Michael Watts on the Oil Complex

Via Africa is a Country, do yourself a favor and watch this lecture of UC Berkeley geographer Michael Watts:

Keep in mind the petro-state as rentier state in the oil complex as state-owned companies make Exxon and others, as Watts say, look like little start-ups. And who says rent-based means corruption, bloated and inefficient operations dedicated to managing surplus.

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.

Corruption 2010

Transparency International has just published its 2010 Corruption Perception Index, as it does every year. Keep in mind that the CPI only measures public corruption, not private one:

Transparency International(TI) defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. This definition encompasses corrupt practices in both the public and private sectors. The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) ranks countries according to the perception of corruption in the public sector. The CPI is an aggregate indicator that combines different sources of information about corruption, making it possible to compare countries.

The 2010 CPI draws on different assessments and business opinion surveys carried out by independent and reputable institutions. It captures information about the administrative and political aspects of corruption. Broadly speaking, the surveys and assessments used to compile the index include questions relating to bribery of public officials, kickbacks in public procurement, embezzlement of public funds, and questions that probe the strength and effectiveness of public sector anti-corruption efforts.

For a country or territory to be included in the index a minimum of three of the sources that TI uses must assess that country. Thus inclusion in the index depends solely on the availability of information.

Perceptions are used because corruption – whether frequency or amount – is to a great extent a hidden activity that is difficult to measure. Over time, perceptions have proved to be a reliable estimate of corruption. Measuring scandals, investigations or prosecutions, while offering ‘non-perception’ data, reflect less on the prevalence of corruption in a country and more on other factors, such as freedom of the press or the efficiency of the judicial system. TI considers it of critical importance to measure both corruption and integrity, and to do so in the public and private sectors at global, national and local levels. The CPI is therefore one of many TI measurement tools that serve the fight against corruption.”

The results (click on the link for interactive features):

And by country:


The United States clocks in at 22.

I personally like this illustration:

Corruption 2010

Sociology of The World Cup – Capitalist Pigs and Political Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

He gives this example:

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – To Inherit The Earth

Wendy Wolford and Angus Lindsay Wright’s To Inherit The Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil is the perfect introduction to the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST).

The book is roughly divided into four main sections. The first goes through a general political history of Brazil along with its Portuguese colonization and how it ended up with the large-scale plantation system which is at the source of the demand for agrarian reform. The agricultural situation is tied not only to colonial development but also to the subsequent governments, especially the military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s, which is when the MST was officially founded (1982), following the first occupations of land.

The other sections of the book cover MST occupations and settlements in different Brazilian states, from the Southern states, where the MST originated, to the Northeastern state where sugar was traditionally grown, at the expenses of the coastal rain forest, to the Amazonian states where deforestation has accompanied mining and ranching.

There is no question that the authors are sympathetic to the MST’s goals and approach (occupation and push for expropriation under a constitutional provision stating that land has to be used productively, and promotion of ecological and environment-friendly agriculture that minimizes deforestation and land degradation). The book provides lengthy descriptions of life in MST settlements along with interviews from various MST local leaders and settlers.

The history of the MST is also the story of a social movement confronting established social structures, power and economic differentials and violence. In its struggle for land reform and redistribution, the MST has confronted local rural elites (large plantation / mine owners) that wield so much power in Brazil so much so that it is difficult even for the now-democratic government to impose reform. But the MST has also had to fight local, state and national governments for  the fulfillment of promised support for the settlers. In some cases, the movement has also been faced with violence, mostly from the rural elites. Local politics, in Brazil, can get nasty.

The MST struggle is also part to the general anti-neoliberal globalization that has promoted chemical- and capital-intensive, export-based, monocultural agriculture so dear to the IMF, the World Bank  and the World Trade Organization (competitive advantage) while the MST promotes small-scale, communal, diversified and sustainable agriculture. So far, the Brazilian administrations have followed the lead from these global institutions. As the authors explain well, this has to do with the fact that the Brazilian government does not see land reform as agricultural policy but as social policy: finding something to do with the rural poor but not as a sustainable form of agriculture. From the government’s perspective, “serious” agriculture is large-scale, chemical-dependent and energy-intensive, and for exports whereas land reform is an anti-poverty program. For the MST, agrarian reform is agricultural policy but also the first step into changing the caste-like Brazilian social structure.

