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Archive for Social Privilege

Privilege as Neutrality

December 11, 2012 by and tagged

In the British press, headlines were all over their new census and especially the decline in established religions, a development similar to what is happening in the US. In this context, it is interesting to read headlines like these:

“No longer the default religion: is being a Christian now a political statement?”

And in the article:

“Today’s results from the 2011 Census suggest that the number of those self-identifying as “Christian” in England and Wales – the religion question wasn’t broken down by denomination – has declined substantially from ten years previously. Then it was 72 per cent. The latest figure is 59 per cent. There has been an almost equivalent rise of 10 per cent in those ticking the “No religion” box, but it’s still only a quarter of the population.

(…)

Christianity has also become much more political. Debates about education, about the status of marriage, about abortion and medical ethics have became heavily dominated by questions of religion, and the dominant voices have often been religious ones (or, for that matter, anti-religious ones).”

This claim is absurd. Christianity has always been political. Religious organizations of various kinds have always thrown themselves in the political battles of the day. The main difference is that, for countries like the US or the UK, Christianity occupied a position of privilege while doing so and therefore could claim to not be political, and therefore above the fray, speaking only from a moral perspective, etc.

It is one marker of privilege to have one’s position seen as the default setting, the neutral center, the objective point of view. That is how whites are opposed to “people of color”, that is how we think LGBTs when we hear “sexual orientation”, that is how white males were seen as the only legitimate voting group in the last US presidential election and all the other groups were ideological and biased in their votes.

And it is also a marker of privilege to have one’s privilege never questioned and one’s supremacy never challenged. And we know that bad things can happen when such a perceived challenge arises.

But all privilege ends up being questioned or directly challenged through social movements or through softer nudges, micro-push-backs against the privileged position, whether is the removal of a nativity scene from public spaces or getting pummeled in social media when one asserts one dominance and supremacy as a given.

It is also interesting that privileged individuals are so used to their position to be silently accepted as the neutral, objective, non-biased setting that any push-back is perceived as an ideological aggression and having to share becomes a form of oppression. One can see that when, for the first times, religious people got pushed around a bit by the so-called “new” atheists. The cries of Christian oppression are based simply on the fact of having a few people listening to their religious discourse and going “really?”… and that’s all it takes. Or to simply be called to account for one’s dogma has been so unheard of that its occurrence is seen as aggression, followed by retreat to relativism (interestingly and ironically enough), that is, that everyone is entitled to their views and should not be questioned for them.

In other cases, take gay marriage, for instance, the claim is that, by getting married, gays are taking something away from straight marriage (“damaging the sanctity of marriage” or some such similar formulation).

What this all boils down to is privilege = exclusive access. What privileged individuals may be complaining about, in all cases, is potentially losing exclusive access to cultural dominance, or institutionally-based rights (marriage), treating all such as zero-sum games: if Christians have to share public spaces with other religions (as opposed to exclusive access for their nativity scenes), it is a loss to them, if straight people have to share the institution of marriage with LGBTs, it is a loss to them. From this view, culture and institutions are defined social spaces that cannot be expanded, so, sharing, when one had 100% of said social space, does mean a loss.

There is no conception of the possibility of increasing these social spaces. After all, the ability for LGBTs to get married does not reduce the ability of straight people to get married as social and institutional space can be expanded. The only possible expansion, for them, is the slippery slope one (LGBT marriage → bestiality). In this sense, privileged people are not only the potential losers of the deal, but because they also see themselves as the guardians of these social spaces – not for themselves, but for civilization, mind you – it is a double loss. Look back at the discourses of the opponents of the Civil Rights in the 60s and you will find these themes.

So, privileged individuals find themselves in the position to (1) see their privileges questioned, (2) having to now loudly claiming their privilege (which they didn’t have to do before, hegemony will do that for you), (3) having such loud claims ignored, shouted down or (worse) mocked, and as the article notes (4) being reduced to being just another interest group like the others (decentering). No wonder they get shrill (about gays, immigrants, women, abortion, contraception… anything to try to keep the moral center of a culture whose control is escaping them).

This is why social media have not been the preferred formats of privileged groups. By definition, these groups were already massively overrepresented in the traditional media (TV, radio), so, when new media spaces opened, they initially did not feel the need to go after them. And so, new media got populated by the non-privileged and became a source of alternative everything (news, sociability, entertainment, discourse, etc.). Hence the early cries against the outrages of bloggers, then the outrages of Twitter, etc.

A privileged position means you don’t need to shout because you’re the only one with a megaphone. When everybody can get their own and they’re making as much noise as you, it does feel like an aggression (free speech, for everyone else), and it does mean that your speech is no longer taken as the moral center nor does it command the same respect it used to (because you could have it backed up by the state). So, no, Christians have not become more political. They always were. It’s just that their old megaphone is losing battery power and everyone else’s megaphone is running on solar power and 4G wifi.

Posted in Social Privilege | No Comments »

It’s The Inequalities, Stupid – A Never-Ending Story

October 19, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

This is the one new thing: ever since the economy crashed and burned and the Occupy movements, at least, there has been talk about social inequalities in the past three years or so. Otherwise, look at the media of the past thirty, and inequalities was a non-existent topic: the poor were poor because of their own individual shortcomings or the culture of poverty, or government dependency, etc. So, sociologists were the lonely crowd of Cassandras warning that no, really, inequalities were growing and this is bad for society as a whole. But being a dominated academic profession, they suffered the fate of Cassandra: they were not listened to or not downright ignored and dismissed as a bunch of lefty whiners.

