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C. Wright Mills, Labor and The Power Elite

December 14, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

It is with the third chapter of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, that things get more sociological and critical. This chapter is largely dedicated to Mills’s The New Men of Power – America’s Labor Leaders, published in 1948.

“The New Men of Power is not a book about the millions of industrial and service workers who swelled the ranks of organized labor during the turbulent 1930s. It does not purport to tell the story of the upsurge. Rather, it presupposes mass unionism and is concerned chiefly with the consequences of the integration of the labor movement into the political economy during the New Deal and the Truman administration. The New Men of Power resumes the tale at the moment when unions are in the process of institutionalization and when a more or less permanent labor bureaucracy is in formation, which, while still ultimately accountable to the membership, has given rise to a new type of elite. The labor elite tends to see the union as a military force in which the lower ranks, the rank and file, are subordinate to the union leaders and their staffs.

(…)

It is not a movement by, as well as for, its members and for working people as a whole. Most major unions, according to Mills, are run from the top by people who are part of a power elite. Thus, to grasp the present and future prospects of organized labor, the object of investigation is, necessarily, the labor leader, not the rank and file.” (104)

This emphasis on the consequences of institutionalization very much reflects Weber’s influence (combined with Marx) on Mills. Except that, for Mills, bureaucratization and institutionalization are not neutral processes of modernization or consequences of it. They are very much processes of power. And since Mills is very much a sociologist of the state, it is not surprising to see institutionalization as part of co-optation by the other branches of the power elite.

“Mills’s characterization of the labor leader as a member of the elite of power and far removed from the everyday lives of the workers he represents is a reflection not only of institutionalization but also of the labor leader’s penchant to hobnob with other members of the elites. The national labor leader tends to spend more time with members of Congress, officials in the executive branch of government, other top union leaders, and corporate counterparts than with the rank-and-file leaders of his own union.” (106)

This seems strikingly accurate still today, and, for Mills, this predicts the downfall of the labor movement (no longer a movement then, once institutionalized and bureaucratized).

“Mills concludes:

“If the CIO ideologists are not careful, the managers of corporate property will select only the reasonable concessions that are offered—that labor will not strike, that labor will help with the wars, that labor will be responsible, but they will reject labor’s pretensions to a voice in production, within the plants and in the planning of the U.S. political economy. (120–121)

The prescience of these remarks is all too apparent to students of current industrial relations: having cleared the “extremists and crackpots” from its ranks, labor rarely strikes, generally supports the wars, and has steadily lost power at the workplace. And demanding a voice in the larger political economy is as far from the minds of twenty-first-century American labor leaders as was the idea, in the immediate postwar period, that labor was a movement whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of capital. It took only a few more years after the publication of his study of labor leaders for Mills to consign organized labor to a “dependent variable” in the political economy”.

(…)

Mills’s main argument is that union power is doomed unless labor acquires an explicit ideology and has a series of ideas that are fully consistent with an assessment that, far from being benign, business and the political directorate are hostile, only occasionally tolerant of labor, and poised to wage full-scale class warfare on unions and their mass constituents.” (108 - 109)

“While large sections of the liberal center remained pro-union (at least in the general sense but often turning against union militants when they flexed their collective muscle by taking direct action), the tripartite alliance of labor leaders, capital, and the national political directorate forged elements of what the “mass public” perceived to be a new power elite. However, as Mills makes clear, labor leaders were junior partners, accumulating some concessions from the table of the main actors and playing an important part in stabilizing the political and economic systems, largely by controlling the wanton impulses of the rank and file—but never really sharing power.” (111)

Emphases mine.

Throughout the book, I have never being amazed at the prescience of Mills’s perspective on the labor movements, unions and their leadership in the context of late capitalism.

Labor leaders are prone to bemoan the apathy of the rank-and-file membership. Mills points out that their complaint carries little weight when they have committed the unions to supporting the two main political parties, which, in his estimation, offer little to the workers: “Such support only takes away their chance to organize politically and alert men to politics as live issues. The activities of these politics alienate people from politics in the deeper meanings and demoralizes those on the edge of political consciousness” (270). The alienation of many workers from politics and from their own union is not surprising; the picture Mills has painted is of a progressively tighter labor bureaucracy that privileges retention of power over a program of encouraging the rank and file to take over the union, let alone encroach on managerial prerogatives in the workplace.

(…)

Without the intellectuals and a new surge of rank-and-file involvement in the union, Mills foresees a grim future. As a slump deepens and mass unemployment eats into the moral fabric of society, large corporate capital and the state are likely to respond by inaugurating a major offensive against workers and their unions. Under present circumstances, workers and unions are poorly equipped to offer effective resistance and are likely to enter into a hopeless tailspin.” (115-117)

For Mills, there should have been a labor party in the US, one that would not depend on established political parties and that would have been truly (although non-communist, Mills had no time for them even though he was virulently anti-McCarthy, he did not disapprove of the purging of ranks of organized labor). To align itself with an established party has been a losing strategy and one can very clearly right now the efforts of the other political party to finish off the labor movements in the US, while the other party stands by and does close to nothing except come election time, expecting the union rank-and-file to fundraise and campaign based on nothing more  than “the other guys are worse.”

The state of organized labor today then, is the direct results, a few decades later, of the institutionalization of labor within the state and the structures of capitalism (a joint venture, despite illusions to the contrary). By joining the power elite, albeit in subordinate status, the leaders of the labor movement (the new men of power) basically signed the death warrant of a significant and radical component of the American society that had the potential to challenge the power elite.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Labor, Organizational Sociology, Politics, Power, Social Institutions, Social Theory, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – Evil

June 24, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In Evil, sociologist Michel Wieviorka aims to claim “evil” as a territory for sociological investigation. It is not hard to see why sociologists have stayed away from the topic. It is thorny one. And after all, Durkheim taught us all long ago to avoid just adopting common sense categorizations and running with them without examining their social construction as social fact. So, since evil is a common sense concept par excellence, and a rather multi-form and vague one, one can easily see why sociologists have stayed away from the concept as a whole. But it is true that by doing so, we have abandoned that territory to philosophy, religious studies and *gasp* even psychology.

But, I am one of those sociologists who think we should drag our muddy sociological boots (sociology is muddy par excellence, that is its greatness) where people think they don’t belong, so, naturally, I grabbed the book hoping for, at least, some conceptual clarity and investigative pathways into the topic. Alas, I was deeply disappointed for a variety of reasons.

First of all, the book feels a bit disjointed and that is because the book is not really a book, it is a collection of sections extracted from another book (Nine Lessons of Sociology). Evil is a collection of the chapters in Nine Lessons that were on negative topics, leaving aside the chapters on positive topics. So, Evil ends up being rather short (133 pages of text), divided on five chapters (evil as sociological topic, violence, terrorism, racism, and pathways to research on evil). In addition, the translation feels a bit clunky and to word-for-word, French to English. It makes for a weird read. I don’t know if it is a Polity issue but I noted the same translation problem with Florence Aubenas’s The Night Cleaner. So, that does not help.

Then, when discussing evil, one can immediately see the problem with the collection of chapters. Chapters 1 and 5 are more straight “why we should have a sociology of evil” and “how we should do it”. They have problems of their own that I will discuss below but they make sense. The real thematic difficulty comes with chapter 2, 3 and 4. So, is this what evil is? Violence, racism and terrorism? That’s it? That list seems a bit arbitrary to me. I can think of a lot of other examples of evil. And again, evil has a major definitional issue as sociological concept.

So let me get into the substance of the book a bit more.

