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Archive for Social Justice

Book Review – Les Places et Les Chances

August 13, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I confess to being a big fan of the République des Idées collection from publisher Seuil. This collection is great for short works on sociology of inequalities, work as well as economic sociology. François Dubet‘s Les Places et Les Chances is no exception. In this book, Dubet explores the old sociological debate over equality of position (roughly similar to equality of results in the anglo-speaking world) and equality of opportunity, and pretty much settles the issue in less than 120 pages.

The book has a very clear structure. First, Dubet reviews the idea and application of equality of position using the French example. Then, he details the critiques of this model. He then turns to equality of opportunity, using the example of the United States, and then explores its shortcomings. Finally, based on this exploration, he explains why he thinks equality of position is actually better as a matter of policy and social justice.

The differences between these conceptions of equality is based on different conceptions of social justice. Equality of position is based on the idea of reducing inequalities of income or quality of life, or inequalities in access to vital social services and inequalities in security. These inequalities exist between social positions occupied by individuals that are different in terms of age, qualification, talent, etc. The point of equality of position is then to “tighten” the gap between position that organize the social structure. The point is not to prioritize individual mobility but to reduce the gap between positions. As Dubet puts it, the point is not to promise to the children of blue-collar workers that they will be able to move up the social ladder, but rather to reduce the gap in quality of life between SES. Egalitarianism is central.

On the other hand, equality of opportunities (égalité des chances, in French) is based on meritocracy, that is, to offer everyone a chance to reach the best positions in society. The point is not to reduce inequalities between positions but to try to eliminate discrimination and other obstacles that would distort competition between individuals that create preexisting hierarchies. This conception considers inequalities to be fair only if positions are open to all. The point is to have a fair competition without calling into question the gap between positions. In this model, diversity of racial and ethnic background have to be taken into consideration as well.

So, depending on which conception of social justice prevails, one might end up with very different social policies: reducing inequalities between position versus eliminating discrimination without touching the structure of inequalities. As Dubet notes, under the former configuration, one might push for an increase in minimum wage and improvement in living conditions in housing projects versus promoting access to higher positions for children from these areas. On the one hand, one can work to eliminate unjust social positions, or work to allow some to escape from them based on merit.

Similarly, these different conceptions of equality and social justice have been promoted by different social movements. Traditional left-wing, labor and unions movements have pushed for equality of position whereas identity-based movements have tended to promoted equality of opportunities.

For Dubet, the French system is based on a very Durkheimian conception of equality of positions combined with an organic conception of social solidarity. It is less an egalitarian system than a redistributive one based on social rights. Less inequalities leads to greater social integration. This system has its problems, though in that it enshrines regimes of social redistribution based on protected statuses and positions, often tied to work and organized labor. It is not a system that is well adapted for higher levels of unemployment and precarization. When this happens, resentment can happen as privileged workers resent paying for those excluded from the system and these excluded resent their very exclusion from it. This system does not prevent gender and racial discrimination and the presence of a glass ceiling.

This is usually when discourse to equality of opportunities: those left-behind by equality of position. For Dubet, then, the discourse of equality of opportunities gives voice to traditionally invisible categories: women and racial / ethnic minorities and other discriminated categories. In this conception, society is a mosaic of individuals with categorical privileges and disadvantages that define their life chances. This conception of social justice then involves fighting against discrimination and promoting access and reducing exclusion. This may involve compensatory policies. Cultural identities, as carried by individuals are central to this.

This conception focuses on individual mobility and individuals are seen as active agents, responsible for their actions as long as the competition is fair and the most meritorious have opportunities to advance as far as their merits will allow. Society is not seen as an integrated whole but as a dynamic entity based on individual choices and actions. Therefore, public policy is based on empowerment. Initial equality is provided but after that, every individual is on his/her own. There is no social contract, only individual ones.

For Dubet, this conception is based on a statistical fiction. The focus is on the elite of society: one counts the number and percentages of women and minorities in high position in politics, business, academia, etc. and deplores their underrepresentation, while relatively ignoring that their overrepresentation at the lower levels of society is just as unfair. For Dubet, the equality of opportunity model is more sensitive to success and the few Horacio Alger success stories than to the larger numbers stuck without possibilities of mobility for structural reasons that are the fate of the larger number.

Also, to conceive of inequalities in terms of discrimination leads the oppression Olympics and the establishment of hierarchies of oppression whereby individuals get to make the case for their victimization. This kind of accounting is a source of resentment (see poor whites resentment against African Americans for instance). For this model to work, individuals have to be obligatorily assigned to reified categories and identities, attached to certain amounts of privileges and disadvantages.

So, the social contract, instead of being based on equal dignity for all labor, becomes one of sports competition just as long as one ensures that the race is fair and some do not have greater socially-established obstacles than others. After that, let the best man/woman wins, and those finishing last can only blame themselves, their poor choices and lack of certain ethos. The moral order becomes one of personal responsibility. In this sense, the winners deserve what they get and should not have to share with the losers. The wealthy (a product of their superior characteristics) can individually decide to engage in charity, but it is indeed an individual decision, not a socially-enforced one in the name of social solidarity. This individualization of success and failure has been thoroughly discussed by Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman.

In this sense, for Dubet, such a conception is reactionary as it harks back to the day of social assistance only to the deserving poor based on moral criteria decided by their benefactors.

Another way in which this model fails, for Dubet, is that it categorizes (locks one into one’s identity) only to individualize. This model is incapable of truly reducing structural inequalities that would allow minorities, as category, to improve its conditions. That is only available to select individuals. So, the social justice granted to individuals does not translate into social justice for categories.

So, which model provides greater social justice, considering the fact that neither is perfect and has its problems? For Dubet, equality of position because it is more sensitive to the weakest members of society and is more likely to lead to greater equality of opportunities (whereas the opposite is not true). Furthermore, in an argument reminiscent of The Spirit Level (which makes the statistical argument for equality of positions as well), an equal society works better and is healthier and less structurally (and therefore interpersonally) violent than an unequal one, even for the wealthiest. Inequalities are corrosive to social life especially when the wealthiest categories disconnect themselves from the rest of society through gated communities or living in Richistan. Unequal societies are also more likely to face a political crisis of legitimacy which may promote extremist movements.

So, if equality is a social good in and of itself, it makes sense to promote policies of redistribution within a framework of equality of positions. Moreover, Dubet shows that equality of positions is more likely to reduce inequalities of opportunities and to increase social mobility. Indeed, data show that social mobility is greater in more equal societies. After all, smaller inequalities make upward mobility easier and downward mobility less painful (and let’s be spared once and for all the arguments about reduced productivity, freedom and creativity, these are bogus). Overall, equality of positions creates a less cruel society and certainly a less hypocritical one where the elite accepts the idea of equality of opportunities while using all means to block access to their own level through policy, social networks and all forms of capital.

Ultimately, following Nancy Frazer, Dubet states that social rights (redistribution) have to be separated from cultural rights (recognition). Social rights are matters of social justice whereas cultural rights are matters of ethics and democratic participation, but not necessarily social justice.

In the end, for Dubet, only equality of positions can lead to a sustainable egalitarianism and is a prerequisite to equality of opportunities and has fewer negative externalities.

I have to say that the demonstration is thoroughly convincing. Highly recommended.

