Book Review – Evil

In Evil, sociologist Michel Wieviorka aims to claim “evil” as a territory for sociological investigation. It is not hard to see why sociologists have stayed away from the topic. It is thorny one. And after all, Durkheim taught us all long ago to avoid just adopting common sense categorizations and running with them without examining their social construction as social fact. So, since evil is a common sense concept par excellence, and a rather multi-form and vague one, one can easily see why sociologists have stayed away from the concept as a whole. But it is true that by doing so, we have abandoned that territory to philosophy, religious studies and *gasp* even psychology.

But, I am one of those sociologists who think we should drag our muddy sociological boots (sociology is muddy par excellence, that is its greatness) where people think they don’t belong, so, naturally, I grabbed the book hoping for, at least, some conceptual clarity and investigative pathways into the topic. Alas, I was deeply disappointed for a variety of reasons.

First of all, the book feels a bit disjointed and that is because the book is not really a book, it is a collection of sections extracted from another book (Nine Lessons of Sociology). Evil is a collection of the chapters in Nine Lessons that were on negative topics, leaving aside the chapters on positive topics. So, Evil ends up being rather short (133 pages of text), divided on five chapters (evil as sociological topic, violence, terrorism, racism, and pathways to research on evil). In addition, the translation feels a bit clunky and to word-for-word, French to English. It makes for a weird read. I don’t know if it is a Polity issue but I noted the same translation problem with Florence Aubenas’s The Night Cleaner. So, that does not help.

Then, when discussing evil, one can immediately see the problem with the collection of chapters. Chapters 1 and 5 are more straight “why we should have a sociology of evil” and “how we should do it”. They have problems of their own that I will discuss below but they make sense. The real thematic difficulty comes with chapter 2, 3 and 4. So, is this what evil is? Violence, racism and terrorism? That’s it? That list seems a bit arbitrary to me. I can think of a lot of other examples of evil. And again, evil has a major definitional issue as sociological concept.

So let me get into the substance of the book a bit more.

Again, the starting point is that, for Wieviorka, there should be a sociology of evil and this is the right time to develop it as the traditional sociological dichotomies have been successfully challenged (body / mind, nature / culture, individual / collective, and the all-time sociological favorite, structure / agency) especially if we enter the concept of evil through its unavoidable link to suffering, and suffering itself is a social phenomenon. Indeed, suffering is at the heart of the human rights regime which demands recognition of suffering in different forms, but suffering is also at the heart of what we tend to call identity politics and the ethnicization of society (the increasing definition of self through an ethnic identity) and part of the historical narrative that accompanies such ethnicization (that includes the identity of victim if not directly, at least historically and generationally). But right off the bat, Wieviorka operates a subtle shift: from evil to violence. I would argue that that is not the same concept. The two are separate. To reduce evil to violence, then one does not need the concept of evil. We already have extensive work on the sociology of violence (and quite a bit from Wieviorka himself). So what does bringing evil to the sociological table add? Hard to tell. Take this, for instance:

“Yesterday, the socialization of children, or migrants, involved learning the national historical narrative; today, migrants and their children contribute to changing this narrative, forcing the nation to recognize  the less glorious pages of its past, its areas of darkness and practices of violence and brutality. From this point on, evil becomes an object for the social sciences: they have to give a convincing account, on one hand, of the past and the present of the groups who mobilize on the basis of an identity as victims; and, on the other, of the impact of their demands on community life. How was violence organized in the past, or how is it organized in the present; and how do the processes of negation of the Other, of destruction and self-destruction, of harm to one’s physical and moral integrity, function?

