Book Review – The Net Delusion

Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom is an important book that aims to make us think about networking technologies beyond the simplistic and utopian delusion that the Net = freedom. It is also very compelling, but then, I’m a cyber-crank, so, what do I know. Sarcasm aside, this book is a great read for anyone interested in the intersections between networking technologies and ideologies as well as political power. And Morozov provides quite a bit of historical context to let us know that we have been there before, that is, proclaiming a bit too quickly the emancipatory power of a new communication technology: faxes in the days of the Cold War, Twitter now.

His book is a call to not make the same mistake and exercise a bit of nuance and critical thinking regarding the new ICT tools. Part of the problem, according to Morozov is that we have not yet learn to “think” about these tools. The neoconservative view of promoting democracy (kinda) via the Internet (like Voice of America used to do) may be discredited but there is no compelling alternative to account for the multiple layers of interaction between governments, social movements, social institutions and their uses of networking technologies.

The other major problem is that Western thinkers are stuck in a Cold War mode of thinking (all quotes from Kindle edition):

“Lost in their own strategizing, Western leaders are pining for something that has guaranteed effectiveness. Many of them look back to the most impressive and most unambiguous triumph of democracy in the last few decades: the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly—and who can blame them for seeking to bolster their own self-confidence?—they tend to exaggerate their own role in precipitating its demise. As a result, many of the Western strategies tried back then, like smuggling in photocopiers and fax machines, facilitating the flow of samizdat, supporting radio broadcasts by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, are given much more credit than they deserve.

Such belated Cold War triumphalism results in an egregious logical fallacy. Since the Soviet Union eventually fell, those strategies are presumed to have been extremely effective—in fact, crucial to the whole endeavor. The implications of such a view for the future of democracy promotion are tremendous, for they suggest that large doses of information and communications technology are lethal to the most repressive of regimes.

Much of the present excitement about the Internet, particularly the high hopes that are pinned on it in terms of opening up closed societies, stems from such selective and, at times, incorrect readings of history, rewritten to glorify the genius of Ronald Reagan and minimize the role of structural conditions and the inherent contradictions of the Soviet system.

It’s for these chiefly historical reasons that the Internet excites so many seasoned and sophisticated decision makers who should really know better.” (Loc. 141 – 149)

And that is precisely the ideological positioning that Morozov beats back throughout the book. Just like Cold Warriors thought the free flow of goods would automatically lead to democracy, they think the same about the free flow of information. For them, the revolution (of the market-friendly kind) will be blogged and tweetered and tumblred (or choose your favorite platform).

This belief Morozov calls the Google Doctrine:

“The Google Doctrine—the enthusiastic belief in the liberating power of technology accompanied by the irresistible urge to enlist Silicon Valley start-ups in the global fight for freedom—is of growing appeal to many policymakers.” (Loc. 166)

That is, the naive belief that Internet is always on the side of the underdog. Morozov also uses the phrase “cyber-utopianism” to describe the view that the Internet is always and ever a force of good without recognizing that it does have dark sides (such as the ubiquitous surveillance society, whether it comes from the public or the private sector). Morozov reserves its harshest criticism for cyber-utopianism, such as this:

“Cyber-utopians ambitiously set out to build a new and improved United Nations, only to end up with a digital Cirque du Soleil.” (Loc 173)

Ouch.

And cyber-utopians both overestimate the capacity of the Internet to promote democracy while at the same time underestimating its capacity to penetrate all aspects of life, for better and for worse. So, for Morozov, we need to be able to overcome cyber-utopianism to think clearly about the role and potential of the Internet.

But cyber-utopianism is not the only approach that leads to thinking badly about the Internet. Morozov also attacks Internet-centrism:

“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)

In this sense, The Net Delusion is a very sociological book that places technology (the Internet) in its proper social context and examines how it operates under different social conditions, as used by different kinds of social actors. It takes a somewhat more sociologically deterministic to fight a strong technologically-deterministic approach that has so far prevailed. Why, because Morozov thinks Internet-centrism is dangerous:

“Their [Internet-centrists’] realistic convictions, however, rarely make up for their flawed methodology, which prioritizes the tool over the environment, and, as such, is deaf to the social, cultural, and political subtleties and indeterminacies. Internet-centrism is a highly disorienting drug; it ignores context and entraps policymakers into believing that they have a useful and powerful ally on their side. Pushed to its extreme, it leads to hubris, arrogance, and a false sense of confidence, all bolstered by the dangerous illusion of having established effective command of the Internet. All too often, its practitioners fashion themselves as possessing full mastery of their favorite tool, treating it as a stable and finalized technology, oblivious to the numerous forces that are constantly reshaping the Internet—not all of them for the better. Treating the Internet as a constant, they fail to see their own responsibility in preserving its freedom and reining in the ever-powerful intermediaries, companies like Google and Facebook.” (Loc. 221)

And the price of such stance is to ignore how much the Internet has served the powerful very well so far, at the expense of the powerless. At the same time, as Morozov shows, for a brief moment, the Iran Revolution seemed to validate the Internet-centrist view that Twitter was going to liberate Iran and that better information could be obtained from the micro-blogging site than from traditional media. This was where we were going to see the liberating power of technology. Truly, the revolution was twittered. No authoritarian government would be able to resist its power.

And so, from the Western power centers, all that is needed is the proper funding to the right dissident groups. After all, just five days ago, one could read this in the New York Times,

“The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “Internet in a suitcase.”

Financed with a $2 million State Department grant, the suitcase could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.”

Of course, commentators quickly pointed out the irony of this considering the way Wikileaks was treated by the same government, with the helpful assistance of the private sectors, especially ISPs. And, as Morozov notes, Al-Qaeda has also been quite adept at using the Internet, a far cry from an emancipation movement.

And ultimately, as of time of writing, the Iranian regime seems more solidly in place than other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East although the so-called Arab Spring has also led to the same Western pronouncements. Just today, for instance:

“The Arab Spring owed much to the internet and the mobile phone; social networking sites nurtured, co-ordinated and shaped revolutions. But these instruments of modernity also bore witness to revolution’s ugly twin: government suppression – tanks sent in against protesters in Banias, Saudi snipers on the rooftops in Bahrain, tear gas in Tahrir Square.”

