Stuck in the Precariat

George Monbiot in the Guardian:

To be young in the post-industrial nations today is to be excluded. Excluded from the comforts enjoyed by preceding generations; excluded from jobs; excluded from hopes of a better world; excluded from self-ownership.

Those with degrees are owned by the banks before they leave college. Housing benefit is being choked off. Landlords now demand rents so high that only those with the better jobs can pay. Work has been sliced up and outsourced into a series of mindless repetitive tasks, whose practitioners are interchangeable. Through globalisation and standardisation, through unemployment and the erosion of collective bargaining and employment laws, big business now asserts a control over its workforce almost unprecedented in the age of universal suffrage.

The promise the old hold out to the young is a lifetime of rent, debt and insecurity. A rentier class holds the nation’s children to ransom. Faced with these conditions, who can blame people for seeking an alternative?

But the alternatives have also been shut down: you are excluded yet you cannot opt out. The land – even disused land – is guarded as fiercely as the rest of the economy. Its ownership is scarcely less concentrated than it was when the Magna Carta was written. But today there is no Charter of the Forest (the document appended to the Magna Carta in 1217, granting the common people rights to use the royal estates). As Simon Moore, an articulate, well-read 27-year-old, explained, “those who control the land have enjoyed massive economic and political privileges. The relationship between land and democracy is a strong one, which is not widely understood.”


Stigma and Exclusion 101

Do check out this series of stunning photos on a disease of the Middle Ages that persist today even though it is treatable, leprosy in Brazil:

A disease like leprosy, which leaves people with deformities is more likely to generate stigma, exclusion and marginalization especially when it is thought that it is contagious and can be caught through casual contact. At the same time, it is a disease of exclusion and marginality itself.

One cannot help but be reminded of Foucault’s idea that hospitals were not necessarily places of care but as places of deviance management where deviants (whether sick or insane) could be safely guarded out of the way of decent society, under the moral authority of the Church, then, later of the medical profession. It is not surprising that the more deviant categories trigger fears in the general population, the more their institutionalization will be demanded from some corners. The same thing happened at the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic and then, more recently:

A stigma, then, is a two-way phenomenon, cause and effect: based on preexisting stigmatization (whether it is marginalization due to poverty in the case of leprosy or religion in the case of homosexuality), moral entrepreneurs will demand further stigmatization and exclusion from society, with no plan for reintegration at some later point. In all cases, this boils down to a purification of the “normal” population from its deviants but hidden behind rationalizations about health or rehabilitation or some imaginary danger to society.

The Power of Status Imposition And Fundamentalist Religion

Early in my introduction class, I use a short film on the torture and murder of child designated as witches by Pentecostal priests in Nigeria. This is a perfect illustration of the way assigning statuses is a source of power as such statuses can involve stigmatization and marginalization. The latest issue of Al-Jazeera’s People and Power shows that a similar issue is present in Benin:

The root of this is the belief, perpetuated by religious leaders of all kinds, in the supernatural. This belief is based on the idea that natural events always have supernatural explanations. Natural causes are not considered.

The question is, of course, how is this different from this?

Fundamentalist Christianity is of the same nature as the belief in witchcraft (replace gays with witches and you have the preferred scapegoat): supernatural causes explain everything, especially adverse events. Some of the scenes of the video above are no different that faith healers shows and rituals.

Would The Members of The Precariat Please Stand up?

This is another installment in a series of posts (herehere and here) I intend to write as I work my way through Guy Standing‘s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. In this section, the main topic is the composition of the precariat and the consequences of such categories for society as a whole, in terms of social integration and social solidarity (how very durkheimian).

So, who is in the precariat?

“One answer is ‘everybody, actually’. Falling into the precariat could happen to most of us, if accidents occurred or a shock wiped out the trappings of security many have come to rely on. That said, we must remember that the precariat does not just comprise victims; some members enter the precariat because they do not want the available alternatives, some because it suits their particular circumstances at the time. In short, there are varieties of precariat.

Some enter the precariat due to mishaps, some are driven in it, some enter hoping it will be a stepping stone to something else, even if it does not offer a direct route, some choose to be in it instrumentally – including old agers and students simply wishing to obtain a little money or experience – and some combine a precariat activity with something else, as is increasingly common in Japan. Others find that what they have been doing for years, or what they were training to do, becomes part of an insecure precariat existence.” (59)

Standing then distinguishes between two categories within the precariat: the grinners (those who enter the precariat more or less voluntarily, such as students taking casual jobs and expect that to be temporary) and the groaners (those pushed into the precariat). Every demographic category of the precariat has its grinners and groaners. Among old agers, the grinners are those with decent pensions and benefits who get temporary jobs for the extra money or to fund some leisure activity. The groaners are those deprived of such benefits and who have to work for a living. For women, the grinners are those who have a partner with a solid and well-paying job in the salariat and who take jobs also for the extra money and treat them as a sideline. The groaners are those who have no such flexibility and need to work full-time.

Indeed, there is a major gender aspect to the precariat. The feminization of labor and of globalization has pushed more women into the workforce, often in a precarized fashion. Export processing zones are home to a generation of young women. Interestingly, the precariat has long been the norm for women in the workforce while it is relatively new for men (who were the ones who got the stable, unionized and well-paying jobs of the post-War period of expansion). The precariat becomes an major issue when it affects more men. As the ‘family wage’ (a feature of the industrial age, a man’s wage) has been more and more replaced with the individualized wage, women have seen their obligations multiply: forget about Arlie Hochschild’s second shit, enters Standing’s triple burden (paid work, housework / child care and eldercare)… these are the same women that experts in development have charged with meeting the MDGs (shall we consider that the quadruple burden).

So, let’s compare and contrast: women, who get a greater share of precariat jobs have to deal with the triple burden (and a host of other issues such as abusive bosses, horrendous working conditions, and the violence they are more likely to experience… see Juarez); as Standing shows, men, on the other hand, pushed into the precariat, have to adjust to the blow to their masculinity. Allow me to not feel too bad. Downward mobility is never fun but the ledger is still a lot longer on women’s side.

The youth are another major category of the precariat. The Global South has very large young cohorts but the same cohorts in the Global North, while smaller in numbers, do not have it easy either. And part of the reason for that is something that really is at the heart of the precariat: the commodification of education. Standing does not mince his words or mask his contempt for the promoters of education-as-business:

“The neo-liberal state has been transforming school systems to make them a consistent part of the market society, pushing education in the direction of ‘human capital’ formation and job preparation. It has been one of the ugliest aspects of globalisation.