So, at least, that is less the case. At the same time, the evidence on the growth of inequalities and the deleterious impact of that growth on society as a whole is pretty much an open and shut case since the publication of the Spirit Level. Why then is it surprising to see articles that seem to discover this new thing that is widening stratification and its impact?

Income inequality has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression, and the recession has done little to reverse the trend, with the top 1 percent of earners taking 93 percentof the income gains in the first full year of the recovery.

The yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots — and the political questions that gap has raised about the plight of the middle class — has given rise to anti-Wall Street sentiment and animated the presidential campaign. Now, a growing body of economic research suggests that it might mean lower levels of economic growth and slower job creation in the years ahead, as well.

“Growth becomes more fragile” in countries with high levels of inequality like the United States, said Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund, whose research suggests that the widening disparity since the 1980s might shorten the nation’s economic expansions by as much as a third.

Reducing inequality and bolstering growth, in the long run, might be “two sides of the same coin,” research published last year by the I.M.F. concluded.”

Well, yeah, but this is an interesting shift for the IMF:

“For years, economists have thought of such inequality in part as a side effect of policies that fostered the country’s economic dynamism — its tax preferences for investment income, for instance. And organizations like the World Bank and the I.M.F., which is based in Washington, have generally not tackled inequality in the world head on.

But economists’ thinking has changed sharply in recent years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this year warned about the “negative consequences” of the country’s high levels of pay inequality, and suggested an aggressive series of changes to tax and spending programs to tackle it.

The I.M.F. has cautioned the United States, too. “Some dismiss inequality and focus instead on overall growth — arguing, in effect, that a rising tide lifts all boats,” a commentary by fund economists said. “When a handful of yachts become ocean liners while the rest remain lowly canoes, something is seriously amiss.

The concentration of income in the hands of the rich might not just mean a more unequal society, economists believe. It might mean less stable economic expansions and sluggish growth.

That is the conclusion drawn by two economists at the fund, Mr. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg. They found that in rich countries and poor, inequality strongly correlated with shorter spells of economic expansion and thus less growth over time.

And inequality seems to have a stronger effect on growth than several other factors, including foreign investment, trade openness, exchange rate competitiveness and the strength of political institutions.

For developing economies, the channels through which inequality might drag down growth seem clear. Inequality might foster political instability and lead to violence and economic destruction, for instance, a theme that fits for Arab Spring countries, like Egypt and Syria.

For the United States, such channels are now the subject of intense research interest, with economists examining whether and how the gap between the rich and the poor fueled the recession and what it might mean.”

How did this increase inequalities happen? By redistribution… to the top:

The rise in inequalities is not new then but it has finally become an acceptable topic of discussion although not as much as one would hope considering its importance ans we know why: because it questions the system that created these income and wealth gaps that even the IMF says we should pay attention to.

Chrystia Freeland’s quick take on class warfare as ideological construct and rhetorical device to shut down discussion on inequalities.

Freeland from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

And a longer discussion between Chrystia Freeland and Matt Taibbi on Moyers’s program on the same topic (take the time to listen to and watch the whole thing, it is worth it):

Matt Taibbi and Chrystia Freeland on the One Percent’s Power and Privileges from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

So what is to be done? Mark Thoma suggests empowerment of the working class as a partial path through employment:

“Why doesn’t the unemployment problem get more attention? Why have other worries such as inflation and debt reduction dominated the conversation instead? As I noted at the end of my last column, the increased concentration of political power at the top of the income distribution provides much of the explanation.

Consider the Federal Reserve. Again and again we hear Federal Reserve officials say that an outbreak of inflation could undermine the Fed’s hard-earned credibility and threaten its independence from Congress. But why is the Fed only worried about inflation? Why aren’t officials at the Fed just as worried about Congress reducing the Fed’s independence because of high and persistent unemployment?

Similar questions can be asked about fiscal policy. Why is most of the discussion in Congress focused on the national debt rather than the unemployed? Is it because the wealthy fear that they will be the ones asked to pay for monetary and fiscal policies that mostly benefit others, and since they have the most political power their interests – keeping inflation low, cutting spending, and lowering tax burdens – dominate policy discussions? There was, of course, a stimulus program at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, but it was much too small and relied far more on tax cuts than most people realize. The need to shape the package in a way that satisfied the politically powerful, especially the interests that have captured the Republican Party, made it far less effective than it might have been. In the end, it had no chance of fully meeting the challenge posed by such a severe recession, and when it became clear that additional help was needed, those same interests stood in the way of doing more.

(…)

The imbalance in political power, obstructionism from Republicans designed to improve their election chances, and attempts by Republicans to implement a small government ideology are a large part of the explanation for why the unemployed aren’t getting the help they deserve. But Democrats aren’t completely off the hook either. Centrist Democrats beholden to big money interests are definitely a problem, and Democrats in general have utterly failed to bring enough attention to the unemployment problem. Would these things happen if workers had more political power?”

It boils down to class.

And more recently, Tim Noah makes a related case, arguing for stronger labor unions:

“The simplest thing government could do to reverse the 33-year growth in income inequality is to make it easier to start and maintain a union.

Although income inequality is growing in comparable nations around the world, it is more extreme and growing more rapidly here. A big reason is that labor unions, which have faced rough times everywhere with the rise of globalization, have declined much more in the United States.

