What? What could possibly explain this trend?
Here is an interesting data visualization from Der Spiegel, on the rise of the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), the German far-right party.
As you can see from the map and the post title, I don’t think the choice of brown dots as color scheme is random. It is a rather simple data visualization but it clearly shows the areas of greater influence of the NPD, as measured through voting rates. It shows rather clearly where the NPD has gotten some popularity (i.e.: the former East Germany).
That being said, I am not a big fan of dots because they make proportions / rates hard to tell. I know there is the legend on the left but once you start working on the map, can you really tell, beyond the areas of greater aggregations, exact percentages (when those are not given in the textual notations on the side?).
And if the brown is designed to underline some political ugliness, it succeeds.
It is a bit of a shame though that the article does not provide any explanation for this. Maybe the reasons are obvious to Germans, but I got this as part of the international, English-language edition, and not all readers (including me) may be aware of the subtleties of German party politics. Although I was aware that the former DDR is now the hotbed of far-right politics (for reasons of downward mobility, economic dislocations, and precarization), but I was hoping for more.
Sydney Nathans’s To Free A Family: The Journey of Mary Walker was a birthday gift. What a great reading it turned out to be. As the title indicates, the book is about Mary Walker’s struggle to get her children and her mother out of slavery after she herself had escaped it. It took her 17 years. This is a book that perfectly reveals the connections between biography and history, personal troubles and public issues, and the necessity to place individual trajectories and events in their contextual nexus of structure, history and power. In other words, this book beautifully illustrates, deliberately or not, the sociological imagination.
It is first and foremost a very well written, very engaging, work of history (fully sourced and all that stuff), following the fate of Mary Walker, a slave from a prestigious and wealth family from Raleigh, NC. Mary Walker was take to Philadelphia by her owners as they went there annually so that their invalid daughter receive medical treatment. After an argument with her owner and under the threat of being sent from Raleigh to the deep South, and therefore being separated from her family (owned by the Camerons for generations), Mary decided to escape. As the author notes, such threats of separation were often the main motivation for slaves to escape while leaving relatives behind, because they had at least some hope that they might manage later to get them out of bondage.
Once fugitives, escaped slaves had then to use the underground system to obtain cover and protection until they could reach a safe (i.e. free) state… that is, until the passage of the Federal Fugitive slave law.
So, Mary Walker escaped slavery in 1848, was reunited with her children at the end of the war in 1865 and died in 1872. The book is her story as recomposed through the massive correspondence and diaries of her (mostly) white friends from Philadelphia and Cambridge (MA) for whom she worked and who helped her in her quest to reunite with her family. Mary Walker herself only left behind three letters. So, we learned about her, throughout the book, through other people’s writings. This renders her a a bit of a passive character in her own story as she never really “speaks”, she is mentioned, spoken about, sometimes cited, but more often than not, a third-person character.
In many ways, Mary Walker was fortunate in that right after her escape, she was helped, taken in, and employed by the Lesley family. Peter and Susan Lesley are central characters in the book because it is mostly through their letters that we get to know Mary. It is their extensive correspondence over the years that gives us a sense of who Mary was and their own perception of her. Mary Walker spent many years caring for Susan Lesley’s mother (who happened to be FDR’s great grandmother). It is the Lesleys who will try to organize a buy out of the remaining Walkers still in bondage and it is them who also attempted to set up an escape for Mary Walker’s children and mother (that failed).
What makes the book important, beyond the extremely moving story of Mary Walker, is to be provided with the historical context and legal background necessary to understand the situation of escaped slaves and the risks they were running even in free states. More than that, what the book successfully shows is that people, abolitionists of various degrees, whites and blacks, did not patiently sit on their hands, waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation. Long before the war, there was a tremendous amount of activism, advocacy and agitation in favor of abolition (and the corresponding, often legislatively successful, backlash from slave states).
Of course, everybody is familiar with the Underground Railroad, but this required a tremendous amount of organization, networking, and resources to pull off successfully. And indeed, success was never guaranteed and getting people out of the South could take years, as it did for Mary’s children. And once out of the South, relocation and integration into Northern society was not easy either. The book describes in great details the challenges related to all these aspects and how much persistence it required from all the parties involved.
The elimination of slavery was not Lincoln’s individual gift to the nation. It was the patient and persistent product of the actions of a large number of people who slowly worked to undermine the institution of slavery, through direct action but also publication, activism, lobbying and networking and raise consciousness on this issue. It is the great strength of this book to seamlessly connect one individual story to this web of social change.
I have already posted quite a bit about David Harvey‘s Rebel Cities: From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution:
- the fetishism of the local and the horizontal
- monopoly rent and local capitalism
- the cities in the context of the anti-capitalist struggle
- And more broadly on global cities.
It is somewhat of a given that every book by prolific David Harvey is an important book. He is a sharp analyst of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and has the ability to write very clearly about rather complex matters. His writing is engaging, full of examples that illustrate the concepts he uses in his deconstruction of the logic of 21st century capitalism. At the same time, as my previous posts on the subjects have shown, he is not shy about being critical of the left for its fetishism of the local and organizational forms (currently: the horizontal and non-hierarchical).
My previous posts have focused mainly on chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the book. That is where the heart of the argument is and we’ll see why in a minute.
The heart of the book, of course, is the concept of “right to the city” and the centrality of the city as locus of power in 21st century capitalism, but also as locus for potential anti-capitalist movements:
“The city, the noted urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” If Park is correct, then the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. How best then to exercise that right?
Since, as Park avers, we have hitherto lacked any clear sense of the nature of our task, it is useful first to reflect on how we have been made and remade throughout history by an urban process impelled onwards by powerful social forces. The astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years means, for example, that we have been remade several times over without knowing why or how. Has this dramatic urbanization contributed to human well-being? Has it made us into better people, or left us dangling in a world of anomie and alienation, anger and frustration? Have we become mere monads tossed around in an urban sea? These were the sorts of questions that preoccupied all manner of nineteenth-century commentators, such as Friedrich Engels and Georg Simmel, who offered perceptive critiques of the urban personas then emerging in response to rapid urbanization. These days it is not hard to enumerate all manner of urban discontents and anxieties, as well as excitements, in the midst of even more rapid urban transformations. Yet we somehow seem to lack the stomach for systematic critique. The maelstrom of change overwhelms us even as obvious questions loom. What, for example, are we to make of the immense concentrations of wealth, privilege, and consumerism in almost all the cities of the world in the midst of what even the United Nations depicts as an exploding “planet of slums”?
To claim the right to the city in the sense I mean it here is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way. From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while control over the use of the surplus typically lies in the hands of a few (such as a religious oligarchy, or a warrior poet with imperial ambitions).” (3 – 5)
At the same time, capitalism and urbanity have been associated with crises and social movements throughout the 20th and 21st century (and before), so there are clearly capitalist and anti-capitalist dynamics revolving around the urban context that are separate from strictly class / labor dynamics. And that is what Harvey is interested in: to examine the nature of 21st century capitalism and to find interstices and spaces of contention and conflict through which social movements could emerge and challenge hegemonic arrangements. The global city is the perfect nexus for all of this.
“Fast-forward once again to our current conjuncture. International capitalism was on a roller-coaster of regional crises and crashes (East and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001, and so on) until it experienced a global crash in 2008. What has been the role of urbanization in this history? In the United States it was accepted wisdom until 2008 that the housing market was an important stabilizer of the economy, particularly after the high-tech crash of the late 1990s. The property market absorbed a great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction (of both inner-city and suburban housing and new office spaces), while the rapid inflation of housing asset prices, backed by a profligate wave of mortgage refinancing at historically low rates of interest, boosted the internal US market for consumer goods and services. The global market was stabilized partly through US urban expansion and speculation in property markets, as the US ran huge trade deficits with the rest of the world, borrowing around $2 billion a day to fuel its insatiable consumerism and the debt-financed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the first decade of the twenty-first century.
But the urban process underwent another transformation of scale. In short, it went global. So we cannot focus merely on the US. Property market booms in Britain, Ireland, and Spain, as well as in many other countries, helped power the capitalist dynamic in ways that broadly paralleled that in the US. The urbanization of China over the last twenty years, as we shall see in Chapter 2, has been of a radically different character, with a heavy focus on building infrastructures. Its pace picked up enormously after a brief recession in 1997 or so. More than a hundred cities have passed the 1 million population mark in the last twenty years, and small villages, like Shenzhen, have become huge metropolises of 6 to 10 million people. Industrialization was at first concentrated in the special economic zones, but then rapidly diffused outwards to any municipality willing to absorb the surplus capital from abroad and plough back the earnings into rapid expansion. Vast infrastructural projects, such as dams and highways—again, all debt-financed—are transforming the landscape. Equally vast shopping malls, science parks, airports, container ports, pleasure palaces of all kinds, and all manner of newly minted cultural institutions, along with gated communities and golf courses, dot the Chinese landscape in the midst of overcrowded urban dormitories for the massive labor reserves being mobilized from the impoverished rural regions that supply the migrant labor.
