Institutional Discrimination and Passive Racism

Here again, individual discrimination (active, individual racism) is easy to spot and mostly socially unacceptable in most Western societies. However, harder to detect and more devastating in its social effects is institutional discrimination. Institutional discrimination is discrimination in results, that is, discrimination as result of a multitude of institutional practices engaged in by a variety of individuals who are not necessarily individually racist themselves.


“Leading black academics are calling for an urgent culture change at UK universities as figures show there are just 50 black British professors out of more than 14,000, and the number has barely changed in eight years, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Only the University of Birmingham has more than two black British professors, and six out of 133 have more than two black professors from the UK or abroad. The statistics, from 2009/10, define black as Black Caribbean or Black African.

Black academics are demanding urgent action and argue that they have to work twice as hard as their white peers and are passed over for promotion.

A study to be published in October found ethnic minorities at UK universities feel “isolated and marginalised”.

Heidi Mirza, an emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, is demanding new legislation to require universities to tackle discrimination.

Laws brought in last month give employers, including universities, the option to hire someone from an ethnic minority if they are under-represented in their organisation and are as well-qualified for a post as other candidates. This is known as positive action. Mirza wants the law amended so that universities are compelled to use positive action in recruitment.

She said there were too many “soft options” for universities and there needed to be penalties for those that paid lip-service to the under-representation of minorities. Positive discrimination, where an employer can limit recruitment to someone of a particular race or ethnicity, is illegal.

The HESA figures show black British professors make up just 0.4% of all British professors – 50 out of 14,385.

This is despite the fact that 2.8% of the population of England and Wales is Black African or Black Caribbean, according to the Office for National Statistics. Only 10 of the 50 black British professors are women.”

This means that there are a series of unacknowledged expectations put on Black academics that limit their access to promotion as well as a lack of social network to rely on (so, no benefit from the strength of weak ties). And because this form of discrimination is largely invisible and harder to detect, it is often ignored if not denied as a lot of people think individual discrimination is the only form of discrimination that exists.

And note the double whammy for Black women.

This is also why positive (or affirmative) actions are the best remedy for institutional discrimination, as they tackle institutional issues (discrimination in result) and force institutions to review processes that are otherwise taken for granted and never questioned.

Book Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca’s Skloot‘s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a sociology book but there is certainly a lot of sociology between the lines. The book is a (well-deserved) best-seller, so, most people know what it’s about. There are several narrative threads: (1) the one that inspired the title, that is, the life of Henrietta Lacks, the woman who gave us the HeLa cells that are so widely use in medical research; (2) a bit of history of medical research, especially cell research, along with issues of consent and commercialization of cell lines; (3) Skloot’s journey as she tries to piece together Henrietta Lacks’s life and that of her family.

This gives the book a very structure that makes it highly readable, as Skloot mixes and alternates all three threads. And the science chapters are very well-written and make the topic very accessible to the non-specialist readers.

The three narrative threads are related, of course. The way in which Henrietta’s cells were extracted and used was fairly typical of the way research was done in the 1950s, and this also explains why the family was so extremely guarded when it came to sharing information with (especially white) reporters and journalists, hence, Skloot’s travails and tribulations when trying to contact Lacks’s relatives.

From a sociological point of view, this book perfectly illustrates what institutional racism and discrimination and structural violence are. The way Lacks’s cells were extracted, without her knowledge or consent (or that of her husband) typically reflects how the medical and scientific profession treated indigent and especially Black patients. These patients, often treated for free at places like Johns Hopkins, were considered fair game for testing, tissue extraction, etc. since they were not “paying customers”. And it is not that Lacks’s ended up in the hands of racist doctors. But she certainly ended up in a whole system of institutional discrimination where black patients got a different kind of care in a still segregated health care system. After all, the institution of medical research does not exactly have a glorious records when it comes to race, as the Tuskegee experiments remind us.

