative culture, mainly through videos, these are new forms of expression, protest or ironic, that are developing at the margins, and at distance from, of official politics.” (70)

This was especially obvious these past days as the mainstream media relatively ignored the events in Tunisia while Twitter bursting with updates. The same thing has happened in the past with social movements in Thailand and Iran. And in that process, the users challenged the traditional gatekeepers who cannot rely on any expert status to shield themselves from criticism but are expected to account for their contributions.

So what does this mean for politics and democracy? On this, Cardon is not exactly optimistic. The web is not an egalitarian utopia. There is power and there is exclusion. There is also limited collective action or agency but more an aggregation of individual contributions. It is great for the circulation of information, but there is limited power of action. A Twitter trend does not a revolution make. Such capillary dynamics are individualizing and individualized. Forms of cooperation and participation might emerge – as in the case of the alterglobalist movement – but their power remains to be seen.

At the same time, political life on the Internet is a mix bag. While the Zapatistas and other loosely organized groups may have had some success, top-down movements have largely failed especially if they used the web as just another form of mailing instead of using the conversational mode.

There is more in the book, of course, and much food for thought regarding the recomposition of the public sphere. Cardon offers a nuanced approach to issues that are still in progress. He avoids the web fetishism of some techie publications or the doom-and-gloom approach of some critique. Highly recommended.

I hope this book gets an English translation.

Book Review – The Culture of The New Capitalism


[This is a repost but a relevant one as I chose Richard Sennett as my sociologist of the semester.]

Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism should be read as one more chapter in Sennett’s exploration of the transformation of labor and institutions, something he started in the 1970s with The Hidden Injuries of Class and continued more recently with The Craftsman (review to come).

“All that is solid melts into air.” This quote from Marx has been used and reused by Bauman (see his whole “liquid” conditions series of books) and it is also a recurring theme in Sennett’s book: the progressive dismantling of what Pierre Bourdieu might call the structuring structure and the structured structures of labor.


The first part of Sennett’s book is a comparison between the modern Weberian bureaucracy both in its positive aspects (social integration, what Sennett calls its contribution to social capitalism, militaristic efficiency and organization of time, its predictable promotional paths) and its negative traits (the famous Iron Cage, its ritualistic and alienating tendencies). The bureaucratic model pervaded modern society in multiple institutional incarnations. So, what is changing?

“The fresh-page thesis asserts that the institutions which enabled this life-narrative thinking have now “melted into air.” The militarization of social time is coming apart. There are some obvious institutional facts on which this thesis is founded. The end of lifetime employment is one such, as is the waning of careers spent within a single institution; so is the fact, in the public realm, that government welfare and safety nets have become more short-term and more erratic.” (25)

And then, of course, there is globalization both in its deterritorialized and deeply territorial forms.

Sennett outlines three aspects in which the iron cage comes apart:

  1. the shift from managerial to shareholder power in large companies
  2. this shift in power involves a demand for short-term results (“impatient capital”)
  3. the development of new technologies of communications and manufacturing

Giant pension and investments funds have generated enormous amounts of capital in search of profitable returns all over the world, both cause and effect of globalization since the late 1970s. This is when shareholder power emerges in corporate governance, as opposed to executives.

And with this development comes short-termism.

“Share price rather than corporate dividends was their measure of results. Buying and selling shares in an open, fluid market yielded quicker – and greater – yields than holding stocks for the long term. For this reason, whereas in 1965 American pension funds held stocks on an average for 46 months, by 2000 much in the portfolios of these institutional investors turned over on an average of 3.8 months.” (40)

Making money quick is nothing new. What changed are the institutional, cultural and technological ways of doing so.

“The combined effect of so much unleashed capital and the pressure of short-term returns transformed the structure of those institutions most attractive to empowered investors. Enormous pressure was put on companies to look beautiful in the eyes of the passing voyeur; institutional beauty consisted in demonstrating signs of internal change and flexibility, appearing to be a dynamic company, even if the once-stable company had worked perfectly well. (…) Institutional solidity becomes an investment negative rather than a positive. Stability seemed a sign of weakness, suggesting to the market that the firm could not innovate or find new opportunities or otherwise manage change.” (40-41)

The willingness to destabilize or stress the system of one’s own organization is a sign of dynamism, flexibility and embrace of change (something expanding beyond corporations into the realm of higher education, for instance, as demonstrated by Marc Bousquet in his book, How The University Works, and also a process described by Sennett himself in The Corrosion of Character, detailing the case of Lou Gerstner leadership at IBM).

The power of impatient capital was of course multiplied by the rise of information and communication technologies as well as revolutions in manufacturing, refrigeration and containerization.

Institutionally speaking, ICTs permitted the removal of middle level bureaucracy and the emergence of a new form of centralization with accelerated power without discussion or interpretation. This came in addition to outsourcing, off-shoring and massive lay-offs. Whereas an essential effect of the modern bureaucracy was social inclusion of the masses (for social, political and economic reasons), the new corporation is lean and mean and can function with fewer people.

The new organization requires a new conception of the self and identity. This is where culture enters the picture. The new self is one adapted to these new social, economic and institutional conditions: a self that eschews dependency upon others or upon companies or institutions or the state. This is not individualism, this is the era of flexible (sometimes virtual) networks and contacts rather than stable and deep relationships.