It is no longer possible to declare, as it was until recently, that to try to understand barbarism, violence, cruelty, terrorism or racism is to open the way to evil, which needs quite simply to be fought without making any effort to understand – any effort of that kind being automatically classed as a mark of weakness. In fact, if we do wish to combat evil, it is preferable to know and understand it. There is a need here, a social demand which calls for analytical tools and studies; the social sciences are better qualified to provide these than moral judgments, philosophical considerations or religious a priori.” (9)

See what I mean? It is all conceptually very muddy: evil, violence, barbarism, brutality, cruelty. Is this all the same? How are these things related? Are they all subcategories of evil? Is interpersonal violence the only form of violence and evil to be considered? What of structural violence? These two paragraphs, to me (I could certainly be wrong), perfectly illustrate the constant conceptual shift that Wieviorka operates throughout the book. But are you really discussing evil when you are discussing racism or terrorism or interpersonal violence in general? I think it is all well and good to want to extirpate evil from the clutches of philosophy and religion but for what purpose? What does this concept add to the sociology of violence / racism / terrorism? This constant conceptual drift persists throughout the book. At the same time, if we accept, arguendo, the concept of evil as violence, racism, terrorism, etc., then we accept it as it is socially defined.

“Evil becomes a sociological category and ceases to be a purely religious category when it is treated as a crime, including a crime against humanity, not as a sin; when it can and must be envisaged as a social and historical problem that falls within the scope of human will and justice, and when it ceases to be a theological fact or the manifestation of an instinct.” (11)

But whether evil is treated as sin or crime does not make really any difference because both are socially constructed commonsense categories, the product of processes of structure, history and power. To define evil so does not neutralize the weight of commonsense definition. Evil is still not a social fact in that definition. Shouldn’t the first step in defining evil as an object of sociological investigation to reject the ready-made conceptualizations that societies provide and question these? To state “I hereby declare evil to be a sociological object, so, back off, religion and philosophy” is not enough.

And if that is not confusing enough, then, there is this:

“The closer evil comes to corresponding to the categories and concerns of the social sciences, the more their analytical principles must be applied, in the same way as they are used to study other problems and other social facts. Amongst these principles there is the idea that actors are never either totally unaware or totally aware of the meaning of their action. In other words they are never totally non-responsible; they are of necessity accountable for their actions, or they should be.  In this sense, the advance of the knowledge of evil, thank to the social sciences, goes hand in hand with the idea that the thesis of the banality of evil must be, if not set to one side, at least considered with the utmost caution.” (13)


Again, how does this square the acceptance of commonsense definitions of evil (minus the religious overtones)? And this, basically ends the first chapter with no clear sociological definition of evil. As I mentioned before, this is followed by three thematic chapters on violence, terrorism and racism. So, at this point, we are left with “evil = bad stuff we don’t like” and even that might be questioned: is all violence necessarily bad, let alone evil? Paging Franz Fanon.

But as one reads these three chapters, the real theme of the book becomes more apparent: a rejection of the structural and the social and an aggressive return of the Subject (capitalized in the book), with heavy references to Touraine and Latour. This is the real point of the sociology Wieviorka proposes: a sociology of the Subject, then confronted with evil, either as perpetrators, but, more essentially, as victims. On all three topics, Wieviorka argues that the culture, history and structures have received all the sociological attention but that Subjects, and especially victims (Wieviorka does mention perpetrators but he is much more interested in victims) have been neglected not just as victims but as agents. This allows Wieviorka to develop two typologies, in the case of violence, that he will use on the other topics as well: one for the types of violence based on Subject meaning and the type of Subjects involved in violence.

  • Violence based on the loss of meaning (“when the actor comes to express a meaning that has become lost or impossible and resorts to violence because he is unable to construct the confrontational action that would enable him to assert his social demands or cultural or political expectations, because no political process is available for dealing with them.” (19))
  • Violence based on ideology
  • Violence as myth-disintegration
  • Gratuitous violence, violence for its own’s sake
  • Violence as other- and self-destruction (suicide terrorism, martyrdom)
  • Violence as obedience to authority (the Eichmann in Jerusalem defense)

And the types of subjectivity linked to violence (capitalization in the original):

  • The Floating Subject who resorts to violence because of an inability to become a social actor (see the alienated youth from the French suburbs in 2005).
  • The Hyper-Subject resorts to violence through an excess of meaning through meta-political, religious and mythical meaning. This is the violence of zealot and martyr.
  • The Non-Subject exercises violence without involving his subjectivity, as the participants in Milgram’s experiments. It is simply violence as subjection to authority.
  • The Anti-Subject denies the Other the status of Subject through dehumanization, as we see in the dynamics that lead to genocides. It involves gratuitous cruelty and violence.
  • The Survivor Subject, before any violence has taken place, is one who feels threatened for his integrity and existence and acts violently as a survival response to the perceived threat.