Again, the starting point is that, for Wieviorka, there should be a sociology of evil and this is the right time to develop it as the traditional sociological dichotomies have been successfully challenged (body / mind, nature / culture, individual / collective, and the all-time sociological favorite, structure / agency) especially if we enter the concept of evil through its unavoidable link to suffering, and suffering itself is a social phenomenon. Indeed, suffering is at the heart of the human rights regime which demands recognition of suffering in different forms, but suffering is also at the heart of what we tend to call identity politics and the ethnicization of society (the increasing definition of self through an ethnic identity) and part of the historical narrative that accompanies such ethnicization (that includes the identity of victim if not directly, at least historically and generationally). But right off the bat, Wieviorka operates a subtle shift: from evil to violence. I would argue that that is not the same concept. The two are separate. To reduce evil to violence, then one does not need the concept of evil. We already have extensive work on the sociology of violence (and quite a bit from Wieviorka himself). So what does bringing evil to the sociological table add? Hard to tell. Take this, for instance:

“Yesterday, the socialization of children, or migrants, involved learning the national historical narrative; today, migrants and their children contribute to changing this narrative, forcing the nation to recognize  the less glorious pages of its past, its areas of darkness and practices of violence and brutality. From this point on, evil becomes an object for the social sciences: they have to give a convincing account, on one hand, of the past and the present of the groups who mobilize on the basis of an identity as victims; and, on the other, of the impact of their demands on community life. How was violence organized in the past, or how is it organized in the present; and how do the processes of negation of the Other, of destruction and self-destruction, of harm to one’s physical and moral integrity, function?

It is no longer possible to declare, as it was until recently, that to try to understand barbarism, violence, cruelty, terrorism or racism is to open the way to evil, which needs quite simply to be fought without making any effort to understand – any effort of that kind being automatically classed as a mark of weakness. In fact, if we do wish to combat evil, it is preferable to know and understand it. There is a need here, a social demand which calls for analytical tools and studies; the social sciences are better qualified to provide these than moral judgments, philosophical considerations or religious a priori.” (9)

See what I mean? It is all conceptually very muddy: evil, violence, barbarism, brutality, cruelty. Is this all the same? How are these things related? Are they all subcategories of evil? Is interpersonal violence the only form of violence and evil to be considered? What of structural violence? These two paragraphs, to me (I could certainly be wrong), perfectly illustrate the constant conceptual shift that Wieviorka operates throughout the book. But are you really discussing evil when you are discussing racism or terrorism or interpersonal violence in general? I think it is all well and good to want to extirpate evil from the clutches of philosophy and religion but for what purpose? What does this concept add to the sociology of violence / racism / terrorism? This constant conceptual drift persists throughout the book. At the same time, if we accept, arguendo, the concept of evil as violence, racism, terrorism, etc., then we accept it as it is socially defined.

“Evil becomes a sociological category and ceases to be a purely religious category when it is treated as a crime, including a crime against humanity, not as a sin; when it can and must be envisaged as a social and historical problem that falls within the scope of human will and justice, and when it ceases to be a theological fact or the manifestation of an instinct.” (11)

But whether evil is treated as sin or crime does not make really any difference because both are socially constructed commonsense categories, the product of processes of structure, history and power. To define evil so does not neutralize the weight of commonsense definition. Evil is still not a social fact in that definition. Shouldn’t the first step in defining evil as an object of sociological investigation to reject the ready-made conceptualizations that societies provide and question these? To state “I hereby declare evil to be a sociological object, so, back off, religion and philosophy” is not enough.

And if that is not confusing enough, then, there is this:

“The closer evil comes to corresponding to the categories and concerns of the social sciences, the more their analytical principles must be applied, in the same way as they are used to study other problems and other social facts. Amongst these principles there is the idea that actors are never either totally unaware or totally aware of the meaning of their action. In other words they are never totally non-responsible; they are of necessity accountable for their actions, or they should be.  In this sense, the advance of the knowledge of evil, thank to the social sciences, goes hand in hand with the idea that the thesis of the banality of evil must be, if not set to one side, at least considered with the utmost caution.” (13)

???

Again, how does this square the acceptance of commonsense definitions of evil (minus the religious overtones)? And this, basically ends the first chapter with no clear sociological definition of evil. As I mentioned before, this is followed by three thematic chapters on violence, terrorism and racism. So, at this point, we are left with “evil = bad stuff we don’t like” and even that might be questioned: is all violence necessarily bad, let alone evil? Paging Franz Fanon.

But as one reads these three chapters, the real theme of the book becomes more apparent: a rejection of the structural and the social and an aggressive return of the Subject (capitalized in the book), with heavy references to Touraine and Latour. This is the real point of the sociology Wieviorka proposes: a sociology of the Subject, then confronted with evil, either as perpetrators, but, more essentially, as victims. On all three topics, Wieviorka argues that the culture, history and structures have received all the sociological attention but that Subjects, and especially victims (Wieviorka does mention perpetrators but he is much more interested in victims) have been neglected not just as victims but as agents. This allows Wieviorka to develop two typologies, in the case of violence, that he will use on the other topics as well: one for the types of violence based on Subject meaning and the type of Subjects involved in violence.

  • Violence based on the loss of meaning (“when the actor comes to express a meaning that has become lost or impossible and resorts to violence because he is unable to construct the confrontational action that would enable him to assert his social demands or cultural or political expectations, because no political process is available for dealing with them.” (19))
  • Violence based on ideology
  • Violence as myth-disintegration
  • Gratuitous violence, violence for its own’s sake
  • Violence as other- and self-destruction (suicide terrorism, martyrdom)
  • Violence as obedience to authority (the Eichmann in Jerusalem defense)

And the types of subjectivity linked to violence (capitalization in the original):

  • The Floating Subject who resorts to violence because of an inability to become a social actor (see the alienated youth from the French suburbs in 2005).
  • The Hyper-Subject resorts to violence through an excess of meaning through meta-political, religious and mythical meaning. This is the violence of zealot and martyr.
  • The Non-Subject exercises violence without involving his subjectivity, as the participants in Milgram’s experiments. It is simply violence as subjection to authority.
  • The Anti-Subject denies the Other the status of Subject through dehumanization, as we see in the dynamics that lead to genocides. It involves gratuitous cruelty and violence.
  • The Survivor Subject, before any violence has taken place, is one who feels threatened for his integrity and existence and acts violently as a survival response to the perceived threat.

One can see that this typology can be useful and how it can lead to certain ideas when it comes to preventing or dealing with different forms of violence (some much less clear and satisfying than others).

  • The Floating subject  provides institutional channels for conflict resolution as well as training of social and political players (bottom-up strategy)
  • The Hyper-Subject  use the “moderates” from the same religious or ideological background to intervene before a hardening of fundamentalisms (top-down strategy)
  • The Non-Subject  delegitimize the authority involved
  • The Anti-Subject  repression and education
  • The Survivor Subject  providing mental models to change the perception

But what does this have to do with evil?

The topic of violence also allows Wieviorka to introduce the second main theme of the book, after the Subject: globalization. The Subject and globalization are the two poles that he considers should guide the sociological investigation of evil. This allows him to evacuate any form of social structure from analysis, albeit not convincingly and not consistently. But the combination of the centrality of the Subject in the context of globalization leads him to the following formulation:

“The arena of violence is widening, while the scope for organizing debate and a framework for conflict to deal with social problems is shrinking, lacking, or vanishing. Conversely that arena becomes smaller when the conditions of institutionalized conflict permit a negotiated solution, even in circumstances of great tensions between actors. Violence is not conflict; rather it is the opposite. Violence is more likely to flare up when an actor can find no-one to deal within his or her attempts to exert social or political pressure, when no channels of institutional negotiation are available.” (27)

Wieviorka argues that this is the case with the decline of the labor movement in the context of globalization as unions have always been a disciplining force for the working class, as well as offering institutionalized ways to resolve conflict. But he should take the next step and recognize that this has been accompanied by a hardening of state repression on labor issues.

