License

Blogroll

Search

Archive for Terrorism

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 »

Zygmunt Bauman – The Titanic Syndrome

November 1, 2010 by and tagged , , , ,

Zygmunt Bauman in the Social Europe Journal, on the foiled terrorist attempt from Yemen:

“There will be a spate of brand new security measures designed and promptly put in place, new spying techniques developed and supported by newly produced technical devices, and “new and improved” regime of airport checks and searches introduced. To pay for all and each of those measures, new commissions will fill the order books of security companies, while new holes will be burrowed in state budgets as well as in the funds earmarked to meet urgent social, cultural and educational needs of the nations. Two “highly sophisticated” bombs have been intercepted. To seize the uncounted and uncountable numbers of their not-yet-produced replicas, millions of new “yet more highly sophisticated” contraptions and thousands of their operators will be needed. As always since the discovery of the self-beefing up escalation of security expenditures that is now proving to be the most seminal and lasting heritage of the cold war, the stables will be overhauled at a cost dwarfing the price of the horse(s) that bolted.

Not only the generals are prone to always fight the last victorious war, and the current “war against terrorism” (I am sorry for adopting that oxymoron, for the lack of another accepted, publicly recognizable name) is in some crucial and most seminal respects a repetition of the cold one. The combatants, the weapons and modes of military actions have changed – but not the strategic doxa, logic and above all the in-built mechanism of exponential self-escalation (I guess that precisely such an expectation was the hub of Bin Laden’s war plan).

It was the permanent feature of cold-war battles not to be fought in the field. New weapons were produced on a steadily rising pace not in order to be used in action, but to render the weapons stocked by the enemy useless and force the enemy to replace them with new ones, forcing thereby one’s own warehouses to be emptied and the suppliers to refill them. The story repeats itself now. With every step probability grows that the ending will be also repeated. The cold war, remember, ended with one of the players in the rearmament game going impoverished and bankrupt. Imploding, not having been exploded…”

Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Fear (2006):

“The ‘titanic Syndrome’ is the horror of falling through the ‘wafer-thin crust’ of civilization into that nothingness stripped of the ‘elementary staples of organized civilized life’ (‘civilized’ precisely because ‘organized’ – routine, predictable, balancing the signposting with the behavioural repertoire). Falling singly or in company, but in each case being evicted from a world where ‘elementary staples’ go on being supplied and there is a holding power that can be counted on.” (17)

Think about this in the context of economic collapse and the anticipated results of tomorrow’s US election and you get indeed a better sense that we are treading on the “wafer-thin crust” of civilization.

Let me quote Bauman some more:

“The principal (though silent) actor in the Titanic story, as we know, was the iceberg. But it wasn’t the iceberg waiting ‘out there’ in an ambush, that was the horror that made the story stand out among the multitude of similar horror / disaster stories. That horror was all that mayhem that happened ‘in here’, in the bowels of the luxurious liner: like, for instance, the lack of any sensible or workable plan to evacuate and save the passengers of a sinking ship, or the acute shortage of lifeboats and lifebelts – something for which the iceberg ‘out there’, in the pitch of a sub-Arctic night, served only as a catalyst and litmus paper rolled into one. That ‘something’ which ‘always lies below’ below but waits until we jump into the freezing sub-Arctic waters to be faced with it point-blank. Something all the more horrifying for staying concealed most of the time (perhaps all the time) and so taking its victims by surprise whenever it crawls out of its lair, always catching them unprepared and inept to respond.” 917)

This makes me thing of the past 30 years of systematic structural violence that have marked the triumph of neoliberalism, culminating now in a nasty combination of still-structural violence (the mortgage crisis and its social consequences) and interpersonal violence incarnated by nasty social movements such as the Tea Party. As Bauman notes, political responses to either form of violence (and the further structural and interpersonal violence to come) have been inept, if not complicit or aimed at keeping that ‘something’ concealed.

Posted in Risk Society, Social Theory, Sociology, Surveillance Society, Terrorism | No Comments »

Book Review – Brave New War

October 8, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

BNW John Robb ‘s Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and The End of Globalization (Global Guerrillas Blog) adds a few concepts to the topic of new wars and the changing nature of warfare. At the same time, for those of us who have studied the changing nature of warfare and are familiar with the writings of people like Mary Kaldor or Herfried Munkler, there is a lot that is neither new nor original.

At the same time, John Robb’s perspective is different Kaldor’s or Munkler’s because he has worked in intelligence and counterinsurgency. His first hand experience in this field provides interesting insights as well as some issues.

Let me get out of the way the things I did not really like in the book. I think the author has a tendency to latch on to easily on all the fashionable concepts of the day: black swans, long tails, etc. And the author’s contention regarding resilient communities (the author’s idea of empowered communities able to resist oppression and terrorism) smells a bit too much of the fetishism of the local for my taste. Again, the local is not an automatic equivalent to empowered autonomy and resistance.

Things get a lot more interesting when we delve into the changing nature of terrorism and conflict in the global context. Specifically, Robb argues that one of the strengths of insurgent groups, such as the ones in Iraq is their open-source networked nature that lacks a clear center for greater flexibility. This has allowed for smooth and flexible connections between terrorist groups and organized criminal networks and these connections permeate the global economy.

According to Robb, the Iraq insurgency is the future of insurgency and terrorism with a new method: systems disruption: the disruption of basic services that are essential to smooth societal functioning and whose disruption damages the legitimacy of governments and nation-states. One problem here: this is not new. This used to be the tactic adopted by white African groups (the Executive Outcomes type) again newly independent African nations. To attack power plants and water treatment centers repeatedly would force these new governments to spend enormous resources rebuilding them. And if it led to government failure, then, it would prove that Africans were unable to govern themselves.

However, one can clearly see, as the author argues, the rise of “virtual states” in the sense of “superempowered groups” who can challenge national governments (and, I would say, especially, failed states) and connect to other groups and criminal organizations through ICTs. Which is why many peripheral conflicts are not fought between states but between a mix of sub-national actors dedicated to system disruption.

“This new method of warfare offers clear improvement (for our enemies) over traditional terrorism and military insurgency. It offers guerrillas the means to bring a modern nation’s economy to its knees and thereby undermine the legitimacy of the state sworn to protect it. Furthermore, it can derail the key drivers of economic globalization: the flow of resources, investment, people, and security. The perpetrators of this new form of warfare, however, aren’t really terrorists, because they no longer have terror as their goal or method. A better term might be global guerrillas, because they represent a broad-based threat that far exceeds that offered by terrorists or the guerrillas of our past.” (14-5)

But global guerrillas are not only distinctive because of system disruption. Their organizing structure – the decentralized network – is also a specificity, as opposed to hierarchies. These global guerrillas are main actors in what Robb calls fourth generation warfare (4GW), the first three being

  • Mass warfare: use of massive firepower on clear conflict fields, such as the Napoleonic wars or the US Civil War.
  • Industrial warfare: wearing down of the opposing state through greater mobilization and firepower, such as World War I.
  • Blitzkrieg: taking down of an enemy army and state through maneuvers, deep penetration and disruption, such as World War II (I would argue that WWII was also industrial warfare).

And here, Robb was prescient:

“The use of systems disruption as a method of strategic warfare has the potential to cast the United States in the role that the Soviet Union held during the 1980s – a country driven to bankruptcy by a foe it couldn’t compete with economically. We are staring at a future where defeat isn’t experienced all at once, but through an inevitable withering away of military, economic, and political power and through wasting conflicts with minor foes.” (32)

As an aside, this is something Michael Mann had already written about in Incoherent Empire.

The issue I have then is the supposed big discovery of the changing nature of warfare (decentralization, networks, etc.) as if this were the first book about this. Seriously, Mary Kaldor is not even mentioned or referenced even though she wrote the book (literally) on New Wars. And P.W. Singer and others have also written quite extensively about the de-nationalization of warfare and the emergence of non-state actors and their prevalence in contemporary conflicts. And it has been long known that these global guerrillas and global criminal networks have been pretty savvy with ICTs.

Robb also argues that global guerrillas be distributed according to the long tail model (as opposed to Gaussian distribution).

There are several reasons for this:

(1) War is cheap. The barriers of entry due to costs have declined considerably and one can conduct warfare with AK-47s and child soldiers at really low costs (which create some incentives).

(2) Also, the decentralization of warfare and system disruption mean that small events can create massive costs for the injured party.

(3) Networking technologies allow for a “long shelf life” on ideas driving the guerrillas whose number don’t have to be large. Social networking allows like-minded people to easily find each other. Here, I would add that the strength of weak ties is also relevant as absolute consensus and strong ties are not necessary for a global guerrilla to be operational (and for someone so in love with concepts, I am surprised – disappointed – that Robb did not consider that one).

