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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Haiti: The Aftershocks Of History

Laurent Dubois‘s excellent Haiti: The Aftershocks of History is a must-read for anyone interested in the social construction of race and race formation, as well as colonialism and its legacy. The book provides the longue durée context for the current situation of Haiti, especially when the devastating earthquake a few years back, and the current damages inflicted by hurricane Sandy.

If we were to consider Haiti a failed state, then it would be a failed state by design. From reading Dubois’s book, one would be tempted to think that no one ever wanted Haiti to succeed on its own terms ever since the slaves rebelled against their French colonizers.

The book is overall a highly readable and very well-written political history of the country from the end of French colony of Saint-Domingue (as it was called under French rule), dominated by a slavery-based plantation economy (especially sugar canes) to the present although the Duvalier II era to now is a bit short.

Indeed, Dubois describes the 19th century in great details, so, by the time the reader gets to the rise of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, it feels like the book is rushing to the end and one is left with many questions regarding the contemporary period (especially the second ousting of Aristide and beyond).

There is also no doubt that Dubois loves Haiti and roots for its success. As a result, you will find a lot of Amazon reviews decrying the lack of objectivity of the book. That did not bothered me all that much because Dubois is not shy about exposing the structural factors that have resulted in so much political instability in Haiti (the urban / rural divide as well as the dominance of a light-skinned, mulatto elite versus their darker skinned compatriots). Dubois actually presents these lines of division as central to Haiti’s persistent problems. Similarly, one can find at the very beginning of the book another major factor in Haiti’s political instability (Kindle locations):

“Haiti is often described as a “failed state.” In fact, though, Haiti’s state has been quite successful at doing what it was set up to do: preserve power for a small group. The constitutional structures established in the nineteenth century made it very difficult to vote the country’s leaders out of office, leaving insurrection as the only means of effecting political change.” (Loc. 126)

That lock on power and the lack of proper constitutional and institutional mechanisms for political alternatives are at the heart of the multiple rebellions and coups. These are the internal factors. There is no doubt that the French never forgave their former slave colony for rebelling and forcing them out. Indeed, the financial compensation that France demanded (and obtained) from Haiti (in order to reimburse plantation owners for the loss of their property… land and slaves… what is the French word for chutzpah? Quel culot, as we French would say) strangled the country financially so badly that it had to go into debt very quickly. This indebtedness was used, a century later, by the US to invade the country and rule it by force for 20 years. In both case, this was brutal expropriation either of direct monies for France, or exploitation of land and labor for the US.

In both cases, there was a clash of economic models. From the independence on, there has been, in Haiti, a strong rejection of the plantation model, so associated with slavery. So, the rural population has tried to develop alternative modes of agricultural production based on subsistence agriculture (rather than cash crops for export) in small cooperatives. These competing models have been a source of conflicts between the urban / port elites and foreign investors and the rural population. In a way, Haiti was constantly pressure to agree to structural adjustment programs before those even existed, especially from the US. And, big surprise, these neoliberal measures avant la lettre worked no better there than they did anywhere in the late 20th century. They explain the persistent stratification between the cities and the rural areas, forcing a lot of peasants to leave the land and flock to city slums.

“As more and more U.S. agricultural companies entered Haiti, they deprived peasants of their land. The result was that, for the first time in its history, large numbers of Haitians left the country, looking for work in nearby Caribbean islands and beyond. Others moved to the capital of Port-au-Prince, which the United States had made into Haiti’s center of trade at the expense of the regional ports. In the decades that followed, the capital’s growth continued, uncontrolled and ultimately disastrous, while the countryside suffered increasing immiseration.” (Loc. 157)

These unpopular policies were supported by the US, who also (along with France), supported the various authoritarian governments, especially the dreadful Duvalier dictatorship (father and son) in all their atrocities at the same time that the US denied Haitian refugees political asylum.

The end result?

“Ever since popular president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was violently overthrown in 2004, Haiti has been policed largely by foreign troops under U.N. command. Haiti’s proud independence has been eroded, too, by the thousands of foreign organizations that have flocked to the country over the years with projects for improvement and reform. For all their work, though, hunger, poverty, and disease still stalk much of the population. In the cities, the last decades have seen an increase in violent crime, including drug trafficking and kidnapping, while the situation in rural Haiti, where the majority of the population still lives, is increasingly desperate. The soil is severely depleted; generations of intensive agriculture and deforestation have taken their toll. As the population has grown and parcels of land have been divided into smaller and smaller bits, the social and agricultural strategies that worked well for Haitian peasants into the early decades of the twentieth century have become increasingly unsustainable. At the same time, the solutions prescribed by foreign powers and international organizations have largely turned out to be ineffective, or worse.” (Loc. 172)

But the theme that Dubois delineates throughout the book, and the source of his obvious affection for Haitians and hopes for Haiti are as such:

““Haiti disturbs,” sociologist Jean Casimir likes to say. It disturbs, of course, because of its poverty and its suffering. But it also disturbs because, throughout its history, Haiti’s people have repeatedly turned away from social and political institutions designed to achieve profits and economic growth, choosing to maintain their autonomy instead. The Haitian population has been told for two centuries, as it is told today, that it must change, adapt, modernize. No doubt some change is needed; but what has largely been offered to Haiti’s population in the guise of foreign advice is simply a precarious place at the bottom of the global order.