One can see that this typology can be useful and how it can lead to certain ideas when it comes to preventing or dealing with different forms of violence (some much less clear and satisfying than others).

  • The Floating subject  provides institutional channels for conflict resolution as well as training of social and political players (bottom-up strategy)
  • The Hyper-Subject  use the “moderates” from the same religious or ideological background to intervene before a hardening of fundamentalisms (top-down strategy)
  • The Non-Subject  delegitimize the authority involved
  • The Anti-Subject  repression and education
  • The Survivor Subject  providing mental models to change the perception

But what does this have to do with evil?

The topic of violence also allows Wieviorka to introduce the second main theme of the book, after the Subject: globalization. The Subject and globalization are the two poles that he considers should guide the sociological investigation of evil. This allows him to evacuate any form of social structure from analysis, albeit not convincingly and not consistently. But the combination of the centrality of the Subject in the context of globalization leads him to the following formulation:

“The arena of violence is widening, while the scope for organizing debate and a framework for conflict to deal with social problems is shrinking, lacking, or vanishing. Conversely that arena becomes smaller when the conditions of institutionalized conflict permit a negotiated solution, even in circumstances of great tensions between actors. Violence is not conflict; rather it is the opposite. Violence is more likely to flare up when an actor can find no-one to deal within his or her attempts to exert social or political pressure, when no channels of institutional negotiation are available.” (27)

Wieviorka argues that this is the case with the decline of the labor movement in the context of globalization as unions have always been a disciplining force for the working class, as well as offering institutionalized ways to resolve conflict. But he should take the next step and recognize that this has been accompanied by a hardening of state repression on labor issues.

When it comes to the victims of violence, Wieviorka argues that there are three types of suffering that need to be addressed:

  • Collective identity (such as the victims of ethnic violence, genocide) where past mass violence was directed at an entire population, culture, etc.
  • Individual participation in modern life: being the descendants of slaves, to have been deprived of property, rights or a sense of belonging to a larger modern collectivity (such as a nation-state through the denial of basic political and civil rights).
  • Personal subjectivity, that is the denial of the ability to become a Subject through dehumanization, demonization, etc. for the direct victims of violence.

Wieviorka uses these typologies in his analysis of the other two topics: global terrorism and racism. And I have to say that there is nothing really new or uniquely insightful in these chapters if one is already well-read on either subjects.

And the last, and longest chapter of the book tries to weave together the two lines of the Subject and globalization at the expense of structure and society, and that is done with pretty broad pronouncements (“This is not the time to fight the enemies of the Subject – they have been defeated, in any event for the time being.” (89)). Here again, this chapter is plagued with conceptual ambiguities relating to the Subject, individualism, and individualization. In the glorification of the Subject, Wieviorka neglects the fact (mentioned by Bauman, Beck and Sennett, among others), that becoming a Subject, in individualized condition, is often not a choice in the global context of liquid society.

But what is most disappointing is the end result of all this throwing out of the structural baby with the societal bath water in the study of evil:

“By agreeing to be not only a sociology of the good, by opening up to this dimension of the anti-Subject, sociology can avoid a form of romanticism whereby the Subject is of necessity an attractive character, sometimes happy but usually unhappy; it leaves theoretical and practical scope for the darkest aspects of the human individual; it provides theoretical tools with which to embark on concrete research into phenomena as significant as racism, violence, or anti-Semitism.” (108)

My handwritten note in the book reads “that’s it?” and that is exactly what thinking. Really, that was the point of flushing structure (in the name of the Subject) and society (in the name of globalization)? To establish that people sometimes do bad things? I would argue that there is as much explanatory potential for violence in ALL forms (interpersonal, structural or symbolic) through the workings of individuals, interpersonal interactions (micro-aggressions), organizational and institutional and structural. To evacuate some of these layers deprives oneself of strong analytical tools. Similarly, as many globalization theorists have demonstrated, it is too early to completely dismiss the nation-state and society. The dynamics of globalization are more multi-layered and more complex than that (from glocalization to grobalization, and other processes).