China is only one epicenter for an urbanization process that has now become genuinely global, in part through the astonishing global integration of financial markets that use their flexibility to debt-finance urban projects from Dubai to São Paulo and from Madrid and Mumbai to Hong Kong and London. The Chinese central bank, for example, has been active in the secondary mortgage market in the US, while Goldman Sachs has been involved in the surging property markets in Mumbai and Hong Kong capital has invested in Baltimore. Almost every city in the world has witnessed a building boom for the rich—often of a distressingly similar character—in the midst of a flood of impoverished migrants converging on cities as a rural peasantry is dispossessed through the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture.
These building booms have been evident in Mexico City, Santiago in Chile, in Mumbai, Johannesburg, Seoul, Taipei, Moscow, and all over Europe (Spain’s being most dramatic), as well as in the cities of the core capitalist countries such as London, Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York (where more large-scale urban projects were in motion in 2007 under the billionaire Bloomberg’s administration than ever before). Astonishing, spectacular, and in some respects criminally absurd urbanization projects have emerged in the Middle East in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a way of mopping up the capital surpluses arising from oil wealth in the most conspicuous, socially unjust and environmentally wasteful ways possible (such as an indoor ski slope in a hot desert environment).
But this urbanization boom has depended, as did all the others before it, on the construction of new financial institutions and arrangements to organize the credit required to sustain it. Financial innovations set in train in the 1980s, particularly the securitization and packaging of local mortgages for sale to investors world-wide, and the setting up of new financial institutions to facilitate a secondary mortgage market and to hold collateralized debt obligations, has played a crucial role. The benefits of this were legion: it spread risk and permitted surplus savings pools easier access to surplus housing demand, and also, by virtue of its coordinations, it brought aggregate interest rates down (while generating immense fortunes for the financial intermediaries who worked these wonders).” (11 – 13)
This is the initial state of affairs. In the following chapters, Harvey, then, goes digging for the contradictions in this system in order to carve out spaces of contention for alternative social movements, especially since the dynamics quoted above have created vast inequalities of wealth and power (what with triumphant neoliberalism) that are highly visible in the global cities, with their cosmopolitan and privileged core and their peripheral slums, with their mass consumption levels and therefore, their great dependency on labor for both goods and services and the necessity of absorption of surplus value (so central to capitalism). Where neoliberalism is the most visibly dominant is also where it is most vulnerable. The amount of displacement and dispossession taking place in global city can be matched by counter-dynamics of anti-capitalist movements, IF they can organize around a new definition of what the working class is.
Those were basically the premises laid out in chapter 1. For those of us who had read Harvey’s previous book, The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism, chapter 2 will feel very familiar as it summarizes the current crisis. The core of Harvey’s argument really takes off in chapter 3, all through chapter 5 (so, you can refer to my blog posts listed at the beginning of this post). Chapters 6 and 7 read like columns that were published when things started heating up in Spring 2011, and especially during the London riots in Summer 2011 (I blogged about it at the time). They are very short, much less analytical and in-depth than the preceding chapters. This is where Harvey introduced the concept of feral capitalism:
“The problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all it’s worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shopkeepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.
A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery—particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected—has become the order of the day.
Every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way—more blatantly and visibly, in the streets. They mimic on the streets of London what corporate capital is doing to planet earth.” (155 – 6)
Chapter 7, also short and column-ish rather than full-on analysis, address Occupy Wall Street:
“But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront the Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and, by putting human bodies in that place, to convert public space into a political commons—a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and ongoing struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, and now the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked. What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook, that really matter.” (161 – 2)
It is not hard to see why Harvey would be interested in OWS, which is why I was a bit disappointed to not find a full-fledged analysis of the movement in the book. Apart from this two-page chapter, there is nothing on OWS, at least not explicitly. Of course, one can easily read between the lines of his analysis in chapters 3, 4 and 5 and see what applies to OWS (the organizational fetishism, for instance), which makes this absence all the more remarkable.
Nevertheless, Harvey offers a few recommendations for the OWS movement:
“To succeed, the movement has to reach out to the 99 percent. This it can do and is doing, step by step. First there are all those being plunged into immiseration by unemployment, and all those who have been or are now being dispossessed of their houses and their assets by the Wall Street phalanx. The movement must forge broad coalitions between students, immigrants, the underemployed, and all those threatened by the totally unnecessary and draconian austerity politics being inflicted upon the nation and the world at the behest of the Party of Wall Street. It must focus on the astonishing levels of exploitation in workplaces—from the immigrant domestic workers who the rich so ruthlessly exploit in their homes to the restaurant workers who slave for almost nothing in the kitchens of the establishments in which the rich so grandly eat. It must bring together the creative workers and artists whose talents are so often turned into commercial products under the control of big-money power.
The movement must above all reach out to all the alienated, the dissatisfied, and the discontented—all those who recognize and feel in their gut that there is something profoundly wrong, that the system the Party of Wall Street has devised is not only barbaric, unethical, and morally wrong, but also broken.
All this has to be democratically assembled into a coherent opposition, which must also freely contemplate the future outlines of an alternative city, an alternative political system, and, ultimately, an alternative way of organizing production, distribution, and consumption for the benefit of the people. Otherwise, a future for the young that points to spiraling private indebtedness and deepening public austerity, all for the benefit of the 1 percent, is no future at all.
In the face of the organized power of the Party of Wall Street to divide and rule, the movement that is emerging must also take as one of its founding principles that it will be neither divided nor diverted until the Party of Wall Street is brought either to its senses—to see that the common good must prevail over narrow venal interests—or to its knees. Corporate privileges that confer the rights of individuals without the responsibilities of true citizens must be rolled back. Public goods such as education and health care must be publicly provided and made freely available. The monopoly powers in the media must be broken. The buying of elections must be ruled unconstitutional. The privatization of knowledge and culture must be prohibited. The freedom to exploit and dispossess others must be severely curbed, and ultimately outlawed.” (162 – 3)
As I mentioned above, any book by David Harvey is an important book and I would consider him one of the most important “translators” of Marxian thought (I don’t really like the term “vulgarizer”). He does provide a deep yet clear analysis of both the workings of 21st century capitalism, locates them in the longue durée, sniffs out the contradictions and exposes them for all to see, hopefully (for him) leading up to social movements rushing through these interstices opened by these contradictions.
This book should be mandatory reading for activists and anyone interested / involved with the anti-capitalist movements around the world.
In the end, whatever the future of capitalism, it will be an urban future, so, any movement that hopes to contest the hegemony had better have some urban planning of its own ready. This book offers a good starting point.
I should end by noting that Harvey, as he recommends a redefinition of the working class beyond the factory workers, offers The Salt of the Earth as example of the kind of broad mobilization that is needed. In the case of the film, it is rural communities. Harvey thinks the same should be done for urban communities:
In chapter 4 of Rebel Cities, Harvey focuses on what he takes to be the essence of capitalism: the establishment of monopoly rent.
“All rent is based on the monopoly power of private owners over certain assets. Monopoly rent arises because social actors can realize an enhanced income stream over an extended time by virtue of their exclusive control over some directly or indirectly tradable item which is in some crucial respects unique and non-replicable. ” (90)
There are two types of situation where monopoly rent arises: (1) when one exclusively controls some special quality resource, commodity, or location and can therefore extract rent from others. If you are the only one who has a specific Picasso, you can charge people to take a look at it. The same goes if you have a London apartment with an exclusive view over a great Olympic location. Uniqueness is key here long with particularity and tradability. But one has to be careful that one’s product or location or resource is too unique so as to lose tradability. At the same time, using marketing and advertising to increase tradability might reduce uniqueness. So, tradability must never turn into commodification, which involves homogeneity and mass consumption.
On the other hand, marketing and advertising may be used to generate a false sense of uniqueness for mass produced goods and define them as particular enough that monopoly rent can be extracted out of them.
But there is a contradiction here:
“Why, in a neoliberal world where competitive markets are supposedly dominant, would monopoly of any sort be tolerated, let alone seen as desirable?
The fiercer the competition, the faster the trend towards oligopoly, if not monopoly. It is therefore no accident that the liberalization of markets and the celebration of market competition in recent years have produced incredible centralization of capital.
This structural dynamic would not have the importance it does were it not for the fact that capitalists actively cultivate monopoly powers. They thereby realize far-reaching control over production and marketing, and hence stabilize their business environment to allow for rational calculation and long-term planning, the reduction of risk and uncertainty, and more generally guarantee themselves a relatively peaceful and untroubled existence.
Market processes crucially depend upon the individual monopoly of capitalists (of all sorts) over ownership of the means of production, including finance and land. All rent, recall, is a return to the monopoly power of private ownership of some crucial asset, such as land or a patent. The monopoly power of private property is therefore both the beginning-point and the end-point of all capitalist activity.
