The Tyranny of The Local

A few days ago, I made a point I have made before: that local governance is not inherently more democratic than of other levels (national, regional or global). This point was discussed over at Corrente where some were unconvinced and Lambert noted that, in the context of inaccessible national politics, there is a greater chance of control at the the local level… I would argue that this is true, if one belongs to the gender / sexual / religious / racial / political majority. Otherwise… well…

Example 1:

“The chief rabbi of a West Bank settlement has prohibited women from standing in a local community election.

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the Elon Moreh settlement, near Nablus, said women lacked the authority to stand for the post of local secretary.

He wrote in a community newspaper that women must only be heard through their husbands.

No women have registered for the election due to be held later on Wednesday, Israeli media reported.

The rabbi made his comments in the community’s newspaper after an unidentified young woman wrote to him asking if she could run for the position of community secretary, the Israeli news website Ynet News said.”

Example 2:

“KABUL, Afghanistan — The two Afghan girls had every reason to expect the law would be on their side when a policeman at a checkpoint stopped the bus they were in. Disguised in boys’ clothes, the girls, ages 13 and 14, had been fleeing for two days along rutted roads and over mountain passes to escape their illegal, forced marriages to much older men, and now they had made it to relatively liberal Herat Province.

Alissa J. Rubin/The New York Times

Sumbol, 17, a Pashtun girl, said she was kidnapped and taken to Jalalabad, then given a choice: marry her tormentor, or become a suicide bomber.

Instead, the police officer spotted them as girls, ignored their pleas and promptly sent them back to their remote village in Ghor Province. There they were publicly and viciously flogged for daring to run away from their husbands.

Their tormentors, who videotaped the abuse, were not the Taliban, but local mullahs and the former warlord, now a pro-government figure who largely rules the district where the girls live.

Neither girl flinched visibly at the beatings, and afterward both walked away with their heads unbowed. Sympathizers of the victims smuggled out two video recordings of the floggings to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which released them on Saturday after unsuccessfully lobbying for government action.

The ordeal of Afghanistan’s child brides illustrates an uncomfortable truth. What in most countries would be considered a criminal offense is in many parts of Afghanistan a cultural norm, one which the government has been either unable or unwilling to challenge effectively.”

I am not exactly sure of the origins of the fetishism of the local but its most current incarnation is  prominent in the anti-neoliberal globalization movement (“think global, act local”) where the local is seen as the democratic antidote to “globalization from above”, that is, neoliberalism imposed by global institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization. These organizations are often perceived as unaccountable, undemocratic and imposing one-size-fit-all policies on countries and local communities around the world.

The accusations are not unfounded, but just like finding flaws in evolutionary theory would not make creationism true, finding flaws in the current shape of globalization would not make localism the ultimate form of democratic governance.

Similarly, the fact that national politics is facing, in many Western countries, a crisis of legitimacy, as Habermas demonstrated, because it is seen as less responsive to citizens’ needs, complicit in denationalization of economic policy in favor of the global neoliberalism, does not establish the local as a more legitimate site of governance.

As yesterday’s book review on the MST shows, national governance is sometimes necessary to fight against local tyrannies (often disguised as “traditions”). This applies as well to the case of Nigerian children accused of being witches where salvation cannot be local or albinos in Tanzania, persecuted in the name of local beliefs. Sometimes, the regional level is the one that can apply true democracy or greater respect for human rights, for instance, as the European Commission on Human Rights.

Finally, local oppression is especially awful for women at the local level around the world. I could fill up the pages of this blog with articles just detailing the varied forms of local oppression of women and girls. Even the MST acknowledges it has a macho culture problem.

My point is not to assert that the local is bad but it should not be assumed to be somewhat more “naturally” fair, democratic and responsive to population needs.

Book Review – To Inherit The Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music Break – Asia

It seems like Todd Krohn and I are from the same ancient generation: we both grew up with Asia (does that correlate with turning into a cranky sociologist??)… heck, I can remember them when they were Emerson, Lake and Palmer… and King Crimson… and Uriah Heep. Asia had catchy tunes, solid rock… and oh, these over the top album covers, who can forget them!

Well, the old guys have a new album out (thanks, Todd! I would have missed that) and they still rock:

The Visual Du Jour – No Vacation Nation

Via the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

Full report below:

No-Vacation Nation

As the original article above notes,

“But it’s not just vacation. CEPR research shows that the United States comes in last when when it comes to paid sick days and paid parental leave as well. And while some argue that paid leave leads to less competitive economies, CEPR also finds that paid sick days don’t cause unemployment rates to rise.”