Haitians have consistently refused such offers.” (Loc. 192)

And, of course, White racism has been the source of much violence inflicted upon Haitians, first through the slavery system and later during the US occupation. The first country of free blacks has been depicted by the Western press and seen by Western political classes as a bunch of cannibalistic, voodoo-practicing savages. For instance, Dubois uses the example Marcus Rainsford’s drawings:

The one on the left, much reproduced, portrays the hanging of white officers by Maroons, the one on the right, much omitted, depicts a French officer throwing Haitians overboard to drown them, as if brutality was one-sided.

Similarly, racism was at the root of the constant religious persecution, especially against voodoo, seen as both superstitious paganism as well as somewhat scary.

As I was reading the book, especially regarding the repression of voodoo, and especially the figure of Baron Samedi, I was reminded of the persistence of stereotype and underlying racism that one can find in popular culture. Take a look at these two representations of Baron Samedi:

And remember this guy?

Yup, that’s right. When depicting Doctor Facilier, Disney designers tapped into the stereotypes of Haitian culture and voodoo for their main villain:

So, if you want to explore the roots of all this, then, Dubois’s book is what you want. It is full of rich details about 19th and early 20th century Haiti. As I mentioned before, it rushes a bit to the end, but Dubois seeks to highlight the origins of our views of Haiti, its persistent challenges, poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and natural disaster and its constant harassment by outsiders, from France, to the US, to the UN and a multiplicity of NGOs. It is also a great expose of cultural and structural racism and its consequences, as well as the fight for a non-market driven model of development.

Absolute must-read.

Stuck on The Colonial Evolutionary Ladder (Since the 1700s)

I am still reading Laurent Dubois‘s excellent (so far!) Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. I just finished the chapter on the US occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century. And as any colonial venture, it involved massive mistreatment of the local population accompanied by rationalizations:

“Women were particularly vulnerable to abuse by the marines who controlled their communities. A Methodist Episcopal pastor working in Haiti who reported on the occupation for the Chicago Defender accused the marines of widespread rape, including the rape of young girls. He had also observed, he wrote, marines pressuring the Haitian gendarmes under their command “to procure native women for the use of the whites as concubines.” Haitian women were said to be universally immoral and promiscuous; after just a day in the country, one soldier had confidently asserted that “all native women are of easy virtue and all its accompanying vices.” Such attitudes helped justify and normalize coercive sexual relationships. Looking back on the occupation, one marine later wrote that “rape, I believe, implies a lack of consent. I never heard of a case where consent was lacking in Haiti’s black belt.” When it came to longer-term relationships with Haitian women, marines sometimes talked about such liaisons as being strategically useful—a mechanism for learning about the local culture—and occasionally referred to sexual partners as the “sleeping dictionary.”” (Loc. 3934)

And also:

“Several years later, U.S. Marine Brigadier General Ivan W. Miller also claimed that any violence during the occupation had been made necessary by the culture of Haiti. “You have to remember that what we consider brutality among people in the United States is different from what they considered brutality,” Miller explained. “Those people, particularly at the time there, their idea of brutality was entirely different from ours. They had no conception of kindness or helping people.” John Russell, the high commissioner of the U.S. occupation for most of its duration, concurred, writing in 1929 that the “Haitian mentality only recognizes force, and appeal to reason and logic is unthinkable.”” (Loc. 3968)

And this reminded me of this post, over at A Tiny Revolution:

“One of the great things about being American is we’re just lucky. Lots of countries have killed millions of people, and it made their families really angry and sad. So the countries sometimes had to feel bad about it. But when WE’VE done it, we’ve always been lucky enough to do it to people who turned out not to mind being killed. So no harm done.

Most recently, Steve Inskeep of NPR pointed out that Afghans haven’t gotten all bent out of shape about a U.S. soldier massacring sixteen of them, because “human life is already cheap” way over there.

That’s great journalism. However, it would have been even better if Inskeep had found out whether life is not just cheap in Afghanistan, but also plentiful, like it was in Vietnam:

WILLIAM WESTMORELAND: The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.

And what about Iraqis? Were they whiny bitches when we killed them? No way:

FRED KAGAN, ARCHITECT OF IRAQ “SURGE”: If anyone has seen pictures of Ramadi or Fallujah, they looked like Stalingrad. Cities absolutely crushed…The interesting thing is that when we were fighting those battles and doing that damage, on the whole the Iraqis were not bitching about collateral damage…the Iraqis don’t on the whole say “darn it, you shouldn’t have blown up all of our houses.” They sort of accept that.

We know this is correct because Iraqis felt the same way in the twenties when they were being slaughtered by the British:

“The natives of these tribes love fighting for fighting’s sake,” Chief of Air Staff Hugh Trenchard assured Parliament. “They have no objection to being killed.” The military’s argument was that, though the often indiscriminate air attacks might perturb some civilized folks back in London, such acts were viewed differently by the Arabs. As one British commander observed, “‘[Shiekhs]…do not seem to resent…that women and children are accidentally killed by bombs.”