The MST also has had to position itself within Brazilian politics. It is not a political party (nor does it intend to become one), but it has ties to Lula’s Workers Party, and it has found itself sometimes in competition or conflict with traditional rural unions that are often part of the patronage structure that is so hard to eradicate in rural Brazil.

Finally, the MST struggle must also be interpreted as part of the global peasant rebellion movements against neoliberal agriculture that eliminates small-scale farming and subsistence agriculture. The national and local contexts may be different but the MST goals are not all that different from that of ATTAC or La Via Campesina in the pursuit of agricultural policy based on solidarity economics.

In other words, the MST stands at the crossroads of many local, national, regional and global dynamics. One cannot understand it without understanding Brazilian colonization and development, its politics alongside regional issues in South America and the global context of neoliberalism as well as the local dynamics of rural communities in Brazil and the power of large landholders and corporations.

The book is an easy read, clearly not written for an academic audience for more for the general public. AS I mentioned above, it is especially good for people who know nothing of the MST or Brazil in general beyond the Rio carnival and the touristic images.

Re-post – When Corruption Sustains Institutions

In light of yesterday’s post on the publication of the latest Corruption Perception Index, and the sorry state of affairs in Afghanistan (which earned the next to last spot with only Somalia faring worse) as described in the BBC today. One notes three traits in corrupt practices in Afghanistan:

And the second one

And the third one

To broaden the discussion, let me re-post my summary of Keith Darden’s article:

Keith Darden has a pretty interesting article in Politics & Society (Vol. 36, No. 1, March 2008, 35-60), titled The Integrity of Corrupt States: Graft as an Informal State Institution (abstract).

In this article, Darden sets out to refute the common assumption that widespread corruption and graft are indicators of institutional breakdowns which result in ineffective states. While this assumption is not entirely untrue, Darden notes that there exists a fairly large set of states with widespread corruption AND functioning state institutions.

“I argue that graft often serves as a form of unofficial compensation that reinforces rather than undermines the formal institutions of the state and can provide leaders with additional means to control subordinate officials. In sum, despite the deleterious effect that graft may have on democracy and economic development, there are circumstances under which graft may reinforce the state’s administrative hierarchies.” (36)

In which case, Darden speaks of institutionalized graft.

In this article, Darden eschews the never-ending debate on the definition of the state by focusing on one specific aspect that the major schools of thought on the subject recognizes:

“The institutional mechanisms used to secure the loyalty and obedience of officials with the state’s administrative hierarchies.” (37)

Any state form needs to be able to extract compliance from state officials in order to fulfill such functions as tax collection or the maintenance of law and order in addition to the provision of other services. What is the role of graft in this? As Darden explains, the major support for the theory of graft as state-weakening comes from the agency theories of economics. In this perspective, graft is a violation of the basic contract between state leaders and state officials when the latter substitute personal financial enrichment for the fulfillment of their stately tasks against a salary. And officials do so especially when they know that the systems of surveillance and sanctions are defective. Hence the lack of effectiveness of the state.

For Darden, this is not an entirely false picture but it is not the entire story and it is based on a narrow conception of state institutional form: the Weberian bureaucracy with all its well-known characteristics, a model which works well for the established Western democracies but not beyond those.

“It is not difficult to find cases where (1) graft is allowed as part of an informal agreement or contract between leaders and their subordinates, or, (2) the state is not grounded in the rule of law and functions largely through informal institutions – stable rules that are not written down or codified as law. (…) Corrupt practices and other violations of the law may signal the absence of a Weberian bureaucracy but do not necessarily imply absence or weakness of administrative hierarchy. It is possible to achieve a stable administrative hierarchy without the law-based bureaucracy that Weber saw as typical of modern organization or the web of personal obligations of traditional rule.” (38)

For Darden, a fairly large number of countries fall into that category (widespread graft + robust state capacities and hierarchies) based on the 2003 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI 2008).

The CPI is considered one of the most reliable analytical measure of corruption at the global level. Countries are ranked based on a score between 0 and 10 where 0-3 is considered most corrupt and 7-10 least corrupt. Among such states with high corruption and high state capacity, we find Algeria, Kenya, Nicaragua, Romania, Russia, Papua New Guinea, and Ukraine.