So, beyond the Iraq insurgency groups, who would count as a global guerrilla? Robb mentions the Chechen guerrilla as well as the Niger Delta movement or the Balochs in Pakistan. How do states fight back against guerrillas that are so adept at asymmetrical warfare? Robb mentions the use of paramilitaries including the US minutemen. And here is another source of annoyance for me:

“Armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weaponry and survival gear, this paramilitary force has formed organically to police the U.S.-Mexican border.

Though many Americans have lamented their existence, few have tried to explain it.” (87)

Really? I guess David Neiwert has not been writing about all this for years now, and showing how such movement has not arisen “organically”. And Robb displays a disturbing respect for these paramilitary groups (including those the US used in Central America) even as he acknowledged their corruption and human rights abuse. It is unconscionable to me to legitimize their use.

Also included in the global guerrillas category are what Robb calls third generation gangs (3GG).

  • First generation: turf protection, unsophisticated leadership, opportunistic petty crime.
  • Second generation: organized around business and financial gain; broader geographical footprint, violence used for intimidation of commercial competition and against government interference.
  • Third generation: global, sophisticated transnational operations, political control in failed government and state areas, high interference in state function.

“Third generation gangs fit the model of global guerrillas perfectly. They operate, coordinate, and expand globally. They communicate worldwide without state restriction, often via the Internet. They engage in transnational crime. They participate in fourth-generation warfare, and their activities disrupt national and international systems. Finally, they coerce, replace, or fail states that stand in their way. In all these categories, they parallel the development of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Like Al-Qaeda, these gangs are rivals of nation-states.” (93)

All these groups engage in system disruption as main tactic, targeting specifically (or trying to) what Robb calls Systempunkt, the crucial point in a system whose disruption can create system collapse. These may be economic or infrastructural. Anything whose disruption will trigger a collapse in global flows (Appadurai’s scapes) is such a Systempunkt. In the current context, one could argue that global guerrillas are not the only ones who can engage in such system disruption. “Legitimate” economic actors seem to do so as well.

For global guerrillas, then the structuring in scale-free, decentralized and flexible networks allows for capillary kinds of disruptions (Foucault’s micro-power) that can trigger cascading failures, as opposed to coordinated yet non-networked attacks of former generation terrorist groups.

Finally, the last characteristic of global guerrillas is open-source warfare (OSW):

“In OSW, the source code of warfare is available for anyone who is interested in both modifying and extending it. This means the tactics, weapons, strategies, target selection, planning, methods, and team dynamics are all open to community improvement. Global guerrillas can hack at the source of warfare to their heart’s content” (116)

As with open-source software, the main characteristics are as follows:

  • Early release and continuous updates
  • Constant problem solving through community sharing
  • Community members as allies and co-developers rather than competitors
  • Simplicity and easy adaptability of solutions

OSW is one big bazaar of warfare solutions.

I have already mentioned above and throughout this pose the issues I had with the book. I would add that there is too much conflation of security = protection of assets and defense of the capitalist system as it is (or whatever is left of it at this point). Too much defense of paramilitary seen as legitimate actors. And not enough recognition of the work done before on this topic. Some of the ideas in the book are useful in terms of conceptualization but there is too much grasping of fashionable concepts from a variety of fields.

That being said, the book is a quick an interesting read and I would recommend also bookmarking the blog (link above). But I would also say: go read Mary Kaldor first.

Posted in Book Reviews, Failed States, Global Guerrillas, Globalization, Hollow States, Mass Violence, Nationalism, Networks, New Wars, Organized Crime, Religious Fundamentalism, Risk Society, Social Change, Technology, Terrorism | No Comments »

Terrorism as Social Class Phenomenon

January 1, 2010 by and tagged , , ,

Via Lambert over at Corrente, NYCWeboy (who should be on everyone’s regular reading list) has a point:

Terrorism as luxury problem… funny how that is hardly ever discussed.. because it’s assumed that the behavior of the upper-middle classes are the norm and if what they do is the subject of terrorist threats, then, that means America is under terrorist threat.

It is the beauty of social privileges to be taken seriously. What threatens you is a serious threat that deserves the full resources of the state.

And as for the potential terrorists themselves? Not peasants picked up on the mountains of Afghanistan. Nope, often, Europe-educated engineers from wealthy families from various parts of the Middle East or from immigrant background in Europe.

Besides, most of the trappings of the surveillance society are directed at the lower classes or higher classes but mostly as consumers (as Lyon and Wacquant have repeatedly shown).

Posted in Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociology, Terrorism | 6 Comments »

Two Tales of The Patriarchy

November 25, 2009 by and tagged , , ,

Both involve the issue of control of women’s lives in the context of patriarchal religion.

First:

Note the very patriarchal photograph. The article itself is interesting in that it reveals a mix of religious fundamentalism and nationalism. The women themselves may reclaim suicide terrorism as a form of regaining control over their own lives but it is clear that these operatives function completely under the control of men… only to be arrested by more men (the smiling guys in the photo) when they fail to blow themselves up. Moreover, as the article notes, it is only once the US and Iraqi military started suspecting pretty much every man of being a potential suicide bomber that the insurgent groups turned to women.

Another ultimately futile attempt at regaining control has to do with the ever-so-important-to-the-patriarchy virginity of girls… Meet the artificial hymen, made in China:

In both cases, ultimately, these women end up submitting to the patriarchy.

In case you’re wondering:

http://blairwaldorfs.tumblr.com/post/213215425/no-more-worry-about-losing-your-virginity-with

Artificial Hymen Kit via kwout

Posted in Gender, Nationalism, Patriarchy, Religious Fundamentalism, Terrorism | No Comments »

Book Review – Scapegoats of September 11th

October 4, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I picked up Michael Welch‘s Scapegoats of September 11th – Hate Crimes & State Crimes in The War on Terror based on Todd Krohn’s recommendation (He’s made Welch his Sociologist of the Semester). In this book, Welch retraces the emergence of the discourse that emerged after 9/11 that ultimately materialized into the apparatus of the War on Terror, grounded in religious dichotomy of good versus evil, and provided the basis for scapegoating. Such scapegoating had very real consequences in terms of both domestic and foreign policy: hate crimes, profiling, erosion of privacy and civil liberties, torture, renditions and other state crimes. Welch then analyzes both these policies and the discourse sustaining them.

Welch is a criminologist, so there is a lot in the book about the legislative and legal work that went into the crafting of the whole GWOT apparatus. There is a lot that is not new at this point in the book. A lot of “ink” has been spilled detailing the gory details of the Bush administration policies, and their continuation under the Obama administration. Similarly, several books have been written on the whole torture / rendition issue.

The strongest aspect of the book, in my view, lies in Welch’s mobilizing sociological and social-psychological theories and concepts to address the larger cultural aspects of the GWOT, and how the administration was successful in building up cultural support for its policies and creating a culture of denial, facilitating scapegoating. This is what I will focus on.

“Scapegoating involves displacing aggression onto innocent people selected as suitable enemies due to their perceived differences in race, ethnicity, religion and so on. As a social psychological defense mechanism against confronting the real source of frustration, scapegoating provides emotional relief for people racked with fear and anxiety. That solace inevitably short-term, prompting scapegoaters to step on a treadmill of endless bigotry and victimization.” (4)

Welch argues that after 9/11, there was indeed quite a bit of scapegoating against Muslim men and the level of hate crime against Muslims in the US increased significantly. Sometimes, it was cheered on by right-wing talk radio (the usual suspects, the same “Obama is a Muslim” crowd). This was accompanied by more systematic policy of rounding up Muslim men by the Department of Homeland Security. In that logic, Muslim man = terrorist prevailed both discursively and institutionally.

Similarly, Welch argues that the reaction to 9/11 can be best explained through the lenses of both moral panic framework and that of risk society:

“Moral panic, simply put, marks a turbulent and exaggerated response to a perceived social problem whereby there is considerable concern and consensus that such a problem actually exists. Blame is then shifted to suitable villains who absorb societal hostility. Along the way, the perceived threat exceeds proportionate risks, forming a disaster mentality from which it is widely believed that something must be done urgently or else society faces a greater doom.” (13)

Therefore, according to Welch, there are four elements of moral panic:

  • Concern
  • Consensus
  • Hostility
  • Disproportionality

Moral panics tend to be fairly circumscribed in time. They are specific events, with a beginning and an end. They are not perceived as systemic issues but as moral tales of good and evil. Risk society, on the other hand, establishes that the risks that are the conditions of the post-industrial, information age, are systemic risks. They are less moral in nature, less easily framed in terms of good and evil. Less conducive to scapegoating. Moral panics call for punishment of the scapegoats. Risk society would call for systemic reform that would call into question the social, economic and political arrangements of the global system (hence the hot potato attitude that prevails then). Which is why powerful actors (politics and media) may be seen as cheering on moral panics (calling for drastic policy and keeping the panic alive) while trying to calming things down on global risks (don’t run to the bank when it looks like we’re going into economic recession, don’t sell your stocks).

