Assigning First Names As Social Phenomenon

One of the (many) things I like about sociology is that it deals with such a variety of topics. Take first names, for instance, as very clearly explored by Baptiste Coulmont in his book, Sociologie des Prénoms.

I was reminded of Coulmont’s book today because of this article (blog post by Arthur Goldhammer, article here) stating that French far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, wants to return to the imposition of calendar Saints, christian names to French children:

“Marine Le Pen wants the first names of children born in France to be taken from the calendar of Christian saints, as in the past. This, she claims, always functioned as an “aid to assimilation.” (h/t NV) Hmm. Steeve Briois, her party’s no. 2, may be named after St. Stephen, but his name isn’t particularly French. And Bruno Gollnisch may be named after St. Bruno, but it’s not exactly Jean-Baptiste. On the other hand, it isn’t Mohammed or Moïse, so I guess it has the proper “assimilative” quality. Gosh, even “Marine” might not pass muster if Marine becomes president. To be sure, she was born Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen, but if she had wanted to be a true daughter of the eldest daughter of the Church, mightn’t she have chosen a “real” French name, like, say, Martine or François or Nicolas?”

Nice snark at the end. But no ethnocentrism there, it’s only for assimilation purposes. Conservatives have always had problems with multiculturalism and so does she, deploring the maintenance of “ethnic” first names that supposedly prevent assimilation. This should be a debate that is familiar to Americans who probably remember the debates regarding “African-sounding” African-American names.

It is a neat trick though. Remember that many studies have shown that ethnic-sounding names may prevent one from getting job interviews or positions, a typical case of combination of individual and institutional discrimination. But to put it the way Le Pen does puts the onus of change not on the discriminator but on the discriminated. It is the ethnic minorities that have to change unilaterally to not make racists feel uncomfortable.

What Le Pen probably does not know and that Coulmont book explores at length is that the progressive abandonment of calendar names (based on Catholic saints) is not because of immigration and refusal to assimilate (at least in France) but has more to do with the secularization of society and the decline of power of the Church.

This also has to do with the changes in family structures from naming practices that had to do with lineage, larger family affiliation under religious / patriarchal rule to a greater individualization of choice within the nuclear family. Sometimes, the middle name is used for that more archaic purpose. Similarly, such individualization of choice away from the family structure is visible in the US in the decline of the suffix “jr” or “III”.

From a longue durée perspective, Coulmont notes that the establishment of a fixed first name also has a lot to do with the creation of states and their administrative apparatuses, such as the official registration of births which inscribes every child into the national community. The French Revolution was instrumental into individualization the first name.

So, there is a lot more to a first name choice than supposed refusal to assimilate. And to want to turn back the clock on naming practices is nothing but run-of-the-mill reactionary and nativist politics with a discreet (or not so discreet) touch of racism.

Coulmont also notes the fact that naming is a collective behavior comparable to a fashion trend, where first names come and go so that a first name is as much an identifier (not just of individuality but also of generation) as a fashion object. So much for individual choice then. Interestingly, Coulmont sees an accelerating trend in the way first names go in and out of fashion. This acceleration  is based on two characteristics: turnover and de-concentration.

Turnover is more pronounced for girls names than for boys where traditional choices are more prevalent. Parents also now name their children based on a much larger pool than in previous times as state restrictions get lifted and more creativity is allowed. But the quicker a first name gets in fashion, the quicker it will be dropped as well. After all, just like any fashion item, the more widespread and common (referring to social class) it becomes, the less attractive it becomes. And, as Coulmont notes, there is definitely a class and stratification logic to choosing first names. In this case, there is Bourdieusian distinction at work.

Actually, shifts in the labor structure of the economy (from agricultural to industrial to service-based) led to increasing numbers of people who are more likely to be innovative in their selection of first names.

Some of these factors are mentioned in a post by Jay Livingston regarding trends in first names emphasizing the impact of popular culture, and especially, celebrity culture:

“Similarly, Addison, the second biggest gainer, may have gotten a boost from the fictional doctor who rose from “Gray’s Anatomy” to her own “Private Practice.” In the first year of “Gray’s Anatomy, the name Addison zoomed from 106th place to 28th. The name is also just different enough from Madison, which had been in the top ten for nearly a decade. Its stylishness was fading fast among the fashion-conscious.

Madison herself owed her popularity to the media. She created a big “Splash” soon after the film came out. As Tom Hanks says in the scene below, “Madison’s not a name.” [The clip will start at the beginning of relevant part of the scene. For purposes of this post, it should stop at 3:23, after the punch line (“Good thing we weren’t at 149th street.”). But I couldn’t figure out the code to make it stop.]*”

And then, social change may play an impact on naming practices. As Coulmont notes, the choice of first names can be treated as an indicator of changes in the social structure of parenthood, especially with the increasing number of LGBT parents whose naming is also at issue:

“Rafael Colonna, a Berkeley Ph.D. candidate interested in gender, sexuality and the sociology of the family, has been interviewing same-sex parents to answer such questions. In the process, he’s discovered that in family life, “small practices can have a lot of meaning behind them.”

The assigning of familial names and titles is one of the “small” arenas where same-sex parents attempt to navigate a “hetero-normative” world, he says. Some couples create a shared last name for themselves and for their kids. Others give their children the surname of the non-birth mother, thereby signaling that she is as “real” a parent as the biological mom, Colonna notes.

And since “Mommy” and “Daddy” don’t always fit as descriptors for both parents in a same-sex couple — in part because most prefer a unique term for each parent — lesbian and gay parents often pay close attention to how they name themselves within the family and in public.

For LGBT couples, “choosing how a child will refer to their parents — a task that for different-gendered couples may seem fairly straightforward — is fraught with important meanings to identity and recognition of family relationships,” says Colonna.