Then we come to Koreans. Here’s a review of Curtis LeMay’s autobiography, in which LeMay explained why massive carpet bombing of North Korea during the Korean War didn’t make them surrender:

LeMay [argues] that bombardment failed because of an “undying Oriental philosophy and fanaticism.” He says, “Human attrition means nothing to such people,” that their lives are so miserable on earth that they look forward with delight to a death which promises them “everything from tea parties with long dead grandfathers down to their pick of all the golden little dancing girls in Paradise.””

Go read the whole thing because the list continues.

All of this, of course, reeks of racism mixed with the old “scientific” theories of colonial times where natives were perceived as not having reached the same level of evolution as (upper-class) Europeans (who represented the highest stage of evolution and civilization), and suffering from various forms of atavism and being therefore closer to animals in behavior, morality and sensibility. So, this translated into a series of rationales for exploitation (in the name of civilization) through creative tortures (which does not matter because, being more animalistic, they – the natives – are more resistant to pain and more reluctant to discipline), and mass murder (but that’s ok, because, like animals, they do not perceive death the way we do).

This is not exactly new. Colonialism elevated dehumanization and othering to an art form. But to see these instances listed above, and see the same pattern (or meme, as the cool kidz say these days) repeated across time and geographies is pretty striking. But this is typical racism where the dominant group takes itself as the higher standard and then goes around comparing (unfavorably) native populations on the evolutionary ladder, ignoring the trauma, exploitation, structural and mass violence that inevitably come with colonialism.

Colonialism, in a strict sense, may have disappeared but the gems keep coming, as the quotes above reflect. And I am sure many of us remember this one, from Daryl Gates, former LAPD Chief:

“We may be finding that in some blacks, when the choke hold is applied, the veins or arteries do not open up like in normal people.”

See? “They” are just not like us, normal people. That is also the way Rodney King was initially described by the LAPD officers who beat him up, as this neanderthal who would not go down, and therefore had to take an extra beating.

This kind of othering and dehumanizing discourse is pretty constant, as applied to non-white population here and abroad. The statements may not be as explicit as the ones above, but once you know the pattern, they are easy to find.

Hair Extension And World-System Extraction

Culture and fashion are not really my thing but neo-colonial exploitation is SO… this!

“Today, hair is more than just a symbol: it is big business. From India to Peru, the human hair trade has spread across the globe, and it has the UK in its grasp. Last year HM Revenue and Customs recorded more than £38m worth of hair (human, with some mixed human and animal) entering the country, making the UK the third biggest importer of human hair in the world.

Despite the recession the UK extension industry is booming, with hair extension companies claiming it is worth between £45m and £60m (according to London based industry research firm IBISWorld, revenue from hair and beauty salons will be £3.64bn in 2012-13). Great Lengths Hair Extensions, who supply more than 1,000 salons in the UK, report a staggering 70% growth in the past five years. And according to Dawn Riley from Balmain Hair, which sells extensions to thousands of salons and hundreds of wholesalers, this is only the beginning. “It’s still an emerging market. We are now seeing the growth that colour [hair dye] saw 30 years ago.”

In the upmarket central London salon, a full head of Great Lengths extensions costs around £900, and lasts up to six months. And while profits from cuts, colouring and blow drys have remained static, in 2012 the salon’s hair extension business has grown 60% year on year. Owner Inanch Emir has well-known clients including Cher Lloyd, Mischa Barton and Saturdays singer Rochelle Wiseman, and when I visit one weekday afternoon her small salon is buzzing. “I do about two or three hair extensions a day,” she says. “I used to do that a month.””

So, ok, fashion trends. Celebrities start them. People follow. Nothing original here, except the fact that younger and younger women use them.

But this is where I get interested:

“”If I’m honest, I don’t think people care where it is from,” admits Riley. “I would like to say we are all ethically minded, but if clients want something and they can pay for it, they will have it.” Gascoigne agrees: “I never ask where the hair comes from, I just love it so much. When you have big, bouncy hair you feel a million dollars.”

Yet behind the bounce, the profit, and the rows of neatly packaged hair, is what hair historian Caroline Cox calls the “dark side” of the industry. With the exception of a handful of businesses such as Bloomsbury Wigs, most hair comes from countries where long, natural hair remains a badge of beauty – but where the women are poor enough to consider selling a treasured asset.

Cox points out that such exploitation has underpinned the industry since false fronts and hair pieces became popular in the UK in Edwardian times. “It’s taking advantage of those who are disadvantaged,” she says. “Working-class women’s hair is used to bedeck the head of those who are more privileged. It’s been going on for hundreds of years.”