Private-sector union density peaked in the early 1950s at almost 40 percent. Today it’s down to 7 percent, which is about where it was when Franklin Roosevelt entered office. It’s as if the New Deal, which made possible the rise of America’s labor movement, never happened.

Revitalizing labor is not a popular cause nowadays, even among liberals, but there’s little point in even discussing how to solve the inequality problem if you won’t consider ways the government could help rebuild — really, stop suppressing — unions. If you graph a line charting the decline in union membership and then superimpose another line charting the decline in middle-class income share, the lines will be nearly identical. That is not a coincidence.”

Of course, none of this is going to happen and for now, we are stuck in the vicious cycle of weak growth and inequalities deplored by Joseph Stiglitz.

But ultimately, it’s the inequalities, stupid.

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

“What’s My Driver’s Name?”

September 15, 2012 by and tagged ,

The title for this post is one of the most hilarious things stated by Jackie Siegel in The Queen of Versailles, the documentary that reveals the oh-so-very privileged life and somewhat downfall of time-share tycoon David Siegel and his family. The first part of the documentary reveals their immense wealth in all its conspicuous consumption and opulence, including the massive building project  based on the Versailles castle which was supposed to become the largest, most expensive single-family home in the US, with something like 30 bathrooms so no one has to stand in line.

In that first part, there is everything barf-bag-worthy: the arrogance of power (David Siegel claims to have gotten George W. Bush single-handedly elected through illegal means, but he won’t tell which ones); the large brood spread over three wives including seven from the last one (each treated by their father as future employees rather than children, and as cute things to be dumped on nannies at the first sign of inconvenience by their mother… so no expectation of college apparently); the nannies and maids from the Philippines; the multiple dogs pooping all over and other exotic pets that the kids abandon to die cuz feeding them is, like, boring; and the piles and piles of stuff. The art accumulation, the couple and family portraits, though, are awful.

But, of course, Siegel owes his success all to himself.

But then, this all turned out to be a house of cards as Siegel’s empire relied on cheap money and the multiple mortgages packaged and sold into derivatives. So, when !@#$ hit the fan in 2008, they got hit pretty badly as well. The second part of the film shows the consequences of their downfall, such as taking the kids out of private school and putting them in *gasp* public school! This also involves having to fly commercial once the private jet and yacht have been auctioned off, or for Jackie to find herself learning at the Hertz counter that her rental has no driver. There is also the massive layoffs and David Siegel’s increasing moodiness and his taking his financial frustration out on his family. This downfall is perfectly symbolized by the decaying, incomplete, Versailles that ends up pushed on the market.

I expected these people were going to make me want to throw up but I ended up being surprised by how relatively grounded and down-to-earth Jackie turned out to be as her husband cranks up the complaining about the banks that won’t lend him cheap money anymore, and the lenders clamoring at his door for all the reimbursements on all the mortgages his company has taken out to finance the acquisition of all these resorts out of which he sell timeshares.

But one should not be fooled into thinking that there is a radical loss of privileges here. The Siegels certainly have lost a lot but they can still afford an opulent lifestyle, the nannies, the massive home. What they lost is the ability to have a lot of stuff done by other people, like party managers or having fewer maids and nannies, and no more private jet. This is still luxury by any definition.

It is also refreshing to hear Siegel acknowledging that his own addiction to easy money as allowed by the financial system combined to create the crisis and that he is not blameless in this. But unlike a lot of people, he still gets to raise a few millions here and there and he still has his business, even if it has to be shrunk to size. Mostly, he is pissed off at the crumbling of his pedestal, and probably the loss of power going with it.

If you teach sociology, this is a good and nuanced depiction of the extent of privilege and how it cushions failure while less privileged people get to enjoy the whole free fall. The film is rich in details so that one can probably spend quite a bit of time dissecting all the different cultural and social aspects of privilege beyond the massive amounts of money, especially how it makes one clueless at life.

Posted in Movies, Social Privilege | 4 Comments »

Best Documentary on the Crisis

July 8, 2012 by

Now available on Vimeo (via Barry Ritzhold):

 

Posted in Corporatism, Economy, Embeddedness, Globalization, Media, Public Policy, Social Institutions, Social Privilege | No Comments »

Revisiting The Cultural Omnivores

July 7, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

Back in January, I reviewed Philippe Couleangeon’s book on the metamorphoses of distinction, a book in which he examines the changes in the concept of cultural capital and distinction in the context of mass education and multiculturalism. In the review, I noted,

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

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

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

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

Today, in a New York Times column, Shamus Khan produces a similar argument regarding elitism:

“Omnivorousness is part of a much broader trend in the behavior of our elite, one that embraces diversity. Barriers that were once a mainstay of elite cultural and educational institutions have been demolished. Gone are the quotas that kept Jews out of elite high schools and colleges; inclusion is now the norm. Diverse and populist programming is a mainstay of every museum. Elites seem more likely to confront snobbish exclusion than they are to embrace it.”

Khan notes the new character of this development in the context of rising cosmopolitan individualism and self-cultivation (the self as individual project, a theme upon which I have touched many times). In the process, the class-based nature of cultural is nicely made to disappear:

“Whereas the old elites used their culture to make explicit the differences between themselves and the rest, if you were to talk to members of the elite today, many would tell you that their culture is simply an expression of their open-minded, creative, ready-to-pounce-on-any-opportunity ethic. Others would object to the idea that they were part of an elite in the first place.”

