Exploring Social Mobility Through Visualizations

Ok, so, I am getting towards the end of my MOOC and for our last project, we were asked to come up with our own idea and topics and think about how to visualize them and basically have these visualizations tell a story. Since I had just received my brand new copy of the Economic Policy Institute‘s State of Working America (one of my favorite sources of socio-economic data on the American society from one of my favorite US think tank), I decided to dive in and see if I could find something that interested me and that I could explore more in details.

I found this (click here or on the image for a much larger view):

So, ok, no surprise here, Scandinavian countries have higher social mobility than the US, UK and a few other countries, with continental Europe and Oceanic countries somewhere in the middle. Then, I decided to look a bit more in details in the data to see if I could detect more precise information. I found this interesting thing (click here or on the image for larger view):

Hmm, a gender aspect to this. So, that is the angle I decided to pursue by correlating a series of gender-related variables (such as education spending on tertiary education or gender enrollment in tertiary education) to the mobility coefficient, with a series of scatterplots. I did it in Tableau, then transferred the results into a Piktochart infographic (definitely click here or on the image for a larger view):

As you can see, some variables worked better than others and produced stronger correlations. Social mobility is, of course, a complex and multi-layered issue, so, one would have to chase down more variables to correlate and maybe run a few regressions and other statistical tests, but I thought this was an intriguing gender pattern.

So, as far as software, I processed all the data and correlation coefficients through a Calc spreadsheet in OpenOffice. I constructed the scatterplots in Tableau. And I did some stuff with Simple Diagrams again.

For the scatterplots, I went looking for data at the World Bank and OECD websites where you can download databases on pretty much every topic under the sun.

I’ll have a general reflection post on this MOOC experience when it’s over next week.


Where the colonial masters are financial giant groups, assisted by the means of Western states acting against debt colonies:

“Colonialism is back. Well, at least according to leading politicians of the two most famous debtor nations. Commenting on the EU’s inability to deliver its end of the bargain despite the savage spending cuts Greece had delivered, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the opposition Syriza party, said last week that his country was becoming a “debt colony”. A couple of days later, Hernán Lorenzino, Argentina’s economy minister, used the term “judicial colonialism” to denounce the US court ruling that his country has to pay in full a group of “vulture funds” that had held out from the debt restructuring that followed the country’s 2002 default.

While their language was deliberately incendiary, these two politicians were making extremely important points. Tsipras was asking why most burdens of adjustment for bad loans have to fall on the debtor country and, within them, mostly on its weaker members. And he is right. As they say, it takes two to tango, so those who condemn Greece for imprudent borrowing should also condemn the imprudent lenders that made it possible.

Lorenzino was asking how we can let one court ruling in a foreign country in favour of one small group of creditors (who bought the debt in the secondary market) derail a painfully engineered process of national recovery. The absurdity of this situation becomes clear when we recall that, partly thanks to the default and subsequent debt restructuring, Argentina, expanding at close to 7% per year, has been the fastest growing Latin American economy between 2003 and 2011.

But there is far more at stake here than the national welfares of Greece and Argentina, important though they are. The Greek debt problem has dragged down not just Greece but the whole eurozone, and with it the world economy. Had the Greek debt been quickly reduced to a manageable level through restructuring, the eurozone would be in a much better shape today. In the Argentinian case, we are risking not just an end to Argentina’s recovery but a fresh round of turmoil in the global financial market because of one questionable US court ruling.


Unfortunately, no mechanism like this [bankruptcy] exists for countries, which is what has made sovereign debt crises so difficult to manage. Because they don’t have any legal protection from creditors in times of trouble, countries typically postpone the necessary restructuring of their economies by piling on more debts in the (usually unfulfilled) hope that the situation will somehow resolve itself. This makes the debt problem bigger than necessary.

What’s more, because they cannot officially go bankrupt, countries face a stark choice. Either they default and risk exclusion in the international financial market (although countries can overcome it quickly, as Russia and Malaysia did in the late 1990s) or they have to opt for a de facto default, in which they pretend that they have not defaulted by making full repayments on their existing loans with money borrowed from public bodies, like the International Monetary Fund and the EU, while trying to negotiate debt restructuring.

