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.

The Importance of The Global Civil Society, Hence Its Necessary Sabotaging

Cohen and Kennedy (2007: 448) define the global civil society as such:

“While the civil society is made up of the networks of groups between the family and the state that try to influence political opinion and policy-making within the confines of nation-states, a global civil society includes all those social agents whose joint concerns and struggles stretch beyond the borders of their nation-states, as they try to shape the actions of a variety of powerful actors such as governments, IGOs and TNCs over issues and problems that cannot be tackled adequately, or at all, at any level other than the regional or global.”

The global civil society is seen as existing in this space not (yet) occupied by transnational corporations, the transnational state or the transnational capitalist class. It is incarnated into a variety of social movements (such as the alter-globalization movement) as well as social movement organizations (from ATTAC to the Muslim Brotherhood).

The global civil society is often seen as the only significant force to oppose globalization as it is shaped by hyper-globalizers of the neoliberal kind. It is often referred to as “globalization from below” (as opposed to the governance “from above” represented by the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO) or “globalization with a human face.” Such role as the last opponent to neoliberal globalization has a lot to do with the decline of trade unions in Western societies and the difficulties in unionizing in the semi-periphery and the periphery.

So, the global civil society relies of cross-border activities outside of the scope of the market or the governments and it is often associated with the crisis of legitimacy that traditional national political parties face and the democratic deficit at the global level.

The Gaza  flotilla represents a good case of cross-border activism engaged in by global civil society organizations face the opposition of major political forces from different countries: Israel, the US, Greece, to name the principle ones involved.

The actions against the second flotilla are described by Richard Falk as a war against the global civil society:

“The reports that two of the foreign flagged ships planning to be part of the ten vessel Freedom Flotilla II experienced similar forms of disabling sabotage creates strong circumstantial evidence of Israeli responsibility. It stretches the imagination to suppose that a sophisticated cutting of the propeller shafts of both ships is a coincidence with no involvement by Israel’s Mossad, long infamous for its overseas criminal acts in support of contested Israeli national interests. Recalling the lethal encounter in international waters with Freedom Flotilla I that took place on 31 May 2010, and the frantic diplomatic campaign by Tel Aviv to prevent this second challenge to the Gaza blockade by peace activists and humanitarian aid workers, such conduct by a state against this latest civil society initiative, if further validated by incriminating evidence, should be formally condemned as a form of ‘state terrorism’ or even as an act of war by a state against global civil society.”

There is a precedent to such action, as Falk notes, that many of us remember:

“It is useful to compare the Flotilla II unfolding experience with the Rainbow Warrior incident. At the time, the French nuclear tests in the Pacific were considered legal, although intensely contested, while the blockade of Israel is widely viewed as a prolonged instance of collective punishment in violation of international humanitarian law, specifically Article 33 of the 4th Geneva Convention. Although Israel could argue that it had a right to monitor ships suspected of carrying arms to occupied Gaza, the Freedom Flotilla II ships made themselves available for inspection, and there was no sufficient security justification for the blockade as the investigation by the UN Human Rights Council of the 2010 flotilla incident made clear. The overriding role of the blockade is to inflict punitive damage on the people of Gaza. Even before the blockade was imposed in 2007 all shipments at the Gaza crossing points were painstakingly monitored by Israel for smuggled weapons.

A person was unintentionally killed by the French acts of sabotage, and so far no one has died as a result of these efforts to disable and interfere with Flotilla ships, although the Irish vessel, MV Saoirse (‘freedom’ in Gaelic), was disabled in such a way that if the damage had not been discovered before heading to sea, the ship reportedly would have likely sunk with many passengers put at extreme risk of death. Perhaps, the most important distinction of all, is the failure to claim any right to act violently against peaceful protesters even though the French state was officially engaged in an activity directly associated with its national security (weapons development). In contrast, the Israelis are seeking to avoid having their universally unpopular and criminal Gaza policies further delegitimized, and claim the entitlement as a sovereign state to engage in violent action, even if it endangers nonviolent civilians. In effect, it is a declaration of war by Israel against global civil society as over 50 nationalities are represented among the passengers on the Flotilla ships.”

