Book Review – Going Clear

You might think you already know a lot about Scientology, what with the amount of celebrities that are part of the church. Trust me, you know nothing unless you read Lawrence Wright‘s Going Clear – Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief.

The book is an expansion of Wright’s New Yorker article on Paul Haggis, who spent decades in Scientology only to be disillusioned and resigning from it over the Proposition 8 issue in California. Scientology was listed as a supporter of the ban on gay marriage, two of Haggis’s daughters are gay. He asked for the spokesperson of the organization to retract the support. This was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. [Although I cannot personally forgive Haggis for being the initiator of that appalling POS that was Walker: Texas Ranger.]

The book, then, goes beyond Haggis although it starts and ends with him. Wright spends quite a bit of book space on Lafayette Ron Hubbard (LRH). He comes across as a highly creative, chronically lying, abusive con man who figured out how to make a ton of money and exploit a lot of people. His entire life seems to be one carefully constructed lie after another. I am not surprised he was friend with other right-wing unpleasant characters like Robert Heinlein. And he was a terrible, controlling and neglectful at the same time, husband and father, and a creepy character, what with the underage Messengers.

“TO MAKE SURE his orders were carried out, Hubbard created the Commodore’s Messengers Organization. In the beginning, the Messengers were four young teenage girls, including Yvonne Gillham’s two daughters, Terri and Janis, who were thirteen and eleven years old; Annie Tidman, twelve; and, briefly, Hubbard’s youngest daughter, Suzette, who was thirteen at the time. Soon, several more teenage girls joined them, and Suzette went to work on the decks. Two of the girls were always posted outside Hubbard’s office, waiting to take his handwritten directives to the mimeograph machine or deliver his orders in person. He instructed them to parrot his exact words and tone of voice when they were delivering one of his directives— to inform the captain what time to set sail, for instance, or to tell a member of the crew he was “a fucking asshole” if he had displeased him. Hubbard allowed them to create their own uniforms, so in warmer climates they attired themselves in white hot pants, halter tops, and platform shoes. When the Commodore moved around the ship, one or more Messengers trailed behind him, carrying his hat and an ashtray, lighting his cigarettes, and quickly moving a chair into place if he started to sit down. People lived in fear of Hubbard’s teenage minions. They had to call the Messenger “sir” even if she was a twelve-year-old girl.


The relationship between Hubbard and these girls was intimate but not overtly sexual. They prepared his bath when he retired and would sit outside his room until he awakened and called out, “Messenger!” They would help him out of bed, light his cigarette, run his shower, prepare his toiletries, and help him dress. Some of the children had parents on the ship, others were there alone, but in either case Hubbard was their primary caretaker— and vice versa. When the girls became old enough to start wearing makeup, Hubbard was the one who showed them how to apply it. He also helped them do their hair.” (107)

What is obvious is that the mistreatment that Hubbard inflicted upon his family are clearly reflected, on a larger scale, in the way the organization leaders treat their own members. As much as Wright takes pain to be objective in his depiction of Scientology – there is no mockery of the doctrine and beliefs – the Church comes off as a terrorist organization, and its leader as a violent bully. Frankly, I had no idea of the extent of the abuse and violence going on in there and it is appalling to me that such an organization still enjoys tax exemptions and is pursued criminally for things such as harassment, kidnapping and other charges. But the book is thoroughly sourced despite denials from Church officials.

Again, at no point does Wright engage in derision of the belief system crafted by LRH. After all, as he points out, if one wants to make fun of beliefs, one can do so of any religion and Scientology has common elements with several of them. And actually, from Wright’s writings, it does look like LHR and the other organization leader truly believe their doctrine. So, it is not entirely a massive con game.

Through and through though, the imprint of Hubbard on everything is obvious:

“The years at sea were critical ones for the future of Scientology. Even as Hubbard was inventing the doctrine, each of his decisions and actions would become enshrined in Scientology lore as something to be emulated— his cigarette smoking, for instance, which is still a feature of the church’s culture at the upper levels, as are his 1950s habits of speech, his casual misogyny, his aversion to perfume and scented deodorants, and his love of cars and motorcycles and Rolex watches. More significant is the legacy of his belittling behavior toward subordinates and his paranoia about the government. Such traits stamped the religion as an extremely secretive and sometimes hostile organization that saw enemies on every corner.” (108)

What LHR also initiated was the practice of punishing people for supposed bad thoughts against him or the organization. From people being thrown overboard one of the Church’s ships to solitary confinement to forced labor and imprisonment, to beatings, there is no end to the way the organization leaders, and especially its current Chairman of the Board (COB, as he is called) will torture, torment, bully, and brutalize. The depictions of the punishment inflicted upon members for the slightest (often arbitrarily defined) offense cannot be described as something other than torture.

And child abuse started under Hubbard himself:

“Hubbard increasingly turned his wrath on children, who were becoming a nuisance on the ship. He thought that they were best raised away from their parents, who were “counter-intention” to their children. As a result, he became their only— stern as well as neglectful— parent. Children who committed minor infractions, such as laughing inappropriately or failing to remember a Scientology term, would be made to climb to the crow’s nest, at the top of the mast, four stories high, and spend the night, or sent to the hold and made to chip rust. A rambunctious four-year-old boy named Derek Greene, an adopted black child, had taken a Rolex watch belonging to a wealthy member of the Sea Org and dropped it overboard. Hubbard ordered him confined in the chain locker, a closed container where the massive anchor chain is stored. It was dark, damp, and cold. There was a danger that the child could be mutilated if the anchor was accidentally lowered or slipped. Although he was fed, he was not given blankets or allowed to go to the bathroom. He stayed sitting on the chain for two days and nights. The crew could hear the boy crying. His mother pleaded with Hubbard to let him out, but Hubbard reminded her of the Scientology axiom that children are actually adults in small bodies, and equally responsible for their behavior. Other young children were sentenced to the locker for infractions— such as chewing up a telex— for as long as three weeks. Hubbard ruled that they were Suppressive Persons. One little girl, a deaf mute, was placed in the locker for a week because Hubbard thought it might cure her deafness.” (112)

