Book Review – Rebel Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Amped

I have probably already mentioned that I am always on the lookout for some new materials to make my introduction to sociology classes more fun and interesting, without sacrificing the content. And, I still live by the mantra the good science-fiction is good sociology. Good science-fiction is always a reflection of our societal fears and anxiety, often related to the side effects of technological advancements and their impact on behavior, social relations, social institutions, etc.

It is with that in mind that I started reading Amped, by Daniel H. Wilson because I was really interested in the premise: in a really not too distant future, technology allows the curing and fixing of many medical (or non-medical) conditions through implantation of technology to the brain (or other body parts) that corrects malfunctions and allow people to function better mentally and physically. This creates a new category of individuals – amped – that have extra skills and abilities. Needless to say, with a premise like that, the potential for sociological analysis seemed really great and I looked forward to adding it to my scifi reading list for sociology students. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case.

The main problem is that even though a lot of sociological concepts are indeed applicable to Amped (discrimination – individual and institutional -, segregation, prejudice, structural violence, in-group / out-group dynamics, etc.) and the story is interspersed with extra-narrative features like Supreme Court rulings (that basically deprive Amps of legal existence), political speeches and newspaper articles, there just isn’t enough content there. Once one is past the introductory chapters, it is basically nothing but fight scenes.

And that is a another major issue: there is only ONE (count ’em: one) female character (Lucy, as poor Samantha commits suicide in the opening chapter) and her justification for being in the book is not that she is a character in her own rights but that she reminds other male characters of their humanity. Her role only exists in relations to male characters (Lyle, Owen, Nick), as sister, love interest (who also washes his clothes) and mother. If there were a Bechtel test for books, this one would definitely not pass it.

And the most disappointing aspect of the book (and the reason why it lacks content that I can actually use) is that very quickly, anything the implanted devices can do is reduced to creating super soldiers (hence, the whole fighting thing) and we are repeatedly treated of development of the ways the implants turns one ordinary teacher (the main character) into a super-soldier, fighting other super-soldiers. So, it’s all fight – fight – fight – escape – fight – fight – fight – escape (from super secure facility but it’s a piece of cake for a super soldier) – fight – fight – escape for real – the end.

It is a shame really, because there could have been so much more depth and societal exploration without detracting from a good story (the way China Mieville does it, for instance or the way it is done in David Brin’s Kiln People).

So, I am sorry to say that I will not be using this one in my sociology class. There just isn’t enough there.

Book Review – Communication Power – 1

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

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

The central question of the book?

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

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

So, what is power:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what are exactly the different layers of power?

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

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


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

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

Next up, networks and the network society.

Book Review – Les Rémunerations Obscènes

Philippe Steiner‘s Les Rémunerations Obscènes is a pamphlet more than a book per se. With a 134 pages of text, it a short and clear read on the topic of the stratospheric compensations received by corporate CEOs and their lack of justification. However, the book is not just a rant against these compensations packages. Steiner systematically debunks one by one, armed with both economic and organizational sociology and some solid references to research, all the justifications commonly employed to rationalize the levels of CEO compensation.

The book is also shock full of data detailing the various levels of compensations, their evolution and trajectories, alongside some more well-known data on the increase of inequalities and wage stagnation for the rest of the population. The icing on the cake comes from some morceaux choisis from CEOs themselves, in their own words, explaining why they should be paid such obscene compensations. Finally, the book ends with a few suggestions as to what should be done.

The sociologists will also find in the book some constant references to classical (Weber, Durkheim) and more contemporary sociologists as Steiner goes through some SHiP (Structure / History / Power) demonstration to explain how we got to these levels of compensation, why the upward trend has been so steep and continues to this day irrespective of objective factors such as performance. Steiner has done his homework and the bibliographical references are quite extensive for such a short book.

Using Weber, Steiner argues that the obscene levels of compensation have nothing to do with capitalism, which is supposed to temper the irrational passion for profit-seeking through a variety of mechanisms. The unleashing of greed is not part of such mechanisms. The corporate übermenschen (as Steiner calls them, “surhommes”) have managed to disconnect themselves from social ties that would link them to social norms and a general sense of the way the mere mortals live. The strong ties to the political world also increase the amount control that these men (yes, men) exercise over their own enrichment. And has been recently exposed, it is Goldman Sachs world. The rest of us just live in it.

The strongest parts of the book are those where Steiner explains the organizational processes at work in determining CEO compensations, especially the work of compensation committees. These committees may be composed of other CEOs, and they may use information provided by consulting firms specialized in constructing remuneration packages. This is where social capital and social networks analysis is central. These compensation committees look like a game of revolving door and mutual back-scratching disguised under rationalizations such as preventing CEOs from leaving the country if they do not get a globally-competitive level of compensation, the ability to attract the best and brightest. In reality, this looks more like CEOs looking at each other’s compensation and saying “I want at least what they have!” The processes are those of a very close and tight-knit in-group.

What of the argument that compensations packages are often tied to performance (in terms of stock value) and therefore, there is a level of accountability? Steiner reviews the research and shows that that is simply not the case. First of all, there are all the anecdotes of golden parachutes. Second of all, compensations never decrease based on bad performance. They might not increase but that is it. Steiner shows that salaries and bonuses rise in ways unconnected to stock prices and values.

So, are CEOs so rare and so incredibly talented that their compensation levels have exploded? Steiner invokes his Micromégas regime of competition, with reference to Voltaire: minuscule differences between individuals translate into massive differences in compensation between CEOs and the rest. At the same time, CEO contribution to the value of firms is minimal. At the same time, throughout organizations and recruiting firms, there is the belief in extreme individual agency, that is, the belief that whatever firm results are fully attributable to CEO decisions. This belief is taken as religious dogma (except, of course, when the company collapse and all of a sudden, someone like Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling argues that he didn’t know anything that was going on in the firm). If “I” did all this, then, “I” deserve to appropriate such a high share of profits, not the hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of people who have contributed to innovation, productivity, etc. And this appropriation has to be at a level comparable to that of other CEOs, worldwide.

On the other side of things, firms that design compensation packages tend to think that (1) they will not be able to attract the “right” candidates if compensation packages are not tempting enough, and (2) that a company would symbolically debase itself if it did not come up with a phenomenal compensation package (one that is more impressive than that of comparable firms). This triggers compensation inflation as chain reaction.  Companies offer enormous compensation packages as status signals that reflect on them.

Steiner also analyzes the current indignation regarding executive compensation using Durkheim’s concept of moral economy, that is, the social evaluation of the functions and compensation. The level of contestation has to do with the legitimation crisis that has been intensified by the economic crisis, itself revealing the disconnect between compensation levels and the collapse of their justifications. Of course, politicians have grabbed the theme of a moralization of executive compensation, but the tangled web of political/corporate connections guarantees that said moralization will not go beyond rhetoric.

Invoking The Spirit Level, Steiner ends by noting that obscene compensation is a social pollution, contributing to rising inequalities and their deleterious effects. The book is a bit short on solution (fiscal policy), which is a shame but changing the structural nature of obscene compensation probably would take a whole book in itself.

In light of the current crisis and the imposition of “sacrifices” on populations across the Western world, this topic is highly relevant. In the context of the upcoming French presidential election, and as the main candidates start to unveil their platforms, this book comes out at the right time and should be mandatory reading to said candidates.

Book Review – Pricing Beauty

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take bookers, for instance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Book Review – Fugitive Denim

Rachel Snyder’s Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade is an interesting book but boy would the author have benefited from a sit-down with a good editor who would have told her that it needed a tighter structure and line of thinking. I initially picked up the book because I thought it was going to be about a specific global commodity chain (jeans) and it is partly that and it should have been that. But then, the author starts running in all sorts of direction that completely dilute that initial premise. So, at various points in the book, I was still wondering where the author was going.

So, starting from an environmentally and labor-conscious brand of jeans associated with Bono and his wife, Snyder retraces the global steps of what it takes to produce denim as a reflection of the the rules of global trade and mechanisms of global governance as they trickle down to local factories in various parts of the world. For instance, Snyder starts with the way the end of the quota system by the US:

“Part of the problem, at least as it pertains to global trade, is something known to the industry as the quota system. On January 1, 2005, a few months after Scott and Rogan’s meeting with Ali and Bono, a decades-old system called the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA) expired, in accordance with rules established by the World Trade Organization under something they called their Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC). Members of the WTO were signatories of the agreement to end the MFA. In place for the better part of the post–World War II era under various aliases and auspices (the WTO took over the administration of the quotas when it was created in 1994), this system evolved as borders became more porous, consumers more aware, and organizations more global. Basically, the MFA set limits on the amount of textiles and apparel any one country could export to the United States. For example, of the roughly 365 million sweaters imported to the United States every year, the Philippines got to manufacture and export 4.2 million of them.2 The quota given to each country varied, and for the bigger manufacturers like China and India, a void was left when they reached their quotas—a void other, smaller countries like the Philippines gladly stepped in to fill.

From 1974 to 1994, the MFA dictated the global terms of the textile and apparel industry. It began as a way to protect manufacturing in industrialized countries in the face of competition from textile industries first in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan after World War II, then in China, India, and other developing nations. The quotas ensured that no single developing country ever captured a monopoly of the developed world’s market by limiting what could be exported to countries like the United States. What this meant, in real terms, was that countries like Cambodia, recuperating from decades of war and genocide, had a clear entrée into a market that otherwise might have been prohibitively competitive. The same applied to Mauritius, Nepal, Laos, Lesotho, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Indonesia, Tunisia, and dozens of other countries. Left on its own, the textile production market may have concentrated in just a handful of countries, rather than the sixty or so that compose it today. Ending the quotas was an attempt to rebalance our first attempts at, well, rebalancing. We would eradicate the trade laws we’d written and revised to partly protect the impoverished countries and thereby give the impoverished countries a chance to make it on their own, with not much more than their own pluck. What the World Trade Organization is doing by eliminating the MFA and eradicating the convoluted quota system is, in essence, pretty simple.” (23-24)

Snyder then examines the anticipated consequences of the removal of the quota for small countries that risk to be squeezed out by China. So, the first stop in Snyder’s examination is Azerbaijan, which is a major producer of cotton and where cotton growing and picking is still done in the old-fashioned way, mostly by women. Actually, throughout the whole global production chain, one finds women in the trenches and men in the offices. In the case of Azerbaijan, cotton experts (those who evaluate the quality and rating of the cotton) are men.

