The Precariat

Or precarized proletariat (link to video… do watch the entire thing, it is well worth 10 minutes of your time).

And if you think this is limited to low-incomes, think again:

“Western Europeans and Americans are about to suffer a profound shock. For the past 30 years governments have explained that, while they can no longer protect jobs through traditional forms of state intervention such as subsidies and tariffs, they can expand and reform education to maximise opportunity. If enough people buckle down to acquiring higher-level skills and qualifications, Europeans and Americans will continue to enjoy rising living standards. If they work hard enough, each generation can still do better than its parents. All that is required is to bring schools up to scratch and persuade universities to teach “marketable” skills.


But the financial meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent squeeze on incomes is slowly revealing an awful truth. As figures out last week from the Office for National Statistics show, real UK wages have not risen since 2005, the longest sustained freeze in living standards since the 1920s. While it has not hit the elite in banking, the freeze affects most of the middle class as much as the working class. This is not a blip, nor the result of educational shortcomings. In the US, which introduced mass higher education long before Britain, the average graduate’s purchasing power has barely risen in 30 years. Just as education failed to deliver social democratic promises of social equality and mobility, so it will fail to deliver neoliberal promises of universal opportunity for betterment.


We are familiar with the outsourcing of routine white-collar “back office” jobs such as data inputting. But now the middle office is going too. Analysing X-rays, drawing up legal contracts, processing tax returns, researching bank clients, and even designing industrial systems are examples of skilled jobs going offshore. Even teaching is not immune: last year a north London primary school hired mathematicians in India to provide one-to-one tutoring over the internet. Microsoft, Siemens, General Motors and Philips are among big firms that now do at least some of their research in China. The pace will quicken. The export of “knowledge work” requires only the transmission of electronic information, not factories and machinery. Alan Blinder, a former vice-chairman of the US Federal Reserve, has estimated that a quarter of all American service sector jobs could go overseas.

Western neoliberal “flat earthers” (after Thomas Friedman’s book) believed jobs would migrate overseas in an orderly fashion. Some skilled work might eventually leave but, they argued, it would make space for new industries, requiring yet higher skills and paying better wages. Only highly educated westerners would be capable of the necessary originality and adaptability. Developing countries would obligingly wait for us to innovate in new areas before trying to compete.


It suggests neoliberals made a second, perhaps more important error. They assumed “knowledge work” would always entail the personal autonomy, creativity and job satisfaction to which the middle classes were accustomed. They did not understand that, as the industrial revolution allowed manual work to be routinised, so in the electronic revolution the same fate would overtake many professional jobs. Many “knowledge skills” will go the way of craft skills. They are being chopped up, codified and digitised.

Brown, Lauder and Ashton call this “digital Taylorism”, after Frederick Winslow Taylor who invented “scientific management” to improve industrial efficiency. Call centres, for example, require customers to input a series of numbers, directing you to a worker, possibly in a developing country, who will answer questions from a prescribed package. We are only at the beginning; even teaching is increasingly reduced to short-term, highly specific goals, governed by computerised checklists.

Digital Taylorism makes jobs easier to export but, crucially, changes the nature of much professional work. Aspirant graduates face the prospect not only of lower wages, smaller pensions and less job security than their parents enjoyed but also of less satisfying careers. True, every profession and company will retain a cadre of thinkers and decision-makers at the top – perhaps 10% or 15% of the total – but the mass of employees, whether or not they hold high qualifications, will perform routine functions for modest wages. Only for those with elite qualifications from elite universities (not all in Europe or America) will education deliver the promised rewards.


Governments will then need to rethink their attitudes to education, inequality and the state’s economic role.”

But they will not, not until they get forced to do it. And even then, I don’t think our power elite can think outside of the neoliberal frame.

Also: (I haven’t read it yet. I’m waiting for the paperback to come out here)

Public Policy as Individual Disciplining v. Systemic Change

In this article, French magazine Rue89 goes over the various policies Western governments are trying out to reduce their levels of obesity:

As the article notes, there are roughly four approaches to dealing with obesity:

1. Prevention. This involves campaign encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables or to implement aggressive labeling to let customers know what they are buying (something the food industry vehemently opposes, by the way). In England, this has taken the form of vouchers given to low-income people for healthy products from selected brands (like big food companies).

2. Regulations on advertising and limit on advertising on soda and other unhealthy products (they are already banned in Sweden and Canada). In France, unhealthy and sugary snacks and sodas are no longer allowed in public schools. In Mexico, low quality food is not allowed to be sold in schools and 30 minutes of exercise a day are mandatory.

3. Taxation. We have heard over and over that obesity is socially and economically costly. So, obese people should be taxed to somewhat offset the cost of accommodating them through higher health care premiums (implemented in some US states). A “fat tax” would obviously hit the poorest harder. An alternative would be to tax more heavily unhealthy and fast food products.

4. Incentives. Pay people to lose weight (pilot tested in the UK).

See what’s missing here?

What is missing is

1. Why are people overweight? The measures above clearly assume that it is all about individual behavior, with limited social influence (through advertising). Social explanations are grossly missing: suburbanization and the pervasive use of cars because walking in impossible. How many kids walk to schools outside of inner cities? How many people walk to the market or the grocery store? It is probably not possible because of housing development patterns and the lack of pedestrian structure.