In the case of 9/11, the dominant theme that emerged and eclipsed all the other is that of safety and security. What can make America secure and Americans safe. For Welch, security and safety became the major sites of social anxiety (a major precondition for moral panic). But this fits very well as well with the risk society approach where risks are man-made (terrorism) and the solution is neither clear nor clear-cut: what is security, after all? What is safety? And the solutions are not easy either: it is impossible to eliminate terrorism from the face of the earth. Not only that but the risk of terrorism it self is unpredictable and incalculable.

The GWOT shares elements of both moral panic and risk society but they operate at different levels and trigger different reaction as mentioned above. They are both sources of social anxiety. Moral panics are sites of social anxiety because the political and media organizations amplify the actual dangers. Risk society is a source of social anxiety because the risks themselves may be invisible and unpredictable. How does one protect oneself against that? The need for security and safety then presents a political opportunity for “tough on (whatever)” political attitude and rhetoric. There was no shortage of that in the Bush administration and their cultural cheerleaders (think Toby Keith and others).

Institutionally speaking, the need for security and safety makes possible the unquestioned (and unquestionable) emergence of the homeland security-industrial complex (the latest version of the military-industrial complex, then the corrections-industrial complex) composed of

  • Private corporations
  • Government agencies
  • Professional organization

And that is alongside the intelligence-industrial complex. Both benefit financially (corporations) or in terms of institutional power (government agencies) or respectability for expertise (professional organizations) from the state of anxiety.

Scapegoating, of course, is one way in which individuals and groups try to regain control over their safety in the absence of clear solution to the risks  to which they are exposed. Social anxiety prepares the ground for the type of “frustration / aggression” that precedes scapegoating, as many social-psychological studies have shown. Scapegoating is even easier if the targeted group can be seen as “different”, “not as human” (Erikson’s process of “pseudo-speciation”). This also involves the classical Authoritarian Personality theory.

Both theories are adequate to explain scapegoating. Sociologists are equally interested in the consequences of scapegoating, increased in-group solidarity, sense of belonging and superiority and denial of one’s responsibility for the problems. It is therefore not uncommon to see disasters turned into morality plays with heroes and villains, leading to punitive policies, and more generally, a punitive culture, as is the case in the US where more and more behavior come under criminal sanctions and where incarceration levels are the highest in the world. This also leads to a culture of control where the only the consequences of crime matter, rather than its causes. It is simply assumed that criminals are “different”, “not like law-abiding citizens”. Not considerations is given to structural factors.

And when one adds fundamentalist religion to the mix, when social problems are formulated in religious terms, when the GWOT is posited as a crusade, then the risk of scapegoating is increased. It is then not surprising to find an increase in hate crimes directed at the scapegoated religious group.

“In Justice and The Politics of Difference, Iris Marion Young (1990) identifies five ‘faces of oppression’ that generally typify experiences of minority groups” exploitation (e.g., employment segregation); marginalization (e.g., impoverishment); powerlessness (e.g., underrepresentation in political office); cultural imperialism (e.g., demeaning stereotypes); and violence (e.g., hate crimes).” (64-5 emphasis mine)

Combined, these structural and cultural factors render a minority more likely to be scapegoated and targeted for mistreatment and violence perceived as justified, or at least excusable. Scapegoating is also a means of social exclusion and social control towards “them” (whoever the target happens to be) to keep them in line so that violence is then legitimate and seen as the victim’s fault. But of course, if a population is going to be targeted for mass, symbolic or structural violence, perpetrators’ responsibility and agency has to be denied. So, this leads to what Welch calls a culture of denial that makes acceptable all the ways in which scapegoats are mistreated. It is this culture of denial that allows the US society to hardly question the practice of torture, rendition, detention, erasure of civil liberties and mass surveillance.

Following Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Welch identifies three forms of denial that have been used in the GWOT:

  • Literary denial: “We don’t torture” as former President Bush stated. It is a blanket denial that something happened.
  • Interpretive denial: the facts are not refuted but their meaning is reinterpreted (waterboarding is not torture, it’s enhanced interrogation).
  • Implicatory denial: the facts and their meaning are not denied but their psychological or moral impact is denied or minimized (yes, people were tortured but they were not permanently harmed).

When denial becomes embedded into the cultural narrative, then, certain things happen:

“Unlike totalitarian regimes that go to great lengths to rewrite history and block out the present, denial in democratic societies is subtle, often taking the form of  spin-doctoring and public agenda setting. But similar to totalitarianism, democratic nations also build denial into the ideological facade of the state, turning to fraud rather than to force (Cohen 2001; Willis 1999). Eventually, entire societies are subject to slipping into collective modes of denial and when that occurs, citizens adopt potent defense mechanisms against acknowledging atrocities within their own nation. In the war on terror, cultural denial and official denial operate in tandem, developments that pose great threats to civil liberties and human rights (see Neier 2003; Schulz 2004).” (174)

Which is why the antidote to the culture of denial, according to Welch, is the pursuit of the truth and bringing it to light, for instance through court litigation.

This is an important book for the obvious: its topic. It is a one-stop shop regarding all the policies of the Bush administration and all the ways in which scapegoating became policy and trickled down into the culture, where hate crime and state crime coexist. From my narrower perspective, it is also a book that neatly weaves together sociological theory and research with real world stuff and shows the explanatory power of sociological theories and concepts to real-life phenomenon.

Posted in Book Reviews, Human Rights, Ideologies, Mass Violence, Nationalism, Politics, Prejudice, Privacy, Public Policy, Racism, Social Deviance, Social Exclusion, Social Institutions, Social Theory, Sociology, Surveillance Society, Technology, Terrorism | 1 Comment »

Terrorism – Old and New

August 5, 2009 by and tagged , , , ,

For anyone familiar with the current literature on terrorism (especially Bruce Hoffman or Mark Juergensmeyer), there is not much that is new in this article by Peter R. Neumann of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. However, it is a good and very clear introduction to the new dimensions of terrorism. Neumann identifies three specifically new characteristics.

First, a change in organization structure related to an ideological shift:

In other words, and to used Mary Douglas’s concepts as in my previous posts, the shift has been from the tribe to the grid. “Old” terrorism was often nation-based and hierarchical. Think Baader-Meinhof or Action Directe. Once the organization had been decapitated, it usually fell apart or at least was never as active as it used to be.

The shift from tribe to grid has allowed terrorist groups to organize themselves as networks (Al Qaeda) and to become, truly transnational and deterritorialized, that is, fully global. In a sense, Al Qaeda is to nationalist terrorist groups what a transnational corporation is to a national company. Al Qaeda is a network. It has a leadership structure but is still heavily decentralized and operates more like a franchise.

Second: increased fundamentalist religiosity:

Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the dominant ideologies were nationalist (post-colonial) or Marxist. By the 1980s, we also saw emerge right-wing terrorism, especially in the United States. However, by the end of the 20th century, there was no question that the dominant terrorist ideology was fundamentalist religion.

And third, from narrow targets to indiscriminate killings (indiscriminate and high body count is a mark of religious terrorism):

For religious terrorists, there are no innocent civilians. Every member of the target category is a legitimate target.

This does not mean, of course, that other types of terrorism have completely disappeared but there is no doubt that many groups that used to make headlines a few decades ago have been retired either through law enforcement or through integration into legitimate political processes. The groups that truly pose a terrorist danger in the twenty first century are of religious nature. Beyond Al Qaeda, one should note the Christian fundamentalist groups in the United States who conduct terrorist attacks against abortion clinics and doctors, for instance.

One might also add that terrorist groups currently thrive in failed states where the government has no capacity to really prevent their activities (think Somalia or Sudan) whereas “old” terrorist groups operated in countries with relatively stable governance. So, political destabilization is a good indicator of the possibility of presence of terrorist groups who use low-capacity states to their advantage. Finally, one would also add in the “new” terrorism column narco-terrorism as a major mode of funding with networking established between terrorist groups and organized crime.

That being said, Neumann refutes the more catastrophic interpretations of new terrorism.

Posted in Globalization, Mass Violence, Networks, Religious Fundamentalism, Terrorism | No Comments »

Book Review – Little Brother

June 13, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

LB Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is an anti-surveillance society manifesto for the post-9/11 era (since the regime of surveillance and secrecy has not ended with the end of the Bush administration and the taking over by the Obama administration. There are more continuities than ruptures there).

The premise of the book is that Marcus Yallow’s life changes dramatically once his city, San Francisco, is the target of a terrorist attacked. Marcus is a 17-year old computer wheez, much into computer games. He and his friends were participating in one when the terrorists hit the city and they end up arrested and mistreated by the Department of Homeland Security. After much humiliation and degradation, Marcus and some of his friends are released (one is disappeared though) on the condition that they will never talk about what was done to them.

