Book Review – This Land is Ours

Wendy Wolford‘s This Land is Ours: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil is a much more pessimistic book than the one I previously reviewed. Here again, Wolford writes about the MST, but where To Inherit The Earth was a fairly optimistic history of the rise of the movement, the present book (more recent) addresses more directly the failures of the MST, especially the failure of massification, that is, the MST’s attempt to succeed outside of the Southern states (especially in the Northeastern states) at the same time that the movement was becoming a national and global force on behalf of peasants.

In this book then, the focus is more on what happens within a social movement once it scales up. Oftentimes, social movement organizations are depicted as homogeneous totalities. Wolford goes deeper into the MST and examines the various modes of mobilization and their success (or failure).

She first looks at mobilization in the Southern states (the MST’s place of birth and its greater success in mobilization), then turns her attention to the Northeaster states, where success has been limited. Why such a difference? For Wolford, the explanation revolves around the concept of moral economy.

What does this refer to? Wolford points to a working paper by Andrew Sayer (2004) on the subject:

“It is now commonplace to note the influence of rules, habits, norms, conventions and values on economic practices and institutions and to note how these vary across different societies. Economic processes, even capitalist ones, are seen as socially embedded in various ways. Thus there is no ‘normal capitalism’, only different varieties, distinguished partly according to their cultural legacies and forms of embedding (Hollingsworth and Boyer, 1997; Crouch and Streeck, 1997, Hall and Soskice, 2001). The rise of ‘cultural political economy’ has complemented this focus on embeddedness. If culture is taken to refer to signifying practices then economic practices can be seen in terms of what they signify as well as materially, and as culturally embedded (Ray and Sayer, 1999; du Gay and Pryke, 2002).


In this paper, I revive this focus by using a moral economic perspective to examine some of the ways in which markets are associated economic phenomena both depend on and influence moral / ethical sentiments, norms and behaviours [sic] and have ethical implications. As a kind of inquiry, ‘moral economy’ is the study of how economic activities of all kinds are influenced and guided by moral dispositions and norms, and how in turn these norms may be compromised, overridden or reinforced by economic pressures (Sayer, 2000). On this definition, all economies – not merely pre- or non-capitalist ones – are moral economies (Booth, 1994). We can also use the term ‘moral economy’ to refer to the object of this kind of inquiry.  Of course, what counts as moral, as opposed to immoral, behaviour is contestable; some forms of moral economy, for example, that of patriarchal household, might be deemed immoral, or as domination disguised as benevolence and fairness.” (pp. 1-2)

For Sayer, a major founding father of this kind of thinking was Adam Smith, who was never the pure free marketer that neo-classical and neo-liberal economists make him out to be.

For Wolford, the different moral economies between the Southern and the Northeastern Brazilian states largely explains successful mobilization in the former and demobilization in the latter. In the Southern state, economic practices revolved around small farming whereas in the Northeast, rural wage labor (mostly in sugarcane plantations) prevailed.

In this sense, the MST emerged in the Southern state and promoted what was already the cultural and moral system of farming: small landholding. To fight for agrarian reform in effect reinforced an already-existing moral economic perspective. Mobilization was therefore easier to promote and “sell” to the peasant population because it matched their habitus (if I dare use this term even though Sayer contends that Bourdieu’s concept fails because it lack moral dimensions).

In the Northeast where moral economy is based on rural wage labor and the paternalistic structure dominated by the plantation owners and their bosses constituted a moral economic background where small farming (with no wage and therefore more uncertainty) was harder to accept. Part of this moral economic structure also included the fact that if a worker does not get along with a boss, he packs up and leaves for the next job and stay there as long as things work out. In this context, a small farm is not something one can walk away from if things do not work out.

Moreover, the MST had as goal to get former rural workers / new small farmers away from sugar cane and to get to plant staple and local market crops through sustainable means. However, the new farmers preferred to plant sugar (what they knew) but on their own land, they ran the risk of no income if crops failed and they lost the benefits attached to working on a large plantation. In addition, the workers resented the “collectivism” promoted by the MST and seemed to prefer an indvidualistic organization of production.  In this sense, they saw membership in the MST as an instrumental matter (get land) but would drop it as soon as that goal was achieved as they saw MST requirements as too constraining.

Through interviews and accounts regarding the relative failure of mobilization in the Northeast, Wolford reveals the clash of moral economies between the MST organizers and leaders and the rural workers who thought the MST people behaved like the bosses without the benefits. When the sugar economy failed, rural workers were more receptive to the MST message but once it recovered, they went back to planting sugar.

In all, this book is written more for an academic audience than To Inherit the Earth. It makes greater use of theories. That being said, it is still an fascinating read as it contains a lot of field materials, interviews and descriptions even if the tone is definitely more pessimistic.

