Book Review – Communication Power – 1

Since Manuel Castells is my sociologist of the semester, it is only fair that I devote some blogging space to his latest opus magnum (does he ever write any other kind?), Communication Power. Reviewing this book is probably going to take more than one post as Castells’s writing is so dense, it is hard to summarize and unpack in just a few words. Castells, of course, is the Max Weber of our times and is the one who most thoroughly studies the network society, and started doing so before it was cool.

So, I will dedicate the first few posts to the conceptual background of Castells’s theory of power in the network society. These concepts are the tools needed to follow along and truly get the depth of Castells’s thinking.

The central question of the book?

“Why, how, and by whom power relationships are constructed and exercised through the management of communication processes, and how these power relationships can be altered by social actors aiming for social change by influencing the public mind.” (3)

For Castells, the capacity to shape minds is the most fundamental form of power as it allows for the stabilization of domination, something that pure coercion cannot accomplish. Consent works better than using fear and makes it easier to actually exercise institutional power. And if, as Erik Olin Wright tells us, human behavior is mostly driven by norms, then, the more institutionalized these norms are, the more they will be embedded in our thinking and applied in everyday life as what comes naturally rather than compliance to power. It is in this sense that control of communication processes is a fundamental mechanism of power.

So, what is power:

“Power is the most fundamental process in society, since society is defined around values and institutions, and what is valued and institutionalized is defined by power relationships.

Power is the relational capacity that enables a social actor to influence  asymmetrically the decisions of other social actor(s) in ways that favor the empowerment of the actor’s will, interests and values. Power is exercised by means of coercion (or the possibility of it) and/or by the construction of meaning on the basis of the discourses through which social actors guide their action. Power relationships are framed by domination, which is the power that is embedded in the institutions of society.” (10)

I have emphasized the key concepts here. Social actor refers to not just individuals but also groups, organizations and institutions as well as any other kind of collective actors, including networks. Relational capacity, obviously, reflects that power is a relationship, not an attribute. There is no power outside of relationships between actors, some empowered and other subjected to power. And, in a very foucauldian way, Castells emphasizes right off the bat that power always involve resistance that can alter power relationships if it becomes strong enough to surpass compliance. If the powerful lose power, then, there is also institutional transformation, that is, structural change triggered by relational change.

For Castells, the imposition of power through sheer coercion is relationally non-social:

“If a power relationship can only be enacted by relying on structural domination backed by violence, those in power, in order to maintain their domination, must destroy the relational capacity of the resisting actor(s), thus canceling the relationship itself. (…) Sheer imposition of by force is not a social relationship because it leads to the obliteration of the dominated social actor, so that the relationship disappears with the extinction of one of its terms. It is, however, social action with social meaning because the use of force constitutes an intimidating influence  over the surviving subjects under similar domination, helping to reassert power relationships vis-à-vis these subjects.” (11)

Hence, the Capitol constantly reminding all 12 Districts of what happened to District 13 in the Hunger Games.

But for Castells, coercion is only one mechanism in a multilayered conception of power. And the more human minds can be shaped on behalf of specific interests and values, the less coercion and violence will be needed.  The construction of meaning to shape minds and to have these meanings embedded in institutions is important as they produce legitimation (see: Habermas) and legitimation is key to stabilize power relations, especially under the aegis of the state.

If there is no such construction of meaning, then, the state’s intervention in the public sphere will be exposed as an exercise in the defense of specific interests and naked power, triggering a legitimation crisis (does this sound familiar?). That is, the state will be seen as an instrument of domination rather than an institution of representation. There is no legitimation without consent based on shared meaning. This is why, under conditions of legitimation crisis, the state (or adjunct organizations) quickly relies on coercive mechanisms (macing, kettling, etc. all reflect this).

So, what are exactly the different layers of power?

“Violence, the threat to resort to it, disciplinary discourses, the threat to enact discipline, the institutionalization of power relationships as reproducible domination, and the legitimation process by which values and rules are accepted by the subjects of reference, are all interacting elements in the process of producing and reproducing power relationships in social practices in organizational forms.” (13)

And so, societies are not nice Parsonian communities sharing values and norms and interests, in a very Gemeinschaft / mechanical solidarity way. Social structures are, as Castells puts it, crystallized power relationships reflecting the state of never-ending conflict between opposing social actors and whose capacity to institutionalize their values and interests prevailed. And these social structures are themselves the products of processes of structuration that are multilayered and multiscalar (global, regional, national, local… that was a mouthful).

So,

“Power is not located in one particular social sphere or institution, but it is distributed throughout the entire realm of human action. Yet, there are concentrated expressions of power relationships in certain social forms that condition and frame the practice of power in society at large by enforcing domination. Power is relational, domination is institutional.” (15)

Power through multilayered and multiscalar structuration processes has a lot to do with globalization, which has not eradicated the nation-state but changed its nature (“the post-national constellation” as David Held – pre-disgrace – coined it) as part of global assemblages (Saskia Sassen). In that sense, Castells thinks that Michael Mann’s definition of societies as “constituted of multiple, overlapping and interacting sociospatial networks of power” still holds true. In the global age, the state is just one node of overlapping networks (military, political or institutional).

Next up, networks and the network society.

Protecting Social Privilege = Not Wanting to Share Toys

By now, you have all probably been exposed to the Hunger Games racist fiasco (neatly collected and curated here). The story goes something like this: once upon a time, a lot of young people (mostly white) read a trilogy and much enjoyed it. Unsurprisingly, the books were put into film production. When the initial casting was disclosed… Horror and Abomination… some parts had been given to *gasp* BLACK actors. One was obvious (Rue was described as dark-skinned in the book) but the main other (Cinna, not really described in the book) was shocking.

After all, no racial description means white, by default, right? Especially since Cinna is a good guy. Read the Tumblr entries and note how that is the issue. In our cultural and symbolic universe, white = goodness, purity, innocence, and black = darkness and other ominous qualities. By the time the first movie was released, the white young people were appalled that someone had taken their book and changed that one, all of a sudden, central characteristic… without asking them.

This goes back to a point I have made several times: the cultural schemes that guide and shape our experience and perception of others, cultural products and experiences are discreetly racist. The non-white casting just acted as a trigger for the racist background knowledge (in Alfred Schutz’s sense) and pushed that aspect to the forefront.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

And speaking of that, yesterday, came the earth-shattering news that Instagram had released an app for Android. Oh dear. The cool kids who have been using it through their Apple products were not pleased and they all unleashed their distress on Twitter:

See also here.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

Here is the lesson: when a group enjoys a certain privilege, whether in terms of race, economic or social status, part of the privilege is having, or having access to, something that others don’t have. In typical in-group logic, the “something” in question becomes “ours”, part of who we are, of what we experience and enjoy together, and this enjoyment is based on exclusion. The exclusion makes “us” feel special and deserving (even though the “something” is unearned).

Once a system opens up and the dreaded “others” (racial minorities, lower classes or *egad* Android users – who can also be totally snotty, I should add) have access to “our” special “something”. It feels like “we” are being dispossessed of what is rightfully “ours” even though “we” are the deserving ones and “they” are not. This reaction towards Instagram for Androids is very reminiscent of the resentment towards affirmative action: the resentment is based on the – thoroughly false – idea that whites got in college through exclusively their own merits while blacks had to be pushed there by the government. More than that, for every black making it to college, it is automatically assumed that a more qualified white got excluded.

Now, apps are not educational public policy but the logic of privilege still applies as well as that of ingroup v. out-group dynamics.

That being said, this made me laugh out loud (or LOL as the cool kids say):

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go download Instagram for Android, just because I know it will piss “them” off.

Bowling Alone v. Playing Words With Friends – Sociability 2.0

The reason why social conservatives have declared a “culture war” is because their faulty understanding of society is that it rests on an imaginary conception of the family as the moral and economic pillar of society, based on patriarchal values and structure, a model that existed for a brief period of time and was the exception, not the traditional family. In reality, family structures vary and change based on larger structural factors such as the economy, technology and cultural factors as well. But, having posited this faulty model as the one and only that works and is functional for society, any variation is perceived as a dysfunction and deviance from the norm, especially if such variations challenges patriarchal ideas and structures.

And yet, these structures change for a variety of reasons that d not mean decline of the Western civilization.

Case 1: divorce legislation is social progress, as sociologist François de Singly notes here. For him (and as research has shown), divorce does not mean disruption or decetering of the notion of coupling but it does mean a right to say no and a right to end bad relationships if they do not satisfy the partners (one should always remember that low-divorce countries are usually countries where women do not have access to divorce and if they do, are placed at a monumental socioeconomic disadvantage, along with the stigma attached, thanks to religious conservatives). Therefore, it is not surprising that financially autonomous women are more likely to avail themselves of the opportunity. Progress! Divorce today is largely based on two individuals making decisions about their respective lives. There are heavy economic and financial consequences, but the real problem is the persistence inequalities between men and women that tend to be exacerbated by marriage. The more a couple has children, the more a man invests in his career, the more the wife’s career slows down and stalls. This is marriage costs mostly borne by women and that is largely hidden as long as the couple stays married and becomes highly visible when they get divorced.

De Singly does not believe that people just practice consumerist marriage (getting into and dumping marriage like one dumps consumer goods). Studies show that women, especially, go to great lengths to maintain and not lose their relationships. Individuals do need some stability but there is no reason to think that can only come through coupling and marriage. We tend to forget that marrying for love is a very recent idea, and, as Stephanie Coontz has demonstrated over and over, this is a factor of destabilization for couples, not a lackadaisical attitude towards marriage.

And for anyone harping about divorce because “OMG, what about the children?”, reading this book should be mandatory.

Case 2: singlehood on the rise, and it is not the end of the world for long-term singles. Singles are on the rise (a 50% increase – includes widows though – since 1990, according to this article) and this trend reveals behavioral changes. Young adults are less eager to move in as couples and are more likely to go solo. In the middle years, this is where there is a large increase of living single, especially for men (especially divorced men who are less likely to have custody of their children).

And as always, social classes matter. White collar workers are more likely to go solo, followed by blue-collar workers. There are still quite a few farmers in France and they are less likely to live alone. They either are married or also live with their parents on the family farm. Up the social ladder, one finds more coupling. Nothing surprising there either: for small business owners, spouses often work together, for the upper classes, greater economic security of two higher incomes makes coupling a more attractive option.

One real consequence of this trend is the lack of affordable and adapted housing.

And since I mentioned Eric Klinenberg’s book, there was also this article in the New York Times on the subject:

“MORE people live alone now than at any other time in history. In prosperous American cities — Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Minneapolis — 40 percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and in Washington, nearly one in two households are occupied by a single person.

By international standards, these numbers are surprising — surprisingly low. In Paris, the city of lovers, more than half of all households contain single people, and in socialist Stockholm, the rate tops 60 percent.

The decision to live alone is common in diverse cultures whenever it is economically feasible. Although Americans pride themselves on their self-reliance and culture of individualism, Germany, France and Britain have a greater proportion of one-person households than the United States, as does Japan. Three of the nations with the fastest-growing populations of single people — China, India and Brazil — are also among those with the fastest growing economies.

The mere thought of living alone once sparked anxiety, dread and visions of loneliness. But those images are dated. Now the most privileged people on earth use their resources to separate from one another, to buy privacy and personal space.

Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization — all prized aspects of contemporary life.

It is less feared, too, for the crucial reason that living alone no longer suggests an isolated or less-social life. After interviewing more than 300 singletons (my term for people who live alone) during nearly a decade of research, I’ve concluded that living alone seems to encourage more, not less, social interaction.

Paradoxically, our species, so long defined by groups and by the nuclear family, has been able to embark on this experiment in solo living because global societies have become so interdependent. Dynamic markets, flourishing cities and open communications systems make modern autonomy more appealing; they give us the capacity to live alone but to engage with others when and how we want to and on our own terms.

In fact, living alone can make it easier to be social, because single people have more free time, absent family obligations, to engage in social activities.

Compared with their married counterparts, single people are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors, go to restaurants and attend art classes and lectures. There is much research suggesting that single people get out more — and not only the younger ones. Erin Cornwell, a sociologist at Cornell, analyzed results from the General Social Survey (which draws on a nationally representative sample of the United States population) from 2000 to 2008 and found that single people 35 and older were more likely than those who lived with a spouse or a romantic partner to spend a social evening with neighbors or friends. In 2008, her husband,Benjamin Cornwell (also a sociologist at Cornell), was lead author of “The Social Connectedness of Older Adults,” a paper in the American Sociological Review that showed that single seniors had the same number of friends and core discussion partners as their married peers and were more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors.”

In other words, single does not mean alone or lonely.