Upon their release, they realized that the DHS is turning San Francisco into a police state where intense surveillance and mass arrest become the norm, in the name of security and protecting the populace against further terrorist attacks (sounds familiar?). Still reeling from his humiliation at the hands of the DHS, Marcus decides to start fighting back with the weapons he possesses: his computer skills. He does so first by creating a separate Internet, free from surveillance, and then by messing up the massive data mining program that the DHS has put in place. Escalation follows as the DHS intensifies its operations. And then, it’s war. A war fought by teenagers against the impersonal forces of the state. A war not just fought online but also in real life and whose description by Doctorow is not unsimilar to this classic of impersonal oppression against the people:

As he fights the DHS’s omnipresent (but not omnipotent) apparatus of surveillance, Marcus changes and reluctantly becomes the leader (as any hero does) of a typical New Social Movement. What is a New Social Movement? As I have written elsewhere,

The New Social Movements Theory emerged at the end of the 1960s to account for changes in the composition, focus and strategies in some social movements in the Western world (Melucci, 1989; McAdam et al, 1988; Larana et al, 1994; Scott, 1995). New social movements themselves are a response to the massive social changes brought about by globalization. New social movements are diverse but share common foci:

  • Focus on social and cultural issues instead of the economic issues of traditional social movements.

  • Focus quality of life (environment, peace) and self-determination (contemporary women’s rights, gay rights) because of roots in high-income countries where survival is a less important issue. Accordingly, members tend to reject bureaucratic organizations and adopt a more participatory style.

  • Distrust for authorities, the government, the business community or the scientific community; although they do not seek to overthrow the government or radically change the social order, movements challenge the legitimacy of institutions of power and promote their own experts (Garner, 1996) or create their own independent research institutes as Social Movement Organizations.

  • Focus on multiple issues seen as interdependent. For instance, the ecofeminist movement associates environmental issues with patriarchy (Merchant, 1992; Mies and Shiva, 1993), that is, male dominance in society. The environmental justice movement makes connections between environmental issues and race problems through the concept of “environmental racism”, a practice that puts minority groups more at risk of environmental damage than dominant racial or ethnic groups; for instance, more hazardous waste sites or chemical plants are located in minority areas (Bullard and Wright, 1992).

  • Similarly, labor rights integrate human rights considerations into their activism while new social movements link terrorism and the rise of religious fundamentalism to the overwhelming power and influence of western countries (the United States in particular) over poorer countries,

  • Both a global and local orientation, as reflected in the slogan “think global, act local,” that might be evidenced by championing both global environmental standards and local recycling regulations in their communities.

  • Efficient use of new communication technologies to establish global connections and networks; such global networks coordinated the massive demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, against the G8 Meeting in Genoa (Italy) in 2002 and the worldwide protests against the War in Iraq in 2003.

In the book, Marcus may be concerned with getting the DHS out of SanFran but his struggle is often couched in broader terms from the Bill of Rights to the debate regarding trading off freedom for security. In this regard, Doctorow could not help but put some archetypal characters to set up the debates for Marcus’s reflections: the "good" teacher who allows discussions in her classes about issues of constitutional freedoms and the power of the state in emergency situations versus the "bad" professor who shoves her neo-con ideas down everyone’s throat (with a visit to the evil Principal’s office if that does not work). There is no doubt where Doctorow stands on these issues.

Similarly, one can find a very Fanonian attitude in Marcus Yallow’s notion that freedom is not granted, it is taken. This is indeed one of Franz Fanon’s positions on decolonization: that the colonized had to take their freedom and not wait for it to be granted by the colonizers. But at the same time, Marcus is an American teenager, individualist to a "t" and reluctantly involved in the social movement he inadvertently created. Not to mention the fact that he is a Caucasian young man from a relatively privileged background whose parents have the right connections (to the right journalist, ultimately).

In other words, Marcus occupies a position of relative social privilege where fighting back is indeed an option (not necessarily available to his Latino friend, as he is reminded). Marcus’s movement is not that of the Wretched of the Earth but that of relatively privileged kids who can afford all sorts of electronic gadgets, all at ease in the Network Society.

And then, of course, the central theme of the book is fighting back against the Surveillance Society. I have written about it before, but just as a reminder:

The network society allows for the fast transmission of information. But what kind of information gets transmitted through information networks? A great deal of information flows relate to people in their statuses as citizens, workers and consumers. In post-industrial network societies, a great deal of activities from the state, employers and companies is devoted to collecting information about individuals to shape and influence behavior. This process of data-collection is now so thorough and widespread – thanks to information technology – that it is possible to talk about the network society as surveillance society. David Lyon defines surveillance as “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered” (2001:2). The expression “surveillance society” was coined by sociologist Gary Marx (1985) as “all-encompassing use of computer surveillance technology in modern society for total social control”.

Surveillance has always had two faces: care and control. Surveillance technology is often introduced in the name of security, to prevent all sorts of criminal and unacceptable behaviors in public and private places. Surveillance cameras are installed in malls, highways, in most large cities, in workplaces and schools in order to make people feel safer and prevent undesirable behaviors (the definition of which can vary). Behind the invocation of greater protection – care – however, the other side of surveillance is always present: behavior control.

In-store video-surveillance, closed-circuit television (CCTV), metal detectors, fingerprinting, drug and DNA testing, pre-employment personality and health screening, highway toll passes, credit cards, cookies, spyware, clickstream and more generally searchable databases are all technologies that make anonymity almost completely impossible. In this context, the rise of the surveillance society has generated concerns about privacy, but, as David Lyon correctly notes, privacy is an individual matter, rather, the omnipresence of surveillance is a social matter that has deeper implications than privacy.

A main social aspect of surveillance is its exponential growth thanks to information technologies. The state used to have almost a monopoly over surveillance. Most surveillance technology was used for state bureaucratic (social security numbers or national identification cards) and law enforcement purposes. In the current global context, surveillance has spread to practically all sectors of society as data flows move more freely from one area to another: for instance, employers can require criminal background checks on prospective employees from state databases. Conversely, in the United States, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, phone and cable companies may be required to turn over customer information to the government. As David Lyon (2001:33) puts it, “The notion of surveillance society indicates that surveillance activities have long since spilled over the edges of government bureaucracies to flood every conceivable social conduit”. As a result, many other social actors, such as businesses, have become involved in the creation or use of surveillance.

Surveillance has not only spread to the private sector but also gone global not because technology is available. Social factors are the driving force behind the expansion of surveillance. The first such factor is what David Lyon call “disappearing bodies.” Disappearing bodies refers to the fact that a significant part of our activities and interactions take place at the distance, without people actually being in each other’s presence. Electronic interactions and transactions make bodies disappear. Online shopping, instant messaging and live video streaming are all activities without physical space and bodies.

Such disembodiment of interaction raises issues of trust: how does an employer know that employees working from home are actually working? How does the online store know that the customer has enough credit for a purchase? Surveillance technology, such as performance tracking – technology allowing an employer to monitor keyboard and online activity – as well as instant credit verification keep track of individuals even in disembodied situations. Similarly, with more and more people on the move worldwide (business travelers, tourists, economic and political refugees and migrants), transit areas such as airport terminals have intensified their surveillance apparatus in order to keep track of increasingly mobile bodies. The trust issue has become especially crucial in the context of fear of terrorist attacks.

At the same time, our bodies have become increased objects of surveillance and information as well, mainly through biometrics – the range of technology used to measure human physical characteristics for identification purposes. Whether we want to or not, our bodies are major providers of surveillance data. The most traditional form of biometrics is fingerprinting as well as urine and blood tests.

However improvement in medical and surveillance technology have opened an entire new field of data that can be extracted from the body without our knowledge and not just for law enforcement purposes but as part of everyday surveillance. The body can be used as a form of identification: some international airports use retinal scan on foreign visitors. Corporations use voice recognition software. The body itself becomes a password. Mall and public places use facial recognition software for comparison with video surveillance images. Employers have access to medical record to determine the potential health risks posed by prospective employees. They may also impose constraints on their employees’ bodies by requiring that employees lose weight or not smoke. Of course, all these different technologies are produced by private companies in such a booming market that it is possible to speak of the rise of a security-industrial complex.

The emergence of the risk society is another major social factor that promoted the growth of surveillance. The global financial market is, by definition, unstable so investors rely on networked databases that can give them real time information on the different world stock exchanges as well as on wide ranges of economic indicators.

Politically, major areas of the world are in chaos and fears of global terrorism are high. To monitor and control such risks, core countries have established means of monitoring communications on a global scale – a process called “dataveillance”. Dataveillance refers to the “systematic monitoring of people’s actions or communications through the application of information technology” (Clarke, 1988). Giant databases have been created to intercept and process telephone conversations, faxes and emails that contain certain words or originate in parts of the world related to terrorism. Global agencies, such as INTERPOL, are in charge of such global surveillance.

Finally, many research institutes around the world monitor various ecological phenomena such as global warming or the hole in the ozone layer to predict future environmental conditions and their social impact. Most surveillance, public or private, has to do with managing risk in the sense that the more information is gathered by the right agencies, the more we can reduce uncertainties related to global conditions.