Failing Global Food System: Failure of Entitlement, Land Grab and Neocolonialism

Let’s start with Amartya Sen’s insight on entitlements:

“Economist Amartya Sen (1990:374) suggested that people command food through entitlements – that is, their socially defined rights to food resources. Entitlement might consist of the inheritance or purchase of land on which to grow food, employment to obtain wages with which to buy food, sociopolitical rights such as the religious or moral obligation of some to see that others have food, or state-run welfare or social security programs that guarantee adequate food to all. Not all of these kinds of entitlements exist in all societies, but some exist in all.  From this perspective, hunger is a failure of entitlement. The failure of entitlement may come from land dispossession, unemployment, high food prices, or lack or collapse of state-run food security programs, but the results are that people may starve to death in the midst of a food surplus.

Viewing hunger as a failure of entitlements also corrects ideological biases in the culture of capitalism, the tendency to overemphasize fast growth and production, the neglect of the problem of distribution, and hostility to government intervention in food distribution. Thus, rather than seeing hunger or famine as a failure of production (which it seems not to be), we can focus on a failure of distribution (see Vaughn 1987:158). Furthermore, we are able to appreciate the range of possible solutions to hunger. The goal is simply to establish, or reestablish, or protect entitlements, the legitimate claim to food. Seeing hunger as a failure of entitlements also focuses on the kinds of public actions that are possible. For example, access to education and health care are seen in most core countries as basic entitlements that should be supplied by the state, not by a person’s ability to pay. And most core countries see basic nutrition as a state-guaranteed entitlement, in spite of recent attempts in countries such as the United States to cut back on these entitlements. Thus, by speaking of entitlements, we can focus on the importance of public action in dealing with world hunger.” (Robbins 2008: 186)

In this article, what Felicity Lawrence describes is precisely a pattern of failure of entitlement alongside a neocolonial system of food production, resulting in overproduction of some items, and scarcity of others:

“The root cause of hunger and famine is rarely crop failure alone. It is about who controls and benefits from the land and its resources. About 1 billion people, or one in six of the global population, go hungry today, even though more food is being produced than ever. And yet, around the same number of people are overweight or obese and likely to have their lives cut short by diet-related disease. We have, in other words, a food system that is failing.

It is a food system that is profligate with finite resources – with fossil fuels for agrochemicals, artificial fertiliser, processing, packaging and transport, with water that is increasingly scarce, and with soil that is being eroded and degraded.

It delivers an excess of food that is unhealthy for the affluent and yet is incapable of producing enough calories for the poor. And it is a system in which the value of the food chain has been captured at each point, from seed to field to factory to shop, by powerful transnational corporations. (Rich countries don’t like to do empire these days so they have privatised it.)”

One should add that the IMF and the World Bank, as their structural adjustment program requirement, often demanded that government end subsidies or price support for food products, often resulting on food riots (IMF riots already mentioned in previous posts).

This is indeed a neocolonial system that we can see at work in Africa, for instance, where a new land grab is at work:

The World Bank is still promoted land grab programs that it acknowledges have no benefits for the affected communities:

Presentation of initial results fo the World bank study during the  panel, "Is there a global land rush?" at the World Bank Land  Conference, April 26, 2010.“The partial glimpse of the [World Bank] study presented in Washington last week sheds some light on an answer. The Bank initially wanted to do a comprehensive study of 30 countries, the hot spots for the land grabs. But it had to cut back severely on its expectations because, as it admits, the governments would not provide them with information. The corporations wouldn’t talk either, we were told by people writing the country chapters. This in itself is a powerful statement that says volumes about the hush-hush nature of these deals. If the World Bank can’t get access to the information, who can?

The Bank decided instead to base its study on the projects that have been reported by the media and captured on the website. The Bank identified nearly 400 projects in 80 countries in this way, nearly one quarter (22%) of which are already being implemented. The study thus makes it plain that the global land grab is very real and moving along faster and further than many have assumed  (See box for a basic glimpse of what the study is expected to say.)”

The Bank’s most significant findings, however, are about the impacts of these projects on local communities. Its overwhelming conclusion, shared at the land conference last week, is that these projects are not providing benefits to local communities. Environmental impact assessments are rarely carried out, and people are routinely booted off their land, without consultation or compensation. The Bank even revealed that investors are deliberately targeting areas where there is “weak land governance”.”