When it comes to graft, Darden distinguishes between three types of graft in relation to the state:

  1. State-weakening graft: graft that undermines administrative hierarchies.

    “Graft unconditionally weakens the administrative hierarchy when it serves to buy disobedience – when officials take “a remuneration for what you are not supposed to do.” (…) In such cases, the role of graft follows precisely the logic identified by agency theorists.” (41)

  2. State-benign graft: graft that has no effect on administrative hierarchies.

    “Some forms of graft may have little effect on the functioning of the administrative hierarchy – it plays little role in determining whether officials loyally perform their obligations. It is simply a form of theft. This is common in environments where bribery takes the form of a convention, and officials receive additional informal payment for tasks that they are obligated to perform anyway. If everyone knows that bribes must be paid for officials to perform their functions and everyone pays bribes as a result (assuming that all can afford to do so), then a graft-ridden state of this type differs from a functioning graft-free bureaucracy only in the way that private wealth is distributed (it is reallocated from citizens to officials). Graft is “benign” in these cases only in the sense that it neither enhances nor undermines loyalty in the administrative hierarchy of the state.” (41)

  3. State-strengthening graft: graft that reinforces administrative hierarchies

    “In such cases, administrative compliance is based on an informal contract between state leaders and their subordinates in which graft plays a critical role. In contrast to the benign case, state-reinforcing graft provides the basis, in whole or in part, for official loyalty and obedience. The illegal practices we identify as corruption reflect the fulfillment rather than the violation of an informal “contract.”” (41)

And he identifies two mechanisms related to state-strengthening graft as a means to obtain compliance.

  1. Graft can serve as an alternative mode of compensation or as a second salary. The proceeds of theft or embezzlement or bribery are distributed to carry out the duties of the state. It is graft that guarantees the effective functioning of the state.

  2. Graft provides state leaders with means of coercion over their subordinates. If the officials do not fulfill their end of the bargain (discharge their official state duties in an efficient manner), they risk losing not only the money they get from graft but potentially to be among the few prosecuted and incarcerated for corruption.

“State leaders must be able to monitor their subordinates (1) to ensure that they are complying with directives, (2) to guarantee that they take no more than the allotted amounts, and also (3) to maintain a complete record of their illegal activities in the event that sanctions should be required.” (43)

For Darden, it is important to note that such a state would still fit the Weberian characteristics of monopoly, hierarchy and impersonal authority. Such a state is able to function relatively effectively in terms of waging war, maintaining law and order, managing infrastructures and institutions, controlling political dissent, etc. Darden illustrates such state-effectiveness with the very enlightening (and entertaining) example of Ukraine under the rule of Leonid Kuchma. Such a study is made possible due to the fact that Kuchma’s interactions were recorded by a member of his security detail. These recordings allow access to the inner mechanisms of state-strengthening graft. Through them, we can see the different aspects of graft and its management in Ukraine.

In the case of Ukraine, the system of state-strengthening graft is accompanied by strict monitoring (to make sure that officials do not take more than their cut and adequately cover their tracks), intensive surveillance (another well-functioning state apparatus), and permits widespread intimidation and enforcement.

In the Ukrainian case, Darden identifies four types of officials:

  1. Criminal: those whose loyalty lies outside of the state structure, such as gang members.

  2. Selfish: those who are in it for personal enrichment and tend to take more than their share.

  3. Disloyal: those who secretly support political rivals.

  4. Compliant: those who conform to the state hierarchy.

The first three categories are those who can expect sanctions from the state as a result of extensive surveillance. The compliants reap the rewards of their loyalty but they are also subject to monitoring (precisely to ensure their compliance). Such extensive state-surveillance apparatus seems to be especially present in the former republics of the USSR, as legacy from that regime.

The massive use of surveillance for political repression and the mobilization of officials to “get the votes” when election time comes explains the stability and resilience of such states and regimes. Their weakness is that everyone knows what is going on and these regimes tend to be highly unpopular (see the Orange Revolution in late 2004 – 2005). Pakistan under Ali Bhutto and Peru under Fujimori are other good examples.

But the main point stands, there is no necessary negative correlation between graft and state capacity. As Darden concludes:

“This alternative view of the relationship between graft and the state may explain both the pervasiveness of graft and the objective stability of states that were hitherto classified as weak. If the pervasiveness of corrupt practices only signaled the breakdown of political authority, then political leaders would have clear incentives to overcome it, but if graft plays an important role in the informal institutions of state administration and political domination, then leaders have every incentive to sustain it.” (54)

Corruption Around The World

Transparency International has just published its 2009 Corruption Perception Index and as usual, it is a valuable source of information.