According to David Lyon (2001), the major social function of surveillance is as a sorting mechanism. Surveillance as social sorting refers to the use of data to identify, to classify, to order and to control entire populations: using searchable databases, such as zip codes and internet activities, “marketers sift and sort populations according to their spending patterns, then treat different clusters accordingly. Groups likely to be valuable to marketers get special attention, special deals, and efficient after-sales service, while others, not among the creamed-off categories, must make do with less information and inferior service” (Lyon, 2003:14).

This form of discrimination – also called digital redlining or weblining – reflects the use of surveillance to include or exclude entire populations from certain advantages. Based on information abstracted from databases, credit card companies can provide or deny access to credit. Insurance companies can also provide or refuse coverage is information reveals that certain categories of the population represent too high a risk. For instance, genetic testing that can potentially reveal a predisposition to certain incurable diseases, such as Huntington, can be used by health care providers to refuse coverage to individuals with the “wrong” genes.

At the same time, the use of searchable databases is used commercially to provide individualized service. For instance, many online stores, such as Amazon.com, automatically use purchase records to provide individualized recommendations and offers to their customers in hope of increasing the number of volumes purchased. In a sense, every online purchase made by an individual creates a sum of information regarding lifestyle, spending habits, hobbies and preferences. Such information, if used judiciously by marketers, creates a greater certainty of what this individual will buy in the future, thereby reducing the basic risk involved in any business: will people buy what a company offers? While mass advertising is still used, more and more businesses now use the wealth of information available in databases to provide individualized marketing.

As David Lyon (2003) puts it, the same surveillance technology creates categorical suspicion in one type of social situations – in law enforcement and security business – and categorical seduction in others – marketing. Categorical suspicion refers to the control function of surveillance whereby entire categories of people are subject to intensified surveillance due to their characteristics, such as Muslims and Arab travelers after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Categorical seduction refers to a similar process used in commerce to entice certain categories of shoppers (those with the “appropriate” credit level, lifestyle and buying habits) into particular forms of consumption. Both processes result in the blurring of the boundaries between public and private behavior creating what David Brin (1998) calls a transparent society. The concept of transparent society extends Goffman’s notion of total institution to the entire society. In such a society, there is no place to hide: the privacy of one’s home is an illusion as our most private environments are wired into global networks and even our bodies become providers of information fed into the global society.

The novel is indeed much focused on the mechanisms of the surveillance society but it is made clear in the book that the surveillance society had penetrated society long before the terrorist attacks. Indeed, the high school that Marcus goes to uses extensive surveillance technology to keep track of the students and their every movement (or their every keyboard stroke on their government-provided computers). Long before the terrorist attacks, Marcus was already fighting the surveillance system, which had put him in the principal’s cross-hair.

In Little Brother, surveillance takes the form of Foucault’s micro-power and biopower in the creation of a carceral society where large segments of the population (including Marcus’s father, up to a point) consent to their surveillance. With the means of 21st century technology, the carceral society no longer really requires the prison (except for the part of disciplining that has become hidden, the actual torturing… which used to be public). Moreover, with the multiplicity of technologies, loci of power have become multiplied and more micro, that is, applied to certain limited segments of behavior (such as gait, in the book).  Surveillance and disciplining power then become distributed throughout the social structure in the form of micro-power (multiple and limited loci of power) and bio-power (power involved in the management of the population and individual bodies). For more on this, check out the chapter on Foucault in Perspectives in Sociology (Cuff, Sharrock and Francis, 5th edition, 2006).

What is missing in the book, when it comes to the Surveillance Society, is the private sector part. In the book, the DHS / Federal government is the boogey man using surveillance mechanisms to oppress teenagers. However, private businesses use as much, if not more, surveillance mechanisms as the government. The private sector relies as much on biopower as the state, and it can be as much a source of oppression. So, while the government makes for an easy target, it is only part of the freedom battle (something that the Electronic Frontier Foundation understands and that is well described in Max Barry’s books as well). And indeed, individualized ICT gadgets constitute as much data for private corporations as they can be to the government. That part is missing from the book.

That being said, the book is highly entertaining and one will easily recognize real people behind some of the fictional characters and in many ways it reads as a version of what Doctorow thinks what should have had happened as one more piece of surveillance legislation was passed in the name of protection the masses from another 9/11. It did not happen, of course, as most of the population consented to the Patriot Act or extensive surveillance, or as it happened more progressively in England as more and more surveillance were installed across the country. Does Doctorow think salvation will come through computer-savvy teenagers?

Posted in Activism, Book Reviews, Media, Networks, Politics, Privacy, Risk Society, Social Movements, Social Theory, Sociology, Surveillance Society, Technology, Terrorism, Transparent Society | No Comments »

The Relevance of Sykes and Matza’s Techniques of Neutralization

April 22, 2009 by and tagged , , , , ,

As applied to the use of torture. First, a reminder (here as well),

The application:

Actually, in the denial of victims, I would think "who cares about terrorists" applies better.

And last but not least:

Indeed, the very existence of the legal memos wordsmithing formulations that would actually say "yeah, go ahead and torture" without actually saying so is a major form of rationalization "just in case". And the fact that such memos had to be issued over and over again clearly indicates that the people involved knew they were ordering torture or engaging in it.

There is probably a great institutional / organizational sociological study to be written about the bureaucratization of torture and its rationalization in the Bush administration, beyond the 1984 comparisons (which are eerie, though). But from what we already know, it is clear that torture had become instrumental to the internal purposes of the organization (the Bush administration), and not the pursuit of information to thwart terrorist attacks (just as we know that, in the USSR, torture was used extract false confessions as part of keeping the crumbling edifice of the statist apparatus up for a few more years) and to terrorize both the objects of torture and the larger global audience. After that, once permission was given, the actual torturers "simply" engaged in what Philip Zimbardo described in The Lucifer Effect.

In any event, Marcy Wheeler is doing a great job of going through these memos with a fine comb. Her series of posts on the subject (and her previous reporting on the Plame outing) are a must-read.

Posted in Human Rights, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Theory, Sociology, Terrorism | 2 Comments »

How Female Genital Mutilation Persists

February 28, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

It is a combination of factors: patriarchy, traditional rule, cowardice on the part of Western aids organizations, political convenience and just good old fashioned brutality against anyone who dares reporting on it or fighting it:

And it’s torture too in the name of controlling women’s sexuality:

And so, fighting against FGM is left to courageous local activists (mostly women) who risk their lives by speaking up.

So, Sierra Leone has the Bundu society, just like we have the "family values" crowd and Focus on the Family.

Posted in Academia, Culture, Economy, Gender, Health, Human Rights, Patriarchy, Politics, Structural Violence, Terrorism | No Comments »

Terrorist Attacks, Solidarity Rituals and Hysteria Zones

February 11, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , ,

Randall Collins, “Rituals of Solidarity and Security in the Wake of Terrorist Attack”, Sociological Theory, 22:1, March 2004, pp. 53 – 87.

Randall Collins is, of course, well-known for his work on social theory and symbolic interactionism. In this article, he focuses on the rituals of solidarity displayed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and their own dynamics as they unfold over time.

“Ritualistic mobilization about solidarity and security generates its own processes of conflict, as persons in particular social locations struggle over control of symbols and access to the center of collective attention; and these produce ancillary conflict and sometimes violence in their own right, in a period I call the hysteria zone.” (53)

Specifically, Collins identifies four periods of group solidarity based on conflict:

  1. Initial shock with individual idiosyncratic reactions (few days after the attack)

  2. Standardized displays of solidarity symbols (one or two weeks)

  3. High solidarity plateau (two to three months)

  4. Gradual decline towards normalcy (six to nine months)

The starting point of the article is the very Durkheimian (and Simmelian) claim that conflict produces solidarity. Solidarity is at its peak right after the attack, when the attacked party goes on the offensive (that would be the offensive on Afghanistan) and the moment of victory (the defeat of the Taliban – however transitory that might have been – along with the installation of the new government).

The same hold for war: high enthusiasm at the beginning that does not last long, followed by more normal levels of patriotic solidarity that might last longer. However, should the war cause high casualties with no victories, then, one can expect it to become unpopular. There are conditions though for the production of high levels of solidarity:

“The key to such a pattern is the dramatic incident, the attention-focusing event: a sudden attack and response to the attack, or a dramatic celebration at the end of the conflict. Solidarity is produced by social interaction within the group, not by the conflict itself as an external event. What creates the solidarity is the sharp rise in ritual intensity of social interaction, as very large numbers of persons focus their attention on the same event, are reminded constantly that other people are focusing their attention by the symbolic signals they give out, and hence are swept up into a collective mood. Individual reactions to violent conflict generally are fear or paralysis; solidarity is not the aggregation of individual emotions about conflict but is an entirely different emotional process.” (55)

I emphasize this because I think it is an important general sociological point: the emergent properties of social facts as more than, and different from, the sum of individual reactions.