The Tyranny of the Local – Religious Fundamentalists Edition

It is no surprise that religious fundamentalist groups are at the forefront of claims of legitimacy of traditions and locality to justify their lack of respect for human rights, since the human rights regime is now globally accepted (if poorly implemented and enforced). In other words, no one really claims to disagree with human rights and their universality. So, people wishing to continue oppressing women and girls (always a favorite) or minorities often invoke the local and traditions (as imagined and socially constructed) to do so. If, in addition, geographical, political and social conditions foster relative isolation and/or capacity to resist national / federal interference, it’s even better.

Case in point:

“Millions of Pakistanis live in a “human rights-free zone” in the country’s north-west, Amnesty International says.

Residents of tribal areas face Taliban abuse and get no protection from the government, the rights group alleges.

In a report, it says the Taliban secured their rule by killing elders and torturing teachers and aid workers.

Over one million people have been displaced by fighting between the Pakistani military and the Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Some 1,300 people were killed in the conflict during 2009.”

Here is the Amnesty International account.

The Visual Du Jour – Global Peace Index

Via Daniel Fincke, the 2010 edition of the Global Peace Index is here. First, what is the Index based on?

So, the GPI map looks like this (click on the link for larger and animated view):

And the list:

The US ranks at 85.

As Daniel Fincke notes, the least religious countries are also the most peaceful. I’ll add that they are also the most egalitarian.

Social Spending and Poverty

Lane Kenworthy, the powerful data guy, has a great post showing how the United States may spend as much as  – if not more – Sweden and Denmark on social spending but in a way that does not reach the poor as well as these Scandinavian countries do.

For instance,

Note that this is net (rather than gross) and private AND public spending and that is results in a much higher share of the GDP for Sweden and Denmark.

Does this produce the poverty / inequality-reducing effects one might expect?

Not really.

So what is the explanation?

“Begin with tax breaks. Researchers count as “social” those designed to provide support in circumstances that adversely affect people’s well-being. In the United States these disproportionately go to the affluent and the middle class. The chief ones are tax advantages for employer and employee contributions to private health insurance and private pensions. These do little to help people at the low end of the distribution, who often work for employers that don’t provide health or retirement benefits. One valuable tax benefit for low-income households is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), but it is already included in the standard OECD data on government social expenditures. Another is the child tax credit, but it is non-refundable and so of limited value to low-income households, many of whom don’t owe any federal income tax.

Next consider tax “clawbacks” in the Nordic countries. Public transfer programs in Denmark and Sweden tend to be “universal” in design: a large share of the population is eligible for the benefit. This is thought to boost public support for such programs. But it renders them very expensive. To make them more affordable, the government claws back some of the benefit by taxing it as though it were regular income. All countries do this, including the United States, but the Nordic countries do it more extensively. Does that hurt their poor? Very little. The tax rates tend to increase with household income, so much of the tax clawback hits middle- and upper-income households.

What’s the impact of private social spending? In the U.S. this accounts for roughly two-fifths of all social expenditures. It consists mainly of employer contributions to health insurance and employment-based pension benefits. Here too the picture changes a great deal on average, but not much for the poor. Employer-based health insurance and pension plans reach few low-income households.


Helping the poor is not, of course, the only thing we want from social spending. But it surely is one thing. The United States spends more money on social protection than is often thought, yet that spending doesn’t do nearly as much to help America’s poor as we might like.”

The Invisibility of Structural Discrimination

This is one of the hardest things to teach when one teaches the sociology of race and ethnicity: that racism and discrimination is not simply a matter of racist individuals, burning crosses and white sheets but a systemic matter, that which results in inequalities in results. It is hard to teach to white students because it is largely invisible and has no obvious cause (as opposed to individual discrimination).

This is why this post by Tim Wise is really useful in exposing structural discrimination:

“How many have heard that persons with “white sounding names,” according to a massive national study, are fifty percent more likely to be called back for a job interview than those with “black sounding” names, even when all other credentials are the same (5)?

How many know that white men with a criminal record are slightly more likely to be called back for a job interview than black men without one, even when the men are equally qualified, and present themselves to potential employers in an identical fashion (6)?

How many have heard that according to the Justice Department, Black and Latino males are three times more likely than white males to have their vehicles stopped and searched by police, even though white males are over four times more likely to have illegal contraband in our cars on the occasions when we are searched (7)?

How many are aware that black and Latino students are about half as likely as whites to be placed in advanced or honors classes in school, and twice as likely to be placed in remedial classes? Or that even when test scores and prior performance would justify higher placement, students of color are far less likely to be placed in honors classes (8)? Or that students of color are 2-3 times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school, even though rates of serious school rule infractions do not differ to any significant degree between racial groups (9)?