The problem with this solution is that, in the absence of clear rules, the debt renegotiation process becomes lengthy, and can push the economy into a downward spiral. We have seen this in many Latin American countries in the 1980s, and we are seeing it today in Greece and other eurozone periphery economies.

Meanwhile, the absence of rules equivalent to the protection of wage claims in corporate bankruptcy law means that claims by weaker stakeholders – pensions, unemployment insurance, income supports – are the first to go. This creates social unrest, which then threatens recovery by discouraging investment.”

Also, go spend 10 minutes watching / listening to this.

Cruel and Usual – Enforcing Patriarchal Rule

1. Acid and remarriage:

“Nurbanu divorced her husband of 18 years eight days before he returned and threw acid in her face in Shatkhira in south west Bangladesh. She had originally ended the marriage after she found him with another woman.

“My husband went into hiding. After 10 months he was caught and jailed for a year,” she told The Huffington Post.

Nurbanu’s husband spent 12 months in jail for disfiguring her. He had been on the run for ten months before authorities caught up with him, but after his release his family coerced her into re-marrying him.

“His mother paid for his release on bail,” she said. “She made me sign an affidavit to have him released. She used my sons to convince me to marry him again.”

The acid attack has left the 36-year-old mother with horrific facial injuries. She is now blind and unable to even prepare a meal for herself.

“People would think a husband would take care of a blind wife. But this doesn’t happen,” she said adding that her husband still regularly beats her. “This is how my days go by,” she said.

Nurbanu  is one of thousands of women in Bangladesh who have had acid flung at them by a relative or partner due to domestic arguments, financial woes or even rejected marriage proposals.”

Incidentally, people, this is one of the reasons why conservatives and religious fundamentalists hate welfare systems and any kind of social assistance, not because it breeds dependency, but precisely because it fosters independence, especially for women who then have more options to walk away from a bad marriage even in the absence of professional prospects (hence the opprobrium thrown at single women as the cause of all social problems). Conservatives pay lip service to charity because it allows them to distinguish between those they deem deserving of it, based on their own “moral” criteria, and those undeserving. Charity also allows them to attach strings to their charitable deeds (there’s your dependency, right there). Social assistance, in its most powerful form, is either universal (health care, education), or based on economic criteria (income), not “moral” and do not divide the population between the deserving and the undeserving.

And remember, for conservatives, the solution to all social problems is marriage (well, except for gays), even if it has to be done out of necessity, as the case above, or forced down people’s throats:

“Afghan police have arrested two men accused of beheading a teenage girl with a knife in northern Kunduz province, officials say.

Prior to the attack, the girl’s father had rejected a marriage proposal for his daughter.

“Our investigation shows those who killed her were people who wanted to marry her,” police told the BBC.

Earlier this month, four policemen were jailed for 16 years for raping a young woman in the same province.

In the latest incident, the girl, who was about 14 years old, was carrying drinking water from a nearby well to her house in Imam Sahib district when she was attacked on Monday.

“People were harassing the family and asking for her hand. When she refused, they did this to her,” a police official told the BBC.

Senior Afghan officials and local tribal elders said the two suspects were close relatives of the girl.

The father had not wanted his daughter to get married because she was “too small to be engaged”, he was quoted as saying by the Pajhwok news agency.”

Marriage, from this perspective, is a masculine entitlement. The only acceptable discussion is then the terms of acquisition of a bride but always within the context that the groom and his family are entitled to a bride. Refusal is not an option.

Visualizing Unemployment

So, as I may have mentioned before, I am currently taking a MOOC on infographic and data visualization with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, at the University of Miami, taught by the man himself, Alberto Cairo. I will have a full reflection post on the experience once the course is over. For now, I’ll just say that taking this course was the best idea I had this term.

Anyhoo… since I am spending hours on work for this course, I thought I’d share it here, but you guys aren’t allowed to make fun. Heck, I pulled an all-nighter last night, it felt like being back in the good/bad old days of dissertation work!