Posted in Book Reviews, Labor, Public Policy, Social Change, Social Disadvantages, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Justice, Social Mobility, Social Movements, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Social Theory, Sociology | No Comments »

A Plea For Real Equality

November 30, 2010 by and tagged , , ,

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.

Posted in Social Inequalities, Social Justice, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – Globalization and Social Movements

November 19, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Valentine Moghadam‘s Globalization & Social Movements: Islamism, Feminism, and the Global Justice Movement (2008) is a good introduction to anyone unfamiliar with both globalization and social movements theory.

There is no question that there is a powerful connection between social movements and globalization. Moghadam starts from the idea that for a long time, social movement theories were largely nation-based: their unit of analysis was social movements within a country. They did not take into account the basic premise of world-system analysis that the point of departure for analysis should be the world-system as a whole (divided in the core, peripheral and semi-peripheral areas, not countries).

But by the 1980s, it was impossible to ignore the fact that the nation-state was no longer the right unit of analysis: the rise of global governance and reshaping of the role institutions of global governance (IMF, World Bank, and WTO) along with the increase in power of the multinational corporation, the transnational capitalist class and the transnational state, all within a dominant neoliberal ideology. How could these developments not influence social movements? They did:

“Another apparent outcome of globalization and a challenge to conventional theories of social movements was the rise in the late 1990s of what have been variously called transnational advocacy networks, transnational social movements, and global social movements.” (Loc. 84)

By the late 1990s, with the Battle of Seattle, it was impossible to ignore the existence of such transnational social movements, as traditional labor unions, indigenous people movements from the Amazonian areas, environmentalists form Europe and human rights advocates joined forces in Seattle to draw attention to the negative aspects of globalization at the occasion of a WTO meeting.

How does Moghadam define a transnational social movement?

“A transnational social movement has come to be understood as a mass mobilization uniting people in three or more countries, engaged in sustained contentious interactions with political elites, international organizations, or multinational corporations.
(…)
A transnational advocacy network (TAN) is a set of ‘relevant actors working internationally on an issue who are bound together by shared values, a common discourse and dense exchanges of information and services.
(…)
Transnational social movements and transnational advocacy networks alike are structurally linked to globalization, and they constitute important sectors within global civil society.” (Loc. 91-5)

Of course, such movements and networks had to find or create new transnational political spaces through which to exercise their advocacy and activism. This was done through spaces such as the World Social Forum.

Moghadam focuses specifically on three transnational social movements: the Islamist movement, the global feminist movement and the global justice movement. Why?

“Each constitutes a transnational social movement inasmuch as it connects people across borders around a common agenda and collective identity; mobilizes large numbers of supporters and activists, whether as individuals or as members of networks, groups, and organizations; and engages in sustained oppositional politics with states or other power-holders.

(…)

One key difference is that many Islamist movements seek state power and, like revolutionary movements before them, are willing to use violence to achieve this aim. In contrast, both the feminist movement and the global justice movement are disinterested in state power, although they do seek wide-ranging institutional and normative changes, and they eschew violence.” (Loc. 107-11)

These movements also existed before contemporary globalization, so, it is a good opportunity to study the changes these movements underwent as they adapted to global conditions. At the same time, all these movements operate from within the world-system, which means that social movements operating from the core areas will have more resources, more freedom and less probability of facing state violence than movements operating from the semi-periphery and the periphery. And, of course, what kinds of grievances against which movements mobilize also vary based on one’s positioning in the world-system.

Moghadam also examines the three social movements with an attention the interconnections between

  • political process
  • organizational processes
  • cultural processes

And all three shape the collective action repertoires that movements will use. Also, Moghadam’s analysis reiterates the importance of three characteristics of social movements. Social movements are

  • segmentary (internal competition between groups and organizations)
  • polycentric (multiple sites of leadership)
  • reticulate (organized along loose networks)

This SPR structure has allowed movements to be flexible and adaptable, as well as engaging various constituencies within the world-system. This structure also facilitates innovation and experimentation in terms of repertoires of action.

Finally, Moghadam emphasizes the role of emotions in social movements. In all three movements, whether it is anger, frustration and humiliation in the Islamist movement, for instance, or emotions that are created by the very experience in a social movement, such as joy and solidarity, emotions are an integral part of transnational movement dynamics.

More specifically, how do social movements relate to globalization? Social movements grow transnational as populations are more and more affected by transnational processes and factors beyond the nation-state. At the same time, social movements have globalized the scope of their mobilization beyond national borders, identifying global grievances. Specifically, these movements have reacted against the negative effects of globalization and neoliberalism.

The rise of the global civil society is a response to the global “democracy deficit”, that is, the lack of participatory structures and transparency in the institutions of global governance. Also, information and communication technologies have facilitated transnational networking even though the political resources and opportunities created by these tools are unequally distributed. And because globalization also has involved increased cultural contacts, opportunities for transnational cooperation and community-building have increased as well, contributing to the framing of issues in a transnational context. As such then, transnational movements do not operate exclusively at the global level. Their SPR structure allows them to operate at the local, national, regional and global, whichever is the most relevant or provide the most political opportunity.

These reflections allow Moghadam to refine her definition of the global civil society and global social movements:

Global civil society is “the sphere of cross-border relationships and activities carried out by collective actors-social movements, networks, and civil society organizations-that are independent from governments and private firms and operate outside the international reach of states and markets.”

(…)

Global social movements are cross-border, sustained, and collective social mobilizations on global issues, based on permanent and/or occasional groups, networks, and campaigns with a transnational organizational dimension moving from shared values and identities that challenge and protest economic or political power and campaign for change in global issues. They share a global frame of the problems to be addressed, have a global scope of action, and might target supranational or national targets.” (Loc. 449 – 50)

The choice of the three social movements (Islamist, feminist, and global justice) also reflect the lack of consensus within the transnational civil society. Not all movements are emancipatory. The Islamist movement is reactionary, sexist and misogynistic, and sometimes violent, including terrorism among its repertoire. In fact, this movement’s conception of hegemonic masculinity was shared by the Bush administration, which means that the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the response from the US government represented a class of heroic masculinities between the American security state and Al Qaeda. Male power all around.

There is even great diversity within each of these social movements: within the Islamist movement, one can distinguish moderate and extremist groups, and use of repertoires ranging from parliamentary actions to terrorist violence. There is permanent controversy within the global feminist movements over the concern that the grievances of women from the metropole will trump issues from the periphery. And there are often clashes within the global justice movement between secular and religious groups.

Moghadam goes into details in exploring these three social movements separately, going over their history, some national-specific context, variability within each movement. What is to be noted though, is that, in their contemporary incarnations, all three movements emerged in reaction to the abandonment of Keynesianist policies in favor of neoliberalism. These policies, (which contributed to the failure of nationalist and secular government in Muslim countries) combined with demographic transition (structural strain) and progressive emancipation of women (misogyny) were central to the rise of the Islamist movement. The Islamist movement, as reactionary as it might be, has made great use of the Internet, in addition to other mobilization tools, such as the Mosques, the madrassas and nadwas (Quranic study groups).