What is the new institutional reality of corporations (Again, this was addressed at greater length in The Corrosion of Character)? Three main processes define it:

  1. Delayering: getting rid of layers within the organization and having these functions transferred to other places or individuals.
  2. Casualization: short-term, renewable employment within the organization where workers can be moved from task to task.
  3. Non-linear sequencing: task or problem-solving oriented rather than fixed-function labor.

Put together, these characteristics define organizations revolving around shorter time frames devoted to small tasks. Organizations then creates ill-defined conditions and contexts in which human relations and problem-solving skills are key and surveillance (especially computerized) is extensive, generating institutionalized paranoia. These are high-stress systems; their personal product: anxiety.

“Anxiety attaches to what might happen; dread attaches to what one knows will happen. Anxiety arises in ill-defined conditions, dread when pain or ill-fortune is well defined. Failure in the old pyramid was grounded in dread; failure in the new institution is shaped by anxiety. When firms are reengineered, employees frequently have no idea of what will happen to them, since modern forms of corporate restructuring are driven by issues of debt and stock-price value generated in financial markets, rather than by the internal workings of the firm.” (53)

This is reinforced by the widespread use of consultants as perfect illustration of the sociological idea that distance = social inequality. Hiring consultants – increasing social distance – accomplishes certain things that are positively viewed by investors:

  • an ideological signal that power is being exercised
  • potential institutional disruption signalling that “change” (always positive) is afoot
  • a shift in responsibility for painful decisions (“the consultants said we should do it”)
  • command without accountability (see the IMF / WB economists imposing shock economic therapy upon other countries without any accountability for the catastrophic results)
  • power without commitment to the organization

According to Sennett, this dismantling of the iron cage of the modern bureaucracy produces three types of social deficits, which, put together, amount to a decline in social capital (the Putnam thesis):

  1. low institutional loyalty
  2. diminishment of informal trust among workers
  3. weakening of institutional knowledge

Culturally, all these institutional aspects translate into the devaluation of stability and delayed gratification in terms of prestige and the valuation of risk-taking and problem-solving skills. This, in turn, has consequences for the stratification system:

“Class counts for everything. A child of privilege can afford strategic confusion, a child of the masses cannot. Chance opportunities are likely to come to the child of privilege because of family background and educational networks; privileges diminishes the need to strategize. Strong, extensive human networks allow those at the top to dwell in the present; the networks constitute a safety net which diminishes the need for long-term planning. The new elite thus has less need of the ethic of delayed gratification, as thick networks provide contacts and a sense of belonging, no matter firm or organization one works for. The mass, however, has a thinner network of informal contact and support, and so remains more institution-dependent.” (80)

Specter of Uselessness

Sennett sees the specter of uselessness as a major source of anxiety in society, but here again, redefined by institutional change and shaped by distinctive forces:

  • the global labor supply: when one’s skills are easily replaced by another labor force in another part of the world
  • automation (which can generate automated uselessness)
  • the management of ageing

Uselessness is tied to the fear of skills extinction as experience becomes less valued and skills can be bought in a younger worker rather than expending resources on retraining an older, more expensive, worker.  As a result, large numbers are left behind, in situations of marginality due to unemployment or underemployment in a culture that loathes dependency and that the welfare state (diminished as it is) is ill-equipped to deal with.

This leads to a related and essential topic of the book: the declining prestige of craftsmanship.

“Craftsmanship would be: doing something well for its own sake. Self-discipline and self-criticism adhere in all domains of craftsmanship; standards matter, and the pursuit of quality ideally becomes an end in itself. Craftsmanship emphasizes objectification: (…) a thing made to matter in itself. (…) Understood this way, craftsmanship sits uneasily in the institutions of flexible capitalism. (…) The more one understands how to do something well, the more one cares about it. Institutions based on short-term transactions and constantly shifting tasks, however, do not breed that depth. Indeed, the organization can fear it; the management code word here is ingrown . Someone who digs deep into an activity just to get it right can seem to others ingrown in the sense of fixated on that one thing. (…) And he or she stands at the opposite pole from the consultant, who swoops in but never nests. Moreover, deepening one’s skills in any pursuit takes time.” (104-105)

So what does the flexible organization look for? According to Sennett, potential abilities that tend to be amorphous and therefore, applicable to a variety of domains and settings, such as problem-solving or interpersonal skills. For Sennett, this is ultimately what standardized tests are expected to measure: solving a variety of problems with a limited amount of time and no time to think things through in any deep or complex manner. Ability then is detached from learning, experience and achievement. From his studies, Sennett found that evaluations of abilities by management are much more personal and go straight to a sense of self:

“Judgments about potential ability are much more personal in character than judgments of achievement. An achievement compounds social and economic circumstances, fortune and chance, with self. Potential ability focuses only on the self. The statement “you lack potential” is much more devastating than “you messed up.” It makes a more fundamental claim about who you are. It conveys uselessness in a more profound sense. (123)

[Emphasis mine] One can see then how potential ability stands in opposition to craftsmanship and how disempowering it is. What can one do when one lacks abilities? One can work at one’s crafts but not at one’s abilities. And again, in this context, abilities are defined as amorphous and non-specific (ability to work well with other, to think outside the box, to be collaborative, etc… these phrases are, in a way, meaningless and subject to subjective assessment).