And finally, it is also way too early to cavalierly dismiss the power of collective and social movements in the name of the individual. Globalization is still a very collectively contested terrains for social movements, especially of the alter-globalization kind.

So, by the end of the book, do not really expect to have figured out what a sociological reconceptualization of evil means and implies (if you do, please leave a comment because I would really like to know). It felt like the topic of evil was a bit of a cover up for a more theoretical discussion leading to the promotion of an approach based on the Subject and globalization. But neither topics are convincingly developed to created a shiny new approach to the topic of evil (or any other topic, for that matter). If one is interested in the topic of the individual confronted with globalization (in all its dimensions), one is much better off going back to Bauman, Beck, Sennett or Castells who have done a better job of it.

LOL Your Pathetic Attempt

Wow, progress (not)!

Don’t get your hopes up, ladies, it is still the same patriarchal institution:

“The new section will promote a keener understanding of the “under-appreciated treasure” of women in the church, according to editor Giovanni Maria Vian.

The launch coincides with the worst scandal to hit the Vatican in years as leaked letters addressed to the pope expose a world of jealous, spiteful prelates and petty rivalries.

Vian said Pope Benedict backed the supplement, which he said would hire non-Catholic contributors.

Lucetta Scaraffia, a writer at the paper who created the supplement, said: “It provides information on the female condition, without ignoring hot topics like procreation, access to culture and women’s rights.”

The pullout will compete with L’Osservatore Romano’s stories explaining the Vatican’s approach to women, from its views on abortion to condemnation of female ordination.

In 2010 the Vatican upgraded the crime of ordaining women to the priesthood, rendering it one of the most serious crimes against church law alongside paedophilia.

Under Benedict’s papacy, the views of the Holy See on abortion have not changed. In 2007 a senior cardinal demanded that Catholics stop donating to Amnesty International after it advocated abortion rights for African women gang-raped by soldiers.”

Right. But it’s going to be an all-color supplement. Catholic women deserve no less… the rest of women’s rights… not so much.

Hey, here is an idea: how about a L’Osservatore Romano per i Bambini (for the kids). I’m sure knowing more about the “children’s condition” will do wonders to mend fences about that nasty child abuse scandal.

And on that subject, check out the creepy picture that accompanies the article:

Hedging Albinos

Because that is what it is, right? A form of hedging.

Again, I have blogged multiple times about the murders of albinos in Tanzania. Here is a more recent example of this, with some connection made to the gold mining business from the excellent Aljazeera:

As noted in the film,

“Over the last five years in Tanzania, however, the situation has become much, much worse, with albinos increasingly subjected to murder and mutilation because of a completely spurious myth that albino body parts are effective in witchcraft rituals. Despite international outrage and repeated attempts by the Tanzanian government to stamp out this truly appalling practice, since it first came to light many albinos have been hunted down and attacked purely for their limbs and organs. Indeed the incidents seem to be increasing. Since 2008, at least 62 albinos have been killed in Tanzania, 16 have been violently assaulted and had their limbs amputated and the bodies of 12 albinos have been exhumed from graves and dismembered.

Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that estimates of the numbers of albinos in Tanzania vary significantly. Officially there are around 5,000 registered, but the country’s Albino Association says the real number is in excess of 150,000. They say that many albinos are still kept hidden by their families because of the stigma some associate with the condition or because of fear that they might be attacked.”

Double Whammy: War Rapes and Honorable Murders

If this is true, this is horrible:

“Libyan women and girls who become pregnant through rape risk being murdered by their own families in so-called “honour killings”, according to Libyan aid workers.

Rape is a sensitive topic worldwide, but in this country it is even more of a taboo.

“In Libya when rape occurs, it seems to be a whole village or town which is seen to be dishonoured,” says Arafat Jamal of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

Libyan charities say they are getting reports that in the west of the country, which is particularly conservative, Col Muammar Gaddafi’s forces have tended to rape women and girls in front of their fathers and brothers.