Also, we do not work in farms or factories, anymore. Most of us work in service jobs, in fornt of computers for a significant amount of time every day. Joining gyms is expensive and out of reach for low-income people.

2. Who makes the food we eat? Where is the critical examination and evaluation of the role of agribusiness, Big Food and Big Corn in putting unhealthy food, loaded with high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified vegetables, hormone-growth-and-antibiotics-laden sick meat.?

Basically, what is missing is this (full film):

And this (playlist):

What is missing is an analysis of the food system in which we exist and that feeds us. So, on this again, public policy takes the form of punishment and shaming, and disciplining of the lower classes rather than actual policy that involves critically examining the social structure of food and overall living conditions that foster obesity. This would also mean reexamining the agricultural policy of the US, with its subsidies to agribusiness.

And such initiatives are doomed to fail for several reasons: (1) the poor have less leisure time than the wealthy. When would they find the time to exercise? (2) They cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods. Eating healthy is dreadfully expensive. (3) These policies do not touch the roots of obesity. They do not offer to reorganize workplaces / work rhythms / work life.

The Dramatic Visual Du Jour

Via Sociological Images, try and see how long you will last. Will you last a month starting with $1,000… sounds easy, right?

SPENT via kwout

It is a very neat tool to make students understand what the “poverty trap” is and how a lot of constraints and degradations are invisible to anyone who is not poor.

Teabaggers, Republicans and anyone who gets preachy about the poor being stupid, lazy people who made wrong decisions should be forced to not just do this, but LIVE it.



Slavery – The Dark Underbelly of Economic Success

I have blogged before about modern slavery. I have my students work on this topic in my Social Problems class and most of them cannot believe that slavery is still so widespread despite being illegal everywhere. There are several reasons why. First, sometimes, institutions of global governance (such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO) directly contribute to the rise of slavery. For instance, as mentioned in the film Slavery – A Global Investigation, when they required the government of Ivory Coast to remove price guarantees for cocoa, the price of cocoa on the world market plummeted and plantation owners found a solution to maintain their levels of profit: slavery.

Another reason is the Walmart model of retail. Everyday low prices mean that Walmart squeezes its suppliers who then turn to several layers of contractors and sub-contractors in peripheral or semi-peripheral countries, and go for the lower prices. Often, these sub-contractors are the ones using slaves. So slavery is invisible, buried deep in the lower layers of the global production chains.

Who becomes a slave? Welt, pretty much anyone who is vulnerable or has experienced downward mobility. Or disabled people (via Ken Schaefer):

“At 30, Liu Xiaoping is more boy than man, with soft doe eyes that affix visitors with the unabashed stare of the very young and glisten with reluctant tears when his bandages are changed.

It takes effort not to show the pain of the wounds that read up and down his body as a testament to the 10 months he was held captive at brick factories in the Chinese countryside.

His hands are as red as freshly boiled lobster from handling hot bricks from a kiln without proper protective gloves. On the backs of his legs, third-degree burns trace the rectangular shape of bricks, a factory foreman’s punishment for not working fast enough. Around his wrists, ligature marks tell of the chains used to keep him from running away at night.

Liu was found wandering in the small town of Gaoling, north of Xian1, on Dec. 22, 10 months after his family reported him missing. He was wearing the same clothing as when he’d disappeared in February, but the trousers were glued to the festering wounds on his legs and the gangrene of his frostbitten2 feet stank through the gaping holes in his shoes.

Despite his injuries and an intellectual impairment, he was able to tell how he’d been tricked by a woman who bought him a bowl of soup and promised him the equivalent of $10 per day, good wages for manual work in rural China.

Instead, he became a slave.

“They took advantage of my brother because he has a mental disability,” said his 26-year-old brother, Liu Xiaowei. “They forced him to work, beat him, tortured him, and then when he was too weak to take it anymore, they threw him out on the street.”

In an adrenaline-paced economy with a chronic shortage of manual laborers, ruthless recruiters often prey on China’s3 mentally disabled. The worst offenders work with the brick kilns that are feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite for the new apartment complexes and malls cropping up around the countryside.

“The brick factories can never get as many workers as they need. The work is heavy and a lot of people don’t want to do it,” said Ren Haibin, the former manager of one of several brick factories where Liu said he had worked. “Possibly the mentally disabled can be intimidated and forced to work…. They are timid and easier to manage.””

And if you think this is bad:

“Young women have been sold by psychiatric hospitals as sexual partners and wives.”

And, as usual, the authorities do not do much on this issue.

Talcott Parsons – When The Personal Is Sociological

As I have mentioned before, I am currently reading Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. I will have a full review when I am done but, for now, I wanted to note the enormous role played by the social and behavioral sciences in pushing the feminine mystique down women’s throats. Central in that role were psychiatry (that role has been taken over by evolutionary psychology these days and evo psych pretty much recycles the same arguments about gender essentialism), Freudian psychoanalysis and psychology.