The above timeline also corresponds to specific displays of solidarity symbols. In the first period, a few days after the attack, displays of solidarity behavior are mostly private and idiosyncratic as people’s attention is still largely intensely focused on news broadcast and wall-to-wall coverage. Displays are not present in public places. Then follows the second period where there is a progressive build-up of solidarity symbols displays. Then follows the plateau of high solidarity then followed by a return to normalcy (no more freedom fries).

I have to say that I found this part to be the weakest of the article for its lack of broad methodological scope. I am not sure someone other than Randall Collins would have gotten away with a few counts of cars and flags in his city with some extrapolation.

The analysis is much stronger when it comes to examining what Collins calls the social clusterings of solidarity displays:

“The display of symbols is not uniform. Conflict does not generate solidarity simply by creating a psychological current passing through everyone equally. Solidarity is orchestrated in part by rather official processes and in part by more informal and seemingly voluntary actions. Several different processes mesh over time. In the very first period, isolated individuals make idiosyncratic symbolic displays, but these are generally taken as too extreme and are met largely with embarrassment. Then official and quasi-official organizations get into the act. (…) These are front-stage displays in the Goffmanian sense, a statement of what the organizational leaders believe is appropriate to be done.” (61)

The point of this ramping up of more or less formal and rigid displays is to convey a sense of consensus through overwhelming presence of standardized symbols of solidarity. There is also an orchestration of emotions that take place through large-scale, spectacular ceremonials dedicated to the victims. These can take the form of concerts, sports events that build up what Collins calls peak experiences of solidarity. These ceremonies are especially present in the second period and less in the third. Ceremonials may make a comeback at specific anniversaries, but by then, some of the intense emotionality is gone.

Additionally, rituals of solidarity provide a form of what could be called “think national, act local”. Most symbol displays take place within communities or local groups but the symbols displayed tend to be nationalistic in nature (flags). Actually, community embeddedness plays a big part in the density of solidarity displays. For instance, Collins notes that patriotic displays were more prominent on pick-up trucks and commercial vans. This is not explained by lower class workers being more obviously patriotic because displays were more prominent in upper-middle class neighborhood:

“An alternative explanation is that pick-up trucks are operated by owners of small business, as are many commercial vans. These are the kinds of businesses that are the most dependent upon a local network of personal acquaintances; thus, it is both to their commercial advantage to show their emblems of conventional solidarity (good for business) and also the display of symbols is facilitated by their group solidarity, just as it it among neighbors wll known to each other.” (62-3)

And just as prominent displays of solidarity symbols were prominent within social clusters (cities, upper-middle class communities, pick-up trucks, etc), lack of symbols were also socially clustered: places where there is opposition to national solidarity, or dispersed communities where displays would not be seen or where solidarity is low. However, again, displays are somewhat standardized and those who deviate from the local norms, for instance, those Collins calls the “Superpatriots” who go over the top do not get much support for their extreme displays.

The solidarity rituals show the contemporary relevance of Durkheim’s analysis of early religious forms in building up solidarity.

“The most intense expressions of solidarity are the most ephemeral. These occur at gatherings where crowds are assembled, sharing a contagion of emotion from body to body, with mutual awareness of focus of attention that makes the feeling of belonging to the group palpable and sometimes overpowering. (…) Thes rituals illustrate the Durkheimian theory in a very strong sense: the ingredients of group assembly, emotional contagion, and mutual focus generate respect for symbolic objects and solidarity within the larger group.” (67)

This is why it is socially necessary to reactivate such feelings at regular intervals over the years, through various commemorative ceremonies. These ceremonies generally involve large audience that provide emotional resonance and amplification. Early into the second and third phase, political actors proclaim their putting aside of partisan fights in favor of national solidarity. Usually opposing teams show their united solidarity by opening games with specific emotional rituals. Normal social reality is thereby partly suspended for a while.

Solidarity is also reinforced through the construction of symbolic figure: the fallen firefighter, in the case of 9/11. This symbolic figure of courage, selflessness and sacrifice serves as what Collins calls symbolic simplification and concentration. It becomes a symbol of the national consciousness.

According to Collins, another function of such ceremonials is to revive the sense of hysteria that was present in the early phases after the attack. As “fateful” anniversary dates approach, security threat levels are upped, security becomes tighter, false alarms are more likely as tensions are heightened.

The flip side of solidarity is the promotion of ethnocentrism and conflict. Therefore, solidarity rituals may involve conflicts as well. Contention can emerge from different sources and contexts:

  1. The ritual itself becomes an object of contention as to who are the legitimate “owners” of the symbols. Internal conflict may also emerge from social pressure to maintain symbolic displays in a standard form.
  2. Conflict may also emerge as to who has access to the ritual center. Who are the legitimate “sacred” figures? Who can make claims to access to Ground Zero?
  3. Conflict may also emerge on the definition of who is a victim. How close does one have to be to a dead victim of the attack to claim symbolic association (which might lead to very material financial compensation).

Such potential for conflict is also heightened by the operation of security procedures that are symbolic in nature: to make a show of security rather than effectively “do” security. For Collins, these security rituals are also part of front-stage reality for the performance of emotional reassurance, which is why they were not initially questioned.

“The security procedures were a form of ritualistic participation in which all members of the crowd took part. Being physically touched by security guards checking bags and coats was a form of symbolic contagion, making people part of the authoritative social collective. It also made entry into a stadium a feeling of passing a barrier into a realm of exclusivity – heightened participation in a Durkheimian sacred space. It temporarily gave people the sense of moving into a zone of importance “where the action is.” The security rituals evoked a sense of danger as much as they calmed it; it was this reminder and evocation of collectively shared danger that made the combination of rituals effective on these occasions.” (75)

But after a while, these security rituals do get questioned from two sources: pragmatists who focus on the ritualistic and impractical nature of the procedures and who might demand their relaxation. This open the field for what Collins calls the security zealots who thrive on keep the hysteria alive by maintaining these procedures, if not upping them further. These are also called hysteria leaders.

Hysteria leaders work to maintain the hysteria zone, defined as the rush of mobilization that takes place during the three-month plateau.

“It is the apex of Durkheimian collective consciousness, the most widely shared feelings of emotion and most intensely focused attention. The solidarity plateau is the hysteria zone for two reasons. The emotions that most powerfully draw people into a society-wide peak of focused attention are the emotions of conflict – especially fear and its transformation into righteous anger. (…) A second reason is that any dissipation from focusing attention on the public emergency gives rise to hysterical reactions (i.e., individuals manifesting the full sense of fear that defines the emergency, combined with righteous aggression). They are in effect Durkheimian agents of social control, punishing those who let down the intensity of the ritual.” (77)

The hysteria zone is where one finds hoaxes, ancillary attacks (the anthrax scare) and dramatic actions by hysteria exploiters. However, the hysteria zone is too intense to last and as the plateau phase ends, so it does.

As Collins concludes,

“An extremely high level of collective solidarity is also collective hysteria: what people do during that period is not judged by themselves as falling into normal standards of behavior; they are both more heroic, more altruistic, and more fearful and vicious than at other times.” (86)

And again, most importantly, these dynamics of solidarity are sustained by social rituals and not produced by individual psychological processes multiplied by the numbers in a crowd. They are forms of collective behavior with their own timing and unfolding based on specific social clustering.

Posted in Collective Behavior, Dramaturgy, Nationalism, Social Interaction, Social Stratification, Sociological Articles, Sociology, Symbolic Interactionism, Terrorism | No Comments »

Charles Tilly Reminds Us Of The Importance of Conceptual Clarity

December 20, 2008 by and tagged , , , , ,

From the article "Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists", in Sociological Theory, March 2004, 22:1, pp. 5-13, Charles Tilly discusses an old sociological question: can sociologists use categories and concepts generated outside of the field even if they are ridden with inconsistencies and charged with political meanings, especially categories like terror, terrorism and terrorists.

"Some vivid terms serve political and normative ends admirably despite hindering description and explanation of the social phenomena at which they point. Those double-edged terms include riot, injustice civil society, all of them politically powerful but analytically elusive." (5)

Indeed, and especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,

"In the words of the president and the secretary of state, terror, terrorism, and terrorists become inseparable concepts, coherent entities, efficacious actors, and enemies to be eradicated." (5)

This process of reification is something that sociologists, even since Durkheim through Bourdieu have struggled with. As Tilly, quite similarly, reiterates, sociologists

"should not incorporate the categories wholesale into their own descriptions and explanations of the political processes at hand. In particular, social scientists who attempt to explain sudden attacks on civilian targets should doubt the existence of a distinct, coherent class of actors (terrorists) who specialize in a unitary form of political action (terror) and thus should establish a separate variety of politics (terrorism)." (5)

For those of us who had to start their sociological education by reading Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method and Bourdieu et al’s Craft of Sociology, this is a very familiar point that leads back to the importance of the construction of the research object. To adopt wholesale a familiar concept or a commonsense notion is to adopt all its layers of meanings as well as the social history of its construction within given fields and relations of power.

