Neo-Colonialism 101 – Dance!

From the Guardian (emphasis mine):

“The Jarawa tribe have lived in peace in the Andaman Islands for thousands of years. Now tour companies run safaris through their jungle every day and wealthy tourists pay police to make the women – usually naked – dance for their amusement. This footage, filmed by a tourist, shows Jarawa women being told to dance by an off-camera police officer.”

Chilean Miners, International Division of Labor, Export-Oriented Development, and Racial Stratification

Like everyone else, I was deeply moved by the rescue of the Chilean miners. But of course, being a sociologist being a curse, several things immediately emerged.

The first one is the labor issue. Under what working conditions can such a thing happen, especially in light of the previous serious mining accidents in the US? The Guardian Poverty Blog offers a few ideas:

“Several commentators – including international trade unions – have pointed to Chile’s failure to ratify International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on safety and health in mines, and drawn attention to the consequences of inadequate workplace safety standards across the country. According to the Inter Press Service, in 2009 alone Chile had a total of 191,685 workplace accidents, including 443 deaths.

Carmon Espinoza, head of the Chilean NGO Programa de Economia del Trabajo (Labour Economy Program) remarked in late August that job insecurities mean miners “for logical reasons pay greater attention to keeping their jobs than to work safety”.

The San José mine, in particular, is no stranger to workplace tragedy: over a dozen lives have been lost there in recent years.

Bélgica Ramírez, sister-in-law of one of the trapped miners, suggested that even if workers did express their concerns, they were ignored. “The mine was in precarious condition and they [the miners] always told the bosses, but the only thing they cared about was production,” she said.

In early September, a Guardian report revealed that “the dangers were so well known that locals called its miners ‘the kamikazes’.” Even the owners of the mine recognised the dangers, offering “salaries 30% higher than average, a tacit acknowledgement that the job required extraordinary sacrifices”.


Other commentators went further, arguing that the mine collapse happened not in spite but because of Chile’s rapid economic growth and reliance on an export-oriented development strategy.

Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper, and the country’s often-congratulated 4-5% growth rate has been largely fuelled by copper exports to Europe, the US, China and India. The government celebrates Chile’s status as a prime investment destination, and is proud to proclaim the country as Latin America’s fastest growing economy.

However, though Chile’s drop in absolute poverty rates (which have fallen from 40% in 1990 to 14-15% today) is accredited to the country’s rapid and sustained economic growth, inequality figures have barely budged. According to the 2009 UN human development report, of the 147 countries for which there are figures, Chile is the 19th most unequal state in the world in terms of the social distribution of the country’s wealth. Figures from the report suggest that the richest 10% account for 40% of Chile’s income and expenditures, while the poorest account for only 1.6%.

While labour standards and workers’ rights are often sidelined by the aggressive “pro-growth” talk of development economists, they are fundamental components of social or human development.”

Chile is not exceptional in that respect. This is the model of development that has been pushed by institutions of global governance (the whole comparative advantage idea along with good old-fashioned trickle-down economics).

This avoided tragedy should get us to reconsider not just models of development but also the fact that, in the 21st century, we still have a lot of people working at such jobs and working conditions.

The other thing I could not help notice as I was watching the rescue is this:

Notice the number of indigenous faces. And watching the coverage, it becomes obvious that this mining community is an indigenous community, as opposed to the President, his wife and the other officials:

This is not new in Central and South America. One would find that, in the agricultural sector, large agricultural producers and owners are descendants of Europeans (white) while the working class is made of larger numbers of indigenous peasants and workers. Race stratification is a pervasive traits of these societies. This case is no different.

Finally, one cannot help but be reminded of other miners on the same continent, in Bolivia, dramatically depicted in The Devil’s Miner:

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 – 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.

Movie Review – Avatar

What can I say about Avatar that has not been written already, especially in this often-cited post:

As mentioned all over the place, this is Dances with Wolves meets The Last Samurai where noble savages who, unlike modern white folks, have not lost their connection to nature and are happy in their spiritual bliss and gentle nature stewardship (see how the Na’vi connect – literally – with animals and other natural elements, including souls). Cameron’s noble savages are very new-agey and, in a very 2009-fashion, they are connected to each other and the entire ecosystem through a global network (as Grace the biologist – Sigourney Weaver – tells us).

Against them are lined the superior forces of global corporations and military contractors who do their bidding and get well paid for it. And the battle is over resources that Pandora has and that Earth needs. The corporation wants it and it will take it one way or another. The message on environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples is not exactly subtle.