Euphemism du jour: “weak land governance”. I am currently working on a piece on landless peasants and this directly apply to most such movements, from the Brazilian MST to Via Campesina. The conditions and deprivation of entitlements may vary but the results tend to be the same at the local, national and global levels:

“It is a system of extraordinary sophistication and yet also of startling fragility, vulnerable to climate shocks and energy price spikes. But it has not been created by accident. US and European government policies postwar have fostered it – with agricultural subsidies that have encouraged surplus of their own commodity crops, and with trade agreements and loans through international financial institutions that have forced markets in poorer countries open to take those crops and the processed junk diets their manufacturers like to make of them.”

The Economics of Immigration

It is a topic I have touched upon before but it does not seem to matter how much information is made available publicly regarding the overall positive impact of immigration. Once the media has a set script (teachers unions = bad, for instance), it is really hard to change. Nevertheless, Robert Shapiro tackles the data again and comes up with the following points (via Mark Thoma):

  • “More than one-third of recent immigrants come from Europe and Asia, while less than 57 percent have come from Mexico and other Latin American nations”, so, I’m guessing, la Reconquista ain’t for tomorrow just yet;

  • “While more immigrants than native-born Americans lack high school diplomas, equivalent shares of both groups have college or post-college degrees. That finding should make it unsurprising that 28 percent of U.S. immigrants work as managers or professionals, including 38 percent of those who have become naturalized citizens or the same share as native-born Americans.” What? You mean us immigrants are not all landscapers and domestic workers?

  • “While undocumented male immigrants are generally low-skilled, they also have the country’s highest labor participation rate: Among working-age men, 94 percent of undocumented immigrants work or actively are seeking work, compared to 83 percent of the native born.” You lazy natives need to get cracking!

  • “Undocumented immigrants are more likely to support traditional families with children: 47 percent of undocumented immigrants today are part of couples with children, compared to just 21 percent of native-born Americans.”

  • “There’s simply no evidence that the recent waves of immigration have slowed the wage progress of average, native-born American workers. Overall, in fact, the studies show that immigration has increased the average wage of Americans modestly in the short-run, and by more over the long-term.” But is also a convenient meme (predicted by economic theory and constantly reiterated in the media and political discourse).

Some people actually benefit from immigrant hiring at the low-income end of the distribution:

  • “Among workers, the winners are generally higher-skilled Americans: For example, when a factory or hotel hires more low-skilled workers, demand also increases for the higher-skilled people who manage those workers or carry out other professional tasks for an enterprise that’s grown larger.”

But there are losers: low-skilled workers who have to compete. But the article notes that promoting legalization of undocumented immigrants has shows that it boosts their income between 15-20%, so, some form of legalization would take care of that negative effect on native low-skilled workers. Legalization also makes formerly undocumented workers more free to move on to different jobs (reducing competition in some sectors) and makes them eligible for some wage-boosting benefits, such as the minimum wage.

“Ending the ability of unscrupulous employers to recruit people to work for less than the minimum wage would not only raise the incomes of those currently paid less than the minimum wage. It also would ease downward pressures on the wages of other lower-skilled Americans, which comes from the below-minimum wage workers. This process is something we have refered to as “closing the ‘trap-door’ under the minimum wage.””

And here’s another meme that can be put to rest:

“Looking again at immigrants generally, recent research also shows a strong entrepreneurial streak, with immigrants being 30 percent more likely than native-born Americans to start their own businesses. Nor are immigrants the fiscal drain that’s commonly supposed, at least not in the long term. In California and a few other states, immigrants today do entail a net, fiscal burden, principally reflecting the costs of public education for their children. But studies that use dynamic models to take account of the lifetime earnings of immigrants – most of whom arrive here post-school age and without elderly parents to claim Social Security and Medicare – show substantial net fiscal gains at the federal, state, and local levels.”

Saving Africa’s Witch Children

This British documentary, airing on HBO in the US, is a horrific account of the plight of children designated as witches in parts of Nigeria, thanks to the rise of fundamentalist pentecostal churches. The pastors in these churches get wealthy by promising parents that they will deliver their children from possession. In these rural communities, parents and neighbors often take matters into their own hands and mutilate, torture, abuse and kill, burn or bury alive children designated as witches. Once stigmatized, there is simply no hope for these children.

The Nigerian government has passed a law protecting children from religious abuse but some of the states have not accepted the law and it is hard to enforce, especially with the lack of cooperation from local communities (something I touched upon in my post yesterday, the local as as potentially oppressive as any other level of governance. I would argue that stigmas are especially hard to shed in local contexts, especially small, rural communities where there is really no way out.

