The Visual du Jour – This is America: Beer and Church

Well, not quite… well, kinda. The maps below show tweets about Church (in red) and tweets about beer (in blue):

As the article notes:

“This map clearly illustrates some fairly big regional divides (more on that in a bit) but it is worth drilling down a bit to see how this plays out at the local level.  San Francisco has the largest margin in favor of “beer” tweets (191 compared to 46 for “church”) with Boston (Suffolk county) running a close second. Los Angeles has the distinction of containing the most tweets overall (busy, busy thumbs in Southern California). In contrast, Dallas, Texas wins the FloatingSheep award for most geotagged tweets about “church” with 178 compared to only 83 about “beer.””

No real surprise here but if one goes into even more details:

“Given the cultural content of the “church” tweets, the clustering of relatively more “church” than “beer” content in the southeast relative to the north-east suggests that this could be a good way to identify the contours of regional difference. In order to quantify these splits, we ran a Moran’s I test for spatial auto-correlation which proved to be highly significant as well.[3] Without going into too much detail, this test shows which counties with high numbers of church tweets are surrounded by counties with similar patterns (marked in red) and which counties with many beer tweets are surrounded by like-tweeting counties (marked in blue).  Intriguingly there is a clear regional (largely north-south split) in tweeting topics which highlights the enduring nature of local cultural practices even when using the latest technologies for communication.”

David Harvey on Monopoly Rent and Local Capitalism

In chapter 4 of Rebel Cities, Harvey focuses on what he takes to be the essence of capitalism: the establishment of monopoly rent.

“All rent is based on the monopoly power of private owners over certain assets. Monopoly rent arises because social actors can realize an enhanced income stream over an extended time by virtue of their exclusive control over some directly or indirectly tradable item which is in some crucial respects unique and non-replicable. ” (90)

There are two types of situation where monopoly rent arises: (1) when one exclusively controls some special quality resource, commodity, or location and can therefore extract rent from others. If you are the only one who has a specific Picasso, you can charge people to take a look at it. The same goes if you have a London apartment with an exclusive view over a great Olympic location. Uniqueness is key here long with particularity and tradability. But one has to be careful that one’s product or location or resource is too unique so as to lose tradability. At the same time, using marketing and advertising to increase tradability might reduce uniqueness. So, tradability must never turn into commodification, which involves homogeneity and mass consumption.

On the other hand, marketing and advertising may be used to generate a false sense of uniqueness for mass produced goods and define them as particular enough that monopoly rent can be extracted out of them.

But there is a contradiction here:

“Why, in a neoliberal world where competitive markets are supposedly dominant, would monopoly of any sort be tolerated, let alone seen as desirable?

(…)

The fiercer the competition, the faster the trend towards oligopoly, if not monopoly. It is therefore no accident that the liberalization of markets and the celebration of market competition in recent years have produced incredible centralization of capital.

(…)

This structural dynamic would not have the importance it does were it not for the fact that capitalists actively cultivate monopoly powers. They thereby realize far-reaching control over production and marketing, and hence stabilize their business environment to allow for rational calculation and long-term planning, the reduction of risk and uncertainty, and more generally guarantee themselves a relatively peaceful and untroubled existence.

(…)

Market processes crucially depend upon the individual monopoly of capitalists (of all sorts) over ownership of the means of production, including finance and land. All rent, recall, is a return to the monopoly power of private ownership of some crucial asset, such as land or a patent. The monopoly power of private property is therefore both the beginning-point and the end-point of all capitalist activity.

(…)

Pure market competition, free commodity exchange, and perfect market rationality are therefore rather rare and chronically unstable devices for coordinating production and consumption decisions.” (92-4)

However, for Harvey, the left often makes the mistake of associating monopoly rent with large corporations. If location can be a source of monopoly rent, then, small business may very well have a local monopoly out of which they extract rent. Such a monopoly then would be challenged by the opening of the local market to foreign corporations. Here again, the nostalgia for the local, rooted, small business is misplaced.

“In the nineteenth century, for example, the brewer, the baker, and the candlestick maker were all protected to considerable degree from competition in local markets by the high cost of transportation. Local monopoly powers were omnipresent (even though firms were small in size), and very hard to break, in everything from energy to food supply. By this measure, small-scale nineteenth-century capitalism was far less competitive than now. It is at this point that the changing conditions of transport and communications enter in as crucial determining variables. As spatial barriers diminished through the capitalist penchant for “the annihilation of space through time,” many local industries and services lost their local protections and monopoly privileges.” (94)

No doubt though, that these locally-based monopolies were the big losers of globalization (as annihilation of time and space). One can then see the concentration of capital and the political neoliberal push for liberalization at the heart of global governance as the current means to regain the means of monopoly rents on a different scale. Another attempt to recompose monopoly privileges may be over culture by adding originality and authenticity in the definition of what can provide monopoly rent. Arts and culture would fall into that category. Harvey goes at some length over the struggle in the field of wine between French and Australian producers over what makes a wine more authentic and unique than other products. As capitalists look for other way to recreate monopoly powers, they will also create discursive constructs to highlight authenticity and exclusivity (“appellation d’origine contrôlée” in the case of wine, references to “terroir”, etc.).