When it comes to the victims of violence, Wieviorka argues that there are three types of suffering that need to be addressed:

  • Collective identity (such as the victims of ethnic violence, genocide) where past mass violence was directed at an entire population, culture, etc.
  • Individual participation in modern life: being the descendants of slaves, to have been deprived of property, rights or a sense of belonging to a larger modern collectivity (such as a nation-state through the denial of basic political and civil rights).
  • Personal subjectivity, that is the denial of the ability to become a Subject through dehumanization, demonization, etc. for the direct victims of violence.

Wieviorka uses these typologies in his analysis of the other two topics: global terrorism and racism. And I have to say that there is nothing really new or uniquely insightful in these chapters if one is already well-read on either subjects.

And the last, and longest chapter of the book tries to weave together the two lines of the Subject and globalization at the expense of structure and society, and that is done with pretty broad pronouncements (“This is not the time to fight the enemies of the Subject – they have been defeated, in any event for the time being.” (89)). Here again, this chapter is plagued with conceptual ambiguities relating to the Subject, individualism, and individualization. In the glorification of the Subject, Wieviorka neglects the fact (mentioned by Bauman, Beck and Sennett, among others), that becoming a Subject, in individualized condition, is often not a choice in the global context of liquid society.

But what is most disappointing is the end result of all this throwing out of the structural baby with the societal bath water in the study of evil:

“By agreeing to be not only a sociology of the good, by opening up to this dimension of the anti-Subject, sociology can avoid a form of romanticism whereby the Subject is of necessity an attractive character, sometimes happy but usually unhappy; it leaves theoretical and practical scope for the darkest aspects of the human individual; it provides theoretical tools with which to embark on concrete research into phenomena as significant as racism, violence, or anti-Semitism.” (108)

My handwritten note in the book reads “that’s it?” and that is exactly what thinking. Really, that was the point of flushing structure (in the name of the Subject) and society (in the name of globalization)? To establish that people sometimes do bad things? I would argue that there is as much explanatory potential for violence in ALL forms (interpersonal, structural or symbolic) through the workings of individuals, interpersonal interactions (micro-aggressions), organizational and institutional and structural. To evacuate some of these layers deprives oneself of strong analytical tools. Similarly, as many globalization theorists have demonstrated, it is too early to completely dismiss the nation-state and society. The dynamics of globalization are more multi-layered and more complex than that (from glocalization to grobalization, and other processes).

And finally, it is also way too early to cavalierly dismiss the power of collective and social movements in the name of the individual. Globalization is still a very collectively contested terrains for social movements, especially of the alter-globalization kind.

So, by the end of the book, do not really expect to have figured out what a sociological reconceptualization of evil means and implies (if you do, please leave a comment because I would really like to know). It felt like the topic of evil was a bit of a cover up for a more theoretical discussion leading to the promotion of an approach based on the Subject and globalization. But neither topics are convincingly developed to created a shiny new approach to the topic of evil (or any other topic, for that matter). If one is interested in the topic of the individual confronted with globalization (in all its dimensions), one is much better off going back to Bauman, Beck, Sennett or Castells who have done a better job of it.

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Global Sociology, Globalization, Human Rights, Identity, Institutional Racism, Mass Violence, Racism, Social Change, Social Discrimination, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Theory, Sociology, Terrorism | No Comments »

Suicide as Social Action – Putting Durkheim and Merton to Work

April 8, 2012 by and tagged , , , ,

Let me bring my handy graph again (and a quick shout out to Simple Diagrams, a software I could not blog and teach without). It was one of the very first insights I learned in my very first sociology course, reading my first sociology book, Durkheim’s Suicide: suicide is not an individual act but a social action, that is, an act embedded in social institutions and cultural values and norms, producing stable suicide rates. Hence, in society, the whole is greater than the sum of its part. Society is a reality sui generis. And social facts influence how we act and respond to social contexts.

So,

“An elderly man killed himself in Athens’s main square yesterday in protest at the debt crisis.

The incident was raised in parliament and an anti-austerity group called for a peaceful protest, accusing politicians of driving people to despair with harsh budget cuts.

The 77-year-old shot himself in the head in Syntagma Square during the morning rush hour. The square, opposite parliament, is a focal point for protests. Police said a handwritten note was found on the retired pharmacist’s body in which he said he was taking his own life due to the debt crisis.”

And then, this as well.

Note the public nature of these suicides and their mode of killing as public spectacles, especially the shooting in Syntagma Square. And, especially the first one was clearly understood as a public action. I am tempted to see those as anomic suicides, that is, as suicides prompted by the removal of regulations and social protections, triggering downward social mobility where individuals are left to fend for themselves, without any road map to figure out how to do it, especially, for the elderly.

The caption for the photo reads:

“Mourners applaud as the coffin of Dimitris Christoulas is carried during a funeral procession. His suicide note said that he had preferred to die rather than be forced to scavenge for food: AP”

And these are not isolated cases:

“The suicide of Dmitiris Christoulas, which triggered a new bout of rioting in the Greek capital, threw a spotlight on the fact which European authorities have gone to considerable lengths to obscure as they struggle to come up with ways to get European economies back on an even keel.

As the British researcher David Stuckler has spelt out in a series of shocking reports in The Lancet, suicide rates have risen right across Europe since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, with strict correlation between the intensity of the crisis and the rise in the statistics.

In 2006 he predicted that the new economic crisis would result in “increased suicides among people younger than 66 years”. Two years on the prediction was vindicated: as job losses increased rapidly, to about 37 per cent above the 2007 level in both parts of Europe, “the steady downward turn in suicide rates… reversed at once.

“The 2008 increase was less than 1 per cent in the new member states, but in the old ones it increased by about 7 per cent. In both, suicides increased further in 2009,” he reported.

The examples of debt-crisis suicides in Greece and Britain have been replicated across the European Union, with Italy, where the state has imposed effective tax rises after many years of empty threats from Silvio Berlusconi, especially badly hit. The suicide rate for economic reasons has increased by 24.6 per cent between 2008 and 2010, it is reported, while attempted suicides have gone up 20 per cent in the same period.

In recent cases, a 78-year-old pensioner threw herself from her third-floor balcony in Gela, in the south of Sicily, blaming a pension cut from €800 to €600, while last Thursday a young construction worker from Morocco set himself on fire outside Verona’s town hall.

The international media’s slowness to notice and draw attention to the suicide epidemic reflects state power to present the crisis and its cure in their preferred fashion, but it has long been obvious to many that you cannot simply downsize a state whose rampant growth has been the obsession of half a century of government policy without consequences.

Mr Stuckler finds that suicide and attempted suicide rise in close conformity with economic hardship, with Greece and Ireland suffering the worst increase over the past three years, and with the loss of dignity and the sense of being the prey of newly empowered state agencies exacerbating the pain in Europe’s south.”

If we were to use Robert Merton’s strain theory to look at these, we would then find forms of retreatism in these suicides as people cope differently to the strain caused by anomic conditions where cultural goals have not changed but the legitimate means have become unattainable due to austerity policies being implemented in these countries.

In other cases, some try innovation:

“In the grimy dockland suburb of Alcantara, Lisbon, a heavy, grey frosted-glass door in an equally forbidding office block currently offers an entrance to what has become the new El Dorado for a growing sector of the Portuguese workforce: Angola.

For centuries, the former colony was as ruthlessly exploited by its European masters as any other in Africa. But today, with the Portuguese economy floundering, the boot is firmly on the other foot. For most of the past decade, Angola’s diamond-mining and oil-rich economy has grown by 10 per cent a year. With 7,000 Portuguese businesses already established there and clear linguistic, human and political links, too, when Angola started looking for a huge range of skilled workers from abroad to help rebuild the country, the old “mother nation” stood head and shoulders above the rest.