And so, the movie culminates in the final battle between mean Goliath against the gentle David. But the Na’vi have a joker card which answers the question asked in the post cited above:

I have a different view. It’s not about having a character to relate to. It’s about white supremacy. Let’s look at the evidence: Jake Scully gets initially introduced into the tribe because of some religious sign that designates him as special and he will be the only one to be able to connect with the big-ass red bird that will come so handy in battle and reinforces his spiritual status as “Super Na’vi”. And that is on top of the skill set he brings to the tribe: his marine and military training, which will ultimately save the Na’vi. The noble savages, with their bows and arrows, need a white military man to save them and become their leader. Where have we seen that before? Oh, yeah, in tons of movies. The white man in the avatar becomes a better Na’vi than the true Na’vi (and gets the girl, of course).

So, even though we are presented with a story that is designed to convey a message of environmentalism, multiculturalism and peace, we end up with the maintenance of white supremacy… oh and apparently, violence works, especially when based on military training, it’s what allows the Na’vi to win, once all the tribes are united under the leadership of Jake Scully. Without him, they’d be toast.

And, by being a super Na’vi, Scully can erase his being a defective / inferior white man due to his disability who initially agrees to spy on the Na’vi to regain his legs and therefore become a full man again, as promised by the über-patriarchal man delightfully played by Stephen Lang.

Oh, and let’s not forget who tells the story: Jake Scully. He is the narrator all through the movie. White man’s voice and perspective.

As I watched the movie, I could not help thinking whether all these people in the movie theater would think twice about drone bombing in AfPak? I don’t think so. It seems that the sociologists over at Sociological Images are skeptical as well:

In other words, because it relies so much on common colonizer history revised through multicultural lenses that more befit the enlightened 21st century, the story is entirely predictable, almost plot point by plot point.

Another interesting aspect of the story is detailed by Antonio Casilli (and links to a full peer-reviewed article in French for those of you who read it). Casilli’s argument is that cultural analysis shows that there is nothing really new about the avatar trope, including its blue color.

So, why is it blue?

Do check out the illustrations over at Casilli’s post. The theme is ubiquitous.

And the disable hero? Another common cultural trope:

Do read the whole thing or the paper itself if you can.

All that being said, the movie is certainly enjoyable and not boring (even though the final battle scene was getting a bit long for me). I saw it in 3D and the visuals were indeed stunning (the images of the forest at night were beautiful) but again, it has to be viewed with a critical eye beyond the technical prowess.

Book Review – Southern Theory – Part 2

Part 1 here.

After reading through most of Southern Theory, I was afraid the final section would be a version of “let’s dump everything Northern and embrace everything Southern as infused with golden wisdom.” But, of course, Connell is much too smart a sociologist to endorse such a simplistic position. See the short and sweet and yet devastating take-down Vandana Shiva for a sample of that.

In truth, the last part of Southern Theory is a powerful piece of writing that made me go “wow!” several time for the sheer cleverness of the arguments put forth and the brilliance of the writing.

In the first part of this last section, Connell reintroduces space (or land, as she puts it) against both Coleman’s “blank dance floor” but also against theorization of globalization as spacelessness and deterritorialization. To bring back “the land” is also to bring back the history of dispossession and loss that so many Northern theories elided and avoided. It is, abstractly, a call to bring back the context out of which theories emerged but it is also very concretely a call to study the persistence of space-ness (as Connell puts it) whether through indigenous peoples’ struggles for their land (and the far- and deep-reaching implications for human rights, democracy and economic order), or through Saskia Sassen’s studies of the global city. In either cases, sociology and social theory need to get back down on the ground. Space and land still matter and embodies all sorts of social relations of domination and resistance that sociology and social sciences need to address.

“The general idea of dispossession – one of the most important and under-theorised concepts in social science – needs to sink roots in the mud of particular landscapes.

Taking the land seriously has implication for social science knowledge. (…)

This applies to theorists as well as to fact-grubbing empirical researchers. I want to suggest a new meaning for the term ‘grounded theory’: linking theory to the ground on which the theorist’s boots are planted. To think in this way is to reject the deeply entrenched habit of mind, mentioned at the start of this chapter, by which theory in the social sciences is admired exactly in the degree to which it escapes specific settings and speaks in abstract universals.” (206)

This does not mean that Connell advocates the rejection of generalizations in social theory. Quite the opposite.

“The power of social science generalisations is multiplied if they can be linked to the characteristics of the context within which they apply.