Through the ages education has been regarded as a liberating, questioning, subversive process by which the mind is helped to develop nascent capacities. The essence of the Enlightenment was that the human being could shape the world and refine himself or herself through learning and deliberation. In a market society, that role is pushed to the margins.

The education system is being globalised. It is brashly depicted as an industry, as a source of profits and export earnings, a zone of competitiveness, with countries, universities and schools ranked by performance indicators. It is hard to parody what is happening. Administrators have taken over schools and universities, imposing a ‘business model’ geared to the market. Although its standards have plunged abysmally,  the leader of the global ‘industry’ is the United States. Universities tend to compete not by better teaching but by offering a ‘luxury model’ – nice dormitories, fancy sports and dancing facilities, and the appeal of celebrity academic, celebrated for their non-teaching achievements.

Symbolising the loss of Enlightenment values, in the United Kingdom in 2009, responsibility for universities was transferred from the education department to the department for business. The then business minister, Lord Mandelson, justified the transfer as follows: ‘I want the universities to focus more on commercialising the fruits of their endeavour… business has to be central’.

Commercialisation of schooling at all levels is global. A successful Swedish commercial company is exporting a standardised schooling system that minimises direct contact between teachers and pupils and electronically monitors both. In higher education, teacher-less teaching and ‘teacher-less classrooms’ are proliferating (Giridharadas, 2009). The Masschusetts Institute of Technology has launched Open Courseware Consortium, enlisting universities around the world to post courses online free of charge, including professors’ notes, videos and exams. The iTunes portal offers lectures from Berkeley, Oxford and elsewhere. The University of the People. founded by an Israeli entrepreneur, provides tuition-free (tuition-less) bachelor degrees, through what it calls ‘peer-to-peer teaching’ – students learning not from teachers but from fellow students, trading questions and answers online.

Commercialisers claim it is about ‘putting the consumers in charge’. Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems and an investor in the Western Governors University, which delivers degrees online, argued that teachers should re-position themselves as ‘coaches, not content creators’, customising materials to students while piping in others’ superior teaching. This commodification and standardisation is cheapening education, denuding the profession of its integrity and eroding the passing on of informal knowledge. It is strengthening winner-take-all markets and accelerating the dismantling of an occupational community. A market in human capital will increase emphasis on celebrity teachers and universities, and favour norms and conventional wisdom. The Philistines are not at the gates; they are inside them.” (68-9)

And further:

“This commodification of education is a societal sickness. There is a price to pay. If education is sold as an investment good, if there is an unlimited supply of certificates and if these do not yield the promised return, in terms of access to good jobs and high income with which to pay off debts incurred because they were nudged to buy more of the commodity, more entering the precariat will be angry and bitter. The market for lemons comes to mind. As does the old Soviet joke, in which the workers said, ‘They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work’. The education variant should be as follows: ‘They pretend to educate us, we pretend to learn’. Infantilising the mind is part of the process, not for the elite but for the majority. Courses are made easier, so that pass rates can be maximised. Academics must conform.” (71-2)

And so, community colleges and their multitudes of vocational, narrow certificates are declared the wave of the future. This commercialisation of education is coupled with two precarity traps: (1) a debt trap and therefore, (2) low-income trap in order to pay these debts. And that is on top of the internship explosion I have discussed elsewhere. Interns are part of the precariat and they may be grinners (if they are the privileged few who can afford to NOT work and get a prestigious internship) or groaners (if they have to work and intern at the same time, for degree requirements).

The precariatization of the youth puts them also in competition with another generation: the elderly (or, to use the British phrase, the old agers). And on this, Standing’s predictions are rather gloomy:

“It is the idea of retirement that will fade, along with the pension, which was suited to an industrial age. The reaction to the fiscal crisis has been to roll back early retirement schemes and age-related incapacity benefits, to lower state pensions, to push back the age at which people can claim a state pension and the age at which they can claim a full state pension. Contribution rates have been climbing and the age at which people can receive a pension has gone up, more for women than for men to approach equality. The number of years of contributions to gain entitlement to a state pension has gone up, with the number required to receive a full pension increasing even more. In some countries, notably in Scandinavia, the legal retirement age for eligibility for a state pension is now pegged to life expectancy, so that access to a pension will recede as people on average live longer and will recede with each medical breakthrough.

This amounts to tearing up the old social compact. But the picture is even more complex, for while governments are convinced that they are in a fiscal hole with pensions, they are worried about the effect of ageing on labour supply. Bizarre though it may seem in the midst of recession, governments are looking for ways of keeping older workers in the labour force rather than relying on pensions because they think there will be a shortage of workers. What better way to overcome this than to make it easier for old agers to be in the precariat.” (81)

And it is a double whammy: since more jobs are in the precariat, old agers are more likely to be placed in them (because they might not need a full income from a full time job, for instance, or they are no longer concerned with building a career), and because there are more old agers around, more jobs are created in the precariat. As a result, old agers employment rate did not decline with the 2008 recession.

In addition, the whole pension system is now being individualized through another risk shit as pension schemes are being replaced with individual 401k-type plans where individuals bear all the risk. This move, of course, was pushed for by governments in the Western countries and this has resulted in putting two generations in competition and the odds are not in favor of the young. Governments have been instrumental in three ways, according to Standing, in fostering this intergenerational competition:

  1. Governments have subsidized investments in private pension plans with tax incentives, which is guaranteed to increase inequalities as only those who have enough disposable income can afford to properly fund a 401k or an IRA or any of such kind of plans. And those old agers who have access to pensions can then afford to take jobs that have low wages, thereby exercising a downward pressure on wages.
  2. Governments, such as in Japan, actively encourage firms to retain older employees or recruit them back, again using tax schemes and subsidies, at low status, no seniority.
  3. The anti-discrimination protections for old agers and other forms of anti-age discrimination actually work to maintain old agers in the workforce.

And, of course, old agers do not require maternity leaves, child care arrangements, and other benefits that younger workers might need. The lower costs of older workers erode the bargaining power of younger workers.

And then, there is one last category in the precariat (migrants and other minorities are discussed later in the book): the incarcerated masses.