What are the implications of all this for politics, and especially for progressive politics? Well, not so good for Sennett as politics becomes an object of consumption as well and politicians package themselves as consumer objects.

Consuming Politics

Ok, let me take a detour here: it seems to me that, as I was reading Sennett’s book, that I was truly reading about the Obama campaign and about Obama as consumption object. Think about it for a second: Obama campaigned on himself, not as a Democrat, liberal, progressive. Actually, he ran away from these labels. He also revealed contempt for experience and promoted his “skills”, especially, his negotiating skills (his claim to be able to bring everybody to the table and reach a consensus… an amorphous skill, applicable to any domain).

He did not provide specific programs and policies (again, when one asked his supporters to provide such information, one would be invariably referred to the website as the immediate response). He also rejected past experience (contempt for the struggles of the 60s). And, of course, he pushed the idea of his “judgment” as his major asset. Finally, charisma was a major asset. In this sense, it was really a campaign packaged for the impatient consumer, with little interest in detailed wonkery as well as major ageism involved (combined with misogyny). No deferred gratification here.

I would argue that Obama was successful in packaging himself in a way that fit the “creative class” (euphemisms for privileged classes), the media, college students who have been socialized in an SAT environment and expect to work in new organizations and see themselves as citizen-consumers. Indeed, as Sennett explains, the citizen-consumer is

  1. offered political platforms which resemble product platforms (the candidate as product in and of himself)
  2. gold-plated differences (what Sennett calls the symbolic inflation of trivia)
  3. asked to discount “the twisted timber of humanity” (concerns of the disadvantaged and complex social and political issues are dismissed as getting in the way of “transformation” whatever that means)
  4. credit more user-friendly politics
  5. accept continually new political products on offer

All these go against progressive politics, according to Sennett (indeed, Obama has never presented himself as progressive or liberal, his supporters have projected these attributes upon him as part of the well-known process of imaging):

“User-friendly makes a hash of democracy. Democracy requires that citizens be willing to make some effort to find out how the world around them works. (…) My point is not that people are lazy but that the economy creates a political climate in which citizens have difficulty in thinking like craftsmen. In institutions organized around flexible labor, getting involved deeply in something risks making the worker seem ingrown and narrowly focused.” (171)

Sennett ends his book by again emphasizing craftsmanship (something I’m guessing he has picked up in his latest book) and focusing on the Dutch solution to broken life narratives (something also heavily present in The Corrosion of Character).

I enjoy reading Sennett but I have to confess that parts of the book annoyed me, especially the ones about consuming desires. I have to confess that Freudian-type sociology bores me and leaves me frustrated mostly because I would like something more empirically grounded. I understand that Sennett is not just a sociologist but also a social thinker or philosopher, and the most philosphical parts of the book are the ones that did slow me down. I much prefer his labor and institutional analyses. I find them more powerful. But again, no one describes institutional realities as he does.

Compare and Contrast – What Works and What Does Not

[Update: David Kay Johnston corrects me in comments: “That $70 billion estimate is for state and local subsidies only; the Shelf Project has shown that federal subsidies run about $1 trillion a year, roughly the same amount as is raised by the individual income tax.”]

Here is an interesting idea that seems to work: pay the poor to help them out of poverty…

“The program, called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) in Brazil, goes by different names in different places. In Mexico, where it first began on a national scale and has been equally successful at reducing poverty, it is Oportunidades. The generic term for the program is conditional cash transfers. The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements. The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention. The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families. The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow.


Brazil is employing a version of an idea now in use in some 40 countries around the globe, one already successful on a staggeringly enormous scale. This is likely the most important government anti-poverty program the world has ever seen. It is worth looking at how it works, and why it has been able to help so many people.

In Mexico, Oportunidades today covers 5.8 million families, about 30 percent of the population. An Oportunidades family with a child in primary school and a child in middle school that meets all its responsibilities can get a total of about $123 a month in grants. Students can also get money for school supplies, and children who finish high school in a timely fashion get a one-time payment of $330.


Bolsa Familia, which has similar requirements, is even bigger.  Brazil’s conditional cash transfer programs were begun before the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but he consolidated various programs and expanded it. It now covers about 50 million Brazilians, about a quarter of the country.   It pays a monthly stipend of about $13 to poor families for each child 15 or younger who is attending school, up to three children.  Families can get additional payments of $19 a month for each child of 16 or 17 still in school, up to two children.  Families that live in extreme poverty get a basic benefit of about $40, with no conditions.

Do these sums seem heartbreakingly small?  They are.  But a family living in extreme poverty in Brazil doubles its income when it gets the basic benefit.   It has long been clear that Bolsa Familia has reduced poverty in Brazil.  But research has only recently revealed its role in enabling Brazil to reduce economic inequality.


The program fights poverty in two ways.  One is straightforward:  it gives money to the poor.  This works.  And no, the money tends not to be stolen or diverted to the better-off.   Brazil and Mexico have been very successful at including only the poor.  In both countries it has reduced poverty, especially extreme poverty, and has begun to close the inequality gap.

The idea’s other purpose — to give children more education and better health — is longer term and harder to measure.  But measured it is — Oportunidades is probably the most-studied social program on the planet.  The program has an evaluation unit and publishes all data. There have also been hundreds of studies by independent academics. The research indicates that conditional cash transfer programs in Mexico and Brazil do keep people healthier, and keep kids in school.”

