Where the colonial masters are financial giant groups, assisted by the means of Western states acting against debt colonies:

“Colonialism is back. Well, at least according to leading politicians of the two most famous debtor nations. Commenting on the EU’s inability to deliver its end of the bargain despite the savage spending cuts Greece had delivered, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the opposition Syriza party, said last week that his country was becoming a “debt colony”. A couple of days later, Hernán Lorenzino, Argentina’s economy minister, used the term “judicial colonialism” to denounce the US court ruling that his country has to pay in full a group of “vulture funds” that had held out from the debt restructuring that followed the country’s 2002 default.

While their language was deliberately incendiary, these two politicians were making extremely important points. Tsipras was asking why most burdens of adjustment for bad loans have to fall on the debtor country and, within them, mostly on its weaker members. And he is right. As they say, it takes two to tango, so those who condemn Greece for imprudent borrowing should also condemn the imprudent lenders that made it possible.

Lorenzino was asking how we can let one court ruling in a foreign country in favour of one small group of creditors (who bought the debt in the secondary market) derail a painfully engineered process of national recovery. The absurdity of this situation becomes clear when we recall that, partly thanks to the default and subsequent debt restructuring, Argentina, expanding at close to 7% per year, has been the fastest growing Latin American economy between 2003 and 2011.

But there is far more at stake here than the national welfares of Greece and Argentina, important though they are. The Greek debt problem has dragged down not just Greece but the whole eurozone, and with it the world economy. Had the Greek debt been quickly reduced to a manageable level through restructuring, the eurozone would be in a much better shape today. In the Argentinian case, we are risking not just an end to Argentina’s recovery but a fresh round of turmoil in the global financial market because of one questionable US court ruling.


Unfortunately, no mechanism like this [bankruptcy] exists for countries, which is what has made sovereign debt crises so difficult to manage. Because they don’t have any legal protection from creditors in times of trouble, countries typically postpone the necessary restructuring of their economies by piling on more debts in the (usually unfulfilled) hope that the situation will somehow resolve itself. This makes the debt problem bigger than necessary.

What’s more, because they cannot officially go bankrupt, countries face a stark choice. Either they default and risk exclusion in the international financial market (although countries can overcome it quickly, as Russia and Malaysia did in the late 1990s) or they have to opt for a de facto default, in which they pretend that they have not defaulted by making full repayments on their existing loans with money borrowed from public bodies, like the International Monetary Fund and the EU, while trying to negotiate debt restructuring.

The problem with this solution is that, in the absence of clear rules, the debt renegotiation process becomes lengthy, and can push the economy into a downward spiral. We have seen this in many Latin American countries in the 1980s, and we are seeing it today in Greece and other eurozone periphery economies.

Meanwhile, the absence of rules equivalent to the protection of wage claims in corporate bankruptcy law means that claims by weaker stakeholders – pensions, unemployment insurance, income supports – are the first to go. This creates social unrest, which then threatens recovery by discouraging investment.”

Also, go spend 10 minutes watching / listening to this.

Hair Extension And World-System Extraction

Culture and fashion are not really my thing but neo-colonial exploitation is SO… this!

“Today, hair is more than just a symbol: it is big business. From India to Peru, the human hair trade has spread across the globe, and it has the UK in its grasp. Last year HM Revenue and Customs recorded more than £38m worth of hair (human, with some mixed human and animal) entering the country, making the UK the third biggest importer of human hair in the world.

Despite the recession the UK extension industry is booming, with hair extension companies claiming it is worth between £45m and £60m (according to London based industry research firm IBISWorld, revenue from hair and beauty salons will be £3.64bn in 2012-13). Great Lengths Hair Extensions, who supply more than 1,000 salons in the UK, report a staggering 70% growth in the past five years. And according to Dawn Riley from Balmain Hair, which sells extensions to thousands of salons and hundreds of wholesalers, this is only the beginning. “It’s still an emerging market. We are now seeing the growth that colour [hair dye] saw 30 years ago.”

In the upmarket central London salon, a full head of Great Lengths extensions costs around £900, and lasts up to six months. And while profits from cuts, colouring and blow drys have remained static, in 2012 the salon’s hair extension business has grown 60% year on year. Owner Inanch Emir has well-known clients including Cher Lloyd, Mischa Barton and Saturdays singer Rochelle Wiseman, and when I visit one weekday afternoon her small salon is buzzing. “I do about two or three hair extensions a day,” she says. “I used to do that a month.””

So, ok, fashion trends. Celebrities start them. People follow. Nothing original here, except the fact that younger and younger women use them.

But this is where I get interested:

“”If I’m honest, I don’t think people care where it is from,” admits Riley. “I would like to say we are all ethically minded, but if clients want something and they can pay for it, they will have it.” Gascoigne agrees: “I never ask where the hair comes from, I just love it so much. When you have big, bouncy hair you feel a million dollars.”

Yet behind the bounce, the profit, and the rows of neatly packaged hair, is what hair historian Caroline Cox calls the “dark side” of the industry. With the exception of a handful of businesses such as Bloomsbury Wigs, most hair comes from countries where long, natural hair remains a badge of beauty – but where the women are poor enough to consider selling a treasured asset.

Cox points out that such exploitation has underpinned the industry since false fronts and hair pieces became popular in the UK in Edwardian times. “It’s taking advantage of those who are disadvantaged,” she says. “Working-class women’s hair is used to bedeck the head of those who are more privileged. It’s been going on for hundreds of years.”