But this shows that culture may produce trends that social structure need to catch up to:

“Activists say that unmarried people are systematically discriminated against. They pay more for health and car insurance than married people do. They don’t get the same kind of tax breaks. Co-op boards, mortgage brokers, and landlords often pass them over. So do the employers with the power to promote them. “Single-ism—stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single—is largely unrecognized and unchallenged,” says activist Bella DePaulo, the author of Singled Out.”

In the context of risk society and global mobility, certain social structures (marriage, homeownership) may become less adapted to economic realities while others (singlehood and renting) might be more adapted. Because, as I mentioned above, patterns of sociability tend to be a function of the economy.

 

Re-Embedding The Greek Crisis

I am always suspicious of broad generalizations about entire populations or generations. So, I am not entirely sure what to make of this argument by sociologist Sophia Mappa. Something to think about. It is in French, so here is the gist of it in English.

The starting point of her argument is that Angela Merkel’s inflexibility is incomprehensible to ordinary Greeks. The reason is that such inflexibility is rooted in the protestant culture of the 16th century, something well-known thanks to Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This moral culture is one of individual obedience to divine law, disregarded due to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a culture of glorification of labor as a means of salvation which led to human dominion over nature (and other humans) in order to generate wealth and where frugality and puritanism are the norms of individual moral conduct. According to Weber, this is what led to the rise of capitalism. For Mappa, this is what explains its persistence in Germany, even as this system is being questioned all over Europe, as part of both the economic crisis and the legitimation crisis. From this perspective, the laborious and strong Germans’s views of the weakening of their European neighbors stems from these protestant roots.

Mappa argues that German culture is both close and very different from European Latin cultures. It has produced grandiosity and misery at the same time, including a certain intolerance to other cultures and a desire to dominate them and force them to accept the German model. Merkel’s policies reflect such an attitude. Her position seems to push for the punishment of the heretic rather getting out of the crisis.

At the same time, Greek history has different roots, linked to the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. After all, according to Mappa, Greece did not directly contribute to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Westphalian order or capitalism (except as historical remembrance but not as active power player, if I may use that expression). The Greek state, set up in the 19th Century, was not a product of its people’s will. As with all colonized countries, the state apparatus, the constitutions, the kings, the polity and their financing, were provided, right off the bat, by the European chanceries.

The spirit of these institutions never took hold in Greek society. There was no adaptation or emergence of alternatives in order to get closer to Europe. The Greek society then invested these foreign institutions with its own culture, and especially with the centrality of the Church. And so, if it accepted Europe-approved kings, it opposed the emergence of central governance mechanisms, typical of the modern nation-state.

For Mappa, Greek political power is rooted, even to this say, in the imaginary of the Ottoman Empire, that of the beys and other clan chiefs, reigning over their clients and kinship networks, trading material welfare for political allegiance. The now-famous refusal to pay taxes, so widespread in this society, stems this imperial past where taxation was domination, and not construction of a central authority, for the common welfare (at least in theory) beyond particularisms. For the past two centuries, this state has been regulated from the outside: the European chanceries, the US after WWII, and since 1981, the European Commission.

For the past two centuries, then, those in charge of the state have submitted to the diktats from the outside, while adapting them to their own benefit and those of their clients and cronies. That is what the lat Prime Minister – Georges Papandréou – did, and that is what his successor, Loukas Papadimos, will do despite his much vaunted technocratic credentials.

Economically speaking, according to Mappa, there was never any collective acceptance of the spirit of capitalism. Economic activity remained tied to Greek history and traditional trade: agriculture, commerce, fishery, banking and tourism, but not industry. It is not that the Greeks are lazy, as Merkel and other might think. But, despite the common – yet false – idea that capitalism is part of human nature and therefore universal, the Greeks, as many others on this planet, do not get its spirit and mechanisms. And Greece’s entrance into the European Union has not changed that.

And quite predictably, European financial flows, allocated by the European Economic Community were used not for production, for clientelism and and consumption of European-made goods, including weaponry from France and Germany. And under neoliberal governance, the liberalization of the markets and competition from Western goods, the traditional gap between production and consumption led to the current disaster. For Mappa, without a doubt, there is a great deal of responsibility from the Greek society and especially its elite.

BUT… (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you)

European leaders are also to blame for their simplistic economic dogma and the illusion of their omnipotence in governing other countries. They are currently ruining their own societies and preventing EU peripheral countries from recovering from the crisis.

At this point, an EU commissioner would bring nothing to Greece. Quite the opposite. This would only be seen as yet another humiliation that would aggravate the despair and rebellion that are already quite widespread.

So, certain ideas need to be questioned: austerity measures, Merkel’s illusion that one can just shape societies at the snap of a finger, with some stern disciplining from the hegemon. It is not just the destruction of Greece that is at stake, but that of the entire European Union.

And if that was not convincing enough, there is this:

“Homelessness has soared by an estimated 25% since 2009 as Greece spirals further into its worst post-war economic crisis.

The country is now in its fifth straight year of recession and the official unemployment rate is nudging 20%, exacerbated by the austerity measures being pushed through in return for more bail-out money.

Greeks now speak of another section of society: the “new homeless”.

“They don’t have the ‘traditional profile’ of homeless people,” says Ms Nousi.

“They are well dressed and well educated. Until last year they had a good flat or a nice car – and now they have nothing.

“So it’s another kind of misery – another kind of poverty. We were not prepared for this poverty, but it exists.”

One of the new regulars at the kitchen is Vicky Kolozi.

A former journalist with the state broadcaster ERT, she lost her job a year ago and now cannot afford to feed herself and her daughter.

“It is hard to feel that I have to depend on this now,” she tells me.

And that reality is particularly harsh at the moment as Greece shivers in freezing temperatures.”

And beyond Greece, Italy:

“With around one in three young Italians now unemployed, many of its younger generation are contemplating emigrating to destinations as far afield as Africa and South America, in the hope of better employment prospects.”

Book Review – Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction

Philippe Coulangeon‘s Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction: Inégalités Culturelles dans la France D’Aujourd’hui provides an overview of the state of cultural capital and profits of distinction 30 years or so after, well, The Distinction, in the context of massification of higher education and public policies of cultural democratization and democratization of culture (and no, that’s not the same).

This is an interesting book but not an easy read. The writing is quite convoluted with a lot of intricate sentences containing qualifiers and modifiers and sub-propositions. If you are not familiar with French, you are going to need to do a lot of sentence mapping to figure it out. It is a shame because the book has a lot of good points and anyone interested in issues pertaining to cultural capital should read it.

The book explores four main questions:

1. What is today the role of culture is the structuring of class relations?

2. What are the consequences of the mass higher education starting in the 1960s and with even more intensity throughout the 1980s and 90s? Has this massification reduced the cultural dimension of class structuring?

3. What has been the impact of public policy regarding cultural democratization?

4. And finally, have all these developments transformed the norms of cultural legitimacy and the symbolic dimension of social domination?

1. So, is culture still a “classing” factor, or a class marker? Does The Distinction still hold? In the study, Bourdieu and his co-author extends the idea of cultural legitimacy and dominance to a whole range of cultural practices and lifestyles and show that the social stratification of taste, style and modes of consumption is as important that consumed goods and products. In Bourdieu’s terms, there is a structural homology between the space of social positions and the space of lifestyles.

This forms of stratification of taste and lifestyle, combined with reproduction of inequalities in education, contributed to highlight the symbolic dimension of social class relations. And in both contexts, the establishment of norms of “good taste” and proper school dispositions contributes imposing forms of symbolic violence against the subordinate classes. Ways of eating, dressing, talking, etc. mark people along class lines. The imposition of such norms, legitimated as non-class based, serve as mechanisms of closure and exclusion.

Another aspect of symbolic violence is to disguise the arbitrariness of dominant norms of taste as individualized (therefore, a lack of taste is an individual shortcoming) rather than class-based exclusion. The same goes for academic success where class-based legitimate curriculum favors the children of the dominant classes, but success and failure is promoted as a matter of  “ability” (an individual trait) or other individual characteristics. These forms of class-based institutional discrimination are still quite prevalent in a lot of social settings (such as job interviews, entrance exams and social networks).

But is it the case that class is now less important, as a social marker, than gender or race / ethnicity, for instance? Coulangeon argues that that is not the case. the data on French cultural practices still show significant social distinctions. It should not be forgotten that the consumption of cultural goods takes money. And in the context of increasing inequalities and economic crisis, the upper classes are still the ones with money to spend, as a larger part of their income, in that department. As such, access to the most legitimate cultural practices is still largely marked by strong inequalities whether these practices are public (such as museum visits, attendance at classical music concerts, etc.) or domestic (reading).

At the same time, this inertia of cultural habits has also been accompanied by a relative decline of the most legitimate practices even in the dominant classes without a corresponding democratization (the upper classes may read less but it does not mean that the lower classes read more).

And third evolution: there seems, according to Coulangeon, to have been a lowering of the profits of distinction to be gained from legitimate cultural practices, especially the domestic ones, so that upper classes are then more likely to engage in public practices.

2. What of all this in the context of the massification of higher education. Wouldn’t one expect a greater access to higher education to expand the consumption of dominant cultural practices? Coulangeon makes mince meat of two common criticism of greater access to higher education: (1) a decline in the social value of college degrees as they become more widespread, and (2) a decline in academic ability alongside grade inflation. On the first one, he argues that the fact that young people with college degrees having a hard time finding jobs may have more to do with the labor market and greater precarization than the value of degrees per se. If anything, it is more costly to NOT have a college degree today than ever before. As to the second one, the decline arguments are usually based on data that compare generations that are hardly comparable. Rather compare college students of today with college students of yore, it would be more significant to compare individuals with comparable background, and see the differences between those who received college degrees and those who did not.

Traditionally, there has been a strong correlation between level of education and cultural attitudes and practices. So, logically, the expansion of higher education should have led to a corresponding expansion of the demand for legitimate cultural goods. According to Coulangeon, that has not been the case. Part of this has also to do with the greater porosity between the educational institution and mass media culture. This means that the current generation of college students has high levels of consumption of such mass media and entertainment products, and less of legitimate, scholarly-approved cultural goods. Socially, there has also been a decrease in the  cultural authority of education as a social institution, and its ability to legitimate cultural goods and practices.

What has happened then, according to Coulangeon, is an inverted mimetism: rather than college students from the lower classes adopting the cultural habits – albeit imperfectly – of the upper class, it is students of the upper classes that have absorbed cultural tastes and practices of mass, popular culture. This does not mean that class differences have completely disappeared. Family background, in terms of cultural capital, still matters. But a main effect of the expansion of higher education is that working-class families now realistically consider college as part of the educational aspirations for their children.

However, Coulangeon notes two additional effects of the expansion of higher education: (1) a loosening of class solidarity replaced by a greater individualistic outlook on social mobility, based on equal opportunity, and (2) beyond a relative uniformization (through the irruption of popular culture into academic culture as the numbers of working-class students increased), there is a stark contrast in terms of living conditions: as upper class students see their time as students as a time of innovation and experimentation, working-class students live it as exposure to precarization (rather than the social and financial autonomy an earlier entry into the labor market gave them in previous generations). Class still matters.

Finally, the decline in cultural authority of the institution of higher education is also a product of its expansion. As more working class students gained access to college, the aura of prestige enjoyed by the institutions declined. The greater the social distance between the working class and the institution, the greater the prestige. And vice versa. Social proximity led to reduced prestige.

3. Public policy in the cultural domain has been based on two different conceptions: (1) cultural democratization, that is, increasing access to “high” culture for the masses, such greater access being defined as a universal social good; and (2) greater democratic culture, that is, legitimizing of erstwhile marginalized cultural forms (originating from specific ethnic minorities, for instance, or lower-class forms). How has this worked?

Coulangeon argues that, when it comes to cultural practices, social origins (generating dispositions) may still exert a heavy weight compared to social position (hence, greater weight to cultural habits inherited during family socialization than through education). But this needs to be qualified somewhat in the context of plural socialization that creates a volatility of cultural tastes. At the same time, with a lessening of the level of prestige and legitimacy enjoyed by the educational institution, there has a been a corresponding decline of the profits of distinction connected to the possession of high cultural capital alongside the emergence of new culturally-valued goods and practices (such as a cosmopolitan outlook and soft skills).

There is therefore a redefinition of what cultural legitimacy means.

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Pricing Beauty

If you are looking for good primary sources to introduce undergraduate students to real sociology, then Ashley Mears‘s Pricing Beauty is the perfect choice. At its core, the book is a participant observation study where the sociologist becomes a fashion model for a period of time and uses the opportunity to also conduct series of interviews with the different actors involved in that field (there us a nice methodological appendix at the end of the book so, if you are so inclined, you can have your students look at the nitty gritty work of putting together a sociological study).