These programs put to rest the idea that you cannot trust the poor with money. Their lack of moral values (or some version of the “culture of poverty” argument), lack of deferred gratification and all-around irresponsibility means that they have to be infantilized through a variety of punitive procedures and requirements (as opposed to long-term goals such as education and health). Well, as these programs show, that is simply not the case. The reality is more a variety of incarnations of the poverty trap, which can be partially broken by cash payments.

What does not structurally help the poor? Charity, which is not, have never been, and should never be a substitute for public policy. For several reasons.

Reason 1: a lot of charitable donations are no such thing:

“As a proportion of GDP, the US gives most: 1.7% against Britain’s 0.7%. But donations to religious organisations account for 60% of the difference and, though some money reaches the poor, large sums fund preachers and church premises. Other “charitable” beneficiaries include the universities Americans attended in their youth, which are thus prompted to look with a kindly eye on children of alumni when they apply for places. But we, too, have our weaknesses, such as Eton, which notoriously counts as a charity.”

Reason 2: charitable donations have narrow and variable targets:

“Private charity doesn’t always have the same priorities as public policy. In the UK, the most popular causes are children, animals, cancer and lifeboats. Overseas causes, for relief of famine, disease or effects of natural disasters, tend to do well, helped by celebrity endorsements and fundraising concerts. Mental illness and disability, ex-offenders and unqualified school leavers are less likely to arouse our compassion. Again, volunteering tends to be most common in areas that need it least.”

Reason 3: charitable donations are a form of control of the donors over the recipients. Donors can attach strings to their donations that have nothing to do with reducing poverty. This is a demeaning and humiliating form of servitude that general welfare programs were designed to eliminate:

“The point of post-1945 European welfare states was to free the needy from dependence on private generosity, which tends to miss out the socially marginal, and to be least available when times are hardest. Welfare gave a sense of security and dignity that the less fortunate had never previously enjoyed. It was particularly important to continental societies that had seen how insecurity bred fascism. Those who volunteer time to hospitals and homeless centres or who take out direct debits for guide dogs and cancer research are admirable, but no more or less admirable than those who pay taxes without vociferous complaint. Nor is a society with a “culture of giving” more admirable than one where workers receive living wages, decent pensions and reasonable employment protection; executives exercise restraint in remunerating themselves; and everyone has sufficient support to look after their ailing grannies.”

No charitable programs will ever create large-scale infrastructures, mass education systems, and universal health care. Only public policies can do this. The reliance on charity is simply the political abandonment of the least fortunate and the disintegration of social solidarity.

What is interesting is that, if one looks at US corporate subsidies ($70 billion a year is a conservative estimate), the picture is entirely different, as David Cay Johnston demonstrates:

“One of the biggest new drains of tax money is government giveaways for server farms, those giant air-conditioned complexes that store data for Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Dell, and other digital enterprises. Companies need duplicate sites around the country to manage traffic flow and protect against flood, fire, the loss of electric power, or some other catastrophe.

This fall Yahoo made a deal in Lockport, N.Y., for a new server farm. Yahoo gets $200 million in state and local tax breaks (including no property taxes), plus $58 million of cut-rate electricity from Niagara Falls and a $10 million stimulus grant. That’s $268 million to create 125 jobs, or $2.1 million per job.

Even if we just count the federal stimulus money, the subsidy works out to $80,000 per job.

Even richer was a deal Verizon made this fall for a server farm in Somerset, another Niagara County town. Over 15 years Verizon is getting $614 million in tax breaks and cut-rate electricity, which works out to an eye-popping $3.1 million for each of the 200 estimated jobs.

Server farms are an especially pernicious area of tax giveaways for several reasons. First, those job estimates are misleading. Server farms need very few workers. Oh, there’s some programming work, but it can be done as far off-site as India. However, there will be jobs for air conditioning mechanics and security guards who must be on site to keep intruders and summer air at bay.

A few technicians also will be needed to keep the servers running. But the $882 million in subsidies for the two western New York server farms may buy no more than a few dozen of these jobs, which pay merely better than average wages.


It is curious how the government collects and discloses finely detailed data on how much tax money goes to the disabled, the poor, and the elderly, and to educate the young, but when it comes to welfare for big business, it just cannot seem to find the resources to gather and analyze the costs.

Strange, too, that many of these obscured, but gigantic gifts come through the good offices of politicians who pose as champions of the taxpayer and enemies of welfare, or at least of welfare for those who actually need it.


Thomas tells how Dell moved a factory from Ireland to Poland in 2009 and then months later closed a four-year-old factory built in large part with North Carolina tax dollars. The Irish taxpayers gave €53.5 million to Dell, while North Carolina gave as much as $242 million. But when the Poles offered €54 million more, it was enough to get Dell to move about 1,900 jobs to Lodz.”

Funny how that works.

Oh, and this is “funny” too:

“The government is resigned to UK banks paying out billions of pounds in bonuses this year, despite its calls to curb the payments, the BBC has learnt.


But even if bonuses are cut, salaries have risen significantly to compensate, by up to 40% in some cases.”