And Khan makes a point similar to Couleangeon’s mixed with some culture of poverty-as-justification:

“Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like, the omnivore likes what he likes because it is an expression of a distinct self. Perhaps liking a range of things explains why elites are elite, and not the other way around.

By contrast, those who have exclusive tastes today — middle-class and poorer Americans — are subject to disdain. If the world is open and you don’t take advantage of it, then you’re simply limited and closed-minded. Perhaps it’s these attributes that explain your incapacity to succeed.

And so if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation. Their rhetoric emphasizes such individualism and the talents required to “make it.” Yet there is something pernicious about this self-presentation. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience. Talents are costly to develop, and we refuse to socialize these costs. To be an outstanding student requires not just smarts and dedication but a well-supported school, a safe, comfortable home and leisure time to cultivate the self. These are not widely available. When some students struggle, they can later tell the story of their triumph over adversity, often without mentioning the helping hand of a tutor. Other students simply fail without such expensive aids.”

And cultural openness becomes another tool for symbolic violence and a justification for social inequalities as reflection personal defects rather than products of class dynamics that are hidden and the Khan neatly highlights:

“Look at who makes up the most “talented” members of society: the children of the already advantaged. Today America has less intergenerational economic mobility than almost any country in the industrialized world; one of the best predictors of being a member of the elite today is whether your parents were in the elite. The elite story about the triumph of the omnivorous individual with diverse talents is a myth. In suggesting that it is their work and not their wealth, that it is their talents and not their lineage, elites effectively blame inequality on those whom our democratic promise has failed.

Elites today must recognize that they are very much like the Gilded Age elites of old. Paradoxically the very openness and capaciousness that they so warmly embrace — their omnivorousness — helps define them as culturally different from the rest. And they deploy that cultural difference to suggest that the inequality and immobility in our society is deserved rather than inherited. But if they can recognize the class basis of their success, then perhaps they will also recognize their class responsibility. They owe a debt to others for their fortunes, and seeing this may also help elites realize that the poor are ruled by a similar dynamic: their present position is most often bound to a history not of their own choosing or responsibility.”

Welcome to the world of the cosmopolitan ethics and the spirit of 21st century capitalism.

Read the whole column, it’s great.

Posted in Cultural Capital, Culture, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Protecting Social Privilege = Not Wanting to Share Toys

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction

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

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

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

The book explores four main questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is therefore a redefinition of what cultural legitimacy means.

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Les Rémunerations Obscènes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Games of Empire

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

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

The main argument of the book is this:

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

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

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

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

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

Why virtual games?

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

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

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

How does that fit with Empire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(…)

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

Cognitive capital has specific characteristics:

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

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

Another aspect of Empire is the use of social machines:

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

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

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

In this context, war is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The key is to have all three coalesce.

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

Protecting Privileged People’s Sensitivity

November 15, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , ,

Which is why, as demonstrated by this Cracked article (Cracked tend to be a mixed bag but this one hits the nail on the head) regarding five persistent prejudice in movies that contribute to, you guessed it, the reproduction of racism and patriarchy:

5. They Still Can’t Show a Black Man Dating a White Woman (Unless That’s What the Whole Movie Is About):

“It’s not just our imagination. The “Audiences Don’t Want to See Black Men Taking Our White Women” thing is so ingrained that Will Smith claims that Cameron Diaz lost the lead role opposite him in the movie Hitch because producers were worried about “the nation’s problem of seeing a black man and a white woman getting intimate.” So, Cuban-American Eva Mendes was cast instead. Hollywood has apparently decided that Mendes is a nice compromise to the black man/white woman problem — she gets those roles again and again and again.”

4. Only the Pretty Girls Are Allowed to Live AKA, the Vasquez always dies meme.

“We’ve convinced ourselves that there’s such thing as “ass-kicking supermodels” for the same reason female slasher movie survivors tend to spend the last hour of every film running and screaming at the top of their lungs. There is so much psychology behind that concept of the lone female slasher movie survivor that there is an entire book about the phenomenon and what it means (Men, Women and Chain Saws). The author points out that when the last person standing in a horror movie is a man, you never see him screaming or crying with fear (imagine Arnold’s character in Predator doing that), but with women, it’s required. For the most part, we won’t sympathize with her unless she spends a certain amount of time helpless and terrified.”

3. Movies Are Still Weirdly Prudish About Some Subjects, mostly, women having fun with their sexuality and enjoying it. And abortion too. You can make as many rape jokes as you want, but abortion is a big no-no.

2. If It’s a Blockbuster, the Star Better Be White (or Will Smith). Well, that one is pretty much self-explanatory. And even when it’s Will Smith (or Denzel Washington, but he’s getting older), the black stars tend to be of lighter-skinned with fine features.

1. We Still Don’t Care About History That Doesn’t Involve White People, which is something I have discussed under the “white savior” heading. Only white people can liberate oppressed minorities or indigenous peoples (see the Guarani in The Mission or the Naavi in Avatar), only white people clear agency and the guts to make the tough moral decisions that need to be made based on the lessons taught by minority characters (with limited agency and dysfunctional cultures).

If you put this all together, you can clearly see that all of these memes protect privileged people’s sensitivities and reproduce their privileged position, whether it is class, gender, race and heteronormativity. They assign agency, capacity for action and leadership to already privileged category and erase challenges to privilege. And in all of them, the only moral viewpoint that matters is that of the privileged category. Which is why these memes persist: because they allow the main audience’s viewpoint to prevail, and therefore, makes privileged audiences more comfortable and allows greater potential for identification with main characters.