“To be seen naked and violated is worse than death for them,” says Hana Elgadi. “This is a region where women will not go out of the house without covering their face with a veil.”

Ms Elgadi is in a group of Libyan volunteers offering medical help and HIV tests. The organisation is also offering to pay for abortions for women who have been raped in the war.


The International Criminal Court says it believes Col Gaddafi’s forces are using rape as a weapon of war. The ICC says it has reason to believe orders to rape were given, and the drug Viagra was distributed to fighters.

A major in the Libyan army who has now deserted told the BBC the shipments of Viagra were widely known about, but neither he nor his colleagues saw them.

“The order to rape was not given to the regular army,” says the major, who did not want his name to be used, because his family is still in Tripoli. “Col Gaddafi knew we would never accept it. It was given to the mercenaries.”

Mr Jamal, the UNHCR’s emergency co-ordinator for Libya, says it has not so far uncovered evidence that rape has been used as a weapon of war, although it has seen evidence of individual instances of rape throughout the country.

“We have also seen evidence that would seem to suggest that rape has been carried out by both sides, but we cannot say on what scale,” he says.”

The Patriarchy Continuum: Missing Girls and Murdered Women

Where are the girls?

Aborted or neglected so they die younger:

“India’s economic growth rate is increasing. But its population of girls in relation to boys is declining. In that contradiction lies a truth that many in India choose to ignore: that economic growth does not automatically mean gender justice.

Yes, in the India of 2011 – where the pride of having won the ICC Cricket World Cup after 28 years has yet to wear off – girls are either eliminated before they are born or die before they reach the age of six. We already knew this. In the 2001 census, the number of girls to every 1,000 boys in the 0-6 years age group was a dismal 927. With the preliminary results of the 2011 census just out, the picture is wore today: 914 girls to 1,000 boys.

So where have these girls gone? They disappear principally through sex-selection techniques. If the tests confirm a girl, the decision is quick and sure. Why bother to bring them into the world? Resort to sex-selective abortion.

These statistics demonstrate a macabre and ruthless aspect of our society that is sometimes hard to understand. Women are worshipped as gods in India, some of them occupy the highest positions in our society, more girls go to school today than ever before, young women are entering professions closed to them in the past. Yet, a girl is still considered a burden”

And no, it’s not poverty. Blame the patriarchy:

“Interestingly, the most skewed sex ratios are from states with the highest economic growth rate. So wherever there is wealth, to be shared by members of the family, girls are not wanted. The “family”, meaning the men, must divide the wealth among themselves. Girls marry other men, and their share of the family wealth would go to these other men.

Girls also have to be loaded with goodies when they marry these other men. Hence they are an additional expense. Boys, on the other hand, bring home the goodies when they marry – plus an additional hand to do all the chores around the house.

Put simply, education and economic growth have not changed mindsets, have not touched a patriarchal structure that values men and women differently. On the contrary, more wealth appears to have consolidated old prejudices. What else can explain the coincidence of prosperity and a skewed child-sex ratio?”

And weak governance:

“The sex ratio conundrum has also exposed the inability of successive governments in India to implement social laws. There has been an anti-dowry law on the statute book since 1961. Yet dowry continues as a custom that has spread even to communities that did not follow it earlier.

There is a specific law, enacted in 1994, which prohibits the use of technology to detect the sex of a foetus. All ultrasonography machines have to be registered, and anyone indicating to a pregnant woman the sex of her foetus can be fined and even given a jail term. Yet, the law has been ineffective in stopping the practice of sex-detection. Where it is enforced, people simply go elsewhere. The wealthy go abroad. Thailand is a favoured destination for techniques that ensure you have a boy.”

And while we’re on the subject of weak / failed states:

“Latin America is stained red. And once again the blood spilt belongs to a woman.

Unfortunately the number of violent crimes against the feminine gender has increased so much in recent years that the experts describe it as a pandemic.