It is in this context that  traditions may be reinvented (as traditions are always invented in the first place) in urban locales, with neighborhood renovation to attract tourists in search of authenticity:

“The most avid globalizers will support local developments that have the potential to yield monopoly rents even if the effect of such support is to produce a local political climate antagonistic to globalization.” (99)

Although that is a fine line to walk as one might want tourists from all over the world to come experience urban local tradition and culture. Sometimes, it might even mean paying tours of slums as happened after the worldwide success of the movie City of God. One could even choose the level of danger to be exposed to. I suspect the success of Slumdog Millionaire might have had a similar effect.

“Urban entrepreneurialism has become important both nationally and internationally in recent decades. By this I mean that pattern of behavior within urban governance that mixes together state powers (local, metropolitan, regional, national, or supranational) with a wide array of organizational forms in civil society (chambers of commerce, unions, churches, educational and research institutions, community groups, NGOs, and so on) and private interests (corporate and individual) to form coalitions to promote or manage urban or regional development of one sort or another.” (100)

In this case, these different actors all look to generate what Harvey calls collective symbolic capital (using Bourdieu’s concept but extending it beyond individuals):

“The collective symbolic capital which attaches to names and places like Paris, Athens, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and Rome is of great import and gives such places great economic advantages relative to, say, Baltimore, Liverpool, Essen, Lille, and Glasgow. The problem for these latter places is to raise their quotient of symbolic capital and to increase their marks of distinction so as to better ground their claims to the uniqueness that yields monopoly rent. The “branding” of cities becomes big business.16 Given the general loss of other monopoly powers through easier transport and communications and the reduction of other barriers to trade, this struggle for collective symbolic capital has become even more important as a basis for monopoly rents. How else can we explain the splash made by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, with its signature Gehry architecture? And how else can we explain the willingness of major financial institutions, with considerable international interests, to finance such a signature project?

The rise to prominence of Barcelona within the European system of cities, to take another example, has in part been based on its steady amassing of symbolic capital and its accumulation of marks of distinction.” (103 – 4)

But Harvey considers that there is, in this process, space for contestation of the logic of capitalism:

“The struggle is on to accumulate marks of distinction and collective symbolic capital in a highly competitive world. But this brings in its wake all of the localized questions about whose collective memory, whose aesthetics, and whose benefits are to be prioritized. Neighborhood movements in Barcelona make claims for recognition and empowerment on the basis of symbolic capital, and can assert a political presence in the city as a result. It is their urban commons that are appropriated all too often not only by developers, but by the tourist trade. But the selective nature of such appropriations can mobilize further new avenues of political struggle.” (105)

But there is also the potential for reactionary nationalism which is equally anti-globalization as some localist movements can be. The risk then is for communities to advocate turning inwards and retreat into imaginary nostalgia and advocate exclusionary politics (see all these movements at work in Europe right now). At the same time, the branding of a city, as that’s what it is, might require the exclusion and evacuation of any category of people that does not fit with the new local environment (see the cleaning up of the slums in Rio in anticipation of the Olympic Games, or as was done in Beijing, the muzzling of political opponents during the same events, and London might not have enough security forces to ensure perfect conformity with the branding). And in all cases, all actors have to navigate the double risk of too much commercialization or too much specificity that is no longer tradable. But for Harvey, this is where there is a weapon for class struggle (which can swing both ways).

“But monopoly rent is a contradictory form. The search for it leads global capital to value distinctive local initiatives—indeed, in certain respects, the more distinctive and, in these times, the more transgressive the initiative, the better. It also leads to the valuation of uniqueness, authenticity, particularity, originality, and all manner of other dimensions to social life that are inconsistent with the homogeneity presupposed by commodity production. And if capital is not to totally destroy the uniqueness that is the basis for the appropriation of monopoly rents (and there are many circumstances where it has done just that and been roundly condemned for so doing), then it must support a form of differentiation and allow of divergent and to some degree uncontrollable local cultural developments that can be antagonistic to its own smooth functioning. It can even support (though cautiously and often nervously) transgressive cultural practices precisely because this is one way in which to be original, creative, and authentic, as well as unique.

It is within such spaces that oppositional movements can form, even presupposing, as is often the case, that oppositional movements are not already firmly entrenched there. The problem for capital is to find ways to co-opt, subsume, commodify, and monetize such cultural differences and cultural commons just enough to be able to appropriate monopoly rents from them. In so doing, capital often produces widespread alienation and resentment among the cultural producers who experience first-hand the appropriation and exploitation of their creativity and their political commitments for the economic benefit of others, in much the same way that whole populations can resent having their histories and cultures exploited through commodification. The problem for oppositional movements is to speak to this widespread appropriation of their cultural commons and to use the validation of particularity, uniqueness, authenticity, culture, and aesthetic meanings in ways that open up new possibilities and alternatives.” (109 – 10)

But again, the warning against local, traditionalist fetishism:

“This does not mean that attachment to “pure” values of authenticity, originality, and an aesthetic of particularity of culture is an adequate foundation for a progressive oppositional politics. It can all too easily veer into local, regional, or nationalist identity politics of the neofascist sort, of which there are already far too many troubling signs throughout much of Europe, as well as elsewhere.” (111)

So, it is important to never forget that a great deal of what capitalists do is to look for ways to recompose monopoly privileges out of which they can extract monopoly rents. There is a lot that makes sense right now if one keeps this basic principle in mind.