Families headed by lesbians or gay men “do not easily map” onto dominant notions of the family, he observes. So “very deliberate discussions come up around naming.” In the process, same-sex parents “end up dissecting a lot of the deep meanings that go with these names.” In U.S. society, to “father” a child, for instance, usually implies “a biological tie (siring a child),” he notes, while to “mother” carries connotations of care work and nurturance.

“Who gets to use the term ‘Mommy’ comes up a lot” in Colonna’s work. For lesbian moms, there’s often a conscious decision about who should take the “nurturing and affective” name “Mommy.”’

In lesbian couples, the issue of who “mommy” is is resolved by attaching the first name (‘Mommy X” and “Mommy Y”) or by creating a second mommy-sounding name but with a little difference. Whatever solution is found in different families, the point is that heteronormativity is also embedded these naming practices, and embedded so deeply that anti-gay rights advocates can claim the “natural” aspect of the “mommy-daddy” pair.

Overall, class, race, power and heteronormativity are all part of naming practices and individual choices are also collective behaviors and embedded in larger institutional practices prevalent in given social structure.

Zygmunt Bauman on The Surveillance Society

Zygmunt Bauman highlights two trends in the surveillance society:

“One item, authored by Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, informed of the spectacular rise in the number of drones reduced to the size of a dragonfly, or of a hummingbird comfortably perching on windowsills; both designed, in the juicy expression of Greg Parker, an aerospace engineer, “to hide in plain sight”. The second, penned down by Brian Stelter, proclaimed the internet to be “the place where anonymity dies”. The two messages spoke in unison, they both augured/portended the end of invisibility and autonomy, the two defining attributes of privacy – even if each of the two items was composed independently of the other and without awareness of the other’s existence.”

This reflects something I have already blogged about already: the surveillance society is not just ‘Big Brother is Watching You”, although there is that aspect and the “little drones are watching you” is the 21st century equivalent, much cheaper, probably, than having a lot of informants.

The surveillance society is also of the capillary nature, discussed by Foucault, as in “all your clicks belong to us” Every aspect of our Internet activities is information to companies. Every bit of content we put on Facebook is sold as valuable to advertisers. We are the products that companies sell to each other.

But there is a difference that Bauman notes between the small drones and Internet privacy (or lack thereof):

“Everything private is now done, potentially, in public – and is potentially available to public consumption; and remains available for the duration, till the end of time, as the internet “can’t be made to forget” anything once recorded on any of its innumerable servers. “This erosion of anonymity is a product of pervasive social media services, cheap cell phone cameras, free photo and video web-hosts, and perhaps most important of all, a change in people’s views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private”. And let me add: the choice between the public and the private is slipping out of people’s hands, with the people’s enthusiastic co-operation and deafening applause. A present-day Etienne de la Boétie would be probably tempted to speak not of voluntary, but a DIY servitude.”

Except, of course, the choice is only between Mac/PC, IOS or Android, Chrome or Firefox because being online is now mandatory for everything, education, e-government, work, etc. But an online presence is quasi-automatic and getting off-line and off-the-grid is practically impossible. And turning one’s computer into an fortress is only a stopgap measure.

And let us not forget that this is the global era and national privacy-protecting legislation is relatively irrelevant:

“The question put forward:

“Can Microsoft guarantee that EU-stored data, held in EU based datacenters, will not leave the European Economic Area under any circumstances — even under a request by the Patriot Act?”

Frazer explained that, as Microsoft is a U.S.-headquartered company, it has to comply with local laws (the United States, as well as any other location where one of its subsidiary companies is based).

Though he said that “customers would be informed wherever possible”, he could not provide a guarantee that they would be informed — if a gagging order, injunction or U.S. National Security Letter permits it.

He said: “Microsoft cannot provide those guarantees. Neither can any other company“.

While it has been suspected for some time, this is the first time Microsoft, or any other company, has given this answer.

Any data which is housed, stored or processed by a company, which is a U.S. based company or is wholly owned by a U.S. parent company, is vulnerable to interception and inspection by U.S. authorities.”

And so, if the government does not need your data (for now), you’re still not home free, obviously.

The Patriarchy Continuum – Genitoplasty v. De-Gendering

When it comes to individually producing patriarchally-preferred outcomes (having boys), parents will use whatever means are at their disposal. If contraception and abortion are not available, you will have infanticides, deaths by neglect or abandonment. If abortions are available, then, female fetuses will be aborted. And if the technology is available, why not just change the sex of the baby from girl to boy (via the formidable Taslima Nasreen who is on Twitter and you should all follow her), through a procedure called genitoplasty:

“Hundreds of girls – some as young as one – are having the procedure every year, it was claimed on Monday.

Wealthy parents in Delhi and Mumbai are flocking to the central city of Indore to pay £2,000 for children aged up to five to have surgery known as genitoplasty.

Some were said to have pressed for the operation despite warnings that the ‘converted’ boy would be infertile.

The procedure, normally used to correct a genital abnormality in fully grown patients, involves doctors building a penis using tissue from female organs before hormone drugs are administered. It has become popular because Indian society places a strong value on producing a son and heir. Sex determination tests during pregnancy are banned to stamp out the practice of women aborting female foetuses after alarming falls in the ratio of women to men.

Up to seven experts are believed to have each turned between 200 and 300 girls into ‘boys’. Critics voiced their anger yesterday after the ‘unprecedented’ trend was uncovered in a report by the Hindustan Times.

Author Taslima Nasreen wrote on Twitter: ‘Shocking! Not only do people kill unborn girls, they turn girls into boys by genitoplasty.’

Commentators say the system is unmonitored and open to abuse and have called for new regulations after legal experts said it was not against the law. ‘There has to be some guideline or law on how a child who is barely old enough to talk can undergo a life-changing surgery at the parents’ will,’ said Dr Anil Bhadoria, of the Indian Medical Association.

A parent whose child had genitoplasty aged two said: ‘I think he would not be confused over his gender when he grows up and can live a normal life as he would not have any memories of the surgery.’”