This leads me to the structural violence part. A great deal of the book is dedicated not only to the results of Skloot’s research but to that painstaking process itself. The children of Henrietta Lacks’s turned it into an obstacle course. Once you are past an possible initial reaction – “these people are nutcases” – it becomes clear that they bear the wounds of structural violence, that is, violence by social institution. Henrietta Lacks’s husband and children were lied to, manipulated, never really told what had happened to their wife/mother. And, of course, as the HeLa were widely commercialized, they never got a dime. But when it became known who had produced the HeLa cells, all of a sudden, a bunch of white people got interested in them, again, without compensation or recognition. As described in the book, they all lived in poverty and could not afford the medical care and medications that their mother’s cells had made possible.

And, of course, at the time, scientific and medical research was a white men’s world not well-known for enlightened views when it came to race and gender. And institutionally, those were the days before ethical standards, institutional review boards and HIPAA. And the culture was one of silent submission to authority, so, patients (especially women and minorities) did not ask questions and were treated in a somewhat disdainful and patronizing way.

The other kind of structural violence that Henrietta’s children suffered from came from within their family. Skloot provides painful description of the kind of massive abuse one of her sons suffered at the hand of his stepmother (which certainly accounts for his life of anger, violence and marginality) as well as the sexual abuse that one of Henrietta’s daughter experienced at the hand of a male relative, right under her father’s nose (and he did nothing). Male first cousin sexual abuse on female first cousin was apparently not out of bounds in the extended family. The other daughter, who probably suffered from some form of mental disability, ended up in one of these horrible mental institutions, never receiving any visitors after her mother’s death. Apparently, she was experimented upon while there.

Lacking a proper education, the Lackses end up either profoundly religious (of the revival kind, in the case of Deborah), having multiple brushes with the law, or at the very least severe behavioral problems. But all of them ended up prone to conspiracy theories as to what had been done to their mother and how the cells were obtained. None of which is surprising. But the depth of such structural wounds is highly visible as Skloot gets to meet different members of the Lacks’s family.

As I said, this is a fascinating read. Skloot has a great website with a lot of information as extension of the book, and this video:

The Visual Du Jour – Better Life Index

Now this is a great interactive graph combining a set of indicators on quality of life:

Each flower represents a country. Each petal is an indicator and the size of the petal reflects how well or how poorly each country is doing on the indicator.



Work-Life balance:

Go ahead, go play with the data. It’s amazing.

Forced Pregnancy and Forced Abortion: Two Sides of The Same Patriarchal Coin

It is a neat rhetorical trick of the forced pregnancy lobby to label pro-choice groups as pro-abortion because it displaces the discussion that should be at the heart of this: women’s agency and choice over their own bodies, and all the emotional, psychological, medical and social issues related to the lack thereof.

Actually, as the post title indicates, to force women to give birth or to force them to abort are two sides of the same anti-choice, patriarchal logic. It is not about life, it never has been. It is about patriarchal control.

This is why this four-part article over at the BBC News website on India’s missing girls is a must-read.

Part 1:

“Kulwant has three daughters aged 24, 23 and 20 and a son who is 16.

In the years between the birth of her third daughter and her son, Kulwant became pregnant three times.

“My mother-in-law said if I had a daughter, my husband would leave me. Thankfully, I had a son.”

Each time, she says, she was forced to abort the foetus by her family after ultrasound tests confirmed that they were girls.

“My mother-in-law taunted me for giving birth to girls. She said her son would divorce me if I didn’t bear a son.”

Kulwant still has vivid memories of the first abortion. “The baby was nearly five months old. She was beautiful. I miss her, and the others we killed,” she says, breaking down, wiping away her tears.

Until her son was born, Kulwant’s daily life consisted of beatings and abuse from her husband, mother-in-law and brother-in-law. Once, she says, they even attempted to set her on fire.

“They were angry. They didn’t want girls in the family. They wanted boys so they could get fat dowries,” she says.”

Part 2:

“Sreeja travelled more than 2,000km (1,240 miles) from her parents’ home in Kerala in southern India to set up home with her husband in Haryana. He had tired of waiting to find a local bride so he used connections to make contact with her family.

Inter-state marriages are rare in rural India. Yawning differences in language, food, cultural habits, weather, attitudes to women and even names easily conspire to make such alliances unworkable.