And though there has been recognition that ultimately, revolutions require people taking to the streets and facing state repression, and though the jury is still out as to what will follow the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism persist because (1) they involve quasi-religious beliefs, and (2) they make Westerners feel good because, after all, we (the West) created these technologies and look at the good they are doing. And after all, if dictators are censoring the Internet, that means it must be a 100% force for good.

As Morozov notes,

“But refusing to acknowledge the Internet’s darker side is like visiting Berkeley, California, cyber-utopian headquarters, and concluding that this is how the rest of America lives as well: diverse, tolerant, sun-drenched, with plenty of organic food and nice wine, and with hordes of lifelong political activists fighting for causes that don’t even exist yet. But this is not how the rest of America lives, and this is certainly not how the rest of the world lives.” (Loc. 559)

In addition, both cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism involve a lack of examination of the role of corporations in these technologies, ignoring the fact that invasions of privacy, control of information and forms of authoritarianism can come from corporations as much as governments, if not both.

And at the same time, Western diplomats, commentators and policy-makers may make life more difficult for dissidents when they talk up the emancipatory and revolutionary power of the Internet so much so that dictators become keen on using the technologies themselves for repressive purposes.

Indeed, another misguided cyber-utopian belief is that authoritarian governments around the world, are composed of uncool, unsavvy idiots who sit on their thumbs and are clueless regarding ICTs whereas the cyber-dissidents are the cool kids who will always be able to outsmart them, if only we give them the proper tools. I would argue that such as extremely naive view is plainly exposed in Robert J. Sawyer’s Wonder.

But, of course, authoritarian governments have done no such thing. Indeed, they have used the very same technologies to find and neutralize dissidents. As Morozov notes, the Internet can actually strengthen a regime rather than simply, and by default, undermine it. In a variety of social, economic and political contexts, the effects of the Internet are far from simple and straightforward. As Morozov puts it,

“The Internet does matter, but we simply don’t know how it matters.” (Loc. 711)

Why not? Because a whole lot of people are quite satisfied with a combination of Cold War triumphalism and handy metaphors (“the Great Firewall of China”) that give the illusion of full understanding of what is going on. Either way, what is lost in the process is a focus on structural, historical and institutional conditions under which activists, NGOs, civil society actors and governments operate. And because the Internet still relies on a physical infrastructure often controlled by governments, those can still turn it off when they feel threatened (as did happen in Egypt). And after all, it is also naive to think that authoritarian governments have not adapted to a world where information circulates widely.

Indeed, Morozov shows how governments sometimes have no need to exercise heavy-handed censorship on the Internet to stifle dissent: just put a bunch of cat videos on. More seriously, the entertainment component is what has allowed the Russian government to have little need for censorship. The idea that simply giving people access to more information will automatically make them want consumerist democracy and act upon such want is naive as well.

After all,

“Most Americans were exposed to political news not because they wanted to watch it but because there was nothing else to watch. This resulted in citizens who were far better politically informed, much more likely to participate in politics, and far less likely to be partisan than today. The emergence of cable television, however, gave people the choice between consuming political news and anything else—and most viewers, predictably, went for that “anything else” category, which mostly consisted of entertainment.” (Loc. 1177)

This is also why East German leaders used to allow their citizens access to West German television: escapism, depoliticization and pacification and, as Morozov notes, greater support for the regime because West German TV programs made life more bearable. Many an authoritarian leaders have figured out that consumerism and Western popular culture more generally have a depoliticizing effect and are willing to capitalize on that. And, of course, global capitalism easily accommodates such combinations of political authoritarianism and neoliberal economic policies.

There is another way in which the Internet may actually undermine the possibilities of dissent:

“The real reason why so many scientists and academics turned to dissent during Soviet times was because they were not allowed to practice the kind of science they wanted to on their own terms. Doing any kind of research in the social sciences was quite difficult even without having to follow the ideological line of the local communist cell; collaborating with foreigners was equally challenging. Lack of proper working conditions forced many academics and intellectuals either to immigrate or to stay home and become dissidents.

The Internet has solved or alleviated many of these problems, and it has proved excellent for research, but not so excellent for bringing smart and highly educated people into the dissident movement. Collaboration is now cheap and instantaneous, academics have access to more papers than they could have dreamed of, travel bans have been lifted, and research budgets have been significantly increased. Not surprisingly, by 2020 Chinese scientists are expected to produce more academic papers than American ones.

(…)

This has happened at the expense of severing their ties to local communities.

(…)

Their connection to politics in their native countries has also been severed; paradoxically, as they have gotten more venues to express their anger and dissent, they have chosen to retract into the nonpolitical.” (Loc. 1388 – 99)

So, for Morozov, we need to find more and better ways of making people care so that we don’t exchange just videos of cats and celebrity gossips. There is a need to nurture more critical thinking (I would argue that this would require changes in the way academia relates to society, social movements and ICTs as well, but in the current context, more critical thinking will not be happening).

In this sense, Morozov thinks we may be getting aspects of both Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (with the pacification of the masses with cheap entertainment and of George Orwell’s 1984 (with the massive surveillance) and not just in authoritarian regimes but in democratic ones as well, and quite a bit of this has come to us courtesy of the Internet which has made surveillance, censorship and propaganda easier. And many of the tools to do so may come from Western corporations, such as Facebook never-ending quest to invade the privacy of its users.

And let us not forget, as the Wikileaks episode has shown us, that censorship might take the form not of government action, but of private entities denying access to content or destroying online communities and it is quite cheap to do as well:

“Before the advent of social media, it took a lot of effort for repressive governments to learn about the people dissidents are associated with. The secret police may have tracked one or two key contacts, but creating a comprehensive list—with names, photos, and contact information—was extremely expensive. In the past, the KGB resorted to torture to learn of connections between activists; today, they simply need to get on Facebook.” (Loc. 2678)

And similarly,

“The private sector will surely continue churning out innovations that can benefit secret police everywhere. Without finding ways to block the transfer of such technologies to authoritarian states or, even more important, the kind of limits that should be imposed on such technologies everywhere, the West is indirectly abetting the work of the secret police in China and Iran.” (Loc. 2747)

More than that, it is now clear that many of us are quite comfortable providing information that is available to everyone on the Internet. We post photos and videos on Facebook and Twitter, we “tag” people on these photos, we provide location informations and leave all sorts of traces all over the Web or via our mobile phones. Who needs the KGB or that guy in “The Lives of Others“.