Of course not. And in all cases, it is a denial of choice and agency (if not life). All of these practices are the product of misogynistic systems and patriarchal social structures all leading to the idea that girls have no value and that boys do. And all leading to the consequential practices of getting rid of girls.

Which is why initiatives such as these are important, and yet feel completely weird because we are so used to identify into the gender binary:

“AT the Egalia preschool, staff avoid using words like “him” or “her” and address the 33 kids as “friends” rather than girls and boys.

From the colour and placement of toys to the choice of books, every detail has been carefully planned to make sure the children don’t fall into gender stereotypes.

“Society expects girls to be girlie, nice and pretty and boys to be manly, rough and outgoing,” says Jenny Johnsson, a 31-year-old teacher.

“Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be.”

The taxpayer-funded preschool which opened last year in the liberal Sodermalm district of Stockholm for kids aged one to six is among the most radical examples of Sweden’s efforts to engineer equality between the sexes from childhood onward.

Breaking down gender roles is a core mission in the national curriculum for preschools, underpinned by the theory that even in highly egalitarian-minded Sweden, society gives boys an unfair edge.”

And no, this is not out of control political correctness. It de-patriarchalizing and de-misogynizing (I doubt those are words, but what the heck) a system through de-gendered (and equalizing in the sense not of producing uniformity but producing identities less attached to enforced gender binaries) socialization.

And for the record, every time someone deplores political correctness, these are usually people who would like to have their own sexism / racism / homophobia accepted in discourse without being called to account or who are lashing out at the potential loss of privilege (that is, the privilege of being openly sexist, racist or homophobic) in the face of a slightly more open society.

This Is The Future

All explained through three items, that have been extensively discussed on this blog.

1. The global casino, ruled by bankers and drug cartels:

” Juarez has imploded into a state of criminal anarchy – the cartels, acting like any corporation, have outsourced violence to gangs affiliated or unaffiliated with them, who compete for tenders with corrupt police officers. The army plays its own mercurial role. “Cartel war” does not explain the story my friend, and Juarez journalist, Sandra Rodriguez told me over dinner last month: about two children who killed their parents “because”, they explained to her, “they could”. The culture of impunity, she said, “goes from boys like that right to the top – the whole city is a criminal enterprise”.

Not by coincidence, Juarez is also a model for the capitalist economy. Recruits for the drug war come from the vast, sprawling maquiladora – bonded assembly plants where, for rock-bottom wages, workers make the goods that fill America’s supermarket shelves or become America’s automobiles, imported duty-free. Now, the corporations can do it cheaper in Asia, casually shedding their Mexican workers, and Juarez has become a teeming recruitment pool for the cartels and killers. It is a city that follows religiously the philosophy of a free market.

“It’s a city based on markets and on trash,” says Julián Cardona, a photographer who has chronicled the implosion. “Killing and drug addiction are activities in the economy, and the economy is based on what happens when you treat people like trash.” Very much, then, a war for the 21st century. Cardona told me how many times he had been asked for his view on the Javier Sicilia peace march: “I replied: ‘How can you march against the market?'”


Narco-cartels are not pastiches of global corporations, nor are they errant bastards of the global economy – they are pioneers of it. They point, in their business logic and modus operandi, to how the legal economy will arrange itself next. The Mexican cartels epitomised the North American free trade agreement long before it was dreamed up, and they thrive upon it.

Mexico’s carnage is that of the age of effective global government by multinational banks – banks that, according to Antonio Maria Costa, the former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, have been for years kept afloat by laundering drug and criminal profits. Cartel bosses and street gangbangers cannot go around in trucks full of cash. They have to bank it – and politicians could throttle this river of money, as they have with actions against terrorist funding. But they choose not to, for obvious reasons: the good burgers of capitalism and their political quislings depend on this money, while bleating about the evils of drugs cooked in the ghetto and snorted up the noses of the rich.

So Mexico’s war is how the future will look, because it belongs not in the 19th century with wars of empire, or the 20th with wars of ideology, race and religion – but utterly in a present to which the global economy is committed, and to a zeitgeist of frenzied materialism we adamantly refuse to temper: it is the inevitable war of capitalism gone mad. Twelve years ago Cardona and the writer Charles Bowden curated a book called Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future. They could not have known how prescient their title was. In a recent book, Murder City, Bowden puts it another way: “Juarez is not a breakdown of the social order. Juarez is the new order.””

Emphases mine.

2. Extensive surveillance from public / private partnerships against people:

“Last February, three of these firms – HBGary Federal, Palantir and Berico, known collectively as Team Themis – were discovered to have conspired to hire out their information war capabilities to corporations which hoped to strike back at perceived enemies, including US activist groups, WikiLeaks and journalist Glenn Greenwald. That such a dangerous new dynamic was now in play was only revealed due to a raid by hackers associated with the Anonymous collective, resulting in the dissemination of more than 70,000 emails to and from executives at HBGary Federal and affiliated company HBGary.

After having spent several months studying those emails and otherwise investigating the industry depicted therein, I have revealed my summary of a classified US intelligence programme known as Romas/COIN, as well as its upcoming replacement, known as Odyssey. The programme appears to allow for the large-scale monitoring of social networks by way of such things as natural language processing, semantic analysis, latent semantic indexing and IT intrusion. At the same time, it also entails the dissemination of some unknown degree of information to a given population through a variety of means – without any hint that the actual source is US intelligence. Scattered discussions of Arab translation services may indicate that the programme targets the Middle East.

Despite the details I have provided in the document – which is also now in the possession of several major news outlets and which may be published in whole or in part by any party that cares to do so – there remains a great deal that is unclear about Romas/COIN and the capabilities it comprises. The information with which I’ve worked consists almost entirely of email correspondence between executives of several firms that together sought to win the contract to provide the programme’s technical requirements, and because many of the discussions occurred in meetings and phone conversations, the information remaining deals largely with prospective partners, the utility of one capability over another, and other clues spread out over hundreds of email exchanges between a large number of participants.