“The precariat is being fed by an extraordinary number of people who have been criminalised in one way or another. There are more of them than ever. A feature of globalisation has been the growth of incarceration. Increasing numbers are arrested, charged and imprisoned, becoming denizens, without vital rights, mostly limited to a precariat existence. This has had much to do with the revival of utilitarianism and a zeal for penalising offenders, coupled with the technical capacity of the surveillance state and the privatisation of security services, prisons and related activities.


Criminalisation condemns people to a precariat existence of insecure career-less jobs, and a degraded ability to hold to a long-term course of stable living. There is double jeopardy at almost every point, since beyond being punished for whatever crime they have committed, they will find that punishment is accentuated by barriers to their normal involvement in society.

However, there is also growth of a precariat inside prisons. We consider how China has resorted to prison labour in chapter 4.  But countries as dissimilar as the United States, United Kingdom and India are moving in similar directions. India’s largest prison complex outside Delhi, privatised, of course, is using prisoners to produce a wide range of products, many sold online, with the cheapest labour to be found, working eight-hour shifts for six days a week. Prisoners with degrees can earn about US$1 a day, others a little less. In 2010 the new UK justice minister announced that prison labour would be extended, saying he wanted prisoners to work a 40-hour week. Prison work for a pittance has long been common in the United States. The precariat outside will no doubt welcome the competition.” (88)

This is very reminiscent of Loic Wacquant’s thesis of the neoliberal combination of workfare + prisonfare.

Book Review – Chavs

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

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

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

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

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

Case in point, the Slobs:

Vicky Pollard:

Lauren Cooper:

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

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

And so, the Chavs provide convenient ideological cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Fetishism, Class Denialism and Multicultural Racialization – Reading Chavs 2

This is a second post on Owen Jones‘s Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class. In my previous post, I focused on the sociopathic aspects of the dominant classes as they proceeded to decimate the British industrial working class.

Jones details at length the policies implements not just by Thatcher and the succeeding conservative government but also by the New Labour governments. But these structural factors were underpinned by ideological constructs that were propagated by a fully complicit media.

From what I can see, based on where I am in the book, Owens points to three such ideological constructs that are widespread in conservative thinking: family fetishism, class denialism and the racialization of the working class as white racist counterculture.

Let me take them in order.

Family fetishism refers to the positioning of the family, as social institution, as the main pillar of society, a structure whose essence should never vary for the sake of social stability. From this point of view, everything begins and ends with the family to which the other institutions are just adjuncts, if not unwanted interlopers. And by family, of course, what is meant is the monogamous, heterosexual, two-parent, middle-class family. In conservative thought, the family has as much place of choice as the individual. The only collective loyalty an individual has should be to his/her family. Needless to say, this conception is completely false. History and world cultures tell us that family structures are a function of power mechanisms, politics and economics. But in conservative thought, the family is this societal invariant aroudn which society revolves.

To give an example (not from Jones’s book), this conception is perfectly illustrated by Robert Heinlein’s puke-worthy novel, Farnham’s Freehold. In the novel, Farnham tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic world controlled by *OMG* BLACKS! who castrate his son, enslave whites and practice cannibalism.

The freehold from the title is the family compound he ends up creating with his family, though only having abandoned his castrated son, and dumped his whiny and aging wife (his daughter conveniently died in childbirth, from an pregnancy out of wedlock, the slut), for a younger and more attractive model. Hugh Farnham is the typical patriarch who sees his duty as only extending to his family (once conveniently recomposed more to his liking… he cheats on his wife with the younger woman during the nuclear explosions… why waste time).

Anyway, take this passage from Jones’s book:

“As the darling of the Tory grass roots, right-wing Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan put it: ‘It follows that you do not end poverty by giving money to the poor; a theory that British welfarism has amply demonstrated over 60 years.’ David Cameron himself welcomed one CSJ report with a highly questionable statement: ‘Families matter because almost every social problem that we face comes down to family stability.’ Not the lack of jobs or class division: ‘family stability’ explains all. If you are less well off, then, it is your behaviour that has to be changed, according to this Tory vision.

These ideas are the foundation stones of Cameron’s semi-apocalyptic vision of ‘Broken Britain’. Social problems affecting particular poor working-class communities are first exaggerated and then  portrayed as representative. Each time a tragic incident hit the headlines, Cameron seized on it as evidence.” (77-8)

Of course, the same is never true of incidents involving upper-class individuals who are seen not as representative of a rotten class, but as exceptions.

One could see the same reasoning in Thatcher’s now famous statement that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families. This family fetishism then permits to recast socially-induced issues as moral failings tied to families: single-motherhood, divorces, working mothers, too many unruly children with bad manners. All these things point to collapsing family structures, with lack of parental authority over unsocialized children.

And so, the solution to these moral failings is moral discipline, not socio-economic policy. And there are a lot of TV programs dedicated to exposing the moral turpitude of working-class families and individuals. In a typically social Darwinist way, these people belong at the bottom of society because of their lack of middle-class values. And indeed, social classes are now matters of culture, and not socioeconomic status.

That is, when classes are mentioned at all because class denialism is another pillar in the cultural demonization of the Chavs. Class, as socio-economic, life-chance category must be eliminated from the discourse as irrelevant. This was accomplished through (1) the real destruction of the industrial working-class through the elimination of their jobs and devastation of their communities and organizations (such as unions), and (2) the proclamation that “we’re all middle-class now”.

The very idea of the concrete plight of the working-class has been evacuated from the discourse, especially the fact that the conditions in which some working-class individuals and communities face must be attributed not to deliberate policies but turned inwards: their own failures, bad decisions, lack of self-control. After all, if ‘we’re all middle class”, it is because most of us worked to get there. Those left behind are there because of their laziness, fecklessness. They deserve to be where they are and they do not deserve help but control.

The third nail in that coffin is to resurrect the working-class but as a racialized category: the white working-class… the racist throwbacks in a multicultural society:

“Because multiculturalism became the only recognized platform in the struggle for equality, Dr Evans [anthropologist specialized in social class] argues that, on the one hand, we fail to acknowledge ‘the existence of a multi-racial working class’, and on the other, the white is ‘forced to think of themselves as a new ethnic group with their own distinctive culture’. Most dangerously of all, middle-class people have ended up ‘refusing to acknowledge anything about white working class as legitimately cultural, which leads to a composite loss of respect on all fronts: economic, political and social.’