Or, as Lambert Strether would say, “it’s all about the rents.”

The Visual Du Jour – The Amazon Model of Accumulation By Dispossession

David Harvey defines capitalism as accumulation by dispossession. The idea that accumulation is obtained through the raiding and exploiting of someone else’s resources and labor. I think the Amazon model fits the bill quite nicely (via):

Note that the dispossession occurs at several levels.

This is also a example of what Saskia Sassen calls savage sorting.

This is brutal.

Men Making Decisions About Women – A Visual

So, first, we had this:

And now, we have this (H/T: Isabelle Germain on Twitter):

The context for this last one is this:

“The IFAB agreed to unanimously approve – temporarily during a trial period – the wearing of headscarves. The design, colour and material permitted will be defined and confirmed following the IFAB Annual Business Meeting in Glasgow in October.”

As the article in Nouvelles / News notes, the issue was brought to FIFA by other men to keep women veiled on the pitch even though this goes against FIFA regulations that equipment should be free of political, religious or personal elements. For the women, it was a lose-lose situation: veil or censorship. As Isabelle Germain notes, so much for the universal values of sports and women’s rights. This introduces a form of inequality between female players and it puts Muslim players who wouldn’t otherwise wear the veil in a precarious position. It also implicitly endorses a sexist religious symbols that stigmatizes women’s bodies.

And on this subject, I disagree with Laurent Dubois (who is otherwise one of my favorites sports social scientists… y’all should subscribe to his blog) especially on the example he chose to illustrate the point that the hijab should be ok on the pitch. The situation of a player in Quebec or Canada is not the same that of Asian or Middle Eastern players who may face real threats on the issue of the veil. Dubois also criticizes the French Football Federation for jumping in after the FIFA decision and indicating that, in the name of secularism, veils would not be allowed in competitions held on French soil (which goes along with the whole veil policy in France, which, for the record, I supported).

Of course, I am divided on this. I want as many female football players as possible, from all over the world. Women in sport is good for women and girls, and it is good for society. And I understand very well that, for women in certain parts of the world, no veil means no game. And this is what happens at the convergence of multiple patriarchal institutions where, in the end, older men get to decide on what women can do with their bodies. The result will always be bad for women.

Also, please, can I be spared the “what if women choose to be veiled?” argument? That does not change the inherent meaning of the veil. Why do you think that Jordan Prince wants women veiled? To support their choice to be so? Not really. This decision is NOT about women’s choices (which is why I think Dubois’s example is not good here), it is about caving in by one patriarchal group to the demand of another patriarchal group and individual.

The Visual Du Jour – Promises, Promises

Via Good, this famine relief infographic from One (click on the image for ginormous view):

In these kinds of graphic comparisons, it is usually more helpful to compare percentages rather than just numerical values since countries are not equal in terms of size (population, GDP). So, it would be better to have the amount of aid calculated as percentage of the GDP or GDP per capital. Otherwise, it could be a bit misleading.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to see who’s keeping their promise and who isn’t (the countries in recessionary hole, basically).

Revisiting The Cultural Omnivores

Back in January, I reviewed Philippe Couleangeon’s book on the metamorphoses of distinction, a book in which he examines the changes in the concept of cultural capital and distinction in the context of mass education and multiculturalism. In the review, I noted,

“Regarding this configuration of the meaning of cultural legitimacy, Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphore of the omnivore, as opposed to the parochial working classes, univores. Therefore, cultural stratification would now look like an inverted pyramid where the upper classes are characterized by the diversity of their cultural repertoires and the lower classes by their limited ones. The definition of the cultural omnivore covers both quantity and quality (greater practice across a more varied repertoire that includes both high and mass cultural products, with a global / cosmopolitan outlook). Here again, of course, one should note that such eclecticism is facilitated by economic resources.

However, this does not mean that there is absolutely no exclusionary element to this eclecticism. Certain popular genres are still excluded (such as hip hop or heavy metal) from this more diversified repertoire that is defined more by its aversion to certain products and practices, than by its inclusion. Therefore, another distinction in cultural capital is between the active aversion of upper classes for certain practices and products as opposed to the passive ignorance of popular classes of the more traditional high culture. The lines of exclusion may have shifted but they are still present.

Coulangeon also associates this cultural eclecticism of the dominant classes to contemporary management practices, based on human capital and diversity, and in which some sort of multicultural communicative capital may be useful. But it is also connected to globalization as the cultural (and economic and political and social) elites have become more globalized (the transnational capitalist class, in all its components). Therefore, the possession of such multicultural capital is clear class marker as it reflects exposure to, and possession of, the cultural resources of globalization. This is where the profits of distinction now are located, and no longer in the classical humanities. And the acquisition of such multicultural capital is built through world travel, exchange and therefore a symbolic and material domination of space, beyond the “old” forms of distinction and cultural capital, more marked by a domination of time.

So, where does this leave us? It is rather clear that we should no bury the cultural dimension of class too quickly. This symbolic dominance attached to cultural capital is alive and well, but in reconfigured dimensions that take into account greater access to higher education, globalization, a decline in the traditional prestige of education as social institution, and the rise of new forms of cultural legitimacy, no less symbolically violent than their predecessors.”

