Book Review – Rebel Cities

I have already posted quite a bit about David Harvey‘s Rebel Cities: From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution:

It is somewhat of a given that every book by prolific David Harvey is an important book. He is a sharp analyst of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and has the ability to write very clearly about rather complex matters. His writing is engaging, full of examples that illustrate the concepts he uses in his deconstruction of the logic of 21st century capitalism. At the same time, as my previous posts on the subjects have shown, he is not shy about being critical of the left for its fetishism of the local and organizational forms (currently: the horizontal and non-hierarchical).

My previous posts have focused mainly on chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the book. That is where the heart of the argument is and we’ll see why in a minute.

The heart of the book, of course, is the concept of “right to the city” and the centrality of the city as locus of power in 21st century capitalism, but also as locus for potential anti-capitalist movements:

“The city, the noted urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” If Park is correct, then the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. How best then to exercise that right?

Since, as Park avers, we have hitherto lacked any clear sense of the nature of our task, it is useful first to reflect on how we have been made and remade throughout history by an urban process impelled onwards by powerful social forces. The astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years means, for example, that we have been remade several times over without knowing why or how. Has this dramatic urbanization contributed to human well-being? Has it made us into better people, or left us dangling in a world of anomie and alienation, anger and frustration? Have we become mere monads tossed around in an urban sea? These were the sorts of questions that preoccupied all manner of nineteenth-century commentators, such as Friedrich Engels and Georg Simmel, who offered perceptive critiques of the urban personas then emerging in response to rapid urbanization. These days it is not hard to enumerate all manner of urban discontents and anxieties, as well as excitements, in the midst of even more rapid urban transformations. Yet we somehow seem to lack the stomach for systematic critique. The maelstrom of change overwhelms us even as obvious questions loom. What, for example, are we to make of the immense concentrations of wealth, privilege, and consumerism in almost all the cities of the world in the midst of what even the United Nations depicts as an exploding “planet of slums”?

To claim the right to the city in the sense I mean it here is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way. From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while control over the use of the surplus typically lies in the hands of a few (such as a religious oligarchy, or a warrior poet with imperial ambitions).” (3 – 5)

At the same time, capitalism and urbanity have been associated with crises and social movements throughout the 20th and 21st century (and before), so there are clearly capitalist and anti-capitalist dynamics revolving around the urban context that are separate from strictly class / labor dynamics. And that is what Harvey is interested in: to examine the nature of 21st century capitalism and to find interstices and spaces of contention and conflict through which social movements could emerge and challenge hegemonic arrangements. The global city is the perfect nexus for all of this.

“Fast-forward once again to our current conjuncture. International capitalism was on a roller-coaster of regional crises and crashes (East and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001, and so on) until it experienced a global crash in 2008. What has been the role of urbanization in this history? In the United States it was accepted wisdom until 2008 that the housing market was an important stabilizer of the economy, particularly after the high-tech crash of the late 1990s. The property market absorbed a great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction (of both inner-city and suburban housing and new office spaces), while the rapid inflation of housing asset prices, backed by a profligate wave of mortgage refinancing at historically low rates of interest, boosted the internal US market for consumer goods and services. The global market was stabilized partly through US urban expansion and speculation in property markets, as the US ran huge trade deficits with the rest of the world, borrowing around $2 billion a day to fuel its insatiable consumerism and the debt-financed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

But the urban process underwent another transformation of scale. In short, it went global. So we cannot focus merely on the US. Property market booms in Britain, Ireland, and Spain, as well as in many other countries, helped power the capitalist dynamic in ways that broadly paralleled that in the US. The urbanization of China over the last twenty years, as we shall see in Chapter 2, has been of a radically different character, with a heavy focus on building infrastructures. Its pace picked up enormously after a brief recession in 1997 or so. More than a hundred cities have passed the 1 million population mark in the last twenty years, and small villages, like Shenzhen, have become huge metropolises of 6 to 10 million people. Industrialization was at first concentrated in the special economic zones, but then rapidly diffused outwards to any municipality willing to absorb the surplus capital from abroad and plough back the earnings into rapid expansion. Vast infrastructural projects, such as dams and highways—again, all debt-financed—are transforming the landscape. Equally vast shopping malls, science parks, airports, container ports, pleasure palaces of all kinds, and all manner of newly minted cultural institutions, along with gated communities and golf courses, dot the Chinese landscape in the midst of overcrowded urban dormitories for the massive labor reserves being mobilized from the impoverished rural regions that supply the migrant labor.


China is only one epicenter for an urbanization process that has now become genuinely global, in part through the astonishing global integration of financial markets that use their flexibility to debt-finance urban projects from Dubai to São Paulo and from Madrid and Mumbai to Hong Kong and London. The Chinese central bank, for example, has been active in the secondary mortgage market in the US, while Goldman Sachs has been involved in the surging property markets in Mumbai and Hong Kong capital has invested in Baltimore. Almost every city in the world has witnessed a building boom for the rich—often of a distressingly similar character—in the midst of a flood of impoverished migrants converging on cities as a rural peasantry is dispossessed through the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture.