[Click on all the images for ginormous views]

So, this week’s exercise was based on a post by the Guardian’s Datablog (here) and critically examine the data visualization, then, let our imaginations run wild (ok, maybe not) and come up with some alternative or expansion or whatever on the topic of visualizing unemployment. So, off to downloading data in Calc I went (I use OpenOffice because I’m cool) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to start playing with them. Here is the static version of the Guardian’s interactive map:

From there, I decided that it might be nice to have slightly different callout boxes from each state, different than the one from the Guardian. Especially, I thought state time series would be nice. My second idea, for the US, was to get some data to compare the official unemployment rate (AKA: U3), used above and commonly, to the total unemployment rate (AKA: U6, less well-known). I got the data, went into Tableau and produced this interactive bar chart (embedding does not work).

Here is the static version:

Pretty striking differences.

I then went back to Tableau to get a time series on the contrast between U3 and U6. And here is the static version:

Ok, so, you see where this is going. There are political points to be made here and they are pretty obvious.

So, when I put it all together, this was part 1 of my assignment:

For this one, above, I used what is still one of my favorite software: Simple Diagrams, for the canvas and the placing of the different items. You see the general US map, then a few sample callout boxes by states (and you can see that the unemployment lines look very different), and then my U3 v. U6 comparisons.

Then, for part 2, I decided to go for some international comparisons. I downloaded some more data, back to Calc, back to Tableau and the result was this line graph comparing countries (still no embedding, sorry). The static version looked like this:

From there, I derived three patterns and one country in a class of its own (Germany) and produced the relevant view. Here is one example:

So, I took all my 3 patterns + 1 and put them in an infographic using Piktochart (you really need to click on this one for the truly ginormous view):

And that’s it, folks.

Obviously, I spend so much time on the data processing / data visualization part that I don’t really think about the “story”. Once I’ll have a greater mastery of all the software stuff, it will get easier (and quicker! I’m too old for all-nighters!).

See, the issue is that I was taught statistics before all the fancy software. And even when visualization software came along, it did not seem to matter because graphics were part of research papers, destined to peer-reviewed publications where aesthetics really does not matter. I mean, look up any journal and take a look at the visualizations (if there are any). It’s dry, drab, grey and sad. So, I never learned this stuff. This means that I have to spend way more time than some of my classmates on the visual part and the content part kinda takes a back seat because that is less my priority.

It’s No Longer Just The Sociologists Who Say It Now

It’s “serious” economists! (So, surely, someone will listen)

“But, beyond this, we cannot carry on with a system that allows so much of the national income and wealth to pile up in so few hands. Concerted redistribution of wealth and income has frequently been essential to the long-term survival of capitalism. We are about to learn that lesson again.”

Don’t be so sure. It’s austerity time, no matter how miserable it makes people.

And predictably:

“Greece used to have the lowest suicide rate in Europe. But suicides are rising rapidly, coinciding with Greece’s poor economy and crushing austerity cuts, according to the Greek Reporter. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias has now issued a new report on suicide attempts in response to a request from the Coalition of the Radical Left lawmakers.

The latest figures show that there were 677 suicide attempts in Greece in 2009, 830 in 2010 and 927 in 2011, Press TV reported. Greeks planning suicide now often pick locations near banks, government or tax offices, such as an elderly Greek man in April who shot himself outside parliament. In a suicide note, he said his pensions had been wiped out.”

Book Review – To Free A Family

Sydney Nathans’s To Free A Family: The Journey of Mary Walker was a birthday gift. What a great reading it turned out to be. As the title indicates, the book is about Mary Walker’s struggle to get her children and her mother out of slavery after she herself had escaped it. It took her 17 years. This is a book that perfectly reveals the connections between biography and history, personal troubles and public issues, and the necessity to place individual trajectories and events in their contextual nexus of structure, history and power. In other words, this book beautifully illustrates, deliberately or not, the sociological imagination.