Much of the hair on sale comes from small agents who tour villages in India, China, and eastern Europe, offering poverty-stricken women small payments to part with their hair. As one importer, based in Ukraine, told the New York Times recently: “They are not doing it for fun. Usually only people who have temporary financial difficulties in depressed regions sell their hair.” More worryingly, back in 2006, the Observer reported that in India some husbands were forcing their wives into selling their hair, slum children were being tricked into having their heads shaved in exchange for toys, and in one case a gang stole a woman’s hair, holding her down and cutting it off. When Victoria Beckham said in 2003 that her “extensions come from Russian prisoners, so I’ve got Russian cell block H on my head“, she may have been joking, but it was not long until the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform admitted it was possible: warders were forcibly shaving and selling the hair of prisoners. Thanks to such horror stories, reputable companies try to ensure the hair they sell is “ethical”. Balmain Hair, Riley explains, has been sourcing hair from China for almost 50 years, and pays women the equivalent of a man’s six-month salary (although she cannot give me an exact figure). However, not all companies pay donors. In temples in south India devotees travel for hundreds of miles and queue for hours to have their hair tonsured, or ritually shaved. Some have prayed for a child, others for a sick relative or a good harvest, and when their prayers are answered they offer up their hair. According to one report, most are rural women whose hair has often never been dyed, blow-dried, or even cut and is worth around £200. The hair is then sorted and sold, often by online auction. Last year Tirumala temple, apparently made 2,000m rupees (more than £22m), from auctioning hair. Great Lengths, who sell “temple hair”, point out the hair is donated willingly, and they have a representative based in India who buys it straight from the temple, and ensures the money is funnelled directly back into the local community to fund “medical aid, educational systems and other crucial infrastructure projects”.

But while the women who grew the hair may not be well paid, the price for the customers is rising.”

Just like there is a market for everything, there is no end to the resources we can extract out of the District 12 periphery and ship to the Capitol core areas for consumption.

Neo-Colonialism 101 – Dance!

From the Guardian (emphasis mine):

“The Jarawa tribe have lived in peace in the Andaman Islands for thousands of years. Now tour companies run safaris through their jungle every day and wealthy tourists pay police to make the women – usually naked – dance for their amusement. This footage, filmed by a tourist, shows Jarawa women being told to dance by an off-camera police officer.”

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.

How The Periphery Pays For The Core

Through the consequences of climate change and persistent conflict (whether it’s proxy wars or the global war on terror or resource wars):

“Prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa is the immediate cause of the severe food crisis already affecting around 10 million people in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. Rains have failed over two seasons, with a strong La Niña event having a dramatic impact across the east coast of Africa. Now this year’s wet season has officially ended, there is little prospect of rain or relief before September.

How far the current conditions, classified by the UN as “pre-famine” – one step down from “catastrophe” – can be attributed to climate change is not clear. The last intergovernment panel on climate change report suggested that the Horn of Africa would get wetter with climate change, while more recent academic research has concluded that global warming will increase drought in the region. However, according to aid agencies, the weather has become more erratic and extreme in recent years. The same area suffered a drought in 2006 as well as flash floods.

The structural causes of the crisis go deeper. The Horn of Africa has long been one of the most conflict-riven areas of the world and a focus of geopolitical struggles from the days of the British empire, through the cold war, to today’s the “war on terror”.

Its strategic position at the opening to the Red Sea and its oil and mineral interests have attracted foreign powers for over 150 years, as Alex de Waal, programme director at the Social Science Research Council, points out.

In 2007, the US launched air strikes against suspected al-Qaida cells in Somalia, and its fear that funds could be diverted to terrorist hands has seen the US cut food aid to the area. Northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia have been home to ethnic Somalis for generations, but the populations are marginalised by central governments. The protracted war in Somalia has driven more than 20,000 more Somalis into Kenya in the past two weeks, says the UNHCR. Thousands have also fled drought and fighting in southern Somalia into the equally water-starved border areas of Ethiopia.

The Kenyan government has periodically tried to close its border, although it is now open with 1,200-1,550 refugees a day crossing, according to some reports. They are being drawn to the refugee camp complex at Dadaarb, built in 1991 at the beginning of Somalia’s civil war. It has a maximum capacity of 90,000 but is now overwhelmed by in excess of 370,000 people.”

Global risk society is a product of the core that the periphery pays for in many ways. This is a form of neocolonialism.

Neo-Colonialism 2.0

Land grab, because the Global North needs it to fuel the financialization-of-everything system since the mortgage thing is all busted up:

“Hedge funds are behind “land grabs” in Africa to boost their profits in the food and biofuel sectors, a US think-tank says.

In a report, the Oakland Institute said hedge funds and other foreign firms had acquired large swathes of African land, often without proper contracts.

It said the acquisitions had displaced millions of small farmers.

Foreign firms farm the land to consolidate their hold over global food markets, the report said.

They also use land to “make room” for export commodities such as biofuels and cut flowers.

“This is creating insecurity in the global food system that could be a much bigger threat than terrorism,” the report said.

The Oakland Institute said it released its findings after studying land deals in Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Mali and Mozambique.

It said hedge funds and other speculators had, in 2009 alone, bought or leased nearly 60m hectares of land in Africa – an area the size of France.

“The same financial firms that drove us into a global recession by inflating the real estate bubble through risky financial manoeuvres are now doing the same with the world’s food supply,” the report said.”

And this should be a source of embarrassment but will not be:

“Harvard and other major American universities are working through British hedge funds and European financial speculators to buy or lease vast areas of African farmland in deals, some of which may force many thousands of people off their land, according to a new study.

Researchers say foreign investors are profiting from “land grabs” that often fail to deliver the promised benefits of jobs and economic development, and can lead to environmental and social problems in the poorest countries in the world.

The new report on land acquisitions in seven African countries suggests that Harvard, Vanderbilt and many other US colleges with large endowment funds have invested heavily in African land in the past few years. Much of the money is said to be channelled through London-based Emergent asset management, which runs one of Africa’s largest land acquisition funds, run by former JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs currency dealers.”