This suggest an argument against pure theory, in favour of what we might call dirty theory  – that is, theorising that is mixed up with specific situations. The goal of dirty theory is not to subsume, but to clarify; not to classify from the outside, but to illuminate a situation in its concreteness. And for that purpose – to change the metaphor – all is grist to the mill. Our interest as researchers is to maximise the wealth of materials that are drawn into the analysis and explanation. It is also our interest to multiply, rather than slim down, the theoretical ideas that we have to work with. That includes multiplying the local sources of our thinking.” (207)

This move is almost the exact opposite of the neoliberal takeover as the “theory of everything” and the one-size-fit-all that all society should embrace and that makes all other theorizing irrelevant. Neo-liberalism is the spaceless, deterritorialized theory par excellence; the theory that eliminates the very material nature of commodification processes and global economic integration, be it – I might add – in terms of grabbing more land in Africa for the metropole’s resources as neo-colonial dispossession. Contra that, more studies are needed to study the urban ecology of global cities that are more and more designed and built to keep the poor available as cheap labor but out of sight and segregated otherwise. Indeed, many studies have already shown how the transnational capitalist class actually is able to reconfigure space to its own needs and comfort, buffeted against the nasty side effects of neo-liberal policies and the workings of the transnational state, to use William Robinson’s construct.

As Connell puts it much better than I can,

“The land, therefore, is not irrelevant, even in the citadels of globalisation. We have to understand its social significance in a complex dialectic of place and power, of which the history of colonisation and the consequent land rights struggles of indigenous people are key parts. These struggles, the experiences that underlie them and the arguments advanced in them are now strategic matters of social justice globally. Taking them seriously, and learning from them, is necessary for regenerating social science on a world scale.” (209)

“Social science on a world scale” is then the final and culminating topic of Southern Theory. This last chapter contains several recommendations, almost guidelines, as to what a non-hegemonic social science should guard itself against. So, what should a social science on the world scale pay attention to?

  • It should recognize the pattern of exploitation and inequalities in power, wealth and cultural influence between the metropole and the periphery (this was the core of the critique of Northern theories).

  • It should recognize that the periphery is neither homogeneous nor fixed, but dynamic. A variety of social movements (women, indigenous peoples, peasants, etc.) have emerged to challenge exploitative arrangements.

  • It should not erase the experiences of the periphery. Instead, it should recognize peoples of the Global South as subjects with intentionality and agency and, sometimes, experiences that are unknown to the Global North and its theorists, such as colonialism.

  • It should recognize the centrality of the colonial experience and the enormous influence of past and persisting colonizing structures on peripheral societies and collective experiences.

  • Similarly, it should recognize other non-Northern experiences such as – in addition to colonial dispossession – military dictatorships and neo-liberal restructuring (through structural adjustment programs, for instance) and the multiple sites of “subaltern” resistance to these experiences. Its hob is to analyze all those, not erase them under the guise of universal theoretical claims.

  • It should also recognize and analyze the metropole-capacity or apparatus (that is, the social processes and institutions) that allow the metropole to function qua metropole. This capacity or apparatus is often hidden behind colonial structure and not recognizing it or shining a spotlight on it contributes to its power.

And Connell never forgets the “science” part in social science, that is, the attention to the type of knowledge social science produces.

  • This involves investigations.

  • This involves what Connell calls the “permanent revolution of corrigibility.” Science is a collective endeavor and a series of collective practices. However, what is needed is to bring in the voices of the periphery not as data or fields of applications but as potential correctives and theoretical clarifications.

  • This involves, again, a capacity for generalization, for patterns that bring the data together.

  • This involves a concern for truthfulness that cannot be attained if the periphery is absent or treated as data or object.

Finally, a social science on the world scale should serve to promote democracy. According to Connell, this can be accomplished through four main ways. Here, let me quote Connell herself, in order to do her justice,


“The first is through the growth of compassion (…) a solidarity with,, the despised and rejected. A multi-centred social science has a great capacity to circulate knowledge of social experiences other than those of the global elites, and thus enable mutual learning. ” (230-1)


“The second is social science’s function of critique. When researchers investigate topics that are sensitive for neoliberalism, they find themselves contesting a torrent of lies and distortions from governments and corporate-funded think-tanks. A major example is research on poverty (Saunders 2005). Given the restructuring of the world economy and the growth of the global-private, issues of social justice unavoidably have an international dimension.” (231)


“Finally, world social science is relevant to democracy because it is itself a field of democratic action. To contest a privileged minority’s control over a field of knowledge is a democratic cause, whether on a local or a world scale. The learning process based on recognition and discussion among many voices – the picture of social-scientific knowledge which the arguments of this book imply – is inherently a democratic process.” (231)

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this book, even I found a couple of examples unconvincing in the mobilization of Southern theories. If taken seriously, it should completely question the way we teach sociology, starting at the undergraduate level and how such teaching reproduces hegemonic practices. I am not yet sure though how the way the curriculum is shaped and delivered in the institutional context of the American university (especially) but also in Europe in a different way can be changed and opened. American undergraduate education is more and more utilitarian (designed to train people faster and faster for the job market) and the French system, for instance, well, good luck making that one budge from its hegemonic position.