The significance of this programme to the public is not limited to its potential for abuse by facets of the US intelligence community, which has long been proverbial for misusing other of its capabilities. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect is the fact that the partnership of contracting firms and other corporate entities that worked to obtain the contract was put into motion in large part by Aaron Barr, the disgraced former CEO of HBGary Federal who was at the centre of Team Themis’s conspiracy to put high-end intelligence capabilities at the disposal of private institutions. As I explain further in the linked report, this fact alone should prompt increased investigation into the manner in which this industry operates and the threats it represents to democratic institutions.

Altogether, the existence and nature of Romas/COIN should confirm what many had already come to realise over the past few years, in particular: the US and other states have no intention of allowing populations to conduct their affairs without scrutiny. Such states ought not complain when they find themselves subjected to similar scrutiny – as will increasingly become the case over the next several years.”

I should mention that this kind of initiatives is exactly what Evgeny Morozov warns against in his book, The Net Delusion. The naive view that only the cool kids know how to use the tools provided by ICTs and that big and bulky corporations and governments are going to sit by, watch with incomprehension while faxing each other, is more than naive but downright dangerous.

As I have mentioned before, the surveillance society is thoroughly a public / private partnership and we are the data, which is why, really, no government will ever shut down the Internet, no matter what, because, otherwise, where would government agencies and businesses get the information they so desperately need about us.

3. The Cloud-Minders… stimulating the economy through their consumption… or maybe not:

“What is believed to be the only surviving authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid fetched $2.3m (£1.4m) at an auction in Denver, Colorado.

The tintype photograph was sold on Saturday to Florida billionaire and private collector William Koch at Brian Lebel’s 22nd Annual Old and West Show & Auction.

Auction spokeswoman Melissa McCracken said the image of the 19th-century outlaw of the Wild West was the most expensive piece ever sold at the event.

Mr Koch said after the auction that he plans to allow some small museums to display the photograph. “I love the old West,” he said. “This is a part of American history.””

So, this is why we need to cut taxes for the über-wealthy? So they can “collect” incredibly expensive and exclusive items. Such purely status-related, conspicuous and recreational consumption does nothing for the economy (if you exclude the limited activities related to having the auction itself) but it does contribute to the ever-growing gap in lifestyle between the very top of the social ladder and the rest of us Troglytes.

The Visual Du Jour – Hegemonic Triumph

… Is the only possible explanation as to why all this does not trigger massive protest movement in favor of better social policies and more fair redistribution (as opposed to the current massive redistribution to the top).

First off, something I have been posting about repeatedly. For all the cries of “socialist” redistribution, the real redistribution that has happened and continues to happen is redistribution from the bottom and the middle of the social ladder to the top:

Part of the explanation is the real American exceptionalism: lack of proper social safety net and equalizing redistribution (and not equality does not mean “making everybody the same):

A more general phenomenon not related to the current crisis is indeed the outlier status of the US when it comes to social safety net:

So why no social movements? I would argue a mix of puritanism (working yourself to the bone is morally good in itself, vacations are for lazy people, never mind if it costs you your health), ideology of American exceptionalism (the US is different from these European countries, so, we can’t compare them, which is just a dodge in reality), successful dumbing-down corporate-funded popular culture (see the mix of mockery and envy attached to reality programs on the rich) and a widespread belief among the majority that the US system is wide open in terms of social mobility (despite clear evidence to the contrary as the US has less social mobility than other Western countries) and that they’ll make it to the upper levels of the social ladder, accompanied by ideological identification with the upper-classes and lack of solidarity with the lower classes (related to racial and ethnic reasons).

And on the side of those who should be the first ones to mobilize for action, an easiness to be focused on identity issues (such as gay rights) as opposed to “bread-and-butter” issues (which are sooo 1980s and uncool). That is, even on the American center-left, victories on identity issues (such as the repeal of DADT or possible legalization of marijuana) which really cost nothing and do not significantly affect the system (in Habermas’s sense of the system) are enough to provide temporary appeasement so that socio-economic dismantlement can proceed apace.

Book Review – Embassytown

Embassytown is the second book I have read by China Miéville (the first one was the great The City And The City). Those who expect a fast-paced, action-packed space opera kinda of science-fiction will be deeply disappointed. Embassytown does have the basic ingredients of a science-fiction novel: humans on a alien planet whose inhabitants – the Hosts – tolerate them along with some trade but there is no symbiosis here.

The Hosts – the Ariekei – have a strange language that only pairs of modified humans – the Ambassadors – can speak. The humans live in proximity to the Ariekei city (in which they cannot breathe), in an area called Embassytown. The only communication between humans and Hosts goes through the Ambassadors. Embassytown is itself a human colony of another human world, Bremen, with whom politics are tense and complex.

But the key to the novel is the Hosts’ language. So, brush up on your Saussure (signifier / signified), or Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations or Levi-Strauss. The Hosts’ language is thought. The two are not separate. Language does not signify, it is. It is language and referent at the same time. Which is why the Hosts cannot lie because their language makes it impossible to say something that is not. This language is spoken at two levels (cut / turn), which is why it takes two modified humans speaking it at the same time to be understood by the Hosts. A single human speaking the language sounds to the Hosts like meat making unintelligible sounds.

And to convey ideas, sometimes, humans are used as similes, that is, literally experiencing what the Hosts want a simile for. The main character of the book, Avice Benner Cho, an Embassytonian native, is such a simile. She has also traveled beyond Arieke and has just come back.

Now, setting the context for all this, in addition to Avice’s biography takes about half the book. I suspect a lot of people have given up before reaching the point where the “action” starts, with the unprecedented arrival of two non-Embassytown-born Ambassadors from Bremen (actually, a modified human pair = one Ambassador, and they all have double names such as CalVin, EzRa, MagDa, etc.).