Charles Tilly shows how it is done by deconstructing (although I should know better than use this VERY loaded term) the political uses of terror, terrorism and terrorists and offers the following points (pp. 5-6):

The word terror points to a widely recurrent but imprecisely bounded political strategy.

Tilly defines terror as a strategy as asymmetrical deployment of threats and violence against enemies using means that fall outside the forms of political struggle routinely operating within some current regime.

A great variety of individuals and groups engage in terror from time to time, most often alternating terror with other political strategies or with political inaction.

Groups and individuals that use terror specifically and not other forms of political strategies tend to be unstable and not last.

Groups and networks that engage in terror tend to overlap with government-employed or -backed specialists in coercion (armies, police, paramilitaries, private military groups, mercenaries, etc.).

Even when terrorist groups position themselves against a government, these specialists in coercion tend to use forms of organization and logistics comparable to that of government-employed specialists.

Most uses of terror actually occur as complements or as byproducts of struggles in which participants – often including the so-called terrorists – are engaging simultaneously or successively in other more routine forms of political claim-making.

Terror as a strategy ranges from (1) intermittent actions by members of groups that are engaged in wider political struggles to (2) one segment in the modus operandi of durably organized specialists in coercion (including those employed or backed by governments) to (3) the dominant rationale for distinct and committed groups and networks of activists.

Despite the publicity it has received recently, variety (3) accounts for a highly variable but usually very small share of all the terror that occurs in the contemporary world.

Indeed, as Tilly reviews statements by the US State Department (post-9/11), he finds such ambiguities and lack of clear boundaries as to the use of the category of terrorism, applied mostly to state terror but also a variety of non-state actors based on rather broad interpretations of supposed political motives. For Tilly, there lies a problem:

"In social science, useful definitions should point to detectable phenomena that exhibit some degree of causal coherence – in principle all instances should display common properties that embody or result from similar cause-effect relations." (9)

Face with the lack of coherent definition of the terror phenomenon, Tilly finds some order in four steps:

1. Terror as a strategy

Defined as asymmetrical deployment of threats and violence outside of routine forms of political struggle, terror does more than inflict harm, it is a form of communication that conveys multiple meanings: it signals that (1) the target is vulnerable, (2) that the perpetrators exist, (3) the perpetrators have the capacity to strike again.

Also, terror has three types of audiences: (1) the targets, (2) the perpetrators’ potential allies, and (3) third parties that might be sitting on the fence.

Terror also most often involves the demand for some form of recognition, redress, autonomy or transfer of power (hardly ever an end in itself).

"Considered as a strategy, terror works best when it alters or inhibits the target’s disapproved behavior, fortifies the perpetrators’ standing with potential allies, and moves third parties toward greater cooperation with the perpetrators’ organization and announced program." (9)

2. Multiple uses of terror

Terror is used in a multiplicity of ways by a multiplicity of actors: mafia groups, repressive as well as weak governments, dissidents and more recently, religious and ethnic activists.

3. Terror and other forms of struggle

"As these varied examples suggest, the strategy of terror appears across a wide variety of political circumstances, in the company of  very different sorts of political struggle. Attacks of Irish Protestant and Catholic activists on each other and on governmental targets, for instance, frequently follow the strategy of terror, but they generally intersect with other forms of negotiation at international, national and local levels. In many parts of the world, specialized military forces – governmental, nongovernmental, and antigovernmental – frequently engage in kidnapping, murder, mutilation in addition to their occasional pitched battles with other armed forces." (10)

4. Terror and specialists in coercion

Regarding specialists in coercion, Tilly generates a twofold distinction based on (1) a distinction between specialists and non-specialists, and (2) between those who target their home territory versus those whose target lies outside of the home territory. This generates the crude typology below (why don’t tables never look the same between the html editor in which I create them and the post!)

(Crude) Typology of Terror-Wielding Groups and Networks Major Locus on Violent Attacks
Home Territory Outside
Home
Degree of Specialization in Coercion Specialists Militias Conspirators
Nonspecialists Autonomists Zealots
  • Autonomists are those groups who launch attacks on their home territory but against symbolic targets such as authorities, rivals or any stigmatized groups. They do not become durably organized specialists in coercion.

  • Zealots commit their violent acts outside of their home territory but are otherwise similar to autonomists.

  • Militias may be governmental, nongovernmental or antigovernmental terror groups composed of coercion specialists engaging in attacks in their own countries, with enduring organizations.

  • Conspirators are organized striking forces (therefore specialists) conducting their attacks outside of their home territory.

Based on that crude typology, Tilly’s point remains:

"A remarkable array of actors sometimes adopt terror as a strategy, and therefore no coherent set of cause-effect propositions can explain terrorism as a whole. (…) Terror is a strategy, not a creed." (11)

And indeed, it would be a major mistake to use 9/11 as the typical terrorist attack. Actually, according to Tilly, conspirators attacks are the least frequent. Most terrorist attacks are committed in the home territory of the perpetrators and most of the rest is committed by zealots.

Tilly closes his article with this powerful statement:

"Terrorists range across a wide spectrum of organizations, circumstances and beliefs. Terrorism is not a single causally coherent phenomenon. No social scientist can speak responsibly as though it were." (12)

Posted in Social Research, Social Theory, Sociological Articles, Sociology, Teaching Sociology, Terrorism | No Comments »

The Bush Legacy in Iraq – $100 for An Honor Killing

November 30, 2008 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Remember how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were really wars that liberated women from oppression? Well, I have already posted on the Taliban throwing acid in school girls’ faces in Afghanistan, and now this:

Totally unsurprisingly, the police is not to eager to arrest the perpetrators and the courts can’t be bothered to convict them even when faced with definitive evidence. After all, women are property and if the sluts would stop shaming their families and accept their chattel status, everything would be fine.

Of course, if there had been any Post-war plans to make sure that there’d be no power vacuum and if religious militias had not been accepted as de facto regional governments, these things might not have happened. And if the reconstruction focus had been more on institutions like education, rather the market and oil production… you get the drift.

The creation of yet another theocracy in the Middle East at our expenses… that was all worth it. And then, we’ll leave, of course, and the women of Iraq will be left to fend for themselves.

Posted in Gender, Human Rights, Mass Violence, Patriarchy, Religious Fundamentalism, Sexism, Social Institutions, Social Stigma, Socialization, Terrorism | No Comments »

Mumbai – Global City in The World Risk Society

November 30, 2008 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

[Update: Mark Bahnisch, over at Larvatus Prodeo, as an interesting post on this topic as well on the conjunction of globalization, urban centers, states and violence.]

Are world-cities more likely to become targets of terrorist groups? One would be forgiven to think so considering the attacks on New York City, London, Madrid, Bali and now Mumbai. Indeed, it seems that the Mumbai attacks (terrorist attacks are not unknown to Mumbai, but they are usually of domestic nature) were targeted at "places of globalization", that is, where the local, the national and the global meet.

I want to focus on the concept of global cities for a moment. In sociology, the concept can be traced back to Saskia Sassen. The emergence of the global cities has to do with the reconfiguration of space through globalization. A global city is not just a large city but a city that is a power-center of globalization through its embedding into the global structures. At the same time, one can still discern national and local aspects present in global cities, such as the Mumbai slums.

And as part of global cities, luxury hotels, patronized by wealthy Western tourists and businessmen, the Transnational Capitalist Class in general, and employing the locals, can be seen as particular targets (comparable to the touristic resorts in Bali):

"Firstly, they are accessible. Few of the major hotels in city centres were built with security in mind. Many date from the 1970s and were intentionally built to be prominent and accessible social spaces – often in traditional, family-based societies where such locations were few and far between – in the centre of major cities. The aim, at least in part, was to offer new local elites a portal into a global, jet-setting luxury world. Even more recent constructions such as the two Serena hotels in Kabul and Islamabad are now being hastily retro-fitted with more protection. Hotels are now becoming as protected as embassies. Ringed by blast walls, security men, sometimes barbed wire, they too are becoming fortified outposts of a foreign culture in what is at least perceived to be a dangerous land. The two hotels in Mumbai were soft targets. No doubt now they too will be "secured".

Secondly, the big hotels in the centre of cities are representative of power, wealth and, in some instances, the "westernisation" and accompanying decadence or "moral corruption" against which Islamic militants see themselves as fighting. Old-fashioned economic factors should not necessarily be discounted here. Indian Muslims have lower life expectancies, literacy levels and incomes than the Hindu majority. A luxury hotel that is the symbol of the growing economic success of the country dominated by the majority is always likely to be a focus for resentment.