But for the recession-struck Portuguese to make it out there, there is only one legal path: head to Alcantara and that grim-looking door, behind which the Angolan consulate is currently processing Portuguese immigration papers at an average of more than 20,000 a year.

“It’s for one reason: in Portugal, the recession is here to stay, and that’s true for everybody,” says Ricardo Bordalo, a Portuguese journalist from the Lusa news agency. Based in Angola between 2008 and 2011, he watched the number of his compatriots there increase from 20,000 to 130,000. “In Angola, after the war, the country was completely destroyed, and they needed people there. And many thousands of Portuguese had already lived there before independence. There’s always been a special relationship between Portugal and Angola. Sometimes we hate each other, sometimes we love each other, and now it’s our turn to go there. But it’s not easy to get a visa: they make us suffer a little bit.”

(…)

Migration: Europe loses skilled workers as Indians return

Spain: The economic crisis is forcing 1,200 young Spaniards to emigrate to Argentina each month, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claimed last year. Around 30,000 Spaniards moved to Argentina between June 2009 and November 2010. Some 6,400 went to Chile and 6,800 headed for Uruguay.

Italy: The Italian economy has been at a virtual standstill since 2000 and around 600,000, often highly educated young Italians, have gone abroad in the past decade. Most have emigrated to North and South America. Many blamed Silvio Berlusconi for their country’s rising unemployment rates.

India: India’s rapidly growing economy has triggered a reverse migration of its diaspora previously settled in the UK and US, said a recent report. About 300,000 Indians employed overseas are expected to return to the country by 2015.”

That is indeed interesting. When developing countries were subjected to structural adjustment programs, the downward mobility that followed triggered emigration to wealthier countries. And now, we see the reverse: austerity (the Western equivalent of structural adjustment programs) triggers the same mechanism, but this time, emigration out of mainly Western countries to semi-peripheral or peripheral countries. It will be interesting to see how the recipient countries perceive these new immigrants and whether there is a significant impact to a potential brain drain.

Posted in Anomie, Collective Behavior, Migration, Social Theory, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Book Review – Communication Power – 1

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

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

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

The central question of the book?

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

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

So, what is power:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what are exactly the different layers of power?

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

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

So,

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

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

Next up, networks and the network society.

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

World-System 2.0 – In Time

February 4, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sorry about the lack of recent posts, guys. Between the beginning of the term and the massive amount of academic writing I have foolishly and irresponsibly agreed to do, I will be swamped until February 15th.

That being said, while taking a break from The Writing, I watched this film, scifi fan that I am:

The movie was directed by Andrew Niccol who also directed Gattaca (which I really loved) and Lord of War (ditto). Now, the main plot is rather stupid and the main characters were poorly cast, in my view, but, as usual, I got more interested in the social background underlying the story.

For those of you who have not seen it, the story takes place in a dystopian future (aren’t they all?) where the dominant currency is time. People are genetically programmed to grow up until they reach 25, then, a clock embedded their arms starts and they have one year to live unless they can get extra years through labor, gambling, prostitution, or financial dealings. Everything is bought and paid for in time (minutes, hours, days, etc.). The whole language reflects the prevalence of time. When your clock gets down to zero, you just (literally) drop dead.

This society is highly stratified in a very Wallersteinian way. Financial investors are at the top of the social ladder and they live in wealthy (gated and highly secured) time zones that resemble Wallerstein’s core areas. There are middle time zones (the semi-periphery) and the ghettos (the periphery) where people are fully precarized in terms of time. They work for a few extra days, take out loans that deplete their clocks. The whole time system (financial system) is controlled by very large corporation, controlled by time-financiers who continuously extract time-value from the less wealthy time-zones (through labor, loans and control of the costs of living… when they need a time boost, the wealthy – in New Greenwich, a major core time zone – bump up the cost of living in the ghetto which extracts more time from the poor, that is transferred to the wealthy.

This translates in different behavior. In the ghetto, people are constantly checking their clock and rushing and running everywhere. That is how the main character gets spotted as “different” when he crosses into wealthier time zones. In the wealthy time zones, people move slowly. They have time.

There is more than enough time for everybody but the wealthy want to live forever, so, in that zero-time game, someone has to die for that to happen. And so, while the poor live highly precarized lives, doing anything to live a few more days, including engaging in fights through organized criminal groups where the goal of the fight is to deplete the other guy’s clock, the wealthy live lives surrounded by luxury but also lots of bodyguards in order to avoid the only deaths they can expect, through crime or their own stupidity (accidents).

In this society, law enforcement takes the form of poorly paid (based on a limited per diem allotment of time) time-keepers who keep track of time and maintain the stratification system. They are what Guy Standing would call the salariat, ideologically aligned with the global time elite, and making sure the precariat in the ghetto does not steal someone’s time even though they are economically closer to the precariat.

As I mentioned, the rest of the film is pretty much either garbage (the rich have it hard too!) or teenage nonsense (the bad boy from the ghetto and the poor little rich girl fall for each other and turn into Bonnie and Clyde 2.0). Apart from that, I think it is definitely meant as a metaphor for our times.

Posted in Commodification, Corporatism, Economy, Globalization, Labor, Movies, Poverty, Precarization, Risk Society, Science-fiction, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Social Theory, Sociology | 2 Comments »

Book Review – 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 »

Zygmunt Bauman on Parasitic Logic

October 22, 2011 by and tagged , ,

Here:

“The news of capitalism’s demise is (to borrow from Mark Twain) somewhat exaggerated. Capitalism has an inbuilt wondrous capacity of resurrection and regeneration; though this is capacity of a kind shared with parasites – organisms that feed on other organisms, belonging to other species. After a complete or near-complete exhaustion of one host organism, a parasite tends and manages to find another, that would supply it with life juices for a successive, albeit also limited, stretch of time.

A hundred years ago Rosa Luxemburg grasped that secret of the eerie, phoenix-like ability of capitalism to rise, repeatedly, from the ashes; an ability that leaves behind a track of devastation – the history of capitalism is marked by the graves of living organisms sucked of their life juices to exhaustion. Luxemburg, however, confined the set of organisms, lined up for the outstanding visits of the parasite, to “pre-capitalist economies” – whose number was limited and steadily shrinking under the impact of the ongoing imperialist expansion.

With each successive visit, another one of those remaining “virgin lands” was converted into a grazing field for capitalist exploitation, and therefore sooner rather than later made unfit for the needs of capitalist “extended reproduction” since no longer promising profits such an expansion required. Thinking along these lines (a fully understandable inclination, given the mostly territorial, extensive rather than intensive, lateral rather than vertical, nature of that expansion 100 years ago), Luxemburg could not but anticipate the natural limits to the conceivable duration of the capitalist system: once all “virgin lands” of the globe are conquered and drawn into the treadmill of capitalist recycling, the absence of new lands for exploitation will portend and eventually enforce the collapse of the system. The parasite will die because of the absence of not-yet-exhausted organisms to feed on.

Today capitalism has already reached the global dimension, or at any rate has come very close to reaching it – a feat that for Luxemburg was still a somewhat distant prospect. Is therefore Luxemburg’s prediction close to fulfilment? I do not think it is. What has happened in the last half a century or so is capitalism learning the previously unknown and unimagined art of producing ever new “virgin lands”, instead of limiting its rapacity to the set of the already existing ones. That new art – made possible by the shift from the “society of producers” to the “society of consumers”, and from the meeting of capital and labour to the meeting of commodity and client as the principal source of “added value” – profit and accumulation consists mostly of the progressive commodification of life functions, market mediation in successive needs’ satisfaction and substituting desire for need in the role of the fly-wheel of the profit-aimed economy.