It is first and foremost a very well written, very engaging, work of history (fully sourced and all that stuff), following the fate of Mary Walker, a slave from a prestigious and wealth family from Raleigh, NC. Mary Walker was take to Philadelphia by her owners as they went there annually so that their invalid daughter receive medical treatment. After an argument with her owner and under the threat of being sent from Raleigh to the deep South, and therefore being separated from her family (owned by the Camerons for generations), Mary decided to escape. As the author notes, such threats of separation were often the main motivation for slaves to escape while leaving relatives behind, because they had at least some hope that they might manage later to get them out of bondage.

Once fugitives, escaped slaves had then to use the underground system to obtain cover and protection until they could reach a safe (i.e. free) state… that is, until the passage of the Federal Fugitive slave law.

So, Mary Walker escaped slavery in 1848, was reunited with her children at  the end of the war in 1865 and died in 1872. The book is her story as recomposed through the massive correspondence and diaries of her (mostly) white friends from Philadelphia and Cambridge (MA) for whom she worked and who helped her in her quest to reunite with her family. Mary Walker herself only left behind three letters. So, we learned about her, throughout the book, through other people’s writings. This renders her a a bit of a passive character in her own story as she never really “speaks”, she is mentioned, spoken about, sometimes cited, but more often than not, a third-person character.

In many ways, Mary Walker was fortunate in that right after her escape, she was helped, taken in, and employed by the Lesley family. Peter and Susan Lesley are central characters in the book because it is mostly through their letters that we get to know Mary. It is their extensive correspondence over the years that gives us a sense of who Mary was and their own perception of her. Mary Walker spent many years caring for Susan Lesley’s mother (who happened to be FDR’s great grandmother). It is the Lesleys who will try to organize a buy out of the remaining Walkers still in bondage and it is them who also attempted to set up an escape for Mary Walker’s children and mother (that failed).

What makes the book important, beyond the extremely moving story of Mary Walker, is to be provided with the historical context and legal background necessary to understand the situation of escaped slaves and the risks they were running even in free states. More than that, what the book successfully shows is that people, abolitionists of various degrees, whites and blacks, did not patiently sit on their hands, waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation. Long before the war, there was a tremendous amount of activism, advocacy and agitation in favor of abolition (and the corresponding, often legislatively successful, backlash from slave states).

Of course, everybody is familiar with the Underground Railroad, but this required a tremendous amount of organization, networking, and resources to pull off successfully. And indeed, success was never guaranteed and getting people out of the South could take years, as it did for Mary’s children. And once out of the South, relocation and integration into Northern society was not easy either. The book describes in great details the challenges related to all these aspects and how much persistence it required from all the parties involved.

The elimination of slavery was not Lincoln’s individual gift to the nation. It was the patient and persistent product of the actions of a large number of people who slowly worked to undermine the institution of slavery, through direct action but also publication, activism, lobbying and networking and raise consciousness on this issue. It is the great strength of this book to seamlessly connect one individual story to this web of social change.

Infographic PSA: The Good and The Not-So-Good

So, yes, I’m getting more and more into the infographic and data visualization thing. So, this is a simple and useful worksheet.

(The point is, you still need to go read The Functional Art for more specific ideas. The above is a nice starting point but no more than that)

But take this, for instance:

I think it clearly illustrates a trend and makes a very visual point.

As opposed to this:

The problem here is that the story is not clear. I mean, ok, high poverty states tend to vote for Romney but the pattern is far from clear and unambiguous. This is an interactive map, so, you can play around with different indicators but you end up with the same not-very-clear maps and with no explanation, I am not sure what the point is and what we are supposed to be looking at/for.

That being said, the Guardian Datablog is one of the best around, so, it should be in everyone’s RSS feed.

The Surveillance Society: A Public/Private Partnership of Prudes and Panty-Sniffers

First, the private prudes:

“A BASTION of openness and counterculture, Silicon Valley imagines itself as the un-Chick-fil-A. But its hyper-tolerant facade often masks deeply conservative, outdated norms that digital culture discreetly imposes on billions of technology users worldwide.

