The Visual Du Jour – Food Fights

The idea of riots exploding when food becomes scarce or unaffordable is not new. This is something that has been discussed before in the context of what used to be called the “IMF riots”, that is riots caused by the implementation of structural adjustment programs in developing countries (“structural adjustment” is roughly equivalent to austerity + privatization). Often, it is when these measures impacted food and water that riots would explode.

So, it is not that far-fetched to suggest a correlation between food prices and revolts in the Middle East:

Maybe we are witnessing the internal version of resource wars combined with decades of bad governance where the “panem and circenses” rule of dictators does not work anymore. There is more entertainment to be had via satellite TV and the Internet and if food prices go up, then things explode.

As the article notes:

“Seeking simple explanations for the Arab spring uprisings that have swept through Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, is clearly foolish amidst entangled issues of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and water stress. But asking “why precisely now?” is less daft, and a provocative new study proposes an answer: soaring food prices.

Furthermore, it suggests there is a specific food price level above which riots and unrest become far more likely. That figure is 210 on the UN FAO’s price index: the index is currently at 234, due to the most recent spike in prices which started in the middle of 2010.

Lastly, the researchers argue that current underlying food price trends – excluding the spikes – mean the index will be permanently over the 210 threshold within a year or two. The paper concludes: “The current [food price] problem transcends the specific national political crises to represent a global concern about vulnerable populations and social order.” Big trouble, in other words.

Now, those are some pretty big statements and I should state right now that this research, by a team at the New England Complex Systems Institute, has not yet been peer reviewed. It has been published because, Yaneer Bar-Yam, NECSI president, told me, the work is relevant now but peer review is slow.

The first part of the research is straightforward enough: plotting riots identified as over food against the food price index. The correlation is striking, but is it evidence of causation?

Bar-Yam says this conundrum can be tackled by asking the question in clear ways. Could the riots be causing high food prices, rather than the reverse? No, the former is local, the latter global. Could the correlation simply be a coincidence? Yes, there’s only a tiny chance of that, Bar-Yam’s team argues in the paper.

Lastly, could other factors be causing both the violence and the high food prices? “No-one has suggested any other factor that can do both,” says Bar-Yam. For example, oil and tin both show similar price patterns to that of food, but seem unlikely to prompt the violence. The similarity, says Bar-Yam, is because all the commodity price peaks are being driven by speculation in global markets.

Fake Peace Offerings from the Fearful

A few days ago, I blogged about an interview with  Monique Pinçon-Charlot in which she noted that the wealthy were getting scared, especially considering the recent UK riots, of social instability caused by the massive increase in inequalities that occurred in the past 30 years or so along with the 2008 recession. As a result, they might make peace offerings to preserve a system that has benefited them so grandly.

And whaddaya know:

But mind you, they don’t want the extra tax to be permanent, just an exceptional measure due to exceptional circumstances… until it’s back to business as usual. And mind you, it is for the deficit and to help clap louder for the confidence fairy.

Some are fooled (especially considering the fact that the current government does not seem disposed to do that):

Others are, like Thomas Picketty, are fortunately not:

Indeed, as Picketty notes, it is especially hypocritical to offer roughly an extra €200 million when the government abolished a tax on wealth that used to bring in €2 billion. His analysis is particularly scathing.

And it is not just France, Germany is in the same highly unequal boat:

“We know how the death of our society will look from the recent riots in London. We are threatened by social instability, which could lead to societal collapse and anarchy — our own private Somalia. To avoid that will require a serious effort by the powerful. Our system needs a complete change of course. A politics of inequality got us into this crisis. If we keep going down that road, it will cause our downfall.
It’s time to use the crisis as an opportunity for change. It’s high time, in other words, to raise taxes.

Germany is a land of inequality. That’s not some left-wing dogma, but a simple fact. Our system leads to a “redistribution of wealth from poor to rich.” That was the recent conclusion of Paul Kirchhof, a conservative law professor and tax expert who Angela Merkel once wanted to appoint as finance minister. If our political system is to survive in the long term, something needs to change.

Let me describe the current situation with a few figures. The 5,000 best-earning German households have increased their share of the total national revenue by about 50 percent since the mid-1990s. At the same time, the real income of all Germans has remained about the same over this period. The net share of wages — that is, the share of national income accounted for by wages — was about 44 percent in West Germany up until the 1980s. Ten years later, it was just over 38 percent. Now it’s about 35 percent. In the same period, the portion of income accounted for by profits has continually risen.

Huge redistributions are happening. That’s a fact that has been known for some time. But most of us have just sat around and watched. Why? Because the ideology of privatization, small government and neo-liberalism has permanently fogged the minds of a generation.