In addition to climate change damage, this is a source of failing local agriculture and famine in the Global South, especially Africa, and a perfect illustration of Amartya Sen’s entitlement thesis where the Global South’s entitlement of the poor become the Global North’s rents. And another form of colonialism where value is extracted out of the periphery and transferred to the core.

The Pleasure Periphery – Rules Are for The Natives

Via Denis Colombi, every year, we have to endure coverage of the Paris – Dakar (which is no longer from Paris to Dakar but never mind), where wealthy white men (and such races are gendered phenomena) get to use peripheral or semi-peripheral countries for their enjoyment, in a typical neo-colonialist fashion.

Years ago, I got to meet a few people who did the Paris – Dakar, and they were discussing the norms of the race. One such norm was that if you or someone from your team ran over some natives, you should NOT stop under any circumstances. Keep going, as these people might get brutal if you run over their kids. The bottom line was that the local population was either a hindrance (they force you to slow down and waste precious minutes to the finish line), or straight a hostile force to avoid, which was hard to do as the race got through populated areas.

Well, the geographical location of the race may have changed, but the lack of respect of local rules has not:

“En marge de cette épopée motorisée des temps modernes, le respect des règles n’est pas toujours exemplaire. La Funam (Fundación para la defensa del ambiente), une association argentine de défense de l’environnement opposée à l’existence de tels rallyes, a constaté 28 “graves infractions” au code de la route perpétrées par certains des concurrents du Dakar, “mettant gravement en danger la population locale”. Cela se passait le 3 janvier, lors du trajet de liaison de la deuxième étape qui menait les concurrents de Córdoba, où est basée cette association, à San Miguel de Tucumán, sur une route extrêmement fréquentée, située à une centaine de kilomètres au nord de Córdoba.

Sur la base de nombreuses photos (à voir ici) qui prouvent ces infractions, la Funam a porté plainte le 6 janvier auprès du tribunal de Córdoba. Cette démarche vise les pilotes des véhicules photographiés, contre lesquels est demandée l’application de la loi, à savoir l’imposition des amendes correspondantes, à leur retour dans la province de Córdoba lors de la 12e étape, le 14 janvier. La Funam fait remarquer que la loi argentine prévoit qu’un étranger ne peut sortir du pays sans s’être acquitté des contraventions dues. Elle ajoute que de telles infractions se produisent sur pratiquement toutes les étapes de liaison.

La Funam demande en outre qu’une enquête soit menée afin de savoir si les responsables de la prévention routière et de la police de Córdoba ont reçu des consignes pour ne pas intervenir lors de ces infractions. Elle exige également de la part de ces entités qu’elles fassent respecter le code de la route lors du retour de la compétition dans cette province.”

The photos are indeed revealing of violations of the rules of the road in populated areas and apparent indifference from the authorities, hence one of the complaints as to whether police officers had received instructions as to not intervene, as the organizers of the race give money to the host countries.

This is not surprising. One of the characteristics of the pleasure periphery is that norms are suspended for Westerners, whether we are talking about drug us or sex trafficking or any other kind of activities that are either frowned upon or downright illegal in Western countries.

In the example I gave above, race organizers actively encouraged a hit-and-run attitude. In exchange for the ability to transgress norms for one’s own pleasure, the host country gets money and does not ask too many questions.

Beyond the exploitation aspect of this, in the case of such races, the environmental cost is great (which is part of the reason why the race was moved away from Africa).

But as I mentioned above, there is also a gender aspect to this (indeed, quite often, the pleasure periphery is enjoyed by Western men). These races are fake versions of rugged adventures, relying on one’s wits, struggling against a hostile environment (the sand deserts of Africa!) in a manly competition where many norms are suspended (except those of white male solidarity in case of accidents). This is fake, of course, as the whole organizational infrastructure of the race provides layers of protection against adversity (despite high profile accidents and deaths), so the pilots are not on their own at any time. Help is always at hand. But it is enough for these men to finish the race unshaven, disheveled, with cotton scarf flying in the wind, to pretend to have crossed the Sahara all on their own.

It is yet another way in which white male privilege is made invisible.

The Many Faces of Neo-Colonialism – Toxic Jeans and Cotton Subsidies

The brutal form in Lesotho – Robin Hammond’s Toxic Jeans:

Do watch the entire slideshow and while you’re at it, explore Robin Hammond’s entire portfolio. It’s a terrifying and amazing visualization of the dark side of globalization.

And then, there is the “softer” neocolonialism, just as devastating:

“The continuing struggle of cotton growers in the poorest region of the world is highlighted today by a report which reveals the many billions of dollars paid to rival farmers in the biggest economies since international talks began to make trade more fair.

As the Doha trade talks enter their tenth year this week, the Fairtrade Foundation calculates that the US, the European Union, China and India have in that time paid their cotton farmers $47bn (£29bn) in subsidies in total – flooding the international market and pushing down the global price for competitors, especially in west Africa, says the charity.

As a result, farmers in the four biggest cotton producing countries of west Africa are losing out on vital income which would help people in rural areas and pay for roads, schools and other developments to reduce their dependence on aid, it claims.

Introducing the report, The Great Cotton Stitch-up, the business secretary, Vince Cable, quotes an estimate by the charity Oxfam that the subsidies are costing west African cotton farmers and their families millions of dollars a year in potential income. A report by Oxfam in 2002 estimated the lost income at $191m (£118m) each year.