For global feminist movement, the agenda has three major components: fighting neoliberalism, fighting religious fundamentalism, and fighting for peace. Transnational feminist networks have taken advantages of the UN conferences on women such as Nairobi in 1985 and Beijing in 1995, using these conferences as mobilizing tools and trying to frame the agenda in opposition to religious groups. Feminists have also been involved with issues such as the feminization of employment (and conditions of employment under neoliberal conditions) as well as the feminization of poverty and gender-based violence:

“Neoliberalism and patriarchy feed off each other and reinforce each other in order to maintain the vast majority of women in a situation of cultural inferiority, social devaluation, economic marginalization, “invisibility” of their existence and labor, and the marketing and commercialization of their bodies. All these situations closely resemble apartheid.” (Loc. 982)

But, as mentioned, there are divisions on certain issues between different feminist groups, for instance, on the abortion issue:

“Latin American feminists view the right to contraception and abortion as central to female autonomy and bodily integrity, and they fight for their legalization and availability. In India, reproductive rights are recognized in Indian law, but this has not provided women with power or autonomy. Instead, abortion rights have been misused and abused to favor the delivery of sons. For this reason, abortion is not viewed as a priority issue for many Indian feminists.” (Loc. 1161)

The global justice movement is much diverse as it comprises a variety of groups: human rights, environmentalists, indigenous people advocates, women’s rights, labor unions, anti-war groups, religious groups, etc. But generally, the movement is dedicated to the idea that “another world is possible” (other than neoliberalism), which include debt relief, the Tobin tax against speculation, fair trade, labor rights, environmentalism and sustainability, and democratization of institutions of global governance. Such diversity has also led to a diversity in repertoires of collective action, from lobbying, to petitioning governments, to direct action and demonstrations (such as Seattle in 1999).

Another watershed even the emergence of the global justice movement was the election in 2002 of former union leader Lula as president of Brazil. The election of Lula was central to the creation of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. Since then, the global justice movement has been involved in countless protests against the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO as the capacity for coordination improved through technology.

Because of this diversity, flexible transnational networks are of central importance:

“Italian sociologist della Porta has drawn attention to the crucial role played by transnational networks in the organization of the global justice movement. She defines a transnational network as “a permanent coordination among different civil society organizations (and sometimes individuals such as experts), located in several countries, based on a shared frame on at least one specific global issue, and developing joint campaigns and social mobilizations against common targets at the national or supranational levels.”

Similarly, Moghadam identifies different strands in the movement:

“1) reformists, with the aim of humanizing or civilizing globalization; 2) radical critics with a different project for global issues; 3) alternatives who self-organize activities outside the mainstream of the state and market spheres, and 4) resisters of neoliberal globalization, who strive for a return to local and national spheres of action.” (Loc. 1472)

But all this takes place in a frame of contestation of neoliberalism whether these activists are alter-globalist (they want a globalization-from-below, as opposed to the neoliberal globalization-from-above) or de-globalist (return to local levels of governance).

As these three movements show, then, globalization has given rise to movements that are both violent and non-violent, democratic and anti-democratic, progressive and reactionary. But of these movements are reactions to globalization combined with technologies that take advantage of the “strength of weak ties”. These movements are all (Inter)networked movements.

These movements also show that the nation-state is still very relevant either as a promoting force, as Brazil under Lula, or as an oppressive force, as when the Algerian government caved in to the pressures of religious fundamentalists and curtailed the rights of women. These three movements also highlight the centrality of gender, feminism, masculinities in social movements.

Posted in Activism, Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Gender, Global Civil Society, Globalization, Ideologies, Networks, Religious Fundamentalism, Social Justice, Social Movements | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – The Gay Marriage “Debate” in One Neat Chart

August 4, 2010 by and tagged , , ,

I’m putting scare quote around “debate” because it is not a debate when one side is composed of totalitarian morons (the anti-gay marriage side, that is).

Via Trixie Biltmore on Twitter (click on the image for a larger view). When you put the opposite arguments side by side, it is a no-brainer, or at least it should be.

Posted in Religious Fundamentalism, Social Institutions, Social Justice, Social Movements | No Comments »

Book Review – To Inherit The Earth

May 29, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wendy Wolford and Angus Lindsay Wright’s To Inherit The Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil is the perfect introduction to the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST).

The book is roughly divided into four main sections. The first goes through a general political history of Brazil along with its Portuguese colonization and how it ended up with the large-scale plantation system which is at the source of the demand for agrarian reform. The agricultural situation is tied not only to colonial development but also to the subsequent governments, especially the military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s, which is when the MST was officially founded (1982), following the first occupations of land.

The other sections of the book cover MST occupations and settlements in different Brazilian states, from the Southern states, where the MST originated, to the Northeastern state where sugar was traditionally grown, at the expenses of the coastal rain forest, to the Amazonian states where deforestation has accompanied mining and ranching.

There is no question that the authors are sympathetic to the MST’s goals and approach (occupation and push for expropriation under a constitutional provision stating that land has to be used productively, and promotion of ecological and environment-friendly agriculture that minimizes deforestation and land degradation). The book provides lengthy descriptions of life in MST settlements along with interviews from various MST local leaders and settlers.

The history of the MST is also the story of a social movement confronting established social structures, power and economic differentials and violence. In its struggle for land reform and redistribution, the MST has confronted local rural elites (large plantation / mine owners) that wield so much power in Brazil so much so that it is difficult even for the now-democratic government to impose reform. But the MST has also had to fight local, state and national governments for  the fulfillment of promised support for the settlers. In some cases, the movement has also been faced with violence, mostly from the rural elites. Local politics, in Brazil, can get nasty.

The MST struggle is also part to the general anti-neoliberal globalization that has promoted chemical- and capital-intensive, export-based, monocultural agriculture so dear to the IMF, the World Bank  and the World Trade Organization (competitive advantage) while the MST promotes small-scale, communal, diversified and sustainable agriculture. So far, the Brazilian administrations have followed the lead from these global institutions. As the authors explain well, this has to do with the fact that the Brazilian government does not see land reform as agricultural policy but as social policy: finding something to do with the rural poor but not as a sustainable form of agriculture. From the government’s perspective, “serious” agriculture is large-scale, chemical-dependent and energy-intensive, and for exports whereas land reform is an anti-poverty program. For the MST, agrarian reform is agricultural policy but also the first step into changing the caste-like Brazilian social structure.

The MST also has had to position itself within Brazilian politics. It is not a political party (nor does it intend to become one), but it has ties to Lula’s Workers Party, and it has found itself sometimes in competition or conflict with traditional rural unions that are often part of the patronage structure that is so hard to eradicate in rural Brazil.

Finally, the MST struggle must also be interpreted as part of the global peasant rebellion movements against neoliberal agriculture that eliminates small-scale farming and subsistence agriculture. The national and local contexts may be different but the MST goals are not all that different from that of ATTAC or La Via Campesina in the pursuit of agricultural policy based on solidarity economics.

In other words, the MST stands at the crossroads of many local, national, regional and global dynamics. One cannot understand it without understanding Brazilian colonization and development, its politics alongside regional issues in South America and the global context of neoliberalism as well as the local dynamics of rural communities in Brazil and the power of large landholders and corporations.

The book is an easy read, clearly not written for an academic audience for more for the general public. AS I mentioned above, it is especially good for people who know nothing of the MST or Brazil in general beyond the Rio carnival and the touristic images.