Wright follows these trajectories of LHR and Scientology relatively chronologically with certain recurrent themes that define the organization’s attitude towards the government, journalists, critiques and celebrities. The principles that the Church follows were all laid out by LHR himself: the belief in government conspiracies which triggered Operation Snow White. What is Operation snow White? Read and be shocked:

“In Hubbard’s absence, Mary Sue exerted increased control over the church’s operations. Hubbard had already appointed her the head of the Guardian’s Office, a special unit with a broad mandate to protect the religion. Among its other duties, the GO functioned as an intelligence agency, gathering information on critics and government agencies around the world, generating lawsuits to intimidate opponents, and waging an unremitting campaign against mental health professionals. It was the GO that Hubbard tasked with Snow White. Under Mary Sue’s direction, the GO infiltrated government offices around the world, looking for damning files on the church. Within the next few years, as many as five thousand Scientologists were covertly placed in 136 government agencies worldwide. Project Grumpy, for instance, covered Germany, where the Guardian’s Office was set up to infiltrate Interpol as well as German police and immigration authorities. In addition, there was a scheme to accuse German critics of the church of committing genocide. Project Sleepy was to clear files in Austria; Happy was for Denmark, Bashful for Belgium, and Dopey for Italy. There were also Projects Mirror, Apple, Reflection, and so on, all drawn from elements of the fairy tale. Projects Witch and Stepmother both targeted the UK, the source of Scientology’s immigration problems.

Project Hunter was the United States, where Scientologists penetrated the IRS, the Justice, Treasury, and Labor Departments, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as foreign embassies and consulates; private companies and organizations, such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Better Business Bureau; and newspapers— including the St. Petersburg Times, the Clearwater Sun, and the Washington Post— that were critical of the religion. In an evident attempt at blackmail, they stole the Los Angeles IRS intelligence files of celebrities and political figures, including California governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and Frank Sinatra. Nothing in American history can compare with the scale of the domestic espionage of Operation Snow White.” (123)

Another principle is the harassment of critiques. Anyone critical of the organization, journalist or former member, will be followed, have their trash searched, their pets disappeared, will be accused of all sorts of “perversions”, and ultimately be buried under an avalanche of lawsuits that will drive them to bankruptcy if they don’t settle or recant. That is actually what happened to the IRS when Scientology’s tax exempt status was in question. In that sense, it is truly a terrorist organization.

But it is not just critiques that are subject to such treatment. Members themselves are subject to blackmail and intimidation. After all, the practice of auditing means that the organization has files on all its members, confessing to their most intimate ideas, fantasies, etc. All things that can be potentially embarrassing if they were not kept confidential. This gives the church tremendous power over its members it they decide to step out of line. And if they do, all sorts of punishments are meted out, from soviet-style confessions, to debasing treatments, to physical punishment. It is actually by punishing many people at the same time that the church gets a lot of free labor.

If church members try to leave, it will be very hard. They will have to “blow”, that is, to escape and disappear because big guys from the church will go after them and intimidate them into returning or use physical force if necessary. And if people do end up leaving, the church will bill them hundreds of thousands of dollars for the “training” they have received (even though people have already paid for that).

Scientology’s interest in Hollywood celebrities was also part of LHR’s big plan:

“When the Church of Scientology was officially founded in Los Angeles, in February 1954, by several of Hubbard’s devoted followers, there was already a history of religious celebrities and celebrity religions. The cultivation of famous people— or people who aspired to be famous— was a feature of Hubbard’s grand design. He foresaw that the best way of promoting Scientology as a ladder to enlightenment was to court celebrities, whom he defined as “any person important enough in his field or an opinion leader or his entourage, business associates, family or friends with particular attention to the arts, sports and management and government.”” (138)

It’s not hard to see why. After all, we know, since Max Weber, that one cannot inherit charisma. Charisma usually disappears when the charismatic leader dies. Any organization faced with this problem can either routinize it and anchor the organization into bureaucratic processes (which the church has done) or, it can “borrow” charisma, something that Hollywood celebrities certainly have. After all, the doctrine of scientology is about saving the entire world, so, one needs big “influencers”. Borrowing celebrity charisma turns out to be especially necessary when an aging LHR disappeared in 1980 (to avoid lawsuits from several countries) and died in 1986 (I didn’t know what had happened in that 6-year period). The importance of celebrities is fairly developed in the book in the chapters dedicated to the church’s treatment of Tom Cruise. It is both fascinating and creepy.

The enlisting of celebrities has helped the church weather bad publicity that comes up on a regular basis, whether it was the IRS suits, the Lisa McPherson suspicious death, to Cruise’s comments on Brooke Shields and psychiatry, and regular scandals that plague the church. At the same time, the church, at least in the US, is relatively protected as it has received support from Bill Clinton to former education secretary Rod Paige who was receptive to Hubbard’s ideas on education and was lobbied by scientology to include some of these ideas in NCLB.

After reading all the accounts of the free or poorly paid labor the church extracts from its members, it is no wonder it is such a wealthy organization that it can bury its enemies in lawsuits. Permanent staff (Sea Org members) are paid $50 a week (minus fees for punishment), are poorly clothed and fed and housed in collective barracks.

“The contrast with the other Sea Org members is stark. They eat in a mess hall, which features a meat-and-potatoes diet and a salad bar, except for occasional extended periods of rice and beans for those who are being punished. The average cost per meal as of 2005 (according to Marc Headley, who participated in the financial planning each week) was about seventy-five cents a head— significantly less than what is spent per inmate in the California prison system. When members join the Sea Org, they are issued two sets of pants, two shirts, and a pair of shoes, which is their lifetime clothing allotment; anything else, they purchase themselves. Although the nominal pay for Sea Org members is fifty dollars a week, many are fined for various infractions, so it’s not unusual to be paid as little as thirteen or fourteen dollars. Married couples at Gold Base share a two-bedroom apartment with two other couples, meaning that one pair sleeps on the couch. In any case, few get more than five or six hours of sleep a night. There are lavish exercise facilities at the base— an Olympic pool, a golf course, basketball courts— but they are rarely used. Few are permitted to have access to computers. Every personal phone call is listened to; every letter is inspected. Bank records are opened and records kept of how much money people have. Cultural touchstones common to most Americans are often lost on Sea Org members at Gold Base. They may not know the name of the president of the United States or be able to tell the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. It’s not as if there is no access to outside information; there is a big-screen television in the dining hall, and people can listen to the radio or subscribe to newspapers and magazines; however, news from the outside world begins to lose its relevance when people are outside of the wider society for extended periods of time. Many Sea Org members have not left the base for a decade.” (273)

That is indeed in contrast with the first class, lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the top if the church’s hierarchy and the celebrities who received indeed star treatment when they stay at the facilities.  And, of course, since many children are born to parents who are in the church, they get to work as well, receive limited education, all in breach of several states’ child labor laws.