We are rightly encouraged to embrace and celebrate ethnic minority identity, not least as a counterweight to continued entrenched racism. But a racialized ‘white’ working class is not seen as having a place in this classless multiculturalism. There are, after all, no prominent, respected champions for the working class in the way that there are for many minority groups. The interests of working-class ethnic minority people end up being ignored too, because the focus is on building up the ethnic minority middle class by ensuring diversity within the leading professions.” (102)

And of that, the liberal and Labour are guilty. Their turn to identity politics is exactly what is described above. Working class bread-and-butter issues are of no more interest to the progressive groups in the US than they are to New Labour. One needs only remember the mockery and jeers that accompanied Hillary Clinton’s higher scores with the white working class during the 2008 Democratic primary.

One needs only remember that formulation of the future of the Democratic party by a leading progressive bloggers. Replace “middle class values” with “creative class background” and it’s exactly what is mentioned above (although the appeal to rich donors is still solidly there):

“Cultural Shift: Out with Bubbas, up with Creatives: There should be a major cultural shift in the party, where the southern Dems and Liebercrat elite will be largely replaced by rising creative class types. Obama has all the markers of a creative class background, from his community organizing, to his Unitarianism, to being an academic, to living in Hyde Park to shopping at Whole Foods and drinking PBR. These will be the type of people running the Democratic Party now, and it will be a big cultural shift from the white working class focus of earlier decades. Given the demographics of the blogosphere, in all likelihood, this is a socioeconomic and cultural demographic into which you fit. Culturally, the Democratic Party will feel pretty normal to netroots types. It will consistently send out cultural signals designed to appeal primarily to the creative class instead of rich donors and the white working class.”

And finally, I should mention that this seems to me to be main reason why the main critique launched against Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level and their very detailed analysis of the impact of poverty, was that they were ignoring culture, which is assume to explain more about all the negative impacts detailed in the book than social inequality. Because such ideas cannot be allowed into public discourse.

Fighting Back Against Spontaneous Sociology

This is one of the very first things that students should learn in a sociology class (and the first paragraph of the first part of The Craft of Sociology):

“The sociologist’s struggle with spontaneous sociology is never finally won, and he must conduct unending polemics against the blinding self-evidences which all too easily provide the illusion of immediate knowledge and its insuperable wealth.” (13)

Case in point, this column by sociologist Fabien Truong in Libération, arguing that there is no such thing as a “jeune de banlieue”, which, in the French context, refers to adolescents from the suburban housing projects, low-class, often of North African background although most of them are French. This category has been a catch-all for all sorts of social deviances, from petty delinquency to quasi-organized criminal networks, to easy recruits for Muslim fundamentalist preachers. That category was especially solidified in the collective mind with the 2005 riots.

Truong strikes back:

“Ainsi, parler du «jeune de banlieue» revient à enfermer une jeunesse plurielle sous un stigmate unique – et donc bien pratique, la réduisant à l’image de la racaille incivile ou à celle de la victime sociale. Condamnable ou excusable. La réalité, c’est que ces images mentales font pschitt lorsque l’on observe les statistiques et que l’on travaille au quotidien avec cette jeunesse stigmatisée. Le jeune de banlieue n’existe pas. Il y a des jeunes en banlieues. Avec leurs trajectoires, leurs aspirations, leurs échecs et leurs succès individuels. En 2005, après la 21e nuit d’émeute, il y a eu 2 921 interpellations sur tout le territoire. A titre de comparaison, il y a, dans la seule Seine-Saint-Denis, 65 919 collégiens et 46 062 lycéens, soit plus de 110 000 jeunes… Tous les jeunes ne brûlent donc pas des voitures en banlieues.

Dans les lycées du 93, les difficultés scolaires sont bien réelles : 77,8 % de réussite au bac général contre 88,8 % en France. Soit un différentiel de 11 points de pourcentage. Mais elles ne sont finalement pas plus fortes qu’ailleurs si on prend la peine de s’interroger sur l’origine sociale de ces élèves : 43,7 % des collégiens du département ont des parents issus de CSP (catégorie socioprofessionnelle) défavorisées contre 33,9 % pour l’ensemble des collégiens de France. Un différentiel de près de 10 points de pourcentage !

Les lycéens du 93 ne réussissent donc pas scolairement moins bien que les autres. Ils réussissent moins bien parce qu’ils sont issus des classes populaires, ce qui est un résultat malheureusement classique de la sociologie depuis les années 60 et qui s’explique par d’autres facteurs que celui du seul lieu d’habitation. Ils ont, au final, un comportement statistiquement normal et, si on ajoute au handicap social les effets pénalisants pour les carrières scolaires de l’immigration, de la stigmatisation et de la relégation urbaine, ils réussiraient même plutôt mieux que ce que leur profil sociologique laisse espérer ! Si on s’en tient au seul système scolaire, les jeunes en banlieues ne sont en aucun cas surdéterminés à devenir des adolescents en situation d’échec.

Ils n’ignorent rien du décalage qui existe entre leurs conditions de vie objectives et leur perception subjective par le reste de la société.


Il est temps d’en finir avec la vision stéréotypée du jeune de banlieue qui ne fait qu’accroître l’incompréhension entre la jeunesse plurielle de ces quartiers et le reste du pays. C’est dans l’usage incontrôlé de la langue que commence la discrimination, le sentiment d’injustice et la confusion des genres.”

Let me provide a rough summary of the argument for my non-French reading readers.

To speak of “jeune de banlieue” (youth from the projects, singular, because it’s one big one-dimensional category) is to create a stigmatized and stigmatizing homogeneous category. It reduces a variety of individuals to stereotypes such as the uncivil riff-raff or the social victim. They are to be condemned or to be excused. Either way, there is a denial of nuance and agency (beyond delinquency). In reality, when one looks at the statistics of this population, these stereotypes are out the window (aren’t they always?). For Truong, there is no such as thing as “youth from the projects” but rather “youths IN the projects”.

Moreover, these adolescents do struggle in school. There is no denying it. Their rate of success at the Baccalaureat (the grueling end-of-secondary education exams) is lower than the national average (77.8% versus 88.8% respectively), so, yes, an 11% gap but this has a lot more to do with their unprivileged background than anything else. For instance, 43.7% of middle-school students are from lower-class in the projects, compared to a national average of 33.9%. A 10-point gap. So, it is not that these adolescents do significantly worse in school, it is that they accumulate disadvantages. Something that sociology has pointed out since, oh, the 1960s. Class and social disadvantages count more than just residency.