But Birbal was unable to find a bride in Haryana, which has the most unbalanced sex ratio in the country, with 877 women for every 1,000 men. Among under sevens, that ratio drops to just 830 girls for every 1,000 boys.

Experts say Haryana’s situation is the result of illegal sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, parental neglect and discrimination against girl children.

The good news is that both ratios are slightly higher than the rate in the 2001 census, thanks to moves against antenatal sex-determination clinics and a gender awareness drive.

The bad news is that the ratios are still way behind India’s average – 914 girls for every 1,000 boys under seven, and that gap itself has widened since 2001.

In contrast, Kerala has a laudable 1,084 women for every 1,000 men, according to the 2011 census, considerably higher than the national average of 940 women for every 1,000 men.

Birbal and Sreeja are not the only couple in Sorkhi from different Indian cultures.

Men in Haryana, unable to find a bride at home, are willing to pay up to 100,000 rupees ($2,222) to marry an “imported” girl from states like West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar or Madhya Pradesh.

With fewer women the “marriage market” has taken an interesting turn.

Usually, a bride’s family pays a large dowry to the groom’s family. But these days prospective grooms in areas short on women often need to have substantial amounts of land and a secure government job if they are to win a wife.

In Sorkhi, the “imported” brides have adapted to life in this alien land, giving up their jobs and learning the local Hindi dialect.”

Part 3:

“The Kashmir Valley, which has been in the grip of an armed insurgency against Indian rule for the past two decades, has now turned on its girls, killing them ruthlessly, in most cases even before they are born.


In 2001, for every 1,000 boys under seven in the state, there were 941 girls. Now the number is down to 859. No other Indian state has fared so badly over the past decade.


Dr Saleem-ur Rehman, director of health services for Kashmir Valley, says: “The 2001 census figures were good so we thought we were doing really well and we all became a little complacent.”

“I don’t want to be in denial mode. I admit something was happening. And we are doing our best, what best we can do, to change the situation,” he says.

On Dr Rehman’s order, 100 ultrasound clinics have been sealed in the valley. Action has been taken against centres in Srinagar, Budgam, Baramulla, Ganderbal, Kulgam and Kupwara. Many more have been sent notices and are in the process of being raided and sealed.

Any clinic which is not registered, or one that has not submitted the mandatory Form F (which has to be filled for each pregnant mother that visits the clinic), or a clinic that submits incomplete forms has been shut down.

“Some of them are big names, but they are doing very bad work. We know they are definitely doing sex determination tests. I will not allow medical technology to be part of this menace,” he says.

Dr Rehman says his job is made difficult by the fact that he can never have definite proof.

“The person who gets the sex selection done – like the pregnant mother, her husband or her mother-in-law – will never reveal anything. Nor will the person who does it, because he’s getting paid for it and he knows it’s illegal. So we can only have circumstantial evidence.””

Part 4:

“On a steaming hot day, nearly two dozen women have gathered in the office of the government-run child development project in the Bihar village of Vidupur.

Most are accompanied by their little daughters. All of them have a white sheet of paper which they scramble to show me.

It’s a precious document – it carries the name of the girl, her date of birth and other details. And it’s proof that she is enrolled for the government’s Kanya Suraksha Yojana (Girl Protection Scheme).

Under the scheme, the state invests 2,000 rupees ($44; $27) in a fund in the name of the girl. The money grows along with the child – once she reaches 18, officials say it will be worth about 10 times that amount, and could be used to pay for her wedding or to fund a college education.

The scheme is available only to those living below the poverty line and a family can enrol just two daughters.

The initiative, announced in November 2007, is part of the government’s plan to make baby girls wanted and, at the same time, make small families an attractive idea.

“The scheme was launched to ensure the girl child is allowed to be born, that her birth is celebrated, and that she is cared for,” says Irina Sinha, an official in the state government’s Women’s Development Corporation.”

Read the whole thing.