Compared to US growers, of course, Azeri farmers are at the usual disadvantage: US growers are heavily subsidized, while they get to experience the joys of “free trade”. And, of course, most of these subsidies go to large agribusiness firms, not family farms. The US is not the only culprit. The EU and Japan are also heavy subsidizers. The Azeri think they should move up the commodity chain and produce the finished jeans and other cotton products rather than limit themselves to growing cotton. The World Bank disagrees:

“The World Bank wanted Azerbaijan to sell only raw cotton and would subsidize this, but Vasif feels if the World Bank really wanted to help the country, it would give subsidies to start small factories to weave fabric or make finished garments.4 Ready-made thread sells for nearly double cotton’s price on the world market. Vasif and other Azeris who put forth this argument may never have heard of the quota system, but they all knew about the subsidies paid to U.S. cotton farmers by the American government. It’s a system that has helped keep farms in America afloat since the 1930s and which infuriates farmers around the globe, from Burkina Faso to Uzbekistan to Brazil. “Basically, the World Bank doesn’t want you to improve,” Vasif says. “The more finished a product is, the more money it demands from the global market. The World Bank gives credit if we do what they want, but we lose our freedom.” (63)

And so, Azeri growers remain poor because the rich countries’ subsidies depress the price of cotton on the world market. Never mind that the WTO has declared these subsidies to be illegal. That double standard has been a source of contention in world trade for a while.

Not only is growing and picking cotton hard work, but it is also one of the most toxic crops as well:

“THOUGH COTTON MAKES UP ONLY ABOUT 3 PERCENT of our global agricultural land, it consumes nearly a quarter of the world’s insecticides and 10 percent of the world’s pesticides—more than any other crop—with cost estimates for the pesticides alone totaling $2.6 billion. The average pair of jeans carries three quarters of a pound of chemicals.1 Pesticides, of course, allow for the global cotton empire by killing the pests that would otherwise kill the cotton; but in short order, these pests build up a resistance and farmers need ever-increasing amounts of chemicals to combat the insects. Most of the conventional cotton in the United States is genetically modified, or Bt, cotton—with insecticides contained inside the seeds. (73)

Emphasis mine.

And the need for pesticides is a major source of debt for farmers in the Global South (in parts of India, indebted farmers kill themselves by swallowing the very pesticides that got them in a financial hole to begin with). Add to that the environmental devastation caused by the growth of cotton (the disappearance of the Aral sea as a result of cotton fields in Uzbekistan) or simply the death of farm workers from exposure to pesticides (in the US as well), and the picture that emerges is that of a production chain that is badly in need of sustainable practices:

“Aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos, and endosulfan were pesticides developed during World War I as toxic nerve agents; all are allowed under the EPA’s ruling.8 Another particularly nasty organophosphate called chlorpyriphos was also a World War I nerve gas and is used in more than a hundred registered products in the United States alone.9 While the EPA has banned it from home use because of “its negative impact on children’s health,” it remains commonly used in agriculture.10 Methyl parathion is also common, though it is listed as “extremely hazardous” and nineteen countries have banned it, while another forty-three make importing it illegal.11 The United States is not one of them. Nor is China, which has become the world’s biggest user of pesticides.


This does not preclude the United States from exporting products that it considers too harmful for use in American homes. The EPA has even ruled that banned pesticides are not prohibited from being imported into the United States so that they may be repackaged for export. Between 1997 and 2000 forty-five tons of pesticides that were either “severely restricted” or “forbidden” altogether were exported every hour, totaling roughly 3.2 billion pounds. More than half these products—many of which are classified as extremely hazardous by the World Heath Organization—were shipped to the developing world.” (74)

There is now a movement to get more organic cotton grown (Turkey is the leader in that) but organic cotton only represents 1% of the global production although that percentage is growing slowly because organic cotton is more labor intensive and of lower quality. And as Snyder shows, a lifetime of picking cotton is devastating on the health and life expectancy of the pickers.

Next stop down the commodity chain is Italy where jeans (fabric and models) are designed for the major store brands of Europe and the US. It is quite a contrast compared to the rough life of the Azeri farmers. Snyder describes a hectic life of design shows across the major cities of Europe and their various fashion weeks. It is pretty much the only part of the production process that takes place in the Global North. The designed models are then sent to independent contractors in the Global South, for production. And that is even a battle that Italy is losing to China as well.

Fabric design is itself quite a process:

“There are almost endless combinations of things that can be done to treat jeans, using a surprising array of materials: glass, sandpaper, diamond dust, pumice stones, enzymes, chemical or mechanical abrasion, and many others. Stonewashing, which requires the harvest of pumice from around the world, has come under fire from environmental groups, particularly when stones are first dipped in bleach and then used to treat jeans. Plastic balls and enzymes are used more and more in “stonewashing,” though the effect is still often disappointing. This washing and finishing is almost unquestionably the least environmentally friendly part of the entire manufacturing process. Clothes are sprayed with chemicals to create a variety of effects, or overdyed (with one color layered over another or an excess of color applied to the fabric), or coated in resin and baked in enormous ovens. Polymer resin is commonly used to coat creases and folds in clothing, thereby making them permanent, and to set color; it also sometimes contains formaldehyde. Workers in the laundry industry must don an array of contraptions—special respirators, boots, coveralls, gloves, protective eyewear—to shield them from the myriad chemicals in use in nearly every operation. Buckets and buckets of chemicals with names wholly unrecognizable to me sat lined up in a warehouse where purple spray—potassium permanganate—was hosed onto jeans as they dangled on metal hangers from the ceiling.” (121)

Something that has been dramatically illustrated by photographs such as these (see the rest here):

it is well known that many countries of the Global South do not have strict environmental regulations or, if they do, they may suspend them in export zones to attract contracts from Western companies. That is especially the case for Indonesia and Thailand. As we know, when it comes to such contracting, there is a race to the bottom going on and contractors in the Global South have to compete with each other and cut costs in whichever way they can, mostly on environmental and labor costs. After all, we want our jeans cheap. That cost is borne by someone else’s environment, health and wages.

Next stop in Cambodia where jean factories are pulling a generation of daughters out of the countryside to the main cities where the money they make is still better than what their families earn on farms, although Cambodia is one of the countries most likely to be on the losing side of the end of the quotas.

This is where the book gets a bit off-track. While Snyder takes a lot of time describing the lives of two factory workers (which is really interesting), she starts focusing more on corporate responsibility and standards than on the commodity chain per se. This has to do with the fact that Cambodia is a special case for the ILO through the Better Factories Cambodia program:

“Better Factories Cambodia is a unique programme of the International Labour Organization. It benefits workers, employers and their organizations. It benefits consumers in Western countries and helps reduce poverty in one of the poorest nations of the world.

It does this by monitoring and reporting on working conditions in Cambodian garment factories according to national and international standards, by helping factories to improve working conditions and productivity, and by working with the Government and international buyers to ensure a rigorous and transparent cycle of improvement.

The project grew out of a trade agreement between the United States and Cambodia. Under the agreement the US promised Cambodia better access to US markets in exchange for improved working conditions in the garment sector. The ILO project was established in 2001 to help the sector make and maintain these improvements.”

And the program seems to work and Cambodia uses its good labor practice as its comparative advantage, because otherwise, there is no way it can compete with the giant next door, China and its monumental export zones. And from the way Snyder describes it, it seems that there are improvements but there are still enormous labor issues:

“Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that problems, generally termed noncompliance, were not still rampant in the industry as a whole. Numerous examples of child labor, forced labor, abhorrent conditions, and abysmal pay abound. In the spring of 2006, the National Labor Committee put out a report on widespread industry abuses in Jordan in factories that contract with Wal-Mart, Kmart, Kohl’s, Gloria Vanderbilt, Target, and Victoria’s Secret, among others. The report cites instances of forced labor, indentured servitude, physical and mental abuse, rape, mandatory pregnancy testing (mothers-to-be are often fired so the factory won’t have to pay maternity costs), withholding payment, and unsanitary conditions. Of 60,000 factory workers in Jordan’s export processing zone, more than half are immigrants (often illegal) and thus particularly vulnerable. Jordan also receives preferential access to the U.S. consumer market as part of the U.S.-Israel free-trade deal. The report told of workers locked in a single room at night and forced to work until 2:00 or 3:00 A.M.; factories had withheld meals and in one case punished a handful of workers by locking them for several hours in a deep freezer.” (257)

But part of the improvement is because monitoring and indexing working conditions in factories has become a big business in itself. The certification processes are proliferating but there is no uniform standard so, different indexes might mean different things or countries might pick and choose which index or certification process to be part of.

In the end, as Snyder reiterates several times throughout the book, it comes down to the prices that consumers are willing to accept in exchange for jeans that are produced in a sustainable and fair fashion.

As I mentioned above, the book would have benefited from some tighter editing and greater consistency of topic. I really liked the development on the different kinds of workers involved in the global commodity chain but I don’t give a damn about Bono and his wife. Sometimes, the focus on individuals was much too strong (who cares that one of the Italian designers was pregnant and the whole story around that) compared to the big picture. Too many times, as I was reading the book, I asked myself “where is she going with this?”. Other than that, the book is an easy read.

Again, the accounts of the lives and working conditions of Azeri cotton picker and Khmer factory workers were quite interesting and moving. These are the people on whose shoulders we’re standing when it comes to our quality of life. They do deserve the exposure.

Book Review – Les Liaisons Numériques

Antonio Casilli‘s Les Liaisons Numériques: Vers Une Nouvelle Sociabilité? is an rigorous yet original exploration of the many ways in which information and communication technologies change the way we interact. I do hope the book gets translated in English in a near future as it is quite relevant to the current debates on the political impact (or lack thereof) of social networking platforms.