However, there is a space where Connell’s recommendations can be implemented: the open virtual spaces of public sociology outside of academia: blogs, sociology online communities, and yes, even social media such as Twitter or Facebook. After all, there is more democratic potential there than within academia… Of course, this raises issues of digital divide and this is where the privileged (those of us who have access to these spaces) should work towards finding ways of reaching out to the periphery and open these spaces for them as well… who’s with me?

Book Review – Southern Theory – Part 1

In Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science, Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell sets herself the ambitious task of extirpating the imperialist roots of Western social science (sociology in particular) and bring to the fore the social science projects of the periphery through the exploration of a variety of sociologists from the Global South. In the context of globalization, such a project is long overdue.

The book is roughly divided into three parts. In the first part, Connell provides a critique of Northern theory, and in particular, the work of James Coleman, Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu for a common theoretical attitude in the metropole: taking the Global South either as source of data to be theorized about in the metropole, or as subjects of application of Northern theory assumed to be of universal validity. That is, theories devised in the metropolitan universities based on work in societies of the Global North are taken to have automatic valid application to the societies of the Global South. That move, in itself, makes sociology an imperialist discipline and that is this unexamined imperialist core that Connell sets out to extirpate. As she puts it,

“Sociology was formed within the culture of imperialism, and embodied an intellectual response to the colonised world. This fact is crucial in understanding the content and method of sociology, as well as the discipline’s wider cultural significance.” (9)

For instance, the evolutionary nature of early sociology provided a neat justification to colonialism and imperialism under the guise of scientific objectivity.

The hegemonic universalizing tendency of sociological theorizing is especially visible in James Coleman’s work:

“Coleman’s theoretical ambition is announced in his first sentence: ‘A central problem in social science is that of accounting for the functioning of some kind of social system.’ A social system is defined as a set of individuals linked by transactions in which they must engage to satisfy their own  interests because the other individuals have some control over the resources they need. The interplay between individual and system, the micro-macro link becomes a formative problem in Coleman’s theorising, and is generally a central problem in modern positivism.

Less readily noticed, because it is so common in sociological theorising, is Coleman’s assumption that this language of individual and system, interest, control and resource, micro and macro, is of universal relevance. The concepts can be applied in any time and place.” (29)

Not to mention that such a system is unable to account for colonial and imperial social relationships, or even slavery or any other type of power relations for that matter. And of course, this theorizing is ahistorical:

“Coleman’s actors move in an energetic dance, calculating, bargaining and exchanging on a featureless dance floor, It is not entirely accidental that his visual models of action systems resemble teaching diagrams for the foxtrot or the jazz waltz. The featurelessness of the dance floor follows from the ahistorical method. In each derivation, the same limited set of elements and possible relations is set in motion, The theoretical logic will not work, any more than one can dance a foxtrot, if the dance floor is lumpy with footprints from previous dances of with the bodies of previous dancers.” (31)

So, what of Giddens and structuration theory? After all, Giddens borrows from a variety of traditions (all the way to ethnomethodology and conversation analysis) to transcend the traditional dichotomies of sociology (e.g. micro – macro or structure – agency). The problem, for Connell, is that Giddens does not escape his own version of “stages of human societies” in which the Global North is more advanced than the Global South. Here again, colonialism and imperalism are evacuated.

“Giddens implies that the West is dominant not because it conquered the rest of the world, but because of its ‘temporal precedence’. the West industrialised and modernised first. Other social orders are passing away not because Europeans with guns came and shattered them, but because modernity is irresistible.” (38)

One can already discern the similarities with modernization theory and common approaches to globalization (including Giddens’s own).

And for Connell, Bourdieu can be credited for crafting a powerful toolkit for sociological research (the concepts are familiar: structure, field, habitus, symbolic violence, social reproduction, etc.) deemed to be universally applicable even though Bourdieu’s own analysis of Algeria are devoid of references to colonialism.

The bottom line is that Northern theory is guilty of four traits:

  • Claim of universality
  • Reading from the center
  • Gestures of exclusion (there are apparently no theorists in the Global South)
  • Grand erasure (the experiences of the people of the Global South is erased to make room for projections of Northern theorizing about them)

Connell finds similar problems with contemporary theorists of globalization. For many theorists, globalization is the next state beyond modern society dismantling its main tenets, such as the nation-state structures. In many cases, globalization is capitalism’s next stage and we are all in it, all in the same boat in a decaying environment for which global solutions have to be found. But here again, Northern theorizations (“world risk society”, “liquid modernity”, “individualization”, “global scapes” and so on) are taken to be universally valid. It is again a view from the North upon the rest of the world and non-metropolitan thinkers are absent.