In addition, as Morozov notes, sociologists have shown that many Facebook users use Causes application and join group more as a Goffmanian device for the presentation of self than actual activism, hence the rise of the slacktivist at the expense of actual advocacy. Mobilizing might have become easier but mobilizing is different from organizing and acting:

“It’s not so hard to imagine how any protest movement might be overstretched by the ease of communications. When everyone can send a tweet or a Facebook message, it’s safe to assume that they will. That those numerous messages would only increase the communication overload and may slow down everyone who receives them seems to be lost on those touting the virtues of online organizing.” (Loc. 3335)

For Morozov, the real danger is this:

“The danger that “slacktivism” poses in the context of authoritarian states is that it may give young people living there the wrong impression that another kind of politics—digital in nature but leading to real-world political change and the one underpinned entirely by virtual campaigns, online petitions, funny Photoshopped political cartoons, and angry tweets—is not only feasible but actually preferable to the ineffective, boring, risky, and, in most cases, outdated kind of politics practiced by the conventional oppositional movements in their countries.” (Loc. 3397)

Am I the only one reminded of the Obama Fan Base and the 2008 presidential election campaign?

Now, what of the real Internet activism of the Anonymous kinds? The kind where cyber-guerilla attack government or corporate sites with DDoS as a means of dissent (something that some European courts have ruled to be a legitimate form of dissent)? Morozov argues for a more nuanced approach rather than the quick labeling of such actions as terrorism. After all, who would mind if an authoritarian regime were hit by such attacks? So, why is it any different when it’s Lufthansa or Vodafone?

At the same time, the Web is far from being a utopia itself as it is home to anti-democratic groups and individuals. Free flow of information says nothing about the quality of information that circulates and it does not automatically equate greater demand for democracy, tolerance and equality. Far from it.

And of course, we conveniently forget that none of this entirely free:

“Just as today’s Internet gurus are trying to convince us that the age of “free” is upon us, it almost certainly is not. All those free videos of cats that receive millions of hits on YouTube are stored on powerful server centers that cost millions of dollars to run, usually in electricity bills alone. Those hidden costs will sooner or later produce environmental problems that will make us painfully aware of how expensive such technologies really are. Back in 1990, who could have foreseen that Greenpeace would one day be issuing a lengthy report about the environmental consequences of cloud computing, with some scientists conducting multiyear studies about the impact of email spam on climate change? The fact that we cannot yet calculate all the costs of a given technology—whether financial, moral, or environmental ones—does not mean that it comes free.” (Loc. 4738)

So, the bottom line, for Morozov is we have not really thought about the Internet yet, and we certainly have not paid enough attention to the social embeddedness of technology:

“Throughout history, new technologies have almost always empowered and disempowered particular political and social groups, sometimes simultaneously—a fact that is too easy to forget under the sway of technological determinism. Needless to say, such ethical amnesia is rarely in the interests of the disempowered.” (Loc. 4814)

It indeed remains to be seen whether the Internet has affected the balance of power in various societies or if the digital divide has entrenched stratification systems. And any discussion that is imbued with technological determinism tends to de-socialize and de-politicize the impact of such technologies, something which, de facto, benefits current power holders.

As Morozov notes,

“Every new article or book about a Twitter Revolution is not a triumph of humanity; it is a triumph of Twitter’s marketing department.” (Loc. 5004)

And with that, the temptation is strong to re-formulate social problems as technological problems for which technological solutions (rather than public policy) are to be found. To discuss social issues in terms of technological fixes then evacuates social, economic and political factors that might lead to questioning the larger social structures.

So assuming that we could get rid of cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism, what should we have in their place? Morozov offers a kind of cyber-realist manifesto:

“Instead of centralizing decision making about the Internet in the hands of a select few digerati who know the world of Web 2.0 start-ups but are completely lost in the world of Chinese or Iranian politics, cyber-realists would defy any such attempts at centralization, placing as much responsibility for Internet policy on the shoulders of those who are tasked with crafting and executing regional policy.

Instead of asking the highly general, abstract, and timeless question of “How do we think the Internet changes closed societies?” they would ask “How do we think the Internet is affecting our existing policies on country X?” Instead of operating in the realm of the utopian and the ahistorical, impervious to the ways in which developments in domestic and foreign policies intersect, cyber-realists would be constantly searching for highly sensitive points of interaction between the two. They would be able to articulate in concrete rather than abstract terms how specific domestic policies might impede objectives on the foreign policy front.

(…)

Cyber-realists wouldn’t search for technological solutions to problems that are political in nature, and they wouldn’t pretend that such solutions are even possible.

(…)

Cyber-realists wouldn’t allow themselves to get dragged into the highly abstract and high-pitched debates about whether the Internet undermines or strengthens democracy. Instead, they would accept that the Internet is poised to produce different policy outcomes in different environments.” (Loc. 5229 – 49)

As I said above, an important book.

Double Whammy: War Rapes and Honorable Murders

If this is true, this is horrible:

“Libyan women and girls who become pregnant through rape risk being murdered by their own families in so-called “honour killings”, according to Libyan aid workers.

Rape is a sensitive topic worldwide, but in this country it is even more of a taboo.

“In Libya when rape occurs, it seems to be a whole village or town which is seen to be dishonoured,” says Arafat Jamal of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

Libyan charities say they are getting reports that in the west of the country, which is particularly conservative, Col Muammar Gaddafi’s forces have tended to rape women and girls in front of their fathers and brothers.

“To be seen naked and violated is worse than death for them,” says Hana Elgadi. “This is a region where women will not go out of the house without covering their face with a veil.”

Ms Elgadi is in a group of Libyan volunteers offering medical help and HIV tests. The organisation is also offering to pay for abortions for women who have been raped in the war.

(…)

The International Criminal Court says it believes Col Gaddafi’s forces are using rape as a weapon of war. The ICC says it has reason to believe orders to rape were given, and the drug Viagra was distributed to fighters.

A major in the Libyan army who has now deserted told the BBC the shipments of Viagra were widely known about, but neither he nor his colleagues saw them.

“The order to rape was not given to the regular army,” says the major, who did not want his name to be used, because his family is still in Tripoli. “Col Gaddafi knew we would never accept it. It was given to the mercenaries.”

Mr Jamal, the UNHCR’s emergency co-ordinator for Libya, says it has not so far uncovered evidence that rape has been used as a weapon of war, although it has seen evidence of individual instances of rape throughout the country.

“We have also seen evidence that would seem to suggest that rape has been carried out by both sides, but we cannot say on what scale,” he says.”