Overall, it is a very well-written, well-sourced, and very informative book on this organization. I am curious as to whether Wright will be subject to the same harassment to which other journalists have been subjected when they investigated the church or whether he will be sued into bankruptcy. Because, even though Wright really does not come down hard on the organization, the church still comes off as monstrous. As I mentioned earlier, if you thought you knew all there is to know about scientology, you do not unless you read this book.

From a sociological point of view, it is a fascinating read as a study in the creation of a religious social movement, based on charismatic leadership and the one-man creation of an entire universe of belief.

Patriarchal Violence Never Takes A Break

Patriarchal cultures (and that’s pretty much all of them) have all sorts of creative ways of enforcing their norms on those who defy and resist them. They never run out of violent and publicly degrading way of punishing women and girls, especially, for their deviance, enlisting all social institutions to do their work of social control and sanctioning.

Item 1 – schools:

“A teacher in southern Egypt punished two 12-year-old schoolgirls for not wearing the Muslim headscarf by cutting their hair, the father of one girl said on Wednesday.

The governor of Luxor province – where the incident occurred – called the teacher’s actions shameful and said she had been transferred to another school. But rights groups say that some Islamic conservatives have been emboldened by the success of groups like Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafi trend in parliamentary and presidential elections and have been increasingly brazen about forcing their standards on other Egyptians.

The incident follows a surge in legal cases against Egyptians, mostly Christians, who allegedly showed contempt for religion.

It also comes amid a fierce debate over how the role of religion will be defined in the country’s new constitution. The preponderance of Islamists on the panel drafting the document has alarmed liberals and religious minorities.

In the village of Qurna in Luxor province, 300 miles south of Cairo, father Berbesh Khairi el-Rawi said the teacher forced the two girls to stand with their hands above their heads for two hours and then cut their hair in their school.”

Item 2 – families:

“The scourge of acid and “honour” has claimed another victim in Pakistan where a teenage girl was reportedly murdered by her parents after she was apparently seen talking to a young man.

Police in Pakistan-administered Kashmir said they had arrested Mohammad Zafar and his wife after they allegedly confessed to dousing their 15-year-old daughter, Anvu Sha, with acid. Police were alerted by the teenager’s married, elder sister who demanded they investigate.

The precise details of the teenager’s purported offence are unclear. Some reports said her father saw her talking to a young man, while others said he merely saw her looking at two young men who drove past their house on a motorbike.

Either way, police claim that at some point on Monday Mr Zafar became enraged with his daughter, attacked her in the house and then poured acid on her with the assistance of his wife. They did not take the young girl to hospital until the following day, when she died of her injuries. “Zafar beat her up with the help of his wife,” police officer Tahir Ayub told Agence France Presse, adding that the couple had confessed to their actions. “She was badly burnt but they did not take her to hospital until the next morning, and she died on Wednesday.”

Acid attacks, especially those  relating to cases of so-called honour, are commonplace in Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia and campaigners have struggled for years for the authorities to tackle the issue more forcefully.”

The Visual Du Jour – Patriarchal Control

Right here in the USA, courtesy of the forced motherhood movement and its political allies in both parties and the President:

This has been a thoroughly successful strategy: not attack Roe frontally but chip away at reproductive rights at the state level, one legislation at a time. For all intents and purposes, legal and safe abortions are made unavailable. This reflects the dominance of religious fundamentalist groups with political clout to enforce misogyny. These state measures take several forms, as the report notes:

Bans. The most high-profile state-level abortion debate of 2011 took place in Mississippi, where voters rejected the ballot initiative that would have legally defined a human embryo as a person “from the moment of fertilization,” setting the stage to ban all abortions and, potentially, most hormonal contraceptive methods in the state. Meanwhile, five states (AL, ID, IN, KS and OK) enacted provisions to ban abortion at or beyond 20 weeks’ gestation, based on the spurious assertion that a fetus can feel pain at that point. These five states join Nebraska, which adopted a ban on abortions after 20 weeks in 2010 (see State Policies on Later Abortions). A similar limitation was vetoed by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D).

Waiting Periods. Three states adopted waiting period requirements for a woman seeking an abortion. In the most egregious of the waiting-period provisions, a new South Dakota law would have required a woman to obtain pre-abortion counseling in person at the abortion facility at least 72 hours prior to the procedure; it would also have required her to visit a state-approved crisis pregnancy center during that 72-hour interval. The law was quickly enjoined in federal district court and is not in effect. A new provision in Texas requires that women who live less than 100 miles from an abortion provider obtain counseling in person at the facility at least 24 hours in advance. Finally, new provisions in North Carolina require counseling at least 24 hours prior to the procedure. With the addition of new requirements in Texas and North Carolina, 26 states mandate that a woman seeking an abortion must wait a prescribed period of time between the counseling and the procedure (see Counseling and Waiting Periods for Abortion).

Ultrasound. Five states adopted provisions mandating that a woman obtain an ultrasound prior to having an abortion. The two most stringent provisions were adopted in North Carolina and Texas and were immediately enjoined by federal district courts. Both of these restrictions would have required the provider to show and describe the image to the woman. The other three new provisions (in AZ, FL and KS), all of which are in effect, require the abortion provider to offer the woman the opportunity to view the image or listen to a verbal description of it. These new restrictions bring to six the number of states that mandate the performance of an ultrasound prior to an abortion (see Requirements for Ultrasound).

Insurance Coverage. Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Utah adopted provisions prohibiting all insurance policies in the state from covering abortion except in cases of life endangerment; they all permit individuals to purchase additional coverage at their own expense. These new restrictions bring to eight the number of states limiting abortion coverage in all private insurance plans (see Restricting Insurance Coverage of Abortion).