It’s not the power of left-wing arguments that has brought capitalism to its knees. Capitalism has grown for so long that it has reached the point of being incompatible with democracy. We live in a system where the few profit but the many do not. But in a democracy the majority are still needed at the ballot box every few years. They’re expected to give their votes — and then keep quiet. In return for this service, the state hands out (ever-smaller) benefits from the public treasury. But where should the money come from, if the rich and the corporations pay fewer and fewer taxes and keep their money for themselves, while the poor pay no taxes because they have no money?

Answer: debt. Public debt is the price paid by countries to allow the rich to grow richer while the poor grow poorer. This system has now come to the end of the road.

A strategy of spoiling the rich and placating the poor can’t work any longer. The only choice now is to raise taxes or cut spending.

But if the government cuts spending, inequality will rise. Whether it’s schools, public swimming pools, libraries or hospitals, the wealthy don’t care if these public institutions are in a good condition. But everyone else does. Popular rage will grow. We can imagine where it might lead in Germany — toward the far right. If the government cuts spending, it will not reform the system in the direction of more democracy. Instead, it will push it toward totalitarianism.

If we want to save our society, there is only one answer: to raise taxes.”

Donatella Della Porta on The Failure of Minimalist (Neoliberal) Democracy

Your must-read of the day from one of the most important sociologists of social movements:

“Neoliberalism is a political doctrine that brings with it a minimalist vision of the public and democracy, as Colin Crouch demonstrates so well in his Post-Democracy. It envisages the reduction of political intervention to correcting the market (with consequent liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation), an elitist concept of citizen participation (electoral only, and therefore occasional and potentially distorted) and an increased influence of lobbies and powerful interests.

The evident crisis in this liberal concept and practice of democracy is however accompanied by the (re)emergence of diverse concepts and practices of democracy, elaborated and practiced, among others, by social movements. In today’s Europe, they are opposing a neoliberal solution to the financial crisis, accused of further depressing consumption and thereby quashing any prospect for growth – whether sustainable or not.

Austerity measures in Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain have been met with long-lasting mass protests, which partly took the more traditional form of general strikes and trade union demonstrations, contesting the drastic cuts to social and labour rights.

But another type of protest has also emerged, not opposed to the former, but certainly different and more directly concerned with democracy: the criticism to democracy as it is now, and the elaboration of possible alternatives. “Democracia real ya!” was the main slogan of the Spanish indignados protesters that occupied the Placa del Sol in Madrid, the Placa de Catalunya in Barcelona and hundreds of squares in the rest of the country from 15 May 2011, calling for different social and economic policies and indeed greater citizen participation in their formulation and implementation. Before such a mobilisation in Spain, at the end of 2008 and start of 2009, self-convened citizens in Iceland had demanded the resignation of the government and its delegates in the Central Bank and in the financial authority. In Portugal, a demonstration arranged via facebook in March 2011 brought more than 200,000 young people to the streets. The indignados protests, in turn, inspired similar mobilisations in Greece, where opposition to austerity measures had already been expressed in occasionally violent forms.”

Which, of course all point to the much-debated crisis of legitimation:

“The indignados’ discourse on democracy is articulate and complex, taking up some of the principal criticisms of the ever-decreasing quality of representative democracies, but also some of the main proposals inspired by other democratic qualities beyond electoral representation. These proposals resonate with (more traditional) participatory visions, but also with new deliberative conceptions that underline the importance of creating multiple public spaces, egalitarian but plural.

Above all, they criticise the ever more evident shortcomings of representative democracies, mirroring a declining trust in the ability of parties to channel emerging demands in the political system. Beginning with Iceland, moving forcefully to Spain and Portugal, indignation is addressed towards corruption in the political class, seen in bribes (the dismissal of corrupt people from institutions is called for), as well as in the privileges granted to lobbies and in the close connection between public institutions and economic (and often financial) power. It is to this corruption – that is the corruption of democracy – that much of the responsibility for the economic crisis, and the inability to manage it, is attributed.”

Indeed, part of this crisis is the fact that the “there is no alternative” view has contaminated most mainstream left-wing party in Europe (the US democratic party is not left-wing, so, it was there all along, in a softer form than its Republican counterpart) and therefore, excluding extremist parties, there dominant parties have subscribed to the neoliberal view of minimalist democracy, so, they cannot be seen as offering an alternative to right-wing parties and their austerity programs and power-to-the-lobbies politics. After all, it is a socialist government that is implementing austerity in Greece.

This crisis of legitimation is also mixed with the alter-globalization meme against globalization from the top, through major transnational institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, summarized as the global democratic deficit.

So, according to Della Porta, what are the alternatives?