Pure market competition, free commodity exchange, and perfect market rationality are therefore rather rare and chronically unstable devices for coordinating production and consumption decisions.” (92-4)
However, for Harvey, the left often makes the mistake of associating monopoly rent with large corporations. If location can be a source of monopoly rent, then, small business may very well have a local monopoly out of which they extract rent. Such a monopoly then would be challenged by the opening of the local market to foreign corporations. Here again, the nostalgia for the local, rooted, small business is misplaced.
“In the nineteenth century, for example, the brewer, the baker, and the candlestick maker were all protected to considerable degree from competition in local markets by the high cost of transportation. Local monopoly powers were omnipresent (even though firms were small in size), and very hard to break, in everything from energy to food supply. By this measure, small-scale nineteenth-century capitalism was far less competitive than now. It is at this point that the changing conditions of transport and communications enter in as crucial determining variables. As spatial barriers diminished through the capitalist penchant for “the annihilation of space through time,” many local industries and services lost their local protections and monopoly privileges.” (94)
No doubt though, that these locally-based monopolies were the big losers of globalization (as annihilation of time and space). One can then see the concentration of capital and the political neoliberal push for liberalization at the heart of global governance as the current means to regain the means of monopoly rents on a different scale. Another attempt to recompose monopoly privileges may be over culture by adding originality and authenticity in the definition of what can provide monopoly rent. Arts and culture would fall into that category. Harvey goes at some length over the struggle in the field of wine between French and Australian producers over what makes a wine more authentic and unique than other products. As capitalists look for other way to recreate monopoly powers, they will also create discursive constructs to highlight authenticity and exclusivity (“appellation d’origine contrôlée” in the case of wine, references to “terroir”, etc.).
It is in this context that traditions may be reinvented (as traditions are always invented in the first place) in urban locales, with neighborhood renovation to attract tourists in search of authenticity:
“The most avid globalizers will support local developments that have the potential to yield monopoly rents even if the effect of such support is to produce a local political climate antagonistic to globalization.” (99)
Although that is a fine line to walk as one might want tourists from all over the world to come experience urban local tradition and culture. Sometimes, it might even mean paying tours of slums as happened after the worldwide success of the movie City of God. One could even choose the level of danger to be exposed to. I suspect the success of Slumdog Millionaire might have had a similar effect.
“Urban entrepreneurialism has become important both nationally and internationally in recent decades. By this I mean that pattern of behavior within urban governance that mixes together state powers (local, metropolitan, regional, national, or supranational) with a wide array of organizational forms in civil society (chambers of commerce, unions, churches, educational and research institutions, community groups, NGOs, and so on) and private interests (corporate and individual) to form coalitions to promote or manage urban or regional development of one sort or another.” (100)
In this case, these different actors all look to generate what Harvey calls collective symbolic capital (using Bourdieu’s concept but extending it beyond individuals):
“The collective symbolic capital which attaches to names and places like Paris, Athens, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and Rome is of great import and gives such places great economic advantages relative to, say, Baltimore, Liverpool, Essen, Lille, and Glasgow. The problem for these latter places is to raise their quotient of symbolic capital and to increase their marks of distinction so as to better ground their claims to the uniqueness that yields monopoly rent. The “branding” of cities becomes big business.16 Given the general loss of other monopoly powers through easier transport and communications and the reduction of other barriers to trade, this struggle for collective symbolic capital has become even more important as a basis for monopoly rents. How else can we explain the splash made by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, with its signature Gehry architecture? And how else can we explain the willingness of major financial institutions, with considerable international interests, to finance such a signature project?
The rise to prominence of Barcelona within the European system of cities, to take another example, has in part been based on its steady amassing of symbolic capital and its accumulation of marks of distinction.” (103 – 4)
But Harvey considers that there is, in this process, space for contestation of the logic of capitalism:
“The struggle is on to accumulate marks of distinction and collective symbolic capital in a highly competitive world. But this brings in its wake all of the localized questions about whose collective memory, whose aesthetics, and whose benefits are to be prioritized. Neighborhood movements in Barcelona make claims for recognition and empowerment on the basis of symbolic capital, and can assert a political presence in the city as a result. It is their urban commons that are appropriated all too often not only by developers, but by the tourist trade. But the selective nature of such appropriations can mobilize further new avenues of political struggle.” (105)
But there is also the potential for reactionary nationalism which is equally anti-globalization as some localist movements can be. The risk then is for communities to advocate turning inwards and retreat into imaginary nostalgia and advocate exclusionary politics (see all these movements at work in Europe right now). At the same time, the branding of a city, as that’s what it is, might require the exclusion and evacuation of any category of people that does not fit with the new local environment (see the cleaning up of the slums in Rio in anticipation of the Olympic Games, or as was done in Beijing, the muzzling of political opponents during the same events, and London might not have enough security forces to ensure perfect conformity with the branding). And in all cases, all actors have to navigate the double risk of too much commercialization or too much specificity that is no longer tradable. But for Harvey, this is where there is a weapon for class struggle (which can swing both ways).
“But monopoly rent is a contradictory form. The search for it leads global capital to value distinctive local initiatives—indeed, in certain respects, the more distinctive and, in these times, the more transgressive the initiative, the better. It also leads to the valuation of uniqueness, authenticity, particularity, originality, and all manner of other dimensions to social life that are inconsistent with the homogeneity presupposed by commodity production. And if capital is not to totally destroy the uniqueness that is the basis for the appropriation of monopoly rents (and there are many circumstances where it has done just that and been roundly condemned for so doing), then it must support a form of differentiation and allow of divergent and to some degree uncontrollable local cultural developments that can be antagonistic to its own smooth functioning. It can even support (though cautiously and often nervously) transgressive cultural practices precisely because this is one way in which to be original, creative, and authentic, as well as unique.
It is within such spaces that oppositional movements can form, even presupposing, as is often the case, that oppositional movements are not already firmly entrenched there. The problem for capital is to find ways to co-opt, subsume, commodify, and monetize such cultural differences and cultural commons just enough to be able to appropriate monopoly rents from them. In so doing, capital often produces widespread alienation and resentment among the cultural producers who experience first-hand the appropriation and exploitation of their creativity and their political commitments for the economic benefit of others, in much the same way that whole populations can resent having their histories and cultures exploited through commodification. The problem for oppositional movements is to speak to this widespread appropriation of their cultural commons and to use the validation of particularity, uniqueness, authenticity, culture, and aesthetic meanings in ways that open up new possibilities and alternatives.” (109 – 10)
But again, the warning against local, traditionalist fetishism:
“This does not mean that attachment to “pure” values of authenticity, originality, and an aesthetic of particularity of culture is an adequate foundation for a progressive oppositional politics. It can all too easily veer into local, regional, or nationalist identity politics of the neofascist sort, of which there are already far too many troubling signs throughout much of Europe, as well as elsewhere.” (111)
So, it is important to never forget that a great deal of what capitalists do is to look for ways to recompose monopoly privileges out of which they can extract monopoly rents. There is a lot that makes sense right now if one keeps this basic principle in mind.
Or, as Lambert Strether would say, “it’s all about the rents.”
On the left are the hashtags and names / users that generated the most traffic through Twitter. The red spikes at the bottom reflect the volume correlated with specific events in meatware (demonstrations). Every dot is a tweet and the clusters reflect common themes and topics such as “statements from political parties”, “positive comments on the demonstrations” (you can figure them out even if you don’t read French). The whole thing must be read from left to right, that is, as things unfolded chronologically.
The whole thing creates a mapping and networking of the social movement and its relations to physical events as well as other factors happening outside of the web (speeches, statements). No digital dualism here. There are strong correlations between what happens on the streets and in physical reality and on the web.
So, we are having of them cross-blog dialogue on Paul Mason’s book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions and Lambert has produced a first response to part of the book and my review and some commenters have chimed in. So, here is my disjointed response to his response.
The occupation thing: the Occupy movement did not invent occupation, of course. It has been part of the repertoire of contention of landless peasants and indigenous peoples in various parts of the world, but especially, and more recently, in the Sem Terra movement. The crucial difference is, of course, that the point of peasant / indigenous occupation is to occupy land ill-used or not used by private owners or governments and to occupy it in order to use it for sustainable farming and survival, but also as alternative form of governance (something that the Occupy movement has tried with sometimes weird results). Similar occupations occurred in Chiapas as well. Again, it has been a major tactic of indigenous peoples (1) precisely because land ownership is the problem, but also (2) as protest against what kind of land management neoliberalism leads to.
The quest for historical precedent is useful because it is a matter of using the right framework to think about current movements. The 1848 revolutions were centered on class conflict and one of Mason’s points is precisely that last year’s movements brought back social class to the forefront. This is why comparisons with 1968 are inaccurate as 1968 was the beginnings of identity politics, which contributed to shoving off class off the stage (until now) to the great benefits of conservatives, opening the era of major union-busting across the US for instance.
And all the examples that Mason provides in the book as lead-up to social movements point the end point of neoliberal governance without any systemic opposition. So, sure, gay rights and all, but those identity-based movements rose on the ashes of the labor movement, which facilitated the neoliberal institutional consolidation.