The movie also makes the point of how this ties up with poverty in the midst of riches in the Niger Delta and how pollution makes people sick, more likely to die young, and how these sudden deaths are blamed on witches.

Here is the video. It is not for the faint of heart.

Saving Africa’s Witch Children from Africa’s Witch Children on Vimeo.

Religious fundamentalism (mix of Christianity, traditional religion), extreme poverty and environmental degradation are a toxic brew that, as noted in Morin’s article, create a context of barbarism.

Yet another example of how structural violence often leads to interpersonal mass violence.

The organizations that rescue these children and mentioned in the film:

Edgar Morin for A New “New” Left or a Fourth Way?

In an article in Le Monde, Edgar Morin outlines why the Left is necessary in current times, why it has failed so far and the challenges it needs to tackle to begin solving the problems of what he calls the age of barbarity.

Morin starts from the idea that there may be a unity of origins in the Left but a diversity of development. The unity comes from the Enlightenment roots and the ideas inherited from the French Revolution and the republican tradition: the aspiration to a better world, the emancipation of the oppressed, the exploited, the humiliated, as well as the universality of human rights for men and women. This common origin, in European thought at least, led to three types of political thinking: socialist, community and libertarian. In this common past, one finds of course, the main Enlightenment thinkers (Voltaire and Diderot) as well as Rousseau, but also Marx an Proudhon for the socialist and social-democratic political forms, and Bakunin and Kropotkine for the libertarian forms.

The libertarian thought focuses on individual and group autonomy. The socialist thought revolves around social improvement while communist thought centers on the necessity of brotherhood and community. These currents are now, for Morin, in competition and they have been antagonistic in the past. It is time to rethink the Left for the current age.

The first challenge of the Left is, of course, globalization and the neoliberal age that unites technology and economic forms and has led us where we are today, into savage capitalism and biosphere degradation, along with warmongering from religious fundamentalists and nationalist xenophobes and the availability of weapons of mass destruction. These overlap to create very dangerous conditions.

But in Western European countries, it is not just globalization that can be blamed for the progressive dismantling of the welfare state, the massive deindustrialization / outsourcing / layoffs. Morin places the blame also on the incapacity of the Left and those who were supposed to represent the interests of the working class to provide an alternative to these challenges. In France, as Morin puts it, the communist party is a dwarf star, the trotskyist movement is long on critique of capitalism but short on alternatives and the socialist party… is there anything left to say on the sorry state of the socialist party?

More concerning, for Morin, is the disappearance of the “peuple de gauche”, that is the traditional groups that identified with any one of these three currents. Again, despite its diversity, the Left’s people was united on aspiring to a better world, based on fighting again labor exploitation, for welcoming the immigrant, defending the weak, and a concern for social justice.

Now, the main advocates for such a view – the school teacher as soldier of the Republic or the industrial union organizer – have seen their status degraded. What is left of this is a Left of the educated elite (“la gauche caviar”) that looks down upon the working-class, which then finds itself more at home in the racist and xenophobic parties where economic insecurity is translated into hatred against Arabs, Muslims, immigrants from Africa, etc. And so, one witnesses the success of right-wing and xenophobic parties in European countries such as Holland, Italy, Germany, and France. The lack of credible Left alternative is a component of the generalized crisis of legitimacy of parliamentarianism.

So, Morin advocates for a new Way (have we not heard that before?), one that unifies all the multiple initiatives taking place around the world to reform and revolutionize at the social, political and economic level. It is surprising that Morin does not mention the World Social Forum, in this context. All these initiatives – such as peasants and landless movements around the world along the lines of solidarity economics… also not mentioned by Morin – are completely ignored by dominant political parties and the media partly because they are compartmentalized.

Morin also advocates for local democracy. I have mentioned before my skepticism for this fetishism of the local. The local is not inherently more democratic than the national, regional or global levels. Many sources of oppressions are rooted in local communities and “traditions” invoked to reject universal human rights. Also, one only needs to look at the United States and its local political forms (such as elected school boards) to see how the local can go horribly wrong.

Morin also advocates specific criteria for hiring in public services administration as well as education and health care: compassion, empathy, dedication to the common and public good as well as concern for social justice and equity (which means no conservatives would need apply!).

Also, to the three threads of left-wing thinking mentioned above, one would need to add and environmentalist thread.