Posted in Biodiversity, Book Reviews, Corporatism, Corruption, Development, Economy, Environment, Global Governance, Globalization, Human Rights, Indigenous Populations, Labor, Mass Violence, Politics, Poverty, Public Policy, Social Justice, Social Movements, Social Stratification, Social Structure, Sustainability | No Comments »

Rich People Group for Higher Taxes… In Germany

October 23, 2009 by and tagged , , ,

Yeah, cuz that would never happen over here. Here, they simply demand the keys to the treasury and get them:

Investing in ecology, education and social justice? What kind of commie-pinko notion is that?

It will be interesting to see if the right-of-center German government listens to them.

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

Book Review – Southern Theory – Part 2

August 29, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Part 1 here.

After reading through most of Southern Theory, I was afraid the final section would be a version of “let’s dump everything Northern and embrace everything Southern as infused with golden wisdom.” But, of course, Connell is much too smart a sociologist to endorse such a simplistic position. See the short and sweet and yet devastating take-down Vandana Shiva for a sample of that.

In truth, the last part of Southern Theory is a powerful piece of writing that made me go “wow!” several time for the sheer cleverness of the arguments put forth and the brilliance of the writing.

In the first part of this last section, Connell reintroduces space (or land, as she puts it) against both Coleman’s “blank dance floor” but also against theorization of globalization as spacelessness and deterritorialization. To bring back “the land” is also to bring back the history of dispossession and loss that so many Northern theories elided and avoided. It is, abstractly, a call to bring back the context out of which theories emerged but it is also very concretely a call to study the persistence of space-ness (as Connell puts it) whether through indigenous peoples’ struggles for their land (and the far- and deep-reaching implications for human rights, democracy and economic order), or through Saskia Sassen’s studies of the global city. In either cases, sociology and social theory need to get back down on the ground. Space and land still matter and embodies all sorts of social relations of domination and resistance that sociology and social sciences need to address.

“The general idea of dispossession – one of the most important and under-theorised concepts in social science – needs to sink roots in the mud of particular landscapes.

Taking the land seriously has implication for social science knowledge. (…)

This applies to theorists as well as to fact-grubbing empirical researchers. I want to suggest a new meaning for the term ‘grounded theory’: linking theory to the ground on which the theorist’s boots are planted. To think in this way is to reject the deeply entrenched habit of mind, mentioned at the start of this chapter, by which theory in the social sciences is admired exactly in the degree to which it escapes specific settings and speaks in abstract universals.” (206)

This does not mean that Connell advocates the rejection of generalizations in social theory. Quite the opposite.

“The power of social science generalisations is multiplied if they can be linked to the characteristics of the context within which they apply.

This suggest an argument against pure theory, in favour of what we might call dirty theory  – that is, theorising that is mixed up with specific situations. The goal of dirty theory is not to subsume, but to clarify; not to classify from the outside, but to illuminate a situation in its concreteness. And for that purpose – to change the metaphor – all is grist to the mill. Our interest as researchers is to maximise the wealth of materials that are drawn into the analysis and explanation. It is also our interest to multiply, rather than slim down, the theoretical ideas that we have to work with. That includes multiplying the local sources of our thinking.” (207)

This move is almost the exact opposite of the neoliberal takeover as the “theory of everything” and the one-size-fit-all that all society should embrace and that makes all other theorizing irrelevant. Neo-liberalism is the spaceless, deterritorialized theory par excellence; the theory that eliminates the very material nature of commodification processes and global economic integration, be it – I might add – in terms of grabbing more land in Africa for the metropole’s resources as neo-colonial dispossession. Contra that, more studies are needed to study the urban ecology of global cities that are more and more designed and built to keep the poor available as cheap labor but out of sight and segregated otherwise. Indeed, many studies have already shown how the transnational capitalist class actually is able to reconfigure space to its own needs and comfort, buffeted against the nasty side effects of neo-liberal policies and the workings of the transnational state, to use William Robinson’s construct.

As Connell puts it much better than I can,

“The land, therefore, is not irrelevant, even in the citadels of globalisation. We have to understand its social significance in a complex dialectic of place and power, of which the history of colonisation and the consequent land rights struggles of indigenous people are key parts. These struggles, the experiences that underlie them and the arguments advanced in them are now strategic matters of social justice globally. Taking them seriously, and learning from them, is necessary for regenerating social science on a world scale.” (209)

“Social science on a world scale” is then the final and culminating topic of Southern Theory. This last chapter contains several recommendations, almost guidelines, as to what a non-hegemonic social science should guard itself against. So, what should a social science on the world scale pay attention to?

  • It should recognize the pattern of exploitation and inequalities in power, wealth and cultural influence between the metropole and the periphery (this was the core of the critique of Northern theories).

  • It should recognize that the periphery is neither homogeneous nor fixed, but dynamic. A variety of social movements (women, indigenous peoples, peasants, etc.) have emerged to challenge exploitative arrangements.

  • It should not erase the experiences of the periphery. Instead, it should recognize peoples of the Global South as subjects with intentionality and agency and, sometimes, experiences that are unknown to the Global North and its theorists, such as colonialism.

  • It should recognize the centrality of the colonial experience and the enormous influence of past and persisting colonizing structures on peripheral societies and collective experiences.

  • Similarly, it should recognize other non-Northern experiences such as – in addition to colonial dispossession – military dictatorships and neo-liberal restructuring (through structural adjustment programs, for instance) and the multiple sites of “subaltern” resistance to these experiences. Its hob is to analyze all those, not erase them under the guise of universal theoretical claims.

  • It should also recognize and analyze the metropole-capacity or apparatus (that is, the social processes and institutions) that allow the metropole to function qua metropole. This capacity or apparatus is often hidden behind colonial structure and not recognizing it or shining a spotlight on it contributes to its power.

And Connell never forgets the “science” part in social science, that is, the attention to the type of knowledge social science produces.

  • This involves investigations.

  • This involves what Connell calls the “permanent revolution of corrigibility.” Science is a collective endeavor and a series of collective practices. However, what is needed is to bring in the voices of the periphery not as data or fields of applications but as potential correctives and theoretical clarifications.

  • This involves, again, a capacity for generalization, for patterns that bring the data together.

  • This involves a concern for truthfulness that cannot be attained if the periphery is absent or treated as data or object.

Finally, a social science on the world scale should serve to promote democracy. According to Connell, this can be accomplished through four main ways. Here, let me quote Connell herself, in order to do her justice,

1.

“The first is through the growth of compassion (…) a solidarity with,, the despised and rejected. A multi-centred social science has a great capacity to circulate knowledge of social experiences other than those of the global elites, and thus enable mutual learning. ” (230-1)

2.

“The second is social science’s function of critique. When researchers investigate topics that are sensitive for neoliberalism, they find themselves contesting a torrent of lies and distortions from governments and corporate-funded think-tanks. A major example is research on poverty (Saunders 2005). Given the restructuring of the world economy and the growth of the global-private, issues of social justice unavoidably have an international dimension.” (231)

3.

“Finally, world social science is relevant to democracy because it is itself a field of democratic action. To contest a privileged minority’s control over a field of knowledge is a democratic cause, whether on a local or a world scale. The learning process based on recognition and discussion among many voices – the picture of social-scientific knowledge which the arguments of this book imply – is inherently a democratic process.” (231)

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this book, even I found a couple of examples unconvincing in the mobilization of Southern theories. If taken seriously, it should completely question the way we teach sociology, starting at the undergraduate level and how such teaching reproduces hegemonic practices. I am not yet sure though how the way the curriculum is shaped and delivered in the institutional context of the American university (especially) but also in Europe in a different way can be changed and opened. American undergraduate education is more and more utilitarian (designed to train people faster and faster for the job market) and the French system, for instance, well, good luck making that one budge from its hegemonic position.