(Sub)Urban Environments and Social Pathologies

One of the things that those of us who teach undergraduate sociology try to get across to our students is the idea that social structures shape behavior. It may seem obvious to us but in a highly individualistic and puritanical culture, our students are more used to looking at behavior in psychological or moral terms. So, simply stating the idea that structure shapes behavior goes against the grain.

One nice way of illustrating the “environments / contexts / structures shape behavior” idea is how (sub)urban ecology determines human interactions, actions and practices. After all, every French student that Baron Haussman designed Paris’s large and wide boulevard to prevent the riff-raff from erecting barricades and to make it easier for the cavalry to charge against popular demonstrations.

And via Karl Bakeman, here is another good illustration using the urban development example:

“Crappy urban development isn’t just ugly and noisy and dirty. It is turning out to be lethal.

One Toronto study looked at how the quality of a community’s streets can affect people’s health, factoring into drastically reduced life expectancy. It’s the focus of an article in The Globe and Mail that discusses how Toronto and other cities are segregated not just by race and income, but also by the quality of the built environment — and what that division means for residents’ health.

People living in less walkable, outlying parts of the city, with less access to green space and recreational opportunities, as well as healthy food, are at increased risk of obesity and diabetes:

The first Canadian study of its kind, published in 2007, the Diabetes Atlas investigated 140 Toronto neighborhoods over three years to examine the role of several factors — including community design, population density, access to healthy and unhealthy food — on the diabetes epidemic. Poverty and ethnicity were found to be key in the development of type 2 diabetes. The researchers also concluded that walking and transit times to recreation facilities in the city’s outlying neighborhoods were as long as 40 minutes and 20 minutes, respectively, each way. It takes only 30 minutes of walking or moderate exercise, combined with a healthy diet, to cut the risk of diabetes in half. But a walk through a bleak or potentially dangerous neighborhood is hardly inspiring, especially if the only nearby landmark is a highway …

We used to call them ugly, but now social geographers and medical practitioners label the disconnected sections of the city “obesogenic,” meaning environments that promote obesity.

“Obesogenic” is not a word I had ever heard before I read this article. But apparently it’s been around since about 1996. It makes sense that somebody would have coined it — the Centers for Disease Control reports that nine states in the United States now have more than 30 percent obesity rates.

How did we get there? Sheldon Jacobson of the University of Illinois has just released a study looking at the correlation between increasing automobile use and increasing obesity:

After analyzing data from national statistics measured between 1985 and 2007, Jacobson discovered vehicle use correlated “in the 99-percent range” with national annual obesity rates.

“If we drive more, we become heavier as a nation, and the cumulative lack of activity may eventually lead to, at the aggregate level, obesity,” he said …

The sedentary lifestyle that automobile use enables coupled with the prevalent role it plays in increasing the sprawl of our cities, towns and suburbs is the “societal price we pay for always being in a rush to get places,” Jacobson said.

“For the last 60-plus years, we’ve literally built our society around the automobile and getting from point A to point B as quickly as we can. Because we choose to drive rather than walk or cycle, the result is an inactive, sedentary lifestyle. Not coincidentally, obesity also became a public health issue during this period.”

Before the automobile became such a prevalent mode of transportation for the vast majority of Americans, “it took much more energy just to live,” Jacobson said.

The thing is, even if you don’t own an automobile, you live in a place that is built for them — because by now, every place is. As the Toronto study and others in the United States have revealed, it’s not just the autocentric suburban states in the so-called “Diabetes Belt” that have a problem. Residents of dense urban areas also suffer from high rates of obesity and diabetes, in part because of the lack of healthy food choices, in part because certain ethnic groups are more predisposed to diabetes, and in part because the streetscape is degraded and ignored. The problem is worst in parts of the city like New York’s Southwest Bronx — where neglected street infrastructure, pedestrian-unfriendly design, crime rates, and urban freeways make it unpleasant or unsafe to spend much time outside.”

Read the whole thing.

Book Review – Just Give Money to the Poor

If you are a public policy wonk interested in development, Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South by Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos and David Hulme, is for you.