Today, in a New York Times column, Shamus Khan produces a similar argument regarding elitism:

“Omnivorousness is part of a much broader trend in the behavior of our elite, one that embraces diversity. Barriers that were once a mainstay of elite cultural and educational institutions have been demolished. Gone are the quotas that kept Jews out of elite high schools and colleges; inclusion is now the norm. Diverse and populist programming is a mainstay of every museum. Elites seem more likely to confront snobbish exclusion than they are to embrace it.”

Khan notes the new character of this development in the context of rising cosmopolitan individualism and self-cultivation (the self as individual project, a theme upon which I have touched many times). In the process, the class-based nature of cultural is nicely made to disappear:

“Whereas the old elites used their culture to make explicit the differences between themselves and the rest, if you were to talk to members of the elite today, many would tell you that their culture is simply an expression of their open-minded, creative, ready-to-pounce-on-any-opportunity ethic. Others would object to the idea that they were part of an elite in the first place.”

And Khan makes a point similar to Couleangeon’s mixed with some culture of poverty-as-justification:

“Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like, the omnivore likes what he likes because it is an expression of a distinct self. Perhaps liking a range of things explains why elites are elite, and not the other way around.

By contrast, those who have exclusive tastes today — middle-class and poorer Americans — are subject to disdain. If the world is open and you don’t take advantage of it, then you’re simply limited and closed-minded. Perhaps it’s these attributes that explain your incapacity to succeed.

And so if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation. Their rhetoric emphasizes such individualism and the talents required to “make it.” Yet there is something pernicious about this self-presentation. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience. Talents are costly to develop, and we refuse to socialize these costs. To be an outstanding student requires not just smarts and dedication but a well-supported school, a safe, comfortable home and leisure time to cultivate the self. These are not widely available. When some students struggle, they can later tell the story of their triumph over adversity, often without mentioning the helping hand of a tutor. Other students simply fail without such expensive aids.”

And cultural openness becomes another tool for symbolic violence and a justification for social inequalities as reflection personal defects rather than products of class dynamics that are hidden and the Khan neatly highlights:

“Look at who makes up the most “talented” members of society: the children of the already advantaged. Today America has less intergenerational economic mobility than almost any country in the industrialized world; one of the best predictors of being a member of the elite today is whether your parents were in the elite. The elite story about the triumph of the omnivorous individual with diverse talents is a myth. In suggesting that it is their work and not their wealth, that it is their talents and not their lineage, elites effectively blame inequality on those whom our democratic promise has failed.

Elites today must recognize that they are very much like the Gilded Age elites of old. Paradoxically the very openness and capaciousness that they so warmly embrace — their omnivorousness — helps define them as culturally different from the rest. And they deploy that cultural difference to suggest that the inequality and immobility in our society is deserved rather than inherited. But if they can recognize the class basis of their success, then perhaps they will also recognize their class responsibility. They owe a debt to others for their fortunes, and seeing this may also help elites realize that the poor are ruled by a similar dynamic: their present position is most often bound to a history not of their own choosing or responsibility.”

Welcome to the world of the cosmopolitan ethics and the spirit of 21st century capitalism.

Read the whole column, it’s great.

The Visual Du Jour – Twitter Traffic and Students Social Movement in Quebec

Via Fabien Deglise – where else? – on Twitter, in French (bien sur), this visualization from Radio Canada (click on the image for a larger view):

On the left are the hashtags and names / users that generated the most traffic through Twitter. The red spikes at the bottom reflect the volume correlated with specific events in meatware (demonstrations). Every dot is a tweet and the clusters reflect common themes and topics such as “statements from political parties”, “positive comments on the demonstrations” (you can figure them out even if you don’t read French). The whole thing must be read from left to right, that is, as things unfolded chronologically.

The whole thing creates a mapping and networking of the social movement and its relations to physical events as well as other factors happening outside of the web (speeches, statements). No digital dualism here. There are strong correlations between what happens on the streets and in physical reality and on the web.

David Harvey on The Fetishism of the Local and Horizontal

In chapter 3 of Rebel Cities, David Harvey discusses the commons in the context of the right to the city for marginalized populations. In the process, he challenges the left for its fetishism of the local (a pet peeve of mine) and the horizontal (the deliberate absence of hierarchy, much cherished, for instance, by the Occupy movement) as he reviews Elinor Ostrom‘s arguments on the tragedy of the commons.