And the figures speak for themselves. According to data supplied by the UN Development Programme in 2006, between 30% and 45% of women in Latin America have been the objects of physical, sexual or psychological violence from a man on some occasion.

In Mexico the number of victims reaches 44%, , followed by Colombia, Peru and Chile with around 40%. Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have recorded lower levels, between 20 and 30%, but still cause for concern.

However the real alarm has been sounded in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where the culture of hatred against women is deeply rooted.”

The reasons?

“According to the Guatemalan sociologist Carmen Rosa de León-Escribano, who is executive director of the Instituto de Enseñanza para el Desarollo (IEPADES, the Institute of Teaching for Development), in her article Violence and Gender in Latin America , these acts involve a considerable number of causes which can include domestic violence, street crime, racist attacks, territorial conflicts between mafias, sexual violence, and the result of armed conflicts led either by the state or by other armed groups.

However for Rebecca Grynspan, the regional director of the UN Development Programme (PNUD), other factors like social class and economic situation promote relations of inequality between the genders, since “ the more economic independence and decision-making power that women have, the lower are the levels of violence”.

In her opinion the Mexican academic Marcela Lagarde says in an interview for Pagina 12 , that discrimination against women in Latin America is encouraged by a serious social devaluation: “ They make jokes and commentaries on the inabilities of women, then they pick some women on which to vent their fury against others, and this feeds misogyny against all women. But it is not just misogyny, but the situation of women in society, which combined with misogyny puts women at risk of violence”. And she adds “ when we women in Mexico come to ask for action based on our rights we receive maltreatment and discrimination from the health and education services and from the justice system””

And there is quite a bit of indifference to femicides from the governments throughout the region.

This is how the patriarchy is reproduced: through a combination of structural, symbolic and interpersonal violence.

The F@#$ You Conception of Control – Vive La Mondialisation Edition

Two items that allow companies to evade oversight, regulations and well, the law through mechanisms linked to globalization.

First off:

“The security company Blackwater Worldwide formed a network of 30 shell companies and subsidiaries to try to get millions of dollars in government business after the company faced strong criticism for reckless conduct in Iraq, The New York Times reported Friday.

The newspaper said that it was unclear how many of the created companies got American contracts but that at least three of them obtained work with the U.S. military and the CIA.


However, the Times quoted former Blackwater officials as saying that at least two Blackwater-affiliated companies, XPG and Greystone, obtained secret contracts from the CIA to provide security to agency operatives.

The newspaper said the network of subsidiaries, including several located in offshore tax havens, were uncovered as part of the Armed Services Committee’s examination of government contracting and not an investigation solely into Blackwater. But Levin questioned why Blackwater would need to create so many companies with various names to seek out government business, according to the Times.

The report quoted unidentified government officials and former Blackwater employees as saying that the network of companies allowed Blackwater to obscure its involvement in government work from contracting officials and the public, and to ensure a low profile for its classified activities.”

How convenient.

And then this:

“Many European companies that publicly embrace workers’ rights under global labor standards nevertheless undermine workers’ rights in their US operations, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today.

The 128-page report, “A Strange Case: Violations of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinational Corporations,” details ways in which some European multinational firms have carried out aggressive campaigns to keep workers in the United States from organizing and bargaining, violating international standards and, often, US labor laws.

Companies cited include Germany-based Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile USA and Deutsche Post’s DHL, UK-based Tesco’s Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets and G4S Wackenhut security, France-based Sodexo food services and Saint-Gobain industrial equipment, Norway-based Kongsberg Automotive, and the Dutch firm Gamma Holding.

“The behavior of these companies casts serious doubt on the value of voluntary commitments to human rights,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “Companies need to be held accountable, to their own stated commitments and to strong legal standards.”

Among the violations documented in the report are practices of forcing workers into “captive audience” meetings to hear anti-union harangues while prohibiting pro-union voices, threatening dire consequences if workers form unions, threatening to permanently replace workers who exercise the right to strike, spying on employee organizers, and even firing workers who support organizing efforts at companies.”

It is the beauty of globalization that companies get to pick and choose what kind of regulatory environment to which they can subject themselves but it should not really be seen as great that the US is the destination for companies that want a union-free environment. Next thing you know, EU companies might use the US as their own maquiladora.