But sociology is far from blameless. A quick reminder from Coontz (reference from Kindle edition):

“Sociologists argued that unless society encouraged a clear differentiation of the sexes, everything from the nuclear family to the economy itself could disintegrate. The renowned Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons and his collaborator Robert Bales claimed that the most functional form of family for modern industrial society was one where the husband played the “instrumental” role, earning the family living, and the wife played the “expressive” role, providing emotional support to the wage earner and nurturing the children. From this it followed that boys must be reared to accept the masculine identity that would prepare them to be family decision-makers and breadwinners, and girls should be channeled into activities that would prepare them for homemaking and motherhood.” (Loc. 1316)

The instrumental / expressive dichotomy is, sadly, still with us and still taught at the undergraduate level, which is a damn shame because these are not analytical concepts but ideological constructs.

But then, later in the book, Coontz writes this:

“Anne Parsons, the daughter of sociologist Talcott Parsons, wrote to Friedan describing her sense of isolation and marginalization as an intelligent woman trying to build a research career in the 1950s. “I began to wish that someone would call me names or throw stones or threaten to send me to a concentration camp so that at least I would know for certain that the world was against me.”” (Loc. 1395)

I was intrigued because I didn’t know any of this. Well, I didn’t know the half of it:

“A look at the life of Anne Parsons reveals how tormented some women were by the pressures of the feminine mystique. Anne was the daughter of Talcott Parsons, the renowned Harvard sociologist who insisted on society’s need for “normal” families consisting of male breadwinners and female homemakers. Even though Anne’s parents encouraged her to develop her own intellect, she felt pressured to live the kind of life her father prescribed for most women. In an eight-page letter she wrote to Betty Friedan in 1963 after reading the book, Anne recalled that she had chosen not to take fourth-year math in high school “for fear of being called a brain,” and while in college had agreed to a marriage based more on the desire for security than anything else.

When she came to grips with her motivation, Anne explained, she broke off the engagement and pursued advanced work in psychiatric theory and anthropology, but at age twenty-five she was haunted by the price she felt she had been forced to pay for her choice. The unmarried career woman, she complained, was not seen “as a person at all.” Instead, she was stereotyped as “aggressive, competitive, rejecting of femininity and all the rest.” It “is like being a Negro or Jew,” she commented, “with the difference that the prejudices are manifest in such subtle ways that it is very hard to pin them down, and that the feminine mystique is so strong and attractive an ideology that it is very hard to find a countervailing point of view from which to fight for oneself.” Feeling increasingly marginalized in her relations with colleagues, Anne committed herself to a mental institution in September 1963, where she kept a diary recording her fears about the Cold War and the arms race and her frustration with her psychiatrist’s insistence that she was “resisting insight into my feminine instincts.”


Nine months later, after writing to her father that she thought the psychiatric treatments had made her worse and trying in vain to get released from the hospital, Anne committed suicide. Anne Parsons might have developed her mental problems even in a world where single female intellectuals were not regarded as defective women and psychiatrists did not tell patients they were resisting their feminine instincts if they held strong political opinions or harbored intellectual ambitions. But many other women insisted it was the tenets of Freudian psychiatry that had made them feel crazy, and it was Friedan’s book, not talk therapy or medication, that allowed them to reclaim their sanity.” (Loc. 1528 – 1543)

I have to say that this left me speechless.

Stephanie Coontz on The Colbert Report

Stephanie Coontz is my all-time favorite sociologist of marriages and families (a topic that normally bores me to tears). Her book, Marriage: A History, is by far the most insightful I know on this subject (and top of the famous The Way We Never Were, and The Way We Really Are.

Her most recent book, A Strange Stirring, which I am currently reading, has the same qualities has her previous ones: extremely well written, in-depth without the jargon, and just kick-ass in terms of debunking non-sense discourse on marriages and families from the religious rights, puritan conservatives, and, shamefully, social scientists as well.

So, there she is, on The Colbert Report, as Colbert said, all dolled up and looking fantastic, and rocking it!

More From Olivier Roy on Middle East Protests

And this time, it’s in English! In this one, Roy emphasizes how these protests are not “Muslim protests” as Western media and officials mistakenly read them. A snippet:

“The process of change will undoubtedly be long and chaotic, but one thing is certain: the age of Arab-Muslim exceptionalism is over. Recent events point to profound transformations in Arab societies which have been under way for some time, but which until now have been obscured by the distorting optic of western attitudes towards the Middle East. What the convulsions in Egypt and Tunisia show is that people in those countries have drawn the lessons of their own history. We have not finished with Islam, that is for sure, nor is liberal democracy the “end of history”, but we must at least learn to think of Islam in relation to an “Arabic-Muslim” culture that today is no longer closed in on itself – if it ever was.”

Go read the whole thing. It is excellent.

Music Break – Raï Edition

It’s only fitting after a post on the Arab world to have some music from there as well. So, 1… 2… 3… Soleils is the 1999 concert where three rai artists – Khaled, Faudel and Rachid Taha – got together and gave awesome performances. And if I remember correctly, for a while, Khaled could not perform in his native Algeria because Muslim fundamentalists had threatened to kill him (which is why he emigrated to France), because, you know, music makes people happy, so, we can’t have that.

So, without further ado, Didi:

And Ya rayah:

Am I cosmopolitan or what?