At the same time, the book does not really deal with larger, macrosociological questions that have been at the heart of current discussions, such as the role of social media in social movements and revolutions, the issue of privacy (if there is still such a thing) and control (from governments or corporations).

In the book, Casilli tackles three major topics:

  1. The issue of space in cyberspace, in contrast to physical space and the relationships between the two;
  2. The issue of the body, virtual or physical, and the relationships between the two;
  3. And the strength and weaknesses of digital ties (in the tradition of Granovetter’s strength of weak ties).

In all three sections (space, body and ties), Casilli engages in quite a bit of debunking, arguing against both cyber-utopians and cyber-prophets of doom. He does so by marshaling personal stories and studies, engaging with the current research, explorations of a variety of social networking platforms to give us a sense of the variety of “digital liaisons” and interactions, as they mix aspects of “something old, something new”.

The bottom line is that social networking platforms change the way we interact and have given birth to new forms of sociability that take into account off-line aspects of our identity but also allow us to construct a hybrid online multi-faceted self. Physical spaces, physical bodies and off-line ties do not disappear, contrary to what the cyber-pessimists keep telling us, but they continue to exist both alongside cyberspaces, virtual bodies and online ties, interacting with them in a variety of fashions.

In this sense, digital interactions should lead us to reevaluate the sociological trope of individualization, as individualization-within-social-contexts provided by digital environments, as well as the concept of community. For instance, in virtual communities, interactions involve quite a bit of gift / counter-gift mechanisms (the reference to Mauss is appropriate here) which may take the form of links or retweets and other tokens of mutual recognition. In addition, virtual communities correlate involvement in the community and desire for public recognition. And finally, community members need to have the sense that their contributions make a difference rather quickly, which serves as a motivator for further participation and people collect social rewards that are proportionate to the time and energy they devote to the community.. As Casilli notes, this is somewhat different from off-line communities where social recognition takes time to build and where rewards are much more uncertain.

The emergence and growth of virtual community then should put to rest the notion that communities need physical spaces to exist and thrive and face-to-face settings are no longer the exclusive (and authentic) mode of interaction. At the same time, virtual interactions do not replace physical ones, they enrich them, but they have their own norms. This leads Casilli to invoke the concept of double habitat.

The reexamination of spaces with the virtual cities and e-governments also leads to changes in our conception of public spaces (in Habermas’s sense) and political participation. Which is all well and great but does contribute to the digital divide, with stratification modes based on presence or absence on networks, information-rich versus information-poor and where distribution and allocation of assistance, support and resources take place through networks. In such a world, those with fast Internet access enjoy social privileges as opposed to the social exclusion of those left off-line.

This also raises the questions of the possibilities of political contestation when there is no actual space to contest (hence, I think, the social uses of hacking). So, for Casilli, one must not be naive in thinking that the “everything virtual” is the easy solution to all sorts of social integration issues or that the Internet is the great democratization tool where everyone is equal. At the same time, the rise of virtual communities may very well be a sign of closure of physical spaces of sociability.

The rise of virtual communities has been accompanied with a redrawing of the line between public and private spaces. In debates about privacy, the big issues had to do with how much outside intrusion into one’s private sphere. But with online communities, the issues is that of how much one should make public private information. Actors have limited control over the former, but can strategize on the latter, with all the corresponding risks. After all, at this point, most community users know that whatever bits of information they put online can never be private again in a context of ubiquitous and continuous surveillance, something that Casilli calls participative surveillance.

When it comes to the body, Casilli goes after the common assertion that the Internet is full of fat people, living in their mom’s basements, socially awkward, and reconstructing a fake, ideal body in virtual environments. But, as Casilli demonstrates, contrary to that assertion, the Internet is full of bodily traces, photos, videos, real-life looking avatars and other signals of one’s real physical appearance. Most social networking platforms have, as their first step in participation, the building up of a profile, using a variety of media. And there is no doubt that Goffman would have a field day studying all the ways in which we present our selves in these environments.

In this context, it is amazing that an important meme still is that of the disappearance of the body. And while that actors “work” on their body as online project through a variety of media, it is mostly not in order to deceive but rather to harmonize their avatars with the social community they are a part of. In this context, I highly recommend the section on pro-ana virtual communities as illustration of the social construction of the body and computer-assisted socialization.

In the last section of the book, Casilli proposes his own version of the strength of weak ties, as applied to virtual communities and digital interactions. At this point, of course, it feels like shooting fish in a barrel to go after the Putnam thesis. Again, reality is more nuanced and more complex than that. The first thing that Casilli notes is that virtual interactions supplement existing social relationships (bonding capital). But there are also new forms of sociability that people engage in based on affinity, opportunities and need for social recognition.

In social networking platforms, weak ties correlate with high sociability. Heck, I heard about Casilli first on Twitter where I started following him (he showed up on Twitter’s recommendation of people I should follow because I followed other people), based on a tweet linking to his blog post on Avatars. Once his book got published, he also used Twitter to publicize it, so, the next time I went to France to visit my family, I got myself a copy in a brick-and-mortar bookstore… See? No separation between virtual and physical, between strong and weak ties, between bonding and bridging.

The weak ties between members of virtual communities and social networks fill structural holes and give members access to resources that they would not have access to, if they were limited to bonding capital and to off-line preexisting relationships. And once structural holes are filled, information circulates more easily.

On a larger, and more political, scale, this is what Wikipedia does: not so much revealing secrets but making information circulate, and, at the same time, exposing the fact that traditional media operate more like the little boxes of bonding relationships (and in the little box, you have political and media elites). In this sense, online “friends” (as in “Facebook friends”) are conduits of information more than they are friends (in the traditional sense). I have to say that I use my Twitter timeline, in part, as a source of information (along with my newsreader) and no longer television.

It may feel, at times, that the book is a bit all over the place. It is. And I think it is deliberate. The entire book is not so much a study as an exploration of the diversity of ties and of the various forms that sociability takes in the context of Web 2.0. It is rich in examples and case studies, along with the more traditional social-scientific research. It is also highly readable and the numerous “stories” make it quite entertaining. As I mentioned above, I do hope it gets translated in English soon.

Highly recommended (for French-reading audiences, that is).

Book Review – The Culture of The New Capitalism


[This is a repost but a relevant one as I chose Richard Sennett as my sociologist of the semester.]

Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism should be read as one more chapter in Sennett’s exploration of the transformation of labor and institutions, something he started in the 1970s with The Hidden Injuries of Class and continued more recently with The Craftsman (review to come).

“All that is solid melts into air.” This quote from Marx has been used and reused by Bauman (see his whole “liquid” conditions series of books) and it is also a recurring theme in Sennett’s book: the progressive dismantling of what Pierre Bourdieu might call the structuring structure and the structured structures of labor.


The first part of Sennett’s book is a comparison between the modern Weberian bureaucracy both in its positive aspects (social integration, what Sennett calls its contribution to social capitalism, militaristic efficiency and organization of time, its predictable promotional paths) and its negative traits (the famous Iron Cage, its ritualistic and alienating tendencies). The bureaucratic model pervaded modern society in multiple institutional incarnations. So, what is changing?

“The fresh-page thesis asserts that the institutions which enabled this life-narrative thinking have now “melted into air.” The militarization of social time is coming apart. There are some obvious institutional facts on which this thesis is founded. The end of lifetime employment is one such, as is the waning of careers spent within a single institution; so is the fact, in the public realm, that government welfare and safety nets have become more short-term and more erratic.” (25)

And then, of course, there is globalization both in its deterritorialized and deeply territorial forms.

Sennett outlines three aspects in which the iron cage comes apart:

  1. the shift from managerial to shareholder power in large companies
  2. this shift in power involves a demand for short-term results (“impatient capital”)
  3. the development of new technologies of communications and manufacturing

Giant pension and investments funds have generated enormous amounts of capital in search of profitable returns all over the world, both cause and effect of globalization since the late 1970s. This is when shareholder power emerges in corporate governance, as opposed to executives.

And with this development comes short-termism.

“Share price rather than corporate dividends was their measure of results. Buying and selling shares in an open, fluid market yielded quicker – and greater – yields than holding stocks for the long term. For this reason, whereas in 1965 American pension funds held stocks on an average for 46 months, by 2000 much in the portfolios of these institutional investors turned over on an average of 3.8 months.” (40)

Making money quick is nothing new. What changed are the institutional, cultural and technological ways of doing so.

“The combined effect of so much unleashed capital and the pressure of short-term returns transformed the structure of those institutions most attractive to empowered investors. Enormous pressure was put on companies to look beautiful in the eyes of the passing voyeur; institutional beauty consisted in demonstrating signs of internal change and flexibility, appearing to be a dynamic company, even if the once-stable company had worked perfectly well. (…) Institutional solidity becomes an investment negative rather than a positive. Stability seemed a sign of weakness, suggesting to the market that the firm could not innovate or find new opportunities or otherwise manage change.” (40-41)

The willingness to destabilize or stress the system of one’s own organization is a sign of dynamism, flexibility and embrace of change (something expanding beyond corporations into the realm of higher education, for instance, as demonstrated by Marc Bousquet in his book, How The University Works, and also a process described by Sennett himself in The Corrosion of Character, detailing the case of Lou Gerstner leadership at IBM).

The power of impatient capital was of course multiplied by the rise of information and communication technologies as well as revolutions in manufacturing, refrigeration and containerization.

Institutionally speaking, ICTs permitted the removal of middle level bureaucracy and the emergence of a new form of centralization with accelerated power without discussion or interpretation. This came in addition to outsourcing, off-shoring and massive lay-offs. Whereas an essential effect of the modern bureaucracy was social inclusion of the masses (for social, political and economic reasons), the new corporation is lean and mean and can function with fewer people.

The new organization requires a new conception of the self and identity. This is where culture enters the picture. The new self is one adapted to these new social, economic and institutional conditions: a self that eschews dependency upon others or upon companies or institutions or the state. This is not individualism, this is the era of flexible (sometimes virtual) networks and contacts rather than stable and deep relationships.