The current crisis derives from the exhaustion of an artificially created “virgin land”; one built out of the millions stuck in the “culture of saving books” instead of “culture of credit cards”; in other words, out of the millions of people too shy to spend the yet-unearned money, living on credit, taking loans and paying interest. Exploitation of that particular “virgin land” is now by and large over and it has been left now to the politicians to clean up the debris left by the bankers’ feast; that task has been removed from the realm of bankers’ responsibility into the dustbin of “political problems” and recast belatedly from an economic issue into the question of (to quote the German chancellor, Angela Merkel) “political will”. But one is entitled to surmise that in the offices of capitalism hard labour is focused on constructing new “virgin lands” – though also burdened with the curse of fairly limited life expectancy, given the parasitic nature of capitalism.

Capitalism proceeds through creative destruction. What is created is capitalism in a “new and improved” form – and what is destroyed is self-sustaining capacity, livelihood and dignity of its innumerable and multiplied “host organisms” into which all of us are drawn/seduced one way or another.”

It is not entirely hard to see where the new “virgin lands” are: financial products, public education, public finances, and the last few areas not yet ruled by oil and financial capital.

Posted in Globalization, Ideologies, Social Theory | No Comments »

Connell / Dubet Convergence – Why We Need Sociology

October 17, 2011 by and tagged , ,

It is quite interesting that, no the heels of my post on the selection of Francois Dubet as my sociologist of the semester, I have just received my copy of Raewyn Connell’s latest book, Confronting Equality: Gender, Knowledge and Global Change, which deals with exactly the topic of my Dubet post: why we need the social sciences, and especially sociology.

Having just read the introduction to Connell’s book (edited version here, thanks, Mark Bahnisch), the convergence with Dubet’s “manifesto” for sociology is striking, especially considering how different their respective trajectories are:

“We have a global social problem. Ecological crisis and injustice can only be solved by social action and institutional change.

(…)

Across a broad range of other issues, people grappling with practical dilemmas need to understand large-scale social processes. Women in organizations facing the ‘glass ceiling’, teachers troubled about over-surveillance of their work, activists dealing with domestic violence, knowledge workers grappling with marginality, all are stronger if they have reliable knowledge about how the problems arose and why they are intractable.

(…)

We need social science because social processes shape human destinies. If we are to to take control of our future, we need to understand society as much as we need to understand the atmosphere, the earth, and men and women’s bodies.

There are many dubious interpretations of the social world on offer. There is market ideology, where every problem has the same solution – private property and unrestrained markets. There is ‘virtual sociology’ (skewered by Judith Stacey in her recent book Unhitched) where pressure-groups select the research results they like, ignore the ones they don’t, and so present their own prejudices as scientific findings. The most enjoyable pseudoscience is the pop sociology of market research firms: Generation X, Generation Y, the creative class, the mommy track, the metrosexuals, the sensitive new-age guy, the new traditionals, the aspirationals, the sea-changers… The names usually define faintly recognizable types, or at any rate marketing strategies, and the audience in wealthy countries fill in the details for themselves.

Social science is harder. It is slower. Knowledge grows by a collective process of exploration that is complex and uncertain.

(…)

Social practices – including labour, care, and struggle – are endlessly bringing new realities into existence. This is easily said, difficult to keep in mind. It is easier to think of the world as composed of things that we bump against like rocks – a family, a bank, a population, capitalism, patriarchy.

But the storm of time keeps blowing: not only destroying what previously appeared solid, but creating and destroying and creating again. (…) Our collective actions, shaped by social structures precipitated from the past, make the social world we are moving into. And this social world is not a performative illusion, it becomes new fact. Social practice is generative, fecund, rich in real consequences.

This is frightening, as many of the consequences are dire. The last hundred years have generated the most intense moments of violence (Kursk, Hiroshima) and the worst famines in human history, as well as the deepening disaster of climate change. Yet, the same century has seen the greatest-ever increase in literacy and the greatest increase in expectations of life. Huge empires have been dismantled; there has been an unprecedented struggle towards gender equality; there is tremendous cultural inventiveness, even in very poor and disrupted communities.” (2-5)

And like Dubet, Connell equally celebrates the empirical and methodologically-diverse nature of the social sciences.

And Connell, again, mirrors Dubet’s argument:

“For some years sociologists have been debating Michael Burawoy’s (2005) idea of ‘public sociology’. In that debate, public sociology figures as a choice for the social scientists (Clawson et al. 2007). I would put the emphasis the other way around: social science is a necessity for the public. In a world where massive social institutions and social structures shape the fate of huge populations, participatory democracy needs powerful and accurate knowledge about society. Only with this knowledge can collective decisions be made that steer our societies on the dangerous grounds of the future.

I am not suggesting that social science can be a political movement. It is a type of intellectual work, nothing more. But nothing less. It is work which produces a kind of knowledge that has become vital. Clarity and depth of understanding on social issues matter more than ever.” (6)

Somewhat related to this topic, you might want to check Dan Hirshman’s post on 10 things sociologists know that you don’t, as well as Todd Schoepflin’s “letter” to parents of sociology majors.

Otherwise, as the old saying goes, societies: γνώθι σαυτόν.

And let’s all make good use of the Durkheimian injunction to explain the social by the social.

Also: read every Connell book you can get your hands on. Seriously.

Posted in Globalization, Social Theory, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Michael Hardt – The End of Politics as Distraction From The Everyday Exercise of Domination

September 11, 2011 by and tagged ,

Hey kids, remember when intellectual figures were hailed for promoting things like The Clash of Civilizations and The End of History, both self-serving ideological distractions, it has turned out  - although it was clear at the time but these intellectuals were part of the Very Serious People club.

So….

Posted in Ideologies, Social Theory | 1 Comment »

Mary Kaldor: Enmity Follows War

September 5, 2011 by and tagged ,

Posted in New Wars, Social Theory | No Comments »

World-System and Accumulation by Dispossession in One Photo

September 4, 2011 by and tagged ,

Via DJ Academe, originally from here. The cow is the periphery (where the natural resources are), the dude is the semi-periphery and the cats are the core (those who consume and benefit from extraction of natural resources and labor), later, someone will have to clean up the litter box. Needless to say, it won’t be the cats.

Posted in Humor, Social Theory | 2 Comments »

Zygmunt Bauman – “No One Is In Control” as Fear in Liquid Society

September 1, 2011 by

Zygmunt Bauman describes how the fear that no one is in control is a major source of uncertainty, which itself, is the human condition in liquid society, when pretty much nothing is solid anymore.

Posted in Social Theory, 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 »

Legitimation Crisis 2.0

August 8, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Cue London Calling references:

But let us not play clueless here. Things have been brewing for a while in England. Remember the Vodaphone protests? Or the anti-university fees protests?

So, whatever the initial reason for the uprising in Tottenham, it is clear that many of the countries where austerity policies are being imposed from above on the general population are facing socially explosive situations.

Israel:

“About 250,000 Israelis have marched for lower living costs in an escalating protest that has catapulted the economy onto the political agenda and put pressure on the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu planned to name a cabinet-level team on Sunday to address demands by the demonstrators, who in under a month have swollen from a cluster of student tent-squatters into a diffuse, countrywide mobilisation of Israel’s burdened middle class.

Israel projects growth of 4.8% this year at a time of economic stagnation in many western countries, and has relatively low unemployment of 5.7%. But business cartels and wage disparities have kept many citizens from feeling the benefit.

“The People Demand Social Justice” read one of the march banners, which mostly eschewed partisan anti-government messages while confronting Netanyahu’s free-market doctrines.

Police said at least 250,000 people took part in Saturday’s march in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities, a greater turnout than at marches on the two previous weekends.

Demonstrations on such a scale in Israel – which has a population of 7.7 million – have usually been over issues of war and peace. In a Peace Index poll conducted by two Israeli academics, around half of respondents said wage disparities – among the widest of OECD countries – should be the government’s priority, while 18% cited the dearth of affordable housing.”