This book argues for the value and effectiveness of cash transfer programs in order to alleviate poverty in the Global South as opposed to programs based on the faulty and yet still used modernization theory and as opposed to the complicated and short-sighted programs offered by the multitude of NGOs based more on donors priorities than actual need.

The book is strongly data-driven and reviews in details the different programs that have been piloted or implemented in various countries of the global South but they all lead to four conclusions:

“These programs are affordable, recipients use the money well and do not waste it, cash grants are an efficient way to directly reduce current poverty, and they have the potential to prevent future poverty by facilitating economic growth and promoting human development.” (2)

That being said, reviews of these programs (especially in Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia, India and Zambia, among others) reveal two problematic areas: targeting (who gets the cash payments) and conditions (should there be any? What kind?)

It should be noted that cash transfer payments are not really new. Most high-income countries have such programs in place in a variety of ways: family grants, government-administered pensions, children and elderly benefits are the main ones. But it has always been assumed that only the rich countries could afford such programs and it goes against the conservative belief that the poor are poor because of their own failings and that therefore only the “deserving” poor should receive assistance. In poor countries, these can take the form of family grants, pensions, child benefits, employment guarantee.

Why do these programs work?

“A quiet revolution is taking place based on the realization that you cannot pull yourself by your bootstraps if you have no boots. And giving “boots” to people with little money does not make them lazy or reluctant to work; rather, the opposite happens. A small guaranteed income provides a foundation that enables people to transform their own lives. In development jargon, this is the “poverty trap” model – many people are trapped in poverty because they have so little money that they cannot buy things they know they need, such as medicines or schoolbooks or food or fertilizer. They are in a hole with no way to climb out; cash transfers provide a ladder.” (4)

But there are specific conditions that make these programs work effectively in reducing poverty. They must be:

Fair in that people largely agree as to who should receive the benefits. Universal benefits are usually perceived as fair but do not target the poorest and most vulnerable categories. Targeting may be more difficult to administer and may be divisive.

Assured, that is, people know that there is money coming in every month so they can plan accordingly and start living beyond day to day survival.

Practical in that there should be an civil service capacity to administer the programs and deliver benefits as simply as possible.

Not just pennies in that the benefits should be large enough to really trigger change in behavior such as letting children stay in school longer or using medical services more frequently.

Popular in that programs should be politically acceptable.

These programs are often designed to not just reduce immediate poverty but also to reduce intergenerational poverty by improving nutrition (and therefore health) as well as school attendance and decrease child labor. In addition, studies show that these programs also contribute to development by stimulating demand as the poor will spend the extra money they get locally. Having a little bit of financial security also fosters investment (in seeds and crops) and even some risk-taking (experimenting with high-yielding crops for instance). The money may also be used as start-up capital. In other words, the poor become more able to participate in the economy.

Again, this is not to say that these programs do not have their problems. Corruption is still a major issue in the global South. Developing effective targeting mechanisms can be tricky and conditionality is especially difficult. In addition, if more people are going to make greater use of health and educational services, then, these services have to be there. And, of course, there is no template that can be conveniently replicated from one country to the next. All the programs discussed in the book differ based on social context. For instance, pensions are especially effective in South Africa where there are a lot of multi-generational families and having seniors receive pensions allows adults to go away to find work knowing their children will be taken care of. On the other hand, Mexico and Brazil have programs that focus more on children and mothers.

I won’t go into the details of all the programs depicted in the book because that would be tedious. But that is actually one of the strengths of the book. The authors have done their homework, collected the data to determine the effectiveness of these different programs. So, as much as it is a public policy book, it is also a debunking book in that it destroys the myths that conservative ideology has regarding the poor and their behavior.

Privilege 101 – Straight-splaining

Straight-splaining is to gay-straight conversations on sexual preference what man-splaining is to men-women conversations on gender. Just as man-splaining is men explaining to women how they behave, when they should think, which issues should be prioritized on gender topics, straigh-splaining consists of straight people telling LGBTs how they should be behave, what they should think and do regarding sexual preference-related issues such as coming out.