But in addition to the participant observation / interview aspects of the study, Mears maps the social structure of that particular field (you know, my Structure / History / Power holy trinity of sociological thinking). She covers its internal stratification as well as gender and racial / ethnic issues. She discusses the field as a subculture, with its own norms, values, and the overarching dominance of the concept of “the look” (which is impossible to define but to which everyone refers). She treats the fashion world as a Bourdieusian field of practices, with its power dynamics, its dominant and dominated categories, and its specific habitus.

In the process, she brings in quite a few sociological concepts and theories, but it is always done in a highly readable fashion, with a lot of quotes from her interviews, and observations from her field notes, which makes reading the book a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The book is also partly a story, her story of life as a model for a short period of time.

And most of all, she shows very clearly why a sociological outlook is necessary and relevant (all citations from the Kindle edition):

“Success in markets such as fashion modeling might on the surface appear to be a matter of blind luck or pure genius. But luck is never blind, nor does genius work alone. Behind every winner in a winner-take-all market such as fashion modeling is a complex, organized production process. The secrets to success have much less to do with the models themselves than with the social context of an unstable market. There is little intrinsic value in a model’s physique that would set her apart from any number of other similarly built teens.

(…)

Rather, an invisible social world is hard at work behind the scenes of fashion to bequeath cultural value onto looks. The backstage of fashion reveals a set of players—models, agents, and clients—and the peculiar rules of their game that usually remain hidden behind the brilliantly lit runways, the glossy magazine pages, and the celebrated glamour of fashion.” (Loc. 222-8)

And a sociological outlook is necessary precisely because, behind the glamour, the social construction of the fashion world and the figure of the fashion model, is completely eclipsed and made invisible, and hidden from view:

“As glamour is cast upon the model’s look, all of her work—and the work of her agents, clients, their assistants, and their whole social world—gets juggled out of sight. This social world is enormously important in determining the realm of beauty and fashion ideals; after all, the relations of cultural production determine the possibilities of cultural consumption. Ultimately the clandestine world of fashion teaches us about much more than beauty and apparel; it holds lessons for the nature of modern work, markets, decision making, and new forms of racial and gender inequality.

(…)

We usually can’t see it, but there is an entire world of work that goes into producing that which appears to be a natural state: a model’s “look.”” (Loc. 231-7)

And that is precisely what Mears exposes throughout her book. And at the center of this social world, what drives actors’ practices is “the look”:

“The term “look” seems to describe a fixed set of physical attributes, such as how a person actually looks. It’s true that models conform to basic Western standards of attractiveness, for instance, youthfulness, clear skin, healthy teeth, and symmetrical features. Within this frame, they adhere to narrow height and weight specifications. The female model is typically at least 5′9″ with body measurements close to a 34″ bust, a 24″ waist, and 34″ hips. The male model is typically 6′ to 6′3″ with a 32″ waist and a 39″ to 40″ chest. This framework is, as one stylist explained to me, a “good ol’ formula” for a model. But this formula does not, by itself, constitute a look. Beyond this basic physique, small and subtle differences lead clients to prefer one model over another. Models, bookers, and clients refer to these differences as a model’s “look.”7 Talking about the look proves exceptionally difficult for fashion insiders. Bookers and clients often grapple for the right words when asked to define a look. They struggle to explain that a look is a reference point, a theme, a feeling, an era, or even an “essence.” A look is decidedly not the equivalent of beauty or sexual attractiveness.” (Loc. 252)

But beyond these parameters, “the look” seems almost impossible to define and an elusive concept to capture in interviews. The above just defines the kind of bodily capital one needs to minimally have to work in fashion. But “the look” seems to constitute a Schutzian specialized stock of knowledge, shared by all actors in the fashion world, and generates relations between actors and organizations within the field.

At the same time, the field of fashion is part of the larger creative economy, based on aesthetics and whose products are designed to generate desire and fill consumer demands. In that context, models are cultural products whose value is quite volatile. As a result, most models are part of the precariat and are the product of the work of a cohort of other fashion actors:

“While models reap plenty of attention as pop culture icons, no model gets far without the campaigning efforts of a booker and a few key clients. Networks of agents, scouts, assistants, editors, stylists, photographers, and designers constitute a production world that links models to fashion consumers. Scouts and agents “discover” raw bodily capital and then filter it to clients—photographers, designers, art and casting directors, stylists, and catalog houses. These clients “rent” models for short periods of time, maybe a few hours, days, or weeks, during which time they deploy this capital to appear in media outlets such as catalogs, showrooms, advertisements, magazines, catwalks, showrooms, and “look books,” which are booklets that feature a designer’s new clothing collection. In these media outlets, models’ images serve to entice store buyers and, ultimately, to seduce fashion shoppers, the final consumers of the look, into making a purchase.” (Loc. 293)

This also means that the world of fashion is highly unstable. Models never know (except for the few big time stars) when and where they are going to work, for how long, and when their careers will end. Most models are freelancers, working in Arne Kalleberg’s bad jobs (I certainly did not know that the median income for models is less than $30,000 and careers last less than five years) but with high potential prestige for women.

So, it is not all about the good genes but about social structure and social relations (including relations of power). There is also a basic division between the aesthetic actors of the field, and the economic ones (those whose interest is to make money, as opposed to art).

Also central to the world of fashion is a basic division between editorial fashion and commercial fashion:

“We can think of editorial and commercial fashion as “circuits of value” because players in each share different measures of success and value. Editorial and commercial producers have distinctive understandings of what counts as good taste, good work, and fair payment. In fact, a large sum of money from catalog clients, when looked at from the editorial circuit, is worthless compared to the few hundred dollars to be earned on a magazine shoot. Editorial and commercial producers share different ideas about what counts as the “look” at all. Within this field, models, bookers, and clients all grapple for better footing in what amounts to a prestige hierarchy.” (Loc. 719)

Commercial modeling involves posing for catalogs. The work is less precarious, pays decently but brings no prestige. It is actually a bit stigmatized in the field. In commercial modeling, models’ looks are to be non-threatening average audience, be wholesome and all American. In editorial modeling (walking the most famous runways, posing for famous photographers for fashion magazine shoots), the work is more uncertain, the pay relatively lousy, except for the few big names, but this is where the prestige is. The concept of capital is relevant here:

“Models who specialize in editorial work, so named after “editorial” pages that showcase editors’ opinions, book predominantly magazine shoots and catwalk shows. These are by far the poorest-paid jobs in modeling. But payment in a cultural production field takes several forms, and in modeling, not all monies are equal. Though editorial jobs pay low immediate economic returns, or “economic capital,” they are rich in prestige, or “symbolic capital.” Prestige is valuable in its own right, as it enables one to “make a name for oneself” and grants authority to consecrate “good taste.” Agencies and models are betting against the odds that symbolic capital will eventually pay off in the long run should the model score a luxury-brand campaign.” (Loc. 930)

This means that commercial careers may last a bit longer than editorial career. After all, an “edgy” look may change very rapidly while a commercial look is relatively constant and is seen as conventionally attractive. This symbolic hierarchy of models correspond to a hierarchy of consumers as well. Commercial models target mass consumers. The point is simply to sell stuff.  On the contrary, the edgy look of the editorial model matches the high status of fashion consumers, field insiders, high-fashion producers and people who read avant-garde magazines. The point is to build brand identity.

The work of an editorial model is to produce art, detached from economic conventions. There is higher symbolic capital to be earned there.  Mears uses Bourdieu’s expression of “economic world reversed” to describe this:

“Nonmonetary payments are crucial to the pricing system in the aesthetic economy. Cash is just one recognized type of currency, and not necessarily the most valued kind. Payment could come in forms ranging from thousands of dollars to a free handbag, pictures, the promise of publicity, and the association with high-status clients such as Vogue and photographer Steven Meisel.” (Loc. 1079)

But it is only through the editorial circuit that models can hope to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune, not the commercial circuit. And yet, the editorial circuit highly risky and precarious. Catalog work is bread and butter but is despised at the same time:

“If we break down these earnings by hourly rate, we end up at $12.50/hour for an eight-hour editorial job, $166/hour for the catwalk (an average five-hour, $1,000 runway show), $200/hour for showroom work, $343.75/hour for catatog work (an eight-hour, $2,750 catalog), and $2,287.50/hour for advertising.” (Loc. 1139)

Prestige is the currency of the editorial world, and this factor contributes to driving wages down further as models are often paid in goods. At the same time, Mears shows that most Fashion Week shows generate no money for designers, the profit is in brand-building. Again, the profits are symbolic, which means, in terms of prestige. At the same time, the cost of maintaining one’s lifetime as a model are quite high, as Mears demonstrates and the models are constantly in debt to their agencies.

This division between commercial and editorial also shapes the agency business: too many commercial models and an agency might make money but will have low prestige and credibility. Too many editorial models, and the agency will lose money. So, agencies have to strike the right balance.

And it is all these social factors that create the fashion product we see on newsstands:

“Belief in the editorial game, the illusio, keeps the producer committed to the production of the “edgy” look, an ambiguous achievement that when at last it happens, it appears as if by magic! The miraculous “look” that leaps up to the editorial jackpot is no supernatural talent. It is a product of organized and orchestrating producers: models, bookers, and clients struggling among themselves and with each other. In this struggle, the value of the look and the belief in that value are continuously generated. Like all miracles, the look is born out of social alchemy.” (Loc.1614)

After going over the economics of fashion, Mears spends a fascinating chapter on her socialization into the fashion world, learning to walk, dress, move, behave, etc., all in the name of learning to use her bodily capital and get shoots. And it is a perfect illustration of  socialization as a process of interaction with a variety of agents of socialization and of some of the theories presented in introduction to sociology courses (looking-glass self, etc.).

The bodily socialization aspect is especially interesting as we tend to think of the body as this biological thing we carry around but this chapter clearly shows how social our bodies are and how they get “trained” in interaction, in a variety of contexts. The body of the model embodies (really) the norms of the fashion world:

“My experience of (almost) going to meet a superstar photographer was instructive with many lessons: be dressed; defer to your bookers; expect to be watched; embody rock and roll; be young; be your best self. Such lessons are part of the repertoire of bodily and emotional habits that models pick up and incorporate into their work routines. Some lessons are harder to learn than others. Some are pleasurable, others quite painful. The look is a social status that models work hard to achieve, though ultimately they are doomed to failure: no model can ever be the “right” look forever.” (Loc. 1699)

This is bodily labor, or body work. And it also involves some emotional labor where the whole body is involved. What seems specific about models’ bodily labor, is that, as freelance workers in precarious environment, they are largely on their own. And because this is such a volatile and unpredictable field, Mears argues that class is not a barrier of entry.

This socialization also involves learning to negotiation the casting, as equally uncertain social context. Fans of Goffman will have a field day with the whole presentation of self, problematic encounter and other dramaturgical concepts that are relevant here. And being socialized into modeling means having to learn to deal with rejection. Dealing with this means trying to control the only aspect models can control, their body and bodily capital. In that sense, models are in the same category of workers as athletes, professional dancers, strippers. But having one’s body as main working tool means being constantly subjected to various forms of bodily surveillance and sanctions but different actors in the field:

“Models are first mobilized into looks through routine objectification, floating norms of bodily perfection, infantilization, surveillance, and the threat of embarrassing reprimands. Models must have standard perfect bodies yet simultaneously project a unique, special kind of self. This self—both physical and emotional—must manage to fit within a proscribed general framework, and it must be distinctive. Both requirements take considerable work and manipulation to achieve.” (Loc. 2009)

And because models’ bodies are commodities, they are constantly touched, prodded, gazed at (see Foucault on the gaze as mechanism of social control), and manipulated in all sorts of poses by photographers and other actors. But there is one thing that differentiates the model from, say, the boxer:

“The difference is between being an instrument, that which does work, and an object, that which is worked upon. The boxer transforms his body for an active means toward a self-controlled end. The model’s body is more of a passive object, waiting to be chosen and put to use for other people’s ends in advertising and fashion displays. The boxing ring and the catwalk are both corporeal and competitive, but the champion boxer has a more tangible value than the fashion model: he is either knocked out or does the knocking. Models, however, have little sense of what will make for a “knockout” in the market for looks. That’s because, unlike the boxer, the model is not primarily in control of her wins and losses.” (Loc. 2038)

And in the case of models, managing one’s bodily capital means fighting one’s body to keep it skinny. Models internalize the gaze and engage in constant body monitoring and criticizing. And such self-regulation can be maddening when the standards are not clear and ever-fluctuating. And lack of effective self-monitoring is met with swift criticism from bookers, agents, photographers and other models. Every comment, look, gesture carries a hint at what a model may be doing wrong in the monitoring department. And the comments may be devastating (oh, and everybody lies on the measurements of the models):

“Such criticism, while usually subtle, threatens the model at every turn, as bookers, stylists, and designers feel entitled to make pointed comments about models’ appearances. Among the dozens of brutal comments I heard: one has thick ankles; one’s head is asymmetrically shaped; one is too “street-looking”; one has a bad mustache; one’s shoulders are too narrow; one’s scar is too prominent; one’s nose is “busted”; one has too many freckles; one’s ass is too big. Comments that would otherwise be dismissed as sexual harassment in most workplaces are routinely deployed, propelling models to keep on their toes lest they stray too far from the floating norms of the look.