Fact is, few folks have heard any of these things before, suggesting how little impact scholarly research on the subject of racism has had on the general public, and how difficult it is to make whites, in particular, give the subject a second thought.”

It is also a subject of annoyance to students to have it pointed out to them that assuming that one knows better than minorities when it comes to racism and discrimination is a blatant assertion of privilege and yes, it is racist. This form of racism occurs especially when minorities are accused of “playing the race card” when they point out examples of racism or discrimination. The difference in perspective is neither new nor limited to race (it is present in class and gender inequalities as well). The underlying assumption is that if the white person does not see racism, then, it is not there and to invoke it is playing the race card, which minorities are accused of playing too much of.

It is indeed a major social privilege not only to have one’s perspective never questioned and taken as the default, objective stance (while minorities are seen as “overreacting” or “being too sensitive”, note the feminization), but also to be able to make claims that one knows better about minorities’ experiences.

Read the whole thing.

Guest Post: “Trust Us” Is Getting Old

Guest post by Barbara O’ Brien

When British Petroleum (BP) applied for a permit to build the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and begin drilling, it claimed to have the technology and know-how to handle any oil spill.

But in the face of an actual spill, BP is much less confident. “This scares everybody: the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far,” BP CEO Doug Suttles said. “Many of the things we’re ­trying have been done on the surface before, but have never been tried at 5,000 ft.”

They’ve never been tried at 5,000 feet. Drilling for oil this deeply under the ocean is a relatively new enterprise for our species. Oil has been drilled offshore in shallow water for more than a century. But deepwater drilling is much more expensive than shallow-water drilling. For a long time drilling in deep water wasn’t tried, because it would have cost more to extract a barrel of oil than a barrel of oil was worth on world markets. It took the spikes in oil prices in recent years to make deepwater drilling profitable.

Politicians and oil executives assured us that offshore oil drilling was safe. Those tree huggers who worry about environmental disasters are nuts, they said. Yes, there have been oil rig disasters in the past, but (big wink) we know what we’re doing now. Trust us.

The laws of physics work differently nearly a mile underwater than they do on land, or shallow water, however. By now, it is obvious BP is still trying to invent a procedure that might stop the oil leak, maybe, if we’re lucky. No one appears to have been ready for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Really, this “trust us” business is getting old. How many times have we been told to “trust” some new thing, and then when the dangers surface we find out the “trusted” ones hadn’t told us the whole truth?

In the mid-20th century we humans went into overdrive digging asbestos out of the earth to use in countless structures and products. There is asbestos in navy ships, asbestos in our homes and schools, asbestos in old car parts, asbestos in landfills. And eventually, years after medical science had determined asbestos exposure causes terrible disease, industry executives and politicians reluctantly agreed to shut down asbestos production, or at least most of it. And now the cost of asbestos abatement and mesothelioma treatment is an ongoing problem for individuals, taxpayers, and businesses.

And do we want to talk about Vioxx? Tanning beds? And now there are questions being asked about Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in just about every plastic bottle you’ve ever touched. It may be dangerous, it may not. Opinions vary. Just note that the same political and business leaders who deny BPA could be dangerous are the same ones who like to yell “drill, baby, drill.”

June 2, 2010

Immunity to Economic Recession: The Killing Business Fighting The Wrong Kind of War

So says the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in this newly published report:

“The far-reaching effects of the global financial crisis and economic recession appear to have had little impact on world military expenditure. The USA, with a real-terms increase of $47 billion, accounted for 54% of the world increase in military expenditure. Although the USA led the rise, it was not alone (see figure 1). Of those countries for which data was available, 65% increased their military spending in real terms in 2009. In an analysis by region, Asia and Oceania showed the fastest real-terms increase with 8.9%.

‘Many countries were increasing public spending generally in 2009, as a way of boosting demand to combat the recession. Although military spending wasn’t usually a major part of the economic stimulus packages, it wasn’t cut either’, explains Dr Sam Perlo-Freeman, Head of the Military Expenditure Project at SIPRI. ‘The figures also demonstrate that for major or intermediate powers such as the USA, China, Russia, India and Brazil military spending represents a long-term strategic choice which they are willing to make even in hard economic times.’”

Here are a few visuals from Stephanie Blencker’s report:

Milex Major

And my favorite:

Milex Changes

The report notes that a big chunk of this increase, especially for the US has to do with Afghanistan (the “right” war according to the US President, as opposed to the “wrong” war in Iraq). War expert Mary Kaldor argues that all this military stuff is still fighting the wrong kind of war with the wrong strategy leading basically nowhere. Instead of using a national security approach (prop us a national government – even if weak, unpopular and corrupt as is the Karzai government) geared towards the defeat of an enemy, she advocates a human security approach (she dismisses simple withdrawal as simplistic and accomplishing nothing) geared towards population protection from a range of risks (in Beck’s sense).