“Perhaps the most remarkable example is on Beck’s What is Globalization?, which end with a short essay on ‘The Brazilianization of Europe’ (Beck 2000: 161-3). This does not discuss Brazil at all, but uses the name to evoke a horror scene of social fragmentation, violence and selfishness which the European readers surely do not want. The remarkable social educational reconstruction efforts undertaken by the Brazilians, in the aftermath of a violent military dictatorship and in the teeth of corporate power, does not enter Beck’s argument.” (65)

Actually, since we are talking about Brazil, see this, this and this for what is going on in Brazil… and yes, it is more Northern perspective. Still very interesting, though.

When the Global South is considered, it is through Development Studies or Area Studies or International Relations. Connell is more merciful with World-system analysis which is historical, was always global in its analysis of the capitalist world system, and never evaded analysis of imperialism. The missing pieces are gender and race in this context though. As I have quoted before,

“The underlying problem of the social-scientific approaches considered in this chapter [Ed: everything I read: Bourdieu, Beck, Bauman, Robinson…] is their geopolitical logic. They rely exclusively on the metropole for their intellectual tools and assumptions, and therefore treat the majority world as object. This closes off the possibility of social science working as a shared learning process, a dialogue, at the level of theory.

Inhabitants of the majority world are not just the objects of theory, the data mine for social science. They are also subjects – the producers of theory about the social world and their place in it. (…)

Every colonised [sic] culture produces interpretations of imperialism. Intellectuals in the majority world have been studying empire, colonisation and globalisation processes as long as intellectuals in the metropole have. This represents a huge resource for learning, which metropolitan social science currntly discards. Because of the metropole’s hegemonic position in the global organisation of social science (as Sonntag (1999) shows for sociology), this waste is difficult contest.” (68)

This concludes the first part of the book and it is extremely compelling and should make any sociologist think twice about the way we teach sociology and social theory. In the second big part of the book, after reviewing the sociological landscape in Australia, Connell dives into Southern theory per se. I have to say that even though it makes for an interesting read, this was the weakest part of the book, ironically and I will get to it in a moment, but first, this important issue, that Connell mentions regarding Africa but which is, I think, relevant for the rest of the Global South intellectuals as well:

“Intellectuals had mostly supported nation-building in the 1950s and the 1960s, but repressive regimes closed the spaces for debate and often demanded ideological conformity. African social scientists in particular were cut off from policy-making. When neoliberalism and Structural Adjustment Programs arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, the alienation was renewed. Governments turned to foreign advisers, while NGOs wanted only consultancies, not basic research programs, assuming that ‘poor research was good enough for the poor’.” (109)

This is almost the statement that was made to me by Professor Mutumba Bull, Director the Institute of Economic and Social Research of the University of Zambia and former Minister in the first independent governments of Zambia under Kenneth Kaunda. This is a statement of neo-colonialism and persistence of imperialism that also explains the precarious position of intellectuals and theorists in the Global South.

That being said, I especially had problems with the chapter on Islam and Western Dominance. While Connell presents interesting work by Al-e Ahmad and the important and powerful concept of Westoxication, I had problems with the idea of building social theory from Islam. As much as I understand using Islam as a tool of political action against Westoxication, Islam, per se, cannot be legitimately be seen as sound theoretical basis. Political Islam is a topic of analysis (see Olivier Roy on this) but not a theoretical position. After all, would we take seriously a sociologist basing his theory on Christianity (especially of the revival kind) or any other religion? I personally would not. Liberation Theology has demonstrated that Christianity can be used as a political basis for liberationist projects. That does not make a proper theoretical foundation. This may have sounded interesting to Connell, but religion is not basis for good sociology.

Ironically, as I was reading Southern Theory, I was also reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe of Nigeria. It is a very interesting novel whose plot takes place as an indigenous culture gets its first taste of colonial oppression and its socially dislocating effects. Certainly, the sociologist in me was fascinated by that aspect of things but, here again, a novel is not a social theory.

Similarly, and this is, I think, another difficulty with Connell’s book, any political project that seeks emancipation requires some analysis / diagnosis of society and power. Again, this is not automatically sociology. Interestingly, though, the one African theorist that comes to mind, Franz Fanon, is mentioned but not examined at all. I don’t know if this is because Connell assumed her readers would already be familiar with him, but I thought it might have been interesting to have more on him.