First, the usual animated map:

The Top 10 (least corrupt countries):

No real surprise here.

And the bottom ten (most corrupt countries):

No surprises here either. As noted, war-torn countries are characterized by failing states, bad or non-existent governance.

This video is interesting as well as it addresses the issues of massive disbursements of monies to banks by states as part of stimulus policies:

When it comes to corruption, what afflicts poor countries:

And what afflicts middle and high-income countries as well:

Women of Afghanistan

Via Glenn Greenwald. For those of us who fear that leaving Afghanistan would mean turning the country back over to the Taliban, here are the words of Malalai Joya regarding the situation there. She is pretty clear: the US / Nato forces have to go. The women of Afghanistan are screwed no matter what.

Here is a recent interview Joya gave to CNN (watch the idiot CNN anchor squirm when confronted with some straight talk from Joya):

And here is the Now on PBS program devoted to Joya:

Book Review – Bad Samaritans

Bad SamaritansHa-Joon Chang‘s Bad Samaritans – The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & The Threat To Global Prosperity is not an anti-trade, anti-globalization or even anti-capitalist book. It is more a primer on global economic and global governance processes from the perspective of the Global South as well as an anti-hypocrisy manifesto.

Chang’s book then explores the workings of multilateral institutions (WTO, WB and IMF) and exposes the double standards they impose on countries of the Global South through regulations and conditions that countries of the Global North never followed themselves on their path to economic development. Quite the opposite, actually. And yet, the proponents of neo-liberalization (often operating from the multilateral institutions) behave as if the story of development was one of uninterrupted liberalization and pure free market rule.

Indeed, as Chang demonstrates, this is not the case. Chang illustrates this, for instance, with the fact that it was the first Secretary of the US Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who came up with the concept of ‘infant industry’. The concept covers the idea that emerging industries should be protected through a variety if regulations until they are strong enough to face competition on the then-international (now global) market. Chang further shows that Western countries indeed exercised enormous protectionism to shield their industries throughout their development. Only once they felt these industries could become internationally dominant did they open their market to international competition.

And yet, the multilateral institutions demand that countries of the Global South open their market, often unconditionally, to global competition and foreign investments without giving these countries the time not just to develop their own infant industries, but even without the solidification of social institutions necessary for a functioning market. The results have been expectedly disastrous, as these institutions themselves have begun to acknowledge.

And let’s not forget the massive agricultural subsidies and intellectual property regulations that countries of the Global North are able to marshal through multilateral institutions while countries of the Global South are prevented from enacting similar measures and sanctioned for doing so.

These few remarks suffice to show that Change is not anti-capitalist or anti-global trade. As mentioned before, he is anti-hypocrisy and double standards. His perspective is more akin to what Manuel Castells calls the “developmental state” (as opposed to “statist” which applies to the former USSR, for instance). Being Korean, it is not a surprise for Chang to adopt such a perspective. Castells indeed demonstrates that the success of the Asian Tigers (Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, for instance) was based not on openness to the global market but on the support of the developmental state.

All of these countries have had majorly interventionist governments throughout their developmental years. During these years, the developmental states nurtured infant industries, allowing them to not be profitable while growing (Toyota, for instance, was a quasi-bankrupt company for a long time… so was Nokia, for about 17 years). The developmental states limited foreign investment and directed it into specific industries, imposed strong barriers. These countries slowly and progressively opened to the global market when they were ready. For instance, Korea progressively privatized industries once those proved competitive under government ownership. Indeed, the developmental state has been historically the most successful model for economic development.

Based on a developmental conception of the state, Chang then proceeds to debunk, with data, the major tenets of the neo-liberal dogma (as it is promoted with the zeal of religious dogma by the “bad samaritans”). For instance, the idea that government is always less efficient than the market (the current debate about health care in the US provides a nice example of the opposite). Chang also challenges the pillars of modernization theory, especially on the cultural deterministic conception of economic development.

Most of all, Chang’s book is a fairly thorough, data-based, balanced and very readable primer on the global economy, economic history, and global governance. It provides multiple examples from all over the world to expose the basic unfairness of the current regulatory regime (to use Alain Lipietz’s concept).