What is the vehicle for this new prudishness? Dour, one-dimensional algorithms, the mathematical constructs that automatically determine the limits of what is culturally acceptable.

Consider just a few recent kerfuffles. In early September, The New Yorker found its Facebook page blocked for violating the site’s nudity and sex standards. Its offense: a cartoon of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve’s bared nipples failed Facebook’s decency test.

That’s right — a venerable publication that still spells “re-elect” as “reëlect” is less puritan than a Californian start-up that wants to “make the world more open.”

And fighting obscenity can be good for business. Impermium, a Silicon Valley company that helps Web sites deal with unwanted reader comments, has begun marketing technology that identifies “all kinds of harmful content — such as violence, racism, flagrant profanity, and hate speech — and allows site owners to act on it in real-time, before it reaches readers.” Impermium will police the readers — but who will police Impermium?

Apple, too, has strayed from its iconoclastic roots. When Naomi Wolf’s latest book, “Vagina: A New Biography,” went on sale in its iBooks store, Apple turned “Vagina” into “V****a.” After numerous complaints, Apple restored the title, but who knows how many other books are still affected?


The proliferation of the Autocomplete function on popular Web sites is a case in point. Nominally, all it does is complete your search query — on YouTube, on Google, on Amazon — before you’ve finished typing, using an algorithm to predict what you’re most likely typing. A nifty feature — but it, too, reinforces primness.

How so? Consider George Carlin’s classic comedy routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” See how many of those words would autocomplete on your favorite Web site. In my case, YouTube would autocomplete none. Amazon almost none (it also hates “penis” and “vagina”). Of Carlin’s seven words, Google would autocomplete only “piss.”

Until recently, even the word “bisexual” wouldn’t autocomplete at Google; it’s only this past August that Google, after many complaints, began to autocomplete some, but not all, queries for that term. In 2010, the hacker magazine 2600 published a long blacklist of similar words. While I didn’t verify all 400 of them on Google, a few that I did try — like “swastika” and “Lolita” — failed to autocomplete. Is Nabokov not trending in Mountain View? Alas, these algorithms are not particularly bright: unable to distinguish between Nabokov’s novel and child pornography, they assume you want the latter.

Why won’t tech companies let us freely use terms that already enjoy wide circulation and legitimacy? Do they fashion themselves as our new guardians? Are they too greedy to correct their algorithms’ mistakes?”

Yes and yes.

The public panty-sniffers, as illustrated by the case of Petraeus:

“But what it has blown into is an egregious over-reach of federal law enforcement, and yet another example of the astonishing incompetence of the Attorney General. An AG who thinks “national security” investigations don’t need to be brought to the attention of the president, the congress, or anyone else.

It is, at the end of the day, an extension of the long-running feudbetween the FBI/Justice Department and the CIA that dates back to Watergate, if not further. It was basically Mueller/Holder’s chance to sandbag the CIA director for what is turning out to be nothing more than lousy behavior. And they used every available tool necessary to make sure Petraeus got run (btw, I’m no fan of the general).

“Law enforcement officers conducting a legal search have always been able to pursue evidence of other crimes sitting in “plain view.” Investigators with a warrant to search a house for drugs can seize evidence of another crime, such as bombmaking. But the warrant does not allow them to barge into the house next door.

But what are the comparable boundaries online? Does a warrant to search an e-mail account expose the communications of anyone who exchanged messages with the target?

The scope of the issue is considerable, because the exploding use of e-mail has created a new and potent investigative resource for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement demands for e-mail and other electronic communications from providers such as Google, Comcast and Yahoo are so routine that the companies employ teams of analysts to sort through thousands of requests a month. Very few are turned down.”

And that’s part of the problem, dating back to the bad old days of 9/11 and the broad powers the government demanded from internet service providers in the name of “national security.” Frankly, most of these demands for email and other forms of electronic communications should be turned down barring court-ordered (thus proved) mandates, but the Patriot Act took court-approval out of the ball game.

As it stands now, all law enforcement does is ask and the ISP delivers mounds of data on the user.