What is the new institutional reality of corporations (Again, this was addressed at greater length in The Corrosion of Character)? Three main processes define it:

  1. Delayering: getting rid of layers within the organization and having these functions transferred to other places or individuals.
  2. Casualization: short-term, renewable employment within the organization where workers can be moved from task to task.
  3. Non-linear sequencing: task or problem-solving oriented rather than fixed-function labor.

Put together, these characteristics define organizations revolving around shorter time frames devoted to small tasks. Organizations then creates ill-defined conditions and contexts in which human relations and problem-solving skills are key and surveillance (especially computerized) is extensive, generating institutionalized paranoia. These are high-stress systems; their personal product: anxiety.

“Anxiety attaches to what might happen; dread attaches to what one knows will happen. Anxiety arises in ill-defined conditions, dread when pain or ill-fortune is well defined. Failure in the old pyramid was grounded in dread; failure in the new institution is shaped by anxiety. When firms are reengineered, employees frequently have no idea of what will happen to them, since modern forms of corporate restructuring are driven by issues of debt and stock-price value generated in financial markets, rather than by the internal workings of the firm.” (53)

This is reinforced by the widespread use of consultants as perfect illustration of the sociological idea that distance = social inequality. Hiring consultants – increasing social distance – accomplishes certain things that are positively viewed by investors:

  • an ideological signal that power is being exercised
  • potential institutional disruption signalling that “change” (always positive) is afoot
  • a shift in responsibility for painful decisions (“the consultants said we should do it”)
  • command without accountability (see the IMF / WB economists imposing shock economic therapy upon other countries without any accountability for the catastrophic results)
  • power without commitment to the organization

According to Sennett, this dismantling of the iron cage of the modern bureaucracy produces three types of social deficits, which, put together, amount to a decline in social capital (the Putnam thesis):

  1. low institutional loyalty
  2. diminishment of informal trust among workers
  3. weakening of institutional knowledge

Culturally, all these institutional aspects translate into the devaluation of stability and delayed gratification in terms of prestige and the valuation of risk-taking and problem-solving skills. This, in turn, has consequences for the stratification system:

“Class counts for everything. A child of privilege can afford strategic confusion, a child of the masses cannot. Chance opportunities are likely to come to the child of privilege because of family background and educational networks; privileges diminishes the need to strategize. Strong, extensive human networks allow those at the top to dwell in the present; the networks constitute a safety net which diminishes the need for long-term planning. The new elite thus has less need of the ethic of delayed gratification, as thick networks provide contacts and a sense of belonging, no matter firm or organization one works for. The mass, however, has a thinner network of informal contact and support, and so remains more institution-dependent.” (80)

Specter of Uselessness

Sennett sees the specter of uselessness as a major source of anxiety in society, but here again, redefined by institutional change and shaped by distinctive forces:

  • the global labor supply: when one’s skills are easily replaced by another labor force in another part of the world
  • automation (which can generate automated uselessness)
  • the management of ageing

Uselessness is tied to the fear of skills extinction as experience becomes less valued and skills can be bought in a younger worker rather than expending resources on retraining an older, more expensive, worker.  As a result, large numbers are left behind, in situations of marginality due to unemployment or underemployment in a culture that loathes dependency and that the welfare state (diminished as it is) is ill-equipped to deal with.

This leads to a related and essential topic of the book: the declining prestige of craftsmanship.

“Craftsmanship would be: doing something well for its own sake. Self-discipline and self-criticism adhere in all domains of craftsmanship; standards matter, and the pursuit of quality ideally becomes an end in itself. Craftsmanship emphasizes objectification: (…) a thing made to matter in itself. (…) Understood this way, craftsmanship sits uneasily in the institutions of flexible capitalism. (…) The more one understands how to do something well, the more one cares about it. Institutions based on short-term transactions and constantly shifting tasks, however, do not breed that depth. Indeed, the organization can fear it; the management code word here is ingrown . Someone who digs deep into an activity just to get it right can seem to others ingrown in the sense of fixated on that one thing. (…) And he or she stands at the opposite pole from the consultant, who swoops in but never nests. Moreover, deepening one’s skills in any pursuit takes time.” (104-105)

So what does the flexible organization look for? According to Sennett, potential abilities that tend to be amorphous and therefore, applicable to a variety of domains and settings, such as problem-solving or interpersonal skills. For Sennett, this is ultimately what standardized tests are expected to measure: solving a variety of problems with a limited amount of time and no time to think things through in any deep or complex manner. Ability then is detached from learning, experience and achievement. From his studies, Sennett found that evaluations of abilities by management are much more personal and go straight to a sense of self:

“Judgments about potential ability are much more personal in character than judgments of achievement. An achievement compounds social and economic circumstances, fortune and chance, with self. Potential ability focuses only on the self. The statement “you lack potential” is much more devastating than “you messed up.” It makes a more fundamental claim about who you are. It conveys uselessness in a more profound sense. (123)

[Emphasis mine] One can see then how potential ability stands in opposition to craftsmanship and how disempowering it is. What can one do when one lacks abilities? One can work at one’s crafts but not at one’s abilities. And again, in this context, abilities are defined as amorphous and non-specific (ability to work well with other, to think outside the box, to be collaborative, etc… these phrases are, in a way, meaningless and subject to subjective assessment).

What are the implications of all this for politics, and especially for progressive politics? Well, not so good for Sennett as politics becomes an object of consumption as well and politicians package themselves as consumer objects.

Consuming Politics

Ok, let me take a detour here: it seems to me that, as I was reading Sennett’s book, that I was truly reading about the Obama campaign and about Obama as consumption object. Think about it for a second: Obama campaigned on himself, not as a Democrat, liberal, progressive. Actually, he ran away from these labels. He also revealed contempt for experience and promoted his “skills”, especially, his negotiating skills (his claim to be able to bring everybody to the table and reach a consensus… an amorphous skill, applicable to any domain).

He did not provide specific programs and policies (again, when one asked his supporters to provide such information, one would be invariably referred to the website as the immediate response). He also rejected past experience (contempt for the struggles of the 60s). And, of course, he pushed the idea of his “judgment” as his major asset. Finally, charisma was a major asset. In this sense, it was really a campaign packaged for the impatient consumer, with little interest in detailed wonkery as well as major ageism involved (combined with misogyny). No deferred gratification here.

I would argue that Obama was successful in packaging himself in a way that fit the “creative class” (euphemisms for privileged classes), the media, college students who have been socialized in an SAT environment and expect to work in new organizations and see themselves as citizen-consumers. Indeed, as Sennett explains, the citizen-consumer is

  1. offered political platforms which resemble product platforms (the candidate as product in and of himself)
  2. gold-plated differences (what Sennett calls the symbolic inflation of trivia)
  3. asked to discount “the twisted timber of humanity” (concerns of the disadvantaged and complex social and political issues are dismissed as getting in the way of “transformation” whatever that means)
  4. credit more user-friendly politics
  5. accept continually new political products on offer

All these go against progressive politics, according to Sennett (indeed, Obama has never presented himself as progressive or liberal, his supporters have projected these attributes upon him as part of the well-known process of imaging):

“User-friendly makes a hash of democracy. Democracy requires that citizens be willing to make some effort to find out how the world around them works. (…) My point is not that people are lazy but that the economy creates a political climate in which citizens have difficulty in thinking like craftsmen. In institutions organized around flexible labor, getting involved deeply in something risks making the worker seem ingrown and narrowly focused.” (171)

Sennett ends his book by again emphasizing craftsmanship (something I’m guessing he has picked up in his latest book) and focusing on the Dutch solution to broken life narratives (something also heavily present in The Corrosion of Character).

I enjoy reading Sennett but I have to confess that parts of the book annoyed me, especially the ones about consuming desires. I have to confess that Freudian-type sociology bores me and leaves me frustrated mostly because I would like something more empirically grounded. I understand that Sennett is not just a sociologist but also a social thinker or philosopher, and the most philosphical parts of the book are the ones that did slow me down. I much prefer his labor and institutional analyses. I find them more powerful. But again, no one describes institutional realities as he does.

Book Review – Murder City

Last book review of the year!

I have been looking for some solid analysis regarding the mass killings of Ciudad Juarez, so, naturally, I downloaded Charles Bowden‘s Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and The Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.

This book is not Juarez 101. It is not a journalistic or analytical account of what happens there. It is more a personal journey, with lots of stream of consciousness writing. The narrative, if there is one, is not linear but disjointed (although there is a “death calendar” appendix, that lists the dead over a one-year period). There is a lot about the writer himself, what he felt, his own reactions, etc. That is the part of the book that I did not like. It made me want to shout “dude, this is not about YOU!”

As much as I understand that extreme violence at that depicted in the book has to take a toll on one’s sanity, he was still in the privileged position of being able to cross the border back in the US and rejoin his comfortable life at any time, as opposed to the people stuck in that non-stop violent world. So, no, I did not care one bit about his feelings.

That being said, the book is far from a complete waste of time. Once you skip through the first-person stuff, you get to the real story and the people I was really interested in: the people of Juarez, those who live and survive in the midst in continuous and increasing violence from all parts.

One thing that the book does well is to show how the mainstream reporting on Juarez violence explains nothing and covers up much. What goes on there is not government versus drug cartels, or drug cartels versus drug cartels. There are many layers of corruption and violence converging on Juarez: the drug cartels, of course,, bu the federal and state military accounts for enormous violence as well, along with the local police.

Often, police and military officers also work for the cartels, and military hotshots benefit from the drug trafficking. And much the conflict is funded by the US, either in the form of training Mexican soldiers (who then also work for the cartels), or direct money to the federal government in the name of the War on Drugs (is there any way in which that idea is not completely bankrupt?). The cartels bribe DEA and Border Patrol so they can ship the drug to the US without problems.