Book Review – Celebrity Culture and The American Dream

Karen Sternheimer‘s Celebrity Culture and The American Dream is a good book to add to an introduction to sociology course if you want to give your students a good sense of how sociology analyzes culture and media. This is a work of public sociology. The audience for this book is not the academic / sociology professionals but the general public interested in social issues and the focus on celebrities should be a winner in that regard.

The book is a perfect illustration of what I call SHiP (structure / history / power) which is the way sociology looks at social phenomena (and that covers pretty much everything). In this case, the book spans over a hundred years of Hollywood industry and celebrity culture, in the context of changes in the social structure. Each chapter covers a time period, from the early days of the movie industry in the early 20th century to the contemporary period.

In each chapter, Sternheimer examines the main trends and changes in the social structure, and analyzes how these changes are incarnated in the celebrity as well as the cultural narratives promoted by the entertainment industry. In particular, Sternheimer focuses on how, in each time period, success and upward mobility were defined ideologically, with specific attention to gender as conceptions of how to succeed in the American society are embedded in a patriarchal context.

In short, celebrity culture tells us stories of how to succeed (hard work, thrift), who should succeed (white men) and who should be mindful of success (white women), who is erased from narratives of success (minorities) and what happens to successful who do not play by the (cultural and normative) rules (downward mobility as morality tale).

Of course, each time period has its own flavor. For instance, the World War II period was characterized less by masculinized individualism but by a greater “we’re all in this together” ideology whereby individual sacrifices had to be made by all for the survival of the nation as a whole. In the prosperous post-War period, success was unproblematically seen as not just hard work but rewarded by fun and mass consumption (which is not surprising, coming out of the Depression and the War).

At the same time, the celebrity culture is a product of the entertainment industry which is first and foremost an industry, with its power structure. For instance, Sternheimer explores the rise, dominance and fall of the studio system and its major impact on how celebrity culture was constructed and promoted. During the heyday of the studio systems, celebrity culture was entirely manufactured and controlled by the major studios who produced celebrity magazines where movie stars provided canned interviews and pictures. When that system ended, by the late 1960s, so did the publications they controlled. Out with the massive public relations department, in with the individual PR entourage that celebrities now have to hire to do the job the studios used to do.

Mostly, the overall narrative of the celebrity culture is about individual rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger-type stories, whether it is movies stars, athletes or businessmen (especially in the 1980s). And this narrative is relentlessly sexist. While women feature prominently in the celebrity culture, and have from the get go, their success is always accompanied by cautionary tales regarding their other roles as wives (don’t overshadow your husband) or mothers, or regarding the way they obtained their success and how downfall always lurks in the background. After all, if women do appear in the celebrity culture, they are absent of the power structure of the industry (as are minorities).

Structurally speaking, certainly, the celebrity publishing world has changed. Again, as the studio system collapsed, other publications emerged (such as People or US Weekly) along with the paparazzo system. And in the contemporary era, the means of tracking down celebrities have multiplied with digital media and social networking platforms. At the same time, reality TV programs have changed the notion of who can be a celebrity: pretty much anyone, with or without talent. And the rise of the reality and contest genres is itself a product of the collapse of the newspaper / magazine industry.

There is a lot in the book and Sternheimer does a good job of weaving together hard sociological data on stratification, inequalities, wage and labor trends to the narrative promoted by the celebrity culture along with changes in the structure and power relations in the industry itself. The book is an easy read with a lot of illustrations from celebrity magazines and so is very appropriate for undergraduate audiences.

Zygmunt Bauman on The Precariat

I have already blogged about the Precariat (precarized proletariat… and the book won’t be out here until the end of July), but here is the Master himself, Zygmunt Bauman, taking on the notion and giving us some context. Consider this your must-read of the day:

“The prime meaning of being “precarious” is, according to OED, to be “held by the favour and at the pleasure of another; hence, uncertain”. The uncertainty dubbed “precariousness” conveys preordained and predetermined a-symmetry of power to act: they can, we can’t. And it’s by their grace that we go on living: yet the grace may be withdrawn at short notice or without notice, and it’s not in our power to prevent its withdrawal or even mitigate its threat. After all, we depend on that grace for our livelihood, whereas they would easily, and with much more comfort and much less worry, go on living had we disappeared from their view altogether…

Originally, the idea of “precariousness” was a gloss over the plight and living experience of the large echelons of hangers-on, boarders and other parasites crowding around the princely and lordly kitchens. It is on the whim of the princes, lords of the manor and other high and mighty like them that their daily bread depended. The boarders owed their hosts/benefactors sycophancy and amusement; nothing was owed to them by their hosts. Those hosts, unlike their present-day successors, had however names and fixed addresses. They since have lost (got free from?) both. The owners of the exquisitely frail and mobile tables at which contemporary precarians are occasionally allowed to sit are summarily called by abstract names like “labour markets”, “economic prosperity/depression cycle”, or “global forces”.

Unlike their liquid-modern descendants a century later, contemporaries of Henry Ford Sr., Morgan, or Rockefeller were denied the ultimate “insecurity weapon” and so unable to recycle the proletariat into precariat. The choice to move their wealth to other places – places teeming with people ready to suffer without murmur any, however cruel factory regime, in exchange for any, however miserable, living wage – was not available to them. Just as their factory hands, their capital was “fixed” to the place: it was sunk in heavy and bulky machinery and locked inside tall factory walls. That the dependence was for those reasons mutual, and that the two sides were therefore bound to stay together for a long, very long time to come, was a public secret of which both sides were acutely aware…

Confronted with such tight interdependence of such a long life-expectancy, both sides had to come sooner or later to the conclusion that it is in their interest to elaborate, negotiate and observe a modus vivendi – that is a mode of coexistence which will include voluntary acceptance of unavoidable limits to their own freedom of manoeuvre and the distance to which the other side in the conflict of interests could and should be pushed. Exclusion was off limits, and so was indifference to misery and denial of rights. The sole alternative open to Henry Ford and the swelling ranks of his admirers, followers and imitators, would have been tantamount to cutting the branch on which they were willy-nilly perched, to which they were tied just as their labourers were to their workbenches, and from which they could not move to more comfortable and inviting places. Transgressing the limits set by interdependence would mean destruction of the sources of their own enrichment; or fast exhausting the fertility of the soil on which their riches have grown and hoped to grow on, year in year out, in the future – perhaps forever. To put it in a nutshell: there were limits to inequality which the capital could survive… Both sides of the conflict had vested interests in preventing inequality to run out of control. And each side had vested interests in keeping the other in the game…

There were, in other words, “natural” limits to inequality and “natural” barriers to social exclusion; the main causes of Karl Marx’s prophecy of the “proletariat’s absolute pauperisation” turning self-refuting and getting sour, and the main reasons for the introduction of the social state, a state taking care of keeping labour in a condition of readiness for employment, to become a “beyond left and right”: a non-partisan issue. Also the reasons for the state needing to protect the capitalist order against the suicidal consequences of leaving unbridled the capitalists’ morbid predilections, their fast-profit-seeking rapacity – and acting on that need by introducing minimal wages or time limits to the working day and week, as well as by legal protection of labour unions and other weapons of workers’ self-defence.