Then follow the social darwinist argument that if we do not let the financial class get obscenely wealthy while the larger economy is still in depression, they will go work somewhere else. In this view, the poor are a drag on society while the wealthy are the engine, the creative forces of it. We wish the former would go away, we fear the latter might, at the slightest hint of taxation or regulation, no matter how mild and limited.

As a result of all this, as is obvious from the above, wealth is redirected upward and to corporations without transparency or accountability, with little to show for it. After all, transparency and accountability are only demanded from the poor, as punitive measures in exchange for dwindling benefits or narrowly-triggered charitable donations.

It is clear which approaches are the most successful in terms of poverty reduction and social justice: cash payments to the poor and social democratic measures. And yet, these ideas are not allowed to even enter common discourse on public policy.

The Great Illusion: Dominant Ideology and Social Mobility

Via Paul Krugman, this is what Americans believe (click on the image for larger view):

Dominant Ideology

And this is what is (partly) leads to:

Mobility Compared

I especially like this paragraph from Krugman:

“So when you hear conservatives talk about how our goal should be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes, your first response should be that if they really believe in equality of opportunity, they must be in favor of radical changes in American society. For our society does not, in fact, produce anything like equal opportunity (in part because it produces such unequal outcomes). Tell me how you’re going to produce a huge improvement in the quality of public schools, how you’re going to provide universal health care (for parents as well as children, because parents in bad health affect childrens’ prospects), and then come back to me about the equal chances at the starting line thing.

Now, inequality of opportunity is only one reason for the inequality in outcomes we actually see. But of what remains, how much reflects individual effort, how much reflects talent, and how much sheer luck? No reasonable person would deny that there’s a lot of luck involved. Wall Street titans are, no doubt, smart guys (although talking to some of them, you have to wonder …), but there are surely equally smart guys who for whatever reason never got a chance to grab the 9-figure brass ring.

So economics is not a morality play; the social and economic order we have doesn’t represent the playing out of some kind of deep moral principles.”

More than that, this means the almost complete success of the dominant ideology of meritocracy notwithstanding the opposite results in terms of mobility. Indeed, behind the discourse of meritocracy, one finds massive redistribution of wealth to the top of the social ladder as a matter of policy rather than merit accompanied with increased social control through surveillance society mechanisms and massive extension of the criminal justice system / homeland security complex.

And the fact that the social democracies of Europe do a better job when it comes to social mobility must absolutely remain off-limit to policy discussions.

What this points to is the fact that the dominant ideology hides the high levels of structural and interpersonal violence in the US society, the former as applied puritan ethic and the latter as a consequences of it. A structurally violent society is also at the same time more interpersonally violent as a consequence.

The New Sociopathy

So, this article has been making the rounds (why it’s in the Fashion and Style section? Who knows):

“ARE the upper classes really indifferent to the hopes, fears and miseries of ordinary folk? Or is it that they just don’t understand their less privileged peers?

According to a paper by three psychological researchers — Michael W. Kraus, at the University of California, San Francisco; Stéphane Côté, at the University of Toronto; and Dacher Keltner, the University of California, Berkeley — members of the upper class are less adept at reading emotions.


In the first experiment, participants were asked to look at pictures of faces and indicate which emotions were being expressed. The more upper class the judges, the less able they were to accurately identify emotions in others.

In another experiment, upper-class participants had a harder time reading the emotions of strangers during simulated job interviews.

In the third one — an interesting twist of an experiment — people of greater socioeconomic status were asked to compare themselves to the wealthiest, most powerful Americans, thus diminishing their own relative stature. When asked to identify emotions by looking at 36 sets of emoting eyes, they did markedly better than their upper-class peers.

Here’s why: Earlier studies have suggested that those in the lower classes, unable to simply hire others, rely more on neighbors or relatives for things like a ride to work or child care. As a result, the authors propose, they have to develop more effective social skills — ones that will engender good will.”

The Guardian has a slight variation on that theme:

“So Messrs Maude, Hunt and Willetts think “it’s startling that the richest third of donors in Britain give less, as a proportion of their income, to charity than the poorest third.” I suppose the Tory doyens have been a bit busy of late to be browsing the current psychology journals, but had they done so, they might not have been quite so surprised.

Michael W Kraus, of the University of California, San Francisco, is one of a number of social psychologists who have recently been busy demonstrating that lower socioeconomic status (SES) is intricately linked to all sorts of prosocial behaviours. Everything else equal, the less wealth, education and employment status we have, the more charitable, generous, trusting and helpful we appear to become. In interactions with strangers, poorer people are more likely to use polite, attentive, respectful gestures.


Most immediately, these findings should help to persuade the three wise monkeys of the “big society” that the philanthropy of the wealthiest should never be taken for granted. If their hopes for the fabric of the nation rest to any extent upon the compassion and generosity of the most wealthy and powerful, they may have a few more startling surprises in store.”

I think there are at least two levels to distinguish here: (1) people in subordinate positions have to do more emotional labor than people in positions of power; (2) let’s bring back the Protestant Ethic and see how it works in Nasty Times.