Finally, Morin thinks the first order of business is resistance to barbarism, that is every form of degradation by human beings against other human beings, resistance to subjection, contempt, humiliations for a better world. This aspiration has risen over and over throughout human history, and for Morin, it will rise again. I don’t think it will come from a core areas politicians (certainly not the current crop of US and Western European leaders), but more from people like Lula and other leaders from semi-peripheral or peripheral areas.

The Lazarus Effect

If you missed this short documentary on HBO, you missed something important.

This film is about more than just distributing ARVs to HIV-positive people in Zambia and the challenges of public health on the African continent. It also touches upon the devastation on the social structure when mortality is so high, the stigma attached to being HIV-positive (the clinic director mentions that, initially, when she held support group meetings for her patients, there was a crowd outside the room to see who was in). And if it is not easy but yet manageable to establish clinics and systems of distribution in the slums of Lusaka (I have been to the Kanyama area), it is much more difficult to provide access to the rural poor.

And as much fun as it is for American politicians to disparage the UN, there is no other organization in the world that could do their job.

And don’t miss the before and after treatment photos, they are quite dramatic.

Social Movements 101 – Red-Shirt Edition

Daniel Little, over at Understanding Society, has a very interesting post that analyzes the Thai Red Shirt movement as social movement. Before getting into his post, you can refresh your memory with a short primer on social movements by your truly here.

Also, Little has linked to an interview he conducted with Doug McAdam on contentious politics, posted in 9 segments on youtube:

This is the analytical framework that Little uses to analyze the Thai Red-Shirt movement. Little specifically zeroes in on McAdam’s conceptual apparatus regarding contentious politics and the factors that shape social movements, citing McAdam:

Expanding political opportunities.  Under ordinary circumstances, excluded groups or challengers face enormous obstacles in their efforts to advance group interests….  But the particular set of power relations that define the political environment at any point in time hardly constitutes an immutable structure of political life.  Instead, the opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action are expected to vary over time.  It is these variations that are held to help shape the ebb and flow of movement activity. (ix)

Extant mobilizing structures.  … By mobilizing structures I mean those collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilize and engage in collective action.  This focus on the meso-level groups, organizations, and informal networks that comprise the collective building blocks of social movements constitutes the second conceptual element in this synthesis. (ix)

Framing or other interpretive processes. … Mediating between opportunity, organization and action are the shared meanings, and cultural understandings — including a shared collective identity — that people bring to an instance of incipient contention.  At a minimum people need to feel both aggrieved about some aspect of their lives and optimistic that, acting collectively, they can redress the problem. (ix-x)”

How does this apply to the red-shirt movement? Actually, I would argue that the person to read on this subject is Jon Fernquest, both online and on Twitter. For instance, Fernquest linked to an article dealing with funding, which is a major consideration for social movements both in terms of resource mobilization but also in terms of political opportunity (being expanded as funding circulates, or reduced, in the case below):

“A United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship leader has admitted the red shirt rally has received financial support from ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, the former deputy leader of the dissolved Thai Rak Thai party .

“I accept that Thaksin himself and some politicians, including Khunying Sudarat, have given us financial support, as have other donors, but I don’t know how much they’ve donated,” UDD co-leader Jaran Dithapichai said on the Ratchaprasong rally stage last night.

“What’s wrong with that? Rallies have costs and we need donors. Even other UDD members and myself have had to spend our personal funds on the rally.”

Mr Jaran’s statement came after the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) announced plans on Sunday to freeze the financial transactions of 106 people and companies it believed had provided funding for red shirt activities.”

As Little suggests, other aspects of the movement should be studied along the conceptual lines provided by McAdam:

“So it would be very interesting to initiate a careful study of the Redshirt movement along these lines.  Such a study would need to review the shifting circumstances of political power over the past ten years or so in Thailand, both at the national level and at the state level.  Certainly the military overthrow of the Thaksin government created “ebbs and flows” of the sort to which McAdam refers.  And the Yellowshirt demonstrations of 2008 also shifted the fields of power in Thailand.  What openings did these various events create for Redshirt mobilization?  Second, we would need to know a great deal more about the local and regional organizations through which Redshirt mobilization occurs.  What are those organizations?  What resources do they control?  How do they manage to succeed in mobilizing and transporting many tens of thousands of rural supporters to the center of Bangkok?  And how do they manage to continue to supply and motivate these supporters through several months of siege?  Finally, and most importantly, we need to know much more about the mentality and social identities of the Redshirts.  What do they care about?  What are their local grievances?  What are their most basic loyalties and motivations?  McAdam points out that most studies of successful social movements have found that activists and supporters usually possess dense social networks and deep connections to their communities; will this turn out to be true for the Redshirt movement?”