These building booms have been evident in Mexico City, Santiago in Chile, in Mumbai, Johannesburg, Seoul, Taipei, Moscow, and all over Europe (Spain’s being most dramatic), as well as in the cities of the core capitalist countries such as London, Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York (where more large-scale urban projects were in motion in 2007 under the billionaire Bloomberg’s administration than ever before). Astonishing, spectacular, and in some respects criminally absurd urbanization projects have emerged in the Middle East in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a way of mopping up the capital surpluses arising from oil wealth in the most conspicuous, socially unjust and environmentally wasteful ways possible (such as an indoor ski slope in a hot desert environment).


But this urbanization boom has depended, as did all the others before it, on the construction of new financial institutions and arrangements to organize the credit required to sustain it. Financial innovations set in train in the 1980s, particularly the securitization and packaging of local mortgages for sale to investors world-wide, and the setting up of new financial institutions to facilitate a secondary mortgage market and to hold collateralized debt obligations, has played a crucial role. The benefits of this were legion: it spread risk and permitted surplus savings pools easier access to surplus housing demand, and also, by virtue of its coordinations, it brought aggregate interest rates down (while generating immense fortunes for the financial intermediaries who worked these wonders).” (11 – 13)

This is the initial state of affairs. In the following chapters, Harvey, then, goes digging for the contradictions in this system in order to carve out spaces of contention for alternative social movements, especially since the dynamics quoted above have created vast inequalities of wealth and power (what with triumphant neoliberalism) that are highly visible in the global cities, with their cosmopolitan and privileged core and their peripheral slums, with their mass consumption levels and therefore, their great dependency on labor for both goods and services and the necessity of absorption of surplus value (so central to capitalism). Where neoliberalism is the most visibly dominant is also where it is most vulnerable. The amount of displacement and dispossession taking place in global city can be matched by counter-dynamics of anti-capitalist movements, IF they can organize around a new definition of what the working class is.

Those were basically the premises laid out in chapter 1. For those of us who had read Harvey’s previous book, The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism, chapter 2 will feel very familiar as it summarizes the current crisis. The core of Harvey’s argument really takes off in chapter 3, all through chapter 5 (so, you can refer to my blog posts listed at the beginning of this post). Chapters 6 and 7 read like columns that were published when things started heating up in Spring 2011, and especially during the London riots in Summer 2011 (I blogged about it at the time). They are very short, much less analytical and in-depth than the preceding chapters. This is where Harvey introduced the concept of feral capitalism:

“The problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all it’s worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shopkeepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.

A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery—particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected—has become the order of the day.


Every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way—more blatantly and visibly, in the streets. They mimic on the streets of London what corporate capital is doing to planet earth.” (155 – 6)

Chapter 7, also short and column-ish rather than full-on analysis, address Occupy Wall Street:

“But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront the Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and, by putting human bodies in that place, to convert public space into a political commons—a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and ongoing struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, and now the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked. What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook, that really matter.” (161 – 2)

It is not hard to see why Harvey would be interested in OWS, which is why I was a bit disappointed to not find a full-fledged analysis of the movement in the book. Apart from this two-page chapter, there is nothing on OWS, at least not explicitly. Of course, one can easily read between the lines of his analysis in chapters 3, 4 and 5 and see what applies to OWS (the organizational fetishism, for instance), which makes this absence all the more remarkable.

Nevertheless, Harvey offers a few recommendations for the OWS movement:

“To succeed, the movement has to reach out to the 99 percent. This it can do and is doing, step by step. First there are all those being plunged into immiseration by unemployment, and all those who have been or are now being dispossessed of their houses and their assets by the Wall Street phalanx. The movement must forge broad coalitions between students, immigrants, the underemployed, and all those threatened by the totally unnecessary and draconian austerity politics being inflicted upon the nation and the world at the behest of the Party of Wall Street. It must focus on the astonishing levels of exploitation in workplaces—from the immigrant domestic workers who the rich so ruthlessly exploit in their homes to the restaurant workers who slave for almost nothing in the kitchens of the establishments in which the rich so grandly eat. It must bring together the creative workers and artists whose talents are so often turned into commercial products under the control of big-money power.

The movement must above all reach out to all the alienated, the dissatisfied, and the discontented—all those who recognize and feel in their gut that there is something profoundly wrong, that the system the Party of Wall Street has devised is not only barbaric, unethical, and morally wrong, but also broken.

All this has to be democratically assembled into a coherent opposition, which must also freely contemplate the future outlines of an alternative city, an alternative political system, and, ultimately, an alternative way of organizing production, distribution, and consumption for the benefit of the people. Otherwise, a future for the young that points to spiraling private indebtedness and deepening public austerity, all for the benefit of the 1 percent, is no future at all.