“In 1953, a flying school in Culiacan was closed to placate the United States, and yet by the late 1960s at least six hundred secret airfields flourished in northern Mexico (the beat goes on—in 2007, the Mexican army claimed to close two secret narco-airports a day). More recently, a series of agencies have tackled drugs. Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), trained by the CIA, was supposed to eliminate drug merchants and radicals in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, its staff either worked for or led cartels, including the one in Juárez. In the mid-1990s, a new force under a Mexican drug czar flourished, until it was discovered that the czar worked for the Juárez cartel and so did many of his agents. It was dissolved. Under President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), a new incorruptible force, Fiscalía Especializada en Atención de Delitos contra la Salud (FEADS), was created. One part deserted, became the Zetas, and functionally took over the Gulf cartel.” (Loc. 1918)

In 1997, an organized crime unit was formed to tackle the cartels, and at the same moment in Mexico City, the agents of yet an earlier squad assigned to fight drugs were found dead in a car trunk. FEADS was finally dissolved in 2003 when it was found to be hopelessly corrupt. Under President Felipe Calderón, yet a new federal mutation emerged—AFI (Agencia Federal de Investigación). Its head was murdered in the spring of 2008. His dying words to his killer were, “Who sent you?” The government later determined the hit was done by the Sinaloa cartel, with the killers led by a former officer in the agency.” (Loc. 1926)

And the US government pretends that the Mexican government is the democratic wonder that fights the bad criminal organizations. That pretense and its maintenance has devastating consequences as the US media never reports the wrongdoings of the Mexican military and its responsibility in much of the killings as well as its involvement in the trafficking.

That attitude ruins lives. Take the case of a Mexican journalist – Emilio – who made the “mistake” of reporting on the wrongdoings of the military:

“The woman and Emilio collect his son. They stop by his house to get some clothes and then flee to a small ranch about six miles west of Ascensión, where he can hide. He is terrified. Later that night, a friend takes him back to his house once again. He wears a big straw hat, slips low in the seat. He sneaks into his house and gets vital documents. A friend delivers a small black car out at the ranch. All day Sunday, he tries to think of a way to save his life. He comes up with only one answer: flight. No matter where he goes in Mexico, he will have to find a job and use his identity cards and the army will track him down. He now knows they will never forget his story from 2005, that he cannot be redeemed.

He tells his boy, “We are not going back to our house. The soldiers may kill me, and I don’t want to leave you alone.” Monday morning, he drives north very fast. He takes all his legal papers so that he can prove who he is. He expects asylum from the government of the United States when he crosses at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. What he gets is this: He is immediately jailed, as is his son. They are separated. It is a common practice to break up families to crush the will—often jailing men and tossing the women and children back over the fence. He is denied bond, and no hearing is scheduled to handle his case. He is taken to El Paso and placed in a private prison. Had he entered the United States illegally and then asked for asylum, he would have been almost immediately bonded out. But since he entered legally by declaring his identity and legal status at a port of entry and applied for asylum, he is placed in prison because Homeland Security declares that Emilio has failed to prove that “he does not represent a threat to the community.”

It is possible to see his imprisonment as simply the normal by-product of bureaucratic blindness and indifference. But I don’t think that is true. No Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum, because if the U.S. government honestly faced facts, it would have to admit that Mexico is not a society that respects human rights. Just as the United States would be hard pressed, if it faced facts, to explain to its own citizens how it can justify giving the Mexican army $1.4 billion under Plan Merida, a piece of black humor that is supposed to fight a war on drugs. But then, the American press is the chorus in this comedy since it continues to report that the Mexican army is in a war to the death with the drug cartels.


This was part of the Bush administration’s ‘Guantanamization’ of the refugee process. By locking people up, especially Mexican asylum applicants, and making them, through a war of attrition, give up their claims there at the camp. I’ve represented ten cops seeking asylum, and not one of them lasted longer than two months. Emilio lasted seven months. On the basis of he had his son and he knew he was going to be killed. There was nowhere that he could go and practice his profession.” There are forty reporters in El Paso—print, radio, and television. Only one or two tiny reports are published by any of them. And the matter of the Mexican army killing innocent Mexicans is not mentioned at all. Like the U.S. government, they apparently believe the Mexican army is some force of light in the darkness of Mexico.” (Loc. 3514 – 86)

And when such journalists try to tell their stories to the US media, they are ignored (as if we needed more evidence of the uselessness of that institution) because no one should destroy the myth of the Mexican government as faithful ally in the War on Drugs. There is so much money at stake in the drug business that everyone wants in, and not just criminal organizations. And Emilio is not allowed to live in the US as a refugee.

And so, the killing continues, more massive than ever. And it’s not just the young women who work in the Maquiladoras (although they are victims). Because the lines are so blurred between Federal / State military, local police and cartel killers, one can never know who killed whom. So, arrests are not made. Actually, it is even lucky if police officers leave their offices to go to killing sites because they are targets. Killings and kidnappings are not reported. And in a kind of collective amnesia, once the bodies are removed, the dead disappear from memory and are no longer mentioned (same goes for the kidnappings).

“The violence has crossed class lines. The violence is everywhere. The violence is greater. And the violence has no apparent and simple source. It is like the dust in the air, part of life itself.” (Loc. 484)

As are drugs, something Bowden calls “narcotecture.”

And yes, this has something to do with NAFTA:

“A recent study found over twenty thousand retail drug outlets in Tijuana, mainly cocaine and heroin. In Juárez, there are at least as many such venues. The peddlers earn three hundred dollars a week, there tend to be three shifts, so let’s posit for Juárez twenty-five thousand outlets (a conservative estimate) and figure a payroll of seventy-five thousand retailers. This amounts to a bigger payroll than that earned by the two hundred thousand factory workers earning on average seventy-five dollars a week. And of course, the real money is not in the retail peddlers but in the organizations that control them and import and package their products. This is the economy of the city. This is supply-side economics flooring the killing ground.


When Amado Carrillo was running a cartel that hauled in $250 million a week in the mid-1990s, Juárez was barely a speck in the mind of the American government or media. When he used the same private banker at Citigroup in New York as the then-president of Mexico, this, too, was of no interest. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passed and went plowing into the lives of millions like a greed-seeking missile in the early 1990s, this city that pioneered using cheap labor to bust unions and steal American jobs continued to be ignored. Only brief flickers of interest in the dead women of Juárez captures any American audience.


In Juárez, the payroll for the employees in the drug industry exceeds the payroll for all the factories in the city, and Juárez has the most factories and is said to boast the lowest unemployment in Mexico. There is not a family in the city that does not have a family member in the drug industry, nor is there anyone in the city who cannot point out narcos and their fine houses, or who has any difficulty taking you to fine new churches built of narco-dollars. The entire fabric of Juárez society rests on drug money. It is the only possible hope for the poor, the valiant, and the doomed.” (Loc. 884 – 1030)

The drug trafficking cannot be separated from the Maquiladoras economy. So, the mass violence is the story of structural breakdown and hollowing of the state, where the only legal jobs keep one in poverty, barely at survival level or illegal immigration to the US. So, killing and drugs are legitimate career choices for young men. Killing is not deviance. It is where the incentives are.

If Bowden is right and Juarez is the future, it’s not pretty.

Book Review – The City and The City

The City and The City is the first book by China Mieville I have read. I got myself a Kindle copy when it got the Hugo Award. It is an awesome novel, and as usual, it is a great source for sociological analysis. At its most basic, The City and The City is a murder mystery coupled with a touch of conspiracy theory. But, as usual for sociologist me, the most interesting part of the book is the social context underpinning the story.

The story takes place in an unusual urban context of two city-states, Besźel and Ul-Qoma, that occupy the same physical space somewhere in Eastern Europe. The cities are divided between areas that are total (totally in one), alter (totally in the other) or crosshatched (in either). In areas that the cities share, citizens of either city have been socialized to unsense the other: to unsee, unhear, unsmell everything from the other city. And at the center is Copula Hall, the official border between the city and the city.

What this means is that when one is walking – or driving through – the streets of Besźel, for instance, one must NOT see, hear or smell anything from Ul-Qoma (and vice-versa). People from either city practice this constant act of dramaturgy of not sensing the other city that exists in the same physical space. Goffman would have had a field day with all the studied non-0bservance that takes place as people, more or less automatically and immediately unsee things happening in the other city. In fact, the entire social structure of both cities is based on that unsensing so much so that when things happen that make that almost impossible, social order is on the verge of collapse and extreme measures are taken.

So, this common space has two social structures, one for Besźel and one for Ul-Qoma, two different cultures, languages, food, clothing, etc. And it looks like Ul-Qoma (a vaguely communist country, boycotted by the US) is the more economically dynamic of the two.

In this context, people are expected to thoroughly respect the division between the city and the city. If they violate the separations, they breach. They are then spirited away by Breach, the mysterious force in charge of enforcing the division. No one knows what happens to people who have been taken by Breach. In this society, breaching is the most serious offense that deserves the most serious punishment (although what that is remains a mystery, for most part of the book). It is a given that, at some point, someone will breach and we, readers, will get to figure out what Breach really is and what it really does. Breach is perceived as a kind of omniscient Big Brother with the power to detect any breach and swing into action when that happens. Not breaching is a major fear for all the citizens of the city and the city.

Needless to say, the city and the city are themselves marked by social conflicts: each city has its own nationalist movement, strict supporters of the Cleavage (the separation between the city and the city) as well as its Unifs, the unificators, the movements promoting the reunification of the city and the city.

Throughout the book, we follow the detective in charge of solving the murder as he navigates the complexities of this intricate structure in the course of his investigation. He is from Besźel, but at some point is assigned to Ul-Qoma so that we get to compare the two cultures.

Ultimately, his own breach is what gives us an insight into the way Breach works and to the conclusion of the book, which one could read as a perfect manifesto for the social construction of reality or ethnomethodology as his Breach avatar explains to him:

“Nowhere else works like the cities,” he said. “It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does. But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time … you can’t come back from that.”” (5664)

“Doing” the city and the city is a matter of minutiae of social interaction (accomplished and denied at the same time) and constitutes an enormous amount of interactive collaboration (also as necessary as it is denied). It is this architecture of interaction that sustains the dual social structure and collective underpinning of the city and the city.

A fascinating read.

Book Review – The Millenium Trilogy

Stieg Larsson‘s Millenium Trilogy should be required reading in any sociology of gender course because it is a strong demonstration of the way patriarchy works at all levels of society: individual, interactive, institutional, structural and cultural.