And, of course, how can one not enjoy a major take-down of Thomas Friedman (although it is like shooting fish in a barrel at this point)?

Many points that Chang makes will be familiar with readers of Manuel Castells (as mentioned above), Joseph Stiglitz or Amartya Sen. Readers will find the same concern for social justice based on rigorous economic analysis. At the same time, Chang also involves social and political factors as they, of course, influence economic decision making and as part of the global governance regime.

For instance, politics and governmentality is important when discussing corruption, often used as a convenient excuse to maintain unfair terms of trade and insufficient levels of aid. Here, to use again one of Manuel Castells’s concept, Chang explores the important of the “Predatory State” as a major explanation for African issues. There is no doubt that African nations have had their share of corrupt dictators that used the means of the state to engage in systematic looting (along with major violations of human rights) of their countries. But here again comes the hypocrisy of Western nations: many of these dictators were installed and supported, often by their former colonizers as part of the neo0colonialist regime. And quite often then, Western nations, now so concerned about corruption, turned a blind eye when a favored dictator engaged in questionable practices.

At the same time, in many developing countries, corruption is what makes things work (something I already discussed here) in the absence of fully developed social institutions regulating social life. And as Chang demonstrates, corruption, in that context, can sometimes even have positive effects on economy and development. So, here again, a balanced view is de rigueur.

This case illustrates as well another failing of the current global governance regime: its imposition of one-size-fit-all programs on developing countries (for instance, through structural adjustment programs) even though the situations in which developing countries find themselves vary wildly.

As I said, one of the strong points of this book is how highly readable it is considering the topic and considering how chock full of data and case studies it is. It addresses all the major issues of the current global system and it is especially relevant in the current context.

Lessons Not Learned From The No-Fault Society

In a previous post, I mentioned being intrigued by the concept of no-fault society developed by Mark Jacobs. So, I went and dug up the relevant article on this (or rather, I let my excellent librarians do the work of getting the article for me, which they did, in 24 hours… pretty amazing). So, without further ado:

Mark D. Jacobs (2004), "The Culture of Savings and Loan Scandal in the No-Fault Society", in Mark D. Jacobs and Nancy Weiss Hanrahan, The Blackwell Companion to The Sociology of Culture, Blackwell Publishers (now Wiley… more publishing consolidation and conglomeration), pp. 364 – 380.

I have to say that not everything was useful in this article. For instance, the author makes a big deal of the use of the Sartrian notion of bad faith to explain scandals but it did not seem to me to bring anything really new to the discussion. I was more interested in what no-fault society aspects and to see if there were parallels between the Savings and Loan scandal and the current crisis. I’ll just extract the aspects of the article I found useful.

On general considerations of scandals, I liked the idea of scandal as "germinating" at the interstices (my word, not Jacobs’s who uses fault lines rather) of different spheres such as business and politics or within spheres, such as politics where the interstices are between public and private, between government branches, or political parties or within business between private profit and public regulation, more generally between the local and the global, etc. Scandals emerge in these cracks.

Of course, scandals also emerge at the intersection of money, power and sex, where each can be exchanged for the other.

Jacobs asserts that scandals are also more likely to emerge in deeply divided societies and states quite accurately, I think,

"Scandals can be understood, in part, as culture wars by other means." (368)

Scandals also emerge within structural and institutional conditions that promote or deter the burgeoning of scandals based on whether norms are strictly or loosely enforced within organizations, for instance.

There are also no scandals without publicity and media attention. The mass media are not just amplifiers, they are institutions with their own logic and dynamics and they also act as narrative-builders and propagators. And, of course, the media selects which "affairs" (in a broad sense) will be given the label scandal (classical social constructionist approach here).

Finally, scandals are intertextual spectacles.

"Scandals are melodramatic spectacles whose rhythms follow patterns of revelation, attempted coverup, investigation, prosecution, and apparent reform. As Lang and Lang (1983) suggest, scandals are cultural objects generated by transgression, publicized by the media, adjudged by public opinion, and kept alive by collective memory. (…) Collective memory helps form – and forms around – the comprehension of scandals not just as discrete events, but as moments in the series of scandals. That is, the narrative of understanding of scandal is intertextual: scandals are understood in relation to each other, with the interpretation of earlier ones at once helping to shape, and being reshaped by, that of later ones ." (369-70)

This last point seems very important to me.