“Once Broadwell was identified, FBI agents would have gone to Internet service providers with warrants for access to her accounts. Experts said companies typically comply by sending discs that contain a sender’s entire collection of accounts, enabling the FBI to search the inbox, draft messages and even deleted correspondence not yet fully erased.

“You’re asking them for e-mails relevant to the investigation, but as a practical matter, they let you look at everything,” said a former federal prosecutor who, like many interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition on anonymity because the FBI inquiry is continuing.

FBI agents can then roam through every corner of the account as if it were their own.

Law enforcement officials said the FBI never sought access to Allen’s computer or accounts. It’s unclear whether it did so with Petraeus. But through Kelley and Broadwell, the bureau had amassed an enormous amount of data on the two men — including sexually explicit e-mails between Petraeus and Broadwell and questionable communications between Allen and Kelley.

Petraeus and Broadwell had tried to conceal their communications by typing drafts of messages, hitting “save” but not “send,” and then sharing passwords that provided access to the drafts. But experts said that ruse would have posed no obstacle for the FBI, because agents had full access to the e-mail accounts.”

None of which, folks, is a crime. None of it. Sexually explicit emails between persons who are having an affair are no more a crime than some middle-aged dude taking shirtless pictures of himself and sending them to friends (and Florida socialites…snicker).”

We are ruled by techno-inquisitors and they are no more fun than the old-fashioned brand.

C. Wright Mills in Context – The Roots of The Cranky

The first two chapters of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, are devoted to early intellectual career, his philosophical roots and his place in the New York intellectual scene. I have to confess that these were, to me, the least interesting chapters because I couldn’t wait to get into the real kick-a$$ material. These first two chapters reflect the fact that, being a young academic, Mills had to pretty much fit within the system but never really felt comfortable doing so (hence, the hiding from Lazarsfeld).

The first chapter, then, retraces Mills’s pragmatic roots, especially Mead (with some reservations):

“Mead’s psychology is social, because humans are defined as a communicating species in which the capacity for speech takes pride of place. Since language is the chief way in which humans communicate with one another, both expressively, that is, in terms of emotions, and intellectually, in the transmission of ideas, speech is the key interpersonal mediation and the mediation between mind and society. The individual communicates with “society” by internalizing not only a particular other but also by internalizing the “generalized other.” Society therefore enters individual consciousness via an inner dialogue between the subject “I” and the “me” that connotes a subject who is able to take herself as a social object.

Mills argues, in partial disagreement with Mead, that the individual as a social being internalizes not society as a whole but only a segment of it, namely the social networks and institutions that constitute the salient references for social life.” (35)

There also seems to be some (not mentioned) reference to Wittgenstein and Kenneth Burke:

“By acquiring the categories of a language, we acquire the structured “ways” of a group, and along with the language, the value-implicates of those “ways.” Our behavior and perception, our logic and thought, come within the control ambit of a system of language…. A vocabulary is not merely a string of words; immanent within it are societal textures—institutional and political coordinates. Back of a vocabulary lie sets of collective action.” (From Mills dissertation)

Or here:

“Vocabularies of motive are situational but also limit the range of action. Situations, then, are always conditioned by anticipated consequences as they are embodied in certain vocabularies. In turn, vocabularies are not merely descriptions; they are attempts to influence consequences by controlling the response of others; they are “strategies of action.” If these strategies fail to achieve desired consequences, new vocabularies of motive may be adopted, but under ordinary circumstances they are quite stable, because the unanticipated is an exception.


Our actions are conditioned by the vocabularies that inform perception, the strategies we employ to achieve desired outcomes, as well as by what we think is likely to result from a series of actions. These are all elements of social life, not individual consciousness, and the operative concept is the interaction of language that is largely derived from prior situations, the situation itself, and anticipated consequences.” (36)

But even though Mills seems to have admired Dewey and other pragmatists, he was critical of their reformism and projects such as Hull House (Addams) and Dewey’s education projects as not radical enough.