In the face of the organized power of the Party of Wall Street to divide and rule, the movement that is emerging must also take as one of its founding principles that it will be neither divided nor diverted until the Party of Wall Street is brought either to its senses—to see that the common good must prevail over narrow venal interests—or to its knees. Corporate privileges that confer the rights of individuals without the responsibilities of true citizens must be rolled back. Public goods such as education and health care must be publicly provided and made freely available. The monopoly powers in the media must be broken. The buying of elections must be ruled unconstitutional. The privatization of knowledge and culture must be prohibited. The freedom to exploit and dispossess others must be severely curbed, and ultimately outlawed.” (162 – 3)

As I mentioned above, any book by David Harvey is an important book and I would consider him one of the most important “translators” of Marxian thought (I don’t really like the term “vulgarizer”). He does provide a deep yet clear analysis of both the workings of 21st century capitalism, locates them in the longue durée, sniffs out the contradictions and exposes them for all to see, hopefully (for him) leading up to social movements rushing through these interstices opened by these contradictions.

This book should be mandatory reading for activists and anyone interested / involved with the anti-capitalist movements around the world.

In the end, whatever the future of capitalism, it will be an urban future, so, any movement that hopes to contest the hegemony had better have some urban planning of its own ready. This book offers a good starting point.

I should end by noting that Harvey, as he recommends a redefinition of the working class beyond the factory workers, offers The Salt of the Earth as example of the kind of broad mobilization that is needed. In the case of the film, it is rural communities. Harvey thinks the same should be done for urban communities:

Water Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Faludi on The Mother-Daughter Power Failure

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a speech by über-feminist Susan Faludi of Backlash and The Terror Dream fame (if you haven’t read these books, then, what are you waiting for?). So, here is what I got from her speech.

Faludi started with the assertion that everyone acknowledges that feminism is successful. Liberals would state that we’ve come a long way while conservatives commonly state that all the ills of society are due to feminism. However, through her work, Faludi has met many women who consider feminism to have been both beneficial and a disappointment, what she calls the “yes, but…” problem that has several dimensions:

1. Yes, women are not 50% of the workforce but they occupy the same positions and professions as before. Women are still underrepresented in the media. The wage gap is still there and whatever reduction there has been there has been because of declining men’s wages. So, disillusionment is widespread as essential hurdles never really got lifted. It seems that the possibilities of remaking society have eluded us.

2. There is, of course, the [well-funded] relentless barrage of antifeminist commentary, what Faludi calls the Bozo The Clown Punchbag syndrome: every bad in society is because of feminism. You name it, feminism did it! And, of course, there is still, obviously, the abortion rights issue that is especially central now.

3. Feminism has been hijacked by the marketplace: to be feminist is to have the freedom to consume.

4. And that is even without going into the persistence of gender violence and lack of proper family policies.

All this means that women’s voices are still vastly under-heard while the antifeminist voices (I would say anti-women) are loud, clear and quite strident. As a result, while there have been partial gains, feminism, as a movement, never seems to have a sure footing.

For Faludi, there are three dynamics standing in the way of real transformation:

1. Feminism is still a sixties movement, with its insistence on the personal, its rejection of authority and leadership, and persistent generational conflict, what Faludi calls the mother-daughter power failure. This power failure means the inability to really figure out ow to pass power down from women to women.

But it wasn’t always like this. In the 19th century, feminism was the crusading mothers fighting for the rights of their daughters in the campaigns about suffrage, abolition, temperance. Later on, though, America as a whole repudiated the power of the mother with consumerism and sexuality with mothers portrayed as humorless prudes, suffragists as whiners. The movement faded out until the sixties which was a daughter-only movement (Christine Stansell’s matrophobia, the fear of becoming your mother).

And now, the second wavers are aging and facing the criticisms of the third wavers. [This reminded me of the public exchange between Katha Pollitt and Jessica Valenti (actually, you should read Valenti’s column first, then Pollitt’s response).]

So, for Faludi, the question is how to build a sustainable movement in the face of persistent generational conflicts.

2. The second dynamic is that of consumerism as a distraction from serious debate (about real bread-and-butter and social justice issues) as opposed to vapid discussions that do not challenge the culture. Faludi thinks we should talk about poverty and single-motherhood (the two being, of course, related) rather than which real housewife is the biggest bitch (my formulation).

3. The third dynamic is “the vision thing”, that is, the failure to envision a feminist future and a project as to where women liberation should lead. For instance, yes, there are more women in the professions, but this means more women entering patriarchy-based institutions that they never created and where they do not change the stage. As Faludi – channeling Charlotte Bunch – put it, “you can’t add women, and stir.”

This inability to answer these questions and challenges has opened the door for conservative women to claim the label and redefine feminism as simply about the choice to self-expression. They are the ones shifting the political landscape.

So, what is to be done? For Faludi, we should return to the economic and political world where single mothers are a huge demographics and have it the worst socially. Single mothers deserve our attention and admiration. We need to change the system to liberate them. This would help healing the generational rift, which, for Faludi, is the major problem for feminism as a social movement. We need to come up with a new vision of family away from patriarchal institutions.