It turns out that when the way the new Ambassador speaks Language is like a drug to the Ariekei. They get addicted to it, let their civilization go to waste and otherwise behave like complete junkies. This might become a source of power for the humans but they rely on Ariekei for food and supplies so, their lives are at stake too. And the Hosts are constantly demanding their fix of EzRa speech and the humans provide. And then one of the humans that is part of EzRa commits suicide. What now? What happens to the addicted Hosts? What happens to the humans who can only hope to be rescued by Bremen and what… leave the Hosts to a slow and painful death?

And so both humans and Ariekei try to separately find a solution: a new drug-Ambassador for the humans, a way to be immune to the infected speech for Hosts, even if it involves horrible mutilation. This leads to the culmination of the conflict and the unraveling of Bremen political machinations, as well as some not-very-pretty truth about the way Embassytown gets its Ambassadors.

So, as I said, I am sure that a lot of people will be bored and give up on the book fairly early on. Another aspect of the book that might be off-putting is that the Ariekei remain resolutely alien throughout the story. Miéville does not try to humanize them or anthropomorphize them. And the human characters have no more real comprehension of their Hosts as the reader does.

And then, there is the main character herself. As she returns to Embassytown after years of space travel, she is determined to remain distant, so it might be hard for a reader to “engage” with a character who wants to remain detached from her environment. In the end, though, she has to get in deep. But the reader should not expect big emotional pay-offs from the book and I am sure this will frustrate a lot of readers.

Overall, then, this is a demanding book. No doubt about it. The long developments on being socialized in Embassytown, and learning the limits between the two civilizations, as well as the detours into Language may make the book an obstacle course for anyone expecting typical scifi adventure.. But ultimately though, this is a fascinating tale.

And I’m with Ursula Le Guin (read her whole review if you haven’t yet):

“The picture of a society shaken, shattered, wrecked to the foundation by a universal drug addiction infecting even the houses, even the farms, for they are all biologically akin, is apocalyptic vision on the grand scale – curiously beautiful, alien in every vivid detail, yet psychologically and socially only too familiar. Science fiction, like all fiction, is a way of talking about who we are.”

Sociologist me could not agree more.

The Rich Are Alright

Because I know you were all worried about them:


Click here for a PDF of the image.

As the article notes:

“We are not all in this together. The UK economy is flat, the US is weak and the Greek debt crisis, according to some commentators, is threatening another Lehman Brothers-style meltdown. But a new report shows the world’s wealthiest people are getting more prosperous – and more numerous – by the day.

The globe’s richest have now recouped the losses they suffered after the 2008 banking crisis. They are richer than ever, and there are more of them – nearly 11 million – than before the recession struck.

In the world of the well-heeled, the rich are referred to as “high net worth individuals” (HNWIs) and defined as people who have more than $1m (£620,000) of free cash.

According to the annual world wealth report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, the wealth of HNWIs around the world reached $42.7tn (£26.5tn) in 2010, rising nearly 10% in a year and surpassing the peak of $40.7tn reached in 2007, even as austerity budgets were implemented by many governments in the developed world.

The report also measures a category of “ultra-high net worth individuals” – those with at least $30m rattling around, looking for a home. The number of individuals in this super-rich bracket climbed 10% to a total of 103,000, and the total value of their investments jumped by 11.5% to $15tn, demonstrating that even among the rich, the richest get richer quicker. Altogether they represent less than 1% of the world’s HNWIs – but they speak for 36% of HNWI’s total wealth.

Age also helps: more than eight out of 10 of the world’s wealthiest people are aged over 45. So does being male: women account for just over a quarter of the total – though this is slightly higher than in 2008. The highest proportion of wealthy women is in North America – 37% of HNWIs – while the lowest is in the Middle East, which has 14%.

Generally, HNWIs are most concentrated in the US, Japan and Germany: 53% of the world’s most wealthy live in one of those three countries, but it is Asian-Pacific countries where the ranks of the rich are swelling fastest. For the first time last year the region surpassed Europe in terms of HNWI individuals.”

And what do they spend their money on?

“As the world’s richest people got even richer, so did their appetite for the playthings needed to satisfy their lifestyles. Growing wealth from the emerging economies, largely in Asia Pacific, helped spur the demand for these so-called “investments of passion”.

Sales of luxury cars jumped, with Mercedes-Benz reporting a rise in sales in China and Hong Kong of 112%, outpacing the total rise in its sales of 5%. Ferrari had its best ever year in China.

Chinese buyers are also pushing up the price of art. Last year, Bright Road, by contemporary Chinese artist Liu Ye, sold for three times the estimated price at auction. Chinese collectors are also passionate about European art. Two world records were set last year: $104.3m (£65m) for a Giacometti sculpture was later surpassed by a Picasso painting which fetched $106.5m.

In 2010, Sotheby’s set a 40-year record for the amount raised at wine auctions, with sales from its Hong Kong branch rising 268%. And Russian and Middle Eastern buyers are thought to have helped push up the price of diamonds to record levels.

Those from the Middle East are also interested in investing in football clubs such as Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City, though the report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini cited the most notable sports investment for 2010 as the sale of the St Louis Rams to entrepreneur Stan Kroenke. US basketball star Michael Jordan also bought a controlling interest in the Charlotte Bobcats basketball team.”

Thorstein Veblen probably turned in his grave.

Cui Bono? Well, There’s An Answer

Paging Todd Krohn, since we had that discussion before, is anyone surprised?

“Over the past 15 years, the number of people held in all prisons in the United States has increased by 49.6 percent, while private prison populations have increased by 353.7 percent, according to recent federal statistics. Meanwhile, in 2010 alone, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies, had combined revenues of $2.9 billion. According to a report released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), not only have private prison companies benefitted from this increased incarceration, but they have helped fuel it.”