“The city is the site where people of all sorts and classes mingle, however reluctantly and agonistically, to produce a common if perpetually changing and transitory life. The commonality of that life has long been a matter of commentary by urbanists of all stripes, and the compelling subject of a wide range of evocative writings and representations (in novels, films, painting, videos, and the like) that attempt to pin down the character of that life (or the particular character of life in a particular city in a given place and time) and its deeper meanings. And in the long history of urban utopianism, we have a record of all manner of human aspirations to make the city in a different image, more “after our heart’s desire” as Park would put it. The recent revival of emphasis upon the supposed loss of urban commonalities reflects the seemingly profound impacts of the recent wave of privatizations, enclosures, spatial controls, policing, and surveillance upon the qualities of urban life in general, and in particular upon the potentiality to build or inhibit new forms of social relations (a new commons) within an urban process influenced if not dominated by capitalist class interests.” (67)

For instance, as she debunks arguments in favor of privatization and enclosure as a response to the tragedy of the commons (the orthodox view), the counter-examples she uses always involve relatively small-scale solutions and projects. How does one scale the argument for megalopolis? For Harvey, no one has provided adequate arguments for this:

“This implies that nested, and therefore in some sense “hierarchical” forms of organization are needed to address large-scale problems such as global warming. Unfortunately the term “hierarchy” is anathema in conventional thinking (Ostrom avoids it), and virulently unpopular with much of the left these days. The only politically correct form of organization in many radical circles is non-state, non-hierarchical, and horizontal. To avoid the implication that some sorts of nested hierarchical arrangements might be necessary, the question of how to manage the commons at large as opposed to small and local scales (for example, the global population problem that was Hardin’s concern) tends to be evaded. There is, clearly, an analytically difficult “scale problem” at work here that needs (but does not receive) careful evaluation. The possibilities for sensible management of common property resources that exist at one scale (such as shared water rights between one hundred farmers in a small river basin) do not and cannot carry over to problems such as global warming, or even to the regional diffusion of acid deposition from power stations. As we “jump scales” (as geographers like to put it), so the whole nature of the commons problem and the prospects of finding a solution change dramatically. What looks like a good way to resolve problems at one scale does not hold at another scale. Even worse, patently good solutions at one scale (the “local,” say) do not necessarily aggregate up (or cascade down) to make for good solutions at another scale (the global, for example). This is why Hardin’s metaphor is so misleading: he uses a small-scale example of private capital operating on a common pasture to explicate a global problem, as if there is no problem whatsoever in shifting scales. This is also, incidentally, why the valuable lessons gained from the collective organization of small-scale solidarity economies along common-property lines cannot translate into global solutions without resort to “nested” and therefore hierarchical organizational forms. Unfortunately, as already noted, the idea of hierarchy is anathema to many segments of the oppositional left these days. A fetishism of organizational preference (pure horizontality, for example) all too often stands in the way of exploring appropriate and effective solutions. Just to be clear, I am not saying horizontality is bad—indeed, I think it an excellent objective—but that we should acknowledge its limits as a hegemonic organizational principle, and be prepared to go far beyond it when necessary.

(…)

In the grander scheme of things (and particularly at the global level), some sort of enclosure is often the best way to preserve certain kinds of valued commons. That sounds like, and is, a contradictory statement, but it reflects a truly contradictory situation. It will take a draconian act of enclosure in Amazonia, for example, to protect both biodiversity and the cultures of indigenous populations as part of our global natural and cultural commons. It will almost certainly require state authority to protect those commons against the philistine democracy of short-term moneyed interests ravaging the land with soy bean plantations and cattle ranching. So not all forms of enclosure can be dismissed as bad by definition. The production and enclosure of non-commodified spaces in a ruthlessly commodifying world is surely a good thing.

(…)

The idea of protecting the commons through enclosures is not always easily broached, however, when it needs to be actively explored as an anti-capitalist strategy. In fact a common demand on the left for “local autonomy” is actually a demand for some kind of enclosure.” (68 – 70)

Part of the issue, for Harvey, also has to do with a conceptual confusion between public goods / public spaces on the one hand and commons on the other.

“Public spaces and public goods in the city have always been a matter of state power and public administration, and such spaces and goods do not necessarily a commons make. Throughout the history of urbanization, the provision of public spaces and public goods (such as sanitation, public health, education, and the like) by either public or private means has been crucial for capitalist development. To the degree that cities have been sites of vigorous class conflicts and struggles, so urban administrations have often been forced to supply public goods (such as affordable public housing, health care, education, paved streets, sanitation, and water) to an urbanized working class.

(…)

Syntagma Square in Athens, Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the Plaza de Catalunya in Barcelona were public spaces that became an urban commons as people assembled there to express their political views and make demands. The street is a public space that has historically often been transformed by social action into the common of revolutionary movement, as well as into a site of bloody suppression. There is always a struggle over how the production of and access to public space and public goods is to be regulated, by whom, and in whose interests. The struggle to appropriate the public spaces and public goods in the city for a common purpose is ongoing. But in order to protect the common it is often vital to protect the flow of public goods that underpin the qualities of the common. As neoliberal politics diminishes the financing of public goods, so it diminishes the available common, forcing social groups to find other ways to support that common (education, for example).

(…)

The common is not to be construed, therefore, as a particular kind of thing, asset or even social process, but as an unstable and malleable social relation between a particular self-defined social group and those aspects of its actually existing or yet-to-be-created social and/or physical environment deemed crucial to its life and livelihood.” (72 – 3)

The process of “commoning” (as Harvey puts it) then consists in the extraction of this relation from market mechanisms and valuation. But as it stands, commons are constantly being enclosed and reintegrated with markets, commodified and monetized by private interests.

How does this relate to the right to the city?