On success, there is still so much that up for grabs what with the collapsing European countries, the French election (which seems to crystallize issues beyond just France, with, for instance, the unprecedented Merkel intervention in a foreign election), the British dismantling of the welfare state, and with still a lot of unknown in the Middle East. And there is not much to hope from US Democrats. At the same time, there are no real alternative models of institutional governance (and “back to the local” ain’t gonna do it).
Actually, Lambert, for the 1%, success or systemic failure is still in the air because if movements were successful in at least some degree of systemic reform, that would be a failure. But this is truly a test of the capacity of the power elite to flex its muscles and regain control over discourse (as power, to go all Foucault on y’all), whether it means some shock doctrine and structural adjustment (which is what austerity is) or more meaningful change that will most likely come from emerging nations (Brazil), collapsing nations (Greece), or some labor revival (out of Asia). What seems to be the success though, is that austerity policy with turn states left with only their repressive and aggressive functions (police for domestic repression, and military as main foreign policy tool), which has always been a conservative dream.
The social movements themselves are composed of large numbers of people who have grown up in the era of individualization and networks. It remains to be seen how networking and individualizing really prove the strength of weak ties beyond being able to organize demonstrations and flash mobs to evade police repression. The cases of Egypt and Libya certainly offer reasons to be mildly pessimistic.
But who knows, maybe the end of Winter in the Western hemisphere will bring back some activism.
On the technology thing: there is no way around the digital divide. Ultimately, the strength of these movements will be on the streets (and street success may very be due to the presence of labor on the street alongside the students with their cell phones). Sure, technology will provide neat tools to organize, coordinate, etc. But at some point, there has to be street presence. Let’s see if that Kony 2012 thing works, then we can talk.
[This review is the opening salvo of a blog-to-blog dialogue on the subject of current anti-systemic social movements between this humble blog and the Mighty Corrente building. Corrente has been following the Occupy movement pretty closely, so I expect Lambert will have plenty to say on the subject over there. I also highly recommend David S. Meyer’s blog, Politics Outdoors, a solid blog on the sociology of politics and social movements.]
In case you haven’t noticed, things have indeed been kicking off everywhere in the past year, between the Arab Spring, the Indignados, the British riots and the Occupy movement, to name only some of the most visible social movement of the past year. So, of course, this makes Paul Mason’s book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions highly relevant. Mason claims that the book is journalism, not social science, but he certainly makes use of sociologists of social movements throughout the book. The book itself is an easy and quick read in which chapters alternate between reporting from the ground and analysis from a variety of places where things have indeed been kicking off. So, as much as he might reject the designation, I would consider the book to stand solidly in the sociology of social movements. My only reservation is with the cyber-utopian stance that he adopts towards these movements. I am more of a cyber-crank of the Morozov kind. But again, the book is quite an interesting read and well-worth anyone’s time. Indeed, it is hard to put down. I read it over one weekend.
So, why is it kicking off everywhere? The story starts in Egypt, where, surprise, surprise, some degree of neoliberal policy was involved in heightening the discontent already present there, after decades of corrupt authoritarianism and cronyism:
“For sixty years, the zabbaleen had run Cairo’s trash collection system. They picked up the waste door to door, fed their pigs with the rotting organic matter and recycled the rest for cash, trading with a traditional caste of middlemen. But in 2003, as part of a privatization programme overseen by Mubarak’s son Gamal, three sanitation companies—two Spanish and one Italian—were brought in to ‘modernize’ the city’s waste collection. These outside firms were given cleaning contracts valued at US$50 million a year. Instead of door-to-door collection, they placed big plastic bins on street corners. Instead of recycling 80 per cent of solid waste—as the zabbaleen had managed to do—their contracts required that only 20 per cent be recycled, with the rest tipped into landfill. The transformation of Cairo’s refuse system was to be crowned by the eviction of the zabbaleen, whose slum was adjacent to a new residential property development planned by friends of Gamal Mubarak.
But the new system wasn’t working. Cairo’s residents refused to use the bins; in fact, many of the high-grade plastic containers were stolen and, with poetic justice, ended up being shredded and recycled by the zabbaleen. People began to dump their rubbish onto the streets or into the disused and abandoned buildings that scar Cairo’s streetscape. So, the new system needed an extra push. When the global swine flu epidemic broke, in 2009, the Mubaraks spotted an opportunity. The Egyptian parliament, circumventing its own health ministry and in defiance of UN advice, ordered all the zabbaleen’s pigs to be slaughtered. There had been no recorded transmission of swine flu from pigs to humans.
Across Egypt, an estimated 300,000 swine belonging to zabbaleen households were slaughtered; the government paid between $15 and $50 per pig in compensation, compared to the $80 to $300 they’d been selling for on the market. Soon, two things happened. With no pigs to eat the rotting food, the zabbaleen stopped collecting it, leaving it to pile up on the streets. Then malnutrition appeared among their children. For, says Guindi, though the multinational companies were getting $10 a tonne for waste, and the middlemen $2 out of that, the zabbaleen received nothing from the contract—only what they could make from the sale of recycled waste, and their pigs. Now something else happened, equally novel: the zabbaleen rioted. They hurled rocks, bottles and manure (there was plenty of that to hand) at the pig-slaughtering teams. In response, Mubarak deployed riot squads into the slums—followed, as always, by Central Security and its torturers.” (Loc. 170 – 90)
This, of course, is very reminiscent of what happened in Bolivia when the water got privatized under the aegis of the World Bank: service deteriorated, people got poorer (albeit for somewhat different reasons), livelihood got threatened, people took to the streets, governments react with violence. The Bolivia example is not mentioned in the book but here is a quick reminder:
And part 2:
It seems pretty obvious that the same causes lead to the same effects: see – austerity all over Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, especially). But Mubarak had been in synch with the rest of global elites who meets every year in Davos. Actually, most dictators who have been removed from power in the Arab Spring were good friends of Western power. Which is partly why Western media and political classes did not see it coming and were slow to react (I remember the initial reaction of the Sarkozy administration, via the Defense Minister, offering Tunisia’s Ben Ali riot control assistance in the early days of the uprising only to backtrack later in shame and embarrassment). Why?
According to Mason, two reasons explain this blind spot: (1) a stereotypical concept of the Arab world that would make Edward Said turn in his grave (passive but violent, squeezed between terrorism and religious fundamentalism), and (2) when was the last time the mainstream media had a solid discussion of class? For as long as I lived in the US, any suggestion that gross and growing inequalities were going to be a problem at some point was shot down as “class warfare” (as if there had not been a class war since the Reagan era, one that, as Warren Buffett has told us, his class has won already). More broadly, this failure is the inability to conceptualize a systemic failure of capitalism (so, analysis of the crisis was reduced to accusations launched against the lower classes – but not class warfare! – and minorities). The events of the past year, for Mason, reveal the utter failure of capitalist realism but also of the mainstream left.
“If the rule of men like Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad had been seen as somehow separate from the rule of free-market capitalism, maybe political science would not have become trapped in the same fatalism as economics. But support for these pro-Western dictators—or more especially for their sons—had always been sold on the basis that they were ‘liberalizers’: freeing up their home market for corporate penetration and, one day soon, reforming their constitutions. This was the theme of the famous essay by Anthony Giddens, which declared Gaddafi to be a follower of the Third Way and Libya on the road to becoming ‘the Norway of North Africa’.” (Loc 557)
Mason also identifies three major precursors to last year’s social movements: (1) the Greek student riots of 2008 after a police shooting and (2) the Israeli invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead, December 2009) and (3) Iran, of course, where Twitter got its political street creds. In terms of social movements, all three were defeat for the weaker parties but they created a context where populations got galvanized by the capacity of such weaker parties to defy oppressive regimes. These precursors put together the components of the future social movements: secularized, educated youth facing massive precarization, repressed workers’ movements, the urban poor and social networking technologies. These four elements would coalesce more fully a bit later in many more countries. For all these categories of people, the promises of capitalism were not fulfilled, they actually turned out to be lies. From the other side of the table, after decades of outright repression or propagation of an individualistic ideology through the media, leaders probably thought there would be no resistance even in the event of a collapse.
Finally, for Mason, the last reason why no one saw this coming is that all these movements are really something different:
“First, probably, it’s because there is no ideology driving this movement and no coherent vision of an alternative society. Second, the potential for damage arising from violence is larger than before: the demos, when they get violent, immediately expose the participants to getting jailed for serious offences, so they will go a long way to avoid getting angry. Third, and most important, it seems to me that this generation knows more than their predecessors about power. They have read (or read a Wikipedia summary of) political thinkers like Foucault, Deleuze, Dworkin. They realize, in a way previous generations of radicals did not, that emotion-fuelled action, loyalty, mesmeric oratory and hierarchy all come at an overhead cost.” (Loc. 791)
This, of course, takes place in a larger context of crisis of legitimacy, intensified by the economic crisis because the close ties between political and corporate power have been brutally exposed in its full disconnect from the rest of the population. And when the youth in London rioted, the lack of comprehension was extreme (I wrote quite a bit about that):
“All across the developed world, the generation that leaves university in the 2010s will have to work longer because the guarantee of a comfortable income in retirement can no longer be met, either by private investment or the welfare state. Their disposable income will fall, because the financialization of public services demands a clutch of new debt repayments that eat into salaries: student loan repayments will be higher, private health insurance costs will rise, pension top-up payments will be demanded. They will face higher interest rates on home loans for decades, due to the financial crash. They will be burdened with the social costs of looking after the ageing baby boomers, plus the economic costs of energy depletion and climate change.