Well well,

“Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies, examines how private prison companies are able to wield influence over legislators and criminal justice policy, ultimately resulting in harsher criminal justice policies and the incarceration of more people. The report notes a “triangle of influence” built on campaign contributions, lobbying and relationships with current and former elected and appointed officials. Through this strategy, private prison companies have gained access to local, state, and federal policymakers and have back-channel influence to pass legislation that puts more people behind bars, adds to private prison populations and generates tremendous profits at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.”

And let us please dispense with the claim that privatization = better service, greater efficiency and saving “The Taxpayer’s” money:

““Private prison companies have been very successful in their effort to promote harsher sentencing policies and the privatization of correctional systems, and when they win, we all lose,” added Velázquez. “Taxpayers lose when their money is used to generate profits for shareholders and to promote policies that increase incarceration; communities lose when policies proven to be ineffective for public safety are pushed through state legislatures, and people involved in the criminal justice system lose when they are locked up in underfunded and sometimes unsafe facilities.”

So, we should actually conclude that these policies ARE effective if the goal is private profit-making. Now, of course, like the War on Drugs, if one looks at mass incarceration as criminal justice policy, it is a failure. But if one looks at it as neoliberal policy (as Loïc Wacquant has demonstrated), it is a success.

Amartya Sen Against Rule by Bankers and Rating Agencies

Amartya Sen speaks, we should listen:

“Rearranging the eurozone now would have many problems, but difficult issues have to be intelligently discussed, rather than allowing Europe to drift in financial winds fed by narrow-minded thinking with a terrible track record. The process has to begin with some immediate restraining of the unopposed power of rating agencies to issue unilateral commands. These agencies are hard to discipline despite their abysmal record, but a well-reflected voice of legitimate governments can make a big difference to financial confidence while solutions are worked out, especially if the international financial institutions lend their support. Stopping the marginalisation of the democratic tradition of Europe has an urgency that is hard to exaggerate. European democracy is important for Europe – and for the world.”

Read the whole thing.

Backlash Against Internet-Centrism?

I recently reviewed Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, noting that the book is a thorough debunking of cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism, defined as such:

““While cyber-utopianism stipulates what has to be done, Internet-centrism stipulates how it should be done. Internet-centrists like to answer every question about democratic change by first reframing it in terms of the Internet rather than the context in which that change is to occur. They are often completely oblivious to the highly political nature of technology, especially the Internet, and like to come up with strategies that assume that the logic of the Internet, which, in most cases, they are the only ones to perceive, will shape every environment that it penetrates rather than vice-versa.” (Loc. 214)”

Actually, both can be illustrated as such (from Cartoon Movement, a great site that you should all bookmark):

And nicely promoted by this major political figure as well:

“The Nobel peace laureate and human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi spoke yesterday in a BBC lecture of the vital role played by communications technology in modern democratic uprisings and said she was not morally opposed to the use of violence in exceptional circumstances.

The Burmese opposition leader and general secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD) has recorded two speeches for the annual BBC Reith Lectures, which were smuggled out of Burma last week.

In the first, which will be broadcast on Radio 4 next Tuesday, Ms Suu Kyi compared the 23-year struggle to win democracy in Burma to the fast-moving revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and said that the widespread availability of internet-based technology in the Arab world had been a crucial factor in the success of those movements.”

But one wonders whether there isn’t a backlash against cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism from the very media that promoted these views until recently. For instance, take this item:

“The internet is an extraordinarily powerful tool. It has changed how we do business, how we do politics, and even how we change our leaders – at least some of the time.

But the ease with which we now communicate – the efficiencies we take for granted – can give us a false sense of how easy it is to follow through on some of these changes. Despite the importance of social media in fomenting revolution, and even in deposing deeply unpopular leaders, governing in the real world is not as easy as governing online.

This struck me last week when I listened to one of Egypt’s new online generation talking enthusiastically about the future. His thesis was that once people have tasted freedom, once the oppressive leader is gone, they will naturally live as free people and build a new, democratic society without much central oversight. I wish I could believe that it will all be as easy for Egyptians as running a Facebook group was.

Generally, the internet is a tool for people whose basic needs are already being met. Members of the upper middle class in any country, including Egypt, often seem to forget that for most people, the value created on the internet cannot feed, clothe or house their families.

In centuries past, revolutionaries were farmers or blacksmiths or merchants; now they are Google executives and Facebook friends. The internet joins together the elite of the world. But it also cuts people off from the past and a sense of history. The exciting things that happen online are not the same as what happened offline in countries such as Romania and Kyrgyzstan, let alone in Libya.


I don’t want to be gloomy. People in the Middle East and other emerging democracies have definitely changed from their recent experiences, and their expectations have been raised. But they need to understand the challenges they face in building a new society.

The internet may have made this transition seem too easy. In online communities, it’s fairly easy to build consensus. Membership is voluntary, and people who don’t like the rules can leave. Or they can be kicked out: there is no requirement for due process.

Moreover, many resources are infinite on the internet. People aren’t fighting over scarce housing or lucrative jobs. They are befriending one another, sharing information, and accumulating status, points, and experiences.

But in the real world, even online, things aren’t so easy.”

What the author of this column is arguing for is what Morozov also argues for: the contextualization of technology into society and social structure and institutions and the fact that social movements in the Middle East still have to contend with what I call SHiP (Structure / History / Power) and those don’t vanish overnight after a few rounds of stern Tweets. In other words, let’s not be naive.

Especially when it comes to the ubiquitous nature of the surveillance society:

“The young man in the dark jacket and gray baseball cap worn backward seems to have had a good day shopping at Best Buy in Owings Mills, judging by the size of the blue bag he’s carrying as he steps out of the store, glancing quickly to his left in the direction of the surveillance camera. You can see him online now — or anytime — and the Baltimore County Police Department hopes you’ll know something about him.

The image of the person who police believe was involved in a car break-in and credit card theft last month is part of a high-tech citizen “iWatch” program unveiled Thursday by the police. iWatch features an online tip system monitored 24 hours a day that can receive text messages, and offers crime alerts featuring video surveillance pictures.