However, there is a space where Connell’s recommendations can be implemented: the open virtual spaces of public sociology outside of academia: blogs, sociology online communities, and yes, even social media such as Twitter or Facebook. After all, there is more democratic potential there than within academia… Of course, this raises issues of digital divide and this is where the privileged (those of us who have access to these spaces) should work towards finding ways of reaching out to the periphery and open these spaces for them as well… who’s with me?

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Development, Gender, Global Governance, Global Sociology, Globalization, Indigenous Populations, Neo-Colonialism, Patriarchy, Social Disadvantages, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Justice, Social Privilege, Social Research, Social Theory, Sociology | 3 Comments »

Book Review – Southern Theory – Part 1

August 29, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science, Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell sets herself the ambitious task of extirpating the imperialist roots of Western social science (sociology in particular) and bring to the fore the social science projects of the periphery through the exploration of a variety of sociologists from the Global South. In the context of globalization, such a project is long overdue.

The book is roughly divided into three parts. In the first part, Connell provides a critique of Northern theory, and in particular, the work of James Coleman, Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu for a common theoretical attitude in the metropole: taking the Global South either as source of data to be theorized about in the metropole, or as subjects of application of Northern theory assumed to be of universal validity. That is, theories devised in the metropolitan universities based on work in societies of the Global North are taken to have automatic valid application to the societies of the Global South. That move, in itself, makes sociology an imperialist discipline and that is this unexamined imperialist core that Connell sets out to extirpate. As she puts it,

“Sociology was formed within the culture of imperialism, and embodied an intellectual response to the colonised world. This fact is crucial in understanding the content and method of sociology, as well as the discipline’s wider cultural significance.” (9)

For instance, the evolutionary nature of early sociology provided a neat justification to colonialism and imperialism under the guise of scientific objectivity.

The hegemonic universalizing tendency of sociological theorizing is especially visible in James Coleman’s work:

“Coleman’s theoretical ambition is announced in his first sentence: ‘A central problem in social science is that of accounting for the functioning of some kind of social system.’ A social system is defined as a set of individuals linked by transactions in which they must engage to satisfy their own  interests because the other individuals have some control over the resources they need. The interplay between individual and system, the micro-macro link becomes a formative problem in Coleman’s theorising, and is generally a central problem in modern positivism.

Less readily noticed, because it is so common in sociological theorising, is Coleman’s assumption that this language of individual and system, interest, control and resource, micro and macro, is of universal relevance. The concepts can be applied in any time and place.” (29)

Not to mention that such a system is unable to account for colonial and imperial social relationships, or even slavery or any other type of power relations for that matter. And of course, this theorizing is ahistorical:

“Coleman’s actors move in an energetic dance, calculating, bargaining and exchanging on a featureless dance floor, It is not entirely accidental that his visual models of action systems resemble teaching diagrams for the foxtrot or the jazz waltz. The featurelessness of the dance floor follows from the ahistorical method. In each derivation, the same limited set of elements and possible relations is set in motion, The theoretical logic will not work, any more than one can dance a foxtrot, if the dance floor is lumpy with footprints from previous dances of with the bodies of previous dancers.” (31)

So, what of Giddens and structuration theory? After all, Giddens borrows from a variety of traditions (all the way to ethnomethodology and conversation analysis) to transcend the traditional dichotomies of sociology (e.g. micro – macro or structure – agency). The problem, for Connell, is that Giddens does not escape his own version of “stages of human societies” in which the Global North is more advanced than the Global South. Here again, colonialism and imperalism are evacuated.

“Giddens implies that the West is dominant not because it conquered the rest of the world, but because of its ‘temporal precedence’. the West industrialised and modernised first. Other social orders are passing away not because Europeans with guns came and shattered them, but because modernity is irresistible.” (38)

One can already discern the similarities with modernization theory and common approaches to globalization (including Giddens’s own).

And for Connell, Bourdieu can be credited for crafting a powerful toolkit for sociological research (the concepts are familiar: structure, field, habitus, symbolic violence, social reproduction, etc.) deemed to be universally applicable even though Bourdieu’s own analysis of Algeria are devoid of references to colonialism.

The bottom line is that Northern theory is guilty of four traits:

  • Claim of universality
  • Reading from the center
  • Gestures of exclusion (there are apparently no theorists in the Global South)
  • Grand erasure (the experiences of the people of the Global South is erased to make room for projections of Northern theorizing about them)

Connell finds similar problems with contemporary theorists of globalization. For many theorists, globalization is the next state beyond modern society dismantling its main tenets, such as the nation-state structures. In many cases, globalization is capitalism’s next stage and we are all in it, all in the same boat in a decaying environment for which global solutions have to be found. But here again, Northern theorizations (“world risk society”, “liquid modernity”, “individualization”, “global scapes” and so on) are taken to be universally valid. It is again a view from the North upon the rest of the world and non-metropolitan thinkers are absent.

“Perhaps the most remarkable example is on Beck’s What is Globalization?, which end with a short essay on ‘The Brazilianization of Europe’ (Beck 2000: 161-3). This does not discuss Brazil at all, but uses the name to evoke a horror scene of social fragmentation, violence and selfishness which the European readers surely do not want. The remarkable social educational reconstruction efforts undertaken by the Brazilians, in the aftermath of a violent military dictatorship and in the teeth of corporate power, does not enter Beck’s argument.” (65)

Actually, since we are talking about Brazil, see this, this and this for what is going on in Brazil… and yes, it is more Northern perspective. Still very interesting, though.

When the Global South is considered, it is through Development Studies or Area Studies or International Relations. Connell is more merciful with World-system analysis which is historical, was always global in its analysis of the capitalist world system, and never evaded analysis of imperialism. The missing pieces are gender and race in this context though. As I have quoted before,

“The underlying problem of the social-scientific approaches considered in this chapter [Ed: everything I read: Bourdieu, Beck, Bauman, Robinson...] is their geopolitical logic. They rely exclusively on the metropole for their intellectual tools and assumptions, and therefore treat the majority world as object. This closes off the possibility of social science working as a shared learning process, a dialogue, at the level of theory.

Inhabitants of the majority world are not just the objects of theory, the data mine for social science. They are also subjects – the producers of theory about the social world and their place in it. (…)

Every colonised [sic] culture produces interpretations of imperialism. Intellectuals in the majority world have been studying empire, colonisation and globalisation processes as long as intellectuals in the metropole have. This represents a huge resource for learning, which metropolitan social science currntly discards. Because of the metropole’s hegemonic position in the global organisation of social science (as Sonntag (1999) shows for sociology), this waste is difficult contest.” (68)

This concludes the first part of the book and it is extremely compelling and should make any sociologist think twice about the way we teach sociology and social theory. In the second big part of the book, after reviewing the sociological landscape in Australia, Connell dives into Southern theory per se. I have to say that even though it makes for an interesting read, this was the weakest part of the book, ironically and I will get to it in a moment, but first, this important issue, that Connell mentions regarding Africa but which is, I think, relevant for the rest of the Global South intellectuals as well:

“Intellectuals had mostly supported nation-building in the 1950s and the 1960s, but repressive regimes closed the spaces for debate and often demanded ideological conformity. African social scientists in particular were cut off from policy-making. When neoliberalism and Structural Adjustment Programs arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, the alienation was renewed. Governments turned to foreign advisers, while NGOs wanted only consultancies, not basic research programs, assuming that ‘poor research was good enough for the poor’.” (109)

This is almost the statement that was made to me by Professor Mutumba Bull, Director the Institute of Economic and Social Research of the University of Zambia and former Minister in the first independent governments of Zambia under Kenneth Kaunda. This is a statement of neo-colonialism and persistence of imperialism that also explains the precarious position of intellectuals and theorists in the Global South.