Of course, none of this is entirely surprising. As Saskia Sassen and others have written over the years, government of the nation-states have been active participant in de-nationalizing their responsibility, either through elimination of social protections or transfer to entities of global governance what used to be their purview.

As Laurent Bonelli and Willy Pelletier note in their book The Dismantled State: Investigation on a Silent Revolution (sorry, only in French),

“Révolution silencieuse ? Oui, parce que si les réformes néolibérales de l’Etat s’effectuent parfois à grand renfort de publicité (privatisation de la Poste, restriction des budgets de l’hôpital public ou de l’Education nationale), elles sont le plus souvent peu visibles, progressives, s’emboîtant « naturellement » les unes aux autres, faisant valoir qu’« il n’y a pas d’alternative ». Et elles ne rencontrent que des protestations sectorielles, peu coordonnées, encore moins médiatisées. Elles passent par un décret, une directive, une circulaire, voués à demeurer obscurs et confidentiels, dans certains cas élaborés par des cabinets d’audit privés. Souvent inaperçues, sauf pour ceux qui en affrontent directement les conséquences…

Voyager dans la « réforme de l’Etat », en relater les effets, conduit à mesurer que l’avenir même des services publics est en jeu. C’est-à-dire celui d’un modèle de société.”

The gist: the silent revolution are all these neoliberal reforms of the State, sometimes implemented with much publicity (such as spectacular privatization which will bring efficiency and modernity to crumbling public services such as postal services, the reduction of budget of public hospitals or of public education, both usually highly unionized, unsurprisingly). But more often, these reforms are almost invisible, implemented progressively, each almost “naturally” being attached to the already-implemented measures, in a kind of path-dependency from which there is no alternative.

This is often accomplished without much protest, except for a few sectorial union job actions (often then depicted in the media as archaic organizations that no longer have their place in the neoliberal utopia). These reforms often bypass parliamentary mechanisms and are adopted through executive orders, directives, decrees that look like simple technical fixes, couched in obscure language and that remain largely out of sight of the general public. The only people who become aware of these reforms are their direct victims who have to deal with the social consequences.

Dehumanization 101

Two things are more or less bound to happen once a group of people dehumanizes another one, beyond their exploitation.

One: they simply become objects, as opposed to human beings, and therefore their any human trait becomes inconceivable, simply out of bound. Take this, for instance:

Which of course, is highly reminiscent of this:

In both cases, the photos are posed like vacations photos. The bodies are mere props in the background of a kind “we’re having so much fun” photo.

The top photo portrays an Israeli soldier, with Palestinian prisoners in the background, the one below is one of the infamous Abu Ghraib photos.

The dehumanization is so complete that, in both cases, the soldiers posing for the photo were shocked when confronted with the dehumanizing nature of the picture. Take the Israeli soldier:

“A former Israeli soldier who posed for pictures with Palestinian detainees and posted them on her Facebook page defended her actions today, as more images emerged of Israeli service personel posing alongside blindfolded detainees and dead bodies.

“I still don’t understand what I did wrong,” Eden Abergil told Israeli army radio. Abergil, a reserve officer with the Israeli army who completed compulsory military service last year, provoked outrage over photographs in which she posed next to handcuffed, blindfolded Palestinians.

She told army radio: “There’s no violence or intention to humiliate anyone in the pictures. I just had my picture taken with them in the background. I did it out of excitement, to remember the experience. It wasn’t a political statement or any kind of statement. It was about remembering my experiences in the army and that’s it.””

There is no intention to humiliate not because of empathy but because these people are no longer seen as human beings. Similar excuses were used by the soldiers portrayed on the Abu Ghraib photos.

And when people are no longer seen as human but as beasts of burden, then, atrocious mistreatment is almost guaranteed to follow:

“Doctors have removed 13 nails and five needles from a Sri Lankan maid who said her employers in Saudi Arabia had hammered them into her.

LG Ariyawathi, who returned home from Saudi Arabia on Saturday and was hospitalised in severe pain, said the family she worked for had punished her by heating the nails and needles and sticking them into her.