Aronowitz summarizes Mills’s thesis as such:

“Taken in its entirety, Mills’s Sociology and Pragmatism may be understood as a Marxist-Weberian inspired analysis and critique of America’s dominant philosophical paradigm of the first half of the twentieth century and of its leading protagonists. At the same time, it is a demonstration of the view that ideas have no internal history of their own and can only be understood within the historically specific frameworks in which they are conceived and elaborated. These frameworks have economic, social, and political specifications and, in the case of the professionalization of philosophy, are entwined with the rise of higher learning in America in the wake of industrialization and the attempt of traditional liberal ideology to come to terms with the industrializing era.” (51)

As mentioned above, the following chapter is devoted to a mapping of the New York intellectual scene in which Mills navigated. I have to admit that I am almost completely unfamiliar with this context (not my generation, not my culture). I recognized a couple of names here and there, but that was it.

It is in this context that Mills honed some of the ideas that he will fully develop in his subsequent books and started integrated Marxist concepts into his writings. In a Veblenian (if there is such a word) vein, Mills (and Gerth) argues that the salaried middle-class cannot be the carriers of radical social transformation but are more or less completely beholden to the corporate system and subservient to the capitalist class (a position held by some in the New York scene). The experts, scientists and technicians are political dupes, and the more so that their training is rigorous and rigid. They are the functionaries of the political system, consciously or not, especially as their role in the exercise of power is disguised through objective expertise. Mills had also limited sympathy for intellectuals of retreated to the universities in the face of the McCarthy witch hunts.

“Whether the intellectual is a salaried employee of a university or of a large media or other industrial corporation, being “told what to do”—and, one might add, how to do it—undercuts the conventional wisdom, underlined by Foucault and, in a somewhat different mode, by the Frankfurt School, that knowledge is power and that artistic and intellectual work is still an autonomous activity in contemporary capitalist society. Instead, the system has made nearly all intellectuals and artists dependent on salaries, contracts, and concepts that are delivered as commands from powerful institutions. Whether applying for grants from the government or from private foundations, the intellectual is on “assignment.” Thus, much academic and commercial research is conducted only based on the willingness of those in power. The artist is no less constrained by the dictates of the art market. To paint or sculpt in ways that violate current fashions is likely to condemn the creator, regardless of her talent, to the margins of the art world or to oblivion. Clearly, we can see that Mills is nostalgic for a time when the independent intellectual and artist was still possible; when the question of how to support oneself was not an overriding consideration; or, to be more precise, when the cost of living, especially rents, made the existence of a coterie, if not a class, of independent intellectual craftsperson possible. Tacitly, he mourns the passing of the traditional intellectual, if not the conditions that made his existence possible.” (60)

Mills was undoubtedly anti-communist but completely opposed to anything related to the Cold War. He did not mince his words against liberal intellectuals who seemed to go along with the rising consumer society and as they vocally (and cowardly, for Mills) threw the baby out with the bathwater by denouncing socialist ideas they had erstwhile held. This was the reason why Mills called for a New Left that would generate a typically American brand of radicalism, untainted by communism but unafraid of the climate of the time.

It is in this context that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. gets a special beating in Aronowitz’s book as representative of this intellectual cowardly trend:

“In fact, as early as the publication of Mills’s first major work, The New Men of Power (1948), the wave of accommodation and collaboration with liberalism by these erstwhile intellectual radicals was already in full force. In 1947, Schlesinger wrote in Partisan Review that the United States was on the brink of socialism, a logical outcome of the incremental progress that had been initiated by the New Deal. In Schlesinger’s conception, socialism was little more than an expanded welfare state within the parameters of liberal democratic institutions, a characterization that was later to fit most of Western Europe’s social-democratic parties. The optimism expressed in this article could not have been more divergent from Mills’s view, expressed forcefully in his book on labor leaders, that corporate America was gearing up to steamroll over labor’s hard-won gains of the 1930s, an insight fueled by the Republican-dominated eightieth Congress’s enactment of the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act in 1947. Two years later, Schlesinger went on to publish a full-length liberal manifesto, The Vital Center, in which radical traditions are decisively rejected—not only those associated with communism but also those of independent Marxism. Schlesinger’s book was also a signature statement of the doctrine of American exceptionalism, according to which the United States, an open, democratic society, has circumvented the conditions that produced powerful European socialist and communist movements.” (71-72)

These, I think, are the roots of Mills’s crankiness: the quick betrayal of radical idea under the not-so-courageous, and very fashionable rejection of Stalinism and the uncritical to the submission to the ideology (disguised as end of ideology) of the triumph of democratic pluralism in the exceptional American society.