Sociology: Italian Demise and German De-Academization and Professionalization?

A while back, Italian sociologist and fellow socblogger Agnese Vardanega sent me the link to this article by Guido Martinotti on the sad state of Italian sociology (although she is obviously a powerful counter-example of that). The article questions whether the death of Italian sociology is a murder or a suicide. My Italian is not that great  but here is what I could get from the article (Agnese can correct me if I misinterpret it).

One of the points that Martinotti makes is that if a sociologist had fallen into a coma in the 1960s and woke up now, she would not have missed much in terms of intellectual debates in the discipline. He is not referring to specific individuals. As he notes, brilliant sociologists can be found in academic niches. But he identifies the lack of institutional recognition of the discipline as a larger problem. Institutional weakness combined with lack of leadership has produced a discipline without a voice. A final weakness of sociology, not unique to Italy or to sociology, is the uncertain nature of its scientific status.

For Martinotti, based on his own work, the acknowledgment of such weaknesses in European sociology has been the impetus for recognition of the social sciences within European institutions. But, in the case of Italy, a specific problem is that many graduates tend to be methodologically very weak and incapable of designing research protocols. At the same time, the discipline, although the source of much knowledge on the Italian society, is often accused of not delivering. Moreover, in Italy, the only recognizable applications of sociology, opinion polls, have a really bad reputation.

To remedy this, the European Science Foundation (through its Standing Committee for the Social Sciences) has promoted high quality opinion surveys, such as the European Social Survey. But in Italy, the involvement of politics into social scientific research has been pretty disastrous (I am missing some of the context on this).

While I was reading this article, I was wondering whether Italian sociology’s institutional weakness had partly to do with a phenomenon described by Diego Gambetta‘s Code of the Underworld: the prevalence of incompetence and mediocrity as institutional advancement strategy both in academia and in organized criminal organizations:

“The [advancement] system relies on a “credit” market. Positions in the selected committees rotate. The barons serving on the committees in any one competition agree to give some of the jobs to the pupils of those professors who are not on the committees, in the expectation that these professors will reciprocate in the next round.  The barons operate on the basis of a pact of reciprocity, which requires a lot of trust, for credits are repaid years later. (..) Professors who have accumulated credit, therefore, even if they have an opportunity to pull the rug from under the feet of their debtors by, say, criticizing their work or that of their protégés, are afraid of doing so, for in future rounds their acolytes would suffer retaliation.

Here is the puzzling fact: many among the barons who wield power in the Italian academic system display not only low academic standards but lower than the average standards of their field in Italy. They have a poor publication record and show little interest in substantive academic discussion or research. (…) Not only do they work less at their research, as tenured scholars may be tempted to do everywhere, but whatever little they do is of shoddy quality. Also, and this is what is most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts.


While weakness at research can motivate agents to become more involved in power politics in the first place, it also makes them eminently suitable for it. There is a difference between wanting a position and having the right features to manage it effectively. Being incompetent and displaying conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else.  In a corrupt academic market, being good at, and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for developing one’s career independent of corrupt reciprocity. This makes one feared. In the Italian academic world, the kakistocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts. They and their pupils could not make it by the mere quality of their research.” (43-4)

In contrast, in their article Que savent faire les sociologues que les autres ne savent pas faire? La sociologie professionnelle en Allemagne (Sociologies Pratiques, n0 20/2010, pp. 148-58), Bernhard Mann and Wolfgang Petran argue that German sociologists have had a different approach to counter the idea that sociology does not deliver: professionalization outside of academia through networking, mainly through the Professional Association of German Sociologists (Berufsverbandes der Deutschen Soziologinnen und Soziologen or BDS, whereas the German Sociological Association is more similar to the ASA).

Here again, the authors start with the idea of the dominated status of sociology within the social sciences. The issues are somewhat similar to that mentioned by Martinotti: lack of good communication with the public as to what the specific contribution of sociology is, as well a lack of identification of such contributions as sociological.

The institutional system of universities is different than the Italian system and German sociology can still claim some big names (Habermas) which might help with institutional recognition. At the same time, the BDS has been active in the promotion and application of sociology through consulting, as non-academic profession for sociologists in a variety of fields, as sociology is not limited to one sector of activity but, through its concepts, methodologies and theories, is more a set of portable skills that can be used, well, pretty much in any domain of social life. In this sense, the BDS provides a forum for social networking along with opportunities for specific continuing education so that non-academic sociologists can specialize in specific professional branches (health, social work, criminology) beyond generic sociological training.