Things got more interesting, for me, when Connell gets to dependency theorists, because these guys are more up my alley than religious activists. I also think that dependency theory is not just economic theory but also good social theory of the relationships of exploitation and domination between metropole and periphery:

“The core of Cardoso and Faletto’s dialectical sociology is the interplay between global structures and local political dynamics – the formation of the local state and the struggles to control and reshape it. (…)

Their strength, therefore, is not in a subtle analysis of the structure of Latin American society. It is rather in their subtle analyses of the historically changing relationships between systems of domination within Latin America and the structures of the international economy. In this regard, Dependency and Development has implications far beyond Latin America and is still, I think, an intellectually important text. It offers a carefully thought out method for the analysis of transnational social processes that is far more sophisticated than most of the metropolitan literature on ‘globalisation’ that appeared 25 years later.” (148)

Hear hear. And Connell’s summary of the insights in How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart is just plain fun to read in addition to making important points. These insights on the cultural reproduction of colonial attitudes and prejudice along with a pro-capitalist position is familiar for anyone who has also been raised with Tintin comics or watched the Tijuana Toads as a child, as I did… I mean, seriously…

It is so bad it is painful to watch.

Connell’s developments on the contemporary Latin American’s women’s movement is also important as she shows how gender was a major blind spot  for the Southern theorists she reviews in previous chapters.

Finally, Connell turns to India to examine the theory under the label of subaltern politics, as illustrated by the journal Subaltern Studies in which articles explore local forms of resistance to oppressive power by peasants or working class movements into coherent theory, as Connell demonstrates with her analysis of Partha Chatterjee’s ‘modes of power’:

“He defines three basic forms: communal where entitlements are allocated on the authority of a whole social collectivity; feudal, where entitlements derive basically from physical force (i.e. a situation of direct domination); and bourgeois, where property rights are guaranteed by generalised law, and indirect domination is achieved through the institutions of representative government. (…)

The most interesting part of Chatterjee’s argument concerns the interplay between these modes. Feudal society was not established as a homogeneous system; rather, it involved the intrusion of the feudal mode of power into the communal realm. The result was constant resistance to feudal lords, with unstable outcomes. (…) Expanding capitalism does [not] simply obliterate feudalism. Indeed, it can incorporate feudal structures of domination. What capitalism does tend towards is the extinction of the communal mode of power. (…)

It is the complex combinations of modes of power around postcolonial states that are characteristic, opening up ‘an entirely new range of possibilities for the ruling classes to exercise their domination.” (171-2)

And these variegated forms of resistance are the subject of Subaltern Studies. It is clear that such a framework as Chatterjee’s modes of power can be applied beyond India. Reading through these sections, I was, of course, reminded of the Zapatistas’s struggle in the Chiapas where one can clearly see the interplay of all three modes within the specific Mexican context.

It is also in this chapter, and especially in the section titled ‘Intimate Oppositions’ that I felt the most Fanon’s relative absence especially as he is presented as the counterpoint to Ashis Nandy’s insights on the colonized self:

“In his 1978 essay ‘Towards a Third World Utopia’, he criticises Fanon’s idea of cleansing violence as being insensitive to the cultural resistance of oppressed (Nandy 1987: 33). He considers this strategy of opposition to be contained within the logic of colonialism, reproducing its hypermasculinity, cult of violence, loss of emotional connection and dehumanisation of enemies.” (188)

It is indeed central to reintroduce questions of masculinity into discussions of colonial oppression and that seems to have been something that most theorists, Northern and Southern missed (apart, of course, from the feminists).

So, having laid out some more or less convincing examples of Southern Theory and thrown some pretty devastating criticisms at Northern Theory, what is left for Connell to do if not lay out clearly the foundations of a non-imperialist sociology. She does so in the last section of the book and I will pick that up more in details in part 2 of the review.

Shoving Indigenous Peoples Out of the Way (Again)

This time, it’s in Borneo and the Penan are losing the tropical forests that sustain their livelihood so that agribusiness companies can grow oil palm plantation:

The Penan are hunters and gatherers, so, they are almost completely reliant on Sarawak forests. They are not the only ones in that situations. Other indigenous peoples on Sumatra, along with local orangutans population also face similar threats of deforestation for cash crops for agribusiness. The threat to endangered wildlife attracted more NGOs (as is often the case) such as Greenpeace, in that case.

So far, the Penan protests have been unsuccessful. The world demand for palm oil is much too high (one third of the world’s consumption of all oils) for the fate of a few indigenous groups to weigh much.

More than, as China and India are major consumers of palm oil, demand is rising and new sites are being considered in Africa to extend production.

So far, the only solution, rather a compromise, really, is to have a sustainable development certification on palm oil, through Rainforest Alliance‘s Sustainable Forestry Initiative that provides certification via the Forest Stewardship Council. These kinds of initiatives basically acknowledge that it will not be possible to stop deforestation. They only try to limit the damage done by it and have some safeguards in place both in terms of environmental protection but also in terms of sustainability for human and wildlife population.