That being said, I especially had problems with the chapter on Islam and Western Dominance. While Connell presents interesting work by Al-e Ahmad and the important and powerful concept of Westoxication, I had problems with the idea of building social theory from Islam. As much as I understand using Islam as a tool of political action against Westoxication, Islam, per se, cannot be legitimately be seen as sound theoretical basis. Political Islam is a topic of analysis (see Olivier Roy on this) but not a theoretical position. After all, would we take seriously a sociologist basing his theory on Christianity (especially of the revival kind) or any other religion? I personally would not. Liberation Theology has demonstrated that Christianity can be used as a political basis for liberationist projects. That does not make a proper theoretical foundation. This may have sounded interesting to Connell, but religion is not basis for good sociology.

Ironically, as I was reading Southern Theory, I was also reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe of Nigeria. It is a very interesting novel whose plot takes place as an indigenous culture gets its first taste of colonial oppression and its socially dislocating effects. Certainly, the sociologist in me was fascinated by that aspect of things but, here again, a novel is not a social theory.

Similarly, and this is, I think, another difficulty with Connell’s book, any political project that seeks emancipation requires some analysis / diagnosis of society and power. Again, this is not automatically sociology. Interestingly, though, the one African theorist that comes to mind, Franz Fanon, is mentioned but not examined at all. I don’t know if this is because Connell assumed her readers would already be familiar with him, but I thought it might have been interesting to have more on him.

Things got more interesting, for me, when Connell gets to dependency theorists, because these guys are more up my alley than religious activists. I also think that dependency theory is not just economic theory but also good social theory of the relationships of exploitation and domination between metropole and periphery:

“The core of Cardoso and Faletto’s dialectical sociology is the interplay between global structures and local political dynamics – the formation of the local state and the struggles to control and reshape it. (…)

Their strength, therefore, is not in a subtle analysis of the structure of Latin American society. It is rather in their subtle analyses of the historically changing relationships between systems of domination within Latin America and the structures of the international economy. In this regard, Dependency and Development has implications far beyond Latin America and is still, I think, an intellectually important text. It offers a carefully thought out method for the analysis of transnational social processes that is far more sophisticated than most of the metropolitan literature on ‘globalisation’ that appeared 25 years later.” (148)

Hear hear. And Connell’s summary of the insights in How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart is just plain fun to read in addition to making important points. These insights on the cultural reproduction of colonial attitudes and prejudice along with a pro-capitalist position is familiar for anyone who has also been raised with Tintin comics or watched the Tijuana Toads as a child, as I did… I mean, seriously…

It is so bad it is painful to watch.

Connell’s developments on the contemporary Latin American’s women’s movement is also important as she shows how gender was a major blind spot  for the Southern theorists she reviews in previous chapters.

Finally, Connell turns to India to examine the theory under the label of subaltern politics, as illustrated by the journal Subaltern Studies in which articles explore local forms of resistance to oppressive power by peasants or working class movements into coherent theory, as Connell demonstrates with her analysis of Partha Chatterjee’s ‘modes of power’:

“He defines three basic forms: communal where entitlements are allocated on the authority of a whole social collectivity; feudal, where entitlements derive basically from physical force (i.e. a situation of direct domination); and bourgeois, where property rights are guaranteed by generalised law, and indirect domination is achieved through the institutions of representative government. (…)

The most interesting part of Chatterjee’s argument concerns the interplay between these modes. Feudal society was not established as a homogeneous system; rather, it involved the intrusion of the feudal mode of power into the communal realm. The result was constant resistance to feudal lords, with unstable outcomes. (…) Expanding capitalism does [not] simply obliterate feudalism. Indeed, it can incorporate feudal structures of domination. What capitalism does tend towards is the extinction of the communal mode of power. (…)

It is the complex combinations of modes of power around postcolonial states that are characteristic, opening up ‘an entirely new range of possibilities for the ruling classes to exercise their domination.” (171-2)

And these variegated forms of resistance are the subject of Subaltern Studies. It is clear that such a framework as Chatterjee’s modes of power can be applied beyond India. Reading through these sections, I was, of course, reminded of the Zapatistas’s struggle in the Chiapas where one can clearly see the interplay of all three modes within the specific Mexican context.

It is also in this chapter, and especially in the section titled ‘Intimate Oppositions’ that I felt the most Fanon’s relative absence especially as he is presented as the counterpoint to Ashis Nandy’s insights on the colonized self:

“In his 1978 essay ‘Towards a Third World Utopia’, he criticises Fanon’s idea of cleansing violence as being insensitive to the cultural resistance of oppressed (Nandy 1987: 33). He considers this strategy of opposition to be contained within the logic of colonialism, reproducing its hypermasculinity, cult of violence, loss of emotional connection and dehumanisation of enemies.” (188)

It is indeed central to reintroduce questions of masculinity into discussions of colonial oppression and that seems to have been something that most theorists, Northern and Southern missed (apart, of course, from the feminists).

So, having laid out some more or less convincing examples of Southern Theory and thrown some pretty devastating criticisms at Northern Theory, what is left for Connell to do if not lay out clearly the foundations of a non-imperialist sociology. She does so in the last section of the book and I will pick that up more in details in part 2 of the review.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Development, Global Governance, Global Sociology, Globalization, Indigenous Populations, Neo-Colonialism, Patriarchy, Social Disadvantages, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Justice, Social Privilege, Social Research, Social Theory, Sociology, Structural Violence, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

Amartya Sen And Inequalities of Power

July 28, 2009 by and tagged ,

The New Statesman has a great article on Amartya Sen’s ideas related to (but not mentioned there although obviously in the background) of failure of entitlement. It is fairly long but worth the time.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Posted in Social Inequalities, Social Justice | No Comments »

Why Social Justice Matters

July 26, 2009 by and tagged

I am shamelessly using the title of a truly great book of social philosophy because it seems relevant to Amartya Sen‘s forthcoming book, The Idea of Justice. The book will be out in September here, but there is an article on it in the Independent (h/t Mark Bahnisch).

I can’t wait to get my hands on that book. In the meantime, listen to the great man himself.

Posted in Social Justice | No Comments »

An Economic Democracy Manifesto

July 18, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , ,

In the Social Europe Journal, Friedhelm Hengsbach drafts an economic democracy manifesto preceded by a highly readable and thorough account of the roots of the financial crisis, especially in Germany, as a systemic failure of the system (rather than some freak accident), specifically the "natural" consequences of deregulation in both the economic and social spheres.

His manifesto is based on five points / prescriptions for the future:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

This could be sub-titled “Taming The Risk Society.”

Posted in Corporatism, Economy, Globalization, Precarization, Public Policy, Risk Society, Social Institutions, Social Justice | No Comments »

Book Review – King Leopold’s Ghost

June 1, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

KLG Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost – A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa seemed an appropriate book to bring with me to Africa. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it yet since issues of colonialism, neo-colonialism and slavery are never far from my thoughts.