And these were the reasons for the widening of the gap separating the rich and the poor to be halted, or even, as one would say today deploying the current idiom, “turned negative”. To survive, inequality needed to invent the art of self-limitation. And it did – and practiced it, even if in fits and starts, for more than a century. All in all, those factors contributed to at least a partial reversal of the trend: to the mitigation of the degree of uncertainty haunting the subordinate classes and thereby to the relative levelling-up of the strength and chances of the sides engaged in the uncertainty game.

Those factors are now, ever more conspicuously, absent. Proletariat is turning, and fast, into precariat, accompanied by fast expanding chunk of the middle classes. Reversal of this reincarnation is not on the cards. Reshaping the proletariat of yore into a fighting class was heavily power assisted – just as is, in the present-day, the atomization of precariat, its descendant and negation.”

Emphases mine.

I find particularly interesting the idea of the precariat as unclass – that is, individualized, atomized and divided – as next step in the prevalence of liquidity.

Water Wars

We started hearing about water wars in 2002 with the notorious case of the conflict in Cochabamba, Bolivia where a scheme to privatize water distribution backfired dramatically and perfectly illustrated everything that seems wrong with globalization: a semi-peripheral government in debt, the World Bank steps in and demands privatization of everything, only one very large transnational corporation steps up and gets a sweet deal (low price, 16% guaranteed profit, ownership of private wells), reduces service and enormously raises prices on water. Activists and indigenous people fight back. The government represses.

So, while I was in Italy last week, I could not help notice these signs all over the place (my photo):

Well, it appears that Italy is having a referendum today on the possible privatization of water (on top of voting to getting back to nuclear power and giving Berlusconi more immunity).

Italy is not the only place where water is at issue. The Patagonia region of Chile is also facing unrest and government repression over the possible construction of hydro-electric power plants.

Ironically, it is an Italian corporation that is slated for the construction, but the whole thing looks a lot like the Cochabamba case.

And in all cases, it is truly the people versus the alliance of corporations and government. At least, the Italians get to have a say.

Labor Pain, Social Pain

The social effects of the current recession will be felt on many levels of the social structure even if (big “if”) things turn around. For instance, unemployment is often just depicted in the media as the monthly number published by the government. But, as this article demonstrates, laying off, as the brutal severing of a social relationship is a source of social pain and structural violence. And, at least in France and other European countries, there is more than a simple “you’re fired!” (the ultimate symbolic violence) to the process. There are certified letters, prior notices, interviews and a bunch of employer’s obligations that are designed to protect the employee. But none of these completely eliminate the inherent pain attached to this process.

The article interviews employees who were laid off and they all point to the painful nature of the experience even when one expects it. This is especially the case for the interview where employers have to explain to employees why they are being laid off. Many of them describes the experience as humiliating and degrading, but slightly less so when the layoff is purely economic.

Even though, in France, workers have the right to be represented during these interviews, many do not do so, especially in small businesses. It’s a shame because employers often break the law (such as treating the layoff as a fait accompli even though the interview is supposed to be part of the determination whether or not to lay off, or using facts that are older than two months as reasons for the layoff with cause.

In larger companies, human resources directors (the ones in charge of the layoff procedure) often simply read a lawyer-crafted note to the employee, without even looking at them, word for word, without a single deviation. And laid off employees often note the lack of eye contact between them and their (soon to be former) employers as they deliver the news, even when they had good relationships with them.

Worse, employees often note the futility of the interview itself. Even when they take care to refute every accusation thrown at them, they also know that it is pointless to do so. It only makes the interview longer and more painful. Many of them also stated that their employers obviously know that the case against the employees is bogus.

And once the process is over, many employees stated their need to find something to restore their self, a way to prove to themselves that they were “good people”, “good workers”. And they also acknowledged that it had taken them months to get over the experience.

But this is not the only way that labor pain related to precarization is imposed. This article details the not-entirely new practice of denying work / office space to employees, the practice known as “free seating” (love the invocation of freedom when removing every bit of security to people’s lives) or “desk sharing”. There are fewer desks than employees and they are not assigned to specific people. It becomes a sign of power to actually have a work space of one’s own. The rest of the peons will have to share. It is, of course, a cost-reduction measure as well, initially directed at people who spend a great deal of time in the field or on the road, but has progressively been expanded to others. If one needs an office, it has to be booked via an intranet system.

But there has been a price to pay for the spaceless office. How does one manage a team? How does one build a team in the first place when people are hardly evert at the same place at the same time? How does informal knowledge, which is so critical to organizations, circulate without social spaces? Actually, this got so bad that the first companies to have adopted desk sharing have had to backtrack. But if your goal is to keep “shocking the system” and keep employees in unstable conditions, that seems the way to go.

And if push comes to shove, as the article notes, then there is another space that can be used: home. And to push work home is also done in the name of freedom and flexibility. As studies have shown, people who work from home may indeed have more flexibility but they also have longer workdays that include nights and weekends.

So, when industrialization had split home space from work space, the post-industrial era will probably see more rejoining of either space, with the addition of virtual spaces and a reduction of the importance of physical workspace. Habermas might see that as the next stage in the colonization of the lifeworld by the system. And in-home workspace has now to be factored in home design as more and more people use one room as study and home office. This is space given to employers for free.