The whole trilogy is a fictional demonstration of what happens to women who don’t know their place and won’t conform to patriarchally-established gender roles and even worse to those who fight back against patriarchal control.

This is not just the case for the central character Lisbeth Salander who is certainly the prime example of that. But this is also the case for other women throughout the trilogy: Erika Berger and her stalker as well as her relationship with the men at her new job, Sonia Modig and her sexist colleague Faste, just to name a few. The whole trilogy should have been titled “the men who hate women”.

But the pattern is clear in all three books: men of the establishment do not deal well with strong and ambitious women who are superior to them physically or intellectually. In the trilogy, the only worthwhile relationships, the only ones that work are those that are egalitarian.

Struggle for patriarchal dominance is not just a matter of interpersonal relationships. It is also visible throughout the trilogy in the power of social institutions: the police and criminal justice system of course, the welfare system, the medical and psychiatric establishment, the media, the political establishment. These social institutions are perfect example of institutional sexism where institutional routines and mechanisms work against non-conventional women.

Patriarchy is also highly visible in the amount of sexual violation that occurs either through direct rape, sexual harassment but also sex trafficking. All through the different storylines, women are perceived by patriarchal men as sexual objects to be exploited in one form or another. Sexualization is also used as a weapon against strong women to put them in their place.

On the other hand, for the “good guy-type” characters in books, sex tends to be extremely casual, for fun and enjoyment without commitment, exploitation or expectations.

There is no doubt that the trilogy is written from a social-democratic and feminist perspective. The trilogy is a strong criticism not just of interpersonal patriarchy but of the entire social structure it sustains whether it is the psychiatric establishment or secretive government agencies dominated by neo-fascists (fascism and sexism as well as hyper-masculinity always go hand in hand).

I personally think the hype about these books is entirely justified. The books are page-turners. The different characters (and there are quite a few of them) are all well fleshed out and not unidimensional. Multiple storylines running concurrently keep a fast pace, multiple threads progressively coming together until the final denouement (with only one loose thread that I can think of… I’ll let you guess what it is). The writing is very dynamic and straight to the point but the texture of the narrative is very thick and not entirely centered on a dominant couple. There is room for many other characters.

I can’t wait for Hollywood to ruin it all. </snark>

Book Review – WWW: Watch

Usual disclaimer: good science-fiction is good sociology, and Robert J. Sawyer is one of my favorite scifi writers (along with fellow Canadian Robert Charles Wilson). WWW: Watch is the second volume in the WWW trilogy (the first volume, WWW: Wake reviewed here). I have to say that I enjoyed this one more than I did the previous volume. I would confess that, while reading Wake, I skimmed some passages (especially the emerging consciousness parts).

In Watch, the emerging consciousness come into his (since it’s decided to make it masculine… hmm) own and starts to deal with the complexities of humanity. At the same time, it’s becoming more present attracts the attention of the agencies of the Surveillance Society, especially from the US. And a decision is quickly made by the US President and his representatives, WebMind (the name the entity is given) has to be destroyed. I am guessing its survival will be at the heart of the third volume.

For now, in Watch, Webmind gets busy absorbing information and trying to put it to good use. There is no doubt that Sawyer is fascinated by the ethical questions raised by the emergence of a virtual consciousness and how this reflects upon humanity. Although, as a sociologist, the “everything can be explained by game theory” meme can get a bit annoying and a gross simplification of human relationships.

The first volume also wove together other storylines: Hobo the half-chimp / half-bonobo. We find that story again in Watch. However, the Chinese storyline is remarkably absent from Watch. I’m guessing, it will be picked up in the third volume. It might be a matter of economy of storylines as the introduction of Watch (the US spying agency) takes quite a bit of space here. There is also more involvement from the characters of Caitlin’s parents.

As with Wake, Watch is still organized around the character of Caitlin Decter, the blind American teenager who gets her sight back thanks to a device from a Japanese scientist. Actually, she got more than her sight back. She can also “see” the web. In Watch, there is still quite a bot of space dedicated to her struggling with viewing and how it affects her relationships with her parents and friends… and boyfriend (the least interesting part of the book… but teenagers are notoriously uninteresting in that department).

Again, the most interesting part of the book, beyond being a great story, deals with questions of dealing with an Other, the nature of consciousness and human relationships. The book seamlessly weaves together great storytelling, science-fiction, philosophy and science and that makes it a real page-turner, again, more so, in my view, than Wake.

Needless to say, I can’t wait for the third volume.

Book Review – Julian Comstock

JC I am a huge fan of Robert Charles Wilson and still think Darwinia is one of the best books I have read (although Spin / Axis are right up there as well). So, it is with great anticipation that I started his latest novel, Julian Comstock – A Story of 22nd Century America.

As I have mentioned before in my review of Robert Sawyer’s Wake, Sawyer’s characters undergo an internal transformation that drives the story as they adapt to it and revise their outlook on their surroundings based on such transformation. RCW’s follow a somewhat opposite pattern: society or the planet change and the characters have to adapt to what is going on around them. Julian Comstock is no exception to this pattern.

JC’s 22nd century America (actually, the Earth) is environmentally devastated. The planet finally has run out of oil which triggered catastrophic conflicts, plagues, mass sterility and death and therefore major population reduction. In this context, human societies have regressed, having to give up most of the oil-related technology. The end of oil has meant major social, economic and political upheavals.

In the United States, political power is divided between the official power structure of the Executive and the Senate, and the unofficial authority of the Dominion, a theocratic organization that rules society and has engaged in tremendous historical revisionism and controls what gets published, and pretty much everything pertaining to culture and religion. Needless to say, it is extremely powerful and fundamentalist and often plays the role of Inquisition, with torture and all against those it defines as deviants.

Julian Comstock, the main character, is the nephew of the current President. Julian’s father, the brother of the President, a war hero, had been executed for treason on trumped charges as his brother feared his popularity. For fear for Julian’s safety, his mother sent him away under the protection and mentorship of a veteran soldier, Sam Godwin. It is in this exile in what is today Alberta. It is there that Julian meets the narrator of the story, Adam Hazzard. It is this threesome that the story follows.

22nd century America is a highly stratified and conflicted society. At the top are the Aristos, those who had property when society collapsed. Then are the leased people, those who lost everything in the collapse and had to sell their labor to the aristos. At the bottom are the indentured servants. This arrangement has the stamp of approval of the Dominion. It is a caste system based on a highly unequal distribution in an economy of scarcity.

On top of it, America is at war with what is now called Mittleeuropa over control of parts of Canada. Resource wars indeed. Julian, Sam and Adam get caught in their attempt to avoid drafting into the war and end up there anyway. Julian becomes a war hero and therefore a threat to his uncle who then puts him in charge a suicide operation with no reinforcement, hoping he will die. He does not but this last maneuver cost his uncle the loss of military support. He is deposed and Julian is appointed President in his place.

Julian always resented the Dominion for their suppression of the past and of knowledge, scientific or otherwise. As president, he takes it on. All the political maneuvering that is required to handle the different power groups (the Senate, the Dominion, and the military) take a toll on Julian and his presidency, along with his life, are short, having only managed to weaken the Dominion but not destroy it as he had hoped. This is a coming of age and its costs story not just for Julian but for Adam, the narrator as well. And Julian also has another reason to resent the Dominion. He is gay.

I was a bit disappointed by the book, compared to Spin and Axis, mostly because I did not care for war stuff and it was a bit repetitive at times. Also, some aspects of Julian’s rise and fall were predictable. I would have liked more social stuff and less war strategy stuff. I would have loved some narrative located in Colorado Springs, where the headquarters of the Dominion are located. Also, I would have liked more developments on what happened between the end of oil and Julian’s times. Some information is provided but not enough for my taste.

That being said, the book is a page-turner as all RCW’s books are and there is a compelling story. Some secondary characters (especially the women, Julian’s mother and Adam’s wife) are interesting as well and there is a lot to keep the sociologist’s interest. And, of course, little Atheist me loves Julian’s resentment of religious authority and theocratic imposition.

Book Review – Little Brother

LB Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is an anti-surveillance society manifesto for the post-9/11 era (since the regime of surveillance and secrecy has not ended with the end of the Bush administration and the taking over by the Obama administration. There are more continuities than ruptures there).

The premise of the book is that Marcus Yallow’s life changes dramatically once his city, San Francisco, is the target of a terrorist attacked. Marcus is a 17-year old computer wheez, much into computer games. He and his friends were participating in one when the terrorists hit the city and they end up arrested and mistreated by the Department of Homeland Security. After much humiliation and degradation, Marcus and some of his friends are released (one is disappeared though) on the condition that they will never talk about what was done to them.

Upon their release, they realized that the DHS is turning San Francisco into a police state where intense surveillance and mass arrest become the norm, in the name of security and protecting the populace against further terrorist attacks (sounds familiar?). Still reeling from his humiliation at the hands of the DHS, Marcus decides to start fighting back with the weapons he possesses: his computer skills. He does so first by creating a separate Internet, free from surveillance, and then by messing up the massive data mining program that the DHS has put in place. Escalation follows as the DHS intensifies its operations. And then, it’s war. A war fought by teenagers against the impersonal forces of the state. A war not just fought online but also in real life and whose description by Doctorow is not unsimilar to this classic of impersonal oppression against the people:

As he fights the DHS’s omnipresent (but not omnipotent) apparatus of surveillance, Marcus changes and reluctantly becomes the leader (as any hero does) of a typical New Social Movement. What is a New Social Movement? As I have written elsewhere,

The New Social Movements Theory emerged at the end of the 1960s to account for changes in the composition, focus and strategies in some social movements in the Western world (Melucci, 1989; McAdam et al, 1988; Larana et al, 1994; Scott, 1995). New social movements themselves are a response to the massive social changes brought about by globalization. New social movements are diverse but share common foci:

  • Focus on social and cultural issues instead of the economic issues of traditional social movements.

  • Focus quality of life (environment, peace) and self-determination (contemporary women’s rights, gay rights) because of roots in high-income countries where survival is a less important issue. Accordingly, members tend to reject bureaucratic organizations and adopt a more participatory style.