If anything else, these students are not doing so badly when one adds to their social disadvantages the stigmatization of an immigrant background, of living in the projects, which, in France, means living in the periphery and to be part of what Manuel Castells has called the Fourth World. But being a youth from the project in and of itself does not over-determine one’s trajectory towards failure and delinquency.

So, for Truong, it is time to end this stereotypical construction and perception of these adolescents as these construction and perception only increase a complete lack of understanding of these youths. It is through this uncontrolled use of language that discrimination, feelings of injustice and confusion emerge and muddy the water of social policy. Actually, I would take it one step further than Truong and argue that that is exactly the political point.

In other words, for me, “jeune de banlieue” is as much a moral category (a stigmatized one, to be sure) rather than a social one, but it makes for easy resonance with public opinion. People know exactly who is being talked about under that label that has the merit of glossing over if not totally eliminate the social conditions of production of said label. Once the label has been created, one that associates asocial behavior with place and location, then, the next step is to explain everything by “culture” and contrast such culture of the project with the equally socially construction “mainstream” culture, note the differences and then explain what is social disadvantage in reality, as a product of dysfunctional culture (the culture of poverty argument). Neat trick.

That is why one of Durkheim’s first precept of the sociological method was to reject spontaneous sociology and its illusion of transparency. Hence the centrality of the principle of non-consciousness. Back to The Craft of Sociology:

“Artificialism, the illusory representation of the genesis of social facts according to which the social scientist can understand and explain these facts merely through ‘his own private reflection’ rests, in the last analysis, on the presupposition of innate wisdom which, being rooted in the sense of familiarity, is also the basis of the spontaneous philosophy of knowledge of the social world. Durkheim’s polemic against artificialism, psychologism, or moralism is simply the counterpart of the postulate that social facts ‘have a constant mode of being, a nature that does not depend on individual arbitrariness and from which there derive necessary relationships’ [Durkheim, text no. 7]. Marx was saying the same thing when he posited that ‘in the social production of their life, men enter into determinate relations that are necessary and independent of their will’; and so was Weber, when he refused to reduce the cultural meaning of actions to the subjective intentions of the actors. Durkheim, who insists that the sociologist must enter the social world as one enters an unknown world, give Marx credit for having broken with the illusion of transparency: ‘We think it a fertile idea that social life must be explained, not by the conception of it created by those who participate in it, but by profound causes which escape awareness. [Durkheim, text no.8]” (15)

And that is tough one, as most sociologists know:

“If spontaneous sociology reappears so insistently and in such different guises in would-be scientific sociology, this is probably because  sociologists who seek to reconcile the scientific project with affirmation of the rights of the person – the right to free action and the right to full consciousness of action – or who simply fail to subject their practice to the fundamental principles of the theory of sociological knowledge, inevitably return to the naive philosophy of action and of the subject’s relation to his action which is applied in their spontaneous sociology by subjects concerned to defend the lived truth of their experience of social action. The resistance that sociology arouses when it endeavours to dispossess immediate experience of its gnoseological  privilege is inspired by the same humanistic philosophy of human action as a certain type of sociology, which, by employing, for example, concepts such as ‘motivation’, or preferring to address questions of ‘decision-making’, fulfills, in its own way, the naive wish of every social subject. Seeking to remain the master and possessor of himself and of his own determinations (even if he grants them unconsciousness), the naive humanist who lurks inside every man resents as a ‘sociologistic’ or ‘materialist’ reduction every attempt to establish that the meaning of the most personal and ‘transparent’ action does not belong to the subject who performs them but to the complete system of relations in which and through which it is enacted.” (17)

Emphasis mine. Artificialism, psychologism and moralism all belong to that category that miss the main point of explaining the social by the social and only the social and unveiling the set of relations (structure, history and power) embedded in every action.

I cannot emphasize enough how central the principle of non-consciousness is:

“The principle of non-consciousness requires one to construct the system of objective relations in which individuals are located, which are expressed more adequately in the economy or morphology of groups than in the subjects’ opinions and declared intentions. Far from the description of individual attitudes, opinions, and aspirations being able to provide the explanatory principle of the functioning of an organization, it is an understanding of the objective logic of organization that leads to the principle capable of additionally explaining individual attitudes, opinions and, aspirations.” (18)

And so, to accept the label “jeune de banlieue” at face value, as an objective category is precisely to engage in artificialism and moralism. It is also to contribute to the reproduction of structural violence and power embedded in the label itself. As such, “jeune de banlieue” is not an objective description of a set of social relations but rather a stigmatized label carrying with it political implications. To use this as a starting point to sociological argument would be to make exactly the mistake described above of using prenotions and rejecting the principle of non-consciousness.

Social Statuses and Stigmas

Here are just a couple of things from Monday’s lectures (mine) on social statuses and stigmas.

Case 1: stigmatization based on ascribed status

And the discussion I had with the students, summarized as this (which is where I wanted to go!)

Ascribed Status and Stigma

And case number 2, stigmatization based on achieved status:

Watch Saving Africa’s Witch Children in Activism & Non-Profit |  View More Free Videos Online at

And a comparable discussion which got us here:

Achieved Status and Stigma

Both cases are perfect illustration of the contrast between interpersonal (direct) violence and structural (systemic) violence.

Sociology of The World Cup – Capitalist Pigs and Political Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

He gives this example:

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Makers

Cory Doctorow‘s Makers has a lot in common with the previous books I have read from him and the themes developed throughout the stories are also familiar to many regular Doctorow readers. As in previous novels, Doctorow locates his story in a futuristic United States / Western hemisphere where capitalism as we know it has collapsed in one way or another.

Makers is no exception as the story unfolds in a world of affluence that still has wreaked havoc on the social structure. Indeed, the story starts with the merging and dismantling of big blue-collar companies Kodak and Duracell by entrepreneur Landon Kettlewell to be replaced by a completely precarized workforce working on small-scale projects with profit potential subsidized by grant-type money that the corporation provides.

This is the ultimate result of a fully precarized society / risk society where everybody is a permanent temporary worker: love it or become a slum dweller as many of the characters do in Makers. This is a geek economy for  young skillful and creative engineers who have very little need for regular salaries and benefits, as are main character Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks.