“The struggle for the right to the city is against the powers of capital that ruthlessly feed upon and extract rents from the common life that others have produced. This reminds us that the real problem lies with the private character of property rights and the power these rights confer to appropriate not only the labor but also the collective products of others. Put another way, the problem is not the common per se, but the relations between those who produce or capture it at a variety of scales and those who appropriate it for private gain. Much of the corruption that attaches to urban politics relates to how public investments are allocated to produce something that looks like a common but which promotes gains in private asset values for privileged property owners. The distinction between urban public goods and urban commons is both fluid and dangerously porous. How often are developmental projects subsidized by the state in the name of the common interest when the true beneficiaries are a few landholders, financiers, and developers?” (78)

By definition, capitalist urbanization destroys the commons by raiding and appropriating them through predatory practices.

And again, for Harvey, the problem is that the left only offer local fetishism as alternative.

“Traditionally, questions of the commons at the metropolitan level have been handled through mechanisms of state regional and urban planning, in recognition of the fact that the common resources required for urban populations to function effectively, such as water provision, transportation, sewage disposal, and open space for recreation, have to be provided at a metropolitan, regional scale. But when it comes to bundling together issues of this kind, left-analysis typically becomes vague, gesturing hopefully towards some magical concordance of local actions that will be effective at a regional or global level, or simply noting this as an important problem before moving back to that scale—usually the micro and the local—at which they feel most comfortable.” (80)

Why is this problematic?

“Decentralization and autonomy are primary vehicles for producing greater inequality through neoliberalization. Thus, in New York State, the unequal provision of public education services across jurisdictions with radically different financial resources has been deemed by the courts as unconstitutional, and the state is under court order to move towards greater equalization of educational provision. It has failed to do so, and now uses the fiscal emergency as a further excuse to delay action. But note well, it is the higher-order and hierarchically determined mandate of the state courts that is crucial in mandating greater equality of treatment as a constitutional right.

(…)

How can radical decentralization—surely a worthwhile objective—work without constituting some higher-order hierarchical authority? It is simply naïve to believe that polycentrism or any other form of decentralization can work without strong hierarchical constraints and active enforcement. Much of the radical left—particularly of an anarchist and autonomist persuasion—has no answer to this problem. State interventions (to say nothing of state enforcement and policing) are unacceptable, and the legitimacy of bourgeois constitutionality is generally denied. Instead there is the vague and naïve hope that social groups who have organized their relations to their local commons satisfactorily will do the right thing or converge upon some satisfactory inter-group practices through negotiation and interaction. For this to occur, local groups would have to be untroubled by any externality effects that their actions might have on the rest of the world, and to give up accrued advantages, democratically distributed within the social group, in order to rescue or supplement the well-being of near (let alone distant) others, who as a result of either bad decisions or misfortune have fallen into a state of starvation and misery. History provides us with very little evidence that such redistributions can work on anything other than an occasional or one-off basis. There is, therefore, nothing whatsoever to prevent escalating social inequalities between communities. This accords all too well with the neoliberal project of not only protecting but further privileging structures of class power.” (83 – 4)

There is urgency though, for Harvey, in the process of commoning and in finding solutions to the scale problem because of the culmination of thirty years of neoliberal assault that resulted in a crisis that is triggering more raiding and dispossession.

“Capital has long preferred to treat the costs of social reproduction as an externality—a cost for which it bears no market responsibility—but the social-democratic movement and the active threat of a communist alternative forced capital to internalize some of those costs, along with some of the externality costs attributable to environmental degradation, up until the 1970s in the advanced capitalist world. The aim of neoliberal policies since 1980 or so has been to dump these costs into the global commons of social reproduction and the environment, creating, as it were, a negative commons in which whole populations are forced now to dwell. Questions of social reproduction, gender, and the commons are interlinked.

The response on the part of capital to the global crisis conditions after 2007 has been to implement a draconian global austerity plan that diminishes the supply of public goods to support both social reproduction and environmental amelioration, thereby diminishing the qualities of the commons in both instances. It has also used the crisis to facilitate even more predatory activity in the private appropriation of the commons as a necessary precondition for the revival of growth.

(…)

From California to Greece, the crisis produced losses in urban asset values, rights, and entitlements for the mass of the population, coupled with the extension of predatory capitalist power over low-income and hitherto marginalized populations. It was, in short, a wholesale attack upon the reproductive and environmental commons. Living on less than $2 a day, a global population of more than 2 billion or so is now being taken in by microfinance as the “subprime of all subprime forms of lending,” so as to extract wealth from them (as happened in US housing markets through sub-prime predatory lending followed by foreclosures) to gild the MacMansions of the rich. The environmental commons are no less threatened, while the proposed answers (such as carbon trading and new environmental technologies) merely propose that we seek to exit the impasse using the same tools of capital accumulation and speculative market exchange that got us into the difficulties in the first place. It is unsurprising, therefore, not only that the poor are still with us, but that their numbers grow rather than diminish over time. While India has been racking up a respectable record of growth throughout this crisis, for example, the number of billionaires has leapt from 26 to 69 in the last three years, while the number of slum-dwellers has nearly doubled over the last decade. The urban impacts are quite stunning, as luxurious air-conditioned condominiums arise in the midst of uncared-for urban squalor, out of which impoverished people struggle mightily to make some sort of acceptable existence for themselves.” (84 – 5)

So, the solutions are going to have to be hierarchical to some extent and avoid the local fetishism I have been railing against before, whether it is called localism, local democracy or resilient communities (which looks often like right-wing survivalism to me).