First the emotional labor part (see Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart for the basics). The question of empathy (or lack thereof) in relation to social class is underpinned by the unequal distribution of attention, who gets it and who gives it, something explored by Charles Derber’s The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life. Starting from a general standpoint, Derber states that (all quotes are cited with Kindle edition location):

“Attention plays a role in social interaction as does money in the economy: people hunger for it and suffer terribly from its deprivation; many compete subtly but fiercely to get it; and it is one of the social badges of prestige and success.” (Loc.34)

So, there is an attention hierarchy where people in dominant positions, by gender or class, are put in the position of attention-getter while people in subordinate positions are often attention-givers. This is true in informal as well as formal interactions. So, if one is in the position of having to give attention, then, it makes sense to develop empathic skills, knowing how to “read” those to whom attention will be given, anticipate their reactions, and attend to their emotional needs, as required by respective statuses.

Conversely, being in a dominant position has no such requirements. Therefore, such individuals have no need to develop empathic skills such as those required from attention givers.

So, far from being individual or psychological traits, the dynamics of attention-giving and attention-getting are socially-embedded in seven ways, according to Derber:

  1. the differing personality and interactional styles of those at the top and bottom of the “attention-hierarchy,”
  2. the effect of gender and social status on the ability of each participant to gain and hold attention,
  3. the kinds of competition for attention and the ways in which they were resolved,
  4. the relation between the institutional roles and power of each participant and the attention he or she received,
  5. the relative equality or inequality in the distribution of attention,
  6. factors creating extreme inequality, and
  7. the relative disposition of each participant to seek attention for himself or herself.

So, American culture values individualism and competition, which means, there is a real struggle for attention. Competing for it is seen as a legitimate way to get it. Needless to say, social media are massive attention-getting devices but they do not fundamentally alter the attention hierarchies. Think of Twitter:

  • Lots of followers, very few follows = celebrities
  • Lots of follows, very few followers = bots

Levity aside, social media platforms make the presentation of self, impression management and personal branding easier without democratization. For those who read French, some critical analysis along these lines here (via).

Leaving aside Derber’s insights on gender, I want to focus on social class and status as they pertain to the question of empathy. Generally,

“The allocation system in formal interactions is thus one of “controlled” rather than “free” initiative, determined largely by the institutional roles. Such roles can be characterized as either attention-getting or attention-giving, depending on whether the actor is expected to give or get it.


The social allocation of attention-getting and attention-giving roles among different groups largely determines who gets attention in formal interactions. Individuals who typically take on attention-getting institutional roles learn to expect and seek attention for themselves, while those most often assigned attention-giving roles assume a certain socially imposed invisibility.” (Loc. 490 – 4)

Therefore, social inequalities are also simultaneously “inequalities of face,” institutionalized in interpersonal life and in a distribution of attention mirroring the allocation of other resources. Who get attention, then, is a reflection of socially-defined worth.

At one end of the spectrum is the recipient of attention from multiple actors (butlers, waiters, therapists of various kinds, airplane stewards, etc.), at the other end of the spectrum is complete invisibility (the modern version of Upstairs / Downstairs, where low prestige work is done out of sight, in complete deprivation of attention… with the slight exception that the only attention received is tight supervision from middle category actors, such as foremen or household managers whereas individuals in dominant position receive their attention in terms of deference). Attention and power go hand in hand.

[I should note though, that the one glaring exception to this general state of affairs we witnessed in 2010 was the case of the Chilean miners. All of a sudden, and as a result of a tragedy that propelled this usually – literally – invisible category to the spotlight, these miners received the kind of attention usually showered upon social classes higher than them. But this happened through two mechanisms: (1) the evacuation of any serious discussion of how / why, in the 21st century, extraction still basically operates as it did in the 18th and 19th centuries, and (2) the reformulation of this case into a heroism story.

Otherwise,, when the poor and disadvantaged receive attention, it is through welfare agencies and other agencies of social control where attention is degrading, humiliating and involves abdicating one’s dignity and agency.]

In addition, in the context of increasing inequalities, empathy from the wealthy to the poor is even less likely as the wealthy have detached their living conditions practically completely not just from the poor but also from the middle class, something illustrated with multiple examples in Richistan. So, the denizens of Richistan do not just fly first class, they use private jets.

They live lives more and more segregated from any other social classes whose labor they depend upon but do not see, thanks to the armies of attention-givers they hire (from household managers to nannies) to manage the invisible workers.

The Richistanis bypass most social institutions that mere mortals use. They have their own systems for education, transportation, leisure, sociability (with their specific enclaves, such as Switzerland), etc. Of course, they enjoy political and economic clout.

This almost-complete segregation, solidified by the massive enrichment of the already rich, contributes to explaining a lack of empathy.

The second aspect I mentioned above is the zombie-like resurgence of the Protestant ethic. The lack of empathy is not just of product of structural conditions (increased inequalities). The dominant ideology, a modern version of Max Weber’s protestant ethic, holds that one’s standing in life is a reflection of one’s moral worth. In this view, the wealthy all got so through hard work and thrift. The poor are so because of their own individual or “cultural” (read: racial) failings and shortcomings, such as lack of work ethic, lack of deferred gratification, wrong moral decisions (early pregnancies), etc. Success and failures are available to all, the responsible and wise individuals succeed while the irresponsible and careless fail. Why should we care about them?

The theme of individual responsibility is also a zombie theme when it comes to public policy, as Denis Colombi demonstrates in a post on the latest French anti-drug campaign where drug consumption (or refraining from doing so) is only a matter of “when there’s a will, there’s a way” or personal challenge. As Colombi notes, no sociological imagination there: individual biography is just that. No social context, no social structure, just an individual on an even playing-field, making decisions freely.