These four provisions also apply to coverage purchased through the insurance exchanges that will be established as part of the implementation of health care reform. Five additional states (FL, ID, IN, OH and VA) adopted requirements that apply only to coverage purchased on the exchange. The addition of these nine states brings to 16 the number of states restricting abortion coverage available through state insurance exchanges.

Clinic Regulations. Four states enacted provisions directing the state department of health to issue regulations governing facilities and physicians’ offices that provide abortion services. A new provision in Virginia requires a facility providing at least five abortions per month to meet the requirements for a hospital in the state. New requirements in Kansas, Pennsylvania and Utah direct the health agency to develop standards for abortion providers, including requirements for staffing, physical plant, equipment and emergency supplies; supporters of the measures made it clear that the goal was to set standards that would be difficult, if not impossible, for abortion providers to meet. Enforcement of the proposed Kansas regulations has been enjoined by a state court.

Medication Abortion. In 2011, states for the first time moved to limit provision of medication abortion by prohibiting the use of telemedicine. Seven states (AZ, KS, NE, ND, OK, SD and TN) adopted provisions requiring that the physician prescribing the medication be in the same room as the patient (see Medication Abortion).”

And, of course, abortion is not the issue as the same groups also target contraception, making US fundamentalists even more retrograde than their developing countries counterparts:

“The US is increasingly out of sync with developed and developing countries worldwide on these issues. Others get it: access to birth control is a linchpin in efforts to save lives. But the US continues to treat the issue as a political football. When people can choose whether or when to become pregnant, everyone benefits. Women are healthier, and their babies and children more likely to be fed, educated and healthy. The workforce is more robust; the government spends less on healthcare – study after study says so. The breadth of birth control’s benefits are matched only by the chronic magnitude of unmet need for it. Still today a staggering 215 million women around the world want, but lack, access.

Meanwhile, in October, the US house of representatives advanced a bill to cut $40m in funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the largest public sector provider of birth control in the world. The bill was just one part of larger efforts to undermine reproductive health, which included gutting family planning programs in the US and reinstating the “global gag rule” to punish developing countries for addressing unsafe abortion.

Although the final 2012 spending bill allocates more to global birth control than it initially threatened to, it’s still $5m shy of last year’s sum – and even that took heroic efforts to achieve. This year, the US must throw its weight behind ensuring birth control access, both at home and abroad. Other developed countries are wholeheartedly doing so. “You get it right for girls and women – you get it right for development,” said under-secretary of state Stephen O’Brien of the UK’s department for international development (DFID) recently. Last month, DFID pledged £35m in new funds to UNFPA and a day later tacked on an additional £5m for female condoms.

Women in sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia, where the vast majority of maternal deaths and unmet need for birth control lies, are struggling. Twin burdens of preventing or spacing pregnancies and dodging HIV risks are compounded by a chronic lack of health services and topped by taboos around sexuality. The US should be striving to do right by women worldwide by supporting their access to birth control. The Global Health Initiative, Obama’s novel effort launched in 2009, gave a modest bump to US global family planning programme, but more is needed. The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton rightly espouses the centrality of women to US foreign policy, yet on the issue of global birth control access the US remains a laggard.

By not prioritising birth control access within US borders or worldwide, the US is sending a message that contraceptive access is not important. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Developing countries – including Muslim nations – know this. In Dakar, dozens of health and finance ministers from across the African continent gathered to extol the virtues of family planning and strategise better ways of delivering it to those in need. Ambition and innovation are palpable, from Nigeria to Ethiopia. More and more developing country leaders are committed to improving women’s lives, and access to birth control is the first stop. Progress is imminent, especially in Africa.

Yet it would be much more so if the US were to fall into line. Other countries, wealthy, poor, and in-between, seem to have got the message: access to birth control is essential for health, rights and economic development. Millions around the world and in the US need access to a range of birth control options and the freedom to choose their reproductive futures. Addressing this should be on the top of the US’s new year’s resolutions.”

This tells you all you need to know about the so-called “pro-life” movement. It is simply a misogynistic and patriarchal movement whose goal it is to control women’s bodies and lives. Period.

A Moment of Hilarity While Grading

So I heard about this idiotic person complaining that Glee is turning teenagers gay:

First, I love the “some say” at the beginning of the clip. It’s a sure sign of “I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

But anyhoo, the thing that completely cracked me up is that while this moron is ranting and raving and Bible beating, they run the gay kiss over and over in a loop. Geebuz, they must have turn a million people gay right there!

The Patriarchy Continuum – Devadasis

Nothing is worse for women and girls than the combination of religious fundamentalism, patriarchy and poverty.

Case in point:

“Parvatamma is a devadasi, or servant of god, as shown by the red-and-white beaded necklace around her neck. Dedicated to the goddess Yellamma when she was 10 at the temple in Saundatti, southern India, she cannot marry a mortal. When she reached puberty, the devadasi tradition dictated that her virginity was sold to the highest bidder and when she had a daughter at 14 she was sent to work in the red light district in Mumbai.

Parvatamma regularly sent money home, but saw her child only a few times in the following decade. Now 26 and diagnosed with Aids, she has returned to her village, Mudhol in southern India, weak and unable to work. “We are a cursed community. Men use us and throw us away,” she says. Applying talcum powder to her daughter’s face and tying ribbons to her hair, she says: “I am going to die soon and then who will look after her?” The daughter of a devadasi, Parvatamma plans to dedicate her own daughter to Yellamma, a practice that is now outlawed in India.

Each January, nearly half a million people visit the small town of Saundatti for a jatre or festival, to be blessed by Yellamma, the Hindu goddess of fertility. The streets leading to the temple are lined with shops selling sacred paraphernalia – glass bangles, garlands, coconuts and heaped red and yellow kunkuma, a dye that devotees smear on their foreheads. The older women are called jogathis and are said to be intermediaries between the goddess and the people. They all start their working lives as devadasis and most of them would have been initiated at this temple.


The system is seen as a means for poverty-stricken parents to unburden themselves of daughters. Though their fate was known, parents used religion to console themselves, and the money earned was shared.

Roopa, now 16, has come to buy bangles at the festival. She was dedicated to the goddess seven years ago and was told that Yellamma would protect her. Her virginity was auctioned in the village, and since then she has supported her family by working as a prostitute out of her home in a village close to Saundatti.