For the author, the S&L scandal is the one that got away. It is a scandal that received much less publicity than it should have, compared to, say, Watergate or even Iran-Contra. As such, for Jacobs, it is a good illustration of the no-fault society.

The no-fault society is characterized by three structural conditions:

  1. Constrictive individualism: deregulation is detrimental to business community focus (the S&L turned away from community developments to go for juicier investments) and fosters greater individualism. Financial instruments are created to feed the demand of these individual economic actors (and S&L was before the major impact of retirement and pension funds and 401ks).

  2. Blurring of the public and the private: then, as now, profits were privatized, losses were socialized under the aegis of the government acting on behalf of private interests.

  3. Laxity of the rule of law: self-explanatory.

As a result, the mechanisms of accountability are either dismantled or inoperative. Hence, the no-fault society. Very few of the major S&L participants were held accountable. Only a few individuals are held up as examples (See, Madoff, Bernie) to give the illusion of some justice. It worked something like this:

"Participants in this scandal embraced the strategies of both contentious and collaborative evasion. Legislators, lobbyists, members of oversight committees, thrifts owners, merchant bankers, junk-bond speculators, regulators, lawyers, accountants, appraisers, real-estate developers, and loan brokers all participated in an intricate web of diffused responsibility – as did, not least, racketeers. Actors contended to evade accountability through strategies of both reciprocal inculpation and mutual exculpation. The manifest content of their accounts displaced blame onto others, and sought constantly to reframe the modes of accountability." (376-7)

Fast-forward to today and we all witnessed the same people as above blaming the sub-prime mess as the fault of regulations that forced mortgage lenders to loan money to black people who could not afford these loans.

But the big question, for Jacobs, is why the scandal was not bigger (why did the dog not bark, in his words). The explanation goes like this:

"While socializing the costs of embezzlement and fraudulent financial speculation, the government privatized and deferred the costs of the bailout though the issuance of long-term bonds (Zimring and Hawkins, 1993). The bailout costs did not enter into calculations of the federal budget deficit. This strategy accords with Habermas’s analysis of the displacement of action-spheres as a way of camouflaging the legitimation crisis of the modern welfare state. In effect, through the issuance of bonds, the government found an economic solution to a political problem – after straining the political system to find a solution for an economic one." (377)

Sounds familiar?

In addition, such large financial scandals do not make for good media drama. They are too complicated. Who wants to listen to complex description of financial instruments. In the end, again, a few individual cases have to do (the Keating 5, Martha Stewart, or again Bernie Madoff). Without a dramatic structure of heroes and villains, smoking guns and clean resolutions, there is not much momentum that the media can generate and hold on to. (Although, personally, I’d put Elizabeth Warren in the heroic part)

Compared to S&L, Watergate made for good drama, so did Iran-Contra with public hearings that were watched like a Perry Mason mystery. This spectacular aspect of the Iran-Contra scandal was particularly well studied by Michael Lynch and David Bogen in The Spectacle of History: Speech, Text, and Memory at the Iran-Contra Hearings.

As a general rule, scandals that can sensationalized will receive greater treatment than those who lack these components. So, extra-marital affairs by politicians become easily scripted (the leaks, the clues, the discovery, the denial, the coverup, the admission, the tearful confession, the redemption). The problem is that in the grans scheme of things, these scandals are trivial and distract from the scandals that have more structural and systemic impacts.

In the context of the culture war, it means that while we focus on the sex, money and power nexus and poke fun at disgraced politicians and their kinky business, we distract ourselves from the scandals whose serious investigations would make us question the foundations of our socio-economic-political systems and therefore have the potential to threaten social arrangements. And we can’t have that, can we? Hey, look! Over there, Sarah Palin!

Confusing Cause and Effect – Corruption

"Corruption is a big problem in many developing countries. But the Bad Samaritans are using it as a convenient justification for the reduction of their aid commitments, despite the fact that cutting aid will hurt the poor more than it will a country’s dishonest leaders, especially in the poorest countries (…). Moreover, they are increasingly using corruption as an ‘explanation’ for the failures of the neo-liberal policies that they have promoted over the past two and a half decades. Those policies have failed because they were wrong, not because they have been overwhelmed by local anti-developmental factors, like corruption or ‘wrong’ culture, contrary to what is becoming increasingly popular to argue among the Bad Samaritans." (161)

Ha-Joon Chang (2008), Bad Samaritans – The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & The Threat to Global Prosperity, London: Random House.