Chile:

“It began as a series of peaceful protests calling for reform of the Chilean government’s education system, with students staging mass kiss-ins, dressing up in superhero costumes and running laps around the presidential palace. But on Thursday these surreal protests exploded into violence as school and university students clashed with police and seized a TV station, demanding the right to a live broadcast in order to express their demands.

The Chilean winter, as it is being called, appears to have captured the public mood, just as the Arab spring did six months ago.

After a day of street clashes, 874 people had been arrested and department store in the capital was smouldering after being attacked by protesters. Outrage against the rightwing government of Sebastiàn Piñera boiled over, with polls showing he is more unpopular than any leader since the fall of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Striking school students led the charge as they tried to march on the presidential palace early on Thursday, only to be thwarted by hundreds of police in riot gear and clouds of teargas. Tucapel Jiménez, a member of the Chilean congress, called for sanctions against government authorities who authorised what he called “brutal repression” by riot police.

“This is unacceptable, the centre of Santiago is a state of siege,” said university student leader Camila Vallejo, tears rolling down her face after being doused in teargas. “The right to congregate has been violated.”

And one must not forget the protests in Greece and Spain as well as the Arab Spring.

What we see is the global civil society rising up against what is clearly exposed as the alliance of the corporate sector (as opposed to small businesses who are as much on the receiving end of austerity policies) and Western governments (along with global governance institutions, the BCE, etc.). What we are are witnessing, to borrow Habermas’s phrase, is a major crisis of legitimation, where governments are blamed for making everybody pay for the failures and excesses of the financial sectors.

It is not just that national government are complying with corporate demands but that they turn repressive in the process leaving the image of the state-as-institution in cahoots with the wealthy and ready to strike at the slightest sign of process or even anticipating trouble through massive surveillance. The message is clear: dissent will not be tolerated as the whole anti-terror apparatus is used not against terrorists but against cyber-dissenters and protesters:

“DOJ indicted 16 alleged hackers today, 14 of whom were purportedly involved in hacking PayPal after it refused to accept payments for WikiLeaks.

(…)

Now, I’m not surprised DOJ indicted these folks. I’m not arguing that, if they did what DOJ alleged they did, they didn’t commit a crime.

But I can’t help but notice that DOJ has not yet indicted anyone for the DDoS attacks–the very same crime–committed against WikiLeaks 8 days earlier than the crime alleged in this indictment.

I’m guessing DOJ has a very good idea who committed that crime. But for some reason (heh), they haven’t indicted those perpetrators.

In fact, I’ll bet you that DOJ also has a better explanation for why PayPal started refusing WikiLeaks donations on December 4, 2010–two days before this alleged crime–than they describe here.

But we mere citizens are privy to none of that. As far as we know–because of choices about secrecy the government has made–a crime was committed against a media outlet on November 28, 2010. That crime remains unsolved. Indeed, DOJ has never made a peep about solving that crime. Meanwhile, today, 14 people were indicted for allegedly committing the very same crime the government–inexplicably, at least according to its public statements–has not pursued.

According to the public story, at least, the rule of law died with this indictment today. The government has put itself–the hackers it likes, if not employs–above the law, while indicting 14 people for the very same crime committed just weeks before those 14 people allegedly committed their crime.”

And this as well:

“In March this year, more than 150 UK activists were arrested while occupying Fortnum & Mason in a protest against tax avoidance. They were held in cells overnight and charged with aggravated trespass. Earlier this month, the charges against all but 30 were dropped, as it emerged the chief inspector at the store had given protesters assurances they would be allowed to leave the store unhindered.

The incident generated widespread fear about crackdowns on the right to protest, against a backdrop of strikes and protests against government cuts. Similar cries have not occurred in the wake of arrests of individuals allegedly linked to the hacker collectives Anonymous and LulzSec in the UK, United States and Europe.

Yet if the criminalisation of dissent is happening anywhere, it is here.

The maximum penalty the Fortnum & Mason activists faced for aggravated trespass is three months in prison. Participating in even the simplest of hacking operations is punishable by up to 10 years in prison in the UK, and up to 20 years in the US.

Since December, Anonymous and LulzSec have engaged in a series of politically motivated hacks, often in support of WikiLeaks, including attacks taking the Visa and Mastercard websites offline in the wake of the WikiLeaks blockade, a hack on security firm HBGary revealing a proposal to Bank of America to discredit hostile journalists and activists, and attacks against the CIA and the UK’s Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca).”

And, as any reader of Max Weber knows,the most essential monopoly of the state is that of legitimate physical violence. In order to exercise power, the state must have the ability to force compliance with laws and judicial decisions. Ultimately, then, the state monopoly over physical violence is considered legitimate. For Weber, this is the monopoly that all states have in common and it is a considerable resource as it allows the state to enforce all its other monopolies. In most states, violence is not the main means of governance, especially in democracies but it is a means available nonetheless. Indeed, in most societies, except in rare cases of self-defense, most members of society or groups are not allowed to use physical force against others. Only the state, through its agents and specialized institutions (law enforcement and the criminal justice system,) has the right to arrest, incarcerate or even execute. However, for this monopoly over physical force to be considered legitimate, it must be (1) moderate and controlled, and (2) exercised within the limits of the law. If state violence goes beyond these limits, then, it tends to not be considered legitimate by members of society and to trigger adverse reactions against the excesses of the state. Practices of repression (such as kettling) and secret jurisdiction fail on both count. And without legitimacy, violence is just violence.

And in aligning its interests and policies with that of the financial sector (the “banksters”, for short), the state has chosen a partner that has no more legitimacy and has been exposed in all its dysfunctions. Three examples will suffice:

Will Hutton:

“”No major advanced economy is doing anything to promote growth and jobs,” says George Magnus, a senior policy adviser to investment bank UBS. He is right. Wherever you look, it is an economic horror story. Put bluntly, too many key countries – the UK in the forefront, with private debt an amazing three and half times its GDP, but followed by Japan, Spain, France, Italy, the US and even supposedly saint-like Germany – have accumulated too much private debt that cannot be repaid unless there is exceptional global growth.

(…)

The markets’ reaction is made worse by herd effects – magnified by the many instruments, so-called financial derivatives, that have been invented supposedly to hedge and lower risks but which in truth are little more than casino chips. Long-term saving institutions such as insurance companies and pension funds now routinely lend their shares – for a fee – to anybody who wants to use them for speculative purposes. The financial system has become a madhouse – a mechanism to maximise volatility, fear and uncertainty. There is nobody at the wheel. Adult supervision is conspicuous by its absence.

What is required is a paradigm shift in the way we think and act. The idea transfixing the west is that governments get in the way of otherwise perfectly functioning markets and that the best capitalism – and financial system – is that best left to its own devices. Governments must balance their books, guarantee price stability and otherwise do nothing.

This is the international common sense, but has been proved wrong in both theory and in practice. Financial markets need governments to provide adult supervision. Good capitalism needs to be fashioned and designed. Financial orthodoxy can sometimes, especially after credit crunches, be entirely wrong. Once that Rubicon has been crossed, a new policy agenda opens up. The markets need the prospect of sustainable growth, along with sustainable private and public debt.”

Ha-Joon Chang:

“The debate focuses on how budget deficits should be controlled, with the dominant view saying that they need to be cut quickly and mainly through reduction in welfare spending, while its critics argue for further short-term fiscal stimuli and longer-term deficit reduction relying more on tax increases.

While this debate is crucial, it should not distract us from the urgent need to reform our financial system, whose dysfunctionality lies at the heart of this crisis. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the rating agencies, whose incompetence and cynicism have become evident following the 2008 crisis, if not before. Despite this, we have done nothing about them, and as a result we are facing absurdities today – European periphery countries have to radically rewrite social contracts at the dictates of these agencies, rather than through democratic debates, while the downgrading of US treasuries has increased the demands for them as “safe haven” products.