For Harvey, time for new commons.

“The political recognition that the commons can be produced, protected, and used for social benefit becomes a framework for resisting capitalist power and rethinking the politics of an anti-capitalist transition.” (86)

The Fancy Concept Du Jour – Cascading Network Activation

Thank Manuel Castells for that one (adapted from Entman, 2004:10):

So what does this mean, exactly? This diagram was used to illustrate the way influence is exercised in society, what Castells calls a hierarchy of influence because not all players have the same ability to set the agenda, prime the public, frame issues and index them. Actually, these four processes (agenda-setting, priming, framing, and indexing) are the main mechanisms through which influence is exercised.

In the diagram, Castells was using the example of the shaping of opinion in the running up to the war in Iraq where the public opinion was fed a daily dose of untruths cascading downwards from the administration. Many people continue to this day to believe some of these lies even though they have been since thoroughly debunked. The full arrows mark the cascading hierarchy, with the administration setting the agenda. Other elites (such as other foreign governments or the UN and other such international fora) contribute to priming the agenda (something also done by the media). Priming refers to the process of creating determined associations in people’s minds between element of the agenda the administration wants to push and certain benchmarks or standards through which events or actions by leaders will be evaluated. Like priming a pump, the public has to be primed to think in certain ways about certain issues. Associated with this is the more familiar process of framing, that is, of selecting and highlighting elements of events, connecting them into a coherent narrative that supports the set agenda.  And finally, the process of indexing that is, how actors in the media rank the importance of issues based on governments statements.

The dotted arrows mark the potential for resistance against this hierarchy of influence. For instance, the public can resist the framing done by the media by either selecting other media (such as watching the BBC or Al-Jazeera in English coverage of specific events like the assassination of Osama bin Laden or the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya) or “talk back” to the media through social networking platforms such as Twitter. Other elites can also resist the agenda-setting of the administration (as a few governments did before Operation Iraqi Freedom… remember the Freedom Fries).

Nevertheless, as Castells argues, frame dominance (usually by whichever entity is at the top of the cascade) is the norm and frame parity (the successful challenge of a dominant frame by less powerful groups) is the exception.

As Castells puts it:

“Activation at each level of the cascade depends on how much information is communicated in a particular set of framings. What passes from one level to another is based on selective understanding. Motivations play a key role in effectiveness of framing at each level of the cascade. Participants in the process of communication are cognitive misers who will select information on the basis of the habits. (…) Elites select the frames that advance their political careers. Media professionals select the news that can be most appealing to audiences without risking retaliation from powerful players. People tend to avoid emotional dissonance, thus they look for media that support their views. For instance, when people try to escape the cascading process in one media system because of their disagreement with the frames, they search for online news from foreign sources. (…) The global network of news media offers the public an alternative when framing in one particular media context fails to win acceptance or subdue resistance. Indeed, media framing is not an irresistible determination of people’s perceptions and behavior.” (Communication Power, 164 – 5)

Book Review – Amped

I have probably already mentioned that I am always on the lookout for some new materials to make my introduction to sociology classes more fun and interesting, without sacrificing the content. And, I still live by the mantra the good science-fiction is good sociology. Good science-fiction is always a reflection of our societal fears and anxiety, often related to the side effects of technological advancements and their impact on behavior, social relations, social institutions, etc.

It is with that in mind that I started reading Amped, by Daniel H. Wilson because I was really interested in the premise: in a really not too distant future, technology allows the curing and fixing of many medical (or non-medical) conditions through implantation of technology to the brain (or other body parts) that corrects malfunctions and allow people to function better mentally and physically. This creates a new category of individuals – amped – that have extra skills and abilities. Needless to say, with a premise like that, the potential for sociological analysis seemed really great and I looked forward to adding it to my scifi reading list for sociology students. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case.

The main problem is that even though a lot of sociological concepts are indeed applicable to Amped (discrimination – individual and institutional -, segregation, prejudice, structural violence, in-group / out-group dynamics, etc.) and the story is interspersed with extra-narrative features like Supreme Court rulings (that basically deprive Amps of legal existence), political speeches and newspaper articles, there just isn’t enough content there. Once one is past the introductory chapters, it is basically nothing but fight scenes.

And that is a another major issue: there is only ONE (count ’em: one) female character (Lucy, as poor Samantha commits suicide in the opening chapter) and her justification for being in the book is not that she is a character in her own rights but that she reminds other male characters of their humanity. Her role only exists in relations to male characters (Lyle, Owen, Nick), as sister, love interest (who also washes his clothes) and mother. If there were a Bechtel test for books, this one would definitely not pass it.

And the most disappointing aspect of the book (and the reason why it lacks content that I can actually use) is that very quickly, anything the implanted devices can do is reduced to creating super soldiers (hence, the whole fighting thing) and we are repeatedly treated of development of the ways the implants turns one ordinary teacher (the main character) into a super-soldier, fighting other super-soldiers. So, it’s all fight – fight – fight – escape – fight – fight – fight – escape (from super secure facility but it’s a piece of cake for a super soldier) – fight – fight – escape for real – the end.