But of course, there are still workers who have to show up for work:

“Think of it as a parable for these grim economic times. On April 19th, McDonald’s launched its first-ever national hiring day, signing up 62,000 new workers at stores throughout the country. For some context, that’s more jobs created by one company in a single day than the net job creation of the entire U.S. economy in 2009. And if that boggles the mind, consider how many workers applied to local McDonald’s franchises that day and left empty-handed: 938,000 of them. With a 6.2% acceptance rate in its spring hiring blitz, McDonald’s was more selective than the Princeton, Stanford, or Yale University admission offices.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a million souls flocked to McDonald’s hoping for a steady paycheck, when nearly 14 million Americans are out of work and nearly a million more are too discouraged even to look for a job. At this point, it apparently made no difference to them that the fast-food industry pays some of the lowest wages around: on average, $8.89 an hour, or barely half the $15.95 hourly average across all American industries.

On an annual basis, the average fast-food worker takes home $20,800, less than half the national average of $43,400. McDonald’s appears to pay even worse, at least with its newest hires. In the press release for its national hiring day, the multi-billion-dollar company said it would spend $518 million on the newest round of hires, or $8,354 a head. Hence the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “McJob” as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.”

(…)

Hiring for temporary administrative and waste-management jobs, health-care jobs, and of course those fast-food restaurants has surged.

Indeed in 2010, one in four jobs added by private employers was a temporary job, which usually provides workers with few benefits and even less job security. It’s not surprising that employers would first rely on temporary hires as they regained their footing after a colossal financial crisis. But this time around, companies have taken on temp workers in far greater numbers than after previous downturns. Where 26% of hires in 2010 were temporary, the figure was 11% after the early-1990s recession and only 7% after the downturn of 2001.

As many labor economists have begun to point out, we’re witnessing an increasing polarization of the U.S. economy over the past three decades. More and more, we’re seeing labor growth largely at opposite ends of the skills-and-wages spectrum — among, that is, the best and the worst kinds of jobs.”

Welcome to the barbell economy, with increased polarization between the have-it-all (and want more) and the have-nots, and a shrinking middle. This is a topic that have been amply discussed here.

“All of which raises the questions: Is there any way to revive the American middle class and reshape income distribution in our barbell nation? Or will this warped recovery of ours pave the way for an even more warped McEconomy, with the have-nots at one end, the have-it-alls at the other end, and increasingly less of us in between?”

But that is not a discussion that seems to be happening. There is not much political interest in such a systemic examination of the social structure of work. But is the barbell economy sustainable? There are certainly signs of social movements emerging in Europe while at the same time, politicians swearing to implement austerity measures get in power, go figure (although I would argue that this is part of the legitimacy crisis that Habermas started writing about 20 years ago).

And then there is this (which is not unrelated to the above):

“Why aren’t we more angry? Why isn’t blood running, metaphorically at least, in the streets? Evidence of how the rich prosper while everyone else struggles with inflation, public spending cuts and static wages arrives almost daily. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that last year incomes among the top 1% grew at the fastest rate in a decade. According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the top 1,000 are £60.2bn better off this year than in 2010, bringing their collective wealth close to the record pre-recession levels.

Now comes a report this week from the High Pay Commission, set up by the Labour pressure group Compass. It reveals that FTSE 100 chief executives are on average paid £4.2m annually, or 145 times the median wage – and on current trends will be paid £8m, or 214 times the median, by 2020. In the financial sector, even the CEO can seem modestly rewarded: this year, the top-paid banker at Barclays will get £14m, nearly four times the chief executive’s earnings and 1,128 times more than the lowest-paid employee receives.

(…)

As the sociologist Garry Runciman observed: “Envy is a difficult emotion to sustain across a broad social distance.” Nearly 50 years ago he found manual workers were less likely than non-manual workers to think other people were “noticeably better off”. Even now most Britons underestimate the rewards of bankers and executives. Top pay has reached such levels that, rather like interstellar distances, what the figures mean is hard to grasp.

But the gap between the richest 1% or 2% and everybody else in the top 20% or 30% is now so great and growing so rapidly that, one might reasonably think, it should change the terms of political trade. The income distance may be huge but the social distance is not. Those in the top 2% and the next 28% have often been to the same schools and universities. More important, they compete for scarce resources: places in fee-charging schools, houses in the best areas, high-end personal services. The super-rich have provoked raging inflation in the prices of these goods. Many of the not-so-rich were born into the professional classes and high expectations. Now, to their surprise, they find themselves struggling. In income distribution, their interests are closer to those of the mass of the population than to people they once saw as their peers.

They are not, however, imminently likely to join a crusade for equality. This generation of the middle classes has internalised the values of individualist aspiration, as zealously propagated by Tony Blair as by Margaret Thatcher. It does not look to the application of social justice to improve its lot. It expects to rely on its own efforts to get ahead and, crucially, to maintain its position.

As psychologists will tell you, fear of loss is more powerful than the prospect of gain. The struggling middle classes look down more anxiously than they look up, particularly in recession and sluggish recovery. Polls show they dislike high income inequalities but are lukewarm about redistribution.”

Especially if such redistribution is interpreted in racial / racist terms, that those who would benefit might be blacks, immigrants, Muslims, or whoever happens to be on the collective consciousness at that point thanks to the media.

And let’s add this to the mix:

“Among the startling statistics, the United States now consumes 80% of the world’s opioid pain medications and 99% of the world’s hydrocodone (semi-synthetic opioid). The milligram per person use of prescription opioids in the United States increased from 74mg to 369mg, an increase of 402%, between 1997 and 2007. Prescription medication abuse is now only second to marijuana in terms of frequency. Prescription pharmaceuticals have become the newest – and seemingly, deadliest – gateway drug we have seen yet; nearly a third of people aged 12 and over who used drugs “recreationally” for the first time in 2009 began by using a prescription drug non-medically.”

That is, socially-produced anxiety is treated in individualized and medicalized terms rather than examine the social roots of this.

I would argue that all this adds up to this, provocatively:

“America in 2011 is Rome in 200AD or Britain on the eve of the first world war: an empire at the zenith of its power but with cracks beginning to show.

The experience of both Rome and Britain suggests that it is hard to stop the rot once it has set in, so here are the a few of the warning signs of trouble ahead: military overstretch, a widening gulf between rich and poor, a hollowed-out economy, citizens using debt to live beyond their means, and once-effective policies no longer working. The high levels of violent crime, epidemic of obesity, addiction to pornography and excessive use of energy may be telling us something: the US is in an advanced state of cultural decadence.

Empires decline for many different reasons but certain factors recur. There is an initial reluctance to admit that there is much to fret about, and there is the arrival of a challenger (or several challengers) to the settled international order. In Spain’s case, the rival was Britain. In Britain’s case, it was America. In America’s case, the threat comes from China.”