So, what would a human security approach mean for Aghanistan?

“First, the effort would focus on the security of Afghans as well as British or Americans, rather than the defeat of an enemy. In fact, the strategy adopted by Barack Obama last autumn is based on “population security”. But population security is seen as a means to an end, and the end is the defeat of US enemies. This matters in strategic terms since Afghans see themselves as pawns in a wider battle and cannot have confidence in the international presence; it is perhaps the biggest obstacle to human security.


Human security in the long term can only be guaranteed by trusted political and legal authorities. (…) Establishing trust is all about the relationship between government and governed. Even though the new strategy emphasises local governance, the fashionable tool is “government in a box” – a sort of technical imposition of state capacity from above. What is needed is the involvement of civil society in establishing a framework for a new, much more legitimate government.


Finally, a human security approach has to be civilian-led. McChrystal’s strategy was a big step forward, but the international effort is overly militarised. The UN special representative is squeezed between the government and the military effort, and the US special representative, Richard Holbrooke, is hardly visible.”

In the context of increasing and globalizing risk society, this is an approach that could be applied on many places, not just as response to already existing conflict, but to regions under tension.

The Value of Nothing

Shame on me for not having had the time to read Raj Patel‘s The Value of Nothing. I must say, the man is as funny as he informative.

Here are a couple of videos anyway (below the fold because they auto-start and it’s annoying):

Continue reading

Good Documentaries on Oil

With all the discussion floating around the Internet regarding the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought I would mention two documentaries that, I think, do a really good job at addressing issues regarding oil production and consumption.

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash (full video here) is my favorite so far because it does not have the sob stories and emotional heartstrings heavy pulling that activist documentaries often use, which I find annoying and unconvincing.

The film deals with peak oil, how we got to it, which areas of the world are already there, which ones have not reached it yet, how we are dealing with peak oil (with more intensive, complicated, expensive and risky drilling… sounds familiar?) and the social, economic and political consequences of life after peak oil (resource wars, as only one effect).

The film itself is extremely well done, in terms of graphics, visual and other devices to explain peak oil. Even better, the people sounding the alarm about peak oil and telling us that there are basically no new significant reserves of oil to be found nor new ways of drilling are not environmental activists but people from the oil industry.

It also deals with the question of increasing consumption as China, India and other countries are avidly industrializing and mimicking Western models of development in the context of peak oil and the geopolitical consequences as rich countries try more and more aggressively to gain or maintain their access to oil (see: Sudan, Darfur, genocide).

At the same time, it shows that there are no real alternatives to oil (other sources of energy do not come close to fulfilling energy needs), so changes in ways of life are the only way to go.

This is a very rich documentary that is chock full of information even without dealing with environmental issues. It specifically focuses on peak oil, production and consumption and politics.

Crude: The Real Price of Oil is completely different. This is more on the activist side of documentaries. Crude deals with the class action lawsuit engaged in Ecuador against Texaco / Chevron for the environmental and health damage the company inflicted upon the indigenous communities. So, there are sob stories.

The documentary is more personalized as we follow the travails of the attorneys on the plaintiffs’ side, especially the young Ecuadorian attorney for whom this is the first case (his brother was tortured, mutilated and assassinated just before the court case started… by mistake, the assassins were looking for the lawyer).

It is a classical David versus Goliath story: powerless indigenous communities with cash starved attorneys versus giant global corporation with the means to drag the case for decades (as is already the case, a common pattern for oil companies).

Certainly the images of pollution and contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon are shocking. The main damage is done by the pits that Texaco dug as dumps, then covered with dirt when the company left Ecuador.

The objections from Chevron / Texaco are ones we have often heard before either from other oil companies or tobacco companies: the case is brought by lawyers who want to line their pockets; no one can prove definite cause and effect between contamination and health problems (the tobacco industry polished that one), and besides, how do you know that that black goo is oil or that it’s Chevron oil? None very convincing.

One cannot help but notice that Chevron’s attorneys in Ecuador are white whereas the Ecuadorian attorneys for the plaintiffs are obviously from indigenous ancestry.

Apparently, the lawsuit is still going on. Chevron is now suing the makers of the film to obtain all the raw footage that was shot.

Crude is a movie that is useful when it comes to the issues of indigenous peoples. I would have liked more facts / history, / how indigenous life is affected (more in details, that is) / deforestation, less “let’s follow these courageous guys around”.