I should add that Susan Faludi was a great speaker, and a delightful to guest to hang out with afterwards. I want a new book from her, dammit!

“I Had An Abortion and I Feel Fine”

I think this (French) website is a great idea. After all, common discourse, especially in the US, is that women who have had abortions should cower in shame, never speak of it, or only speak of it that the most terrible decision they’ve ever made, and how horrible they felt about it, etc.

Well, these gals turn the thing around by putting posts of abortion experience as a positive experience, one that did not depress them, gave them cancer (HA!) or ruin their lives and relationships. Instead, they take on frontally the idea that women should feel guilty about having abortion:

This translates roughly as:

Man: so, you’re gonna cry, yes or shit? (in French, the emphatic version of “yes or no”)

Woman: or shit. (with the little flowers around the bubble, that’s a nice touch)

The blog itself is titled “the daughters of the 343 sluts”. For those of you who do not know the history of the French pro-choice movement, the 343 were famous French women, who, in the 1970s, during the abortion legalization battle, publicly acknowledged that they had had (illegal then) abortions. The point of this manifesto was not to state that abortion was common and therefore should be legal and safe. Rather, the 343 published their manifesto right after a 15-year old – who had been raped by her stepfather, had gotten pregnant by him, then had had an abortion – got arrested and put on trial for it. The 343, through their manifesto, were saying: “so go ahead, arrest us too and put us on trial, and if you don’t, then it’s a class issue, a social justice issue: the wealthy get what they want, and a lower-class rape victim goes to prison.” The left-wing satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo then nicknamed the manifesto “the manifesto of the 343 sluts”

You can read that 1971 Manifesto here, and scroll down to find the list of signatories, which is a who’s who of the most famous French women of that time: Simone de Beauvoir, Catherine Deneuve, Marguerite Duras, Françoise Fabian, Gisèle Halimi, Ariane Mnou­ch­kine, Jeanne Moreau, Fran­çoise Sagan, Del­phine Sey­rig or Agnès Varda.

Interestingly, all the testimonies I have read over there are so incredibly simple. Unsurprisingly, these women do not fit the stereotype of the baby-killing slut. There is simply no pathos involved. It was the wrong time. It was the right thing to do. They’ll have children when the time is right.

I am happy to sign their manifesto and support them… when they re-open tomorrow morning, time difference oblige! It is important work and it is a damn shame that this medical procedure and human right is still marked by stigma and obstacles for too many women worldwide in the name of the maintenance of patriarchal systems.

Book Review – Globalization and Social Movements

Valentine Moghadam‘s Globalization & Social Movements: Islamism, Feminism, and the Global Justice Movement (2008) is a good introduction to anyone unfamiliar with both globalization and social movements theory.

There is no question that there is a powerful connection between social movements and globalization. Moghadam starts from the idea that for a long time, social movement theories were largely nation-based: their unit of analysis was social movements within a country. They did not take into account the basic premise of world-system analysis that the point of departure for analysis should be the world-system as a whole (divided in the core, peripheral and semi-peripheral areas, not countries).

But by the 1980s, it was impossible to ignore the fact that the nation-state was no longer the right unit of analysis: the rise of global governance and reshaping of the role institutions of global governance (IMF, World Bank, and WTO) along with the increase in power of the multinational corporation, the transnational capitalist class and the transnational state, all within a dominant neoliberal ideology. How could these developments not influence social movements? They did:

“Another apparent outcome of globalization and a challenge to conventional theories of social movements was the rise in the late 1990s of what have been variously called transnational advocacy networks, transnational social movements, and global social movements.” (Loc. 84)

By the late 1990s, with the Battle of Seattle, it was impossible to ignore the existence of such transnational social movements, as traditional labor unions, indigenous people movements from the Amazonian areas, environmentalists form Europe and human rights advocates joined forces in Seattle to draw attention to the negative aspects of globalization at the occasion of a WTO meeting.

How does Moghadam define a transnational social movement?

“A transnational social movement has come to be understood as a mass mobilization uniting people in three or more countries, engaged in sustained contentious interactions with political elites, international organizations, or multinational corporations.
A transnational advocacy network (TAN) is a set of ‘relevant actors working internationally on an issue who are bound together by shared values, a common discourse and dense exchanges of information and services.
Transnational social movements and transnational advocacy networks alike are structurally linked to globalization, and they constitute important sectors within global civil society.” (Loc. 91-5)

Of course, such movements and networks had to find or create new transnational political spaces through which to exercise their advocacy and activism. This was done through spaces such as the World Social Forum.

Moghadam focuses specifically on three transnational social movements: the Islamist movement, the global feminist movement and the global justice movement. Why?

“Each constitutes a transnational social movement inasmuch as it connects people across borders around a common agenda and collective identity; mobilizes large numbers of supporters and activists, whether as individuals or as members of networks, groups, and organizations; and engages in sustained oppositional politics with states or other power-holders.