“The current system of subsidies cannot be right and certainly is not fair,” writes Cable. “The principles of Fairtrade need to be integrated and reflected in the global trading system. The UK government is committed to working towards this aim.”

So, let’s not talk again about “free” trade, shall we. This situation is not new. The US and EU have been pushing for the peripheral countries to open themselves to cheaper – because subsidized – agricultural imports, which destroy local agriculture and makes very big food corporations wealthier.

Ultimately, such practices are responsible for the persistent poverty in the periphery:

“Moussa, who started growing cotton 17 years ago, farms two hectares of land, which yield 500-800 kilos a year. Yet despite the quantity and quality of cotton he produces, he is barely able to feed his children.

“Sometimes, the young ones cry because they’re so hungry,” he says, his face impassive. “I become very angry when I’m not able to get enough food for my family. All the time, I feel sad.” Last month, two of his youngest children contracted malaria and his three-year-old son almost died because Moussa couldn’t afford to buy medicine. “That made me very afraid. It makes me feel ashamed because I am the chief of the family but I am not able to protect them. In our culture, this is unacceptable.”

Moussa’s life is being buffeted by forces beyond his control, put into motion by industrialised, wealthy nations thousands of miles from this dry, hot corner of Africa. In the United States, the scale of government support to 25,000 cotton farmers has thrown the international trading system out of kilter. The political lobby for cotton is one of the strongest in US agriculture, a legacy of the post-Depression, dust-bowl era, when embattled farmers had to be helped back on to their feet.

But while America’s economic landscape has changed, the practice has remained: in 2008/2009, cotton producers were awarded $3.1bn (£1.9bn) in subsidies, which, astonishingly, exceeded the market price by around 30%. The EU and China award its farmers similar grants, albeit on a lesser scale.

The result has been overproduction, the rise of fast, disposable fashion and the artificial lowering of world cotton prices. The consequences are felt most deleteriously by the poorest farmers at the end of the supply chain, men such as Moussa, who battle each year to eke out an existence. The price of west African cotton has fallen every year since 2003 and despite the recent spike in prices, there has been a long-term decline in real terms since the 1950s. Today, Moussa sells one kilo of cotton for 185 Central African francs (CFA) – about 24p. That translates to a maximum annual income of just £200.”

It all goes back to the unfair rules of trade set by core countries to their advantage. But hey, if these farmers can’t make money growing cotton, maybe they should go work for a factory that makes jeans, right? Use their comparative advantage: large supply of labor made cheap and kept cheap.

Raewyn Connell’s Plea for An Epistemological Democracy

Last night, I was privileged to hear a powerful lecture from Raewyn Connell at the University of Chicago. Raewyn Connell has written one of the most central books on theory in a long while with Southern Theory. In yesterday’s lecture, she touched upon some of the topics addressed in Southern Theory. What follows is based on the notes I took during the lecture, so there might be some discontinuities.

Let me note first that Professor Connell is an extremely gracious speaker, as pleasant to listen to as she is to read. She went through her lecture and saved some time for question from the audience (packed room!), including to the rude person who asked the first questions.

Briefly, Connell touched upon four topics:

  • Reexamining feminism for the global age and considering feminism outside of the metropole
  • Exploring what forms of knowledge are appropriate for global times
  • Discovering theories of gender from the South
  • Putting sociology on the right scale

Feminism always validated the voices of marginalized groups, not just women. Also, there was always connection to women in the wider world, ever since WWI and the creation of the still-existing Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

More recently, feminism has a been part of development studies and programs, women in development programs, and has therefore had a global reach. Now, we see that in the whole women and globalization, transnational feminist networks, movements fields.

But the existence of literature has not necessarily translated into gender theorizing. We should be building theories, concepts and analyses of neoliberal globalization and imperialism. Imperialism was built on a gendered workforce (military, missionaries) and now there is a masculinized workforce of neocolonialism.

Once conquest has occurred, the colonial economy is a gendered process: indigenous men overseen by other men, masculinity in the colonial milieu took indigenous men away from the pastoral context (also gendered) into industrial or extractive settings. Still today, transnational economics is gendered with things like maquiladoras, gender-based violence that takes place there.

So, there is a transformation of gender meanings on a global scale, that can be partly seen in global commercial imagery of gender.

What form of knowledge about gender are going to be adequate to account for these changes? What forms of gender theorizing? Such a central theoretical work in gender studies has been Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, but it uses exclusively Western sources (Connell also pleads guilty to that in her earlier work). The point is not point the finger at certain individuals but to recognize that this is an institutional failure of a global political economy of knowledge. There is no mention of indigenous knowledge. This leads to dilemmas of peripheral intellectuals in relation to Western science and indigenous knowledge: how to relate to such different types of knowledge considering the differential value attached to them in our epistemological hierarchies.

So, how does one bring in the indigenous knowledge? Connell uses the example of Aboriginal dot painting, and more specifically Sugar Leaf Dreaming (left, click on the image for a larger view, it is gorgeous).

This art embeds social dilemmas and issues and possible resolution. It encapsulates knowledge of social tensions and potential resolution. There is gender and social knowledge. This is indigenous knowledge.