“The first time it was hard,” she admits. In fact, her vagina was slashed with a razor blade by the man she was supposed to sleep with the first time. Her future, like that of other devadasis, is uncertain. Once they are around 45, at which point they are no longer considered attractive, devadasis try to eke out a living by becoming jogathis or begging near the temple.”

Here is a short video on the devadasi:

What is Sociology For? Doom, Gloom And Despair

Apparently, as beautifully demonstrated by Edgar Morin and William I. Robinson in separate publications. Both sociologists have a very bleak outlook as the current global state of affairs.

First Edgar Morin in Le Monde. To paraphrase, the op-ed and roughly translate the gist of it, 2010 continued disturbing trends that show no sign of abating. What are these trends, according to Morin? First and foremost the continuing unregulated financial globalization, which he sees are related to ethnic, nationalist and religious “closures” (something reminiscent of McWorld versus Jihad). Both are major sources of social dislocations and conflicts. Both lead to reduced freedoms (economic, social and political) and fanaticism (both economic and political). They have replaced the totalitarian forms of the 20th century. And both lead to increased inequalities, themselves sources of conflict. So, far from creating a harmonious global village (do people believe it might / would / could?) or planetary humanism, globalization has led to financial and neoliberal cosmopolitanism (without the global social covenant called for by David Held, I might add) and a return to particularism.

And so, everywhere, capital is the decision-maker, and speculation and financial capitalism have triumphed (despite their obvious massive failure). Banks have been saved and preserved, as governing ideologies have integrated the notion of global financial capital as inevitable and uncontrollable force (all the while taking very real action to save it, ironically). In this state of ideological hegemony, there is no room for alternative thinking, dismissed as non-serious discourse by media elites. And the trends in education, where encompassing critical thinking should be taught, are on segmented bits of knowledge supposed to be of immediate use to get disappearing jobs.

No wonder, according to Morin, political thinking is so poor and unable to deal with fundamental global issues. I would add that this is all by design. It is the same categories of people in power who have no interest in dealing with such global issues, who also want to transform education into McDonaldized job training. Morin notes, as I have noted before, that the knowledge society is actually an ignorance society. The more segmented the forms of knowledge, the more atomized the masses will be.

Morin sees some optimistic signs in forms of resistance that have recently emerged, such as libertarian developments such as Wikileaks. These forms of resistance are decentered, dispersed, yet loosely connected. It is no wonder that these forms of resistance are the targets of state repression. State have no interests in reining in the excesses of capital and financial speculation but they sure work hard to control protests forms and movements through dismantling of civil liberties apparatus. Most likely, they will fail, for Morin.

I have made no secret that William I. Robinson is one of the most interesting sociologists on globalization. I wish he joined the socblogging crowd. In this interview, he examines what is happening in Mexico to identify some general trends as well. Now, you must click on the link and read the whole thing over there because Robinson is hard to quote, as he tends to pack a lot of stuff in a few words.

So, what is going on in Mexico (this is based on a phone conversation)?

“One level of course is in an age of global capitalism, and unbridled inequalities, and massive polarization between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have nots, the social fabric breaks down and the state can no longer try and juggle multiple interests, it can’t even attempt to do so.

“So you have a breakdown of social order, and the breakdown of social order is more general, worldwide we’re seeing that, whole pockets and whole countries where social order and the ability of political authorities to manage these contradictions generated by massive inequalities and by global capitalism is breaking down. And so in part that’s what’s going on in Mexico, the central state really can’t hold the system together.

“Another part of the story is that the drug trafficking is wildly profitable, but in Mexico what’s also happened is that increasingly, a portion of the population has become dependent on drug trafficking.

“There’s massive unemployment in Mexico, there’s what we call los sin sin, those without work, and without school. So there’s a whole generation of youth that are not studying, they don’t have the opportunity to because the economy is in total crisis and because of massive inequality, and they have no work, because there is massive unemployment and underemployment.

“Drug trafficking has become a source of income, including petty income. It used to be you know the top level there were drug traffickers which were, if they weren’t interfered with they only fought against each other, you know, cartels for control of the drug trade. Now right down to each neighborhood people who are unemployed and young people who are unemployed have been swept up into drug trafficking, and they’re fighting each other literally, in some cities, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, for control over the pettiest level of making some money off of drug trafficking.”

And the state’s response has been to militarize the Mexican society by deploying roughly half of the Mexican military already, and the rest come be deployed later. And this seems to be the uniform response to social issues: militarization, repression, and curtailment of civil liberties all in the name of security, as defined as under threat by either, criminals and traffickers or terrorists, depending on the social context. Again, nothing gets done on the social issues, poverty and social inequalities because the states have divested themselves of the will and ability to deal with those. Repression is all that is left as major state function, and protection of capital.

What this leads to, for Robinson, is 21st century fascism:

““I don’t want to fall into too much cynicism and pessimism, I haven’t lost my optimism, but I want to be realistic, and what I see taking place is in the face of this global crisis, which is a deep structural crisis, very close to a systemic crisis, and so I see that there are different responses to the crisis and a very quick polarization between a response on the one side, which is resistance, from poor people, from below, from poor peoples’ movements and the resurgence of the left, and attempts to create 21st century socialism in South America, and these mass protests and you know general strike in France and in Greece, and all around the world, we can follow the rise of progressive resistance, radical resistance, leftist resistance, and a new awakening of masses of people.

“But then this polarization around this response to the crisis, the other side of that is the rise of what I call 21st century fascism, these different, it doesn’t look like 20th century fascism because everything has changed, but the force which is most insurgent right now in the United States is the right. The rise of the fascist right.

“They’re organized in the Tea Party, and the right wing of the Republican party, the Minute Men, White power movements, and so forth. And so you see the rise of a fascist movement in the United States.

“But a rise of the fascist right we see it all around the world as well. We see it in Europe, all of the European countries, we see it in the Latin American countries, there was just a meeting, Uno América, these bring together the fascist Latin American right, the Latin American right that used to be happy when there were military dictatorships, and authoritarian regimes.

“Colombia is really a model of 21st century fascism: a democratic façade, a polyarchic political system, and beneath that there’s total social control, total domination by elites and by capital, and if you resist you’re massacred, and four million people have been displaced from the countryside.