For the older generation it’s easy to misunderstand the word ‘student’ or ‘graduate’: to my contemporaries, at college in the 1980s, it meant somebody engaged in a liberal, academic education, often with hours of free time to dream, protest, play in a rock band or do research. Today’s undergraduates have been tested every month of their lives, from kindergarten to high school. They are the measured inputs and outputs of a commercialized global higher education market worth $1.2 trillion a year—excluding the USA. Their free time is minimal: precarious part-time jobs are essential to their existence, so that they are a key part of the modern workforce. Plus they have become a vital asset for the financial system. In 2006, Citigroup alone made $220 million clear profit from its student loan book.” (Loc. 1141 – 6)
And individualization ultimately proved it had failed as well as any form of domination will generate resistance, as Richard Sennett (cited a lot by Mason… which is good) noted:
“The sociologist Richard Sennett describes how, starting in high-tech industries, a particular type of employee has become valued by corporations: ‘Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions … a self oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability [rather than actual skill], willing to abandon past experience.’3 For employers, Sennett writes, the ideal product of school and university is a person with weak institutional loyalty, low levels of informal trust and high levels of anxiety about their own competence, leading to a constant willingness to reinvent themselves in a changing labour market. To survive in this world of zero loyalty, people need high self-reliance, which comes with a considerable sense of individual entitlement and little aptitude for permanent bonding. Flexibility being more important than knowledge, they are valued for the ability to discard acquired skills and learn new ones.
However, Sennett observes, such workers also need ‘a thick network of social contacts’: their ideal habitat is the global city, at whose bars, coffee shops, Apple stores, dance clubs and speed-dating events they can meet lots of equally rootless people..” (Loc 1157 – 66)
And these conditions of resistance were:
- the global city as major site for social unrest (paging Saskia Sassen) – this is where networks are and where gross inequalities coexist along with the three components of these new social movements (slum dwellers, precarized educated youths and the working class);
- the “graduate with no future” as Mason calls hir, is by definition is global denizen (students have participated in these movements practically everywhere); one of the consequences of globalization is the diffusion of a global culture based on disillusionment that is easy to spread all over Twitter;
- and there are more college students than ever before. Quantity does matter.
The urban poor and the working class have been important components of these movements but it is students who have kicked them off. Add to this the power and networks and communication technology and all the ingredients are there. Mason is a big believer of the network effect (what gets created as additional product of people’s interaction). So, Twitter, pay-as-you-go access, photo / video-sharing services and blogging were essential tools of social movements. As a result, journalists were also engulfed in the crisis of legitimacy as their status carried limited weight on Twitter (much to the dismay of some media celebrities). Again, Mason is much more cyber-utopian as I am.
Mason then goes on at length on the economic crisis itself. There is not much that has not been already written about this, so, I won’t belabor this. One thing I had not read before is the assertion that the Federal Reserve precipitated the Arab Spring with QEII, which led to the rise in commodity prices, which led pushing a lot of people in the global South into deeper poverty.
Another interesting analytical point that Mason makes is to postulate that the correct historical precedent for these current social movements is the European Revolutions of 1848 (especially what led to the French Second Republic):
“On 22 February 1848 the ‘men in smocks’—the Parisian workers— overthrew the monarchy and forced the middle class to declare a republic. It was a shock because, like Saif Gaddafi and Gamal Mubarak long afterwards, King Louis-Philippe had counted himself something of a democrat. In 1848 a wave of revolutions swept Europe: by March, Austria, Hungary, Poland and many states of the future Germany were facing insurrections, often led by students and the radicalized middle class, with the small, mainly craft-based, working class in support. Elsewhere —as in Jordan and Morocco in 2011—riots and demonstrations forced beleaguered monarchs into constitutional reform. Within months, however, class conflict tore the revolutionary alliance apart. In Paris, the newly elected assembly was dominated not by the radicals who’d made the revolution, but by social conservatives. They hired a general to crack down on unrest; that June, he crushed the working class in four days of intense barricade fighting.
But by 1851 the revolutionary wave in Europe was over, its leaders exiled or dead. A military coup ended the French revolution, the president rebranding himself as Emperor Napoleon III. The Prussian army crushed the German states that had voted for radical democracy. Austria defeated the Hungarian uprising, put down its own and enlisted Napoleon III to suppress the republic that had sprung up in Rome. In each case, the survivors observed a similar pattern of events. Once the workers began to fight for social justice, the businessmen and radical journalists who had led the fight for democracy turned against them, rebuilding the old, dictatorial forms of repression to put them down.
Eighteen forty-eight, then, forms the last complete example of a year when it all kicked off. As with 2011, it was preceded by an economic crisis. As today, there was a level of contagion inexplicable to governments. But in hindsight, it was actually a wave of revolution and reaction, followed pretty swiftly by a wave of war. Even if today’s situation defies parallel, the events of 1848 provide the most extensive case study on which to base our expectations of the present revolts.
The demographics of 2011 resemble those of 1848 more than any other event. There is an expanded layer of ‘graduates with no future’, a working class weakened by the collapse of the organizations and lifestyle that blossomed in the Fordist era, and a large mass of slum-dwelling urban poor. As today, 1848 was preceded by a communications revolution: the telegraph, the railway and the steam boat formed part of an emerging transport and communications network clustered around the cities that became centres of the social revolution. As today, 1848 was preceded by the rapid formation of networks—in this case, clubs and secret societies. The students, worker-intellectuals and radical lawyers who led them were indeed part of an international network of activists. As today, 1848 was a revolution in social life as well as politics.” (Loc 2992 – 3038)
That is not very encouraging because these movements ended badly. And indeed, Mason anticipates some possible negative outcomes (such as the military / religious alliance and crackdown in Egypt):
- There will be a time where the middle class will break the class alliance with the working class and turn against it (as indeed happened in 1848) and the social and economic justice agenda will tone down basic labor demands;
- The rise of ‘strongmen’ from within revolutionary ranks, comparable to rise of the organized criminal networks after 1989;
- War or authoritarian backlash.
On top of this, Mason sees the culture war in the US and Israel as additionally worrisome.
And then, where is the left?… *sounds of crickets chirping*
So, where does that leave us?
“Everything depends on the outcome of the economic crisis. Before 2008, globalization ‘delivered’ in a rough-and-ready way to the poor of the developing world. It dragged one billion people out of rural poverty and into urban slums, and created an extra 1.5 billion waged workers. It provided access to life-changing technology. And it offset the decline in prosperity and status for the manual workers of the rich world with unlimited access to credit. At the same time it made the rich of every country richer, and inequality greater—even in the developing world, where real incomes rose.
What becomes of the present wave of revolts—political, social, intellectual and moral—now depends completely on what the global economy delivers. If it is nothing but heartache and penury, we are in the middle of a perfect storm.” (Loc. 3353 – 68)
As I stated earlier, if you can stomach the sometimes hyperbolic cyber-utopianism, I highly recommend the book… also, it shows sociologists are the most relevant social scientists to read.
“That said, significant social change has never been achieved in this country through conventional politics alone. From the outset, the American system was designed to insulate the federal government from radical change. The founding fathers were revolutionaries of an ambivalent and conflicted sort. They prized stability over all else, including any pretense to an egalitarian democracy. Whatever progress we have made moving the country closer to this ideal has been slow, grudging, fragile and, most importantly, achieved during periods of broad progressive ferment by movements that challenged the system from below. All the movements our textbooks now celebrate as part of America’s glorious democratic legacy—from abolition to women’s suffrage, from the labor movement to the African-American struggle for civil rights—were fiercely resisted by the political and economic elite.
Let’s do away with another myth: American history should not be read as the inevitable, progressive realization of a more just and equal union. In many respects, the last 30 years have moved us farther away from that ideal than we were three to four decades ago. It will take yet another period of sustained progressive ferment and the building of a new coalition across racial, class, and regional lines to restore balance to this country, redress the inequities that have been allowed to develop, revitalize democratic practices, and restore faith in the ideal of a just society.
What should such a movement look like? Occupy’s many critics suggest it should take a more conventional form, with leaders, a hierarchical structure, and narrowly focused goals, than the effort to date. With the possible exception of goals, I couldn’t disagree more with this line of criticism. These features of the Occupy effort are neither liabilities nor atypical of the other successful progressive movements of our nation’s history. The great majority of them had no centralized, hierarchical structure or single, unitary leader. The image of the “great leader” understandably shapes popular conceptions of social movements. But leaders such as Martin Luther King or Gandhi are exceedingly rare in the annals of broad, sustained progressive movements. And even in King’s case, it would be inaccurate to say that he was the leader of the modern civil rights movement. There were certainly many other leaders of the movement, but more importantly, there was nosingular civil rights movement. The movement was, in fact, a coalition of thousands of local efforts nationwide, spanning several decades, hundreds of discrete groups, and all manner of strategies and tactics—legal, illegal, institutional, non-institutional, violent, non-violent. Without discounting King’s importance, it would be sheer fiction to call him the leader of what was fundamentally an amorphous, fluid, dispersed movement.