One key difference is that many Islamist movements seek state power and, like revolutionary movements before them, are willing to use violence to achieve this aim. In contrast, both the feminist movement and the global justice movement are disinterested in state power, although they do seek wide-ranging institutional and normative changes, and they eschew violence.” (Loc. 107-11)

These movements also existed before contemporary globalization, so, it is a good opportunity to study the changes these movements underwent as they adapted to global conditions. At the same time, all these movements operate from within the world-system, which means that social movements operating from the core areas will have more resources, more freedom and less probability of facing state violence than movements operating from the semi-periphery and the periphery. And, of course, what kinds of grievances against which movements mobilize also vary based on one’s positioning in the world-system.

Moghadam also examines the three social movements with an attention the interconnections between

  • political process
  • organizational processes
  • cultural processes

And all three shape the collective action repertoires that movements will use. Also, Moghadam’s analysis reiterates the importance of three characteristics of social movements. Social movements are

  • segmentary (internal competition between groups and organizations)
  • polycentric (multiple sites of leadership)
  • reticulate (organized along loose networks)

This SPR structure has allowed movements to be flexible and adaptable, as well as engaging various constituencies within the world-system. This structure also facilitates innovation and experimentation in terms of repertoires of action.

Finally, Moghadam emphasizes the role of emotions in social movements. In all three movements, whether it is anger, frustration and humiliation in the Islamist movement, for instance, or emotions that are created by the very experience in a social movement, such as joy and solidarity, emotions are an integral part of transnational movement dynamics.

More specifically, how do social movements relate to globalization? Social movements grow transnational as populations are more and more affected by transnational processes and factors beyond the nation-state. At the same time, social movements have globalized the scope of their mobilization beyond national borders, identifying global grievances. Specifically, these movements have reacted against the negative effects of globalization and neoliberalism.

The rise of the global civil society is a response to the global “democracy deficit”, that is, the lack of participatory structures and transparency in the institutions of global governance. Also, information and communication technologies have facilitated transnational networking even though the political resources and opportunities created by these tools are unequally distributed. And because globalization also has involved increased cultural contacts, opportunities for transnational cooperation and community-building have increased as well, contributing to the framing of issues in a transnational context. As such then, transnational movements do not operate exclusively at the global level. Their SPR structure allows them to operate at the local, national, regional and global, whichever is the most relevant or provide the most political opportunity.

These reflections allow Moghadam to refine her definition of the global civil society and global social movements:

Global civil society is “the sphere of cross-border relationships and activities carried out by collective actors-social movements, networks, and civil society organizations-that are independent from governments and private firms and operate outside the international reach of states and markets.”


Global social movements are cross-border, sustained, and collective social mobilizations on global issues, based on permanent and/or occasional groups, networks, and campaigns with a transnational organizational dimension moving from shared values and identities that challenge and protest economic or political power and campaign for change in global issues. They share a global frame of the problems to be addressed, have a global scope of action, and might target supranational or national targets.” (Loc. 449 – 50)

The choice of the three social movements (Islamist, feminist, and global justice) also reflect the lack of consensus within the transnational civil society. Not all movements are emancipatory. The Islamist movement is reactionary, sexist and misogynistic, and sometimes violent, including terrorism among its repertoire. In fact, this movement’s conception of hegemonic masculinity was shared by the Bush administration, which means that the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the response from the US government represented a class of heroic masculinities between the American security state and Al Qaeda. Male power all around.

There is even great diversity within each of these social movements: within the Islamist movement, one can distinguish moderate and extremist groups, and use of repertoires ranging from parliamentary actions to terrorist violence. There is permanent controversy within the global feminist movements over the concern that the grievances of women from the metropole will trump issues from the periphery. And there are often clashes within the global justice movement between secular and religious groups.

Moghadam goes into details in exploring these three social movements separately, going over their history, some national-specific context, variability within each movement. What is to be noted though, is that, in their contemporary incarnations, all three movements emerged in reaction to the abandonment of Keynesianist policies in favor of neoliberalism. These policies, (which contributed to the failure of nationalist and secular government in Muslim countries) combined with demographic transition (structural strain) and progressive emancipation of women (misogyny) were central to the rise of the Islamist movement. The Islamist movement, as reactionary as it might be, has made great use of the Internet, in addition to other mobilization tools, such as the Mosques, the madrassas and nadwas (Quranic study groups).