“But there is also another vision of democracy, the one which normative theory has recently defined as deliberative democracy, and which the global justice movement has elaborated and diffused through the social forums as consensus democracy. This conception of democracy is prefigured by the very same indignados that occupy city squares, transforming them into public spheres made up of ‘normal citizens’. It is an attempt to create high quality discursive democracy, recognising the equal rights of all (not only delegates and experts) to speak (and to be respected) in a public and plural space, open to discussion and deliberation on themes that range from conditions of distress to concrete solutions to specific problems, from proposals on common goods to the formation of collective solidarity and emerging identities.

This prefiguration of deliberative democracy follows a vision that is profoundly different from that which legitimates representative democracy, founded on the principle of majority decision making. Here, democratic quality is in fact measured in terms of the possibility of elaborating ideas within discursive, open and public arenas, where citizens play an active role in identifying problems, but also in elaborating possible solutions. It is the opposite of accepting a ‘democracy of the prince’, where the professionals elected to govern must on no account be disturbed, at least until fresh elections are held. But it is also the opposite of a ‘democracy of experts’, legitimised by output, on which European institutions have long relied.”

Yes, but let’s not forget that there is one major function that the state never gives up in its minimalist state: repression. So, any real challenge to the system will not be met with warm welcome and the propagandistic push-bakc will be massive (as it is in the UK after the riots) in order to generate a backlash against the movements.

Sociology Job Market… Is It Really Good News?

I know this

… is supposed to be good news.

But this concerns me:

“Moreover, the report describes “several notable mismatches between the fields of interest of graduate students and the fields in which departmental searches are most common.” For example, the sociology of culture and scholarship of race, class, and gender ranked much higher among Ph.D. candidates’ listed areas of specialty than they did among the specialities most cited in job advertisements. Sociology departments were much more likely to say they sought specialists in social control, law, crime, and deviance than were Ph.D. candidates who belonged to the association likely to list those specialties on their membership forms.”

So, my question is, are these sociologists hired in sociology / criminal justice joint departments? Or straight one or the other? If they have joined or part of Criminal Justice programs, what function do they fulfill? Do they bring another perspective and a more critical analysis of the massive expansion of the surveillance and punitive society? My own institution just built a brand new building just for the newly expanded criminal justice / homeland security program, because that is where the money is and they all dream of massive federal grants.

That form of “social control” sociology comes at the expenses of a critical sociology that works on the deep (and deepening) fault lines that are real threats to societies. So, unless sociologists in these social control programs can make a real difference (I hope they do), I will consider this moderately good news.

Pre-Crime and Street Corner Society 2.0

From this interesting article in which Malcolm James explains how law enforcement polices public spaces against youth pre-crime:

“Even before the riots, the streets were dangerous places for young people to be. Young people at Leeside talked of community support officers and police prowling the streets, assuming they were up to no good.

The community support officer who came to Leeside was part of a local partnership initiate. He was there to liaise with young people, but his role outside the youth club did not make him a popular figure.

One evening, as we were standing in the back-lobby of the youth club, he justified his role to me through stories of moving young people on from street corners and stairwells. They were not actually causing trouble, he told me; rather, they were thinking about it. Like the two young men who recently received four-year sentences for imagining civil disobedience on Facebook, the young people I worked with, by virtue of interacting in public space, were criminalised before they had done anything wrong.

If you’re aged between 12 and 21 it’s this threat of criminalisation that is the real urban terror. Cameron’s backing of ‘gang injunctions’ – court orders that ban groups of young people (gangs) from certain geographical areas –will criminalise innocent working-class urban young people for associating with friends in one of the only public spaces available to them.”

Time for us all to brush up Whyte’s classical Street Corner Society.

Also, this:

This has to do with the criminalization of poverty and youth culture, perceived, in a moralistic view of social issues, as moral defect.

“The Hour of Global Sociology”

For a certain cranky sociologist who has been at it for almost five years, this reads like vindication:

Intellectually, this may [sic] the hour of global sociology, taken as a scholarship, with its sensitivity to variety and limitations as well as to connectivity, and its refraining from policy pontificating. Half a century ago, I entered university, in Lund, in Sweden, with a view to studying politics and economic, but in the process, I learnt about sociology, as a more scientific approach, which may have reflected local circumstances more than universal truth. Later on, in the Netherlands, I had a chair of political science, and political economy has always been prominent on my mind, although my favourite scholarly writers have mostly been historians, models of erudition-cum-style. Nevertheless, I think sociology offers the best vantage-point from which to comprehend the world as a whole, the past and the contemporary together. It is wide open to different expertise and disciplines, itself pluralistic, driven by an inbound, non-paradigmatic curiosity, and by an ambition of connecting as much evidence, as much human experience, as possible.