These daily confrontations with objectification, floating norms, infantilization, the gaze, and abuse form a set of work routines and expectations through which models learn to embody the “right” look or, at least, to stay beyond the parameters of the “wrong” look. Under relentless surveillance and the threat of embarrassing ordeals, freelance aesthetic labor requires an adherence to floating norms. Bookers and clients need not exert managerial force—the impromptu taking of measurements, an embarrassing comment, a pair of too-tight jeans. The rest is up to the workers’ own devices. But work on the body involves considerable effort of the mind, and bodily capital can only be sold in the presence of another soft skill, the personality.” (loc. 2382)

After the socialization chapter, Mears follows with a chapter on the non-model actors of the fashion field, the tastemakers, as she calls them, those who define “the look” and decide who will make it to the next stage of an editorial career and who won’t: bookers, clients (either in the editorial or commercial circuits), photographers, stylists, casting directors, designers. All of them require not just a great body but also a “personality” that the models need to put on display (emotional labor, the managed heart and all that stuff). These different actors have various amounts of power in the field and various capacity to shape what “the look” of the year will be.

It is in this complex web of social relations that “the look” and jobs for the models will be found. All these actors play strategic games for both symbolic and financial gains, to place products (including models), earn and repay favors, etc. In this context buzz and gossip are two major forms of contextual knowledge that is produced, distributed and manipulated based on actors’s interests.

Take bookers, for instance:

“When high-status clients work with lower-status models, they inflate the status of that model, bringing them up with a level of prestige that can be passed on to other clients. Models are, in this sense, vessels of status, and they can transfer prestige between clients, as quality differences in other uncertain markets have been shown to do. Likewise, low-status models can bring down clients’ position in the hierarchy. One casting director told me about having to field phone calls from irate bookers after one Fashion Week show in which top models shared the catwalk with low-status showroom models. The bookers demanded to know, “Who was that girl in the show?,” and his trustworthiness was briefly called into question.

Employing the wrong models, those who are not recognized as “really good” by the right people, will detract from a client’s status. Finally, low-status clients can damage or detract from a model’s prestige. A “really good” model can lose some luster by shooting low-status catalogs or magazines. Bookers therefore carefully screen clients before confirming models. This status hierarchy and the bookers who guard it can be troublesome to lower-status clients hoping to book the “really good” models.” (Loc. 3637)

Mears also dedicates a chapter to the issue of race. One would think that the editorial side of the business would be more open to racial diversity, but that is not the case. There is slightly more diversity on the commercial side (mostly for commercial reasons). Bottom line: even for the edgy look, black women have the wrong bodies:

“Several other bookers saw the backside as particularly problematic when booking black models. The black backside has recently received plenty of attention in the press concerning First Lady Michelle Obama, whose entire body has been dismembered into arms, legs, butt, and hair, each part becoming a portal to read conflict, disorder, guile, and class. A black family in the White House has not eradicated bodily racial stereotypes but allowed for closer public inspection of them.

What matters is not the truth or falsehood of physical differences between white and non-white women but, rather, bookers’ presumption that such differences are unattractive and problematic. The implicit frame of beauty is so firmly rooted in whiteness that any deviation from a white, bourgeois body is viewed with disdain” (Loc. 4591)

And the assumption is that elite white audiences will not black women who are perceived as overly sexy/sexual. The editorial, edgy look should be idealized and unattainable, two characteristics that are historically impossible to associate with black women (colonialism oblige). The only way that blackness is accepted is through what is defined as “high end ethnic look”: just black skin, but everything else is white. High-end ethnicity means either (1) ethnicity lite (just a touch of ethnicity, not too much) and (2) exotic ethnicity (radical departure from white norm and where the exotic look is still a white – colonial – fantasy).

At the same time, the fashion world does not like the idea that it is racist, so, there are, of course token exceptions that legitimize exclusion (just like every once in a while, you will see non-size zero models). But these exception make it actually harder for others to get in as these exceptions permit the actors in the field to pat themselves on the back and bask in their accomplishments on diversity so that more does not need to be done.

But for Mears, this is not just a matter of individual sexism or racism:

“Fashion is an easy target of cultural criticism. The parade of size zero white girls down the catwalk affords fresh fodder for critiquing every six months, but charges of racism and sexism on the catwalk miss the larger sociological point. Fashion producers do not select models according to sexist or racist agendas; rather, looks materialize out of institutional arrangements and conventions that vary systematically across fashion’s two spheres of production, the editorial and the commercial. Within these two spheres, models are chosen to embody market-specific visions of femininity and masculinity that relate to the class positioning of an imagined audience. The look thus articulates ideas of gender, sexuality, and race that are mediated by class.” (Loc. 4889)

That is one of the most powerful sociological lessons, and yet, it gets ignored or forgotten or distorted as “making excuses”. One should always look at structural arrangements first, often embedded in subcultural norms that shape institutions. And because we are socialized in such social arrangements, we find it hard to see what is in the black boxes and harder to figure out how to change things. Many actors that Mears interviewed feel exactly that way.

And then, there is gender. When it comes to modeling, this is one case where anti-feminists would go “Aha!” as women make more money than men, and where men act gay to get jobs, are put on display, subjects to the same gaze as women. There is, of course, a long history of examining gender dynamics in the workplace beyond the wage gap.

In the fashion world, there is simply less demand for male models and they are seen as having less value than women models because cultural norms associate women and fashion. Bookers therefore are less likely to fight for men’s fees. Also, when men want to be models, they are seen with suspicion: being gay or, interestingly, hyper-straight (modeling as a way to get attractive women), hence the strategy of “going gay for pay”:

“Fashion today is perceived to be gay by industry insiders and outsiders alike.29 Everyone I interviewed—models, bookers, and clients alike—guessed that upward of 75 percent to 90 percent of men in the fashion industry are gay, excluding the male models. Working in an industry dominated by women and gay men, male models’ sexuality is on the line. Bookers explain that men, just like women, have to “work it” to get jobs—that is, they have to flirt with clients.

This entails male models going “gay for pay,” a phenomenon that sociologist Jeffrey Escoffier has found to be widespread in the porn industry, where straight men take on gay roles in higher-paying gay sex scenes. Gay for pay in fashion means strategically performing a homosexual identity at castings.” (Loc. 5396)

Men in modeling are also seen as unprofessional, more willing to accept lower payment because they have less to offer. To be a model is the opposite of the “doing gender” that boys and men are socialized into.

So, male models are perceived as debasing their masculinity and they must be something with them for pursuing that kind of career. And, as Mears describes it, there is just much less interest in the field when it comes to male modeling, at every level and with every category of actors:

“Agents devalue them. Clients mock them. And the market—as a conjunction of culture, social ties, and institutionalized conventions—generally punishes them. Male models know all of this, and for the most part they accept their lower pay and undermined potential, adhering to discourses that draw on traditional tropes of masculinity. The “boys” redefine their “worthlessness” as a privilege and a perk, and in the end they too devalue their own labor to resist a feminized role.” (Loc. 5655)

As a result, many male models describe their modeling not as a career but as a temporary stage, a stepping stone to something else (like acting), but not as something to be taken thoroughly seriously. Women are more likely to consider modeling as an end in itself, to be pursued as long as it lasts.

And, as such, this all reproduces male privilege and hegemonic masculinity:

“Such sentiments exemplify what sociologist Judith Stacey has called a postfeminist turn in culture, in which feminist ideas of equality have been incorporated into popular discourse only to be revised, depoliticized, and, ultimately, undermined.33 How innocently “the boys” ignore the systemic nature of masculine privilege and its historical legacy in structuring institutions ranging from law, family, work, and education; how happily they celebrate women as “rulers of the world,” as “the sex,” the eye candy, and the possessions! Modeling is a safe place for women to excel because they are not a real threat to men’s structural dominance. In fact, they confirm it, and they bolster it, by proving that women are better suited as bodies to look at.” (Loc. 5871)

As this ginormous review shows, I think this is a fascinating and important book that covers a lot of sociological ground in a highly accessible way (no small feat). I will make my intro students read it. Hopefully, they will get it. It is a great illustration of what sociology can do and show about society, culture, interaction and inequalities. It is also a great work in the sociology of work and precarization. And it is also a great read in sociology of gender.

Highly recommended.

Book Review – Games of Empire

Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter‘s Games of Empire – Global Capitalism and Video Games is a very interesting and well-written book that uses the conceptual apparatus laid out by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (with a touch of Deleuze and Guattari thrown in for good measure) in Empire and Multitude and apply them to the social world of video games as they are embedded in the global capitalist system. The book might be a bit advanced for an undergraduate audience with constant references to more abstract theories but is ultimately fascinating in relating the ins-and-outs of the videogame industry and culture to the workings of the world system.

The main argument of the book is this:

“The “militainment” of America’s Army and the “ludocapitalism” of Second Life display the interaction of virtual games and actual power in the context of Empire, an apparatus whose two pillars are the military and the market (Burston 2003; Dibbell 2006). Consider that the virtualities of Second Life feed back into the actualities of capital via the medium of the Linden dollar, and that the virtualities of America’s Army cycle into the actualities of combat via the Web link to the U.S. Army home page. Add, moreover, that the two games are connected: the high energy consumption and consumer goods of Second Life are what America’s Army recruits soldiers to fight and die for.  The two games reassert, rehearse, and reinforce Empire’s twin vital subjectivities of worker-consumer and soldier-citizen: Second Life recapitulates patterns of online shopping, social networking, and digital labor crucial to global capitalism; America’s Army is but one among an arsenal of simulators that the militarized states of capital – preeminently the United States – depend on to protect their power and use to promote, prepare, and preemptively practice deadly operations in computerized battlespaces (Blackmore 2005). Yet the examples of digital dissent in Second Life and America’s Army show that not all gamers accept the dominion of what James Der Derian (2001) terms “MIME-NET” – the military-industrial-media-entertainment network. Minor gestures that they are, these protests nevertheless suggest a route from game virtualities to another sort of actualities, that of the myriad activisms of twenty-first-century radicals seeking to construct an alternative to Empire.

Our hypothesis, then, is that video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire – planetary, militarized hypercapitalism – and of some of the forces presently challenging it.” (xiv – xv)

This connection is pretty obvious to make, after all, virtual games, along with the computer and the Internet, were products of military research. And more than just universes where otakus spend their lonely lives, virtual environments have gone legit by being used in the corporate world as training and surveillance tools.

Of course, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter go over Hardt and Negri’s conceptual apparatus and provide some clear definitions and examinations, especially Empire (the planetary regime of economic, military and technological power with no outside) whose global governance is multilayered, involving global institutions, nation-states and various agencies. The counterreaction to the power of Empire is Multitude, which covers all the forms of activism that, also in a multilayered and decentralized fashion, challenge the logic and processes of Empire. This is TINA (there is no alternative) versus AWIP (another world is possible).

A major process of empire is its capacity to extract energy from its subjects: as workers, as consumers, as soldiers, and as gamers, through immaterial labor, that is, the labor that involves use of information and communication and produces the affective component of commodities. Immaterial labor reveals the centrality of marketing, advertising and media in creating new products and managing workplaces that produce them.

Why virtual games?

“Virtual games are exemplary media of Empire. They crystallize in a paradigmatic way its constitution and its conflicts. Just as the eighteenth century novel was a textual apparatus generating bourgeois personality required by mercantile colonialism (but also capable of criticizing it), and just as twentieth-century cinema and television were integral to industrial consumerism (yet screened some of its darkest depictions), so virtual games are media constitutive of twenty-first century global hypercapitalism and, perhaps, also lines of exodus from it.” (xxix)

The first part of the book is a pretty extensive history of video games and the rise of the corporate giants that currently dominate the market (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo). In that section, the authors deal with the issue of gender in video games. Two main developments are central to this: (1) with the massive entry of women in the workforce and the relative absence of equalization of domestic work by men (the whole Second Shift thing), the deficit in care work has been compensated through technology (including game consoles that are perfect for latchkey kids). (2) As deindustrialization pushed men away from manufacturing into the computer and information technology sectors, it left women stuck in the service sector that involved most of the emotional work. These service jobs pay less, are more physically demanding and are less prestigious. Even when women got into the ICT sector, it was in different, less “fun”, functions than men and the gendered division of labor persisted.