For global feminist movement, the agenda has three major components: fighting neoliberalism, fighting religious fundamentalism, and fighting for peace. Transnational feminist networks have taken advantages of the UN conferences on women such as Nairobi in 1985 and Beijing in 1995, using these conferences as mobilizing tools and trying to frame the agenda in opposition to religious groups. Feminists have also been involved with issues such as the feminization of employment (and conditions of employment under neoliberal conditions) as well as the feminization of poverty and gender-based violence:

“Neoliberalism and patriarchy feed off each other and reinforce each other in order to maintain the vast majority of women in a situation of cultural inferiority, social devaluation, economic marginalization, “invisibility” of their existence and labor, and the marketing and commercialization of their bodies. All these situations closely resemble apartheid.” (Loc. 982)

But, as mentioned, there are divisions on certain issues between different feminist groups, for instance, on the abortion issue:

“Latin American feminists view the right to contraception and abortion as central to female autonomy and bodily integrity, and they fight for their legalization and availability. In India, reproductive rights are recognized in Indian law, but this has not provided women with power or autonomy. Instead, abortion rights have been misused and abused to favor the delivery of sons. For this reason, abortion is not viewed as a priority issue for many Indian feminists.” (Loc. 1161)

The global justice movement is much diverse as it comprises a variety of groups: human rights, environmentalists, indigenous people advocates, women’s rights, labor unions, anti-war groups, religious groups, etc. But generally, the movement is dedicated to the idea that “another world is possible” (other than neoliberalism), which include debt relief, the Tobin tax against speculation, fair trade, labor rights, environmentalism and sustainability, and democratization of institutions of global governance. Such diversity has also led to a diversity in repertoires of collective action, from lobbying, to petitioning governments, to direct action and demonstrations (such as Seattle in 1999).

Another watershed even the emergence of the global justice movement was the election in 2002 of former union leader Lula as president of Brazil. The election of Lula was central to the creation of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. Since then, the global justice movement has been involved in countless protests against the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO as the capacity for coordination improved through technology.

Because of this diversity, flexible transnational networks are of central importance:

“Italian sociologist della Porta has drawn attention to the crucial role played by transnational networks in the organization of the global justice movement. She defines a transnational network as “a permanent coordination among different civil society organizations (and sometimes individuals such as experts), located in several countries, based on a shared frame on at least one specific global issue, and developing joint campaigns and social mobilizations against common targets at the national or supranational levels.”

Similarly, Moghadam identifies different strands in the movement:

“1) reformists, with the aim of humanizing or civilizing globalization; 2) radical critics with a different project for global issues; 3) alternatives who self-organize activities outside the mainstream of the state and market spheres, and 4) resisters of neoliberal globalization, who strive for a return to local and national spheres of action.” (Loc. 1472)

But all this takes place in a frame of contestation of neoliberalism whether these activists are alter-globalist (they want a globalization-from-below, as opposed to the neoliberal globalization-from-above) or de-globalist (return to local levels of governance).

As these three movements show, then, globalization has given rise to movements that are both violent and non-violent, democratic and anti-democratic, progressive and reactionary. But of these movements are reactions to globalization combined with technologies that take advantage of the “strength of weak ties”. These movements are all (Inter)networked movements.

These movements also show that the nation-state is still very relevant either as a promoting force, as Brazil under Lula, or as an oppressive force, as when the Algerian government caved in to the pressures of religious fundamentalists and curtailed the rights of women. These three movements also highlight the centrality of gender, feminism, masculinities in social movements.

This is What Should Happen When Governments Threaten Pensions and Retirement


Whereas these days, the only demonstrations are those in favor of racism and xenophobia.

As Echidne explains:

“Such demonstrations for such a reason would never happen here. The wingnuts say that it’s because the socialist-islamofascist-French-surrender-monkeys are like that and, besides, Europe is dying out, what with all that leisure time spent in godless activities and the wimminz refusing to breed. That last bit about the uppity and selfish women is also the reason why the French need to raise the retirement age.

Which is a very sloppy way of saying that the wingnuts do control the conversation here to some extent and what they don’t control the corporations and the protestant work ethic do. And the government budget concerns.”

What is especially interesting is that, in both the French and American cases, governments wishing to “reform” (i.e. cut benefits while not touching the wealthy) retirement and pension systems have to lie about it. The lies about the so-called Social Security crisis are well-known. But there is also quite a bit of deception and con game going on with the French reform (link thanks to Pierre Maura). One has to wonder why obfuscations and deception are necessary if one were not a cynical sociologist.

Sociology of The World Cup – Capitalist Pigs and Political Opportunity

So there was this relatively uninteresting tiff between Terry Eagleton (football is the crack cocaine of the masses!) and Dave Zirin (but football is fun… which is, by the way, why it works as presumably crack cocaine of the masses, if it weren’t fun, no one would care).

Anyhoo, I have just finished reading Gabriel Ondetti‘s Land, Protest, and Politics: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for Agrarian Reform in Brazil which is a history of the ups and downs of the MST using the political opportunity theory of social movements. The book is less an entertaining read than Wendy Wolford’s as there are fewer descriptions of actual occupations and no interviews with settlers, sem terra or MST and other leaders.

Basically, Ondetti argues that by and large, the ebbs and flows in movement mobilization, in the case of the landless movement, are well explained by the political opportunity structure: the rise of the movement for agrarian reform when political space opened up at the end of the military dictatorship, why the MST grew during the following conservative administration while other movements declined (answer: because the tactical choices of using occupation and getting land for those who had participated in occupations sidestepped the free rider problem and because land is something you can actually occupy as opposed to gender wage equality or labor rights), the major takeoff period followed by decline as the Cardoso administration engaged in strict crackdown, and the resurgence with the election of Lula.