Goran Therborn (2011), The World – A Beginner’s Guide, Polity Press, p.x.

I keep telling you people that sociology in general, and global sociology in particular is the !@#$.

Wealth Inequality for Dummies

Thanks to VeganProf for mentioning this one to me:

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

As I have mentioned before on this topic, this is hegemonic triumph: cultural belief in equal opportunity, a moralistic view of social inequality and social mobility, along with a refusal to generally discuss inequalities outside of these terms. Combine that with general ignorance of facts (thank you media) and overall anti-intellectualism and you have a generally ill-informed and deluded population with the corresponding disastrous public policy.

And let us not forget that, contrary to popular belief, there is less social mobility in the US than in other Western countries.

See also here on a similar topic.

Institutional Discrimination 101 – (Not) Blinded With Science

In science, it pays to be white:

“Black scientists in the US are much less likely to be awarded funding than their white counterparts, says a US government research-funding agency.

The National Institutes of Health said that out of every 100 funding applications it considered, 30 were granted to white applicants.

This compared with 20 to black applicants.

The study, published in the journal Science, found the gap could not be explained by education or experience.

It suggested small differences in access to resources and mentoring early in a scientist’s career could accumulate, leaving black researchers at a disadvantage.

Blacks make up 13% of the US population, but only 1.2% of lead researchers on biomedical studies are black.

The NIH said concerns over this prompted it to commission a study, which was led by University of Kansas economics professor Donna Ginther.

The research – which was published on Thursday – examined submissions for NIH grant applications by more than 40,000 researchers from 2000-2006.

The study found that 71% of grant-seekers said they were white; 1.5% said they were black; 3.3% were Latino; 13.5% were Asian; and 11% were identified as “other” or “unknown”.

NIH director Francis Collins said it would take action to address the potential for “insidious bias” in the grant process.

“This situation is not acceptable,” he told reporters in a conference call. “The data is deeply troubling.”

When applicants send proposals to the NIH, they identify their race, ethnicity and gender.

This information is removed from the application before the materials are sent to review.

Mr Collins said it was possible that reviewers could guess the race or ethnicity of an applicant by looking at names or where they trained.”

We know, from other similar studies on job applicants that this is exactly what happens, consciously or not. Applicants with African-American-sounding names are much less likely to be interviewed, compared to whites with similar backgrounds on every aspect. This is why some of them modify their names to remove the African-American aspect and pass for white, at least until the interview.

Always keep in mind: institutional discrimination is racism without racists. It is pervasive, far-reaching and has major consequences in terms of opportunities and life-chances. But because it is largely invisible, it is hard to detect and correct, especially because most Whites do not believe it even exists.

Monique Pinçon-Charlot On Social Hypocrisy and Self-Preservation

Of course, everyone and their brother has been talking about Warren Buffett’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he breaks rank with his social class to claim too low a level of taxation on the wealthy like him and to advocate for higher taxation. Of course, this has won him a lot of applause from the liberal / progressive side and, at least, relative silence on the right instead of the usual reactions ranging mockery to cries of socialism and class warfare. And yet, Buffett has not said anything that has not been said for years now. Well, that is what social privilege based on prestige is (in the Weberian sense), you get listened to and not summarily ignored or insulted. And from the left, you get plaudits for looking like you’re playing against your own privileged team and demanding greater justice and equality in the name of some degree of social solidarity.

Well, hogwash, says sociologist of the Rich, Monique Pinçon-Charlot. This social hypocrisy and self-preservation. For her (and considering her body of work, she definitely knows what she is talking about), the wealthy can see the rising amount of destabilization around the world and they can read the writing on the wall and they have a good sense of the amount of resentment directed at them. They are getting scared. So, they publicly make statements seemingly offering a few sacrifices to appease the masses. There is no significant solidarity movement involved.

After all, everyone can see that significant fiscal and economic measures have been targeted at the financial sector and the wealthiest classes, both recovered rather quickly while the middle and lower classes continue to sink. Even the Greek bailouts were massive gifts to the wealthy Greeks. So, whatever sacrifices are offered by wealthy people like Buffett will be largely symbolic because extreme wealth is not just monetary. As Pinçon-Charlot puts it, wealth is an iceberg, the vast sums of money that we see are only the tip. Wealth is also cultural, symbolic and social and these are forms of capital that are as valuable as economic capital which they sustain and reinforce.

So, according to her, expect more such calls for solidarity and monetary offerings from the top of the social ladder, and do not believe a word of it. It is a self-preserving strategy for fear of the barbarians at the gates.