And despite technology, the second shift was still there, leaving women with less leisure time than men, and therefore less time to invest in video games that involve long hours of practice and involvement in building characters, accumulating goodies and reaching level after level. In other words, male privilege may have been challenged in a lot of spheres of social life but video games created a domain of “remasculinization” where the in-game experience is thoroughly based on the tropes and cultural scripts of hegemonic masculinity where sexism is rampant. As a result, there are fewer women gamers, a fact then used to claim that women are “naturally” less into gaming, a convenient justification that avoids looking into the structural dynamics of gaming. Actually, when given the opportunity and not drowned in sexist and misogynistic abuse, a lot of women love to game.

How does that fit with Empire?

“The world market is a dynamo at drawing people into the circuit of production and consumption, but it neglects, to a catastrophic degree, social and ecological reproduction – care for households, community, and environment. The ongoing sexism of virtual play mirrors this imbalance. Reproductive work, material and immaterial, has historically been performed overwhelmingly by women, and this, even after successive waves of feminism, still largely continues to be the case. The virtual play industry addresses itself to an ideal male subject, a ‘digital boy’ (Burrill 2008, 15) who can spend hours at game play and game production, and positions women, of not now as completely invisible other, still as a subsidiary participant, a ‘second sex’, making the dinner, sustaining relationships, and gaming occasionally, ‘casually’. It is precisely this non-universality, this prioritization of consumption and production over social and ecological reproduction, that males virtual play so symptomatic of Empire.” (23)

What is especially introduced by virtual play is the concept of playbor (play as labor as a form of immaterial labor). Players are free laborers, toiling for fun and for a price but they offer their free labor. Playbor has four aspects;

  • microdevelopment ( a lot of games are created by small teams in someone’s garage, being micro-developed until a select few get bought by giant corporations while millions of others just crash and burn)
  • modding (modifications and improvements on already commercialized and released games by altering the codes)
  • MMOs (massive multiplayer online games where the players are running massive experiments in community- and team-building for free)
  • machinima (players creating cinema from games)

Playbor is the version 2.0 of the hacker culture based on autoproduction, networked cooperation and self-organization. All four modalities of playbor are free labor provided by the players to the companies commercializing the games. Playbor is now also a tool used in corporate training and the knowledge economy in general.

Similarly, the virtual game industry is paradigmatic of cognitive capitalism:

“Cognitive capitalism is the situation where workers’ minds become the ‘machine’ of production, generating profit for owners who have purchased, with a wage, its thinking power.

(…)

To speak of cognitive capitalism is specifically to suggest the recent rise to prominence of a set of industries for whom the mobilization, extraction, and commodification of advanced forms of collective  knowledge are foundational: the computer hardware and software industries; the biotechnology, medical, and pharmaceutical sectors; the financial analysis sector, marketing, and data mining; and an array of media and entertainment enterprises, including video games. All these industries, in turn, presuppose a socially ‘diffuse intellectuality’, generated by an increasingly vast educational apparatus. (Vercellone 2007b).” (37-8)

Cognitive capital has specific characteristics:

  • production of software to record, manipulate, manage, simulate and stimulate cognitive activity;
  • intellectual property rights, patents, trademarks, and copyrights become the main mode of revenues in an increasingly rent economy, or turning living knowledge into dead knowledge (studied unoriginality)
  • globalization: sectors of cognitive capital aim for the global market in both production and consumption;
  • dependence on the cognitariat: a workforce with intellectual, technological and affective skills that needs to be organized, disciplined, and ultimately exploited (through three devices: creativity, cooperation and cool)
  • cognitive capital is also the terrain where owners and workers conflict.

In that respect, the whole chapter dedicated to EA is highly enlightening.

Another aspect of Empire is the use of social machines:

“A social machine is a functionally connected assemblage of human subjects and technical machines, people and tools.” (70)

In the case of virtual games, the assemblage goes as follows:

  • technical machine: the console (replaced by the human body with Wii and then Kinect)
  • corporate machine: the EULA, patents and copyrights attached to any device, the flows of capital, labor and technology
  • time machine: the profitable using up of software and other virtual commodities that have a limited life (consoles are sold at a loss, all the money is in the software that have a planned obsolescence)
  • machinic subjects: the mobilization of hard core gamers (mostly in the trope of  the hypermasculine “man of action”)
  • transgressive war machines of hacking and piracy
  • machine wars between the three corporate giant of the gaming world
  • global biopolitical machine of Empire:

“The Xbox, the PS3, and even the charming Wii are machines of Empire; their technological assemblages of circuitry and cell processors build the corporate territories of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, which in turn are components in the worldwide capitalist machine.

(…)

Consoles are intimate machines, seamlessly inserted into our domestic or personal space or even carried close to our skin, responsive to our skills and prowess, becoming, with the Wii, remote body extensions.” (93)

Hence is extended a society of control or surveillance society, with our consent and enjoyment.

Having laid out the structural context of gaming in the first part of the book, the authors move on, in the second part, to the actual games that banalize the idea of permanent war by socializing boys early on through war play. This is especially crucial in the aftermath of the War on Terror, which officialized a state of permanent conflict everywhere against elusive, never quite clearly defined enemies. For Hardt and Negri, after all, war is not for conflict resolution between countries but for control and order in the global system.

In this context, war is

  1. interminable and therefore becomes a general phenomenon and a permanent mode of social relations
  2. lacking boundaries as ‘security’ becomes the rationale for incursions everywhere and anywhere and where the boundaries between domestic and international become blurry
  3. legitimizing a permanent state of exception, which requires the suspension of rights
  4. the new normal

Virtual games provide an important agent of socialization to all of this. War becomes part of the culture of everyday life and joins, again, the video game culture and the military apparatus and the overlaps are rather obvious. For instance, developments in military thinking involve Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT), a scenario that is often played out in different games (such as the Full Spectrum series) and in real life (in the cities of Iraq, for instance or the US cities by a more and more militarized police).

Banalization of war not only habituates and socializes the population to permanent war, but it also maintains its will to fight. Through the exercise of virtual violence, the games train, discipline and disinhibit deadly aggression against enemies, or at least, socialize people to indifference to torture, mass killing of these “others”. The mass media play their part in that process as well.

And then, there was World of Warcraft as illustration of biopower. The makers of the game try to control the game “from above” and in most aspects of the game while the gamers organize themselves “from below”. Running an MMO requires tight governance in the face of constant violations, hacking and modding with specific sanctions and surveillance mechanisms while being careful to not kill the fun out of the game through too much control and sanctions. And this gets trickier as the gaming population increases with a gaming boom in Asia, especially China.

In WoW, Gold is what matters and gold farming is booming but gold farmers are reviled and stigmatized by other players as fake players. At the same time, one forgets that gold farmers are also real-life super-exploited workers by corporations that supply a demand, mostly from wealthier players. This is a rather perfect illustration of the relationship workers / consumers of core countries have to workers from the periphery and semi-periphery.

This phenomenon (along with the exploitation of peripheral workers to work up the levels – power leveling – by western players) was nicely illustrated in Cory Doctorow’s novel, For The Win.

“Here the intersection of Blizzard’s [the company that produces WoW] digital biopower with the material biopower of Chinese capitalism snaps into sharp focus. Wgen Blizzard polices the digital realm of Azeroth (a kingdom created from the commercial enclosure of cyberspace) for virtual gold farmers, the offenders it seeks are likely to be actual peasant farmers who have left or been thrown off their fields by Chinese capitalism’s enclosures, abandoning an impoverished and ecologically devastated countryside for its cyber-connected cities. Some have probably been displaced by megaprojects such as the Three Gorges Dam, supplying insatiable demand for electrical power, primarily for industry, but also for Internet servers, in China’s eastern’s coastal cities.” (145)

And corporations do not like gold farming because it impedes on the free labor provided by paying players. And so, the super-exploited players bear the brunt of exploitation AND discipline so that playbor can prevail and continue to provide massive quantities of free labor. As a result, the production relations of the real world are reproduced in virtual world as well in hyper-subsumption (the gradual full colonizing of every sphere of life by capitalist social relations).

If there is one thing that is clear, whether with the success of Slumdog Millionaire or the current occupation movement, it is that the city (especially the global city) is a key site of Empire, and Grand Theft Auto is a perfect illustration of the centrality of the urban environment. The global cities are where we can see the full spectrum of global stratification and the consolidation of global hierarchies, where massive wealth but also surveillance and repression take place. GTA is a perfect representation of the neoliberal urbanism:

“GTA’s constitution of a metropolitan entirely enveloped by, and subsumed within, crime also performs a normalization of corporate criminality. Its game world asserts that crime is the way the universe is – the way money changes hands, business is done, society organized; it is the nature of reality. Why be outraged when the financial rulers of the world disregard the pettiness of the law, since all of this just reveals their superior grasp of the rules of the game? The omnipresence of crime in Liberty City is thus one more cultural contribution to the generalized indifference that greets the news of corporate crimes in Empire,  an indifference whose rational kernel is perhaps, as David Harvey observes, the popular assumption that criminal behavior is hardly ‘easily distinguishable from the normal practices of influence-peddling and making money in the marketplace.’ (2007, 166)” (178)

And if GTA presents a world that is thoroughly corrupt, it does not offer any alternative than to be really good at the rotten game. There is no way out of Empire. GTA may be satirical but it also normalizes the state of affair as “that’s just the way it is”.

But for the authors, there are alternatives to the games of Empire, the games of Multitude, which are the subject of the final part of the book. Multitude is the counterreaction to Empire, all the forms of resistance and activism to the logics of Empire. Multitude manifests itself in different ways:

  • through new subjectivities, new forms of producing, cooperating and communicating on a global scale and mobilizing skills to subvert Empire – subjective capacity
  • through new social movements opposing global capital – social movements
  • through the development and protection of alternatives such as open source, indymedia and other forms of freeing information from global capital – political project

The key is to have all three coalesce.

In the case of video games, resistance from the multitude takes a variety of forms all subsumed under the concept of countergaming:

  • Counterplay: acts of contestation within the established games of Empire and their ideologies
  • Dissonant development: emergence of critical content in a few mainstream games, dissident infiltration
  • Tactical games: dissemination of radical social critique through game designed by activists
  • Polity simulators: serious educational and training projects
  • Self-organized worlds: independent production of game content in MMOs
  • Software commons: challenges on the whole intellectual property rights regime

This follows rather closely the logic of “another world is possible” made famous by the World Social Forum. And all six paths are part of repertoires of contention within the game world. And all of them may contribute potential paths to exodus from Empire. The authors present a whole variety of examples of the ways this can be accomplished. After all, Empire is a contested terrain and multiple forms of resistance are always at work in the minutiae of social life as well as the major social institutions.

It is a very dense book but a very important one to understand the logic of Empire, as a good introduction to the work of Hardt and Negri, as well as new social movements.

Highly recommended.

Family 2.0

In general, any topic related to marriage and families bores me to tears but I could not help but be intrigued by this:

“P is an unhappy 10-year-old girl. At school, she cries in the toilets and has to be comforted by her friend. She has “suffered significant emotional harm as a result of the conflicts which have raged around her for at least the last three years,” according to a high court judge.

P’s problem is not that she has two mothers. P knows that her mother RWB and her mother’s civil partner SWB are her family and she is happy with that.

What makes P so miserable is she and her six-year-old sister L also have two fathers. P says she likes seeing ML and his long-term partner AR. But, according to a grownup who was looking after the 10-year-old a few months ago, “she cannot just pretend that ML is her father in order to make him happy”.

Except that he is. ML, 50, is indeed the biological father of the two girls. They were conceived by IVF after the lesbian couple (as they described themselves) had advertised in the Pink Paper in 1999 for a gay man or couple who might want to start a family with them.

The problem according to Mr Justice Hedley is that the four adults failed to decide at that time what their respective roles should be. It was agreed that ML, who is of Polish descent, would be the child’s father and his partner AR, 41, would be the stepfather. But what brought the two couples to court was the effect these terms were intended to have.

The two women maintain it involved little more than the child’s identity. But the two men claim that ML is in the same position as a traditional separated parent and therefore entitled to regular contact.

While thinking the issues through, Hedley developed a new legal concept: principal and secondary parenting. In an anonymised judgment released this week, he deemed the two women to be the girls’ principal parents and the two men to be their secondary parents.”

My first thought was that indeed, we tend to conceive parental roles as cast in stone, gendered, immutable, and oh-so central to society’s stability, rather than socially constructed, subject to social and cultural changes, and reflective of changing power dynamics across social institutions.

My second thought was “what’s the big deal” as in “how is this any different than recomposed families of any kinds?” After all, divorced and remarried parents have to do the same juggling act when it comes to “managing” parenting.