A good example of what happens when that is not the case is the mini-controversy that has erupted over the casting of the upcoming Hunger Games movie:

And especially these two posters:

See this post for the full controversy which boils down to: how dare they make these characters I like BLACK!! And read the rationalization for the outrage: the (mostly white) readers had imagined these characters as good, gentle and ultimately victims of the Capitol’s oppressive system, as, of course, white (like them). The book is rather clear in its description of Rue that she is black. For Cinna (the character played by Lenny Kravitz), there is no particular description, so, it was open. It is especially revealing that some commenters assumed that Cinna was white because the book depicts him as sweet and lovable (and therefore, not possibly black). you can go read the whole sorry thread at the link.

All these commenters lamenting that Cinna is, OMG, black which does not fit with a nice, gentle, sweet, and good character are tapping into a whole trough of media representations of black as the opposite of all these things, without a shred of awareness. And I am sure they would all deny any racism on their part. It is just not the way they imagined the character. And being white, they must be right. And now they are stuck with an impossibility to identify.

How dare the movie producers do that to them?

Posted in Gender, Media, Movies, Patriarchy, Racism, Sexism, Social Privilege | 2 Comments »

Monique Pinçon-Charlot On Social Hypocrisy and Self-Preservation

August 17, 2011 by and tagged , , ,

Of course, everyone and their brother has been talking about Warren Buffett’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he breaks rank with his social class to claim too low a level of taxation on the wealthy like him and to advocate for higher taxation. Of course, this has won him a lot of applause from the liberal / progressive side and, at least, relative silence on the right instead of the usual reactions ranging mockery to cries of socialism and class warfare. And yet, Buffett has not said anything that has not been said for years now. Well, that is what social privilege based on prestige is (in the Weberian sense), you get listened to and not summarily ignored or insulted. And from the left, you get plaudits for looking like you’re playing against your own privileged team and demanding greater justice and equality in the name of some degree of social solidarity.

Well, hogwash, says sociologist of the Rich, Monique Pinçon-Charlot. This social hypocrisy and self-preservation. For her (and considering her body of work, she definitely knows what she is talking about), the wealthy can see the rising amount of destabilization around the world and they can read the writing on the wall and they have a good sense of the amount of resentment directed at them. They are getting scared. So, they publicly make statements seemingly offering a few sacrifices to appease the masses. There is no significant solidarity movement involved.

After all, everyone can see that significant fiscal and economic measures have been targeted at the financial sector and the wealthiest classes, both recovered rather quickly while the middle and lower classes continue to sink. Even the Greek bailouts were massive gifts to the wealthy Greeks. So, whatever sacrifices are offered by wealthy people like Buffett will be largely symbolic because extreme wealth is not just monetary. As Pinçon-Charlot puts it, wealth is an iceberg, the vast sums of money that we see are only the tip. Wealth is also cultural, symbolic and social and these are forms of capital that are as valuable as economic capital which they sustain and reinforce.

So, according to her, expect more such calls for solidarity and monetary offerings from the top of the social ladder, and do not believe a word of it. It is a self-preserving strategy for fear of the barbarians at the gates.

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

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 »

No, Really, Moral Entrepreneurs Should STFU (Part II)

August 11, 2011 by and tagged , , , , ,

Via my comrade-in-arms, Karl Thompson, this open letter to David Cameron’s parents beautifully makes a great point about the similarities in values between looters and, well, upper-class looters (except, those don’t get stigmatized and subject to repressive public policy):

“Dear Mr & Mrs Cameron,

Why did you never take the time to teach your child basic morality?

As a young man, he was in a gang that regularly smashed up private property. We know that you were absent parents who left your child to be brought up by a school rather than taking responsibility for his behaviour yourselves. The fact that he became a delinquent with no sense of respect for the property of others can only reflect that fact that you are terrible, lazy human beings who failed even in teaching your children the difference between right and wrong. I can only assume that his contempt for the small business owners of Oxford is indicative of his wider values.

Even worse, your neglect led him to fall in with a bad crowd.

There’s Michael Gove, whose wet-lipped rage was palpable on Newsnight last night. This is the Michael Gove who confused one of his houses with another of his houses in order to avail himself of £7,000 of the taxpayers’ money to which he was not entitled (or £13,000, depending on which house you think was which).

Or Hazel Blears, who was interviewed in full bristling peahen mode for almost all of last night. She once forgot which house she lived in, and benefited to the tune of £18,000. At the time she said it would take her reputation years to recover. Unfortunately not.

But, of course, this is different. This is just understandable confusion over the rules of how many houses you are meant to have as an MP. This doesn’t show the naked greed of people stealing plasma tellies.

Unless you’re Gerald Kaufman, who broke parliamentary rules to get £8,000 worth of 40-inch, flat screen, Bang and Olufsen TV out of the taxpayer.

Or Ed Vaizey, who got £2,000 in antique furniture ‘delivered to the wrong address’. Which is fortunate, because had that been the address they were intended for, that would have been fraud.

Or Jeremy Hunt, who broke the rules to the tune of almost £20,000 on one property and £2,000 on another. But it’s all right, because he agreed to pay half of the money back. Not the full amount, it would be absurd to expect him to pay back the entire sum that he took and to which he was not entitled. No, we’ll settle for half. And, as in any other field, what might have been considered embezzlement of £22,000 is overlooked. We know, after all, that David Cameron likes to give people second chances.