Add to this the rise of fascist and racist movements such as the Tea party and the rise of nasty times and sociopathy and you have all the ingredients for the fall of a hyperpower as delineated by Amy Chua (in her book NOT about tiger mothers). And it’s painful and violent on the way down.

Rape – Sociological Aspects

I know I am behind on this but if you read French, you should read Laurent Mucchielli’s post on the sociological aspects of rape (and the book the post is based on).

As Mucchielli notes, when rape is discussed in the media or the larger society, it is often in the context of sensational cases either involving celebrities (DSK, athletes, etc.) or “spectacular” cases where rapists become household names (think Dutroux or Fourniret). At the other hand of the spectrum, there seems to be a publishing niche for testimonial books whose reading is unbearable. In combination, these trends construct rape as one of the most abhorrent crimes deserving of maximal social sanction.

But for Mucchielli, the everyday reality of rape is different (which is not to negate the above) when one uses the sociological method to explore what rape, in contemporary society really involves beyond media coverage and publishing trends. The book linked to above is the result of this work. What does this show?

First, rape is a crime of proximity despite the medieval persistence of the “stranger danger” stereotype, or the image of  the woman walking alone at night, chased by her aggressor, then raped and sometimes killed. That stereotype is common in various fictional media and widely used by politicians, often with pro-patriarchal motives (women are safer home, shouldn’t be out late at night, working or going out, etc.). The book’s studies show that in 85% of rape, offender and victim know each other.

Rape is also overwhelmingly and almost exclusively perpetrated by men against women or children (girls and boys) with whom they have deep affective ties. The book establishes a typology of rapes (indeed, one should speak of rapes rather than rape):

  1. Familial rape is the most common, committed by fathers, step-fathers, uncles and grandfathers, brothers and cousins, in-laws or very close family friends.
  2. Marital rape is the second most common,
  3. Peer rape, committed by peers and friends,
  4. Acquaintance rape committed by neighbors, work colleagues or mere acquaintances
  5. Stranger rape is the least common form.

Research also shows that the closer perpetrators and victims are, the more likely it is that aggressions will be more frequent and will continue over extended periods of time (more than five years) whereas stranger rapes tend to be unique occurrences. Serial rapists are very rarely strangers to their victims. Serial raping is more likely to take place within families. So, we should speak of proximity serial rapists.

Studies also show that proximity rape are not correlated with social class. Victimization studies reveal such class neutrality. However, when it comes to prosecution of such crimes, then working classes perpetrators are overrepresented. More than 90% of rapists tried in France were from the lower classes. Where are the others?

For Mucchielli, there are two main explanations for this social inequality when it comes to having to face the criminal justice system. First, the wealthier classes have more useful networks of acquaintances, more power, more money, more ways of preventing the publicization of certain facts in the media, and more ways to protect themselves against police and judicial action in order to protect their status and reputations despite the crimes.

Second, the unprivileged classes are subject to more social scrutiny and control from institutional authorities such as social workers, educational and medical professionals, and the criminal justice system as a whole, which leads to greater detection.

There is nothing that is entirely surprising for those who study these things, but it is nice to have some hard data debunking a few stereotypes along the way and clearly showing that the family is one of the most abusive and violent institutions of society.

Neo-Colonialism 2.0

Land grab, because the Global North needs it to fuel the financialization-of-everything system since the mortgage thing is all busted up:

“Hedge funds are behind “land grabs” in Africa to boost their profits in the food and biofuel sectors, a US think-tank says.

In a report, the Oakland Institute said hedge funds and other foreign firms had acquired large swathes of African land, often without proper contracts.

It said the acquisitions had displaced millions of small farmers.

Foreign firms farm the land to consolidate their hold over global food markets, the report said.

They also use land to “make room” for export commodities such as biofuels and cut flowers.

“This is creating insecurity in the global food system that could be a much bigger threat than terrorism,” the report said.

The Oakland Institute said it released its findings after studying land deals in Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Mali and Mozambique.

It said hedge funds and other speculators had, in 2009 alone, bought or leased nearly 60m hectares of land in Africa – an area the size of France.

“The same financial firms that drove us into a global recession by inflating the real estate bubble through risky financial manoeuvres are now doing the same with the world’s food supply,” the report said.”

And this should be a source of embarrassment but will not be:

“Harvard and other major American universities are working through British hedge funds and European financial speculators to buy or lease vast areas of African farmland in deals, some of which may force many thousands of people off their land, according to a new study.

Researchers say foreign investors are profiting from “land grabs” that often fail to deliver the promised benefits of jobs and economic development, and can lead to environmental and social problems in the poorest countries in the world.

The new report on land acquisitions in seven African countries suggests that Harvard, Vanderbilt and many other US colleges with large endowment funds have invested heavily in African land in the past few years. Much of the money is said to be channelled through London-based Emergent asset management, which runs one of Africa’s largest land acquisition funds, run by former JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs currency dealers.”

In addition to climate change damage, this is a source of failing local agriculture and famine in the Global South, especially Africa, and a perfect illustration of Amartya Sen’s entitlement thesis where the Global South’s entitlement of the poor become the Global North’s rents. And another form of colonialism where value is extracted out of the periphery and transferred to the core.

The Visual Du Jour – Filthy Rich Socialization

Do check out this series of photo in Der Spiegel on children of the Russian über-wealthy. I know these photos are posed, but boy do they all look stiff:

As the article notes:

“SPIEGEL ONLINE: None of the children in your book are smiling. Is childhood missing from your pictures of children?

Skladmann: I wouldn’t say that. But they live in a secluded world. Some leave that world, to go to a public ballet school, for example. Their parents are attempting to make up for the Soviet times — they only want the best for their children. They receive private language lessons, they go swimming or play tennis. The lives of these children are very planned and regimented. That forces them to grow up quicker.”

Bruce Western on Mass Incarceration as Social Disintegration

In an article in Reason, awesome sociologist Bruce Western delineates the multi-layered deleterious effects of mass incarceration:

1. on individuals themselves

“Former prisoners do worse economically than if they had never been incarcerated.

(…)

White testers who were assigned a criminal record received call-backs or job offers from employers only half as often as testers with clean records. For African Americans, a criminal record reduced employment opportunities by two-thirds. Labor force data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth paint a similar picture of incarceration’s negative effects: Wages fall by about 15 percent after prison, yearly earnings are reduced by about 40 percent, and the pay of former prisoners (unlike compensation for the rest of the labor force) remains stagnant as they get older.”