The flotilla certainly fits the bill of global citizens sharing a concern about a particular issue that gets no resolution through the usual political channels especially when the same discredited actors are over and over put in charge of a dead peace process. As Tony Karon notes,

“In a scathing commentary on the folly of the Obama Administration relying on Dennis Ross to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar notes that Ross has been at the center of just about every failed initiative on that front over the past two decades — and that now, as ever, he is running interference for the Israelis, sustaining what he says is an illusion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to make major concessions while restraining the U.S. from putting any significant pressure on him.

There’s nothing new about those hoping for a game-changing U.S. intervention groaning at the news of Ross — the personification of two decades of “process” without end — being put in charge.”

But I also want to note that there is sometimes a certain romanticism attached to the global civil society, as the great democratic movements of people all over the world as opposed to the undemocratic, unpopular and unaccountable agencies of global governance. True enough but the global civil society is not democratic. It is self-selected and just as unaccountable to anyone except members of the organizations that compose it. Also, religious fundamentalist movements around the world are part of the global civil society. So, we should be careful about these aspects.

Secondly, the Gaza flotilla itself is a good example of the activism and attention that a chosen conflict receives, as opposed to stealth conflicts. Virgil Hawkins has demonstrated in his book that the Israel / Palestine conflict, as chosen, receives a disproportional amount of media, political and activist attention. In this sense, political and activist forces see the world through the same lenses, albeit reaching different conclusions.

Manuel Castells on The Great Disconnect

In the Spanish publication La Vanguardia, Manuel Castells takes stock of the role of information and communication technologies as used by social movements against authoritarian regimes. In the context of the network society, Castells notes the great disconnect (pun probably intended) between the global connectedness of the global civil society and the protest movements on the one hand, and the futile attempts at controlling messengers and message by governments on the other hand. As Castells puts it, this is the “new specter haunting the hall power around the world: free communication across Internet networks”. It is a justice globalist imaginary versus old and tired nationalism.

As the recent protest movements have exposed, governments may try to censor, shut off networks, arrest or even kill but this is a wasted effort because whoever controls communication has power. Shooting the messengers (sometimes literally) did not stop the message. And even though democracies have free speech protections, they are not immune to trying to control what goes on on the Internet. In China, such control may take the form of blocking social networking websites but that does not stop blogs and chatrooms. So, governments are beginning to design systems to shut down the Internet and mobile networks when they fear a crisis. Ahmadinejad tried that in 2009 and Mubarak as well more recently.

There is no big button allowing a head of state to shut down the Internet (although the US Congress is considering such a technology, FSM protect us if they seriously get to it, keeping in mind the moonbats current in the House of Representatives). What Mubarak did, though, was simpler: to order ISPs to shut down. It was not a complete shutdown and it did not work because the global civil society then kicked into gear to provide substitute access and networks. So, there was no Twitter revolution but there certainly was a global solidarity network, composed of hacker networks, networks of volunteer computers, use of proxies, smartphones used as modems, connections routed via phone numbers and use of old-fashioned fax machines.

Castells notes the role of entities like Telecomix in keeping communication open with Egypt. Telecomix created a program that searched Google automatically to find all the possible phone and fax numbers that could be used to send information in and out of Egypt. In addition, Google and Twitter made available speak-to-tweets applications.

What mattered, for Castells, was the combination of a variety of media, including graffitis, printed materials and occupation of urban space, and face-to-face networks along with all the virtual activity and the central role of Al Jazeera despite the black-outs the network suffered. Ultimately, attempts at blocking the Internet proved costly and futile. Castells cites the OECD estimates of $90 million. The additional economic costs were estimated at $3 million per day. And, of course, it did not work. Information still circulated between urban space and cyberspace with no disconnect.

However, Castells notes that this is not what was decisive at the local level. What made the difference is that the protestors had lost their fear. The usual violence and intimidation did not work. He argues that, as with Iran, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, Libya and Tunisia, the governments “have already lost the battle of/for the minds.” And the global networks made that disconnect very visible. And governments around the world should take note.

Book Review – Globalization and Social Movements

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

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

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

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

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

How does Moghadam define a transnational social movement?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

  • political process
  • organizational processes
  • cultural processes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similarly, Moghadam identifies different strands in the movement:

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

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

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

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

Book Review – This Land is Ours

Wendy Wolford‘s This Land is Ours: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil is a much more pessimistic book than the one I previously reviewed. Here again, Wolford writes about the MST, but where To Inherit The Earth was a fairly optimistic history of the rise of the movement, the present book (more recent) addresses more directly the failures of the MST, especially the failure of massification, that is, the MST’s attempt to succeed outside of the Southern states (especially in the Northeastern states) at the same time that the movement was becoming a national and global force on behalf of peasants.