Olivier Roy on Middle East Social Movements

If you read only one person on the social movements all over the Middle East, then you should read Olivier Roy, who has been writing about political Islam since the 1990s.

In this Rue 89 interview, he offers of a recap of what has been happening and the nature of these social movements. I provide the gist of his statements for those of you who don’t read French.

First of all, what we have seen so far are not revolutions but protest movements involving the same kinds of social actors in the Arab world and beyond: protesters are young, educated, connected (through mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) even though Internet penetration rates are still not great in these societies. They are sociologically modern in terms of family structures, education and ideas. They are more individualist, believe in democracy. They are the ones who started these movements, then joined by older generations.

These protests are against old and tired corrupt regimes that have been captured by authoritarian leaders and their families or inner circles, and have stagnated for the past 30 years. So, it is a fed-up generation that rejects what have been the dominant ideologies in the Arab world in the post-War period: Islamism (political Islam), nationalism or Arabic socialism.

These movements are popping up all over the Middle East because of the similarities across countries: authoritarian regimes that have been in place for a long time, without major evolution. Beyond the shallow differences (monarchy in Morocco, authoritarianism in other places and family rule in Morocco, Syria or Jordan where each leader is succeeded by his son), there has been little diversity in governance.

So, politically, there are few differences. Sociologically, this is a different story. In Yemen and Jordan, the tribes still exercise power, whereas they are of little importance in North Africa or Egypt. Structures of power have developed over these sociological differences in order for the rulers to keep themselves in power.

What makes repression worse is when the protest movements in favor of democracy are based on ethnic (Iraq), denominational (Bahrain), or tribal divisions. For example, in Bahrain, the Sunni elite, supported by Saudi Arabia, dominates a numerically larger shiite population. In that case, more brutality from the rulers can be expected as full democracy would probably cost them their regime. But that is why the protesters in Bahrain have emphasized their nationality first, using the national flag, rather than their shia identity (they are not particularly pro-Iran). But that is something that the Sunni elite from the Persian Gulf do not want to hear.

It is not entirely clear why things are exploding now since these regimes have not changed over the past 20 years. There is certainly the global economy but Roy also sees a generational phenomenon. This is the coming of age of a generation born in crisis but who has never considered Islamism as solution to all social problems (as Islamism is seen as one of these discredited ideology). And then, there is population growth. The protesters come from a baby boom, a population peak, with lower fertility levels after them. In this sense, one can draw some comparisons with May 1968 in France.

A great deal has been made regarding the role of the new media. For sure, the rulers (or now former rulers) of these countries perceive these new media as if they were a sort of super Al Jazeera rather than social networking media. And they certainly see them negatively as they challenge the media models that have so far prevailed: if a ruler does not like what is being said on a network, he shuts it down. These rulers completely misunderstood both these new media and the new generation using them. The complete disconnect illustrated by Mubarak televised speech – and their obvious failure – was a dramatic reflection of this.

What this crisis shows is that there is a meaningful entity called “the Arab world” and what is going on is – for now at least – limited to the Arab world. There is an Arab solidarity, in which Al Jazeera plays a reinforcing role. But one cannot call this “pan-Arabism” as this solidarity is not based on a clear political project with ideological underpinnings.

Now, the question that has been tormenting Western leaders: what is the role of religious movements in all this?

For Roy, these movements are secular. The Islamists have been left behind and have been largely absent from these movements. Islamism is finished as a political and ideological solution but the Islamist groups are still around and their future role is still unclear. For Roy, their presence can take two forms:

1. a Muslim version of the European Christian Democrats: very conservative parties that abide by parliamentary rule, or

2. a Muslim version of the Opus Dei, that is, a salafist version, i.e., groups who claim to no care about politics but to care only about religious norms.

What is important to understand when it comes Islamists is that they have become very “bourgeois”: embedded in parliamentarism, wealthier, very conservative but without social projects, and completely absent on the economic and social fronts. And the reality is that Islamists, at this point, have no chance of winning elections  in Egypt or Tunisia (they would roughly score around 20% of the votes). This is nothing like the 1979 Iranian revolution.

However, there is a real risk of political chaos because the authoritarian regimes have devastated their political scene. This is something that will take a while to rebuild, which means that a lot of people might be disappointed as not much actually happens on the social and economic front, especially to resolve the immediate crisis of unemployed, educated youth (hence the current migration to the Lampedusa Island).

But whatever comes out of these protests might not a European-style secularism either. But what this shows is that Western governments got it completely wrong when they argue that these authoritarian regimes have protected us from the Islamist threat. Part of the reason for this failure of analysis is that European governments refused to have open communication channels with opposition movements. So, they completely missed the evolution of Islamism and the generational changes. Paradoxically, academic research had unveiled these changes, but this was not something European politicians wanted to hear.

The other big loser in this is Al Qaeda. Like the authoritarian rulers, Al Qaeda thrived on the ideological construct of a polarized world with pro-Western on the one side and Islam on the other side. Al Qaeda missed the boat as much as Mubarak and Islamist movements. The dichotomy between the near enemy and far enemy has no ideological appeal to these movements. And sociologically, Al Qaeda has no influence in these areas. If Al Qaeda wants to regain the upper hand, it will have to conduct some spectacular attack somewhere, to prove that they still exist and have some relevance.