It is a shame really, because there could have been so much more depth and societal exploration without detracting from a good story (the way China Mieville does it, for instance or the way it is done in David Brin’s Kiln People).

So, I am sorry to say that I will not be using this one in my sociology class. There just isn’t enough there.

Richard Sennett on Public Issues as Personal Problem

In the Guardian, as part of the “graduate without a future” series:

“But at a personal level, what should a kid do? One answer I’ve explored with my students is emigration. There are in fact plenty of jobs for British graduates in the Far East and in Latin America, where British degrees are in demand. As always, emigration carries a high personal human cost – loss of connection with family and friends, the risk that life may move on and you may not be able to return. Since I teach a rarified subject – social theory – I put the issue to my own students like this: do you care so much about your work that you would abandon home? Increasingly, many are willing.

A less drastic answer involves dealing with “flexible” labour markets – “flexible” means short-term work with no job security and few prospects for advancement; if the current government has its way and employers are able to fire on a whim, labour will become even more flexible on these terms. One way my students deal with this is to make unstable day jobs tolerable by night work of a more sustained, personally meaningful kind, like writing a book or doing voluntary service. This, however, is a solution only for highly motivated, inner-driven kids, and it requires a thick psychological hide; daytime stress, insecurity and depression can dislodge the night anchor.

Our masters celebrate the entrepreneur, and for a few of my students the startup is an option so long as they do not fear failure. About 60% of small businesses fail in their first year, and 76%-80% in three years, principally for lack of capital. I’ve students of Kant who have set up a co-operative food network, and a Hegel student who has organised a lesbian dating service (what would The Master say?); better, they think, to fail than to regret – but this is no long-term recipe for a whole generation. What galls me about the current situation is that a structural problem of capitalism has been dumped into the lives of young people as their personal problem; even though emigration, the night anchor, and the startup can help some, the system remains intact.”

What he describes here is a trend he himself, along with Zygmunt Bauman, have analyzed for the past 20 years: the idea that system creates contradictions and conundra that have to be solved by individuals with no social assistance. No more salvation by society. Be your own entrepreneur, uproot and leave, or embrace the flexible and thoroughly precarized lifestyle. Of course, one can try any of these (although they do take a bit of social privilege to start with, in terms of economic, social or cultural capital; the underprivileged are already fully precarized with no access to capital to start a business, no means of easy – and legal – emigration). These solutions are the individualized decisions to be made when one lives in the risk society. One is one’s own business project.

To extend on Sennett’s points, I think precarized individualization is what is really going on with the “I’m busy” trend from the privileged corners that has been much discussed after the publication of this article:

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

Being busy and keeping busy, besides being a puritan injunction against shiftlessness, has more to do with continuously working on one’s own self-project (and continuous improvement is a corporate mantra foisted upon a lot of organizations, public and private, as a way of increasing administrative bloat and control as well as shaking the system permanently and generating greater insecurity).

While you’re not busy, someone might be getting a new certificate in the latest social networking platform or ICT. And the more insecure and precarized life is, the busier one must look (without looking tired, hence the increase in plastic surgery for the corporate class, men and women). And as the article mentions, keeping busy is applied to children as well. One has to fill resumes with truckloads of extra-curricular activities, especially now that one might compete with a lot of other students with similar degrees.

And since one must always make a virtue of a necessity, the busyness of Americans is heralded as a mark of superiority over countries with more paid vacations (even less vacation does not translate into greater productivity).

To claim to be busy then is a claim that one is constantly working on oneself as productive project.

Back to Sennett, what solutions does he advocate?

  • Job-sharing
  • Apprenticeships (real ones, not the ever-expanding unpaid internships)… real ones
  • Getting rid of the idea (and practice) that universities should be just vocational centers (a pet peeve of mine):

“Perhaps surprisingly in this regard, I’d like to see universities stop preparing young people for the work world, at least as they now attempt to do. Part of the problem is misplaced specificity: if you have a BA in hotel catering management and there are no jobs for hotel caterers you are, as it were, in the soup. Moreover, universities have expanded massively the numbers of students taking supposedly practical courses, making the problem of scarcity only worse; this year in Britain thousands of students will graduate with MBA’s to then compete for a relatively scant number of jobs. We would do much better to provide young people with intellectual challenge and depth – which is what universities are properly about. The number of jobs would not thereby increase; the integrity of the academic enterprise would.”

A-bloody-men to that.

Of course, this is not the direction of the increasingly corporate-driven higher education where there is a growing “get them in and out quickly with a certificate” trend, thanks to the growing ranks of administrators with no understanding of education.

And this:

“If young people today prove a lost generation, it is only because government, business and academia have failed them. There are remedies to prevent this failure, but Britain has radically to revise its beliefs and labour practices to take this medicine. So far, instead, we’ve made finding one’s place in the work world a personal problem.”

And one that they are expected to solve on their own, in the name of personal responsibility.

The Visual Du Jour – The Surveillance Society as Public / Private Partnership

If you are a government and you need data on people you’t don’t like, like Twitter users related to dissident groups, you ask or you go to Court:

And check out who the big information requesting states are… Yup.

It is also important to remember Evgeny Morozov’s warning that states are pretty good at using social media and the data they can derive from them for repressive purposes. They are not clueless about social media.