In this book then, the focus is more on what happens within a social movement once it scales up. Oftentimes, social movement organizations are depicted as homogeneous totalities. Wolford goes deeper into the MST and examines the various modes of mobilization and their success (or failure).

She first looks at mobilization in the Southern states (the MST’s place of birth and its greater success in mobilization), then turns her attention to the Northeaster states, where success has been limited. Why such a difference? For Wolford, the explanation revolves around the concept of moral economy.

What does this refer to? Wolford points to a working paper by Andrew Sayer (2004) on the subject:

“It is now commonplace to note the influence of rules, habits, norms, conventions and values on economic practices and institutions and to note how these vary across different societies. Economic processes, even capitalist ones, are seen as socially embedded in various ways. Thus there is no ‘normal capitalism’, only different varieties, distinguished partly according to their cultural legacies and forms of embedding (Hollingsworth and Boyer, 1997; Crouch and Streeck, 1997, Hall and Soskice, 2001). The rise of ‘cultural political economy’ has complemented this focus on embeddedness. If culture is taken to refer to signifying practices then economic practices can be seen in terms of what they signify as well as materially, and as culturally embedded (Ray and Sayer, 1999; du Gay and Pryke, 2002).


In this paper, I revive this focus by using a moral economic perspective to examine some of the ways in which markets are associated economic phenomena both depend on and influence moral / ethical sentiments, norms and behaviours [sic] and have ethical implications. As a kind of inquiry, ‘moral economy’ is the study of how economic activities of all kinds are influenced and guided by moral dispositions and norms, and how in turn these norms may be compromised, overridden or reinforced by economic pressures (Sayer, 2000). On this definition, all economies – not merely pre- or non-capitalist ones – are moral economies (Booth, 1994). We can also use the term ‘moral economy’ to refer to the object of this kind of inquiry.  Of course, what counts as moral, as opposed to immoral, behaviour is contestable; some forms of moral economy, for example, that of patriarchal household, might be deemed immoral, or as domination disguised as benevolence and fairness.” (pp. 1-2)

For Sayer, a major founding father of this kind of thinking was Adam Smith, who was never the pure free marketer that neo-classical and neo-liberal economists make him out to be.

For Wolford, the different moral economies between the Southern and the Northeastern Brazilian states largely explains successful mobilization in the former and demobilization in the latter. In the Southern state, economic practices revolved around small farming whereas in the Northeast, rural wage labor (mostly in sugarcane plantations) prevailed.

In this sense, the MST emerged in the Southern state and promoted what was already the cultural and moral system of farming: small landholding. To fight for agrarian reform in effect reinforced an already-existing moral economic perspective. Mobilization was therefore easier to promote and “sell” to the peasant population because it matched their habitus (if I dare use this term even though Sayer contends that Bourdieu’s concept fails because it lack moral dimensions).

In the Northeast where moral economy is based on rural wage labor and the paternalistic structure dominated by the plantation owners and their bosses constituted a moral economic background where small farming (with no wage and therefore more uncertainty) was harder to accept. Part of this moral economic structure also included the fact that if a worker does not get along with a boss, he packs up and leaves for the next job and stay there as long as things work out. In this context, a small farm is not something one can walk away from if things do not work out.

Moreover, the MST had as goal to get former rural workers / new small farmers away from sugar cane and to get to plant staple and local market crops through sustainable means. However, the new farmers preferred to plant sugar (what they knew) but on their own land, they ran the risk of no income if crops failed and they lost the benefits attached to working on a large plantation. In addition, the workers resented the “collectivism” promoted by the MST and seemed to prefer an indvidualistic organization of production.  In this sense, they saw membership in the MST as an instrumental matter (get land) but would drop it as soon as that goal was achieved as they saw MST requirements as too constraining.

Through interviews and accounts regarding the relative failure of mobilization in the Northeast, Wolford reveals the clash of moral economies between the MST organizers and leaders and the rural workers who thought the MST people behaved like the bosses without the benefits. When the sugar economy failed, rural workers were more receptive to the MST message but once it recovered, they went back to planting sugar.

In all, this book is written more for an academic audience than To Inherit the Earth. It makes greater use of theories. That being said, it is still an fascinating read as it contains a lot of field materials, interviews and descriptions even if the tone is definitely more pessimistic.