“Yes, there’s major cracks and that opens up space for both the fascist right and the resurgence of the left. And I don’t know what the outcome of that is… We’re entering into a very dangerous period of uncertainty.”

So, is sociology the depressing science? I would say yes. And I would add that this is a good thing. In the context of a popular culture where “positive thinking” is not the antidote to negative thinking but the antidote to critical thinking, there is a need for negative (that is, critically-based and grounded in reality) thinking. Moreover, positive thinking is not the bearer of all sorts of benefits as popular psychology would have you believe. Actually, we could use more negative thinking. When all is said and done, positive thinking is an ideological construct to ban some topics and ways of discussing issues, from polite discussion (hence, these equally exclusionary calls to civility).

So, yes, let sociology be the bearer of bad news. We have been clamoring for decades that increasing social inequalities were bad for society as a whole and we were right.

Let sociology especially be the bearer of bad new when it comes to questioning previously unquestioned mechanisms of power and dominance.

I would only disagree with the despair part. What was that Gramsci quote? Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. I would argue that sociologists have done well on the first part, but not nearly enough on the second part.

Book Review – Globalization and Social Movements

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

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

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

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

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

How does Moghadam define a transnational social movement?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

  • political process
  • organizational processes
  • cultural processes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similarly, Moghadam identifies different strands in the movement:

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Brave New War

BNW John Robb ‘s Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and The End of Globalization (Global Guerrillas Blog) adds a few concepts to the topic of new wars and the changing nature of warfare. At the same time, for those of us who have studied the changing nature of warfare and are familiar with the writings of people like Mary Kaldor or Herfried Munkler, there is a lot that is neither new nor original.

At the same time, John Robb’s perspective is different Kaldor’s or Munkler’s because he has worked in intelligence and counterinsurgency. His first hand experience in this field provides interesting insights as well as some issues.

Let me get out of the way the things I did not really like in the book. I think the author has a tendency to latch on to easily on all the fashionable concepts of the day: black swans, long tails, etc. And the author’s contention regarding resilient communities (the author’s idea of empowered communities able to resist oppression and terrorism) smells a bit too much of the fetishism of the local for my taste. Again, the local is not an automatic equivalent to empowered autonomy and resistance.

Things get a lot more interesting when we delve into the changing nature of terrorism and conflict in the global context. Specifically, Robb argues that one of the strengths of insurgent groups, such as the ones in Iraq is their open-source networked nature that lacks a clear center for greater flexibility. This has allowed for smooth and flexible connections between terrorist groups and organized criminal networks and these connections permeate the global economy.

According to Robb, the Iraq insurgency is the future of insurgency and terrorism with a new method: systems disruption: the disruption of basic services that are essential to smooth societal functioning and whose disruption damages the legitimacy of governments and nation-states. One problem here: this is not new. This used to be the tactic adopted by white African groups (the Executive Outcomes type) again newly independent African nations. To attack power plants and water treatment centers repeatedly would force these new governments to spend enormous resources rebuilding them. And if it led to government failure, then, it would prove that Africans were unable to govern themselves.

However, one can clearly see, as the author argues, the rise of “virtual states” in the sense of “superempowered groups” who can challenge national governments (and, I would say, especially, failed states) and connect to other groups and criminal organizations through ICTs. Which is why many peripheral conflicts are not fought between states but between a mix of sub-national actors dedicated to system disruption.

“This new method of warfare offers clear improvement (for our enemies) over traditional terrorism and military insurgency. It offers guerrillas the means to bring a modern nation’s economy to its knees and thereby undermine the legitimacy of the state sworn to protect it. Furthermore, it can derail the key drivers of economic globalization: the flow of resources, investment, people, and security. The perpetrators of this new form of warfare, however, aren’t really terrorists, because they no longer have terror as their goal or method. A better term might be global guerrillas, because they represent a broad-based threat that far exceeds that offered by terrorists or the guerrillas of our past.” (14-5)

But global guerrillas are not only distinctive because of system disruption. Their organizing structure – the decentralized network – is also a specificity, as opposed to hierarchies. These global guerrillas are main actors in what Robb calls fourth generation warfare (4GW), the first three being

  • Mass warfare: use of massive firepower on clear conflict fields, such as the Napoleonic wars or the US Civil War.
  • Industrial warfare: wearing down of the opposing state through greater mobilization and firepower, such as World War I.
  • Blitzkrieg: taking down of an enemy army and state through maneuvers, deep penetration and disruption, such as World War II (I would argue that WWII was also industrial warfare).

And here, Robb was prescient:

“The use of systems disruption as a method of strategic warfare has the potential to cast the United States in the role that the Soviet Union held during the 1980s – a country driven to bankruptcy by a foe it couldn’t compete with economically. We are staring at a future where defeat isn’t experienced all at once, but through an inevitable withering away of military, economic, and political power and through wasting conflicts with minor foes.” (32)

As an aside, this is something Michael Mann had already written about in Incoherent Empire.

The issue I have then is the supposed big discovery of the changing nature of warfare (decentralization, networks, etc.) as if this were the first book about this. Seriously, Mary Kaldor is not even mentioned or referenced even though she wrote the book (literally) on New Wars. And P.W. Singer and others have also written quite extensively about the de-nationalization of warfare and the emergence of non-state actors and their prevalence in contemporary conflicts. And it has been long known that these global guerrillas and global criminal networks have been pretty savvy with ICTs.

Robb also argues that global guerrillas be distributed according to the long tail model (as opposed to Gaussian distribution).

There are several reasons for this:

(1) War is cheap. The barriers of entry due to costs have declined considerably and one can conduct warfare with AK-47s and child soldiers at really low costs (which create some incentives).

(2) Also, the decentralization of warfare and system disruption mean that small events can create massive costs for the injured party.

(3) Networking technologies allow for a “long shelf life” on ideas driving the guerrillas whose number don’t have to be large. Social networking allows like-minded people to easily find each other. Here, I would add that the strength of weak ties is also relevant as absolute consensus and strong ties are not necessary for a global guerrilla to be operational (and for someone so in love with concepts, I am surprised – disappointed – that Robb did not consider that one).