Such professional, non-academic and applied sociology stand a good chance of highlighting what sociologists can do in terms of organizational interventions, for instance, and other forms of consulting and can equally contribute, according to the authors, to the processes of social change through increased participation and confrontation with the market.

Two contrasting national fates.

IMF Riots in Europe?

Hey kids, remember the IMF riots that occurred in poor countries as a result of IMF-imposed neo-liberalization of their economies and the havoc it wreaked on their societies? Let’s have Greg Palast refresh our memories, as he wrote about Joseph Stiglitz getting the economic Nobel Prize:

“Each nation’s economy is individually analyzed, then, says Stiglitz, the Bank hands every minister the same exact four-step program.

Step One is Privatization – which Stiglitz said could more accurately be called, ‘Briberization.’ Rather than object to the sell-offs of state industries, he said national leaders – using the World Bank’s demands to silence local critics – happily flogged their electricity and water companies. “You could see their eyes widen” at the prospect of 10% commissions paid to Swiss bank accounts for simply shaving a few billion off the sale price of national assets.

And the US government knew it, charges Stiglitz, at least in the case of the biggest ‘briberization’ of all, the 1995 Russian sell-off. “The US Treasury view was this was great as we wanted Yeltsin re-elected. We don’t care if it’s a corrupt election. We want the money to go to Yeltzin” via kick-backs for his campaign.

Stiglitz is no conspiracy nutter ranting about Black Helicopters. The man was inside the game, a member of Bill Clinton’s cabinet as Chairman of the President’s council of economic advisors.

Most ill-making for Stiglitz is that the US-backed oligarchs stripped Russia’s industrial assets, with the effect that the corruption scheme cut national output nearly in half causing depression and starvation.

After briberization, Step Two of the IMF/World Bank one-size-fits-all rescue-your-economy plan is ‘Capital Market Liberalization.’ In theory, capital market deregulation allows investment capital to flow in and out. Unfortunately, as in Indonesia and Brazil, the money simply flowed out and out. Stiglitz calls this the “Hot Money” cycle. Cash comes in for speculation in real estate and currency, then flees at the first whiff of trouble. A nation’s reserves can drain in days, hours. And when that happens, to seduce speculators into returning a nation’s own capital funds, the IMF demands these nations raise interest rates to 30%, 50% and 80%.

“The result was predictable,” said Stiglitz of the Hot Money tidal waves in Asia and Latin America. Higher interest rates demolished property values, savaged industrial production and drained national treasuries.

At this point, the IMF drags the gasping nation to Step Three: Market-Based Pricing, a fancy term for raising prices on food, water and cooking gas. This leads, predictably, to Step-Three-and-a-Half: what Stiglitz calls, “The IMF riot.

The IMF riot is painfully predictable. When a nation is, “down and out, [the IMF] takes advantage and squeezes the last pound of blood out of them. They turn up the heat until, finally, the whole cauldron blows up,” as when the IMF eliminated food and fuel subsidies for the poor in Indonesia in 1998. Indonesia exploded into riots, but there are other examples – the Bolivian riots over water prices last year and this February, the riots in Ecuador over the rise in cooking gas prices imposed by the World Bank. You’d almost get the impression that the riot is written into the plan.

And it is. What Stiglitz did not know is that, while in the States, BBC and The Observer obtained several documents from inside the World Bank, stamped over with those pesky warnings, “confidential,” “restricted,” “not to be disclosed.” Let’s get back to one: the “Interim Country Assistance Strategy” for Ecuador, in it the Bank several times states – with cold accuracy – that they expected their plans to spark, “social unrest,” to use their bureaucratic term for a nation in flames. (…)

Now we arrive at Step Four of what the IMF and World Bank call their “poverty reduction strategy”: Free Trade. This is free trade by the rules of the World Trade Organization and World Bank, Stiglitz the insider likens free trade WTO-style to the Opium Wars. “That too was about opening markets,” he said. As in the 19th century, Europeans and Americans today are kicking down the barriers to sales in Asia, Latin American and Africa, while barricading our own markets against Third World agriculture.”

Emphases mine.

Unsurprisingly, this same pattern is no at work with Greece, with the same predicted deleterious effects on society, except that the riots have already started even before implementation of the shock therapy:

“The Greek crisis has justifiably been about the fiscal and economic crisis that led to the setting up of the EU-IMF bailout plan. In months to come, however, media attention will focus on the looming social crisis. In a country with a weak and ineffective welfare state, where social cohesion has been maintained through inter-generational transfers, family support and other forms of informal assistance, the austerity measures will make such forms of social solidarity all the more difficult. To take but one example, pension cuts will harm the elderly and the young alike, as the latter often depend on elderly help to secure their first mortgage or add to their savings for household purchases.