Was this inevitable? Hardly. We could have created a public rating agency (a UN agency funded by member states?) that does not charge for its service and thus can be more objective, thereby providing an effective competition to the current oligopoly of Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch. If the regulators had decided to become less reliant on their ratings in assessing the soundness of financial institutions, we would have weakened their undue influence. For the prevention of future financial crises we should have demanded greater transparency from the rating agencies – while changing their fee structure, in which they are paid by those firms that want to have their financial products rated. But these options weren’t seriously contemplated.

Another example of financial reforms whose neglect comes back to haunt us is the introduction of internationally agreed rules on sovereign bankruptcy. In resolving the European sovereign debt crises, one of the greatest obstacles has been the refusal by bondholders to bear any burden of adjustments, talking as if such a proposal goes against the basic rules of capitalism. However, the principle that the creditor, as well as the debtor, pays for the consequences of an unsuccessful loan is already in full operation at another level in all capitalist economies.

When companies go bankrupt, creditors also have to take a hit – by providing debt standstill, writing off some debts, extending their maturities, or reducing the interest rates charged. The proposal to introduce the same principle to deal with sovereign bankruptcy has been around at least since the days of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. However, this issue was tossed aside because the rich country governments, under the influence of their financial lobbies, would not have it.

There are other financial reforms whose absence has not yet come back to haunt us in a major way but will do so in the future. The most important of these is the regulation of complex financial products. Despite the widespread agreement that these are what have made the current crisis so large and intractable, we have done practically nothing to regulate them. The usual refrain is that these products are too complicated to regulate. But then why not simply ban products whose safety cannot be convincingly demonstrated, as we do with drugs?

Nothing has been done to regulate tax havens, which not only depriven governments of tax revenues but also make financial regulations more difficult. Once again, we could have eliminated or significantly weakened tax havens by simply declaring that all transactions with companies registered in countries/territories that do not meet the minimum regulatory standards are illegal.

And what have we done to change the perverse incentive structure in the financial industry, which has encouraged excessive risk-taking? Practically nothing, except for a feeble bonus tax in the UK.

A correct fiscal policy by itself cannot tackle the structural problems that have brought about the current crisis. It can only create the space in which we make the real reforms, especially financial reform.”

David Harvie and Keir Milburn:

“Neoliberalism no longer “makes sense”, but its logic keeps stumbling on, without conscious direction, like a zombie: ugly, persistent and dangerous. Such is the “unlife” of a zombie, a body stripped of its goals, unable to adjust itself to the future, unable to make plans. It can only act habitually as it pursues a monomaniacal hunger. Unless there is a dramatic recomposition of society, we face the prospect of decades of drift as the crises we face – economic, social, environmental – remain unresolved. But where will that recomposition come from when we are living in the world of zombie-liberalism?

In the midst of such hopelessness the phone-hacking scandal seemed to offer a moment of redemption, but as the news cycle moves on we are left wondering what effect it will really have.

Hackgate cannot be treated in isolation. Since the financial “meltdown” of 2007-08 we have witnessed similar scenes, and similar outrage, around MPs’ expenses and bankers’ bonuses. We have witnessed not one but two media feeding frenzies around the repression of protest. The first followed the police attack on the G20 protests in 2009 and the death of Ian Tomlinson, with the second erupting around the outing of undercover police officer Mark Kennedy, leading to the unprecedented unmasking of another five undercover police officers acting within the environmental and anti-capitalist movements. The refusal of the Metropolitan police to investigate the full extent of phone hacking is, then, the third scandal revealing the political character of contemporary policing.

The phone-hacking scandal, and particularly the web of complicity revealed in its cover-up, is undoubtedly more significant than some of these other scandals, but positioning it among them allows us to raise a question that has rarely been asked: why now?

The answer is inescapable: we are living through something epochal. These scandals are part of a more general social and economic crisis sparked by the financial crisis. What’s less clear is the exact nature of the relationship between crisis and scandals, and therefore the scandals’ political significance.

Hackgate reveals the mechanisms of a network of corruption whose broad outlines were already understood. What we see, however, is not a distortion of an otherwise functional system but one element of a system that can only operate through such corrupt mechanisms. What we are seeing, through its moment of decomposition, are the parochial arrangements through which neoliberalism was established in the UK.

Neoliberal governance has common traits across the planet. But its instantiation in each country has been shaped by the peculiarities of that country’s history. In each, a different (re)arrangement emerged between sections of the ruling class that would enable the imposition of neoliberal policies on populations that, on the whole, didn’t want them.

Rupert Murdoch, and the tabloid culture he helped to establish, was central to this process in the UK, not least with the defeat of the print unions at Wapping. Other elements of that compact include a Thatcherite Conservative party and a neoliberalised Labour party, a highly politicised police force and, especially after 1986′s big bang deregulation of the stock market, the dominance of finance capital. It is no coincidence each of these elements has been racked with scandal in the past few years.

Neoliberalism, however, requires more than the internal realignment of a national ruling class. Every semi-stable form of capitalism also needs some sort of settlement with the wider population, or at least a decisive section of it. While the postwar Keynesian settlement contained an explicit deal linking rising real wages to rising productivity, neoliberalism contained an implicit deal based on access to cheap credit. While real wages have stagnated since the late 1970s, the mechanisms of debt have maintained most people’s living standards. An additional part of neoliberalism’s tacit deal was the abandonment of any pretence to democratic, collective control over the conditions of life: politics has been reduced to technocratic rule. Instead, individuals accepted the promise that, through hard work, shrewd educational and other “life” choices, and a little luck, they – or their children – would reap the benefits of economic growth.

The financial crisis shattered the central component of this deal: access to cheap credit. Living standards can no longer be supported and, for the first time in a century, there is widespread fear that children will lead poorer lives than their parents. With the deal broken, parochial ruling arrangements in the UK have started to lose coherence.

The scandals, therefore, are symptoms not of renewal but rather of neoliberalism’s zombie status. The scandals represent the zombie’s body decomposing even as it continues its habitual operation.”

It is indeed ironic that neoliberals have been harping for the last three decades on the need for a flexible workforce, for the need for individual adaptation to market diktats against agents of stability (seen as bad and archaic) such as unions and anyone reluctant to embrace the brave new world of work. And yet, neoliberals are the most rigid people in their thinking and policy-making. The policies they demand are always the same, albeit with different names. But whether one calls one’s preferred policies austerity, shock therapy or structural adjustment, it is the same model imposed the world over, with the same disastrous consequences: people on the streets, repressed by failing states whose main functions are now to appease the financial sector through continuation of the Great Risk Shift, cool the mark out, and failing that, good old-fashioned repression (and then, you can use prison labor as the ultimate flexible workforce).

And the article mentioned above does emphasize the role of the cultural and information industries in the neoliberal project as well as its dark underbelly. But what is also striking is the lack of accountability all around while making other people pay in a variety of ways:

As Ian Welsh has mentioned many times, in the US, the only acceptable form of stimulus is military spending. indeed, this matches Michael Mann’s prescient view of the US based on his typology of power: a military giant, an economic backseat driver, a political schizophrenic and an ideological phantom. Hence, there has to be a next war (except, they won’t be called wars because that does not sound very nice) because that is all the political class accepts and understands. File that under the militarization of everything:

“The United States is expanding its role in Mexico’s bloody fight against drug trafficking organizations, sending new C.I.A. operatives and retired military personnel to the country and considering plans to deploy private security contractors in hopes of turning around a multibillion-dollar effort that so far has shown few results.