My third thought was that if we stopped considering children as the exclusive property of their parents (and, obviously, the definition of that term is not as straightforward as it seems), such issues would not arise.

My fourth thought was “how nice that the sexual preference of the parents does not enter the discussion as THE issue.” Things, they are changing then.

The Visual Du Jour – Eat Your Veggies! (They’re Cheaper Than Junk Food)

At least according to Mark Bittman in this New York Times article:

From the article:

“THE “fact” that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. I frequently read confident statements like, “when a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli …” or “it’s more affordable to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to cook a healthy meal for them at home.”

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)”

And it is nice to have an article actually point out some structural / cultural / social factors:

“There are, of course, the so-called food deserts, places where it’s hard to find food: the Department of Agriculture says that more than two million Americans in low-income rural areas live 10 miles or more from a supermarket, and more than five million households without access to cars live more than a half mile from a supermarket.

(…)

The ubiquity, convenience and habit-forming appeal of hyperprocessed foods have largely drowned out the alternatives: there are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has decreased by as much as 30 percent; and nearly inconceivable resources go into encouraging consumption in restaurants: fast-food companies spent $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009.

Furthermore, the engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine. In other words the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.”

Book Review – The Last Gunfight

I read Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How It Changed the American West because of Lance Mannion’s review of it and you should all just and read it now because, truthfully, there is nothing I can add to it. Lance covers all the main points that need covering.

Considering the number of films and TV series made about the gunfight at the OK Corral, there is no doubt that this event has a special place in American mythology, including especially the hero figure of Wyatt Earp. And like any myth, these representations have a tenuous relationship with what actually happened. These events have been told and retold over the decades and the narrative has been reshaped to gain a social meaning and moral narrative of good and evil, heroes and villains in the context of the Western. And FSM knows that “the West” as mythical, imaginary construct holds an important place in American lore and the way Americans see themselves and how they imagine real men should behave. The Western genre has long been an important part of Hollywood production and has contributed to the cultural reconstruction of the West. That is, until the 1970s when a few directors started to question the Western mythology (think Sergio Leone or Samuel Fuller) and the hero types, such as those constructed by John Wayne or Ronald Reagan (who carried it into his presidency).

This is why most classical Westerns have bored me silly and I have stayed away from the genre. Not that they are all bad but because they all mostly still follow “the code” and respect the mythology.

But I picked the book (and by that, I mean, I downloaded the Kindle edition) because, based on Lance’s review, it looked like Guinn had done two things I live for: debunking and embedding. Debunking refers to peeling off the layers of mythology and look for as much historical evidence as possible as to what actually happened. The book is indeed heavily sourced and Guinn is pretty honest about the relative reliability of some of these sources (including, not entirely surprisingly, Wyatt Earp himself). The embedding part, which is what the book is really about, is to re-position the gunfight (which did happen in Tombstone, but not at the OK Corral) in social, economic, political and historical contexts.

But the book does not consist entirely of giving us the macro picture of “what it was like in those days” but there is also a lot micro details, having to do with the way business was done in a frontier mine town (which is what Tombstone was), how different types of social actors interacted with each other, how lawmen did their business and dealt with criminality, such as it was defined then. And what of the things that comes off clearly is that shootout is the product of a series of interactive mistakes and misinterpretations. Over a period of the few hours preceding the gunfight, every interaction that could possibly go wrong or be misunderstood in an escalating way unfolded exactly like that. Erving Goffman would have had a field day analyzing the materials provided by Guinn.

At the same time, there is indeed a larger context and the gunfight was the culmination of several social dynamics. One such dynamic had to do with the fact that several of the main characters involved in the events were political rivals. The Earps (it is interesting that the mythology has positioned Wyatt as the hero as the book shows his brother, Virgil, to be the best man of the bunch of Earp brothers) had hitched their potential social mobility and economic fortunes to being competent lawmen who would gain acceptance into higher social classes and the elites of the different towns in which they worked before coming to Tombstone. The Republicanism was connected to such upward mobility prospects.

On the other side were the Democrats (including more competent social climber Johnny Behan, the county sheriff), mostly ranchers, ranch workers, many of them migrants from the Confederate states (especially Texas) who still had not digested the defeat of the Civil War. These rangers (including the Clantons and McLaurys who died at the gunfight) also were in business with cowboys (“cowboys”, in those days, was an insult… see? Mythological reconstruction), cattle rustlers who made forays into Mexico to steal cattle, bring it to friendly ranchers to be fattened up before sale (with the ranchers getting their cut of the proceeds). Funny how that bit of economic extraction is not often mentioned when discussing relationships between US and Mexico.

In any event, things had been brewing for some time between the complicit ranchers and cowboys, supported by their Democratic allies such as Behan, and the Republican establishment which the Earps were trying to join. The gunfight represents the culmination of this political dynamic. The larger context, of course, is the development of the Southwest, the negotiation of the roles of the different layers of government (federal / state / county / local). Needless to say, the Democratic ranchers were not keen on submitting to state authority and paying taxes (a lucrative position for a county sheriff whose job it was to collect them, keeping 10% for himself) while Republicans in town thought solid law and order would be good for business and development.

One of the constantly fluctuating dynamic shown in the book is the negotiation between the different layers of authority regarding how much law enforcement there should be. Too much and trail hands would not come and spend their money in town at the end of the trail. Not enough and chaos would follow. Either would be bad for business. So, lawmen had to walk that fine political line and make ad hoc determinations as to when to arrest, when to just club a drunkard over the head and put him in jail for the night and send him home in the morning. And Virgil Earp, the town chief of police was pretty good at it, except on one day where he misjudged the situation.

And that is another thing that is largely a myth about the West: the myth of the main street gunfight between two men (like the classical introduction to the long-running Gunsmoke, located in Dodge City where Wyatt Earp officiated for a while). Those hardly ever happened. Gunfights were much more rare than they are represented in movies and TV series. Actually, many cities had gun bans on the books.

What is true though is the West, both as myth and reality, was a patriarchy through and through: the common law wives, the horrific lives of the prostitutes officiating in saloons, bars and hotels and the Earps were no noble gentlemen in that respect. They had common law wives who would never be accepted by the higher society (precisely because they were not officially married, or former prostitutes) therefore, the Earps kept them more or less hidden away so as not to interfere with their (failed) attempts at social climbing.

So,  the book re-embeds these men’s stories in their proper historical, social and political contexts, but it not a dry book. It is actually a pretty entertaining read and a page-turner where any reader will learn a lot about a little part of the way this country was developed. What it also shows is that the history of the frontier is NOT that of courageous pioneers going it alone in the wilderness. By the time settlers showed up, the army had pacified the areas from Native Americans, there were laws on land allocation, with the farmers and miners (which means assayers and other occupations related to extraction), businesses would also show up at the same time to provide supplies or entertainment for trail crews. It was not just men on their own. They had families, which meant schools and women’s clubs. And, of course, governance… and taxes.

The next step is then to question why the myth of the West was reconstructed the way it was and why so many hold onto that myth.

In Which Moral Entrepreneurs Should STFU

So, everybody seems to be discussing this:

As Atrios notes,

“BBC News keeps bringing people on to ask them why the rioting in London is happening, and when they try to answer the question and provide an explanation (with any validity or not, who knows) the newscasters chastise them for justifying the violence.”

It is interesting to compare this to the way the quasi-riots organized by the Tea Party in townhall meetings regarding the health care bill were treated with utmost respect. When the riff-raff get restless, it is a riot. When older, wealthier white people get restless, it is due to legitimate grievances. Class matters people.

And in the class war, the media are not neutral observers. They clearly side with the privileged and play the role of moral entrepreneurs, or give much airtime to moral entrepreneurs, to scold the rioters, as is the case in London, and supplying convenient prescriptions as to how disadvantaged people should behave.

For those of you unfamiliar with Howard S. Becker‘s sociology, the concept of moral entrepreneurs refer to these individuals, groups and institutions that take it upon themselves to create, generalize and enforce norms directly or indirectly (through the coercive means of the state, for instance). Moral entrepreneurs are central in the construction and re-definition of certain behaviors are socially problematic. Once they have done so, they usually marshal whatever social power they have to demand immediate action to eliminate or, at least, limit and restrain such behavior. The goal of moral entrepreneurs is to make their morality the morality of society, backed by the major social institutions. It is in this sense that deviance is socially produced and maintained.

And let’s not forget that, according to Becker himself, moral entrepreneurs are usually from the upper classes. Moral entrepreneurship is a way of enforcing class norms on the lower classes. And, of course, if members of the lower classes fail to live up to the standards of more privileged categories, social sanctions and stigma follow. It is especially the case when public policy pulls the rug under disadvantaged people’s feet (as cut and austerity measures do), which makes it impossible to legitimately follow upper middle class norms. Then, moral entrepreneurs shake their heads at the moral decay of the lower classes and ask for further disciplining.

In the case of the London riots, in the same that there are repertoires of contention in social movements, there are repertoires of repression for the state:

Here, it is interesting to see the media play the role of moral entrepreneur through several things:

(1) the reinforcement of the “destruction of private property” is bad narrative;

(2) “looting proves that the motive is not political but purely bad and greedy behavior” (the subtext of this one goes something like this: “poor people just want things handed to them – like welfare – instead of working for them – like middle-class, hardworking, law-abiding, tax-paying people do – and use criminal activities to obtain them”);

(3) an extension of that is that the poor are poor because of defective value systems and lack of proper community socialization, and

(4) the problem is therefore larger their moral shortcomings and bad choices (as one such scold put on Twitter, they should be stealing food rather than TV sets if they were really poor) rather than public policy, so, let’s talk about these shortcomings and their consequences rather than policy.

Again, reminiscent of the culture of poverty argument, the reiteration of these memes solidly places the blame with the unruly rioters, dismissing their grievances out of hand. It demands from individual commentators that they repudiate their actions before any discussion can take place, thereby framing the discussion in such one-sided terms. And the focus on rioters and looters is to be discussed without any context, as irrational eruption of under-socialized hordes. No public policy discussion is allowed to take place except those pertaining to how to end the riots.

Because, if the context is allowed to enter mainstream discourse, then, it might get uncomfortable:

Since the coalition came to power just over a year ago, the country has seen multiple student protests, occupations of dozens of universities, several strikes, a half-a-million-strong trade union march and now unrest on the streets of the capital (preceded by clashes with Bristol police in Stokes Croft earlier in the year). Each of these events was sparked by a different cause, yet all take place against a backdrop of brutal cuts and enforced austerity measures. The government knows very well that it is taking a gamble, and that its policies run the risk of sparking mass unrest on a scale we haven’t seen since the early 1980s. With people taking to the streets of Tottenham, Edmonton, Brixton and elsewhere over the past few nights, we could be about to see the government enter a sustained and serious losing streak.

The policies of the past year may have clarified the division between the entitled and the dispossessed in extreme terms, but the context for social unrest cuts much deeper. The fatal shooting of Mark Duggan last Thursday, where it appears, contrary to initial accounts, that only police bullets were fired, is another tragic event in a longer history of the Metropolitan police’s treatment of ordinary Londoners, especially those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and the singling out of specific areas and individuals for monitoring, stop and search and daily harassment.

One journalist wrote that he was surprised how many people in Tottenham knew of and were critical of the IPCC, but there should be nothing surprising about this. When you look at the figures for deaths in police custody (at least 333 since 1998 and not a single conviction of any police officer for any of them), then the IPCC and the courts are seen by many, quite reasonably, to be protecting the police rather than the people.

Combine understandable suspicion of and resentment towards the police based on experience and memory with high poverty and large unemployment and the reasons why people are taking to the streets become clear. (Haringey, the borough that includes Tottenham, has the fourth highest level of child poverty in London and an unemployment rate of 8.8%, double the national average, with one vacancy for every 54 seeking work in the borough.)

Those condemning the events of the past couple of nights in north London and elsewhere would do well to take a step back and consider the bigger picture: a country in which the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country.”

Nina Power does NOT say that austerity = riots but that the policies implemented by the British government (and other governments around the world) provide the context for this.

A similar point is made here emphasizing the lack of irrationality of the riots (and the incidents of looting are easily explained through the illegitimate opportunity theory)

“In London today people were on the streets tidying up the damage. The hashtag #riotcleanup on Twitter is being used by councils and residents to coordinate the work. The decision to act in this way, to make the streets a little more safe, to reclaim them for peaceful sociability, steps away from the temptation to condemn the violence or explain it in terms that inevitably simplify or distort it. Those who come together like this will be less likely to conclude that the country is on the verge of chaos, less likely to call for harsh measures and the further erosion of liberty in the name of security. It is the one shrewd thing one can do in present circumstances and it is to be celebrated.