We tend to think of movements as akin to organizations—that is, as unified, bounded entities pursuing specified goals under the leadership of specific individuals. Biased by this conventional understanding, we urge Occupy protestors to pursue the goals we see as most important using the tactics and organizational structures that make the most sense to us. But given all that the Occupy protests have accomplished and continue to accomplish, why should those groups morph into the movement that you or I want to see? All broad, successful movements start somewhere, with a particular campaign or set of actions serving as the opening wedge. The Occupy protests have served that function, changing the conversation in this country, and creating space—literally and figuratively—within which others can act. The challenge for those of us who identify with the protests is to organize ourselves using whatever structures and towards whatever specific goals we find consistent with the broader struggle. Given the larger economic and political stakes, this is a challenge worthy of our efforts.
Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter‘s Games of Empire – Global Capitalism and Video Games is a very interesting and well-written book that uses the conceptual apparatus laid out by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (with a touch of Deleuze and Guattari thrown in for good measure) in Empire and Multitude and apply them to the social world of video games as they are embedded in the global capitalist system. The book might be a bit advanced for an undergraduate audience with constant references to more abstract theories but is ultimately fascinating in relating the ins-and-outs of the videogame industry and culture to the workings of the world system.
The main argument of the book is this:
“The “militainment” of America’s Army and the “ludocapitalism” of Second Life display the interaction of virtual games and actual power in the context of Empire, an apparatus whose two pillars are the military and the market (Burston 2003; Dibbell 2006). Consider that the virtualities of Second Life feed back into the actualities of capital via the medium of the Linden dollar, and that the virtualities of America’s Army cycle into the actualities of combat via the Web link to the U.S. Army home page. Add, moreover, that the two games are connected: the high energy consumption and consumer goods of Second Life are what America’s Army recruits soldiers to fight and die for. The two games reassert, rehearse, and reinforce Empire’s twin vital subjectivities of worker-consumer and soldier-citizen: Second Life recapitulates patterns of online shopping, social networking, and digital labor crucial to global capitalism; America’s Army is but one among an arsenal of simulators that the militarized states of capital – preeminently the United States – depend on to protect their power and use to promote, prepare, and preemptively practice deadly operations in computerized battlespaces (Blackmore 2005). Yet the examples of digital dissent in Second Life and America’s Army show that not all gamers accept the dominion of what James Der Derian (2001) terms “MIME-NET” – the military-industrial-media-entertainment network. Minor gestures that they are, these protests nevertheless suggest a route from game virtualities to another sort of actualities, that of the myriad activisms of twenty-first-century radicals seeking to construct an alternative to Empire.
Our hypothesis, then, is that video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire – planetary, militarized hypercapitalism – and of some of the forces presently challenging it.” (xiv – xv)
This connection is pretty obvious to make, after all, virtual games, along with the computer and the Internet, were products of military research. And more than just universes where otakus spend their lonely lives, virtual environments have gone legit by being used in the corporate world as training and surveillance tools.
Of course, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter go over Hardt and Negri’s conceptual apparatus and provide some clear definitions and examinations, especially Empire (the planetary regime of economic, military and technological power with no outside) whose global governance is multilayered, involving global institutions, nation-states and various agencies. The counterreaction to the power of Empire is Multitude, which covers all the forms of activism that, also in a multilayered and decentralized fashion, challenge the logic and processes of Empire. This is TINA (there is no alternative) versus AWIP (another world is possible).
A major process of empire is its capacity to extract energy from its subjects: as workers, as consumers, as soldiers, and as gamers, through immaterial labor, that is, the labor that involves use of information and communication and produces the affective component of commodities. Immaterial labor reveals the centrality of marketing, advertising and media in creating new products and managing workplaces that produce them.
Why virtual games?
“Virtual games are exemplary media of Empire. They crystallize in a paradigmatic way its constitution and its conflicts. Just as the eighteenth century novel was a textual apparatus generating bourgeois personality required by mercantile colonialism (but also capable of criticizing it), and just as twentieth-century cinema and television were integral to industrial consumerism (yet screened some of its darkest depictions), so virtual games are media constitutive of twenty-first century global hypercapitalism and, perhaps, also lines of exodus from it.” (xxix)
The first part of the book is a pretty extensive history of video games and the rise of the corporate giants that currently dominate the market (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo). In that section, the authors deal with the issue of gender in video games. Two main developments are central to this: (1) with the massive entry of women in the workforce and the relative absence of equalization of domestic work by men (the whole Second Shift thing), the deficit in care work has been compensated through technology (including game consoles that are perfect for latchkey kids). (2) As deindustrialization pushed men away from manufacturing into the computer and information technology sectors, it left women stuck in the service sector that involved most of the emotional work. These service jobs pay less, are more physically demanding and are less prestigious. Even when women got into the ICT sector, it was in different, less “fun”, functions than men and the gendered division of labor persisted.
And despite technology, the second shift was still there, leaving women with less leisure time than men, and therefore less time to invest in video games that involve long hours of practice and involvement in building characters, accumulating goodies and reaching level after level. In other words, male privilege may have been challenged in a lot of spheres of social life but video games created a domain of “remasculinization” where the in-game experience is thoroughly based on the tropes and cultural scripts of hegemonic masculinity where sexism is rampant. As a result, there are fewer women gamers, a fact then used to claim that women are “naturally” less into gaming, a convenient justification that avoids looking into the structural dynamics of gaming. Actually, when given the opportunity and not drowned in sexist and misogynistic abuse, a lot of women love to game.
How does that fit with Empire?
“The world market is a dynamo at drawing people into the circuit of production and consumption, but it neglects, to a catastrophic degree, social and ecological reproduction – care for households, community, and environment. The ongoing sexism of virtual play mirrors this imbalance. Reproductive work, material and immaterial, has historically been performed overwhelmingly by women, and this, even after successive waves of feminism, still largely continues to be the case. The virtual play industry addresses itself to an ideal male subject, a ‘digital boy’ (Burrill 2008, 15) who can spend hours at game play and game production, and positions women, of not now as completely invisible other, still as a subsidiary participant, a ‘second sex’, making the dinner, sustaining relationships, and gaming occasionally, ‘casually’. It is precisely this non-universality, this prioritization of consumption and production over social and ecological reproduction, that males virtual play so symptomatic of Empire.” (23)
What is especially introduced by virtual play is the concept of playbor (play as labor as a form of immaterial labor). Players are free laborers, toiling for fun and for a price but they offer their free labor. Playbor has four aspects;
- microdevelopment ( a lot of games are created by small teams in someone’s garage, being micro-developed until a select few get bought by giant corporations while millions of others just crash and burn)
- modding (modifications and improvements on already commercialized and released games by altering the codes)
- MMOs (massive multiplayer online games where the players are running massive experiments in community- and team-building for free)
- machinima (players creating cinema from games)
Playbor is the version 2.0 of the hacker culture based on autoproduction, networked cooperation and self-organization. All four modalities of playbor are free labor provided by the players to the companies commercializing the games. Playbor is now also a tool used in corporate training and the knowledge economy in general.
Similarly, the virtual game industry is paradigmatic of cognitive capitalism:
“Cognitive capitalism is the situation where workers’ minds become the ‘machine’ of production, generating profit for owners who have purchased, with a wage, its thinking power.
To speak of cognitive capitalism is specifically to suggest the recent rise to prominence of a set of industries for whom the mobilization, extraction, and commodification of advanced forms of collective knowledge are foundational: the computer hardware and software industries; the biotechnology, medical, and pharmaceutical sectors; the financial analysis sector, marketing, and data mining; and an array of media and entertainment enterprises, including video games. All these industries, in turn, presuppose a socially ‘diffuse intellectuality’, generated by an increasingly vast educational apparatus. (Vercellone 2007b).” (37-8)
Cognitive capital has specific characteristics:
- production of software to record, manipulate, manage, simulate and stimulate cognitive activity;
- intellectual property rights, patents, trademarks, and copyrights become the main mode of revenues in an increasingly rent economy, or turning living knowledge into dead knowledge (studied unoriginality)
- globalization: sectors of cognitive capital aim for the global market in both production and consumption;
- dependence on the cognitariat: a workforce with intellectual, technological and affective skills that needs to be organized, disciplined, and ultimately exploited (through three devices: creativity, cooperation and cool)
- cognitive capital is also the terrain where owners and workers conflict.
In that respect, the whole chapter dedicated to EA is highly enlightening.