“You can’t fully protect yourself or others unless you are informed,” Police Chief James W. Johnson said at a news conference Thursday morning at police headquarters in Towson.

The program is the latest in a series of technological steps Baltimore County police have taken, joining departments across the country and the world in finding new ways to use computers and gadgets to enforce the law. Such initiatives have won praise, but also drawn some concern about how information gathered by technology will be used.

Baltimore County has introduced digital license plate readers attached to police cars that will alert the officer inside when he’s just passed a car that might be stolen or registered to a criminal suspect. In Florida, the Miami-Dade County police have just bought a new flying surveillance drone built by a military contractor. In London, police are using facial and tattoo-matching software with surveillance video pictures.

Johnson announced Thursday that the program is accepting sign-ups for e-mailed crime alerts and online reports of anything from possible terrorist activity to abandoned cars and graffiti. He said in the past the police might get surveillance video of a criminal suspect shown on a TV newscast for a few seconds, but the new system expands the potential exposure of the material.”

But the backlash will not come as a reaction to the extensive surveillance we are subjected to whether it is in the name of crime-fighting or in for the protection of intellectual property by corporations.

I think part of a potential backlash will come as a result of Wikileaks. I would argue that Western governments have been very cyber-utopian as long as activists used their online tools away from the West, and against governments the West did not like (Iran, or now Libya) or from whom Western governments could (with much hypocrisy) dissociate themselves (Egypt, Tunisia, with a few hiccups in the case of the French governments). And so, as long as we were only talking about the so-called Arab Spring, everything was all well and good in cyber-utopia. Information circulating freely was going to take down dictatorships.

But with Wikileaks (and then Anonymous), it was a different game. Western governments (especially the US) became the target and then, it was no fun anymore. All of a sudden, there were cries of irresponsible leaks of information. Information needed to be vetted by “real” and responsible journalists before being released to the larger public. Now, the traditional media, exposed as guardians of information on behalf of the powerful social actors (public and private), had to justify their legitimacy against the free flow of information they thought was so great when it was about Iran.

So, Wikileaks ruined the party:

“In January 2008, someone uploaded to WikiLeaks a cache of documents, including hundreds of pages of internal correspondence of a major Swiss bank, Julius Baer. On closer inspection, the cache appeared to show that large amounts of money – sums ranging from $5m to $100m per person – were being, er, shielded in the Cayman Islands from tax authorities in various jurisdictions.

It was all, of course, perfectly legal: wealthy people put capital into trusts based in the Cayman Islands. This allows them lawfully to avoid paying tax on profits from investments, because legally those profits belong to the trust which, as a Cayman “resident”, itself pays no tax. But the trustees can distribute money to the trust’s beneficiaries, who may be residents of the UK and indeed, for all I know, pillars of society or even members of the Tory party.

Legal it may be, but mostly these folks don’t like knowledge of their ingenious wheezes to enter the public domain. It’s so vulgar, don’t you know. And the banks that handle their money like it even less. So Julius Baer went apeshit about the leaks. Its lawyers persuaded a judge in California to shut down and that, it thought, was that.

You can guess what happened. In no time at all, mirrors of the WikiLeaks site popped up everywhere. The First Amendment crowd in the US started taking an interest. Suddenly, the whole world knew about Julius Baer’s wealth-management services. The California judge had second thoughts, was restored and CBS News reported the decision under the headline “Free speech has a number:” – the IP address of the WikiLeaks site. And a major Swiss bank retired to lick its wounds.

What’s instructive about the Julius Baer case is how clueless the bank and its agents were about the net. They looked like blind men poking a tiger with a stick. It was amusing at the time, but it was too good to last. It was inevitable that the corporate world would wise up and in the past few weeks we’ve begun to see some of the results of that re-education process. And it ain’t pretty.”

But Morozov himself is skeptical when it comes to Wikileaks in its present form while recognizing an emerging global transparency movement:

“Why can’t WikiLeaks just continue as it is? If anything, the US embassy cables have made it clear that the success of a WikiLeaks campaign greatly depends on who gets to analyse the leaks and who gets to publicise them.

None of these two activities can currently be done in-house and WikiLeaks has to partner media outlets such as the Guardian and Der Spiegel, borrowing their journalists and essentially making them serve as both “data analysts” (who go through the leaked material to separate the important from the trivial) and “advocacy co-ordinators” (who write articles on issues that WikiLeaks finds important – even though in reality it has little editorial control over what gets written in the end).

As it grows, WikiLeaks will become even more dependent on its partners. Thanks to its easily recognisable global brand, it does have the capacity to attract more leaks – but it doesn’t have the matching capacity to make sense of them, let alone identify leaks that might be fake – and this latter type is poised to become more ubiquitous, given WikiLeaks’s growing list of enemies. Geeks don’t always make suave data analysts.

Similarly, one of the main challenges facing WikiLeaks is learning how to discriminate between different documents: data storage may be getting cheaper and leaks may be becoming more ubiquitous but the events of the past few months have shown that WikiLeaks is a more formidable actor with less data, not more. So while everyone can upload files to its site, these files won’t make a difference until someone knowledgeable (and salaried) takes a look at them – and, even better, spends a week or two chasing the characters involved.”

Then, there is this from Morozov himself:

However, for now, Wikileaks still serves its boogeyman function well enough for Western media, corporations and governments. But if leaking organizations hit too close to home, expect a swift reversal and all of a sudden, the very same Internet-centrists will be quick to decry the anarchic and anomic nature of the Internet and they will have to reach no further than some guys impersonating lesbian bloggers (or some such thing) to prove their point.

The Visual Du Jour – Refugees

Via the Guardian, do go check out this interactive map.

Where refugees come from:

Refugee statistics mapped

Where they go:

Refugee statistics mapped 2

It is often assumed that refugees come from the periphery and migrate to the core. In reality, of the roughly 43 million refugees, 27 million are internally displaced persons (a rising number). And the number one place for refugees is Afghanistan. A large number of refugees are usually located in countries neighboring their country of origin, meaning, a lot of refugees move from the periphery to the periphery.