These forms of paternalistic explanations from privileged individuals, directed towards minorities and marginalized categories are quite common. They occur in conversations about gender, sexual preferences, as just mentioned, but also regarding race (when dominant group members lecture minorities on how they should feel about, or perceive, racism), or religion (where atheists are lectured as to how they should address religious people on religious issues).

Most invariably, these lectures involve injunctions directed at the socially subordinate group to not be so sensitive on relevant issues, to not rock the boat, to not be to blunt or assertive, to take care of not offending the dominant group because that is not helpful. And most of all, these injunctions are couched in the language of efficacy: minorities are more likely to get results by complying with demands of “good behavior” from members of the dominant group: it’s for minorities’ own good, you see.

It is one of the most powerful forms of privileges because it assumes that minorities do not know what is good for them, have limited understanding of the prejudice and discrimination against them. And it further assumes that members of the dominant group know better, by default. Members of the dominant group are the final arbiters of such matters: if they see prejudice and discrimination, it is because there is prejudice and discrimination. If they don’t see it, then, it is because it is not there and if minority group members insist that there is, they are accused of being over-sensitive.

Case in point (via Max P.):

“München – Die Debatte über ein mögliches Outing homosexueller Fußballer gewinnt an Intensität: Nun hat sich auch Nationalelf-Kapitän Philipp Lahm eingeschaltet – und schwulen Profi-Fußballern davon abgeraten, sich zu outen.

“Für denjenigen, der es tut, würde es sehr schwer werden”, sagte der beim FC Bayern München spielende Lahm der Illustrierten “Bunte”. Seiner Einschätzung nach würde ein offen schwuler Fußballer Schmährufen ausgesetzt sein. “Es ist schade, aber Schwulsein ist im Fußball – anders als in Politik und Showgeschäft – immer noch ein Tabuthema.”

Er selbst habe aber “keinerlei Berührungsängste” mit Homosexuellen. Deshalb wäre ein schwuler Mannschaftskollege für ihn auch kein Problem, so der 27-Jährige.

Seine Sichtweise widerspricht der des DFB-Präsidenten Theo Zwanziger, der sich für ein Outing schwuler Fußballer ausgesprochen und ihnen die Hilfe des Verbandes zugesagt hat. “Ich würde es mutig finden und begrüßen, wenn sich ein Bundesliga-Spieler outen würde. Er hätte auch die Unterstützung des DFB und von mir”, sagte Zwanziger im März. Ob jemand seine sexuelle Ausrichtung öffentlich mache, müsse aber jeder für sich selbst entscheiden.

Auch Nationaltorwart Manuel Neuer und Nationalstürmer Mario Gomez, Mannschaftskollege von Lahm, hatten im Laufe der gerade beendeten Saison schwulen Berufskollegen zum Outing geraten. Sie sahen darin anders als nun Lahm kein Problem.”

Yes, I know it’s in German. Philipp Lahm, captain of the Bayern Munich, one of the best German teams in the Bundesliga, is telling his gay colleagues to stay in the closet, for their own good, because, were they to come out, they would have to endure the homophobia of football audiences. He, of course, has absolutely no problems with gays. This is a big deal because he is not just anybody. On the other hand, the head of the German league is encouraging gay players to come out, and praising the courage it takes to do so.

The argument that stadium audiences are homophobic and that players would be jeered at is bogus, of course. Racist insults have never stop football teams from fielding racial minorities when it suits them. This is one of the saddest, and yet quite normal, part of football.

But it is indeed a strong sign of privilege when one takes it upon oneself to lecture gay players regarding such an important personal decision as coming out as if gay players had not considered the arguments. It is another case of “listen to your betters”. It is especially interesting to see members of the dominant group, as Captain Lahm does here, invoke the “it’s not me. I’m good with it. But society is not ready for this” argument to justify voluntary marginalization.

Because here again, dominant group members have a better sense of where society is at regarding minority issues than minorities, and one should never go against society, argues the straight-splainer while shaking his head as he deplores its lack of openness. Or as Lahm puts it, there is still a gay taboo in football, it’s a shame but there it is.