The pair of geek pals is also a recurring theme in Doctorow’s books, with the ulterior addition of a woman (or women) into the mix as the story develops. Such core pairs are present in Little Brother, Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom as well as Eastern Standard Tribe, with one über geek and one more business / rationality oriented, with other characters, including villains that belong to the State or the Corporation as major Surveillance and fun-killing entities.

And in all these novels, the main characters have a hard time growing up and resist it as much as they can, hence the fascination in both Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom and Makers, with Disneyworld. Indeed, in Makers, the Perry / Lester dynamic duo’s main goal in life is to manufacture cool geeky stuff for people to by but making money is not much of a concern of theirs. Throughout the book, “adults” will do that for them. It is actually when they are faced with adult responsibilities that things fall apart. So, it is not surprising that the happy ending has them back shoulder to shoulder in a makeshift lab, many years later, back to doing geeky stuff, under the loving gaze of the journalist (and later wife of one of them) who has followed their careers, noting with a little sadness, that her “little boys” have grown… actually, they have not. They are just older. Throughout the book, they both get angry, sulk, stop talking to each other, act on impulse, etc. In other words, they behave like teenagers, as most main characters in Doctorow’s novels do and all complain when the world does not bend to their adolescent geeky dreams.

As always, when reading futuristic / scifi books, I am interested in the social context that constitutes the background for the story. As mentioned above, Makers’ society is a society that is fully precarized, the educated and skilled in computer creativity are the one who survive or even thrive in the precarized environment. Big corporations are seen as evil forces, enforcing their rule through IP lawsuits. In Makers, there is no government to speak of, and certainly not one that provides a safety net for those who have the misfortune of not being creative AND educated / skilled / enjoying the “freedom” of being precarized. And so, Lester and Perry jump from one creative idea to the next, chafing against corporate pressure, grudgingly agreeing to a business side to their ventures, all for open source and sharing. Whatever they do is inconsequential as there are always a millionaire, a business manager and a journalist to clean up the messes they (inadvertently) create in such anomic environments.

In Makers, the good guys create an open source economy where everyone can share the benefits, contribute ideas and all together generate cool projects for this post-utilitarian society where entertainment seems to be a major goal (again, a theme highly reminiscent of Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom). The introduction of 3D printers manufacturing objects allows for the mass production of fads that are short-lived and easily replaced. In this society, people have to make their own job. It is ultimate precarization and individualization mixed with the loose communautarism of the network society. There is no doubt that such a loose social structure would leave a lot of people behind not just in the US but around the world but the novel celebrates the joining together of individual creative forces combined with high-flying technological skills.

It was for me a source of frustration with the book: the celebration of the cool and geeky precarized labor structure based on making tchotkes for those who can afford them, with the pretense that corporate structures are an impediment to creativity and networked solidarity. Unsurprisingly, as shown in the novel, this is a loose social structure that is attractive to the young and unattached who can connect / disconnect / reconnect in this truly liquid society. At the same time, as much as corporations are loathed, the whole open source society is still backed by financial investors and millionaires (or the Mafia in the small part of the story that takes place in Russia).

But what of those left behind? There is a certain romanticization in the novel as the slum dwellers of Miami also have their condition unleash their creative forces and they create their own social structure and it does not feel that it is a slum at all. Again, who needs state services and support when there is always a high-tech, environmentally-friendly solution to be designed.

Now, I do not fault Doctorow for glaring omission in his depiction of this futuristic society, but as I mentioned, there are major sources of frustration for the sociologist in me because this type of complete societal dismantlement and every man for himself is presented as apolitical. Sure, kids on the Internet fight the big bad corporation that is trying to kill their cool “ride”. But apparently, the general precarization has been embraced by everybody and has not generated any resistance (except for a brief mention of the Kodak and Duracell unionized workforce at the very beginning) or any significant social movement against the inevitable destruction of the livelihood of what must be significant proportion of the population.

Bottom line is as much as I enjoyed the book, it reminded me too much of the endless presentations I have had to endure as to how to deal with the Millenials. It seems this book is written for them and maybe by one of them (even if he is not the right biological age). Perry and Lester, the main characters of Makers, are the ultimate Millenials (as they have been stereotyped in the media and the educational consulting business).  In this fictional society, there is not much room for the elderly, the non-creative or anyone who wishes for stability (and who knows what happens to the societies of the periphery as only Russia and Brazil are mentioned). At the same time, the apolitical outlook erases some of the bitter conflicts that would be bound to happen (extreme nationalism and religious fundamentalism). It seems that everybody has embraced some sort of networked cosmopolitanism revolving around white American geeks.

Again, I enjoyed the book. It is a page-turner and the multiplicity of characters creates a diversity of storylines that keeps one interested, in spite of sociologically frustrating aspects mentioned above. The subtitle of the book is “A Whirlwind of Changes to Come” that seem to add up to a dystopia where only a few can make it and too bad for the global rest.

Book Review – Punishing The Poor

I cannot emphasize enough what an important book Loïc Wacquant‘s Punishing The Poor – The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity is. Except, I have already done that by posting various quotes that I thought were important and made essential points as I was reading the book.

The main argument made by Wacquant is that the social policy of transition from welfare to workfare cannot be understood unless it analyzed in conjunction with the rise of prisonfare (mass incarceration of certain categories of the population). Workfare and prisonfare are two sides of the same coin: the areas where the neoliberal state can still assert its authority once depleted of its economic and social policy functions.

As neoliberal policies get implemented (in the name of globalization or moralization of society through work or punishment), a lot of people find the rug pulled from under their feet, mostly the poor and more specifically single women with children and minorities. What to do with these? Well, for the women, it will be workfare. For the men, it will be prisonfare.  This seems a bit simplistic but the data clearly show such a trend. In the United States, this is combined with the inherent structural and institutional racism at the heart of society. Prisonfare is the lastest mode of black subjugation and control along with ghettoization.

For Wacquant, the combination of workfare and prisonfare fulfills both economic and symbolic functions for the neoliberal punitive state (as workfare is equally punishing as prisonfare) fight the crisis of legitimacy that pervades all developed democracies as the state divests itself from its capacity to set economic policies and abandons policies of social justice and redistribution. With the help of the media, public attention is directed not at the massive transfer of wealth to the top of the social stratification ladder but rather on designated “incorrigible” deviants: welfare cheats and parasites, criminals and pedophiles against whom the ever-more intrusive mechanisms of the surveillance society are applied.