Globalization Losers – Indigenous Peoples

I have blogged before about indigenous peoples as a category of populations that are the prime victims of globalization (as they were also prime victims of colonialization and industrialization) but the difference between now and the previous eras (industrial and colonial) is that now, there is some concern about their fate and their rights. Still… Case in point, the Kuchis of Afghanistan, who were constantly in the middle of the fighting during the Soviet invasion (mostly because they are nomadic traders), and now:

As a general rule, central governments have a hard time figuring out what to do with indigenous peoples who, by definition, do not fit the model of sedentarism that is the basis of social institutions and norms.

As such, they are also more likely to bear the brunt of risk society:

The impacts of any risk are amplified when they affect a category of the population that is already socially disadvantaged, as indigenous peoples are in most societies they are a part of (voluntarily or not).

Similarly, social change tends to have more adverse effects on indigenous peoples and they are more likely to have policies enacted by central governments imposed upon them… and that is in the favorable situation in which they do not stand in the way of resource exploitation by corporate interests. However, as the potential for scarcity and resource wars increases, indigenous peoples who stand in the way are more likely to be victims of violence, as has already occurred at the very same time that their livelihood is already threatened by climate change.

Organized Crime, Environmental Destruction and Global Governance

This is one of those articles that underlines how much everything seems to be connected. Take the case of Colombia:

What is the related problem? Largely, the US policy towards cocaine growth in Colombia.

Not to mention that destroying coca plants only reduces supply and therefore increases the street price of cocaine. And then there is a third catch:

The connections are very clear and perfectly illustrate the multi-layered aspects of globalization and global governance. Coca production is already a complicated problem for Colombia as it feeds its guerilla war through its use by both the FARC and the right-wing paramilitary groups.

On the other hand, coca growth constitutes a development problem because this is the only crop of value on the global market, partly because of agricultural subsidies in place in the US and the European Union. Legal crops grown in developing countries cannot compete in such a distorted world market for agricultural goods. So, Colombian farmers grow coca and in the process destroy the rainforest.

Then, the US decides to spray entire areas in the name of the War on Drugs, destroying not just the illegal crops but everything else as well, which means, efforts at creating a sustainable and subsistence agriculture in these regions is pointless and causes further destruction of the rainforest.

A vicious cycle indeed based on bad public policy in Western countries (drug policies and agricultural subsidies) but whose price is paid by Colombian peasants who are invisible to those who destroy their chances at a sustainable livelihood, not just the national governments of Western countries, but also regional and global governance institutions.

The global village can be a lousy place for those at the bottom of the global stratification system.

The Rise of The Pantry Periphery

After the pleasure periphery, using peripheral countries for pharmaceutical trials, and after using peripheral land to grow biofuels, here is another instance of the use of peripheral countries for rich countries’ benefits.

This is indeed likely to become a growing trend: a rich country experiencing a food shortage and unable to grow its own can pick a poor country and make a deal to use its land for its own purposes. Call it surrogate food production. Of course, it is not hard to find a highly indebted country to agree to such deals. But as the article mentions, this deal is more likely to benefit the land-owning, politically connected upper classes, thereby increasing the level of stratification within the Kenyan society as well as the social power of political clout and leaving the general population further behind.

It is indeed proper to call it an additional form of neo-colonialism where, in addition to the categories mentioned above, indigenous peoples (especially those using land communally) will be the losers.

Ogaden – The Forgotten Dirty Little War

Burnt villages, displaced populations, mass rapes, assassinations… does this sound familiar? This has become the usual pattern of new wars. Except this one does not receive any publicity and it takes place in Ethiopia, in the Eastern region of Ogaden where the Ethiopian military has been conducting operations for a little over a year.

Human Rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have raised the alarm since June, denouncing a conspiracy of silence and accusing the Ethiopian military of war crimes:

The full report is here.

Here, as in Darfur, we find peoples from different ethnic background, a Somali pocket in Ethiopia. The situation is also an overflow of the disintegration of Somalia. When in January 2007 Somali Islamic courts were defeated, they reorganized themselves into guerillas. The Ethiopian army confronted them on Mogadishu while smaller extremist groups continued to operate in Somali regions.

This surge in activity on the part of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), created more than 20 years ago, is attributed to the Ethiopian intervention into Somalia (with the blessings of the international community and especially the US). Initially, the Ethiopian army was supposed to be relieved by an international force. To this day, the African Union has sent 3,000 soldiers whereas the UN has not sent any blue helmets. The US policy has been to placate Ethiopia, the only ally they have in this region where Sudan and Erythrea are open hostile to Washington. And so, everybody keeps quiet as to what goes on in Ogaden.