Greek unemployment levels are on the rise and could end up close to 15% by the end of the year, with predictions in the medium term being even worse. Poverty levels hovered around 20% in the good times and they will inevitably rise once the austerity measures are implemented. The so-called “€ 700 generation” of 18-24 year olds with lots of degrees and no employment prospects will from now on need to compromise with even lower starting salaries – and yet more desperation for the future. Reports suggest that the many young people are ready to emigrate en masse in search of a better future, thus depriving the country of its biggest asset.

The Greek tragedy is economic as well as social. Those responsible for it, and they have been many over many years, have managed not only to wreck the country’s finances. They have also dealt a massive blow to the country’s social cohesion. Let us hope that the latter will survive the tough times ahead.”

And there seems to be a good chance that what happened to Greece will happen to other members of the Eurozones… maybe European leaders will then see that it was a bit of a mistake to base European integration almost exclusively in market terms rather than in social terms as, as one commenter puts it, “the social glue binding together the eurozone is weak. The strains on it will increase. And it is hard to see a happy outcome.”

Or as Yves Smith, over at Naked Capitalism, puts it,

“The bailout plan shifted risk from the periphery to the core of Europe, and the core, upon examination, does not look too solid. Prepare yourself for a rough ride.”

Of course, it is not going to be a rough ride for everyone. The IMF riots are mostly triggered by brutal impoverishment of the general population, especially the already poor, and by the sudden removal of the capacity to attain basic means of living (which may be access to water in Bolivia, but might be access to education or a first mortgage in Europe). Social movements and political radicalization are often part of the package.

The Visual Du Jour – Capitalist Consanguinity

Via Pierre Maura, click on the link to enjoy the animation,

This diagram reveals the extent of interlocking directorates between CAC40 firms, despite voluntary codes of conduct and pleas to good corporate governance (do these ever work?). The links between firms are quite extensive and dense.

Moral Panics 2.0

A binge drinking death at an “apéros Facebook”, that is, a drinking event organized via Facebook, where thousands of people congregate, and out of the woodworks come the moral entrepreneurs, sounding the alarm as to what is happening to our kids these days and what should be done about these apéros géants. There is nothing new to such a script, it was the same invoked against rave parties back in the 1990s.

These kinds of moral panics come and go at regular intervals, triggered by dramatic, yet extremely rare events (such as the binge drinking deaths), and  promoted by dramatic and exaggerated re-dramatization of the (non)-events, ready for sensationalist media consumption. Lost in translation is rational analysis of these episodic phenomena.

Thankfully, Denis Colombi, over at Une Heure de Peine, does the analytical work. His starting point is simple: societies always stand at the ready to panic at the first sign of countercultural expression coming from teenage crowds who provide an easy and convenient targets for moral entrepreneurs, always on a variation of the theme of the socially deleterious effects of sex and drugs and rock-and-roll. Nothing new here.

Colombi also notes how easily the media fall into the trap of defining a single event as a sign of the times and  symptomatic and representative of the potential dangers of that new thing: the Internet with its weird new forms of sociability (in the same register, the moral panic of the omnipresence of sex predators online has already run its course). The young man died while participating in an online-organized event therefore, the Internet is to blame. The leaps in (il)logic are consternating.

Other meme that made a comeback: in our post-modern society (whatever the hell that means), the youth lack the clear socializing boundaries of the schools, the church or the factory. Lacking such boundaries result in anomic behavior to which the death can be attributed in retrospect, along with the lament that of the nihilism of young people today, as opposed to the previous generations that changed the world for the better, or so the cultural narrative goes (Colombi even takes a nice little shot at Maffesoli, which is always pleasant even if it’s shooting fish in a barrel).

It is interesting that so much pop history (which tends to be highly revisionist) is invoked (things used to be different) even though the cultural narratives are structurally the same, only the details change. At the same time, it is not surprising to see moral panics emerge relating to Internet phenomena (such as Facebook) although it remains to be seen whether organizing events on Facebook is fundamentally different from gluing flyers on lampposts.

The reactions to such non-events are more interesting and revealing for what they say about the media and moral entrepreneurs rather than the young man who died, whose individuality is quickly swept under the carpet to the benefit of pseudo-analytical pronouncements regarding an undefined category of people.