Of course, this all is based on a series of lies that nonetheless produced and dispersed throughout society, mostly, again, through the media: that the US is spending enormous amounts of money on welfare (False: AFDC never accounted for more than 1% of the federal budget) or that crime is on rise, perpetrated by ever younger and more dangerous “predators”. Here again, this is false: crime has been on the decline for a long time irrespective of the policies implemented or not. See below, for instance as Americans still believe that there is MORE crime (and by that, they think street crime):

Wacquant himself explains it in this video:

Regulating the poor is indeed the major outcome of these policies but there is not, according to Wacquant, some large-scale conspiracy as such a conspiracy would require much more competent coordination and centralization as is available in the United States. What we see are the logical conclusions and results of separately adopted neoliberal policies: liberalization / privatization on the economic domain, shrinking of the state in the name of efficiency, and de-socialization of waged labor (along with waves of outsourcing and off-shoring) along with a moral cultural outlook on social deviance. Such economic policies are bound to be devastating on certain segments of the population which then need to be controlled for their individual moral failings, largely depicted in terms of lack of self-control and responsibility.

Either way, the victims of neoliberal policies are irresponsible, unproductive individuals who need to be disciplined (in Foucault’s sense) and that is the job left to the state, with the recourse of private sector actors such as private welfare / child welfare administrations and private prisons. In this sense, in this punitive environment, structural conditions leave the most vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves even though their ghettoization prevents them from improving their conditions. Then, they are blamed for their lack of ability to get out of them.

There is, of course, one type of economic activity which would lead to better economic results: illegal economy. This is where the policies of the War on Drugs work to prevent those deprived of socialized wage labor from one exit from poverty, lending them, of course, in prison, serving large sentences for which there is no parole.

These very real economic impact of the neoliberal state on the poor is coupled with a persistent stigmatization that successfully covers the fact that these policies, workfare and prisonfare, do not have much to show for themselves almost 15 years after their implementation. But this is also the one weak point I found in Wacquant’s book: it needs some major statistical and data updating. Most of the data date back from the 1980s and the most recent date from the 1990s. One would want to know the state of these trends now. A lot can happen over 10 years, especially since these 10 years cover the entire Bush presidency.

Moreover, Wacquant also demonstrates that this double regulation of poverty (through workfare and prisonfare) has been exported to Europe, stating with the liberalization of the state through Thatcherism in the UK, the Kohl years in Germany and the oh-so memorable Chirac years as PM in France. Even the various left-of-center parties, such as the socialist parties in Western Europe have embraced the law-and-order view of the state and neoliberal economic “reforms” all the way to Sarkozy’s slogan to “work more to earn more”… we all know what happened to that in these past years.

In a way, this book truly illustrates the best of sociological analysis: it is a combination of solid data analysis, identification of patterns and trends and use of theory to pull it all together and a very convincing and critical demonstration. In this, this is a powerful book. I am not sure it is readable at the undergraduate level though and that is unfortunate because I am always on the lookout for great sociological books for my students to read to get a sense of how powerful sociological analysis is. Or at the very least, it should be offered as guided reading, with a lot of work to be done on the instructor’s part to guide the students through it many levels of analysis.

A very powerful book.


Ethnoracial Prison and Judicial Ghetto

“To grasp the kinship between the ghetto and the prison, which helps explain how the structural decline and functional redundancy of the one led to the unexpected ascent and astonishing growth of the other during the last quarter of the twentieth century, it is necessary first accurately characterize the ghetto. But here we come upon the troublesome fact that the social sciences have failed to develop a robust analytic concept of the ghetto; instead they have been content to borrow the folk concept current in political and popular discourse at each epoch. This has caused a good deal of confusion, as the ghetto has been successively conflated with – and mistaken for – a segregated district, an ethnic neighborhood, a territory of intense poverty, a zone of housing blight and even, with the rise of the policy myth of the ‘underclass’ in the more recent period, a mere accumulation of urban pathologies and antisocial behaviors.

A comparative and historical sociology of the reserved Jewish quarters in the cities of Renaissance Europe and of America’s ‘Bronzeville’ in the Fordist metropolis of the twentieth century reveals that a ghetto is essentially a sociospatial device that enables a dominant status group in an urban setting to simultaneously ostracize and exploit a subordinate group endowed with negative symbolic capital, that is, an incarnate property perceived to make contact with members of the category degrading by virtue of what Max Weber calls a ‘negative estimation of honor.’ Put differently, the ghetto is the materialization of a relation of ethnoracial control and closure built out of four elements: (i) stigma, (ii) constraint, (iii) territorial confinement, and (iv) institutional encasement. The resulting formation is a distinctive space, containing an ethnically homogeneous population, which finds itself forced to develop within it a set of interlinked institutions that duplicates the organizational framework of the broader society from which that groups is banished and supplies the scaffoldings for the construction of its specific ‘style of life’ and social strategies. This parallel institutional nexus affords the subordinate group a measure of protection, autonomy, and dignity, but at the cost of locking it in a relationship of structural subordination and dependency.

The ghetto, in short, operates as an ethnoracial prison: it encages a dishonored category and severely curtails the life chances of its members in support of the ‘monopolization of ideal and material goods or opportunities’ by the dominant status group dwelling on its outskirts. (…) Note next the structural and functional homologies with the prison conceptualized as judicial ghetto: a jail or penitentiary is in effect a reserved space which serves to forcibly confine a legally denigrated population and wherein this latter evolves its distinctive institutions, culture, and sullied identity. It is thus formed of the same four fundamental constituents – stigma, coercion, physical enclosure, and organizational parallelism and insulation – that make up a ghetto, and for similar purposes.” (204-5)

Sadistic Penal Colony

“Making the inmate or his kin pay, reducing services within custodial establishments to a bare minimum, generalized unskilled work inside penitentiaries: for now, these measures are pursued less for their financial fallout, which is negligible compared to the pharaonic expenditures demanded by the policy of penalization of poverty, than for the message they send to prisoners and their families as to the rest of the population. They attest to a reversal of the causal connection traditionally postulated by the political economy of punishment: here the communicative function of penal policy trumps its instrumental mission, and symbolic considerations drive material changes, turning penalty into a potent engine of moral signification. These measures aim, first of all, to reaffirm the principle of ‘less legibility,’ erstwhile articulated by Jeremy Bentham, according to which the condition of the best-treated inmate must be imperatively inferior to that of the most underprivileged worker on the outside – absent which the latter could be tempted to turn to a life of vice and crime rather than submit to the mandate of work. (…)