X-rays showed she had 24 nails and needles in her body, said Dr Keerthi Satharasinghe, of Kamburupitiya hospital. The nails ranged in length from 2.5 to 5cm (one to two inches), and the needles were about 2.5cm. They were removed from Ariyawathi’s legs and forehead.

“The surgery is successful and she is recovering now,” Satharasinghe said after a three-hour procedure. He said six more needles in her hands could not be removed because the operation might damage her nerves and arteries, but they would not be harmful to her.

Ariyawathi, 49, has described the abuse meted out by her employers. “They did not allow me even to rest. The woman at the house had heated the nails and then the man inserted them into my body,” she was quoted as saying by the Lakbima newspaper.

She said she went to Saudi Arabia in March and was paid only two months’ salary, with her employer withholding the rest to buy an air ticket to send her home.

About 1.5 million Sri Lankans work abroad, many as maids or drivers, to earn more than they can in their own country. Nearly 400,000 work in Saudi Arabia.”

The story of exploitation and state of quasi-slavery of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is not new.

In all these cases, the ethnic differences between the dominant and subordinate groups make their dehumanization easier. Whether the dehumanized category become invisible objects or beasts of burden to be worked as hard as inhumanely possible, symbolic and physical degradation are logical outcomes.

The Tyranny of the Local – Religious Fundamentalists Edition

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

Case in point:

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the Amnesty International account.

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.

Saving Africa’s Witch Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Uses of The Periphery – Children

This interesting story from Global Post:

Of course, one cannot expect that there is a perfect solution to this but we, Westerners are constantly deploring corruption in poor countries and here is an attempt by a government to clean up a sector of society. So, it’s a good thing, right? Well no, because some Western parents will be deprived of their entitlement to these children who will be better off raised in a rich country.

Note the use of “we”. That is not really surprising since western parents were one set of beneficiaries in the older system. The other set of beneficiaries were the adoption homes who might not be able to make as much money:

Except that these international adoption advocates operate under one framework: children are in home or adopted by foreigners. As the article notes, there is actually a greater demand from Guatemalan families to adopt children. But these advocates operate under the presumption that foreign adoption is better than ANY alternative (and would tell horror stories to make their cases).

It seems ironic that the “opportunity” argument works (these children should be adopted by US families to get more opportunities) when the children are handpicked by their potential Western adoptive parents but heaven forbid that parents from poor countries apply that logic and decide to immigrate with or without documents, then it’s a whole different story.

Of course, the root of the problem is the enormous poverty of the global South. The logic here is that these countries, because they are poor, have shown that they cannot take care of these children and therefore should agree to international adoptions and make the children available. In the case of Guatemala, the irony is that the US bears great responsibility for the political turmoil that this country has endured.

Globalization: Drug Trafficking, Organized Criminal Networks, Militarization… all in Mexico

As we all know, despite very clear indicators of the global nature of many phenomena in the economic, political, social, cultural and criminal, talk of the demise of the nation-state has always been premature, and still is. Case in point, Mexico. Consider these three stories that zero in on the local, national and global nature of drug trafficking by organized criminal networks.

At the local level, read this incredible 4-parter in Der Spiegel on Ciudad Juarez:

It is also not hard to see the regional connections:

Do also check out the slideshow on this:

The power of organized criminal organizations is not limited to Ciudad Juarez, though:

Which is why the government relies on multiple levels of law enforcement but mostly on militarizing its war against drug gangs, as illustrated in the video below:

Globalization may be uneven but global access has been a boon to national and local criminal organizations, like Mexican gangs, who can now tap onto global trafficking markets for a variety of goods, such as drugs and people, while keeping on with the old-fashioned rackets, using one type of activity over another as the most profitable depending on the economic times:

Ciudad Juarez – Mexico – the Americas – The world… from the local, to the national, to the regional, to the global level, it is not a matter of one level superseding the other but rather hubs and nexus of interdependencies whether one is talking about world trade or illegal commerce, which, as we know, contributed to propping up the floundering global economy after the US economic collapse.