So, beyond the Iraq insurgency groups, who would count as a global guerrilla? Robb mentions the Chechen guerrilla as well as the Niger Delta movement or the Balochs in Pakistan. How do states fight back against guerrillas that are so adept at asymmetrical warfare? Robb mentions the use of paramilitaries including the US minutemen. And here is another source of annoyance for me:

“Armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weaponry and survival gear, this paramilitary force has formed organically to police the U.S.-Mexican border.

Though many Americans have lamented their existence, few have tried to explain it.” (87)

Really? I guess David Neiwert has not been writing about all this for years now, and showing how such movement has not arisen “organically”. And Robb displays a disturbing respect for these paramilitary groups (including those the US used in Central America) even as he acknowledged their corruption and human rights abuse. It is unconscionable to me to legitimize their use.

Also included in the global guerrillas category are what Robb calls third generation gangs (3GG).

  • First generation: turf protection, unsophisticated leadership, opportunistic petty crime.
  • Second generation: organized around business and financial gain; broader geographical footprint, violence used for intimidation of commercial competition and against government interference.
  • Third generation: global, sophisticated transnational operations, political control in failed government and state areas, high interference in state function.

“Third generation gangs fit the model of global guerrillas perfectly. They operate, coordinate, and expand globally. They communicate worldwide without state restriction, often via the Internet. They engage in transnational crime. They participate in fourth-generation warfare, and their activities disrupt national and international systems. Finally, they coerce, replace, or fail states that stand in their way. In all these categories, they parallel the development of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Like Al-Qaeda, these gangs are rivals of nation-states.” (93)

All these groups engage in system disruption as main tactic, targeting specifically (or trying to) what Robb calls Systempunkt, the crucial point in a system whose disruption can create system collapse. These may be economic or infrastructural. Anything whose disruption will trigger a collapse in global flows (Appadurai’s scapes) is such a Systempunkt. In the current context, one could argue that global guerrillas are not the only ones who can engage in such system disruption. “Legitimate” economic actors seem to do so as well.

For global guerrillas, then the structuring in scale-free, decentralized and flexible networks allows for capillary kinds of disruptions (Foucault’s micro-power) that can trigger cascading failures, as opposed to coordinated yet non-networked attacks of former generation terrorist groups.

Finally, the last characteristic of global guerrillas is open-source warfare (OSW):

“In OSW, the source code of warfare is available for anyone who is interested in both modifying and extending it. This means the tactics, weapons, strategies, target selection, planning, methods, and team dynamics are all open to community improvement. Global guerrillas can hack at the source of warfare to their heart’s content” (116)

As with open-source software, the main characteristics are as follows:

  • Early release and continuous updates
  • Constant problem solving through community sharing
  • Community members as allies and co-developers rather than competitors
  • Simplicity and easy adaptability of solutions

OSW is one big bazaar of warfare solutions.

I have already mentioned above and throughout this pose the issues I had with the book. I would add that there is too much conflation of security = protection of assets and defense of the capitalist system as it is (or whatever is left of it at this point). Too much defense of paramilitary seen as legitimate actors. And not enough recognition of the work done before on this topic. Some of the ideas in the book are useful in terms of conceptualization but there is too much grasping of fashionable concepts from a variety of fields.

That being said, the book is a quick an interesting read and I would recommend also bookmarking the blog (link above). But I would also say: go read Mary Kaldor first.

America… The Unequal and Nasty?

Unequal and nasty seems to be the conclusion drawn by several social scientists and thinkers.

First, inequality has been growing for a few decades now but this has not affected the lack of class consciousness in the United States. Americans consistently underestimate class differences but, as sociologist Claude Fisher notes, even if they did, it would not make much differences in their thinking:

“The other evidence suggests that increasingly many Americans have been aware of growing inequality, but that has not changed their resistance to explicit economic “leveling.”  Research on Americans’ hostility to the estate (the “death”) tax, for example, shows that it is impervious to information, for example, that vanishingly few Americans ever pay that tax. (See Larry Bartels on this here.)

Versions of this paradox have perplexed social scientists for decades. (See also this earlier post.) Here are a handful of plausible explanations forwarded by scholars:

  • Anti-statism.” Americans have been historically suspicious of and hostile to government (although they have accepted many pragmatic programs, like Medicare). Therefore, they may wish that inequality was much less than it is, but they will not empower the government to do something serious about it.
  • Opportunity, not outcome. Survey data show that many Americans generally do support government actions that widen opportunities for economic advancement, especially through education. Most Americans may believe, then, that in a society of equal opportunity, unequal outcomes can be reduced or at least tolerated. (Unfortunately, the belief that the U.S. is particularly open to upward mobility is empirically incorrect.)
  • Race trumps: In the U.S., issues of economic inequality have been tangled up with issues of race, because blacks have disproportionately been poor and the likeliest recipients of government assistance. Research suggests that this prospect leads whites to resist government action, even action that might benefit themselves.
  • Ideology of self-reliance: Americans have been historically committed to emphasizing individual independence and self-reliance; increased government action threatens to create dreaded “dependency.” In practice, Americans have comprised that ideology when conditions demanded – in the Great Depression, for example; or in accepting disaster relief. But these values make for deep resistance to any major new initiatives.
  • Constricted horizons: Some have argued that political discussions here are so narrowly bounded that Americans may see and resent great inequality but cannot really imagine that things could be (and are elsewhere) different. When, for example, the free-enterprise Obama health plan is seen by so many as an extreme, socialistic program, when our tax rates on the wealthy are described as confiscatory, or when Sweden is depicted as some sort of totalitarian state, it would seem that Americans are operating with blinders on.”

Think about this: more and more Americans have now grown up being socialized in a neoliberal ideology that pervades the polity, the media and the culture in general with no real contestation.

Jeffrey Sachs also notes that not only are inequalities on the rise but that there is now a nastiness and lack of compassion with regards to the victims of the economic crisis:

“Much of America is in a nasty mood and the language of compassion has more or less been abandoned. Both political parties serve their rich campaign contributors, while proclaiming they defend the middle class. Neither party even mentions the poor – who now officially make up 15% of the population, but in fact are even more numerous when we count all those households struggling with healthcare, housing, jobs and other needs.