These movements also illustrate the Clash of Civilizations thesis, which has always been more a fantasm than reality, that neatly fit with the post 9/11 era. Bin Laden is a major Huntingtonian, which is bad news for his organization because that thesis is wrong. After all, not a single American flag was burned during the protests in Egypt. Roy considers this partly to be an “Obama effect”. These movements would not have happened under Bush.

I would add that what we are seeing now, along with the solidarity between Egyptian protesters and Wisconsin teachers, or between Tunisian and Egyptian doctors and Libyan protesters is the result of the deeper penetration of the idea of global civil society. But that’s just me.

Book Review – Class Acts

Rachel Sherman‘s Class Acts – Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels represents the best of sociology of labor, occupations and organizations all rolled up in one participant observation study, back by solid sociological concepts and theories. It is a highly readable book, all peppered with interesting anecdotes combined with sociological analysis. It is indubitably a good case of thick description of how social and status inequalities shape one’s identity and behavior.

Why does such a topic matter? According to Rachel Sherman:

“These issues matter for two reasons. First, they are important for our understanding of interactive work and its links to relationships and to selfhood. Second, they are significant for our conception of how work is connected to class. These questions are particularly important given the rise of both service work and economic inequality in the United States.” (3)

For Sherman, this is a “luxury moment”: high-end consumption is relatively recession-proof (it was quick to recover both after 9/11 and after the current depression). She notes several aspect of luxury production and consumption:

  1. the luxury economy is a global one. Luxury nodes (probably often matched with the global cities) in global spaces that are thoroughly networked across the world. The transnational capitalist class, whose one defining trait is its mobility, uses these nodes as they criss-cross the globe.
  2. the luxury economy is part of the larger service economy with even more intense emotional labor. In luxury-consuming settings, customers are limitlessly entitled to worker’s individualized and individualizing attention and effort.
  3. the luxury economy emerged in a context of rising inequality, a trait that thoroughly traverses it.

In this sense, this book is very much written with Hochschild’s work in mind as it looks at

“both the multiple ways workers and guests negotiate asymmetrical relationships and the consequences of these negotiations for the reproduction of unequal entitlements to material resources and attention.” (11)

Especially since, in the context of luxury service work, the worker’s self is highly involved due to the personalized service required. Such subservience may lead to damage to one’s dignity. How do workers deal with that, as a lot of labor research shows that workers value dignity greatly? At the same time, individualized service means that workers have some degree of autonomy as they perform individualized requests that may require creativity and innovative strategies. Structurally, the luxury hotel is its own stratification system in its own right and most interactions are based on such unequal distribution of resources. As a result, a great deal of interactive work is dedicated to the merging of “doing self” and “doing class”.

Sherman uses two central concepts in the book: (1) Consent:

“Used most notably in Michael Burawoy’s study of factory production, consent is active investment in work. In Burawoy’s formulation, workers who have some autonomy become involved in and engaged with their jobs by means of small incentives and choices, which become meaningful in the context of particular shoo-floor status hierarchies and cultures. In consenting to exert labor, workers unintentionally also legitimate the broader conditions of its appropriation.


Like resistance, consent highlights workers’ agency. Unlike the concept of resistance, however, the concept of consent allows us to think of workers as using their agency to participate in work rather than to refuse to participate. Explaining consent entails taking seriously the reasons that workers like their jobs and the rewards they derive from them, without losing a critical perspective on unequal social relations of appropriation. Like resistance, consent has the potential for oppositionality. Workers can withdraw their consent in several ways: by refusing to invest themselves in their work; by quitting; by organizing some kind of collective action that challenges the organization of work or the distribution of rewards from work.” (16-7)

And (2) normalization:

“[Normalization] refers to the taken-for-granted nature of both interactive and structural inequality. Unequal entitlements and responsibilities were not obscured, because they were perfectly obvious and well-known to interactive workers. Nor were they explicitly legitimated, since workers rarely talked about them as such. Rather, they simply became a feature of the everyday landscape of the hotel. Conflicts over unequal entitlement were couched in individual rather than collective terms and in the language of complaint rather than critique.” (17)

And as they are used by workers,

“consent and normalization arose as functions of workers strategies for constituting themselves as not subordinate vis-à-vis managers, co-workers, and especially guests. Rather than negotiate between authenticity and performativity or between agency and passivity, workers drew on a range of complex and sometimes contradictory strategies of self-articulation to cast themselves as powerful. First, they established themselves as autonomous, skilled, and in control of their work, especially by playing games. Second, they cast themselves as superior, both to their coworkers and to the guests they served, by using comparisons and judgments. Finally, they constituted themselves as equal to guests by establishing meaningful relationships with them on the basis of a standard of reciprocal treatment.” (17)

And in order to pursue these strategies, workers used the structure of the hotels as resources at their disposal to be used skillfully. In other words, and in very Goffmanian terms, the hotel is a space divided between front stage (performing workers) and backstage (invisible workers, often minorities) in a luxury service theater where class is performed constantly.