Globalizing gender studies means reaching out towards epistemological diversity and a mosaic of theories.

Also, one should not underestimate (as Western theories might do) the impact of colonization. Indigenous communities are communities in crisis. All colonized (or formerly colonized) societies are societies in crisis if they survive, due to the disruptions of colonization. These disruptions have been extensive and gendered.

So what could we have instead, beyond simply globalizing metropolitan knowledge. What steps and resources should be used in reorienting Western feminisms.

Connell outlines four themes:

1. Feminism involves studying and promoting the breakthrough to voice of women in patriarchal cultures both in the metropole and colonized world but the dynamics are different, precisely because of colonization, and the relationship between colonizer and colonized.

2. Violence: in metropolitan gender theory, gender violence is seen as a toxic side effect of gender hierarchies. But gender violence has to be seen in the context of colonialism. In colonized societies, violence (colonizing violence) is much more central to the analysis of gender. For instance, in The Intimate Enemy, Ashis Nandy describes how Indian intellectuals reconstructed masculinity of both the colonized and the colonizer experience.

Similarly, Veena Das, in Critical Events, explores the nature of social sciences but also the idea that conflicts between men are fought on the bodies of women, through rape and violence (DRC, anyone?).

3. Out of Latin American thought comes the idea that the formation of identities comes through social struggle rather than the other way around. For instance, for Sonia Montecino, feminine identities are formed in struggle. She distinguishes two kinds of women’s movements based on political struggles:

(1) maternalist social movement (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) because of the legitimacy of mothers;

(2) struggles of women in the workplace against employers, the state and husbands. These struggles construct different gender identities.

Connell identifies the same type of work with Robert Morrell and the notion of competing patriarchies in South Africa.

4. Critique of white Western feminism from the periphery, for instance through the work of Oyeronke Oyewumi, The Invention Of Women: Making An African Sense Of Western Gender Discourses, which discusses feminism as neocolonial power.

Connell concluded with the idea that we have to recognize the capacity for intercultural learning. So, what kind of knowledge counts as knowledge? What counts as theory? And to the question “Can the subaltern speak?” she asks, “can the metropole listen?” how to insert different modes of knowledge into the metropolitan knowledge circuits? We need democratic exchanges across immense inequalities if we are to have  an epistemological democracy on a global scale.

Savage Extraction – Football Edition

It is an interesting (and depressing) report but it is always annoying to have a “thank goodness white people are the only well-intended and honest people ready to save these poor African children” segment. That being said, it is still worth watching as a form of resource extraction from the Global South to the Global North:

Good Documentaries on Oil

With all the discussion floating around the Internet regarding the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought I would mention two documentaries that, I think, do a really good job at addressing issues regarding oil production and consumption.

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash (full video here) is my favorite so far because it does not have the sob stories and emotional heartstrings heavy pulling that activist documentaries often use, which I find annoying and unconvincing.

The film deals with peak oil, how we got to it, which areas of the world are already there, which ones have not reached it yet, how we are dealing with peak oil (with more intensive, complicated, expensive and risky drilling… sounds familiar?) and the social, economic and political consequences of life after peak oil (resource wars, as only one effect).

The film itself is extremely well done, in terms of graphics, visual and other devices to explain peak oil. Even better, the people sounding the alarm about peak oil and telling us that there are basically no new significant reserves of oil to be found nor new ways of drilling are not environmental activists but people from the oil industry.

It also deals with the question of increasing consumption as China, India and other countries are avidly industrializing and mimicking Western models of development in the context of peak oil and the geopolitical consequences as rich countries try more and more aggressively to gain or maintain their access to oil (see: Sudan, Darfur, genocide).

At the same time, it shows that there are no real alternatives to oil (other sources of energy do not come close to fulfilling energy needs), so changes in ways of life are the only way to go.

This is a very rich documentary that is chock full of information even without dealing with environmental issues. It specifically focuses on peak oil, production and consumption and politics.

Crude: The Real Price of Oil is completely different. This is more on the activist side of documentaries. Crude deals with the class action lawsuit engaged in Ecuador against Texaco / Chevron for the environmental and health damage the company inflicted upon the indigenous communities. So, there are sob stories.

The documentary is more personalized as we follow the travails of the attorneys on the plaintiffs’ side, especially the young Ecuadorian attorney for whom this is the first case (his brother was tortured, mutilated and assassinated just before the court case started… by mistake, the assassins were looking for the lawyer).

It is a classical David versus Goliath story: powerless indigenous communities with cash starved attorneys versus giant global corporation with the means to drag the case for decades (as is already the case, a common pattern for oil companies).

Certainly the images of pollution and contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon are shocking. The main damage is done by the pits that Texaco dug as dumps, then covered with dirt when the company left Ecuador.

The objections from Chevron / Texaco are ones we have often heard before either from other oil companies or tobacco companies: the case is brought by lawyers who want to line their pockets; no one can prove definite cause and effect between contamination and health problems (the tobacco industry polished that one), and besides, how do you know that that black goo is oil or that it’s Chevron oil? None very convincing.

One cannot help but notice that Chevron’s attorneys in Ecuador are white whereas the Ecuadorian attorneys for the plaintiffs are obviously from indigenous ancestry.