For instance, the Ethiopian military controls food aid, so, villages that are suspected to support the ONLF are not receiving food distributions. While the ONLF accuses the Ethiopian government of starving Ogaden, even the World Food Program acknowledges that the humanitarian situation of Somali populations is critical and deteriorating. A few weeks ago, Doctors Without Borders announced it was leaving Ogaden because they are unable to provide medical care. A year ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross was kicked out of the region for alleged support for the rebels.

So, as the military operations have decreased because the Ethiopian government claims to have defeated the ONLF. However, it still does not allow NGOs to operate as they want in the region and are under strict governmental control.

And all this, of course, has to be added to the current famine in Ethiopia where food aid is urgently needed, in the context of rising food prices and a major drought that has left 5 million people in a desperate situation there. So, on the one hand, Ethiopia is a country dependent upon international aid and organizations but on the other hand, it expects to be able to exercise internal policy without control or accountability. A not uncommon dilemma for African countries.

Book Review – Heart of Diamonds

HoD [Disclaimer 1: I suck at reviewing fiction]

[Disclaimer 2: my only criterion when it comes to reading fiction is "is the story any good?" as in "does it keep me interested?"]

Ok, now that that’s out of the way: I LOVED Heart of Diamonds (HofD). Gosh, I lost valuable hours or sleep, work and blogging because I could not put the thing down.

Considering the fact that I very rarely read fiction (mostly sci-fi or specific friends’ recommendations and Stephen King… yeah, Stephen King… bite me… oh and Stephen King can write stories and very good feminine characters… here’s a guy who "gets" women, so there), how did I ever discover the book in the first place?

Those of you who know me or have read this blog since its inception know that I have a soft spot for Africa and have travelled to Zambia (I hope to go back in Spring 09… fingers crossed), so, I read a lot about it and bumped into Dave Donelson’s blog, saw that he had this book coming out and pre-ordered it months ago.

The one thing I liked about the book was the narrative: it’s all story – story – story. Donelson does not waste space with – what tends to turn me off in fiction – endless descriptions. He goes straight to the point. It does not mean that characters are not defined or that the context is irrelevant (quite the opposite, actually), but simply, that, again, it’s straight to the point and straight to what makes the story move forward.

The context itself is essential. The story takes place against the background of the mess that is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In HofD, the Congo itself is the thread that runs throughout the book, brings the characters together, develops and changes their relationships. In this book, the DRC is not just a prop to the characters, it makes the characters (or destroys them).

The novel itself is rich in characters. They are multiple and fairly well-defined but for anyone who has ever read or researched the African post-colonial conflicts, they are familiar: the corrupt dictator, the ruthless and cruel warlord / militia leader, the hypocritical evangelist and his cronies, the greedy investors, the shadowy military contractor, the indifferent Western media figures, the dedicated (and yet sometimes naive) relief workers, the resilient locals, the strong African women, the traumatized children. They’re all there, along with others and their stories are woven together seamlessly.

And any novel that exposes the hypocrisy of American fundamentalist evangelicals is guaranteed to have my vote! (Of course, I could not stop thinking of another fundie televangelist who got himself financially involved in Rwanda, around the time of the genocide)… And it is rather easy to "identify" certain characters and their possible real-life equivalents.

And then, there are diamonds… a perfect example of resource curse. The DRC has the diamonds, and a whole bunch of characters, both African and American, want them, out of greed. That is a simple motivation but a powerful one that has made African conflicts brutal, bloody and never-ending.

Nkisi And the Minkisi dolls which are also an intrinsic part of the story (the ones in the book don’t really look like the one of the right but it’s just to give an idea of the things).

But most of all, HofD is a thriller. There is a mystery to be solved, relating to the dolls, and Valerie Grey, the American journalist and main character (Dave Donelson also "gets" women, BTW), drags her assistant Nancy (I want Frances McDormand to play her if there is a movie based on the book) and cameraman between the US and the DRC to figure out why the dolls are being shipped from a diamond mine (recently acquired by a very wealthy televangelist – aren’t they all? – and managed by a phony fundie (who manages the mine in a way that King Leopold would not have disavowed) with the help of the government army, translation: the militia of the latest winner in the never-ending conflict) to the US, especially to a government official.

And things become a mess from there. The book is fast-paced and does not let up especially in the last third of the novel. As a result, I got a yawn out of the romantic dilemma Valerie Grey faces… I mean, seriously, who cares? Especially in the context of what is happening in the DRC… but then again, romantic stuff always bores the heck out of me and there really wasn’t too much of it.

Like I said, I hope that book becomes a movie… except I’m afraid they might ruin it. Trailer below. Just buy the book or get your library to buy it.