The Republican party recently issued a “Pledge to America” to explain its beliefs and campaign promises. The document is filled with nonsense, such as the fatuous claim high taxes and over-regulation explain America’s high unemployment. It is also filled with propaganda. A quote from President John F Kennedy states that high tax rates can strangle the economy, but Kennedy was speaking half a century ago, when the top marginal tax rates were twice what they are today. Most of all, the Republican platform is devoid of compassion.

America today presents the paradox of a rich country falling apart because of the collapse of its core values. American productivity is among the highest in the world. Average national income per person is about $46,000 – enough not only to live on, but to prosper. Yet the country is in the throes of an ugly moral crisis.

Income inequality is at historic highs, but the rich claim they have no responsibility to the rest of society. They refuse to come to the aid of the destitute, and defend tax cuts at every opportunity. Almost everybody complains, almost everybody aggressively defends their own narrow, short-term interests, and almost everybody abandons any pretense of looking ahead or addressing the needs of others.


The result of all this is likely to be a long-term decline of US power and prosperity, because Americans no longer invest collectively in their common future. America will remain a rich society for a long time to come, but one that is increasingly divided and unstable. Fear and propaganda may lead to more US-led international wars, as in the past decade.

And what is happening in America is likely to be repeated elsewhere. America is vulnerable to social breakdown because it is a highly diverse society. Racism and anti-immigrant sentiments are an important part of the attack on the poor – or at least the reason why so many are willing to heed the propaganda against helping the poor. As other societies grapple with their own increasing diversity, they may follow the US into crisis.


The lesson from America is that economic growth is no guarantee of wellbeing or political stability. American society has become increasingly harsh, where the richest Americans buy their way to political power and the poor are abandoned to their fate. In their private lives, Americans have become addicted to consumerism, which drains their time, savings, attention and inclination to engage in acts of collective compassion.

The world should beware. Unless we break the ugly trends of big money in politics and rampant consumerism, we risk winning economic productivity at the price of our humanity.”

There are certainly indicators of that happening between the right-wing turns in the latest European elections and the Sarkozy deportations of Roms out of France.

What makes this more specifically American though is, of course, the fundamentalist religious dimension, as noted by Daniel Dennett (although the title of the article is misleading). The American culture has long been pervaded by a mix of Weberian protestant ethic and social darwinism. One’s station in life is a reflection of one’s moral standing. The strong belief in the meritocracy myth of equal opportunity means that success and failure and individual “achievements.”

Except that, at this point in time, the blindness to class, race and gender privilege has definitely turned into hostility towards the disadvantaged and there is no strong countercurrent to resist it.

The Visual Du Jour – The Gay Marriage “Debate” in One Neat Chart

I’m putting scare quote around “debate” because it is not a debate when one side is composed of totalitarian morons (the anti-gay marriage side, that is).

Via Trixie Biltmore on Twitter (click on the image for a larger view). When you put the opposite arguments side by side, it is a no-brainer, or at least it should be.

Extreme Masculinity, Extreme Religion, Extreme Violence

I recognize I’m stepping on The Grumpy Sociologist‘s turf, but I found this connection between extreme masculinity, extreme religion and extreme violence both unsurprising and horrifying:

“One of the most astonishing religious stories on the web at the moment comes from Mexico, where a particularly brutal and feared drug gang, La Familia Michoacana, has been buying up the works of a Colorado evangelical, John Eldredge, and making new recruits read them as part of their induction process.

According to Religion News Service, “Family values and religion are emphasized during the recruitment process, [to La Familia] which includes daily group prayer sessions and mandatory readings.”

Then they get taught to chop people’s heads off; that is the signature of the gang. All the Mexican drug gangs are notoriously violent, but La Familia is the only one to use decapitation so much that the local Catholic clergy have had to get guidelines for burying bodies without their heads attached. There have been twenty in one town alone this year.

La Familia’s leader, known as El Más Loco (the craziest one) started off as a small-time assassin, but dealing cocaine in the USA in the 90s was very impressed by the evangelical preachers he heard. Since then the gang has grown until it now supplies about half the the $20bn methamphetamine market in the USA.

El Más Loco wrote his own little book of Thoughts (vanity published, but no doubt he got very good terms from the publishers) but he is also greatly impressed by John Eldredge‘s book Wild at Heart.

“Eldredge’s theology is based on a ‘muscular’ view of Christianity, one that emphasizes an ‘authentic masculinity’ that has been lost” according to Religion News Service.”

Of course, this toxic combination is not really that different from the Taliban and other fundamentalist movements (and weren’t the Taliban also involved in heroin trafficking?). Movements such as gangs and religious revolutionary movements have to find ways of disciplining the young men they recruit (and these are almost always young men, of course, emphasis on strong religion and violence are translated into masculine rituals) but also ways of systematically unleashing violence in ritualized and spectacular (as in generating a visual spectacle) ways.

And pardon me for taking exception to the author’s contention that functionalists would love this. For one, if that were so, then functionalism is definitely no longer a useful theory but a bankrupt ideological construct. Also, the author fails to note that both religious fundamentalist movements and gangs often direct q great deal of their violence against women (Ciudad Juarez, anyone? And need I say anything about the Taliban and gendered violence?).

Also, both groups are likely to flourish in failed and/or hollow states.

The Tyranny of the Local – Religious Fundamentalists Edition

It is no surprise that religious fundamentalist groups are at the forefront of claims of legitimacy of traditions and locality to justify their lack of respect for human rights, since the human rights regime is now globally accepted (if poorly implemented and enforced). In other words, no one really claims to disagree with human rights and their universality. So, people wishing to continue oppressing women and girls (always a favorite) or minorities often invoke the local and traditions (as imagined and socially constructed) to do so. If, in addition, geographical, political and social conditions foster relative isolation and/or capacity to resist national / federal interference, it’s even better.

Case in point:

“Millions of Pakistanis live in a “human rights-free zone” in the country’s north-west, Amnesty International says.

Residents of tribal areas face Taliban abuse and get no protection from the government, the rights group alleges.

In a report, it says the Taliban secured their rule by killing elders and torturing teachers and aid workers.

Over one million people have been displaced by fighting between the Pakistani military and the Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Some 1,300 people were killed in the conflict during 2009.”

Here is the Amnesty International account.

Saving Africa’s Witch Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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