How these strategies are deployed by front stage workers, and with what results, within the luxury theater constitutes most of the book. The chapters are rich with observations and excerpts from interviews that are too thick to go into here. But such strategies towards guests involve

  1. personalization and recognition,
  2. anticipation and legitimation of needs,
  3. pampering as display of labor
  4. deference and sincerity

One theme that deserves particular attention though is that of games played by workers:

“These games do not involve cards, chips, or dice, but they do entail strategy – about how to finish tasks quickly, control the pace of work, and maximize tips. In playing these games, workers make their jobs meaningful, become invested in them, and construct images of themselves as skilled and autonomous.” (111)

Workers then are able to recast themselves not as subservient but as in control of their work and of the guests as they can manipulate the amount of tips they receive. Games were of various kinds:

Games of speed, service and control:

  • Controlling unpredictability (speed control of conversation with guests over the phone)
  • Maximizing sales
  • Room blocking
  • Needs anticipation (who can best recall details about guests demands)

Money games mostly through maximizing tips through a variety of strategies such as:

  • visible effort and guest recognition
  • highlighting labor
  • discreetly reminding guests that work had been done by a particular worker
  • various forms of performativity (such as joking with guests)

All of these strategies are risky, though, because workers have to walk fine lines. For instance, joking can easily go from friendliness to inappropriate with guests.

Other strategies to maximize tips involve creating typologies of guests in order to increase predictability of their requests and demands (“the sport”, “the blowhard”, “the lady shopper”). Sherman notes that unpredictability was the heart of the game. If that was removed, the game was over. For instance, workers often refused tips paid in advance because the intellectual play and the strategizing was removed.

“Playing money games not only helped workers avoid ‘unrelieved drudgery,’ as Davis put it, but also deflected the experience of interactive subordination by recasting asymmetrical relations as favorable to workers. Rather than highlight stratification and subordination, the large tip or high rate indicated that the worker had won the game.” (134)

At the same time, of course, these games could be a source of conflict with coworkers and managers. But they were also sources of comparison and evaluation and therefore played a major part in self-conception based on skills, control and autonomy. A great deal of self-work and performativity was also dedicated to recasting hierarchies:

“[Workers] invoked multiple, symbolic hierarchies of worth and advantage – status, privilege, intelligence, competence, morality, and cultural capital – and mobilized these hierarchies selectively to establish themselves as superior to others. Asserting capacities and advantages that others lacked allowed workers to resituate themselves as powerful. Ironically, this move led them to constitute guests’ entitlement as legitimate.” (155)

For instance, workers tended to often recast their job as superior to that of their coworkers, emphasizing their control and authority over entire segments of the service, or entire sections of the hotel. Concierges emphasized their vast cultural and social capital through their knowledge of the best restaurants or art galleries.

Workers also engaged in quite a bit of what C. Wright Mills called “borrowing prestige”, that is, gaining status by association: the high status of the guests allowed workers to recast themselves as exceptional compared to other hotels and their workers. And then, there were all the different ways of recasting themselves as superior to the guests:

  • guests as needy (strategy of empathy and condescension)
  • guests as incompetent in the basic operations of life (strategy of entertainment and judgment)
  • guests as in need of gatekeeping (controlling entitlement)
  • guests as unworthy (of luxury service because of boorish behavior)

In many ways, workers “calculated” how much service a guest deserved and symbolically enforced limits on how much they received.

There is also a major moral dimension to all this performativity. Workers expected some degree of recognition, respect and reciprocity with respect to their personhood and professionalism. Of course, guests had always the upper end in interaction but should they fail to show proper respect and reciprocity, workers could engage in revenge (and rewards for those guests who behaved in ways that recognized such things). When it came to revenge, workers engaged in what Goffman calls negative deference or standard forms of ritual contempt. This involves some passive-aggressive strategies (rolling one’s eyes to the back of the guest, giving them the finger from under the desk, giving them nicknames, making fun of them behind their backs.

More visibly, workers could withhold emotional labor through overly formal behavior. Conversely, workers can become what they call “fake nice”, a kind of “kill them with phony kindness” strategy. Another strategy is to deliberately waste the guest’s time or to withdraw attention. And then, there is “reverse customization” as mode of punishment: giving a guest a bad rate or a “bad” room (less than what he wants). Guests then can find themselves downgraded if they become difficult.

The book also goes into some details as to how the guests produced their entitlement. For instance, leisure travelers claimed some distance between themselves and the luxury of the hotel by claiming that it did not matter to them and engaged in some degree of denial by ignoring the hierarchies involved in the service. On the other hand, business travelers evaluated the service they got in “strictly business” terms, for instance, by recognizing the techniques of recognition and personalization used by the workers and therefore recasting themselves as quasi-managers rather than guests.

And both categories made a point of emphasizing how much they engaged in reciprocity and they saw “being nice” as emotional compensation for financial disparities. These guests also all stated that luxury consumption was their reward for their own hard work and men, especially, were keen on trying to elicit compassion from the workers by providing stories of how hard their life was, what with often away from home.

There is a lot more in the book. As with any participant observation or ethnographic work, the book is full of stories, descriptions, interviews that make the reading very pleasant and at the same time, Sherman does a great job of working in concepts, theories and other sociological work in a very approachable way.