As I have written before, Africa is poor because it is corrupt. This one is actually the latest version of the old racist prejudice that Africans cannot govern themselves. The quality of governance in Africa is low, but it is so in all poor countries. This argument gets the causality wrong: Africa is not poor because it is corrupt; it is corrupt because it is poor. It is higher incomes in a country that improve governance for two major reasons:

(1) a more affluent society is also more educated. People are able to be informed about government’s doing and can exercise oversight. Media and telecommunication technology support such a role (as illustrated by the role of bloggers in American elections;

(2) a richer society also can afford better governance. A richer population generates more money through taxes. Civil servants are better educated so that public administrations are managed more competently and openly. Most African countries are too poor to afford high-quality governance but they are no more corrupt than other countries at the same income level.

Good governance is a luxury and a product of economic development rather than an absolute pre-condition for it.

Who Killed Pasolini, Then? It May Be About Oil

Really? Oil? Oh and political assassination is not excluded either.

I love Pasolini’s novels and films of the neorealistic style. I have more difficulties with his latter work, culminating with Salo. I get the whole "fascism = perversion" thing but it is still disturbing to watch. Politics, religion, violence and sexuality were always intertwined in Pasolini’s work. In a  way, his murder was the culmination of this view. Pasolini was not just killed, his body was thoroughly mutilated.


There was always a lot of skepticism regarding the official explanation (homosexual quarrel). But now, the man convicted of his murder seems to be singing like a bird, but not really in a coherent fashion. Better clues are found in Pasolini’s posthumous book and other writings.

Needless to say, this is a story with a big potential to become a political and Mafia-related scandal but then, the post-War Italian Republic already has a lot of that.

The Global Fluidity of Cocaine Trafficking

A while back, Joseph Kirschke wrote a series of articles on the global reconfiguration of the cocaine trafficking as global flow whose fluidity allows it to reorganize itself when conditions require.

In this three-part series, he depicts a trafficking that is responsive to fluctuations in supply (as the Colombian cartels lost their absolute control over the traffic), distribution (as the US tightened its policies) and demand (which is soaring in Europe). All these conditions created the need for new routes for shipments to now go from Brazil and Venezuela to West African Gold Coast, and then on to Western Europe.

Additionally, the liquidity of this global traffic also adapts to changing economic conditions (for instance, as organized criminal groups switch from the US dollar to the Euro when it becomes more profitable to do so), racial profiling at border points (by switching from African mules – women – to white ones) and adapts to a variety of political realities in West Africa (by using failed states like Guinea-Bissau, recovering states like Sierra Leone or Liberia or mature democracies like Ghana).

The series also underlines the difficulties in establishing global governance in terms of trafficking as national considerations still largely prevail when it comes to law enforcement… and in places like Guinea-Bissau, law enforcement means corruption.

So, without further ado, part 1 lays out a general description of the changing nature of the traffic, focusing largely on the Gold Coast and especially Guinea-Bissau:

Part 2 gets into more specific instances of the impact of drug trafficking on the countries being now dragged into this global flow:

Part 3 focuses on Venezuela’s involvement in the traffic as Colombia’s cartels lost their grip on the business:

The whole thing is worth reading.

Blood Diamonds of Zimbabwe

Of course, Mugabe kept control of the police and military… which means reform is very unlikely. And military control over the diamond mines means that the potential revenues that should flow into government coffers are being siphoned into the pockets of Mugabe supporters and cronies.

This is only one item that reveals the ineffectual nature of the Kimberley Process.

The Human Rights Watch report is available here.

Guns, Tyrants And Kleptocrats in Africa

I borrowed this title from a post by Carlos Serra who points us to this article which, I thought, was interesting in light of what I discussed yesterday here on the impact of the economic crisis on African countries. This great article provide additional layers to the problems of the African continent, some external and rather neo-colonial:

And other more directly internal (although related to the neo-colonial ones):

And yes, many of them are propped up by their former colonizers who find them convenient conduits to favorable economic policies that benefit the Global North (think agricultural subsidies), which also explains why African conflicts tend to remain stealth conflicts… no one wants these ties to be exposed.