Thirdly, such hotels are often full of foreigners. This allows all militant groups to avoid, should they want to, the "collateral damage" of local compatriots or co-religionists. In Mumbai, this does not seem to have been the case. There were big American-owned or built hotels in Mumbai that could have been targeted so Indians or India was directly targeted, not just members of the so-called Crusader-Zionist alliance. The attackers amply showed their contempt for the lives of their fellow Indians in their attacks on the railway station or in the street. But elsewhere this has been a concern. When Jordanian-born Iraqi militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi sent bombers into hotels in his homeland in 2005, he immediately alienated 90% of his local support. A vigorous debate among jihadi thinkers was one consequence."

[Emphasis mine] So, are global cities urban nightmares as the BBC Analysis program states?

The full transcript of the program is here. As Sassen states in the program:

"In the Nineties, you saw a proliferation of cities that built this global city space. We have about seventy major and minor global cities. It’s a platform that contains the resources, the talent markets, the infrastructures to service, to manage, to organize, to coordinate the global operations of firms and financial markets. (…)

Left alone, this cluster of powerful actors and functions can be extremely destructive of vast stretches of modest profit-making firms, modest income households, and certain forms of urbanity that we love in cities. (…)

“Destructive” in the sense that global capital has an urban footprint. And, in the case of global cities, that urban footprint means a massive insertion in the built environment of existing cities, and that inevitably means displacement. And so it not only inserts itself; it keeps needing more space. That then generates and we see that in all cities. actually a second political thing, which is a politics that is about space In Shanghai, every day there are revolts, I mean dozens of revolts, and it all is about land."

[Emphasis mine again] According to Saskia Sassen, global cities are part of the process of denationalization that nation-states have engaged in as part of their embedding into the global economic and political system. In this sense, the nation-state does not disappear as relevant actor in global times. Rather, it is a main actor in the stripping of its own capabilities to be shifted "upwards" to the global level (for instance, when states agree to subject themselves to WTO rulings).

"The process of denationalization I am seeking to specify here cannot be reduced to a geographic conception as was the notion in the heads of the generals who fought the wars for nationalizing territory in earlier centuries. This is a highly specialized and strategic de-nationalizing of specific institutional arenas: Manhattan and the City of London are the equivalent of free trade zones when it comes to finance. But it is not Manhattan as a geographic entity, with all its layers of activity, and functions and regulations, that is a free trade zone. It is a highly specialized functional or institutional realm that becomes de-nationalized. However, this set of institutions has distinct locational patterns —a disproportionate concentration in global cities. And this has the effect of re-territorializing even the most globalized, digitalized and partly dematerialized industries and markets.

But this re-territorializing has its own conditionality —a complex and dynamic interaction with national state authority. The strategic spaces where many global processes are embedded are often national; the mechanisms through which new legal forms, necessary for globalization, are implemented are often part of state institutions; the infrastructure that makes possible the hypermobility of financial capital at the global scale is embedded in various national territories. Thus one way of conceiving of the inevitable negotiations with the national is in terms of this partial and strategic dynamic of de-nationalization.

From this perspective, understanding the spatiality of economic globalization only in terms of hypermobility and space/time compression –the dominant markers in today’s conceptualization– is inadequate. Hypermobility and space/time compression need to be produced, and this requires vast concentrations of very material and not so mobile facilities and infrastructures. And they need to be managed and serviced, and this requires mostly place-bound labor markets for talent and for low-wage workers. The global city is emblematic here, with its vast concentrations of hypermobile dematerialized financial instruments and the enormous concentrations of material and place-bound resources that it takes to have the former circulating around the globe in a second."

What is important about Sassen’s perspective is that it is much more nuanced and complex than simple deterritorializing views. For Sassen, globalization, as illustrated by global cities, involve denationalization but also territorial re-embedding of global spaces that exist alongside national and local spaces and it is the frictions between these different dimensions that make global cities explosive places.

"First, global cities structure a zone that can span the globe but it is a zone embedded / juxtaposed with older temporalities and spatialities. (…)

Secondly, although it spans the globe, the new zone that is being structured spatially and temporally is inhabited/constituted by multiple units or locals –it is not only a flow of transactions or one large encompassing system. The global city is a function of a global network–there is no such thing as a single global city as you might have had with the empires of old, each with its capital. This network is constituted in terms of nodes of hyperconcentration of activities and resources. What connects the nodes is dematerialized digital capacity; but the nodes incorporate enormous amounts and types of materialities, sited materialities."

The multiplicity of territorial units and global networks and flows make global cities certainly places where the central dynamics of globalization become brutally visible in cases such as the Mumbai attacks.

In the world risk society, global cities are places of mass, structural and symbolic violence.

Posted in Global Cities, Globalization, Mass Violence, Religious Fundamentalism, Risk Society, Social Change, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Social Theory, Sociology, Structural Violence, Symbolic Violence, Terrorism, Urban Ecology | No Comments »

Afghanistan – Plus Ca Change…

November 14, 2008 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

[Update: Jonathan Turley reminds us that Muslim fundamentalists are not the only ones throwing acids in the faces of the women who challenge the religio-patriarchal order, Orthodox Jews in Israel have done it as well. It fits, of course, as acid is not only horribly painful but disfigures, that is, destroys what misogynists think women are only good for, beauty as sex appeal... note how one of the young teachers below has internalized this and is repeated mindlessly by the article (19, not married, afraid of being disfigured).]

Via The New York Times,

“No students showed up at Mirwais Mena girls’ school in the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace the morning after it happened.

A day earlier, men on motorcycles attacked 15 girls and teachers with acid.

The men squirted the acid from water bottles onto three groups of students and teachers walking to school Wednesday, principal Mehmood Qaderi said. Some of the girls have burns only on their school uniforms but others will have scars on their faces.

One teenager still cannot open her eyes after being hit in the face with acid.

”Today the school is open, but there are no girls,” Qaderi said Thursday. ”Yesterday, all of the classes were full.” His school has 1,500 students. (…)

Qaderi said he believes there were multiple teams of assailants because the attacks took place at the same time in different neighborhoods. Provincial Police Chief Mati Ullah Khan said three people have been arrested. He would not provide further details because the investigation was not completed.

The country has made a major push to improve access to education for girls since the Taliban ouster. Fewer than 1 million Afghan children — mostly all boys — attended school under Taliban rule. Roughly 6 million Afghan children, including 2 million girls, attend school today.

But many conservative families still keep their girls at home and the acid attacks are a reminder that old biases remain.

”They don’t want us go to school. They don’t like education,” said Susan Ibrahimi, who started teaching at Mirwais Mena four months ago. She and her mother, also a teacher at the school, were wearing burqas on their walk to work when the motorbike stopped next to them.

”They didn’t say anything. They just stopped the motorbike and one of the guys threw acid on us and they went away,” Ibrahimi said in a telephone interview.

The acid ate through the cloth covering Ibrahimi’s face and left burns down her left cheek. The acid also burned her mother’s hand.

”I am worried that I will have scars on my face,” said Ibrahimi, who is 19 years old and not married.

Fifteen people were hit with acid in all, including four teachers, Qaderi said.”

This is not an isolated incident, girls schools have been targeted for such terrorist attacks, because that is what it is: terrorism.

“Arsonists have repeatedly attacked girls’ schools and gunmen killed two students walking outside a girls’ school in central Logar province last year. UNICEF says there were 236 school-related attacks in Afghanistan in 2007. The Afghan government has also accused the Taliban of attacking schools in an attempt to force teenage boys into the Islamic militia.”

It would be nice to see the government be actually proactive in protecting these women and girls from these obviously preditable attacks. Obviously, the assailants are not exactly hiding. Because, apparently, it appears that it is all left up to the courage of the teachers and their students to show up every day under the threat of these horrific acid attacks.

One cannot help but see the similarity in tactic between the Taliban and the anti-choice crowds that gather at clinics to bully women into submission to the patriarchal order. The social representation is the same: a woman’s body is a public image of her moral status as social object. As such, it can be mutilated (as in female genital mutilation), used for the public infliction of social sanctions (acid attacks) or taken over for the reproduction of the patriarchal order (forced pregnancy).

Culturally, there is a whole industry dedicated to the promotion of feminine norms of beauty and fitness, and others to make sure that women conform to these ideal norms of beauty and femininity. All these social practices have to be understood as a continuum of structural gender oppression.

As such, women live more deeply in the surveillance society than men as their actions, behavior, bodily display are all to be publicly interpreted as statements of conformity or deviance (with the corresponding sanctions) to culturally-established norms. In this sense, the terrorism of which they are victim in Afghanistan, and other places, is a strong means of social control, not a deviant act. Let’s call it Institutional Terrorism.

Posted in Education, Gender, Health, Human Rights, Mass Violence, Patriarchy, Religious Fundamentalism, Social Stigma, Surveillance Society, Terrorism | No Comments »

« Previous Entries