  • Distrust for authorities, the government, the business community or the scientific community; although they do not seek to overthrow the government or radically change the social order, movements challenge the legitimacy of institutions of power and promote their own experts (Garner, 1996) or create their own independent research institutes as Social Movement Organizations.

  • Focus on multiple issues seen as interdependent. For instance, the ecofeminist movement associates environmental issues with patriarchy (Merchant, 1992; Mies and Shiva, 1993), that is, male dominance in society. The environmental justice movement makes connections between environmental issues and race problems through the concept of “environmental racism”, a practice that puts minority groups more at risk of environmental damage than dominant racial or ethnic groups; for instance, more hazardous waste sites or chemical plants are located in minority areas (Bullard and Wright, 1992).

  • Similarly, labor rights integrate human rights considerations into their activism while new social movements link terrorism and the rise of religious fundamentalism to the overwhelming power and influence of western countries (the United States in particular) over poorer countries,

  • Both a global and local orientation, as reflected in the slogan “think global, act local,” that might be evidenced by championing both global environmental standards and local recycling regulations in their communities.

  • Efficient use of new communication technologies to establish global connections and networks; such global networks coordinated the massive demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, against the G8 Meeting in Genoa (Italy) in 2002 and the worldwide protests against the War in Iraq in 2003.

In the book, Marcus may be concerned with getting the DHS out of SanFran but his struggle is often couched in broader terms from the Bill of Rights to the debate regarding trading off freedom for security. In this regard, Doctorow could not help but put some archetypal characters to set up the debates for Marcus’s reflections: the "good" teacher who allows discussions in her classes about issues of constitutional freedoms and the power of the state in emergency situations versus the "bad" professor who shoves her neo-con ideas down everyone’s throat (with a visit to the evil Principal’s office if that does not work). There is no doubt where Doctorow stands on these issues.

Similarly, one can find a very Fanonian attitude in Marcus Yallow’s notion that freedom is not granted, it is taken. This is indeed one of Franz Fanon’s positions on decolonization: that the colonized had to take their freedom and not wait for it to be granted by the colonizers. But at the same time, Marcus is an American teenager, individualist to a "t" and reluctantly involved in the social movement he inadvertently created. Not to mention the fact that he is a Caucasian young man from a relatively privileged background whose parents have the right connections (to the right journalist, ultimately).

In other words, Marcus occupies a position of relative social privilege where fighting back is indeed an option (not necessarily available to his Latino friend, as he is reminded). Marcus’s movement is not that of the Wretched of the Earth but that of relatively privileged kids who can afford all sorts of electronic gadgets, all at ease in the Network Society.

And then, of course, the central theme of the book is fighting back against the Surveillance Society. I have written about it before, but just as a reminder:

The network society allows for the fast transmission of information. But what kind of information gets transmitted through information networks? A great deal of information flows relate to people in their statuses as citizens, workers and consumers. In post-industrial network societies, a great deal of activities from the state, employers and companies is devoted to collecting information about individuals to shape and influence behavior. This process of data-collection is now so thorough and widespread – thanks to information technology – that it is possible to talk about the network society as surveillance society. David Lyon defines surveillance as “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered” (2001:2). The expression “surveillance society” was coined by sociologist Gary Marx (1985) as “all-encompassing use of computer surveillance technology in modern society for total social control”.

Surveillance has always had two faces: care and control. Surveillance technology is often introduced in the name of security, to prevent all sorts of criminal and unacceptable behaviors in public and private places. Surveillance cameras are installed in malls, highways, in most large cities, in workplaces and schools in order to make people feel safer and prevent undesirable behaviors (the definition of which can vary). Behind the invocation of greater protection – care – however, the other side of surveillance is always present: behavior control.

In-store video-surveillance, closed-circuit television (CCTV), metal detectors, fingerprinting, drug and DNA testing, pre-employment personality and health screening, highway toll passes, credit cards, cookies, spyware, clickstream and more generally searchable databases are all technologies that make anonymity almost completely impossible. In this context, the rise of the surveillance society has generated concerns about privacy, but, as David Lyon correctly notes, privacy is an individual matter, rather, the omnipresence of surveillance is a social matter that has deeper implications than privacy.

A main social aspect of surveillance is its exponential growth thanks to information technologies. The state used to have almost a monopoly over surveillance. Most surveillance technology was used for state bureaucratic (social security numbers or national identification cards) and law enforcement purposes. In the current global context, surveillance has spread to practically all sectors of society as data flows move more freely from one area to another: for instance, employers can require criminal background checks on prospective employees from state databases. Conversely, in the United States, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, phone and cable companies may be required to turn over customer information to the government. As David Lyon (2001:33) puts it, “The notion of surveillance society indicates that surveillance activities have long since spilled over the edges of government bureaucracies to flood every conceivable social conduit”. As a result, many other social actors, such as businesses, have become involved in the creation or use of surveillance.

Surveillance has not only spread to the private sector but also gone global not because technology is available. Social factors are the driving force behind the expansion of surveillance. The first such factor is what David Lyon call “disappearing bodies.” Disappearing bodies refers to the fact that a significant part of our activities and interactions take place at the distance, without people actually being in each other’s presence. Electronic interactions and transactions make bodies disappear. Online shopping, instant messaging and live video streaming are all activities without physical space and bodies.

Such disembodiment of interaction raises issues of trust: how does an employer know that employees working from home are actually working? How does the online store know that the customer has enough credit for a purchase? Surveillance technology, such as performance tracking – technology allowing an employer to monitor keyboard and online activity – as well as instant credit verification keep track of individuals even in disembodied situations. Similarly, with more and more people on the move worldwide (business travelers, tourists, economic and political refugees and migrants), transit areas such as airport terminals have intensified their surveillance apparatus in order to keep track of increasingly mobile bodies. The trust issue has become especially crucial in the context of fear of terrorist attacks.

At the same time, our bodies have become increased objects of surveillance and information as well, mainly through biometrics – the range of technology used to measure human physical characteristics for identification purposes. Whether we want to or not, our bodies are major providers of surveillance data. The most traditional form of biometrics is fingerprinting as well as urine and blood tests.

However improvement in medical and surveillance technology have opened an entire new field of data that can be extracted from the body without our knowledge and not just for law enforcement purposes but as part of everyday surveillance. The body can be used as a form of identification: some international airports use retinal scan on foreign visitors. Corporations use voice recognition software. The body itself becomes a password. Mall and public places use facial recognition software for comparison with video surveillance images. Employers have access to medical record to determine the potential health risks posed by prospective employees. They may also impose constraints on their employees’ bodies by requiring that employees lose weight or not smoke. Of course, all these different technologies are produced by private companies in such a booming market that it is possible to speak of the rise of a security-industrial complex.

The emergence of the risk society is another major social factor that promoted the growth of surveillance. The global financial market is, by definition, unstable so investors rely on networked databases that can give them real time information on the different world stock exchanges as well as on wide ranges of economic indicators.

Politically, major areas of the world are in chaos and fears of global terrorism are high. To monitor and control such risks, core countries have established means of monitoring communications on a global scale – a process called “dataveillance”. Dataveillance refers to the “systematic monitoring of people’s actions or communications through the application of information technology” (Clarke, 1988). Giant databases have been created to intercept and process telephone conversations, faxes and emails that contain certain words or originate in parts of the world related to terrorism. Global agencies, such as INTERPOL, are in charge of such global surveillance.

Finally, many research institutes around the world monitor various ecological phenomena such as global warming or the hole in the ozone layer to predict future environmental conditions and their social impact. Most surveillance, public or private, has to do with managing risk in the sense that the more information is gathered by the right agencies, the more we can reduce uncertainties related to global conditions.

According to David Lyon (2001), the major social function of surveillance is as a sorting mechanism. Surveillance as social sorting refers to the use of data to identify, to classify, to order and to control entire populations: using searchable databases, such as zip codes and internet activities, “marketers sift and sort populations according to their spending patterns, then treat different clusters accordingly. Groups likely to be valuable to marketers get special attention, special deals, and efficient after-sales service, while others, not among the creamed-off categories, must make do with less information and inferior service” (Lyon, 2003:14).

This form of discrimination – also called digital redlining or weblining – reflects the use of surveillance to include or exclude entire populations from certain advantages. Based on information abstracted from databases, credit card companies can provide or deny access to credit. Insurance companies can also provide or refuse coverage is information reveals that certain categories of the population represent too high a risk. For instance, genetic testing that can potentially reveal a predisposition to certain incurable diseases, such as Huntington, can be used by health care providers to refuse coverage to individuals with the “wrong” genes.

At the same time, the use of searchable databases is used commercially to provide individualized service. For instance, many online stores, such as, automatically use purchase records to provide individualized recommendations and offers to their customers in hope of increasing the number of volumes purchased. In a sense, every online purchase made by an individual creates a sum of information regarding lifestyle, spending habits, hobbies and preferences. Such information, if used judiciously by marketers, creates a greater certainty of what this individual will buy in the future, thereby reducing the basic risk involved in any business: will people buy what a company offers? While mass advertising is still used, more and more businesses now use the wealth of information available in databases to provide individualized marketing.

As David Lyon (2003) puts it, the same surveillance technology creates categorical suspicion in one type of social situations – in law enforcement and security business – and categorical seduction in others – marketing. Categorical suspicion refers to the control function of surveillance whereby entire categories of people are subject to intensified surveillance due to their characteristics, such as Muslims and Arab travelers after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Categorical seduction refers to a similar process used in commerce to entice certain categories of shoppers (those with the “appropriate” credit level, lifestyle and buying habits) into particular forms of consumption. Both processes result in the blurring of the boundaries between public and private behavior creating what David Brin (1998) calls a transparent society. The concept of transparent society extends Goffman’s notion of total institution to the entire society. In such a society, there is no place to hide: the privacy of one’s home is an illusion as our most private environments are wired into global networks and even our bodies become providers of information fed into the global society.

The novel is indeed much focused on the mechanisms of the surveillance society but it is made clear in the book that the surveillance society had penetrated society long before the terrorist attacks. Indeed, the high school that Marcus goes to uses extensive surveillance technology to keep track of the students and their every movement (or their every keyboard stroke on their government-provided computers). Long before the terrorist attacks, Marcus was already fighting the surveillance system, which had put him in the principal’s cross-hair.