Anyway, I am glad I did read the book. It is indeed a great read and a page turner. It is also a book of horrors: the horrors inflicted upon the Congo by the rule of Leopold, King of the Belgians in the late 19th Century, early 20th Century, out of greed. It is not a surprise that Joseph Conrad wrote his Heart of Darkness about the colonial Congo and modeled his Mr Kurtz based on real agents from the Leopold regime there.

The Congo never seems to make headlines even though it is a tormented country and it is a prime example of what Virgil Hawkins describes as stealth conflicts: conflicts with high death tolls and long-term nasty consequences, but largely ignored by the media. Here is a short introduction on the concept:

Similarly, the horrors of the Congo were by and large ignored in their time, until pioneers in the human rights movement made it impossible to ignore, but to this day, they are still largely forgotten. It is to Hochschild’s credit to have dug up the details of the untold story of King Leopold’s empire of horrors.

It is a kind of detective work that Hochschild engages in as he pieces together the truth about the Congo through a variety of sources (unfortunately, only a few sources reveal the voices of the victims of the regime, the Congolese, of course), and in spite of Leopold’s attempt to destroy the records of his rule in the Congo (in those days, embarrassing documents were burned, not shredded).

What this all boils down to is this: King Leopold (a relatively toothless constitutional monarch) got himself a colony over which he ruled without parliamentary oversight. His goal was not just to match the reach and influence of other colonial powers (and be part of the scramble for Africa) but also to enrich himself personally through the plundering of Congolese ivory and rubber. And of course, how does one lower one’s labor costs? Through forced labor, of course (all in the name of teaching the savages the value of work!).

It is this forced labor component, accompanied by the institutionalization and rationalization of racism, that opened the door to massive and violent exploitation that ultimately killed half the population of the Congo, either through direct elimination, starvation, overwork, disease (which spread more easily when a population is overwhelmingly malnourished and worked like beasts of burden), and a declining birth rate.

It is not like the natives did not resist. Resist they did indeed. Leopold’s rule was constantly challenged by rebellions that were incredibly violently put down through mass killings. The main tool of "order" in the Congo, was the brutal Force Publique that would burn villages to the ground if men refused to work to harvest wild rubber (a grueling work), take women and children hostage until chiefs gave in. And then, private companies had their own militarized forces that tortured and mutilated the natives in the name of discipline and productivity.

It is the productive nature of these atrocities that will ultimately be the downfall of Leopold’s rule as a young clerk for the main shipping company between Belgium and the Congo starts to notice what comes off the ship arriving at Antwerp (rubber and other goods) and what gets exported to the Congo (weapons, mostly) and realizes what is going on there.

The second half of the book is mostly dedicated to the heroes of what became a strong precursor of the human rights movement: E. D Morel and Roger Casement as well as George Washington Williams and William Sheppard . All these men worked tirelessly to expose the atrocities of the Congo and force change. In that last respect, they were not really successful but they did force Leopold (who had managed to fool the world into thinking him a great humanitarian) to divest himself from the Congo.

Because the book is not just a depersonalized account of the regime, but also a story of characters, it reads almost like a novel. We encounter famous characters: in addition to Leopold himself (and his miserable family life), Henry Morton Stanley, but also Joseph Conrad and a few others. Many of the actors involved in the regime in the Congo such as a variety of managers and districts heads appointed by Leopold. Through their correspondence or diaries, we see the banal dehumanization of the Congolese, the ease with which they tortured, exploited, humiliated and killed so many of them without much second thought.

At the same time, the book also makes clear that it is not free market capitalism and free trade (along with higher moral status) that sealed the West’s economic dominance but rather the plundering of the Global South that fueled industrialization and mass production (I would add that this plundering was made possible itself by the luck of the draw and "guns, germs and steel"). It seems that "free market", "free trade", etc. were as much ideological concepts (as opposed to reality) then as they are now. The type of unfairness may have changed (direct plunder is not as obvious now), but the rules of the WTO still guarantee that the Global South is still being exploited and disadvantaged in one form or another despite big talks of free trade.

In the last chapter of the book, Hochschild reflects on the face of the Congo. since the end of Leopold’s regime and the independence. This is a lesson on the long-term consequences of colonialism as well as the lingering influence of neo-colonial mechanisms. Without stating a clear cause and effect trajectory, Hochschild still asserts that Leopold certainly looks like a great role model for dictator Mobutu, all with the blessings of former colonial powers, once the CIA got rid of Patrice Lumumba.

Mobutu’s rule indeed looks a lot like a continuation of the plundering of the country, (then renamed Zaire) along with mistreatment of the population. Ultimately, misrule led to the Mobutu’s downfall and the persistent state of regional conflict at the center of which the now-named Democratic Republic of the Congo finds itself. Should we really be surprised that the social dislocation wreaked by Leopold’s rule has continued to plague the Congo to this day (with other factors, to be sure)? And that the Congo is still being plundered for its resources (not ivory or rubber anymore, but coltan and copper)? And that the world is still largely silent about it?

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Economy, Human Rights, Indigenous Populations, Institutional Racism, Labor, Mass Violence, Nationalism, Patriarchy, Politics, Racism, Slavery, Social Justice, Social Movements, Social Privilege, Structural Violence, Trafficking | 1 Comment »

Music Break – South African Edition

April 13, 2009 by and tagged ,

Not too long ago, one of my friends told me she didn’t know who Miriam Makeba was, so this post is for her, and for the rest of us who just enjoy good music and social justice. First, Makeba’s classic "Pata Pata":

Miriam Makeba married another brilliant anti-apartheid musician, Hugh Masekela, here is his classic "Grazing in the Grass"

Then both of them in Soweto Blues:

And more contemporary South African music with Kelly Khumalo, Qinisela (I love me some Kwaito):

And Bongo Maffin, Kungakona

Posted in Music, Social Justice | No Comments »

Dialectics of Contestation from The Periphery

April 13, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

André C. Drainville, "Resistance to Globalisation: The View From The Periphery of The World Economy", International Social Science Journal, 2009, 192, 235 – 246.

Using a world-system analytical perspective, André C. Drainville examines how the periphery articulated its global presence in contesting globalization. In the process, he reviews the different forms that contestation took at different modern time periods and the current spaces of struggle against neo-liberal globalization. To put it simply, these forms of contestation articulate the social presence of the periphery on the global scene and relation to the world order.

What is the world order that the periphery faces? According to Drainville,

"The core of the world economy is no longer just a country or a group of countries: there is also a transnational elsewhere, beyond the reach of all nationally organised societies. It is there that transnational capital made itself into a self-knowing political subject (Cox 1987; Sklair 2001; van der Pijl 1984), where it set up a nebulas of institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund [IMF] and the World Bank) to read and reproduce general conditions of accumulation, and where it attempts to assemble an apolitical global civil society to legitimate the new world order (Drainville 2004)." (235)

Which means, of course, that current globalization, far from eliminating social inequalities between areas of the world-system or from generating one world under cultural homogenization, has created a vastly differentiated space. Correspondingly, forms of contestation are equally differentiated. Drainville puts it better:

"Notwithstanding the transnationalisation of finance, the delocalisation of production or the cosmopolitan rhetoric of global governance, the world has not become an undifferentiated field of action." (236)

In typical world-system analytical fashion, Drainville then takes the perspective of longue duree to examine the modes of contestation of the periphery against the world order. The central thesis of the article is then:

"At the periphery of the world economy, in what Amory Starr and Jason Adams call the "global South" (Starr and Adams 2003, pp. 28 – 29), social forces have historically constituted themselves in their meeting with world order. What is new to the current phase of globalisation is that terrains of world significance are less authoritatively circumscribed then ever, and that the social forces involved in struggles are more varied and less isolated from one another than before, both on the terrain of the world economy and locally. As a result, what we may term ‘the dialectics of global presence‘ operates to greater effect than ever." (237)

Drainville distinguishes between three different historical periods with their respective mode of peripheral constestation.