What matters, next, is to magnify in the eyes of the electorate the fact that prisoners are ‘paying their debt’ to society and, in order to do so, to accentuate the symbolic boundary that demarcates and isolates them from the citizenry by dramatizing their suffering in custody and denying them the elementary rights enjoyed by law-abiding citizens. Sheriff Arpaio, who boasts of charging his detainees a dollar a meal and of having eliminated coffee and mayonnaise from his jail, concedes that these measures allowed him to cut only $80.000 and $150,000, respectively, out of an annual operating budget of $70 million. A pittance, but no matter: “This is not just to save money. I’d do it if I could afford steak. They should not like jail, and paying for it helps that.’ In an interview with Time Magazine, ‘America’s toughest sheriff’ explained: ‘I want to make this place so unpleasant that they won’t even think about doing something that would bring them back. I want them to suffer.’ So it is that American inmates are deprived of the right to vote, not only during their detention, but as long as they remain under penal supervision, if not for life – in violation of international conventions pertaining to political rights. This is why the law voids the meager social rights they could claim and mandates all public ‘benefits’ (retirement, food stamps, access to social housing, payments to the handicapped, etc.) be withdrawn from them as well as their families. National solidarity – or government ‘compassion’ – should not be extended to them because they are not properly speaking members of the American civic community.

Struck by a triple stigma at once moral (they have put themselves beyond the pale of citizenry by breaking the law), class (they are poor in a society that venerates wealth and conceives of socioeconomic standing as a result of sole individual effort), and caste (the majority of them are black, and thus issued from a population deprived of ‘ethnic honor’), inmates are the pariah group that can be vilified and humiliated with total impunity and to immense symbolic profit. The policy of criminalization of poverty pursued by the American state thus finds its cultural extension in a public discourse of abomination of prisoners, in which the country’s highest authorities participate, that makes them the incarnation of absolute evil: the living antithesis of the ‘American dream’ whose banishment serves as collective exorcism.” (184-6)

Just as a side note, after all these years of being “America’s toughest sheriff’, one would think that Arpaio would have been so successful that he would have put himself out of business, right? Because the denizens of his county would hate the prospect of prison so much that they would all be law-abiding, right? But just like welfare reform was not about eliminating poverty, “tough on crime” policies of mass incarceration are not about eliminating crime.

The Double Regulation of Poverty Through the Assistantial-Correctional Mesh

“Probing the gestation, operant philosophy, and early results of the welfare ‘reform’ of 1996 highlights developments fostering the penalization of public aid and thence the emergent coupling with the penal wing of the state. (…) In both the political debate leading to the passage of the law and the body of the legislative text itself, poor single mothers have aggressively typecast not as deprived but as deviant, a problem population whose civic probity is by definition suspect and whose alleged work-avoiding ‘behaviors’ must be urgently rectified by means of preclusion, duress and shaming, three techniques typical of crime control. The shift to workfare accentuates their status not as citizens participating in a community of equals, but as subjects saddled with abridged rights and expanded obligations until such a time as they will have demonstrated their full commitment to the values of work and family by their reformed conduct. This makes them sociological similes of convicts released on parole who, having served most of their custodial sentence, recover their membership only after a protracted period of surveillance and testing establishing that they have mended their errand ways.


The social silhouette of AFDC beneficiaries turns out to be a near-exact replica of the profile of jail inmates save for the gender inversion.


This verifies that the primary clients of the assistantial and carceral wings of the neoliberal state are essentially the two gender sides of the same population coin drawn from the marginalized fractions of the postindustrial working class. The state regulates the troublesome behaviors of these women (and their children) through workfare and those of the men in their lives (that is, their partners as well as sons, cousins, and fathers) through criminal justice supervision.


PRWORA was never meant to fight poverty and alleviate social insecurity; on the contrary, it was intended to normalize them, that is, to inscribe them as modal experience and accepted standards of life an labor for the new service proletariat of the dualizing metropolis, a task which is indivisibly material and symbolic. It was the culmination of a train of measures  deployed over the preceding two decades whereby the American state has turned away from passively protecting the poor toward actively making them into compliant workers fit or forced to fill to peripheral slots of the deregulated labor market.” (98-101)

From Keynesian Solidarity to Neo-Darwinist Competition

“Comparative analysis of the evolution of penality in the advanced countries over the past decade reveals a close link between the ascendancy of neoliberalism, as ideological project and governmental practice mandating submission to the ‘free market’ and the celebration of ‘individual responsibility’ in all realms, on the one hand, and the deployment of punitive and proactive law-enforcement policies targeting street delinquency and the categories trapped in the margins and cracks of the new economic and moral order coming into being under the conjoint empire of financialized capital and flexible wage labor, on the other hand.


These trends implicate and intricate with one another in self-perpetuating causal chain that is redrawing the perimeter and redefining the modalities of government action: (1) the commodification of public goods and the rise of underpaid, precarious work against the backdrop of working poverty in the United States and enduring mass joblessness in the European Union; (2) the unraveling of social protection schemes, leading to the replacement of the collective right to recourse against unemployment and destitution by the individual obligation to take up gainful activity (‘workfare’ in the United States and the United Kingdom, ALE jobs in Belgium, PARE and RMA in France, the Hartz reform in Germany, etc.), in order to impose desocialized wage labor as the normal horizon of work for the new proletariat of the urban service sectors; and (3) the reinforcement and extension of the punitive apparatus, recentered on the dispossessed districts of the inner city and urban periphery which concentrate the disorders and despair spawned by the twofold movement of retrenchment of the state from the economic and social front.

The Keynedian state, coupled with Fordist wage work operating as a spring of solidarity, whose mission was to counter the recessive cycles of the market economy, protect the most vulnerable populations, and reduce the most glaring inequalities, has been succeeded by a state that one might dub neo-Darwinist, in that it erects competition and celebrates unrestrained individual responsibility – whose counterpart is collective and thus political irresponsibility. The Leviathan then withdraws into its regalian functions of law enforcement, themselves hypertrophied and deliberately abstracted from their social environment, and its symbolic mission of reasserting common values though the public anathematization of deviant categories.” (1-5)