Apparently, the lawsuit is still going on. Chevron is now suing the makers of the film to obtain all the raw footage that was shot.

Crude is a movie that is useful when it comes to the issues of indigenous peoples. I would have liked more facts / history, / how indigenous life is affected (more in details, that is) / deforestation, less “let’s follow these courageous guys around”.

Failing Global Food System: Failure of Entitlement, Land Grab and Neocolonialism

Let’s start with Amartya Sen’s insight on entitlements:

“Economist Amartya Sen (1990:374) suggested that people command food through entitlements – that is, their socially defined rights to food resources. Entitlement might consist of the inheritance or purchase of land on which to grow food, employment to obtain wages with which to buy food, sociopolitical rights such as the religious or moral obligation of some to see that others have food, or state-run welfare or social security programs that guarantee adequate food to all. Not all of these kinds of entitlements exist in all societies, but some exist in all.  From this perspective, hunger is a failure of entitlement. The failure of entitlement may come from land dispossession, unemployment, high food prices, or lack or collapse of state-run food security programs, but the results are that people may starve to death in the midst of a food surplus.

Viewing hunger as a failure of entitlements also corrects ideological biases in the culture of capitalism, the tendency to overemphasize fast growth and production, the neglect of the problem of distribution, and hostility to government intervention in food distribution. Thus, rather than seeing hunger or famine as a failure of production (which it seems not to be), we can focus on a failure of distribution (see Vaughn 1987:158). Furthermore, we are able to appreciate the range of possible solutions to hunger. The goal is simply to establish, or reestablish, or protect entitlements, the legitimate claim to food. Seeing hunger as a failure of entitlements also focuses on the kinds of public actions that are possible. For example, access to education and health care are seen in most core countries as basic entitlements that should be supplied by the state, not by a person’s ability to pay. And most core countries see basic nutrition as a state-guaranteed entitlement, in spite of recent attempts in countries such as the United States to cut back on these entitlements. Thus, by speaking of entitlements, we can focus on the importance of public action in dealing with world hunger.” (Robbins 2008: 186)

In this article, what Felicity Lawrence describes is precisely a pattern of failure of entitlement alongside a neocolonial system of food production, resulting in overproduction of some items, and scarcity of others:

“The root cause of hunger and famine is rarely crop failure alone. It is about who controls and benefits from the land and its resources. About 1 billion people, or one in six of the global population, go hungry today, even though more food is being produced than ever. And yet, around the same number of people are overweight or obese and likely to have their lives cut short by diet-related disease. We have, in other words, a food system that is failing.

It is a food system that is profligate with finite resources – with fossil fuels for agrochemicals, artificial fertiliser, processing, packaging and transport, with water that is increasingly scarce, and with soil that is being eroded and degraded.

It delivers an excess of food that is unhealthy for the affluent and yet is incapable of producing enough calories for the poor. And it is a system in which the value of the food chain has been captured at each point, from seed to field to factory to shop, by powerful transnational corporations. (Rich countries don’t like to do empire these days so they have privatised it.)”

One should add that the IMF and the World Bank, as their structural adjustment program requirement, often demanded that government end subsidies or price support for food products, often resulting on food riots (IMF riots already mentioned in previous posts).

This is indeed a neocolonial system that we can see at work in Africa, for instance, where a new land grab is at work:

The World Bank is still promoted land grab programs that it acknowledges have no benefits for the affected communities:

Presentation of initial results fo the World bank study during the  panel, "Is there a global land rush?" at the World Bank Land  Conference, April 26, 2010.“The partial glimpse of the [World Bank] study presented in Washington last week sheds some light on an answer. The Bank initially wanted to do a comprehensive study of 30 countries, the hot spots for the land grabs. But it had to cut back severely on its expectations because, as it admits, the governments would not provide them with information. The corporations wouldn’t talk either, we were told by people writing the country chapters. This in itself is a powerful statement that says volumes about the hush-hush nature of these deals. If the World Bank can’t get access to the information, who can?

The Bank decided instead to base its study on the projects that have been reported by the media and captured on the website. The Bank identified nearly 400 projects in 80 countries in this way, nearly one quarter (22%) of which are already being implemented. The study thus makes it plain that the global land grab is very real and moving along faster and further than many have assumed  (See box for a basic glimpse of what the study is expected to say.)”

The Bank’s most significant findings, however, are about the impacts of these projects on local communities. Its overwhelming conclusion, shared at the land conference last week, is that these projects are not providing benefits to local communities. Environmental impact assessments are rarely carried out, and people are routinely booted off their land, without consultation or compensation. The Bank even revealed that investors are deliberately targeting areas where there is “weak land governance”.”

Euphemism du jour: “weak land governance”. I am currently working on a piece on landless peasants and this directly apply to most such movements, from the Brazilian MST to Via Campesina. The conditions and deprivation of entitlements may vary but the results tend to be the same at the local, national and global levels:

“It is a system of extraordinary sophistication and yet also of startling fragility, vulnerable to climate shocks and energy price spikes. But it has not been created by accident. US and European government policies postwar have fostered it – with agricultural subsidies that have encouraged surplus of their own commodity crops, and with trade agreements and loans through international financial institutions that have forced markets in poorer countries open to take those crops and the processed junk diets their manufacturers like to make of them.”