Fortunately, we have the Met Police to look after us. We’ll ignore the fact that two of its senior officers have had to resign in the last six weeks amid suspicions of widespread corruption within the force.

We’ll ignore Andy Hayman, who went for champagne dinners with those he was meant to be investigating, and then joined the company on leaving the Met.

Of course, Mr and Mrs Cameron, your son is right. There are parts of society that are not just broken, they are sick. Riddled with disease from top to bottom.

Just let me be clear about this (It’s a good phrase, Mr and Mrs Cameron, and one I looted from every sentence your son utters, just as he looted it from Tony Blair), I am not justifying or minimising in any way what has been done by the looters over the last few nights. What I am doing, however, is expressing shock and dismay that your son and his friends feel themselves in any way to be guardians of morality in this country.

Can they really, as 650 people who have shown themselves to be venal pygmies, moral dwarves at every opportunity over the last 20 years, bleat at others about ‘criminality’. Those who decided that when they broke the rules (the rules they themselves set) they, on the whole wouldn’t face the consequences of their actions?

Are they really surprised that this country’s culture is swamped in greed, in the acquisition of material things, in a lust for consumer goods of the most base kind? Really?

Let’s have a think back: cash-for-questionsBernie Ecclestonecash-for-accessMandelson’s mortgagethe Hinduja passportsBlunkett’s alleged insider trading (and, by the way, when someone has had to resign in disgracetwice can we stop having them on television as a commentator, please?); the meetings on the yachts of oligarchsthe drafting of the Digital Economy Act with Lucian Grange; Byers’, Hewitt’s & Hoon’s desperation to prostitute themselves and their positions; the fact that Andrew Lansley (in charge of NHS reforms) has a wife who gives lobbying advice to the very companies hoping to benefit from the NHS reforms. And that list didn’t even take me very long to think of.”

But it is truly a form of social privilege to lord it over and turns what is truly unearned privilege into a sign of higher morality. In any event, this makes the point, often repeated but never really listened to, that criminality and deviance are not traits of the lower classes. They are just the only ones made to pay for their actions. Up the social ladder though, one is quite safe. Every once in a while, the most outrageous cases will be made examples of  just to show the rest of us that privilege is no protection (see: Bernie Madoff) and that the system is fair. But most often, high-class criminality (or simple malfeasance) is free (see: 2008 recession).

Posted in Collective Behavior, Social Deviance, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stigma, Social Stratification | No Comments »

Book Review – Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist

July 25, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , ,

Well, it is not often that I dislike a book as much as I did Peter Berger‘s Adventures of An Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore.

Before I even get into the book per se, I should mention I didn’t know much about Peter Berger himself beyond reading the modern classic The Social Construction of Reality, with Thomas Luckmann when I was in college (it was mandatory reading, quite good too). But beyond that, I never read anything else, mostly because of his focus on religion (a topic which by and large bores the stuffing out of me). I tried reading his Invitation to Sociology (because I had read the bit on debunking) but got bored quickly.

This means that I was not prepared for what turned out to be the intellectual autobiography of a right-wing privileged old white man (a characterization he would probably deny since he thinks the whole class / race / gender thing is a really bad thing in sociology) who has been so, so oppressed by these awful lefties and feminists. Hanging out at the Texas ranch of the main organizers of Iran-Contra though, that didn’t bother him too much.

It is quite amazing to read someone who seemed to have had an easy academic career (at least, from what he tells, but things were certainly more relaxed when he started) engage in some non-stop whining about how the lefties are ruining sociology, hanging out with some hard-core right-wingers, and then, adopt a holier-than-thou “reasonable centrist” attitude all the while dismissing anyone outside of his circle of privileged colleagues with concerns about the less privileged. No one seems less aware of privilege, power and conflict than he is.

Let me walk you through some morceaux choisis. At first, the book was quite interesting, going over the early formation of a sociologist through French literature and Weber. And a little detour through debunking:

“Sociology is akin to comedy because it debunks the social fictions. By the same token, it is potentially liberating. It shows up the ‘bad faith’ by which individuals hide behind their roles and forces them to confront the reality of their own freedom. In the same process sociology must debunk the religious legitimations of the social fictions.

(…)

Sociology derives its moral justification of its debunking of the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression and cruelty. (…) Sociology liberates by facilitating a standing outside one’s social roles (literally, an “ecstasy” – ekstasis) and thereby a realization of one’s freedom. (…) Sociology suggests that we are puppets of society, but unlike puppets we can look up and discover the strings to which we are attached, and this discovery is a first step toward freedom.” (74-6)

So far so good. I started taking issue with Berger in his assessment of modernity. He still considers that we are living in modern times. Apparently the whole post-modern theoretical developments passed him by. His big idea is that modernity did not lead to secularization but to pluralism (multiplicity of religions and spiritual approaches). Pluralism undermines established religion but offers individuals multiple choices as to how spiritual they wish to be and in what kind of religious organizations. Basically, what he described is Lyotard’s death of the grand narratives and Bauman / Beck’s individualization thesis which mark the end of modernity and the advent of post-modernity or any other such formulation, such as liquid society. To hold on to the modernity frame leads to a lot of category mistakes (including the one regarding, for Berger and his wife – who obviously has never read Stephanie Coontz – that the bourgeois nuclear family is the most functional, something blatantly untrue in the individualized and increasingly mobile society).