2. On their families

“About half of all prison and jail inmates are parents with children under 18. By 2008 about 2.6 million children had a parent in prison or jail. By age 17, one in four African-American youth has a father who has been sent to prison.

Because of their poor job prospects, formerly incarcerated fathers are less able to contribute financially to their families. Because incarceration strains marital relations, those fathers are also less involved as parents. Compared to otherwise similar kids whose parents haven’t been behind bars, the children of incarcerated parents are more likely to be depressed, behave aggressively, and drop out of high school. These problems appear to be more common for boys than girls. Incarceration, it seems, is weakening the bonds between fathers and sons.”

3. On communities and society

“The prison population is drawn overwhelmingly from low-income inner-city areas whose residents come to associate police and the courts with the surrounding social problems of violence and poverty. Police are viewed as unhelpful, and often unaccountable, contributing to what the Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson calls “legal cynicism” in troubled, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Part of the power of punishment as a deterrent to crime is the shame and stigma of a criminal record. Where incarceration has become commonplace, as it has in poor African-American communities, the righteousness of the police is no longer assumed and a prison record is not distinctive. The authority of the criminal justice system has been turned upside down, and the institutions charged with maintaining safety become objects of suspicion.

The negative effects of incarceration reduce the penal system’s capacity to control crime. Drug dealing and other illegal activities are more attractive to people with prison records, who have few legitimate prospects. Children of incarcerated parents, without a secure and predictable home life, are at risk of delinquency and school failure. And a community, soured on a capricious and unaccountable police force, is less likely to call for help or assist in investigations.”

And yet, there will be no changes made to such an obviously costly (at multiple levels) and failing policies. As I often tell my students, when something does not seem to make sense (like the persistence of visible failures), ask yourselves, who benefits? In this case, the private prison business, the entire criminal justice system as a source of jobs (how many academic criminal justice programs tout great job prospects with good wages and benefits with no questioning of the society they are contributing to building?), not to mention the structural racist effects.

Which other beneficiaries have I missed, Todd Krohn?

Welfare Queens 2.0

During the campaign for the last French presidential election, the theme (happily promoted by the media) was “the – mostly young – brown people are ruining the country”. This has gotten a bit old (and besides, we’re supposed to support the Arab Spring, after all). So, this time around, we got our marching orders for the upcoming election: let’s hate the poor! And so, it is apparently open season on benefit recipients.

Not recipients of universal benefits (like health care or family allowances), mind you, because everyone gets those. No, the stigmatization applies only to the recipients of means-tested benefits, mainly the working poor. And here again, the conservative media will find it easy to push straw men and stereotypes while the conservative parliamentary majority steps up with indentured servitude bills of one kind or another… and while the opposition is out to lunch.

See for instance, this blog post by sociologist Camille Peugny where he notes that the latest iteration of this idea is the conservative bill proposal stating that recipients of the RSA benefit (a very modest income support for the lowest income classes) should sign a “social utility contract” whereby, in order to receive benefits, recipients would have to work a few hours a week for public institutions or other structures of “reinsertion”, whatever that means.

The popular, and yet false, idea behind this is that the poor are idle, lazy, shiftless, have no work ethic and therefore are in need of some tough love to teach them the right values and force them into work. Of course, there is no basis for such an assumption except conservative ideology, social darwinism and a touch of Weberian puritan ethic.

The reality is that a significant proportion of these recipients do work (but often do not make enough money so that they do qualify for the RSA) and they often accept jobs (a requirement to get the benefit, if they refuse, the benefits may be reduced or cancelled altogether):

“The studies agree that even if the financial gain is minimal, beneficiaries of subsistence benefits generally prefer to take a job, and they often will take a job even if they incur a financial loss. The primary motivation for refusing work is not monetary.

In an article in French daily Le Monde, the former High Commissioner for Active Solidarity Against Poverty and who created the RSA, argued that the idea that beneficiaries of subsistence benefits wallow in idleness is all the more erroneous because “beneficiaries of the RSA are required, barring serious health problems, to seek a job and to be signed up at the [State Job Centre]” and thus “must comply with the requirement to accept two reasonable job offers”.

A study by the Ministry of Finance showed that if one fourth of RMI beneficiaries didn’t seek employment, it was primarily for reasons of poor health or personal constraints including the feeling of being unemployable due to a long period out of work, lack of a vehicle or child-minding issues.”

But the real effect of the bills that the conservative majority will keep proposing is more about stigmatization and dividing the working and middle classes before the election. After all, what does it mean to require benefit recipients to subject themselves to a “social utility contract’ if not to highlight their lack of said social utility, their uselessness to society, the fact that they are perceived as a burden to the system while contributing nothing to it.

And, of course, the jury in front of which the recipients are tried and convicted is the supposedly non-dependent, hard-working working and middle classes who are struggling in times of precarization. The finger is then pointed towards the “assisted” depicted by a conservative politician as a “cancer to society”. Stigmatization and scapegoating go hand in hand with often-raised specter of welfare fraud. Never mind that such fraud is always hyped using straw men rather than hard data (because those often turn out to be not very useful for the job of scapegoating.

This is a common strategy: when it comes to the construction of issues that are to socially produced as “the issues that we should care about”, such construction always involved focusing everyone’s attention to the bottom of social stratification ladder. That way, no one will really pay attention to what happens at the top:

“But what costs public finances most is tax fraud. This is estimated at 4.3 billion concerning lost income tax, 4.6 billion concerning lost corporate tax and between 7.3 billion and 12.4 billion in lost Value Added Tax. That does not include the numerous loopholes and legal tricks for avoiding paying taxes, both among individuals and corporations. But fraud in those areas does not appear to concern those MPs’ busy with proposing tougher legislation with which to target the poor.”

The same trick was played when the financial crisis exploded in the US. The finger was pointed at lower class (and a bit more subtly, blacks) for taking on mortgages that they could not afford (rather than the obvious fraud committed by lenders against these borrowers) so that very limited attention was paid to the financial dealings in the rentier and financial class.

Expect more of the same as austerity policies are implemented all over the OECD countries as the masters of the world extract more rent and the majorities in these countries are subjected to more precarization and shock doctrine. The only question is whether there is a breaking point. There may be in Europe, but the US public is too busy watching reality TV and contest programs.