So there is no single meaning in what is happening in London and elsewhere. But there are connections that we can make, and that we should make. We have a major problem with youth unemployment. There have already been cuts in services for young people. State education in poor areas is sometimes shockingly bad. Young people cannot afford adequate private housing and there is a shortage of council-built stock. Economic inequality has reached quite startling levels. All this is the consequence of decisions made by governments and there is little hope of rapid improvement. The same politicians now denouncing the mindless violence of the mob all supported a system of political economy that was as unstable as it was pernicious. They should have known that their policies would lead to disaster. They didn’t know. Who then is more mindless?

The global economic crisis is at least as political as the riots we’ve seen in the last few days. It has lasted far longer and done far more damage. We need not draw a straight line from the decision to bail out the banks to what’s going on now in London. But we must not lose sight of what both events tell us about our current condition. Those who want to see law and order restored must turn their attention to a menace that no amount of riot police will disperse; a social and political order that rewards vandalism and the looting of public property, so long as the perpetrators are sufficiently rich and powerful.”

And the specific context of police actions certainly points to the crisis of legitimacy I was discussing yesterday:

“This scepticism toward the potency of democratic politicians – and therefore democratic politics itself – is oddly echoed by the looters themselves. Certainly no one outside the Iranian state media is calling them “protesters”, but even “rioters” seems the wrong word, carrying with it a hint of political purpose. For some, especially at the start in Tottenham, there was clearly a political dimension – with the police the prime focus of their anger. But many of the copycat actions across London and elsewhere have no apparent drive beyond the opportunistic desire to steal and get away with it. It’s striking that the targets have not been town halls or, say, Tory HQ – stormed by students last November – but branches of Dixons, Boots and Carphone Warehouse. If they are making a political statement, it is that politics does not matter.

And while the revulsion at the looting has been widespread and bipartisan – with plenty of liberals admitting to “coming over all Daily Mail” at the ugliness of the vandalism – that sense of the impotence of politics is widespread, too. One aspect of the phone-hacking scandal that went deep was its revelation that those we might think exert authority – police and politicians – were in fact supine before an unelected media corporation. The sheer power of News Corp contrasted with the craven behaviour of those we elect or entrust to look out for us.

Even if few years have brought the news congestion of 2011, there has been trouble before, with 1981 an obvious precedent. But in previous periods of instability the assumption was that if only political power was in different hands, or if key institutions like the police modified their behaviour, things would be better. Now what small glimmers of optimism there are come from pockets of communal action, like the collective clean-ups that started in London . Democratic institutions themselves are seen as weak or broken.

The irony of all this is that outside Britain, Europe and the US, the great story of 2011 has been the Arab spring, as the people of Syria, Yemen and beyond have taken to the streets. It seems that just as those nations demand the tools of democracy, we are finding them rusting and blunt in our hands.”

Finally, one last point, to those who deplore the looting and the apparent lack of proper socialization of the looters and rioters, and sometimes wax nostalgic that old working class communities of yore where the youngsters were kept on the straight and narrow by their elders, as Owen Jones has amply demonstrated in Chavs, they only have conservative policies to blame. Indeed, who systematically destroyed the centers of community life in working class areas, at the time of accelerated deindustrialization? Who pushed instead for a culture of individualization and mass consumerism? Who created a cultural context where one’s social status is determined by one’s ability to consumer (as Zygmunt Bauman pointed out today)?

So, to all the moral entrepreneurs who have been filling the airwaves, Twitter timelines and Facebook feeds:

The Poor: Air-Conditioned and Happy

Any society has a lot of cultural narratives that provide ready explanations for common phenomenon. These narratives, or commonsense explanations, are never questioned, never examined, taken for granted and become part of our stock of knowledge (to use Alfred Schutz’s formulation). It does not mean they are true. Their strength is not based on their truth value but on their embeddedness into our minds and culture and their resistance to examination.

For instance, narrative 1 – the poor are happy as they are (often heard regarding the poor in the Global South – see the link):

“The happy poor argument is appealing as many richer people dislike feeling guilty about their relative wealth (Toynbee and Walker, 2008/2009, p.33). Denying that inequality is problematic, based on happiness being important and the poor being happy, offers a pretext for not thinking more deeply about the impacts of inequality.

(…)

Happiness clearly does matter. However, the notion that the poor are happy needs to be challenged. If anything, the evidence presented here suggests that the poor are not particularly happy. In any case, suffering adversity happily does not mean there are not serious problems to be addressed. As such, the argument that the poor are happy, and that this reduces responsibility to distribute resources more equally, should be treated with skepticism.”

But there is also narrative 2 – the poor are not really poor (often heard regarding the poor in the Global North. According to that argument (no link because the latest iteration comes from the Heritage Foundation, to which I am not linking… I have the same policy regarding the Huffington Post), if the poor do not live is abject destitution worthy of Dickensian novels, then, they are not really poor. That thesis is often sustained by listing the number of appliances and amenities that the poor have in wealthy societies. So, to have a refrigerator is to not be poor, or to have a cell phone or a computer means one is not poor.

Both narratives point to the same conclusion: anti-poverty and redistributive policies (that is, those that redistribute more equally as redistributive policies that redistribute upwards are perfectly ok) are unnecessary or unjustified. If the poor are happy with their lot, to interfere with anti-poverty programs will be detrimental and will break some sort of “natural” order (not true).

On the other hand, if the poor are not really poor because they have indoor plumbing, then, anti-poverty policies are clearly uncalled for, or worse, existing policies need to be scaled back because the poor are obviously enjoying life with a few amenities (not true either).

The third conclusion is that one should not feel bad about the plight of the poor. According to narrative 1, if the poor are happy with their lot, why should the rest of us feel bad? Narrative 1 reeks of Rousseau’s noble savages where the poor of the Global South are seen as closer to a “simpler” state where they appreciate little things more and don’t sweat the small stuff.

According to narrative 2, again, they are not poor enough that they don’t get a few extras and the same amenities as anyone else (never mind that these amenities might be of lower qualities, break down more often, or might be basic necessities, like cell phones when one looks for a job). It relieves society and the upper classes of any idea that some assistance is needed or at least a more egalitarian social structure.

This reminds me of a similar idea that was brought up in a conversation I had with a nurse regarding the large presence of Filippinas in nursing homes in our county. “They are naturally nurturing” said the nurse, so those kinds of jobs are perfect for them. It is a simple substitution of ethnicity and gender for class. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild have explained in their book, Global Woman, this rationale “nurturing is natural to them” is a convenient justification to extract gender enotional labor from other countries to be our nannies, nursing home personnel, etc. And who are we to prevent them from “doing what comes naturally“?

In any event, both narratives provide good culturally-approved and unquestioned obfuscation devices so that we don’t talk about this.

Book Review – Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist

Well, it is not often that I dislike a book as much as I did Peter Berger‘s Adventures of An Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore.

Before I even get into the book per se, I should mention I didn’t know much about Peter Berger himself beyond reading the modern classic The Social Construction of Reality, with Thomas Luckmann when I was in college (it was mandatory reading, quite good too). But beyond that, I never read anything else, mostly because of his focus on religion (a topic which by and large bores the stuffing out of me). I tried reading his Invitation to Sociology (because I had read the bit on debunking) but got bored quickly.

This means that I was not prepared for what turned out to be the intellectual autobiography of a right-wing privileged old white man (a characterization he would probably deny since he thinks the whole class / race / gender thing is a really bad thing in sociology) who has been so, so oppressed by these awful lefties and feminists. Hanging out at the Texas ranch of the main organizers of Iran-Contra though, that didn’t bother him too much.

It is quite amazing to read someone who seemed to have had an easy academic career (at least, from what he tells, but things were certainly more relaxed when he started) engage in some non-stop whining about how the lefties are ruining sociology, hanging out with some hard-core right-wingers, and then, adopt a holier-than-thou “reasonable centrist” attitude all the while dismissing anyone outside of his circle of privileged colleagues with concerns about the less privileged. No one seems less aware of privilege, power and conflict than he is.

Let me walk you through some morceaux choisis. At first, the book was quite interesting, going over the early formation of a sociologist through French literature and Weber. And a little detour through debunking:

“Sociology is akin to comedy because it debunks the social fictions. By the same token, it is potentially liberating. It shows up the ‘bad faith’ by which individuals hide behind their roles and forces them to confront the reality of their own freedom. In the same process sociology must debunk the religious legitimations of the social fictions.

(…)

Sociology derives its moral justification of its debunking of the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression and cruelty. (…) Sociology liberates by facilitating a standing outside one’s social roles (literally, an “ecstasy” – ekstasis) and thereby a realization of one’s freedom. (…) Sociology suggests that we are puppets of society, but unlike puppets we can look up and discover the strings to which we are attached, and this discovery is a first step toward freedom.” (74-6)

So far so good. I started taking issue with Berger in his assessment of modernity. He still considers that we are living in modern times. Apparently the whole post-modern theoretical developments passed him by. His big idea is that modernity did not lead to secularization but to pluralism (multiplicity of religions and spiritual approaches). Pluralism undermines established religion but offers individuals multiple choices as to how spiritual they wish to be and in what kind of religious organizations. Basically, what he described is Lyotard’s death of the grand narratives and Bauman / Beck’s individualization thesis which mark the end of modernity and the advent of post-modernity or any other such formulation, such as liquid society. To hold on to the modernity frame leads to a lot of category mistakes (including the one regarding, for Berger and his wife – who obviously has never read Stephanie Coontz – that the bourgeois nuclear family is the most functional, something blatantly untrue in the individualized and increasingly mobile society).

The second main issue I had was Berger’s declaration that capitalism is great and good and works everywhere while socialism is an utter failure. While Berger likes to position himself as the reasonable centrist in a world of ideological extremes (although right-wing ideologies don’t much him anywhere near as much as left-wing ideologies, apparently), he does see the world in black and white. For instance, in his ringing endorsement of capitalism over socialism, there is no considerations of the successful social democracies of Scandinavia nor is there any examination of capitalism in totalitarian states (for instance, the Latin and South American dictatorships of the 70s and 80s, fully supported by the US).

Focused as he is on culture (at the expenses of stratification of any kind), his examination of the development model of the Asian tigers revolves around the mushy neo-confucianism without a shred of examination of the role of the developmental state that Manuel Castells has so thoroughly examined. Nor does he take into account the impact of structural adjustment programs imposed on countries of the Global South (an expression he finds confusing) and that led to the debt crisis and the lost decade of the 80s. For someone who claimed to be concerned with the “calculus of pain” (how much pain should people endure in the name of development, and that pain is taken to be only economic, never political, so, capitalism in totalitarian environments is ok), that’s a pretty big shortcoming.

The point at which Berger leaves sociological territory, in the book, to get into the purely political is when he recounts the 60s. As he states, he was in favor of the Civil Rights, was repelled by racism but, basically, the DFHs ruined the whole thing with their radicalism. As a result, he became conservative, started hanging out with such non-ideological people as Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter and writing for Commentary. Berger really has it in for the feminists, depicted as oppressive and doctrinaire and impervious to reason.

A great deal of his discontent with feminists and other non-right-wing people is depicted in a chapter titled “Politically Incorrect Excursions”. In my book, everyone who invokes “political correctness” loses all credibility. Those are usually privileged individuals who disliked having their privileges questioned and that is exactly the case here. And, he pulls one nice little Dawkins as well against feminists, at the same time showing his privilege and his ignorance of feminism:

“Another matter, though, is the continuing definition of women as victims – and that in the Western societies which have accorded to women a degree of privilege unequalled in human history and indeed unequalled in any other contemporary society.” (158)

Well, women were not “accorded” certain rights. They fought for them, won some battles and lost others. And we still live in a patriarchal system. But the whole idea of a privileged white man telling women to STFU because they have it so good in Western societies kinda proves the point of why we need feminism. This sense of privilege (which is never examines and never questioned) is especially displayed in Berger preferred methods: coffee house sociology (hanging out with like-minded academics and coming up with ideas within that small limited circles – Berger keeps mentioning the same people over and over again) and sociological tourism (go hang out with other privileged people in other societies, then, write a book).

Among other politically incorrect excursions? The aforementioned retreat at the Texas ranch of Iran-Contra perpetrators while they were hashing out the whole murderous enterprise (but he didn’t take part because he was more focused on Jamaica. Still, the very fact that he was invited for the occasion is revealing), helping the tobacco industry in fighting back against regulations. And advocating an incremental approach to the dismantlement of apartheid. In all of these cases. Berger relishes in his over version of “if I’m pissing off both sides, then, I’m doing the right thing”:

“A morally sensitive social scientist will, I think, instinctively move toward middle positions (middle between radical change and stubborn preservation) on most issues.” (177)

No, a morally sensitive sociologist would move toward the position of greater social justice. I wonder what Berger would have made of the younger Nelson Mandela and the ANC of the 1960s.

as the book goes on, it feels like Berger is lowering his guard and getting more and more ideological himself. Take his description of BU President John Silber:

“Some on the faculty perceived him as a right-winger, which was certainly a misperception. He was a lifelong Democrat, very much in the pre-1960s tradition of Democratic Party liberalism. But he was also an American patriot, staunchly anti-communist, opposed to abortion on philosophical grounds, and contemptuous of fashionable political correctness.” (183)

Emphasis mine. So, (1) to be a Democrat is to not be a patriot, (2) let me remind everybody that pre-1960s Democrats tended to be pro-segregation, and (3) for Berger, something based on “philosophical grounds” (which is what reasonable men do) is much better than on ideological grounds (which is what evil lefties do).