Now, what does this have to do with the World Cup? Well, the World Cup may very well constitute a structure of political opportunity for demands for agrarian reform in South Africa, as noted by Raj Patel:

“The poor are being used by the World Cup. But the other point I wanted to argue was that World Cup can also, in a clearly asymmetric way, be used by the poor. This isn’t a story that makes it either to the press, or to the analysis about the ills of Fifa. Protests in Durban recently have tried to get the world’s press to shine a light on how apartheid remains, and to provide cover for street marches that would have been illegally shut down in the past.”

He gives this example:

And specifically as well this example of World Cup activism by The food Sovereignty Program in favor of agrarian reform:

“The needs and challenges faced by small scale farmers in South Africa have not been taken seriously by the South African government. In times of huge government spending on the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the Right to Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty Campaign (Food Sovereignty Campaign) arranges a march to parliament to remind the politicians of the urgent needs of marginalized farm workers, emerging farmers, farm dwellers and landless people.

Demands are going to be handed over to President Jacob Zuma, the ministers of Agriculture as well as the MEC for Human Settlements. The main demands include land redistribution, an end to the commercialization of water, decent public housing for all, that government supports a move towards more sustainable agro-ecological agriculture and stop the experiments with genetically modified organisms in South Africa.”

One could argue that, in terms of tactical repertoire, marches during the World Cup make sense as no government would want to crack down brutally on protesters while the world media are watching. Usually, crackdowns and clean-ups occur before international events. Once these events are under way, governments try to be on their best behavior.

Global events give an opportunity for groups that are socially excluded or marginalized to make themselves heard on a global scale in a relatively safe fashion. The agrarian reform issue is indeed a global one.

Saving Africa’s Witch Children

This British documentary, airing on HBO in the US, is a horrific account of the plight of children designated as witches in parts of Nigeria, thanks to the rise of fundamentalist pentecostal churches. The pastors in these churches get wealthy by promising parents that they will deliver their children from possession. In these rural communities, parents and neighbors often take matters into their own hands and mutilate, torture, abuse and kill, burn or bury alive children designated as witches. Once stigmatized, there is simply no hope for these children.

The Nigerian government has passed a law protecting children from religious abuse but some of the states have not accepted the law and it is hard to enforce, especially with the lack of cooperation from local communities (something I touched upon in my post yesterday, the local as as potentially oppressive as any other level of governance. I would argue that stigmas are especially hard to shed in local contexts, especially small, rural communities where there is really no way out.

The movie also makes the point of how this ties up with poverty in the midst of riches in the Niger Delta and how pollution makes people sick, more likely to die young, and how these sudden deaths are blamed on witches.

Here is the video. It is not for the faint of heart.

Saving Africa’s Witch Children from Africa’s Witch Children on Vimeo.

Religious fundamentalism (mix of Christianity, traditional religion), extreme poverty and environmental degradation are a toxic brew that, as noted in Morin’s article, create a context of barbarism.

Yet another example of how structural violence often leads to interpersonal mass violence.

The organizations that rescue these children and mentioned in the film:

Debunking The Myth of the Prison-Industrial Complex

As part of my review of Loïc Wacquant’s Prisons of Poverty, I mentioned that Wacquant devoted some space to debunking what he considers to be a myth: the theory of the prison-industrial complex. I thought I’d mention a bit more about it.

For Wacquant, there are four main reasons the expression “prison-industrial complex” does not provide an accurate explanatory frame:

1. It focuses exclusively on the “prisonfare” part of the dual approach that the neoliberal state uses against “problem populations”, completely missing the “workfare” part of the disciplining of such populations and the necessary counterpart to mass incarceration.

2. The idea of prison-industrial complex emphasizes privatization and the rise of the private prison sector with corporations such CCA or Wackenhut. In other words, the logic of such privatization is profits, along with the use of inmates by other corporations, such as Microsoft. But imprisonment, in the US and other countries, is still mostly a public affair. Privatization is not a necessary condition of mass incarceration but a side effect of it. As Wacquant notes, “banning adult imprisonment for profit did not prevent California from becoming a leader in the drive to mass incarceration” (85). Similarly, the exploitation of inmates by corporation affects only about 1% of inmates.

3. The expression “prison-industrial complex” is, of course, reminiscent of another industrial complex: the military-industrial complex. This is not random, but for Wacquant, this parallel obscures major differences. The American military is highly centralized whereas the whole incarceration system is more of a capillary nature (to use Foucault’s expression). The US penal system is widely dispersed and decentralized, and therefore less subject to uniform policy.

4. The framing of prison-industrial complex also tends to hide from view the major transformations that have taken place regarding prisons and the oversight that courts have exercises, sometimes forcefully regarding the issue of overcrowding, for instance. It also obscures the work of the prison reform movement to introduce, albeit in a limited fashion, a welfarist logic to the carceral world.