The phenomenon of man-splaining, straight-splaining or God-splaining is so widespread and so taken-for-granted that to challenge it is to be perceived as angry, “raging” or hostile, so used to having their privilege recognized in discourse are dominant group members. A perfect example is the reception that so-called New Atheists receive when they challenge people of faith. Religious people are so completely used to never having their religious views challenged (another major sign of privilege) that the most basic question is perceived as open warfare.

And, of course, to cast one’s opponent as angry or hostile, is a nice way of dismissing the issues by focusing on tone and arguing for civility (which, in that case, means not questioning privileged discourses and ideologies).

William I. Robinson on 21st Century Fascism

I have been a big fan of William I. Robinson ever since I read his – ever-so dense but profound – A Theory of Global Capitalism (a book you should all read) – and in this Al-Jazeera column, he pursues a familiar line of thinking: that global capitalism leads to 21st century fascism:

“I want to discuss here the crisis of global capitalism and the notion of distinct political responses to the crisis, with a focus on the far-right response and the danger of what I refer to as 21st century fascism, particularly in the United States.”

I write “familiar” because this is something he has spoken about before. In Robinson’s view, globalization is characterized by three major and dominating entities: transnational capital, the transnational capitalist class (TCC) and the transnational state. These three components are well integrated and embedded, hence their thorough dominance, which, with the current recession, is now plain to see and deeply entrenched:

“By the late 1990s, the system entered into chronic crisis. Sharp social polarisation and escalating inequality helped generate a deep crisis of over-accumulation. The extreme concentration of the planet’s wealth in the hands of the few and the accelerated impoverishment, and dispossession of the majority, even forced participants in the 2011 World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos to acknowledge that the gap between the rich and the poor worldwide is “the most serious challenge in the world” and is “raising the spectre of worldwide instability and civil wars.”

Global inequalities and the impoverishment of broad majorities mean that transnational capitals cannot find productive outlets to unload the enormous amounts of surplus it has accumulated. By the 21st century, the TCC turned to several mechanisms to sustain global accumulation, or profit making, in the face of this crisis.”

What are these mechanisms?

1. Militarized accumulation: permanent wars that generate huge profits for the military-industrial complex. The global economy is a war economy. This militarization-of-everything applies to immigration policy, the criminal justice system and protest / social movement management as well.

2. Raiding and sacking of public budgets through the imposition of austerity measures, which are actually mechanisms of massive redistribution to the top.

3. Worldwide financial speculation: the financialization of everything, including food and it does not really matter if the consequences are devastating. Quick example:

“Today, hunger is growing as food prices reach record levels, and a further 44 million people, according to the World Bank, have found themselves reduced to conditions of extreme poverty since the middle of last year. The figures are imprecise but, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, about a billion people now live in chronic hunger – a scandal in what should be an age of plenty.

As the numbers increase, suspicion has mounted that a new factor has been helping to push food prices beyond the pockets of the poor – the vast amounts of money poured into the commodities market in recent years.

In a new report, Hungry for Justice, Fighting Starvation in an Age of Plenty (pdf), Christian Aid says it is not primarily the hedge funds that are behind this trend. More pertinent are the activities of institutional investors such as pension funds looking for a safe place in which to grow their money following the burst of the dotcom bubble and collapse of the property boom.

The scene was set for their entry into the commodities market in 1991, when Goldman Sachs created an index of 18 commodities, including various foods, in which people were invited to invest. As well as providing diversity in the form of different types of commodities, from oil to metals to foodstuffs, that would perform differently, the index would offer diversity at a broader level to those with investments in traditional assets such as shares and bonds.

Business built up quickly, becoming an avalanche once the Commodity Futures Modernisation Act was passed in the US in 2000. That allowed banks, brokers and other financial institutions to develop, market and trade a variety of unregulated financial products.

Crucially, it also allowed more heavily regulated investors to enter the commodities market. Pension funds, for instance, are banned in the US from speculating on commodities futures themselves because that involves leverage, or the use of borrowed money. However, the Act gave them access to the index funds. And they have money – lots of it. An indication of the funds at their disposal is the fact that the combined value of the world’s 13 largest pension markets is around $US26.5trn, higher than the combined GDP of China and the US.”