The second main issue I had was Berger’s declaration that capitalism is great and good and works everywhere while socialism is an utter failure. While Berger likes to position himself as the reasonable centrist in a world of ideological extremes (although right-wing ideologies don’t much him anywhere near as much as left-wing ideologies, apparently), he does see the world in black and white. For instance, in his ringing endorsement of capitalism over socialism, there is no considerations of the successful social democracies of Scandinavia nor is there any examination of capitalism in totalitarian states (for instance, the Latin and South American dictatorships of the 70s and 80s, fully supported by the US).

Focused as he is on culture (at the expenses of stratification of any kind), his examination of the development model of the Asian tigers revolves around the mushy neo-confucianism without a shred of examination of the role of the developmental state that Manuel Castells has so thoroughly examined. Nor does he take into account the impact of structural adjustment programs imposed on countries of the Global South (an expression he finds confusing) and that led to the debt crisis and the lost decade of the 80s. For someone who claimed to be concerned with the “calculus of pain” (how much pain should people endure in the name of development, and that pain is taken to be only economic, never political, so, capitalism in totalitarian environments is ok), that’s a pretty big shortcoming.

The point at which Berger leaves sociological territory, in the book, to get into the purely political is when he recounts the 60s. As he states, he was in favor of the Civil Rights, was repelled by racism but, basically, the DFHs ruined the whole thing with their radicalism. As a result, he became conservative, started hanging out with such non-ideological people as Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter and writing for Commentary. Berger really has it in for the feminists, depicted as oppressive and doctrinaire and impervious to reason.

A great deal of his discontent with feminists and other non-right-wing people is depicted in a chapter titled “Politically Incorrect Excursions”. In my book, everyone who invokes “political correctness” loses all credibility. Those are usually privileged individuals who disliked having their privileges questioned and that is exactly the case here. And, he pulls one nice little Dawkins as well against feminists, at the same time showing his privilege and his ignorance of feminism:

“Another matter, though, is the continuing definition of women as victims – and that in the Western societies which have accorded to women a degree of privilege unequalled in human history and indeed unequalled in any other contemporary society.” (158)

Well, women were not “accorded” certain rights. They fought for them, won some battles and lost others. And we still live in a patriarchal system. But the whole idea of a privileged white man telling women to STFU because they have it so good in Western societies kinda proves the point of why we need feminism. This sense of privilege (which is never examines and never questioned) is especially displayed in Berger preferred methods: coffee house sociology (hanging out with like-minded academics and coming up with ideas within that small limited circles – Berger keeps mentioning the same people over and over again) and sociological tourism (go hang out with other privileged people in other societies, then, write a book).

Among other politically incorrect excursions? The aforementioned retreat at the Texas ranch of Iran-Contra perpetrators while they were hashing out the whole murderous enterprise (but he didn’t take part because he was more focused on Jamaica. Still, the very fact that he was invited for the occasion is revealing), helping the tobacco industry in fighting back against regulations. And advocating an incremental approach to the dismantlement of apartheid. In all of these cases. Berger relishes in his over version of “if I’m pissing off both sides, then, I’m doing the right thing”:

“A morally sensitive social scientist will, I think, instinctively move toward middle positions (middle between radical change and stubborn preservation) on most issues.” (177)

No, a morally sensitive sociologist would move toward the position of greater social justice. I wonder what Berger would have made of the younger Nelson Mandela and the ANC of the 1960s.

as the book goes on, it feels like Berger is lowering his guard and getting more and more ideological himself. Take his description of BU President John Silber:

“Some on the faculty perceived him as a right-winger, which was certainly a misperception. He was a lifelong Democrat, very much in the pre-1960s tradition of Democratic Party liberalism. But he was also an American patriot, staunchly anti-communist, opposed to abortion on philosophical grounds, and contemptuous of fashionable political correctness.” (183)

Emphasis mine. So, (1) to be a Democrat is to not be a patriot, (2) let me remind everybody that pre-1960s Democrats tended to be pro-segregation, and (3) for Berger, something based on “philosophical grounds” (which is what reasonable men do) is much better than on ideological grounds (which is what evil lefties do).

And, when dealing with conflict, Berger certainly falls into the category of “both sides are doing it”, completely ignoring the power imbalances that may be involved. For instance, regarding his involvement in South Africa, he describes the late apartheid period as a “time of intense political conflict” as if the parties were equal and equivalent. It was not a time of intense political conflict, but a time of intense political repression marked by systematic torture from a white supremacist regimes.

More than that, he later described Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique as a”feminist assault on the conventional family” (discussing his wife’s book on family). He also wrongfully blames Roe v. Wade for the emergence of the religious right (something many times debunked) as well as Jimmy Carter for organizing a conference on families rather than family. And here is how he describes that conflict:

“On one side the pro-family and anti-abortion (“pro-life”) movements merged, while on the other side the pro-abortion (“pro-choice”) movement allied itself with other socially progressive causes. Probably more by accident than by deliberate decisions, the social conservatives became an important constituency of the Republican Party, while the social progressives assumed a dominant role in the Democratic Party. Abortion became a doctrinaire litmus test on both sides.” (200)

How clueless can one be. Seriously, “pro-family” versus “pro-abortion”. And let us not mention the Southern strategy. Oh, and he and his wife are against gay marriage because it would undermine the “bourgeois family” (his phrase, not mine) and because children are, in their view because studies show otherwise, better off raised by their biological parents. I’m guessing he’s against adoption then.