Highly recommended.

The Visual Du Jour – Facebook v. Twitter Demographics

A very nice graphic via Patrick Lafferty:

Quite a bit of similarities in demographics. Of course, Twitter users update their status more often because that is the point of the whole thing, hence more mobile users as it is easier to do update Twitter on mobiles than to update one’s status in Facebook.

I would be more interested in seeing whether there is more bonding social capital involved in Facebook versus bridging social capital in Twitter. Since the whole point, from the users point of view, is to connect, I would like to see more on these “digital liaisons.”

Global Class Warfare: It’s ON

One would have to be living in a cave to not notice that things are grumbling: protest movements in the Middle East, where Tunisia and Egypt were the spark that also lit things up in other MENA countries.

But there are also protests in the UK against tax-dodging corporations and in the US against union-busting Republican governors, with something similar pushed by corporate interests in the UK:

“Business organisation the Institute of Directors (IoD) has called for collective bargaining to be scrapped for teachers and NHS staff.

They are among a set of proposals the trades unions have described as a “Thatcherite fantasy world”.

The IoD put a series of recommendations to government to cut red tape and boost private sector growth.

It also wants an automatic right to ask for flexible working to be removed, in order to increase productivity.

The IoD has put forward 24 “freebie” proposals, which it says would cost the government nothing but would benefit growth, particularly in the private sector.

Among the most controversial would be the call to curb trade union negotiating power in large public sector bodies, said BBC business correspondent Joe Lynam.

The IoD also suggests that workers should pay a deposit of £500 when taking their employers to industrial tribunals to deter what it describes as “vexatious claims”.

A spokesman for the Trades Union Congress said the IoD’s real aim was to make life easy for directors at the expense of their workforce and to lower pay and conditions in the NHS.”

The bottom line is: it is a global class warfare. The transnational capitalist class is going for broke on the rest of us, using its wealth, political clout, complicit media figures and proxy movements like the Tea Party to conclusively complete the capture of a decaying system.

The impetus for this is not hard to grasp: a massive financial crisis caused by the financial sector, but blamed on the poor and the not-white, that made quite visible the growth of social inequalities that have been papered over by easy credit that sustained consumption.

“As the dramatic events in North Africa continue to unfold, many observers outside the Arab world smugly tell themselves that it is all about corruption and political repression. But high unemployment, glaring inequality and soaring prices for basic commodities are also a huge factor. So observers should not just be asking how far similar events will spread across the region; they should be asking themselves what kind of changes might be coming at home in the face of similar, if not quite so extreme, economic pressures.

Within countries, inequality of income, wealth and opportunity is arguably greater than at any time in the last century. Across Europe, Asia and the Americas, corporations are bulging with cash as their relentless drive for efficiency continues to yield huge profits. Yet workers’ share of the pie is falling, thanks to high unemployment, shortened working hours and stagnant wages.

Paradoxically, cross-country measures of income and wealth inequality are actually falling, thanks to continuing robust growth in emerging markets. But most people care far more about how well they are doing relative to their neighbours, than to citizens of distant lands.

The rich are mostly doing well. Global stock markets are back. Many countries are seeing vigorous growth in prices for housing, commercial real estate, or both. Resurgent prices for commodities are creating huge revenues for owners of mines and oil fields, even as price spikes for basic staples are sparking food riots, if not wholesale revolutions, in the developing world. The internet and the financial sector continue to spawn new multimillionaires, and even billionaires, at a staggering pace.”

As Rogoff notes, political corruption and pool leadership does not help, but inequalities are at the core of these global movements.

It’s a plutocrats’ world, and the rest of us are just potential sources of rent.

And things can only get worse with food prices rising to critical levels:

“At one time food was considered a poor speculative investment, because it was too perishable to be stored until market conditions were right for resale. But that changed with the development of ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and other financial innovations.


As first devised, speculation in food futures was fairly innocuous, since when the contract expired, somebody actually had to buy the product at the “spot” or cash price. This forced the fanciful futures price and the more realistic spot price into alignment. But that changed in 1991. In a revealing July 2010 report in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away with It,” Frederick Kaufman wrote:

The history of food took an ominous turn in 1991, at a time when no one was paying much attention. That was the year Goldman Sachs decided our daily bread might make an excellent investment….

Robber barons, gold bugs, and financiers of every stripe had long dreamed of controlling all of something everybody needed or desired, then holding back the supply as demand drove up prices.


Some economists said the hikes were caused by increased demand by Chinese and Indian middle-class population booms and the growing use of corn for ethanol. But according to Professor Jayati Ghosh of the Centre for Economic Studies in New Delhi, demand from those countries actually fell by 3 percent over the period; and the International Grain Council stated that global production of wheat had increased during the price spike.

According to a study by the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, index fund speculation jumped from $13 billion to $260 billion from 2003 to 2008. Not surprisingly, food prices rose in tandem, beginning in 2003. Hedge fund manager Michael Masters estimated that on the regulated exchanges in the US, 64 percent of all wheat contracts were held by speculators with no interest whatever in real wheat. They owned it solely in anticipation of price inflation and resale. George Soros said it was “just like secretly hoarding food during a hunger crisis in order to make profits from increasing prices.”