And, when dealing with conflict, Berger certainly falls into the category of “both sides are doing it”, completely ignoring the power imbalances that may be involved. For instance, regarding his involvement in South Africa, he describes the late apartheid period as a “time of intense political conflict” as if the parties were equal and equivalent. It was not a time of intense political conflict, but a time of intense political repression marked by systematic torture from a white supremacist regimes.

More than that, he later described Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique as a”feminist assault on the conventional family” (discussing his wife’s book on family). He also wrongfully blames Roe v. Wade for the emergence of the religious right (something many times debunked) as well as Jimmy Carter for organizing a conference on families rather than family. And here is how he describes that conflict:

“On one side the pro-family and anti-abortion (“pro-life”) movements merged, while on the other side the pro-abortion (“pro-choice”) movement allied itself with other socially progressive causes. Probably more by accident than by deliberate decisions, the social conservatives became an important constituency of the Republican Party, while the social progressives assumed a dominant role in the Democratic Party. Abortion became a doctrinaire litmus test on both sides.” (200)

How clueless can one be. Seriously, “pro-family” versus “pro-abortion”. And let us not mention the Southern strategy. Oh, and he and his wife are against gay marriage because it would undermine the “bourgeois family” (his phrase, not mine) and because children are, in their view because studies show otherwise, better off raised by their biological parents. I’m guessing he’s against adoption then.

And for my fellow sociologists, enjoy this little bit:

“In sociology the mantra of  ‘class, race, gender’ had come to dominate work in most areas of the discipline; a diffuse left-liberalism had in many placed hardened into a repressive orthodoxy.” (203)

So says the man who has had a very privileged academic career. And not a shred of evidence as to why such a view is wrong. It just does not fit with his privileged-functional, cultural-essentialist perspective, so, it’s ideological and repressive.

And to get a sense of his cluelessness, get this,

“I remember a conversation with some black people in South Africa [he usually mentions names everywhere, but not here apparently]. They expressed strong resentment about the continuing privilege of the white minority despite the demise of the apartheid regime. I said that I could understanding their feelings [how nice of him], but [you knew there was a “but” coming and that there is some white-splaining coming] I suggested a mental experiment: Forget the race of these people for a moment [because, you know, in South Africa, race is not really relevant]. Just look at their economic functions, which the country needs and which blacks especially need. Then look at them as an economic asset to be exploited, not for their sake but for yours. My argument failed to convince [no !@#$].” (217)

I wonder why these black people were not convinced by this little bit of white patronizing.

And that last quote, to me, is perfectly revealing of Peter Berger the man and the sociologist.

And because I needed a brain-cleanser after making through that book:

Adventures in College Teaching – Plagiarism… Again

(Via) You must read this disheartening and dispiriting account by Panos Ipeirotis on his discovery that over 20% of his students plagiarized. Bottom line? He busted them, but that took an enormous amount of time (45 hours… which incidentally is the number of hours of instruction in my classes for a 3-credit class). It got him lower scores on his student evaluations (duh, you must them, they make you pay for it, but where I work, student evaluations are critical for promotion and tenure, and essential for adjunct faculty), which hurt his salary and not much support from his administrators.

“When 1 out of 5 students in the class being involved in a cheating case, the lectures and class discussions became awkward. For the rest of the semester there was a palpable anxiousness in class. Instead of having friendly discussions, the discussions became contentious. Not a pleasant environment.

This, of course, had a direct effect to my teaching evaluations. Instead of the usual evaluations that were in the region of 6.0 to 6.5 out of seven, this time my ratings went down by almost a point: 5.3 out of 7.0. Instead of being a teacher in the upper percentiles, I was now below average.

The Dean’s office and my chair “expressed their appreciation” for me chasing such cases (in December), but six months later, when I received my annual evaluation, my yearly salary increase was the lowest ever, and significantly lower than inflation, as my “teaching evaluations took a hit this year”.”

His chasing down the cheaters also destroyed class morale and atmosphere:

“Was it worth it? Absolutely not.

Not only I paid a significant financial penalty for “doing the right thing” (was I?) but I was also lectured by some senior professors that I “should change slightly my assignments from year to year”. (Thanks for the suggestion, buddy, this is exactly how I detected the cheaters.)

Suggestions to change completely the assignments from year to year are appealing on the first sight but they cause others types of problems: It is very difficult to know in advance if an assignment is going to be too easy, too hard, or too ambiguous. Even small-scale testing with TA’s and other faculty does not help. You need to “test” the new assignment by giving it to students. If it is a good one, you want to keep it. If it is a bad one, you just gave to the students a useless exercise.

I also did not like the overall teaching experience, and this was the most important thing for me. Teaching became annoying and tiring. There was a very different dynamic in class, which I did not particularly enjoy. It was a feeling of “me-against-them” as opposed to the much more pleasant “these things that we are learning are really cool!””

Will I pursue cheating cases in the future? Never, ever again!”

I may have mentioned it before, but where I work, plagiarism is epidemic. So, in a way, I am somewhat “glad” to realize that it’s not “my” students. It’s all over the place. Why? A variety of cultural and institutional reasons.

Degradation of the meaning of education and higher education not only in the culture in general but from within academia itself, where college president and administrators are all about the bottom line: boost enrollment, high retention, maximize tuition, education as job training, a bunch of hoops students should jump through to get that degree (or even better, that vocational certificate… takes less time, costs less money) for higher income.

In that context, there is limited interest in education as, you know, education. Certainly, all colleges and universities have student codes of conduct, but the actual enforcement is just trivial. Administrators usually dislike doing that kind of work and institutional sanctions tend to be of the “slap-on-the-wrist” kind.

As Ipeirotis’s account shows, chasing down cheaters leads to one thing: one major headache and time-sink for the faculty. And I agree that the ” me-against-them” mentality that necessarily develops makes teaching difficult and painful as some basic trust between faculty and students has been broken. A mistrustful environment is not conducive to good teaching or learning as assignments become designed not necessarily to achieve some specific educational goal but to be cheating-proof (not that these two things are necessarily incompatible).

So, is the solution NOT to chase down cheaters? Personally, I think that any student who cheats takes me for an idiot, cheapens the institution I work for and debases the knowledge of the discipline I work hard to convey to them. They should not be rewarded with academic credit. And, of course, every grade not earned contributes to grade inflation.

I should also note that plagiarism also seems to ride the wave of online instruction with their standardized courses, but these generate so much money that there is no real concern about the amount of plagiarism going on there. After all, which college of university would accept a lowering in enrollment as it tightens its standards? Would parents accept to have their children thrown out when caught plagiarizing?

I would have to say that, right now, the cultural climate favors cheating and its tolerance.

Book Review – Chavs

I have already posted on Owen Jones‘s Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class (see here and here). Another good subtitle for this book could be “the not-so-hidden injuries of class” (to riff on Richard Sennett’s classic book). If Jones is not a sociologist, he should be one because his book is a perfect illustration of the sociological imagination with its focus on structure / history /power regarding the treatment of the working class.

If one expects an exotic description of the Chav culture, one will be disappointed. What Jones does is take this social phenomenon: the stigmatization of the working class by the political and media sphere (with their capacity to spread prejudice and stereotypes) and retraces the roots of that phenomenon, culturally, structurally and politically. He examines when the concept of Chavs as the target for so much social contempt emerged, who created it, who benefits from it and what are the real social consequences for the targets of such stigmatization.

For Owens, the roots of the stigmatization of the Chavs are to be found in Thatcherism. The policies implemented by Margaret Thatcher and pretty much every British administration have resulted in deliberately breaking the backs of the unions and destroying the industrial working class, thereby succeeding in deindustrializing Great Britain. As a result, and unsurprisingly, these policies left a lot of working class communities devastated with no job prospects, surviving on precarized and low-paying occupations and public benefits.

Out of this devastation emerged the myth that everyone who had the drive and aspiration of becoming middle class did so and that those left behind were the lazy, irresponsible, feckless, etc. Since their being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder is the product of their own failing and moral faults, why should they get help? This myth, because it is a myth, has thoroughly been incorporated into the culture so that it hardly questioned.

And so, where the traditional unionized working class was feared, the post-Thatcher working class is both an easy target for stigmatization as racist throwbacks or as the butt of jokes in the media and popular culture.

Case in point, the Slobs:

Vicky Pollard:

Lauren Cooper:

Stupid, ugly, uncouth, obnoxious and loud-mouthed, filthy, ill-mannered, and happy to spend their ill-gotten taxpayers money on dumb stuff. Have I left anything out?

And they can sometimes be dangerous because they’re out of control (too much sex, too much food, too many kids, too much welfare) and therefore the only legitimate state intervention is disciplinary: slap them with ASBOs or throw them in jail:

And so, the Chavs provide convenient ideological cover:

“It is both tragic and absurd that, as our society has become less equal and as in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased. Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society. What if you have wealth and success because it has been handed to you on a plate? What if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? To accept this would trigger a crisis of self-confidence among the well-off few. And if you were to accept it, then surely you would have to accept that the government’s duty is to do something about it – namely, by curtailing your own privileges. But, if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom. Chav-hate justifies the preservation of the pecking order, based on the fiction that it actually a fair reflection of people’s worth.” (137)

But of course, such a crisis of self-confidence would never occur in the first place as there is the opposite myth that the rich are that wealthy because they deserve it, earned it, and are worth it. It is a toxic mix of Weberian Protestant Ethic, social Darwinism and Ayn Rand thrown in as well. The upper classes and power elite have convinced themselves that they are not at the top because of inherited privilege but because of their own superiority. And this is based, of course, on class denialism, which I have already discussed.

The key here, according to Jones, is that the working class then have been the recipients of devastating public policy that have decimated their communities, and they are now left to find individual solutions to social problems, and will be blamed if they fail to do so. Downward mobility was socially-induced and collectively experienced but survival has been individualized. And, of course, if the solutions they find – informal employment, for instance – are not found to fit within the normative expectations of work and employment, they will be blamed for that too.

Jones also touches upon the political backlash that has not surprisingly emerged out of that state of affairs, namely, the rise of the British National Party, driven mostly by the political marginalization of the working class. After all, which major political party, in England, represents the interests of the working class and working poor? The Tories, never, and New Labour, certainly not:

“The demonization of the working class has also had a real role to play in the BNPs’ success story. Although ruling elites have made it clear that there is nothing of worth in working-class culture, we have been (rightly) urged to celebrate the identities of minority groups. What’s more, liberal multiculturalism has understood inequalities purely through the prism of race, disregarding that of class.” Taken together, this has encourage white working-class people to develop similar notions of ethnic pride, and to build an identity based on race so as to gain acceptance in multicultural society. The BNP has made the most of this disastrous redefinition of white working-class people as, effectively, another marginalized ethnic minority. ‘Treating white working-class as a new ethnic group only does the BNP a massive favour,’ says anthropologist Dr Gillian Evans, ‘and so does not talking about a multiracial working class.’

It is unlikely that the BNP will ever win significant power, not least because of chronic incompetence and infighting, of the kind that crippled the party after the 2010 general election. But its rise is like a warning shot. Unless working-class people are properly represented once again and their concerns taken seriously, Britain faced the prospect of an angry new right-wing populism.” (225)

This issue is not unique to England. As Western economies collapse, so obviously because of the actions of the upper financial classes, and as many countries are implementing drastic austerity measures that will hit the middle and working classes very hard why leaving the actual culprits to their comfortable bailouts, the level of anger is guaranteed to rise. What the crisis has made so blatantly and painfully obvious is that Western governments are dedicated to the protection of the elites and the financial institutions and class, at the expense of everyone else.

I would argue that everything written in Jones’s book shows us that they have been preparing the ground for the past 30 years to neutralize any dissent, from the mechanisms of the surveillance society to the cultural work of stigmatizing the poor and glorifying the wealthy, to the progressive dismantlement of the social protections that had been built in the post-War period.

So, this book is extremely relevant beyond the English case. It is written in a very engaging style but is very well sourced and documented. For sure, it is clear where Jones stands but it does not negate the facts of policy and results that are also presented in details. Highly recommended.