And for my fellow sociologists, enjoy this little bit:

“In sociology the mantra of  ’class, race, gender’ had come to dominate work in most areas of the discipline; a diffuse left-liberalism had in many placed hardened into a repressive orthodoxy.” (203)

So says the man who has had a very privileged academic career. And not a shred of evidence as to why such a view is wrong. It just does not fit with his privileged-functional, cultural-essentialist perspective, so, it’s ideological and repressive.

And to get a sense of his cluelessness, get this,

“I remember a conversation with some black people in South Africa [he usually mentions names everywhere, but not here apparently]. They expressed strong resentment about the continuing privilege of the white minority despite the demise of the apartheid regime. I said that I could understanding their feelings [how nice of him], but [you knew there was a "but" coming and that there is some white-splaining coming] I suggested a mental experiment: Forget the race of these people for a moment [because, you know, in South Africa, race is not really relevant]. Just look at their economic functions, which the country needs and which blacks especially need. Then look at them as an economic asset to be exploited, not for their sake but for yours. My argument failed to convince [no !@#$].” (217)

I wonder why these black people were not convinced by this little bit of white patronizing.

And that last quote, to me, is perfectly revealing of Peter Berger the man and the sociologist.

And because I needed a brain-cleanser after making through that book:

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Ideologies, Politics, religion, Social Privilege, Sociology | 2 Comments »

Whaddaya Know: Austerity Means Long-Term Poverty and Greater Inequality

July 19, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , ,

Nobody could have predicted that outcome </sarcasm>:

“Last week, Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou once again succeeded in getting a majority of Greek lawmakers to push through an austerity and privatization package worth €78 billion ($111 billion). In doing so, he was responding to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission. Indeed, many economic experts see the package’s measures as the only way to fend off an imminent national bankruptcy at the last minute — and the only way to save the euro from an even worse fate.

But is Papandreou saving his country to death? Savas Robolis thinks he is. “People are afraid,” the 65-year-old says — they’re afraid of an uncertain future. Employees are particularly scared because they carry an unfairly high proportion of the tax burden. As a professor of economics and social policy at Athens’ Panteion University and director of the Labor Institute of the General Confederation of Greek Workers, Robolis knows what he’s talking about.

According to his calculations, roughly 930,000 of Greece’s 960,000 registered companies have fewer than five employees. Most of these very small companies are “not very competitive,” he says, and primarily focus on providing products and services to the 3.5 million private households in Greece. If household incomes sink, consumer demand will automatically fall as well. As Robolis sees it, this would mean a swift end to these small companies because they don’t have enough liquidity to tide them over.

“That’s exactly what’s happened,” Robolis complains. Over the last year, roughly 60,000 of these mini-companies have gone belly up, and he predicts at least as many closings in 2011.

In 2010, the number of jobless in Greece rose by 230,000, to reach 14.8 percent. Given Greece’s weak social safety net, unemployment is more or less tantamount to social bankruptcy. For example, unemployment benefits are only available for a year at a monthly rate of less than €500. After that, the state offers practically no assistance. Officials estimate that only about 280,000 of the 800,000 people without jobs are still eligible to claim unemployment benefits. This has resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of homeless people — by up to 25 percent in Athens alone.

According to official data, unemployment is expected to climb to between 17 percent and 18 percent by the end of 2011, but the true figure could be as high as 23 percent.”

Also, how can brain drain and reduced demand promote economic recovery?

“At that time, the result was a wave of emigration to places like Germany. Robolis thinks the same thing could happen today — but with one big difference: The people who left Greece in the 1960s were mostly unskilled workers. Robolis fears that the coming wave could be well-educated individuals with college degrees.

Greece has its tourist attractions and agricultural products. But apart from beaches, olive oil and feta, the economy doesn’t have much to offer. As much as 70 percent of of Greece’s economic output depends on private consumption, according to a recent study of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a think tank with ties to Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

However, according to the study, in the last quarter of 2010, reductions in salaries and pensions drove consumption down 8.6 percent, retail sales shrank by 12 percent and 65,000 stores had to be shut down. Robolis predicts that, by 2015, when the new austerity measures are scheduled to take full effect, the standard of living for employees and pensioners will be 40 percent lower than it was in 2008.”

But what about the wealthy? Oh, they’re doing fine:

“But while the lines continue to get longer outside food banks, many of the wealthy are getting through the crisis more or less unscathed. The average Greek consumer is now forced to pay the third-highest VAT rate in Europe, the third-highest social insurance contributions and the second-highest fuel taxes.

Two-thirds of Greeks regularly pay their taxes as well. Indeed, “contrary to widespread views,” as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung study put it, these taxes are automatically deducted along with social contributions from the paychecks of Greeks employed in both the private and public sectors. It is mainly the small wealthy class that manages to cheat the authorities out of €40 billion in tax each year. That is the OECD’s estimated volume of annual tax evasion. The Greek central bank puts the losses at somewhere between €15 billion and €20 billion.”

So, apart from entrenching long-term poverty and extreme privilege, as well as making sure banks get their ill-loaned money back, what will exactly these austerity measures do? Or maybe these three consequences are the goal: make the country conform to neoliberal standards.

How will Western populations like their precarized existence now that they are getting a tasted of the structural adjustment programs (because that is what these measures are) that have long been foisted on the global South?

Posted in Economy, Labor, Poverty, Precarization, Public Policy, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Structural Violence | No Comments »

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