In Little Brother, surveillance takes the form of Foucault’s micro-power and biopower in the creation of a carceral society where large segments of the population (including Marcus’s father, up to a point) consent to their surveillance. With the means of 21st century technology, the carceral society no longer really requires the prison (except for the part of disciplining that has become hidden, the actual torturing… which used to be public). Moreover, with the multiplicity of technologies, loci of power have become multiplied and more micro, that is, applied to certain limited segments of behavior (such as gait, in the book).  Surveillance and disciplining power then become distributed throughout the social structure in the form of micro-power (multiple and limited loci of power) and bio-power (power involved in the management of the population and individual bodies). For more on this, check out the chapter on Foucault in Perspectives in Sociology (Cuff, Sharrock and Francis, 5th edition, 2006).

What is missing in the book, when it comes to the Surveillance Society, is the private sector part. In the book, the DHS / Federal government is the boogey man using surveillance mechanisms to oppress teenagers. However, private businesses use as much, if not more, surveillance mechanisms as the government. The private sector relies as much on biopower as the state, and it can be as much a source of oppression. So, while the government makes for an easy target, it is only part of the freedom battle (something that the Electronic Frontier Foundation understands and that is well described in Max Barry’s books as well). And indeed, individualized ICT gadgets constitute as much data for private corporations as they can be to the government. That part is missing from the book.

That being said, the book is highly entertaining and one will easily recognize real people behind some of the fictional characters and in many ways it reads as a version of what Doctorow thinks what should have had happened as one more piece of surveillance legislation was passed in the name of protection the masses from another 9/11. It did not happen, of course, as most of the population consented to the Patriot Act or extensive surveillance, or as it happened more progressively in England as more and more surveillance were installed across the country. Does Doctorow think salvation will come through computer-savvy teenagers?

Book Review – Why?

Why Charles Tilly’s Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons… And Why is an interesting departure from his usual writings. Readers of Tilly’s previous books are used to deep historical and comparative analyses of dynamics of contention or of democracy and state capacity. Why? is very different. It is a very Goffmanian book focusing on interactive dynamics and processes of reason-giving ("Human beings are reason-giving animals" writes Tilly, 8), rich in examples, and easy to read.

Tilly defines the thesis of his book as such:

"[This book] asks how, why, and in what different ways people supply reasons for the things they do, that others do, that happen to them, or that happen to other people – not so much grand general reasons for life, evil, or human frailty as the concrete reasons that different sorts of people supply or accept as they go about their daily business, deal with hardship, pass judgment on each other, or face emergencies such as the 9/11 disaster. (…) The book […] focuses on the social side of reason giving: how people share, communicate, contest, and collectively modify accepted reasons rather than how individual  nervous system process new information as it comes in." (9)

The focus of the book is then on the social process of giving reasons as part of common interactions. Indeed, one of Tilly’s central points is that giving reasons is a way of establishing, maintaining, reinforcing or contesting social relationships. The reasons we give, how we give or receive them, depends on the kinds of social relations between people.

Out of the diversity of reasons and social relations, Tilly identifies and distinguishes between four types reason-giving, used depending on the social relations between giver and receiver, as reason-giving is a process through which they confirm, negotiate or repair the connections between them.

  • Conventions : conventionally accepted reasons, "it was my turn", "traffic was bad", or "it was just luck.
  • Stories : explanatory narratives that include accounts of causality.
  • Codes : explanations based on legal judgments or religious dogma, for instance.
  • Technical Accounts : causal explanations based on specific expertise.

How each of these are used depends on the social interaction and social status and relationships between individuals involved. At the same time, which type of explanation is used has an effect on the social relationship between giver and receiver (confirmation, negotiation or repair).

Conventions do not provide cause-effect accounts. They are quick ways of explaining (away) social deviation. We, teachers, have heard our lot of conventional explanations as to why assignments are turned in late. Conventions are used in cases of conventional breach of folkways, little acts of deviance such as why we’re a few minutes late for a meeting.

Stories are used for exceptional events and unfamiliar phenomena and they do provide cause-effect accounts. Moreover, stories often include attribution of responsibility for the state of affair to be explained and therefore include a moral component (who was to blame, who behaved heroically, who behaved badly). However, stories are culturally-embedded. The same narratives tend to come up over and over again as stories trim down and simplify actors, motives and responsibilities whose weight is overestimated while errors and circumstances or luck are downplayed.

Codes refer to rules rather than accounts of cause and effect. References to the law or religious dogma or military regulations are of this kind. What is accounted for then is how much events and actions conformed to, or departed from, established rules.

Technical accounts identify cause and effect mechanisms through expert knowledge. The nature of the explanations will depend on whose expertise is invoked.

These different forms of reason-giving can be summarized as such:

Popular Specialized
Formulas Conventions Codes
Cause-Effect Accounts Stories Technical Accounts

"Popular" means widely accessible while "specialized" means that education or training is necessary to understand these accounts. Formulas refers to explanations where appropriateness (or closeness to a code or convention) is more important than establishing cause and effect.

All these forms of reason-giving do relational work. They can confirm the relationship between giver and receiver, as when the reason is accepted as such. They can establish a relationship when reason is given between unrelated individuals. They can negotiate relationship as when codes or technical accounts are used as a way of establishing one’s expertise in a the relationship. Or they can repair relationships especially when reason-giving aims at explaining harm inflicted on the receiver.

And as always, in social relationships, power and inequalities matter:

"Reason giving resembles what happens when people deal with unequal social relations in general. Participants in unequal social relations may detect, confirm, reinforce, or challenge them, but as they do so they deploy modes of communication that signal which of these things they are doing. In fact, the ability to give reasons without challenge usually accompanies a position of power. (…) Whatever else happens in the giving of reasons, givers and receivers are negotiating definitions of their equality or inequality." (24-5)

For instance, using formulas rather than cause and effect account may be a mark of power where there is no need for further explanation. And receivers may challenge such accounts by demanding cause and effect reasons but how forcefully such a challenge is made is also a function of the (in)equality of the relationship between giver and receiver.

Based on this typology, then, Tilly proceeds to detailed accounts of how each mode of explanation operates through a variety of everyday examples. For instance, for conventions,

"Good etiquette incorporates conventional reasons. The reasons need not be true, but they must fit the circumstances. On the whole, furthermore, in most circumstances that require polite behavior conventions work better than stories, codes or technical accounts, which would only complicate the interchange. Conventions confirm or repair social relations." (33)

This leads to another important topic: it is a competence to be able to identify which type of explanation to provide depending on the type of situations. Because reasons justify practices, supplying inappropriate reasons disrupts social life. This is indeed a very Goffmanian analysis of the social actor as competent reason-giver. The ability to provide the appropriate reasons is a sign of social competence. Failure to do so cause embarrassment and will entail some face-repairing work (which itself will require reason-giving to reestablish the competence of the actor) that will interrupt the flow of social interaction.

But Tilly takes this a step further:

"Reason giving always defines, or redefines, the relationship between the parties. More precisely, it distinguishes the relationship between the parties from other relationships with which it would be risky, costly, confusing, or embarrassing to confuse it." (39)

Reason-giving is then also boundary-marking. As such, reason-giving has consequences for action and subsequent interactions.

Regarding stories:

"Stories provide simplified cause-effect accounts of puzzling, unexpected, dramatic, problematic, or exemplary events. Relying on widely available knowledge rather than technical expertise, they help make the world intelligible. (…) They often carry an edge of justification or condemnation." (64)

Again, cultures provides a limited narrative repertoire that actors can tap into in the formatting and customizing of their stories but these accounts often come from the same cultural matrix or template. As above, knowing when to provide a story-as-reason is a social competence that requires crafting a cast of character and sequences of events that lead to a moral conclusion where credit and blame get allocated. In our culture, individual credit and blame are the norm. And here as well, power matters, socially-inferior story-givers have to provide more elaborate narrative that incorporates greater self-justification.

Not only do stories contain moral elements, they also incorporate rhetorical components as well in that they strive to persuade the receiver of whatever excuses, apologies or condemnations they contain.

As for codes,

"Reasons based on conventions draw on widely available formulas to explain or justify actions, but include little or no cause-effect reasoning. Story-based reasons, in contrast, build on simplified cause-effect accounts by means of idioms that many people in the same culture can grasp. Reasons stemming from technical accounts likewise invoke cause and effect, but rely on specialized disciplines and claim to present comprehensive explanations. When it comes to codes, reasons given for actions cite their conformity to specialized sets of categories, procedures for ordering evidence, and rules of interpretation. Together, categories, procedures and rules make up codes." (101-2)

Indeed, take the Oscar Grant deadly shooting, most analysis focuses on whether the BART cop who shot Grant conformed to the code (the rules regarding the use of force and its escalation). What will probably be debated in courts will be how closely he followed such rules or whether he departed from them. Based on such an analysis, blame will be allocated (and potentially, social sanctions).

Codes are an especially important form of reason-giving in formal organizations and bureaucratic environments where rules and regulations are essential to the life of the organizations.

The quote above already nicely defined technical accounts (cause-effect + specialized knowledge + jargon accessible to whoever is qualified and trained). Power is essential here as well as the display of specialized knowledge using the lingua of the specific discipline mark the in-group / out-group boundaries and excludes whoever does not possess such technical knowledge. Using technical accounts is an assertion of authority.

Tilly concludes his book by raising a specific problem for public sociology (or whoever teaches introduction to sociology courses):

"Social scientists face a distinctive problem. (…) They claim to describe and explain the same social processes that nonspecialists habitually treat by means of conventions and stories. Hence a bundle of problems for social scientists: they are commonly proposing explanations of the very same behaviors and outcomes for which people learn early in life to give accounts in the modes of conventions, stories and codes. (…) As researchers, authors, teachers, and participants in public discussion, social scientists therefore find themselves causing offense and cultivating disbelief. In any case, they rarely reach general audiences with their technical accounts." (176)

Food for thought for all socbloggers.