In other words, when I mentioned that Wacquant debunks the idea of a prison-industrial complex, I did not mean that he denies the existence of mass incarceration, but rather that he finds the framing misguided as explanatory construct.

Still Light Blogging – The Cove

Holy !@#$!

This will become part of my global issues class. It touches upon so many issues:

  • Environment and sustainability, of course
  • Globalization
  • Global governance and the role of international governmental organizations
  • Global civil society / global activism
  • Global stratification
  • The multi-layered nature of global governance and the role of national governments
  • The mixing of cultural, political and economic factors
  • Health and public policy

So, Will The Revolution Be Twittered or Facebooked?

We’re back to this topic after the whole Rage Against the Machine defeating some X Factor dude after a Facebook campaign.

Phil BC, the Very Public Sociologist, provides the analysis:

And draws the same conclusion I have drawn several times already:

Or, as the No One is Innocent song goes “ré, comme ça manque de sueur.”

A virtual flash mob does not a social movement makes.

ASA 2009 – Hegemonic Masculinity – Comparing Refusenik Movements

One of the interesting sessions I attended was Masculinized Violence: War, Politics and Militarization. It was presided by C. J. Pascoe. Jim Messerschmidt was no-show. The contribution that interested me the most was delivered by Sarah Anne Minkin‘s paper comparing two Refusenik movements with respect to hegemonic masculinity.

Minkin opened her presentation with a description of how gendered the Israeli culture is. Israeli culture is constructed around the dominance of militarism which, of course privileges a hegemonic masculinity symbolized by the figure of the combat soldier. As is well known, Israel has a universal draft where both men and women serve but very few women have been in combat positions and even that is a recent development. The only people exempt from such draft are Israeli Palestinians, religious orthodox individuals, pregnant women and mothers.

The national mission for men is to serve in combat. The national mission for women is to be mothers. The combat soldier then incarnates Israeli hegemonic masculinity. He represent a moral force: the ideal citizen and the ideal of male dominance that is at the heart of Israeli culture.

In light of this, refusal to serve is seen as treason. Refuseniks are ostracized, often lose their jobs and sometimes even serve jail time. In other words, there is a high price to pay in terms of stigma when one refuses to serve. For men to refuse to serve is to put their masculinity on the line. So, what strategies do they manage protest activism and masculinity? Minkin compares two social movement organizations that have adopted different strategies:

Courage to Refuse is an organization composed of veterans who now refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. Minkin used the picture to the left (from the Courage to Refuse website) as an illustration of the fact that CtR does not challenge hegemonic masculinity. Quite the contrary, they use the legitimacy of having served already to thwart any criticism pertaining to their patriotism or loyalty to Israel.

No, the men of CtR, and they are mostly men – the only women in Ctr are veterans’s mothers or working in support roles but not the public faces of the movement – are “real” Israeli men.

Their strategy involves public refusals, that is, to make the public statement that one refuses to serve because one disagrees with the political goals of the occupation. This is in contrast to what is called grey refusal: finding medical or other reasons to not serve without invoking political motives. For the men in CtR, only a public refusal is a political act, that is, legitimate.

Moreover, their statement is couched in terms that could very well apply to soldiers in a military campaign:

This strategy has been very successful in terms of gaining legitimacy and avoiding the usual criticisms of refusenik groups. CtR has been portrayed relatively favorably by the media and they have not been too severely attacked by the government even though some of their members have been incarcerated as a result of their refusal to serve, which is part of their activism.

If one looks at the website, one would notice that it contains nationalist and patriotic symbols. So, again, there is no real challenge posed by CtR to Israeli patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity.

Another refusenik SMO – New Profile – has adopted a completely different strategy. NP’s strategy involves challenging hegemonic masculinity. NP endorses grey refusals considering all refusals as political acts. Some of the actions that NP has used to challenge the Israeli gender order has been to organize poster exhibits highlighting the mixing of gender and militarism in Israeli society (see right and click on the photo for the entire photo gallery).

Check out their flier for compare the look of NP members to that of CtR members as seen in the picture above.

And examine this opening paragraph from NP’s Charter:

The challenge to patriarchal militarism is clear and obvious.. Where CtR uses the cultural standard of strong men and claim their hegemonic masculine status, NP challenges the way men are evaluated in Israeli society. Needless to say, NP has more women and gay and lesbian members.

Moreover, there is also a class aspect to NP’s acceptance (if not encouragement) of grey refusals: public refusals (and therefore acceptance of being jailed) require socio-economic resources available only to certain social classes. Therefore, lower class men may have no choice but to serve since they cannot afford the “luxury” of a grandstanding public refusal. For them, NP offers the alternative of a grey refusal as acceptable political act.

Needless to say, NP has not received a warm welcome from the public or the government. They have been investigated.

For Minkin, there is no question that the strategic choices of each SMO has shaped its reception by the public and the government. One group fully affirmed Israeli gender norms and posed no threat to the militarist status quo and is perceived as legitimate. The other presents a deeper societal challenge and pays the price for it.