An August 2009 paper by Jayati Ghosh, professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, compared food staples traded on futures markets with staples that were not. She found that the price of food staples not traded on futures markets, such as millet, cassava and potatoes, rose only a fraction as much as staples subject to speculation, such as wheat.”

This predatory rent-seeking behavior knows no limit, financial, moral or geographical. The flip side of this is a deliberate strategy, once explicitly stated by Alan Greenspan, to maintain higher levels of insecurity for workers, after all, the Transnational Capitalist Class (TNC) does not need workers from any specific country, especially not the US. It needs to be able to freely roam the globe for financial opportunities to extract more rent.

But the gap in wealth along with the severing of national ties have also led to ideological hardening: the TNC (or the Cloud Minders, as I often call them, following David Korten and based on a Star Trek episode) thinks very poorly of the mere mortals.

This is something I have called elsewhere The New Sociopathy. As the article where the video comes from notes,

“The ranks of the very seriously wealthy grow and grow, and the gap between them and the societies they once belonged to, grows wider and wider.

Could it be that the Arab sheikh, the Russian oligarch and the American internet magnate have more in common with each other than they have with the people they purport to live among?”

Well, yes, that is why they are the TNC. The TNC’s control of wealth allows them to live lives completely disconnected from the rest of the world’s population (even the upper middle classes of the West). Their political clout allows them to  have national governments divest themselves of their social responsibilities towards their populations while virtually wiping out taxation in the TNC. And their control of the media makes it possible for them to build and propagate narratives that blame the various dimensions of the crisis to the poor, the regulators (if only) and the minorities.

Narrative 1:

“There has been a concerted effort to bash public sector employees by either highlighting the few instances where pensions actually are exorbitant or just making things up. Untruths about Goldman Sachs, General Electric or any other major company rarely appear in the media, and are usually quickly corrected when they do. However, exaggerations or outright fabrication are a standard practice for those who report on state and local budgets when it comes to public employees.

The public has been bombarded with stories of public employees retiring with six-figure pensions while still in their early 50s. There may be some instances of such inflated pensions, but that is far from the typical story. If we look to New York State, the hotbed of bloated public budgets, we find that the state’s main retirement system pays an average pension of $18,300 a year. For many workers this is their whole retirement income since they were not covered by Social Security.

This is the general story of public pensions. Public sector workers are often better situated than their private sector counterparts, in that they even have pensions. But study after study shows that these workers paid for their pensions with lower wages than their private sector counterparts. It is tragic that so many private sector workers cannot count on a secure retirement, but it won’t help them to make workers in the public sector equally insecure.”

Narrative 2:

“When families take out a mortgage in the middle of a housing bubble, which may have been misrepresented at the time of sale, the homeowner has an obligation to repay the money to the bank. When people take on credit card debt, they absolutely have an obligation to repay the bank — even if it means changing the rules after the fact.

However, when the government signs a contract with workers, it doesn’t have to pay the workers’ pensions if it proves to be inconvenient. Of course, we may also throw in the fact that when the flood of bad mortgage loans issued by the banks threatened to push them into bankruptcy, the Treasury and the Fed give them trillions of dollars of loans at below market interest rates.”


“There certainly seems to be a pattern here. The story has nothing to do with preferences for the market or government intervention. The picture here is very simple: The rules get changed whenever it is necessary to make sure that money flows upward from ordinary workers to the rich. In 21st century America, upward redistribution seems to be the guiding principle.”

Narrative 3: the public debt

“Nothing better shows corporate control over the government than Washington’s basic response to the current economic crisis. First, we had “the rescue”, then “the recovery”. Trillions in public money flowed to the biggest US banks, insurance companies, etc. That “bailed” them out (is it just me or is there a suggestion of criminality in that phrase?), while we waited for benefits to “trickle down” to the rest of us.

As usual, the “trickle-down” part has not happened. Large corporations and their investors kept the government’s money for themselves; their profits and stock market “recovered” nicely. We get unemployment, home-foreclosures, job benefit cuts and growing job insecurity. As the crisis hits states and cities, politicians avoid raising corporate taxes in favour of cutting government services and jobs – witness Wisconsin, etc.

Might government bias favouring corporations be deserved, a reward for taxes they pay? No: corporations – especially the larger ones – have avoided taxes as effectively as they have controlled government expenditures to benefit them.”

In other words, the states are short of money not because they are too burdened by pensions and benefits but because corporations do not pay their proper share of taxes, as the rest of us (including public employees) do. It is the ideological triumph of the TNC that the general public has accepted their narrative of bad teachers, lazy government workers who need to be trimmed down.

And this how the Cloud Minders think of us.

The only solution is massive, global protest movements, a reverse shock doctrine directed at the TNC. It is in this context that the existence of organizations like Wikileaks become essential along with Net Neutrality. But that, in itself will not be enough. Fighting this means putting boots on the grounds and protesting not just the individuals (such as the Governor of Wisconsin or the Koch Brothers) but the entire system. And yes, such affairs are usually bloody. But what are the options? Obama is not going to be the labor’s knight in a shining armor.