In recent weeks, small numbers of C.I.A. operatives and American civilian military employees have been posted at a Mexican military base, where, for the first time, security officials from both countries work side by side in collecting information about drug cartels and helping plan operations. Officials are also looking into embedding a team of American contractors inside a specially vetted Mexican counternarcotics police unit.

Officials on both sides of the border say the new efforts have been devised to get around Mexican laws that prohibit foreign military and police from operating on its soil, and to prevent advanced American surveillance technology from falling under the control of Mexican security agencies with long histories of corruption.

(…)

The United States has trained nearly 4,500 new federal police agents and assisted in conducting wiretaps, running informants and interrogating suspects. The Pentagon has provided sophisticated equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters, and in recent months it has begun flying unarmed surveillance drones over Mexican soil to track drug kingpins.”

And in case it’s not clear enough:

“Several Mexican and American security analysts compared the challenges of helping Mexico rebuild its security forces and civil institutions — crippled by more than seven decades under authoritarian rule — to similar tests in Afghanistan. They see the United States fighting alongside a partner it needs but does not completely trust.

(…)

When violence spiked last year around Mexico’s industrial capital, Monterrey, Mr. Calderón’s government asked the United States for more access to sophisticated surveillance technology and expertise. After months of negotiations, the United States established an intelligence post on a northern Mexican military base, moving Washington beyond its traditional role of sharing information to being more directly involved in gathering it.

American officials declined to provide details about the work being done by the American team of fewer than two dozen Drug Enforcement Administration agents, C.I.A. officials and retired military personnel members from the Pentagon’s Northern Command. For security reasons, they asked The New York Times not to disclose the location of the compound.

But the officials said the compound had been modeled after “fusion intelligence centers” that the United States operates in Iraq and Afghanistan to monitor insurgent groups, and that the United States would strictly play a supporting role.”

So, in more and more countries, the nasty mechanisms of the neoliberal state – reduced to its repressive functions on behalf of financial interests – are being exposed, should we really be surprised that the world is catching fire? (Well, except the US for reasons already discussed) It still remains to be seen whether the much-vaunted civil society is up to the challenge.

Posted in Corporatism, Economy, Global Governance, Globalization, Politics, Power, Public Policy, Risk Society, Social Theory, Sociology, Structural Violence | No Comments »

Cooling The Mark Out 2.0

August 1, 2011 by and tagged ,

With apologies to Erving Goffman for liberties taken with his now-classic essay. But seriously, if you have been paying attention to the debt ceiling “crisis of the past few weeks, this will resonate:

In cases of criminal fraud, victims find they must suddenly adapt themselves to the loss of sources of security and status which they had taken for granted. A consideration of this adaptation to loss can lead us to an understanding of some relations in our society between involvements and the selves that are involved. In the argot of the criminal world, the term “mark” refers to any individual who is a victim or prospective victim of certain forms of planned illegal exploitation. The mark is the sucker‑the person who is taken in. An instance of the operation of any particular racket, taken through the full cycle of its steps or phases, is sometimes called a play. The persons who operate the racket and “take” the mark are occasionally called operators.

The confidence game‑the con, as its practitioners call it‑is a way of obtaining money under false pretenses by the exercise of fraud and deceit. The con differs from politer forms of financial deceit in important ways. The con is practiced on private persons by talented actors who methodically and regularly build up informal social relationships just for the purpose of abusing them; white‑collar crime is practiced on organizations by persons who learn to abuse positions of trust which they once filled faithfully. The one exploits, poise; the other, position. Further, a con man is someone who accepts a social role in the underworld community; he is part of a brotherhood whose members make no pretense to one another of being “legit.” A white‑collar criminal, on the other hand, has no colleagues, al­though he may have an associate with whom he plans his crime and a wife to whom he confesses it.

The con is said to be a good racket in the United States only because most Americans are willing, nay eager, to make easy money, and will engage in action that is less than legal in order to do so The typical play has typical phases. The potential sucker is first spotted and one member of the working team (called the outside man, steerer, or roper) arranges to make social contact with him. The confidence of the mark is won, and he is given an opportunity to invest his money in a gambling venture which he understands to have been fixed in his favor The venture, of course, is fixed, but not in his favor. The mark is permitted to win some money and then persuaded to invest more. There is an “accident” or “mistake,” and the mark loses his total investment. The operators then depart in a ceremony that is called the blowoff or sting. They leave the mark but take his money. The mark is expected to go on his way, a little wiser and a lot poorer.”

Let me argue that a big con has just been accomplished in which the American people is the mark and the political class constitutes the operators on behalf of larger financial interest. The venture was investment in “Obama” as brand, the chance to be part of a transformative movement larger than oneself. That venture, of course, was fixed. The marks won a little (Lilly Ledbetter), in order to keep investing (the pro-LGBT legislations are also part of that).

But as Goffman continues, sometimes, the mark is not happy with being fleeced and that can mean trouble for the operators and the higher interests they serve. There is then a need to cool the mark down:

“One of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his team‑mates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation. An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.”

That would be a variety of media commentators and the swarms of supporters online and on various social media sites providing all sorts of rationalizations: “Obama couldn’t do anything”, “it’s really the GOP’s fault”, “this is the best possible deal under the circumstances”, etc. And there are, of course, retroactive rationalizations for having supported the con from the get-go: “who could have guessed?”:

“It is well known that persons protect themselves with all kinds of rationalizations when they have a buried image of themselves which the facts of their status do not support. A person may tell himself many things: that he has not been given a fair chance; that he is not really interested in becoming something else; that the time for showing his mettle has not yet come; that the usual means of realizing his desires are personally or morally distasteful, or require too much dull effort. By means of such defenses, a person saves himself from committing a cardinal social sin‑the sin of defining oneself in terms of a status while lacking the qualifications which an incumbent of that status is supposed to possess.

A mark’s participation in a play, and his investment in it, clearly commit him in his own eyes to the proposition that he is a smart man. The process by which he comes to believe that he cannot lose is also the process by which he drops the de­fenses and compensations that previously protected him from defeats. When the blowoff comes, the mark finds that he has no defense for not being a shrewd man. He has defined himself as a shrewd man and must face the fact that he is only an­other easy mark. He has defined himself as possessing a certain set of qualities and then proven to himself that he is miser­ ably lacking in them. This is a process of self‑destruction of the self. It is no won­der that the mark needs to be cooled out and that it is good business policy for one of the operators to stay with the mark in order to talk him into a point of view from which it is possible to accept a loss.”

And rationalizations are also used from the perspective of the operators:

“One may also note that coolers in service organizations tend to view their own activity in a light that softens the harsher details of the situation. The cooler protects himself from feelings of guilt by arguing that the customer is not really in need of the service he expected to receive, that bad service is not really deprivational, and that beefs and complaints are a sign of bile, not a sign of injury. In a similar way, the con man protects himself from remorseful images of bankrupt marks by arguing that the mark is a fool and not a full‑fledged person, possessing an inclination towards illegal gain but not the decency to admit it or the capacity to succeed at it.”

See all the accusations from Obama supporters to critics that they would never be happy anyway, and there is no pleasing them.

Goffman mentions all different ways of cooling the mark out based on different social settings in order to avoid a blowout, an explosion. So, in our present case, how do you prevent a social explosion? Well, this article offers eight reasons (cooling strategies) why young people in the US have not taken to the streets to protest a system (con) which is offering them an upcoming lost decade:

  1. Student-loan debt
  2. Psychopathologizing and medicating non-compliance (see the new DSM V and here as well)
  3. Schools that educate for compliance and not for democracy
  4. No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top
  5. Shaming young people who take education—but not their schooling—seriously
  6. Normalization of surveillance
  7. Television + media
  8. Fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist consumption

Consider this all different ways of cooling the mark out for the global and digital age. So far, it’s working and the con game continues.

Posted in Social Interaction, Social Theory, Sociology | 3 Comments »

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