So, when increasing inequalities, social segregation and a puritan dominant ideology are put together, you end up with two things that relate to the lack of empathy:

1. A complete incomprehension of how the poor live, hence the story of a columnist pretending to want to know how one lives on food stamps and blowing a month’s worth in one day and treating the whole thing like a big joke.

2. Punitive social policies, because the poor are to be treated as morally deficient and incapable of being responsible and self-sufficient, hence this:

“Centuries ago, when ordinary men and women first began to dream of political suffrage, a radical theory surfaced whereby people without property or assets had as much right to a living as anybody else. Thomas Paine wrote in 1795 that every citizen should expect a minimum income as compensation for the “loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.” That notion has this week been utterly abandoned by the British administration.

Tomorrow, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will announce a new “contract” with the poor. Those receiving the miniscule and dwindling stipend that the government grants anyone without means to support themselves in these straitened times may be required to toil for the state, for free, or face being shoved off benefits.

This isn’t just a Tory scheme. James Purnell, who tried to pull the same trick under Labour in 2009, has spoken of a “covert consensus” whereby, with true Vietnam war logic, it has become necessary to destroy the Welfare State in order to save it.

As strategies for tackling poverty go it’s not subtle. In fact, it’s roughly equivalent to a quack doctor plastering a typhoid sufferer with leeches or cutting a hole in a patient’s head to cure a migraine. This trepanation of the welfare system is supposed to “get Britain working” by returning the poor to the “habit” of nine to five labour — alongside savage cuts to housing benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance that will apparently “incentivise” them towards work that isn’t there.

It’s the Victorian aversion-therapy theory of poverty. Iain Duncan Smith, along with a sizeable chunk of the press, seems to have convinced himself that forcing low-paid or unpaid citizens to work for nothing or face homelessness and starvation will somehow snap them out of their beastly little “habit” of not having any money. It’s a reimagining of poverty as a social disease that can be cured with shock treatment, rather than the inevitable result of years of profit-driven policymaking that have systematically neglected the needy and vulnerable.”

This ties into what I have called nasty times, our current times, marked by cruelty towards the vulnerable who are not only social punished for the current economic conditions, but also publicly blamed for the crisis. After all, if one’s wealth is a reflection of one’s moral worth, then, surely, the wealthy cannot be blamed for the financial collapse. It has to be the fault of irresponsible people. That is what the denizens of Richistan have explained to Chrystia Freeland.

“Though typically more guarded in their choice of words, many American plutocrats suggest, as Khodorkovsky did, that the trials faced by the working and middle classes are generally their own fault. When I asked one of Wall Street’s most successful investment-bank CEOs if he felt guilty for his firm’s role in creating the financial crisis, he told me with evident sincerity that he did not. The real culprit, he explained, was his feckless cousin, who owned three cars and a home he could not afford. One of America’s top hedge-fund managers made a near-identical case to me—though this time the offenders were his in-laws and their subprime mortgage. And a private-equity baron who divides his time between New York and Palm Beach pinned blame for the collapse on a favorite golf caddy in Arizona, who had bought three condos as investment properties at the height of the bubble. “

[As always, it is nice when the mainstream media catches up with stuff that sociology has been studying for quite some time. In the linked piece, Freeland discovers The Transnational Capitalist Class as global elite… better late than never.]

The significant point, relating to empathy again, is that as the TCC emerged and uprooted itself from its national ties, it also meant a disconnection from the people who are still tied to the nation-state (the poor and the working class, mainly). See, for example, French publicist Jacques Séguéla arguing with a straight face, at the occasion of an international survey revealing the French to be the least optimistic about economic prospects in 2011, that the Chinese make less than 10% of the French minimum wage, and yet are happy.

Never mind that the survey does not deal with happiness but with what people think economic prospects are for 2011:

The survey shows the French and the British to be the most pessimistic. Is that really surprising considering that both countries have just come out of massive social movements in protest (in vain) against various austerity measures?

How do I conclude all this? I think what I was trying to do was to add some layers to the idea that the wealthy have less empathy than the not-so-privileged. I see ideological, structural and institutional factors to this, rather than a simplistic one-dimensional analysis.

I also think that, as we reach the end of a 30-year period of triumphant neoliberalism, one should note the rise of a new sociopathy, from the top of the social ladder towards the middle and the bottom, both nationwide and globally. By sociopathy, I mean social structurally and ideologically-produced lack of concern for the less fortunate, accompanied by a self-serving narrative of meritocracy that the wealthy attribute to themselves to explain their success, rather than political clout, favorable policies and overall making the system work for them.

And overall, an inability and unwillingness to see how the other half lives.

As a result of all this, it is all the easier to inflict social and economic pain on the bottom 90% while blaming them at the same time.