Another aspect of Empire is the use of social machines:
“A social machine is a functionally connected assemblage of human subjects and technical machines, people and tools.” (70)
In the case of virtual games, the assemblage goes as follows:
- technical machine: the console (replaced by the human body with Wii and then Kinect)
- corporate machine: the EULA, patents and copyrights attached to any device, the flows of capital, labor and technology
- time machine: the profitable using up of software and other virtual commodities that have a limited life (consoles are sold at a loss, all the money is in the software that have a planned obsolescence)
- machinic subjects: the mobilization of hard core gamers (mostly in the trope of the hypermasculine “man of action”)
- transgressive war machines of hacking and piracy
- machine wars between the three corporate giant of the gaming world
- global biopolitical machine of Empire:
“The Xbox, the PS3, and even the charming Wii are machines of Empire; their technological assemblages of circuitry and cell processors build the corporate territories of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, which in turn are components in the worldwide capitalist machine.
Consoles are intimate machines, seamlessly inserted into our domestic or personal space or even carried close to our skin, responsive to our skills and prowess, becoming, with the Wii, remote body extensions.” (93)
Hence is extended a society of control or surveillance society, with our consent and enjoyment.
Having laid out the structural context of gaming in the first part of the book, the authors move on, in the second part, to the actual games that banalize the idea of permanent war by socializing boys early on through war play. This is especially crucial in the aftermath of the War on Terror, which officialized a state of permanent conflict everywhere against elusive, never quite clearly defined enemies. For Hardt and Negri, after all, war is not for conflict resolution between countries but for control and order in the global system.
In this context, war is
- interminable and therefore becomes a general phenomenon and a permanent mode of social relations
- lacking boundaries as ‘security’ becomes the rationale for incursions everywhere and anywhere and where the boundaries between domestic and international become blurry
- legitimizing a permanent state of exception, which requires the suspension of rights
- the new normal
Virtual games provide an important agent of socialization to all of this. War becomes part of the culture of everyday life and joins, again, the video game culture and the military apparatus and the overlaps are rather obvious. For instance, developments in military thinking involve Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT), a scenario that is often played out in different games (such as the Full Spectrum series) and in real life (in the cities of Iraq, for instance or the US cities by a more and more militarized police).
Banalization of war not only habituates and socializes the population to permanent war, but it also maintains its will to fight. Through the exercise of virtual violence, the games train, discipline and disinhibit deadly aggression against enemies, or at least, socialize people to indifference to torture, mass killing of these “others”. The mass media play their part in that process as well.
And then, there was World of Warcraft as illustration of biopower. The makers of the game try to control the game “from above” and in most aspects of the game while the gamers organize themselves “from below”. Running an MMO requires tight governance in the face of constant violations, hacking and modding with specific sanctions and surveillance mechanisms while being careful to not kill the fun out of the game through too much control and sanctions. And this gets trickier as the gaming population increases with a gaming boom in Asia, especially China.
In WoW, Gold is what matters and gold farming is booming but gold farmers are reviled and stigmatized by other players as fake players. At the same time, one forgets that gold farmers are also real-life super-exploited workers by corporations that supply a demand, mostly from wealthier players. This is a rather perfect illustration of the relationship workers / consumers of core countries have to workers from the periphery and semi-periphery.
This phenomenon (along with the exploitation of peripheral workers to work up the levels – power leveling – by western players) was nicely illustrated in Cory Doctorow’s novel, For The Win.
“Here the intersection of Blizzard’s [the company that produces WoW] digital biopower with the material biopower of Chinese capitalism snaps into sharp focus. Wgen Blizzard polices the digital realm of Azeroth (a kingdom created from the commercial enclosure of cyberspace) for virtual gold farmers, the offenders it seeks are likely to be actual peasant farmers who have left or been thrown off their fields by Chinese capitalism’s enclosures, abandoning an impoverished and ecologically devastated countryside for its cyber-connected cities. Some have probably been displaced by megaprojects such as the Three Gorges Dam, supplying insatiable demand for electrical power, primarily for industry, but also for Internet servers, in China’s eastern’s coastal cities.” (145)
And corporations do not like gold farming because it impedes on the free labor provided by paying players. And so, the super-exploited players bear the brunt of exploitation AND discipline so that playbor can prevail and continue to provide massive quantities of free labor. As a result, the production relations of the real world are reproduced in virtual world as well in hyper-subsumption (the gradual full colonizing of every sphere of life by capitalist social relations).
If there is one thing that is clear, whether with the success of Slumdog Millionaire or the current occupation movement, it is that the city (especially the global city) is a key site of Empire, and Grand Theft Auto is a perfect illustration of the centrality of the urban environment. The global cities are where we can see the full spectrum of global stratification and the consolidation of global hierarchies, where massive wealth but also surveillance and repression take place. GTA is a perfect representation of the neoliberal urbanism:
“GTA’s constitution of a metropolitan entirely enveloped by, and subsumed within, crime also performs a normalization of corporate criminality. Its game world asserts that crime is the way the universe is – the way money changes hands, business is done, society organized; it is the nature of reality. Why be outraged when the financial rulers of the world disregard the pettiness of the law, since all of this just reveals their superior grasp of the rules of the game? The omnipresence of crime in Liberty City is thus one more cultural contribution to the generalized indifference that greets the news of corporate crimes in Empire, an indifference whose rational kernel is perhaps, as David Harvey observes, the popular assumption that criminal behavior is hardly ‘easily distinguishable from the normal practices of influence-peddling and making money in the marketplace.’ (2007, 166)” (178)
And if GTA presents a world that is thoroughly corrupt, it does not offer any alternative than to be really good at the rotten game. There is no way out of Empire. GTA may be satirical but it also normalizes the state of affair as “that’s just the way it is”.
But for the authors, there are alternatives to the games of Empire, the games of Multitude, which are the subject of the final part of the book. Multitude is the counterreaction to Empire, all the forms of resistance and activism to the logics of Empire. Multitude manifests itself in different ways:
- through new subjectivities, new forms of producing, cooperating and communicating on a global scale and mobilizing skills to subvert Empire – subjective capacity
- through new social movements opposing global capital – social movements
- through the development and protection of alternatives such as open source, indymedia and other forms of freeing information from global capital – political project
The key is to have all three coalesce.
In the case of video games, resistance from the multitude takes a variety of forms all subsumed under the concept of countergaming:
- Counterplay: acts of contestation within the established games of Empire and their ideologies
- Dissonant development: emergence of critical content in a few mainstream games, dissident infiltration
- Tactical games: dissemination of radical social critique through game designed by activists
- Polity simulators: serious educational and training projects
- Self-organized worlds: independent production of game content in MMOs
- Software commons: challenges on the whole intellectual property rights regime
This follows rather closely the logic of “another world is possible” made famous by the World Social Forum. And all six paths are part of repertoires of contention within the game world. And all of them may contribute potential paths to exodus from Empire. The authors present a whole variety of examples of the ways this can be accomplished. After all, Empire is a contested terrain and multiple forms of resistance are always at work in the minutiae of social life as well as the major social institutions.
It is a very dense book but a very important one to understand the logic of Empire, as a good introduction to the work of Hardt and Negri, as well as new social movements.
French sociologist Alain Accardo has penned an interesting essay on the social movement that has spread all over Europe, starting in Spain with Los Indignados, Les Indignés en France, or the whole Occupy movement in the US and elsewhere. For him, analysis of the movement has either focused on the emotional aspects (hence the reference to indignation) or the aspects that most puzzled the media (no clearly designated leaders, no clear platform, etc.). Of course, the sources of said indignation are rooted in a variety of motives, from the most micro (personal unemployment or precarization) to more macro aspects (action / inaction of the government, austerity programs, breakdown of the welfare state to the view of global financial capitalism as a rigged game).
But Accardo adopts a critical stance with the very label of “indignados” or “indignés” (outraged would be an approximate translation) because, rather than capture a political project, it remains at the level psychological or moral state, leaving the door open to a variety of interpretations. The label of “indignados” is a soft empirical category turned into a pseudo-concept (much like “hipsters”). Such categories are better at designating commercial / advertising targets based on a vaguely defined personality trait where the norm / average is impossible to capture objectively. Such is the case for indignation.
As important as such a psychological or moral state may be, as it is a necessary ingredient to social movements trying to effect systemic change, if such movements stay at that level, governments do not have much to fear. Moral outrage is no substitute, for Accardo, for a lack of doctrine, program, organizational structures, common perspectives and analysis, leaders. And it does not look like this will change. For now, it is more cathartic collective behavior than actual social movement.
Participants may see these things as strengths or, at least, the price to pay to avoid stigmatization and co-optation by traditional political organizations (such as political parties and labor unions). As justified as this rejection, hostility or distrust of the political establishment may be (and, for Accardo, they are), they deprive the collective of the necessary structuring for social mobilization to turn collective behavior into an “ephemeral happening”, as Accardo puts it. The fact that the leftist establishment (especially in Europe) has failed does not mean one can do without any organization or structuring. There is a world of difference between an activist and a soldier, between mass behavior and revolutionary armies. The history of class struggles shows that they are less about flash mobs and fair atmospheres and that there is always a hardening stage where amateurs are quick to leave the field (the dismantling of the camps and the US David pepper spraying aggression partly illustrate this), or, as it is the 21st century, are quick to play concern trolls.