The Tyranny of The Local

A few days ago, I made a point I have made before: that local governance is not inherently more democratic than of other levels (national, regional or global). This point was discussed over at Corrente where some were unconvinced and Lambert noted that, in the context of inaccessible national politics, there is a greater chance of control at the the local level… I would argue that this is true, if one belongs to the gender / sexual / religious / racial / political majority. Otherwise… well…

Example 1:

“The chief rabbi of a West Bank settlement has prohibited women from standing in a local community election.

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the Elon Moreh settlement, near Nablus, said women lacked the authority to stand for the post of local secretary.

He wrote in a community newspaper that women must only be heard through their husbands.

No women have registered for the election due to be held later on Wednesday, Israeli media reported.

The rabbi made his comments in the community’s newspaper after an unidentified young woman wrote to him asking if she could run for the position of community secretary, the Israeli news website Ynet News said.”

Example 2:

“KABUL, Afghanistan — The two Afghan girls had every reason to expect the law would be on their side when a policeman at a checkpoint stopped the bus they were in. Disguised in boys’ clothes, the girls, ages 13 and 14, had been fleeing for two days along rutted roads and over mountain passes to escape their illegal, forced marriages to much older men, and now they had made it to relatively liberal Herat Province.

Alissa J. Rubin/The New York Times

Sumbol, 17, a Pashtun girl, said she was kidnapped and taken to Jalalabad, then given a choice: marry her tormentor, or become a suicide bomber.

Instead, the police officer spotted them as girls, ignored their pleas and promptly sent them back to their remote village in Ghor Province. There they were publicly and viciously flogged for daring to run away from their husbands.

Their tormentors, who videotaped the abuse, were not the Taliban, but local mullahs and the former warlord, now a pro-government figure who largely rules the district where the girls live.

Neither girl flinched visibly at the beatings, and afterward both walked away with their heads unbowed. Sympathizers of the victims smuggled out two video recordings of the floggings to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which released them on Saturday after unsuccessfully lobbying for government action.

The ordeal of Afghanistan’s child brides illustrates an uncomfortable truth. What in most countries would be considered a criminal offense is in many parts of Afghanistan a cultural norm, one which the government has been either unable or unwilling to challenge effectively.”

I am not exactly sure of the origins of the fetishism of the local but its most current incarnation is  prominent in the anti-neoliberal globalization movement (“think global, act local”) where the local is seen as the democratic antidote to “globalization from above”, that is, neoliberalism imposed by global institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization. These organizations are often perceived as unaccountable, undemocratic and imposing one-size-fit-all policies on countries and local communities around the world.

The accusations are not unfounded, but just like finding flaws in evolutionary theory would not make creationism true, finding flaws in the current shape of globalization would not make localism the ultimate form of democratic governance.

Similarly, the fact that national politics is facing, in many Western countries, a crisis of legitimacy, as Habermas demonstrated, because it is seen as less responsive to citizens’ needs, complicit in denationalization of economic policy in favor of the global neoliberalism, does not establish the local as a more legitimate site of governance.

As yesterday’s book review on the MST shows, national governance is sometimes necessary to fight against local tyrannies (often disguised as “traditions”). This applies as well to the case of Nigerian children accused of being witches where salvation cannot be local or albinos in Tanzania, persecuted in the name of local beliefs. Sometimes, the regional level is the one that can apply true democracy or greater respect for human rights, for instance, as the European Commission on Human Rights.

Finally, local oppression is especially awful for women at the local level around the world. I could fill up the pages of this blog with articles just detailing the varied forms of local oppression of women and girls. Even the MST acknowledges it has a macho culture problem.

My point is not to assert that the local is bad but it should not be assumed to be somewhat more “naturally” fair, democratic and responsive to population needs.

Still Light Blogging – The Cove

Holy !@#$!

This will become part of my global issues class. It touches upon so many issues:

  • Environment and sustainability, of course
  • Globalization
  • Global governance and the role of international governmental organizations
  • Global civil society / global activism
  • Global stratification
  • The multi-layered nature of global governance and the role of national governments
  • The mixing of cultural, political and economic factors
  • Health and public policy

The Future of Social-Democracy: Green, Global, and Bottom-Up

So says one of my favorite thinkers, Mary Kaldor:

And here is a fairly long but very interesting video featuring Prof. Kaldor