From the second half of the 19th century until WWI, this era is structured by colonialism and imperialism. Contestation then took the form of everyday resistance from peasants and indigenous workers.

From the end of the colonial era until the crisis of the Bretton Woods order, this period is marked by the struggles for decolonization but also against the world ordering processes of the Bretton Woods institutions. Ultimately, the debt crisis and structural adjustment programs prevailed as peripheral authoritarian regimes failed.

From the end of the 1980s onward is the era of global governance, marked by a softening of global regulations and programmatic impositions on peripheral countries but for the same purpose, bring the global South more deeply into the world economy.

For Drainville, global governance means something more specific than just issuing global regulations or international air traffic:

"Global governance is the political face of the globalisation project at the periphery of the world economy. It has been accompanied by attacks on state corruption and violence, efforts to bypass state agencies and anchor regulation directly in civil society, and attempts to institute ‘low intensity democracy’". (238)

"Low intensity democracy" means that the economy is off-limit to state’s action through massive privatization, lower government spending, openness to foreign investment, deregulation and liberalization, firing of government employees, and overall reduction of state capacity down to its repressive functions (police and military). And the civil society here refers to the private sector, which include the economic private sector.

We already know that the social consequences of this process of pushing for low intensity democracy have been across the global South, and there lie the roots of contestation across the social structure:

"Nowadays resistance does not take place only in haciendas and plantations, it does not only have the colonial or neo-colonial state as its targets, and it is not a creation of specific groups with particular histories and trajectories. Rather, it involves a broad array of the dispossessed: those ‘without roof, without land, without work, without rights (Zibechi 2005, p.13), the impoverished middle classes, small and medium agricultural producers, indigenous peoples, unemployed professionals, public employees, women in the informal sector, small savers, retired people, "students, lecturers and nurses in Angola; public sector workers in Benin, farmers, electricity workers and teachers in Kenya; municipal workers in Morocco; health workers in Nigeria; community groups and organised labour in South Africa’, displaced farmers in Mexico, maquilla workers in Guatemala, garment workers in Bangladesh and peasant groups in Brazil and India (Bond 2003)." (238)

Based on such a diversity of forms of contestation, Drainville identifies three specific spaces of struggle in the global South where resistance to world-ordering processes are questioned:

  • Global Cities where the transnational capitalist class and the slum-dwellers coexist uneasily (see, IMF riots)
  • Export Processing Zones where workers, especially women are the manufacturing base of the world economy
  • Countryside where peasants and indigenous peoples are located fighting for self-determination and land reform

All three categories are engaged in struggles again neo-liberal globalization according to what Drainville calls the dialectics of global presence. The dialectics works in two stages:

"In the first stage of the dialectic, social forces ensconced in localities are brought out of their situated selves by the exigencies and opportunities of increasingly globalized struggles." (240)

Good examples of this are provided by the EZLN holding its global meeting at Aguas Calientes a few years back, or the women of the Niger Delta occupying a Chevron Texaco refinery. Local dynamics shape the structure of the global struggle. This is at this stage that local connections are linked with other groups globally, creating transnational networks involved in gathering information, or promoting organizational models or straightforward activism and advocacy. Local movements make global connections.

"At the second stage of the dialectic, what was created globally (the alliances made and networks formed, resources gathered, strategies and tactics learned) is brought to bear on localities." (241)

As an example, the EZLN uses its global connections to organize the defenses of localities in the Chiapas fighting for self-determination and autonomy.

But what is new about this dialectic?

"What is new in the current phase of globalisation is how relatively open and diverse peripheral terrains of world significance are, how struggles born there have found focus outside state-centred struggles and how pregnant is the sentiment of global propinquity that unites different movements. Never have such distinct social forces so rooted in local struggles taken place on the terrain of the world economy, never have they been as conscious of a common context of struggle and never has this context so informed and radicalised localised struggles. Never, in a word, has the dialectic of presence been activated to such effect." (243)

Indeed, the article is rich in examples and mentions that reflect the incredible diversity of peripheral global presence articulated according to the dialectic, and localized in the three main spaces of contention. These various movements are unified in their struggling to define their connection to the world order, but they do so in great diversity of modes of resistance.

Posted in Activism, Global Governance, Globalization, Indigenous Populations, Social Change, Social Justice, Social Movements, Social Theory, Sociological Articles, Sociology | No Comments »

When Bad Collective Memories Influence Public Policy

March 22, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

France does not like the idea of collecting ethnic data because the last time we did it was before we sent the Jews to the concentration camps, going above and beyond the demands of the Nazis. In 1978, the government passed a law prohibiting the collection of ethnic data.

France also does not like the idea of ethnic data because it goes against the myth (because it is a myth) of a unified Republic where all that matters is the national identity. France is not a multicultural country and significant segments of the population (both from the left and right wings of the political spectrum) do not want a multicultural country. They want an assimilationist Republic (that is, one where immigrants make all the efforts to assimilate but nothing is due from the dominant group). The problem is that one of the necessary conditions of assimilation is acceptance of assimilated minorities by the dominant group: that is both cultural and institutional assimilation, which means no discrimination. Many studies have shown this is far from the case and that discrimination, both individual and institutional is widespread.

In this way, France is a very Durkheimian society where the educational system is still very much perceived as the frontline of the Republic (and public school teachers were the main soldiers of the Republicm wrestling young minds from the dreadful clutches of the Church), where children are taught the value of being French and living in a republic and where collective conscience is clearly internalized. Not a big surprise here: Durkheim was very instrumental in the development of the French public system of education.

As a result, France is notoriously hostile to policies such as affirmative action which are perceived as promoting communautarianism and separatism, that is, the slicing and dicing and allocation of rights and benefits along ethnic lines (France already allocates many benefits either universally, such as the health care and educational systems as well as family benefits, or on the basis of income). This deeply-held attitude is the basis for the controversy over the veil in schools and demands for special privileges by some Muslim groups.

There is no doubt that the current economic situation will not provide a calm context for rational discussions of immigration policies and persistent discrimination.

Such nationalist fears of national undermining from within are also accompanied by fears of undermining from above, notably through assimilation into the European Union. As much as mainstream political parties have made France a main engine of the European Union (along with Germany), there has always a clear and vocal anti-EU current in French politics, both on the left and the right reflecting fears of imposition of neo-liberal policies along with fears of the loss of cultural specificity (don’t touch my camembert!).

Posted in Culture, Identity, Ideologies, Institutional Racism, Nationalism, Politics, Prejudice, Public Policy, Social Change, Social Discrimination, Social Institutions, Social Justice | 2 Comments »

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