The Visual Du Jour – The Rich Getting Richer

Via the EPI:

As the article notes:

“Wealth, or net worth, is a measure of a family’s total assets, including real estate, bank account balances, stock holdings, and retirement funds, minus all of their liabilities such as mortgages, student loans, and credit card debt. Although economic inequality is often described in terms of income inequality, the distribution of wealth is actually more unequal than the distribution of wages and income. And, while wages and income provide some indication of a family’s ability to afford essentials like housing, food, and health care, accumulated assets, or wealth, can make it easier for them to invest in education and training, start a business, fund a retirement, and otherwise invest in their future. Since accumulated assets also provide a cushion against job loss and other financial emergencies, this growing wealth disparity shows why some households are more devastated by unemployment, illness, and other factors that cause a temporary loss of income.”

And also, there are more people below the poverty line:

Dimensions of Stratification – Social Class Bites

Interesting article in that it shows how social class membership is embedded in everything about us:

“When you hear the words “class struggle”, do you reach for your toothbrush? You should. According to a report on adult dental health released this week by the NHS, one adult in 10 in Wales has none of their own teeth left. Not one. The figures are slightly better for England and Northern Ireland – the report was ominously silent about Scotland – but the average British mouth is still missing upwards of six teeth.”

And it’s not just in the UK:

“In the US, as in the UK, a person’s class is etched in their teeth. In his 1991 classic, Savage Inequalities, author Jonathan Kozol wrote: “Bleeding gums, impacted teeth and rotting teeth are routine matters for the children I have interviewed in the south Bronx.” A report by the US National Institute of Health says poor children today are far more likely to suffer from severe baby-tooth decay “caused by frequent or prolonged use of baby bottles that contain milk, sugared water, fruit juice or other sugary beverages”. The US has more celebs with perfect teeth simply because it has more celebs (and maybe more rigid standards of celebrity appearance). But US government statistics still show deep racial differences in dental health, and just as steep a class divide as Britain. That, rather than the space between our incisors, is a gap we should all mind.”

And bad teeth truly can make one’s life miserable and generate a stigma for their possessor in themselves but also in so far as teeth relate to physical attractiveness.

Also, this (not for the faint of heart!)

The Visual Du Jour – Who Cares About the Bottom 60%?

Via Matt Yglesias, this is why Social Security will be cut:

The wealthy don’t need it.

And this is also why Medicare will persist as it is: the wealthy use it and it’s welfare for the whole medical-industrial complex. Too many people from the power elite with powerful lobbyists benefit from it.

A Plea For Real Equality

Sociologist Camille Peugny and philosopher Fabienne Brugère co-wrote an op-ed in Le Monde arguing that pushing for real equality is not a cute idea from unrealitic dreamers. Here is the gist of their argument.

Peugny and Brugère argue that what we get now is lip service paid to Republican equality while in reality nothing is really being to reduce inequality. Actually, the French society is ravaged by inequalities in all forms, deepened by the current government’s policies and their effects are devastating.

it still remains that equality of results is an end in itself when it comes to real democracy (and a public financing of politics is a short-term means to partially get there). So, to try to deal with inequality and detail everything that diminishes equality is not unrealistic, it is a matter of social justice and trying to reduce structural violence at the heart of processes of social reproduction.

Neither is equality just an abstract concept. There are various measures of its multi-faceted nature. For instance, in France, where so much, in terms of social cohesion, is structured around the educational system and Republican meritocracy, studies after studies show the educational system’s inability to reduce inequalities in terms of success. These inequalities are measurably present in pre-schools and never cease to increase all the way to higher education. In the French system, social origin has the most statistical weight on school results. the larger problem being that those who receive those, then, socially-biased degrees have a greater hold on professional careers. So, as Peugny and Brugère state, let’s admit once and for all that equality of opportunities has failed and turn to equality of results. And band aid, limited measures  – like educational tokenism -will not do.

Another example is that of the social exclusion of the under 25 category whose conditions that state has relegated to their families. These under 25 have been especially precarized and the French state has abandoned its social solidarity function and created a situation of explosive potential and increases inequality further as some students will be able to have their study abroad funded by their parents while others will have to work 30 hours a week. The state should foster actual autonomy rather than extended parental dependency.

So, equality in results is not just a matter of income. It is a matter of education, work, health care (or care more generally), housing and other apparently forgotten rights. At this point, the capture of the commons by a minority is accompanied by an ideological fiction of the world of work an individual that is competitive and all-consuming, all the while completely unaware of environmental risks. An absurd vision to be sure, but one with still political legs.

Of course, political realism involves some prioritization and the recognition that there are social emergencies that need to be dealt with first. But it also means a new vision of what institutions of public policies are for and about. And the heck with the “new management” ideology involving the idea that the state is at the service of large financial groups rather than its citizens.

Institutions should be serving the general interest (in old-fashioned republican tradition) while addressing the diversity of composition of society and remaining neutral and non-stigmatizing (tall order for such a centralized state). More than a state-corporate nexus, what is needed is a state-civil society nexus whose prime directive should be capacity-building (in Sen’s sense) and not social reproduction. Equality of results involves the promotion and defense of a diversity of life-trajectories against stigmatization and discrimination.

Currently, entire territories have been abandoned as their denizens are considered incapable of innovation or creativity, socially marginalized and excluded, and criminalized (and convenient political scapegoats every time Sarkozy falls too low in the polls). Such exclusion and stigmatization represent a threat to social cohesion as tensions between groups are inevitable in such unequal contexts.

But such a worthwhile social project requires a horizon of 15 to 20 years of social policy. Needless to say, politicians prefer to look the other way.