Back to Robinson: the Obama factor:

“The Obama project from the start was an effort by dominant groups to re-establish hegemony in the wake of its deterioration during the Bush years (which also involved the rise of a mass immigrant rights movement). Obama’s election was a challenge to the system at the cultural and ideological level, and has shaken up the racial/ethnic foundations upon which the US republic has always rested. However, the Obama project was never intended to challenge the socio-economic order; to the contrary; it sought to preserve and strengthen that order by reconstituting hegemony, conducting a passive revolution against mass discontent and spreading popular resistance that began to percolate in the final years of the Bush presidency.”

Passive revolution refers to Gramsci’s concept of the power elite letting a little symbolic change happen in order to suppress “softly” actual discontent from the masses. If successful, the result is that the system is left largely untouched. It has not really worked in the Middle East (although the jury is still out as to what will follow the collapse of the dictatorships of Tunisia or Egypt and what will actually happen in Lybia). In the US, the Obama administration along with the Democratic party succeeded in demobilizing social movements that had emerged towards the end of the Bush administration. In this sense, Obama is one more preparatory stage for 21st century fascism whose characteristics Robinson defines as such:

  1. The fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power
  2. Militarization and extreme masculinization (Cynthia Enloe is the go-to analyst on that topic, I would add)
  3. A scapegoat which serves to displace and redirect social tensions and contradictions: immigrants, Muslims, teachers, union members, women, but NOT actual right-wing terrorists… take your pick
  4. A mass social base, in that case, the white masses of teabaggers
  5. A fanatical millennial ideology involving race/culture supremacy embracing an idealized and mythical past, and a racist mobilization against scapegoats (unless they all get raptured on Saturday)
  6. Charismatic leadership: Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, etc.

On a global scale, add to this the need to police the 1/3 of the world population that lives on Mike Davis’s planet of slums and you have an increasingly authoritarian and violent system.

“In essence, the state’s ability to function as a “factor of cohesion” within the social order breaks down to the extent that capitalist globalisation and the logic of accumulation or commodification penetrates every aspect of life, so that “cohesion” requires more and more social control.

Displacement and exclusion has accelerated since 2008. The system has abandoned broad sectors of humanity, who are caught in a deadly circuit of accumulation-exploitation-exclusion. The system does not even attempt to incorporate this surplus population, but rather tries to isolate and neutralise its real or potential rebellion, criminalising the poor and the dispossessed, with tendencies towards genocide in some cases.

As the state abandons efforts to secure legitimacy among broad swathes of the population that have been relegated to surplus – or super-exploited – labour, it resorts to a host of mechanisms of coercive exclusion: mass incarceration and prison-industrial complexes, pervasive policing, manipulation of space in new ways, highly repressive anti-immigrant legislation, and ideological campaigns aimed at seduction and passivity through petty consumption and fantasy.”

That’s what reality TV is for.

And for anyone paying attention, these trends started thirty years ago, which leads Robinson to note that this crisis masks structural traits of the system.

As Robinson concludes,

“The United States cannot be characterised at this time as fascist. Nonetheless, all of the conditions and the processes are present and percolating, and the social and political forces behind such a project are mobilising rapidly. More generally, images in recent years of what such a political project would involve spanned the Israeli invasion of Gaza and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, to the scapegoating and criminalisation of immigrant workers and the Tea Party movement in the United States, genocide in the Congo, the US/United Nations occupation of Haiti, the spread of neo-Nazis and skinheads in Europe, and the intensified Indian repression in occupied Kashmir.”

The Visual Du Jour – Shaping Discourse

This is what happens when there is no real liberal power to shape the discourse on social issues (so much for the liberal media) and when both major political parties share a pro-corporate agenda:

I think we should borrow Virgil Hawkins formulation (stealth conflict / chosen conflict) and apply it to social issues. Some issues are chosen by the power elite to be front and center while others are never discussed or discussed in ways shaped by the power elite.