It would not be the first time that we see short-lived eruptions of rebellion, certainly helped by social media technologies but these technologies play mostly the part of amplifying and rapidly propagating emotions, more than anything else. And so, the movement can only persist if it remains vague and undefined as any effort to define and circumscribe it would lead to its dismantling as major differences between the participants would emerge. Indeed, the movement managed to pull together every shade of political left (understood in a very broad sense), from those mostly concerned about unemployment and financial regulations to those who want more radical systemic transformations. And so, the nebulous nature of the movement is both its strength and its weakness, a very fragile equilibrium.
At the same time, Accardo is not satisfied with the idea that this informal movement emerged on the ashes of the establishment left and the legitimation crisis. For him, the rise of the indignados movement is a good illustration of the way the middle classes struggles have been shaped by forty years of neoliberalism. It does not mean that all the participants are from the middle classes but from people who have largely grown up in post-industrial societies, where levels of education are higher and where “middle class” has become fetishized and a hegemonic cultural category as the class that was entitled to reap the benefits of late capitalism (through higher education and investment in ICT skills) and was therefore invested in its maintenance and adaptation. This category has relegated to the back of the bus the struggles of industrial, blue-collar working classes and the wage workers (those that identified the most with labor unions and, in Europe, the traditional constituencies of the communist parties). And so, this petty bourgeoisie was ideologically convinced by the new spirit of capitalism of its right to hedonistic consumerism and individualism.
This ethos of the middle class, present in the Occupy / indignados movement is one that was socialized with the ideology of breaking sclerotic old modes of organization / production / politics. And as analyses of the financial collapse have shown, elite schools and universities have furnished classes of highly educated people to the maintenance of the system, either in government or on Wall Street. This ethos is reformist and has benefited social-democratic parties all over Europe. In the US, I would argue that this has translated into a rejection of the political in favor of the technocratic (or also called pragmatic) as the proper mode of governance, beyond ideology. The promotion of the technocrat has also been at the core of the ideological construction of the EU as neoliberal entity. This is an argument often mentioned regarding the supposed pragmatism of the Obama administration.
So, the Occupy / indignados movement, for Accardo, is more bricolage than stable political force that could potentially shake the political ground in the US/Euro countries. There are no indications that a potential structuring of radical social force advocating for the global commons, or a more equal distribution of resources or for full democratic governance. It is not a revolutionary movement. At it stands, the dominant ideological climate is a mish-mash of equivocal ideas and sentiments having more to do with being able to participate in the system (get rid of the cheaters and the rigging of the game rather than the game itself).
At the same time, should the Euro crisis deepen (“should”??), the European middle-class may have to give up the double game it has always played (staying on the fence when it came to class struggle, getting the most out of the system by affiliating with upper classes, and distinguishing itself from the working class while engaging with intermittent alliances with it). Faced with precarization and downward mobility, is emulating / serve / imitate the wealthy still a viable social project? As social stratification distribution become more hourglass-shaped, are the middle the classes still “middle”? I think the triumph of right-wing parties in the Euro countries in crisis shows that this is not happening. The media are also working hard to redirect attention to scapegoats (immigrants and minorities, for instance) away from class struggles. The relationships of domination that have characterized class conscience in Europe have not shifted.
As Accardo concludes, the middle classes have certainly been, at different times, a source of social progress. But more often than not, they are also historically, the best defenders of the system against which they might rebel with indignation every once in a while. For Accardo then, it remains to be seen whether this time is different.
“”If all that happens is those groups continue to try to occupy public space to express outrage, this dissipates relatively quickly,” said Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford and an expert on social movements. “Lots of movements start out as more expressions of outrage or frustration, but that does not sustain a movement.”
While Occupy has changed the national conversation, McAdam said “two months do not a movement make.”
As Occupy approaches a fork in the movement-building road, experts and veterans compared it to other social movements as it confronts its challenges.
“People are not going to invest time and energy to come to demonstrations that don’t appear to be linked to specific outcomes,” McAdam said.
“Some movements are born with very specific goals,” McAdam said. “But lots of them are as amorphous and broadly expressive as the Occupy protest.”
The 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott was intended to be a one-day, localized action, McAdam said. But when many more people participated than even organizers expected, it carried forward, with specific goals in mind. It eventually lasted for 381 days.
“We typically look back at any of these movements as united top-down efforts,” he said. “But the civil rights movement was a collection of local struggles.”
There have been Occupy protests in more than 1,000 cities. But for the movement to flourish, suburbia needs to embrace it on its own terms.
Those at the front of the modern women’s movement in the 1960s, McAdam said, “were radical left feminists” who were “culturally anathema to middle-class suburban women.”
But “they highlighted and made visible and salient a general concern about issues about gender discrimination. And lots of women could identify with that even if they weren’t about to go out to some angry demonstration and throw bras in a trash can.”
“A 21-year-old Occupy Wall Street demonstrator caused quite the ruckus early this morning, when he scaled a 70-foot sculpture in New York’s Zuccotti Park, refusing to come down until Mayor Michael Bloomberg resigned.
Dylan Spoelstra of Canada climbed the park’s signature red sculpture around 6 a.m. He sat on a metal platform for three hours, with his feet dangling, as police cleared the surrounding area and tried to talk him down.
Around 9 a.m., Spoelstra was seen descending the sculpture in a police crane, looking jovial, with his arm around the officer who helped him down.
Once on the ground, Spaelstra was placed in handcuffs and transported to Bellevue Hospital, where he was to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, according to a police spokesman.”
Apparently, no one understands performance art or performance stunts as part of the repertoire of contention.
Obviously, a VERY deranged person:
However, the threshold for craziness that needs psychiatric evaluation is rather flexible. The person below was NOT taken to Bellevue. I wonder why:
The answer is, of course, only people who challenge the larger social structure (with its distribution of power, its ideological underpinnings and supportive institutions) get to be classified as deviant, or the more “humane” and medicalized label of “emotionally disturbed” and treated accordingly (remember Gulag Archipelago?).
On the other hand, supporting the existing system and the current distribution of social privileges is rationalized and normalized, and not treated as a pathological category.
The occupation movement is a systemic challenge and therefore, it gets to be depicted in all sorts of demeaning ways in the media (whose role is to provide already-mentioned ideological underpinnings): no clear message, confused people, hippies, dirty and smelly, weird, and now, mentally ill.
On the other hand, the Tea Party movement is of the “suck-up / kick-down” category and therefore gets to have its grievances treated with serious concern and granted legitimacy. This movement presents no challenge whatsoever to established structures.
The idea of riots exploding when food becomes scarce or unaffordable is not new. This is something that has been discussed before in the context of what used to be called the “IMF riots”, that is riots caused by the implementation of structural adjustment programs in developing countries (“structural adjustment” is roughly equivalent to austerity + privatization). Often, it is when these measures impacted food and water that riots would explode.
So, it is not that far-fetched to suggest a correlation between food prices and revolts in the Middle East:
Maybe we are witnessing the internal version of resource wars combined with decades of bad governance where the “panem and circenses” rule of dictators does not work anymore. There is more entertainment to be had via satellite TV and the Internet and if food prices go up, then things explode.
As the article notes:
“Seeking simple explanations for the Arab spring uprisings that have swept through Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, is clearly foolish amidst entangled issues of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and water stress. But asking “why precisely now?” is less daft, and a provocative new study proposes an answer: soaring food prices.
Furthermore, it suggests there is a specific food price level above which riots and unrest become far more likely. That figure is 210 on the UN FAO’s price index: the index is currently at 234, due to the most recent spike in prices which started in the middle of 2010.
Lastly, the researchers argue that current underlying food price trends – excluding the spikes – mean the index will be permanently over the 210 threshold within a year or two. The paper concludes: “The current [food price] problem transcends the specific national political crises to represent a global concern about vulnerable populations and social order.” Big trouble, in other words.
Now, those are some pretty big statements and I should state right now that this research, by a team at the New England Complex Systems Institute, has not yet been peer reviewed. It has been published because, Yaneer Bar-Yam, NECSI president, told me, the work is relevant now but peer review is slow.
The first part of the research is straightforward enough: plotting riots identified as over food against the food price index. The correlation is striking, but is it evidence of causation?
Bar-Yam says this conundrum can be tackled by asking the question in clear ways. Could the riots be causing high food prices, rather than the reverse? No, the former is local, the latter global. Could the correlation simply be a coincidence? Yes, there’s only a tiny chance of that, Bar-Yam’s team argues in the paper.
Lastly, could other factors be causing both the violence and the high food prices? “No-one has suggested any other factor that can do both,” says Bar-Yam. For example, oil and tin both show similar price patterns to that of food, but seem unlikely to prompt the violence. The similarity, says Bar-Yam, is because all the commodity price peaks are being driven by speculation in global markets.