The Taxpayer as Mythical (Yet Exploited) Hero

(Via) This post from Richard Seymour is something I have been thinking about for a while regarding the importance of language as issue-framing:

“The point is how “the taxpayer” is invoked here as a relevant political category. You’ll notice that, implicit in this is a suggestion that there are people who aren’t taxpayers. But public sector workers pay taxes, not only on their income but on consumption. In fact, there is no one who doesn’t pay taxes. The unemployed pay tax. Children pay tax. Prisoners pay tax. Even the homeless pay tax. To speak of “the taxpayer” is in this sense meaningless, since it includes everyone. And self-evidently, not everyone shares the political attitudes expressed by “the taxpayer” above. The question of what “the taxpayer” is willing to pay for is a political question, depending on who the taxpayer is, and what other social categories and classes s/he identifies as. But implicit in this is the idea that the taxpayer is supporting a public sector which is purely parasitic. Public sector workers are “subsidised” by “the taxpayer”; as if, in addition to not paying taxes, they add no value to the economy. “The taxpayer” is thus, by definition, always over-taxed (even if there are quite a few who are under-taxed). The subject-position expressed in this figure of “the taxpayer” is that of a lower middle class trader, shopkeeper or white van man, anxious to hold on to his wad and not pay for anything he isn’t getting.”

He writes from a British perspective but a lot of it applies to the US context as well. There is, of course, the “divide-and-conquer” aspect of using the taxpayer against any category that the writer wants to other and dehumanize: the immigrants, the welfare recipients, public workers (especially teachers but NOT police officers, mind you), irrespective of the fact that they pay taxes as well.

In the US, then, the taxpayer is the mirror image of a variety of others seen as parasitic upon his productive capacities. Indeed, the taxpayer is understood to be a middle-aged, self-made, small-business owning white man, who takes care of his family, asks for nothing, takes nothing out of the system but contributes to it vastly and is exploited instead of receiving the respect that he thinks he deserves.

This is, of course, a mythical animal. As Seymour notes, everyone is a taxpayer in one way or another. But more than that, everyone benefits from government action and everyone takes from the system, even the so-called sovereign citizens who use public roads to drive their pick-up truck before a shootout with police.

And it is an important myth to maintain for the right-wing: that the parasitic categories produce nothing, contribute nothing, but take a lot out of the system (the definition of the parasite) while the taxpayer. It is a gendered and racialized category. This mythical creature also operates in a mythical society where corporate power is irrelevant, the only economic contribution is of the small business / merchant kind in a Walmart-free world and the government is dedicated to sucking the good guys dry for the benefit of the parasites.

A lot of people believe in this mythical creature (a lot of politicians prop up its mythical existence), with very real consequences. Lance Mannion calls them the Cheapskates:

“These are the people who are convinced they are paying out way more in taxes than they really are. You can break it down for them on paper, show them they aren’t shelling out what they thought, and they’ll see it, agree you’re right, reluctantly, and start whining that what they are paying is too much.

Push them on it, ask them how they expect the government to do what it needs to do without spending the money it spends and they always have the same answer. Waste. The government’s wasting their money. You can’t trust politicians to spend money wisely.

But, really, they don’t want the government to spend anything. They think it should all come to them for free. The water should flow from their tap, the cops and the firefigthers should come when they’re called, the schools should teach their kids, the plows clear their roads and the crews come out to repair them for free.

Deep down they believe that they are the only people who pay taxes and they hate the unfairness of it.

You hear them talk like this all the time. Suggest the goverment provide free well child visits to the doctor for poor women and they’ll scream bloody murder.

“I don’t want my tax dollars spent on some welfare cheat’s too lazy to go out and get themself a job!”

You can say, Fine, let’s use my tax dollars to do it. Your tax dollars can buy the army a new tank.

Of course they have an exaggerated idea of how much they are paying in taxes anyway and probably think they are buying the army three or four tanks a year already. So your breath’s wasted. You aren’t paying taxes. They are. Only them. You don’t even exist to them. What’s real to them is themselves and their money.

Other people’s money is real to them in a strange, psychotic way. They feel it is theirs too. If Donald Trump makes another million today, they feel they made a million today too. If the government gets in the way of a deal, and Trump has to go off and find another way to make a million tomorrow, they feel like they were the ones who lost the million.”

And for them, all the social troubles come from below them on the social ladder, which is why they don’t usually mind criminal justice costs but they do mind costs for early education and healthcare for children. These guys are easy to spot. They’re the ones putting “taxpayer” in their Twitter bio and Facebook profile, as if they were the only ones. It is worn as a label that is supposed to give them special authority to speak on issues.

As a mythical creature, though, the Taxpayer has well fulfilled its right-wing function (as has “politically correct”) of allowing a relatively privileged category of the population to present itself as oppressed and crushed and rightfully resentful. The Taxpayer has had his mythically hard-earned money redistributed downwards (rather then upwards, as is the reality).

The Taxpayer is in control of all the circumstances of his life through sheer sense of responsibility. It is irresponsible people who get sick, lose their jobs, have children at the wrong time with the wrong people, lose their homes. Therefore, the Taxpayer does not owe anyone and yet is forced into uneasy relationships with people who not only do not have his strong sense of value but that he is forced to support while his money goes to things he disapproves of (something which should never happen, EVER) and any outside interference upon his life is necessarily illegitimate.

Of course, the Taxpayer, as mythical construct, can only work with the scaffolding of other myths regarding the American society: that there is no longer any discrimination and therefore no privilege either. Therefore, everyone has the same opportunities and the Taxpayer is the one who played the game right and is being punished for it.

Now, one should not be fooled, the Taxpayer as mythical construct may seem like an inclusive category but it is a convenient cover for white, middle-class, Christian men seen as only legitimate economic and political actors.