This is why Mills’s subsequent work take on the structures of power in their different dimensions as they co-opt more and more categories of people that should have opposed the system, from intellectuals to labor union leaders.

More to come.

Modernization Theory – A Steady Record of Failure

Greece being the latest casualty, as demonstrated by sociologist Costas Panayotakis in the New York Times Examiner:

“Writing this column has heightened my awareness of how often and how quickly the representation of social reality by The New York Times is contradicted by the facts.  In such cases, the journalist whose past reporting has proven to be widely off base continues reporting like nothing had happened.  Now s/he presents a completely different picture of reality, one that completely contradicts the picture s/he had given just a few weeks and months earlier.  The optimistic explanation of such phenomena is that the reporters become chastened by the failings of their previous reporting and change their story to more closely fit the facts.  The less optimistic explanation is that they understand journalism not as an effort to capture reality as accurately as they can but rather as a form of entertainment, where self-contradiction is not a problem as long as one can keep churning out colorful stories that will kill readers some time as they commute to and from work.  Given how frequently I find myself having to debunk articles by The New York Times that cover Greece, I have to admit that it is the latter, less optimistic explanation that seems more plausible to me.

The trigger for these thoughts was a recent article reporting on Greek protesters pelting a German diplomat with coffee. (i)  The article rightly links this incident to a statement by German “Chancellor Angela Merkel’s special envoy to Greece, Hans-Joachim Fuchtel” who said that “1,000 German local government officials could do the work of 3,000 Greek officials.”  The article then points out that, at a time of high unemployment in Greece, “Mr. Fuchtel’s comments were seen as tone deaf.”  It also quotes Nikos Xydakis, a columnist for a conservative Greek newspaper, who suggests that Mr. Fuchtel seems to have no understanding of the suffering Greek people are currently undergoing and to “[lack] ‘the flexibility and the diplomatic skills’ to speak more carefully”.


It should be added here that both articles by The NYT are informed by a ‘modernization’ theory of development.  This theory, developed after World War II by American academics who were often members of the Cold War anti-communist establishment, blamed the great inequalities in the global capitalist economy on the failure of poor countries to follow the good example of those countries that purportedly became rich through the adoption of modern institutions, such as market capitalism and liberal democracy.  In this model, poor countries that emulated the institutions of rich countries would catch up with them, leaving behind problems, such as intense poverty and deprivation.  Needless to say, development strategies based on this model did not lead to a closing of the gap between the global North and the global South, leading to alternative understandings of the origins of global inequalities, which point out the ways in which the technological advances and wealth of the rich countries is to some extent the product of the intense exploitation of people in the less affluent countries.

By focusing on the “[m]entoring and … know-how” that Mr. Fuchtel brings to Greece and by identifying his mission as one of making Greece “a bit more efficient and perhaps a little more German,” Mr. Kulish in effect adopts the modernization narrative.  The problem, however, is that Greece’s present state was the product of a period in which the country had converged more closely to the institutional realities of advanced capitalist countries than it had ever done in its past.  Hence, Greece is only the latest example of the failures of modernization theory and the latest example of the ways in which great global inequalities, with all the human suffering they entail, cannot simply be blamed on domestic institutions and cultural attitudes.  Instead, they have to be seen as a regular and predictable product of global capitalism’s exploitative nature.”

Modernization theory is indeed the basis for the disastrous structural adjustment programs that the IMF pushed on developing countries that led to the lost decade. And that is the underlying narrative when development gets discussed in the media.

And it does not work.