Much of the hair on sale comes from small agents who tour villages in India, China, and eastern Europe, offering poverty-stricken women small payments to part with their hair. As one importer, based in Ukraine, told the New York Times recently: “They are not doing it for fun. Usually only people who have temporary financial difficulties in depressed regions sell their hair.” More worryingly, back in 2006, the Observer reported that in India some husbands were forcing their wives into selling their hair, slum children were being tricked into having their heads shaved in exchange for toys, and in one case a gang stole a woman’s hair, holding her down and cutting it off. When Victoria Beckham said in 2003 that her “extensions come from Russian prisoners, so I’ve got Russian cell block H on my head“, she may have been joking, but it was not long until the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform admitted it was possible: warders were forcibly shaving and selling the hair of prisoners. Thanks to such horror stories, reputable companies try to ensure the hair they sell is “ethical”. Balmain Hair, Riley explains, has been sourcing hair from China for almost 50 years, and pays women the equivalent of a man’s six-month salary (although she cannot give me an exact figure). However, not all companies pay donors. In temples in south India devotees travel for hundreds of miles and queue for hours to have their hair tonsured, or ritually shaved. Some have prayed for a child, others for a sick relative or a good harvest, and when their prayers are answered they offer up their hair. According to one report, most are rural women whose hair has often never been dyed, blow-dried, or even cut and is worth around £200. The hair is then sorted and sold, often by online auction. Last year Tirumala temple, apparently made 2,000m rupees (more than £22m), from auctioning hair. Great Lengths, who sell “temple hair”, point out the hair is donated willingly, and they have a representative based in India who buys it straight from the temple, and ensures the money is funnelled directly back into the local community to fund “medical aid, educational systems and other crucial infrastructure projects”.

But while the women who grew the hair may not be well paid, the price for the customers is rising.”

Just like there is a market for everything, there is no end to the resources we can extract out of the District 12 periphery and ship to the Capitol core areas for consumption.

Book Review – Games of Empire

Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter‘s Games of Empire – Global Capitalism and Video Games is a very interesting and well-written book that uses the conceptual apparatus laid out by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (with a touch of Deleuze and Guattari thrown in for good measure) in Empire and Multitude and apply them to the social world of video games as they are embedded in the global capitalist system. The book might be a bit advanced for an undergraduate audience with constant references to more abstract theories but is ultimately fascinating in relating the ins-and-outs of the videogame industry and culture to the workings of the world system.

The main argument of the book is this:

“The “militainment” of America’s Army and the “ludocapitalism” of Second Life display the interaction of virtual games and actual power in the context of Empire, an apparatus whose two pillars are the military and the market (Burston 2003; Dibbell 2006). Consider that the virtualities of Second Life feed back into the actualities of capital via the medium of the Linden dollar, and that the virtualities of America’s Army cycle into the actualities of combat via the Web link to the U.S. Army home page. Add, moreover, that the two games are connected: the high energy consumption and consumer goods of Second Life are what America’s Army recruits soldiers to fight and die for.  The two games reassert, rehearse, and reinforce Empire’s twin vital subjectivities of worker-consumer and soldier-citizen: Second Life recapitulates patterns of online shopping, social networking, and digital labor crucial to global capitalism; America’s Army is but one among an arsenal of simulators that the militarized states of capital – preeminently the United States – depend on to protect their power and use to promote, prepare, and preemptively practice deadly operations in computerized battlespaces (Blackmore 2005). Yet the examples of digital dissent in Second Life and America’s Army show that not all gamers accept the dominion of what James Der Derian (2001) terms “MIME-NET” – the military-industrial-media-entertainment network. Minor gestures that they are, these protests nevertheless suggest a route from game virtualities to another sort of actualities, that of the myriad activisms of twenty-first-century radicals seeking to construct an alternative to Empire.

Our hypothesis, then, is that video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire – planetary, militarized hypercapitalism – and of some of the forces presently challenging it.” (xiv – xv)

This connection is pretty obvious to make, after all, virtual games, along with the computer and the Internet, were products of military research. And more than just universes where otakus spend their lonely lives, virtual environments have gone legit by being used in the corporate world as training and surveillance tools.

Of course, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter go over Hardt and Negri’s conceptual apparatus and provide some clear definitions and examinations, especially Empire (the planetary regime of economic, military and technological power with no outside) whose global governance is multilayered, involving global institutions, nation-states and various agencies. The counterreaction to the power of Empire is Multitude, which covers all the forms of activism that, also in a multilayered and decentralized fashion, challenge the logic and processes of Empire. This is TINA (there is no alternative) versus AWIP (another world is possible).

A major process of empire is its capacity to extract energy from its subjects: as workers, as consumers, as soldiers, and as gamers, through immaterial labor, that is, the labor that involves use of information and communication and produces the affective component of commodities. Immaterial labor reveals the centrality of marketing, advertising and media in creating new products and managing workplaces that produce them.

Why virtual games?

“Virtual games are exemplary media of Empire. They crystallize in a paradigmatic way its constitution and its conflicts. Just as the eighteenth century novel was a textual apparatus generating bourgeois personality required by mercantile colonialism (but also capable of criticizing it), and just as twentieth-century cinema and television were integral to industrial consumerism (yet screened some of its darkest depictions), so virtual games are media constitutive of twenty-first century global hypercapitalism and, perhaps, also lines of exodus from it.” (xxix)

The first part of the book is a pretty extensive history of video games and the rise of the corporate giants that currently dominate the market (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo). In that section, the authors deal with the issue of gender in video games. Two main developments are central to this: (1) with the massive entry of women in the workforce and the relative absence of equalization of domestic work by men (the whole Second Shift thing), the deficit in care work has been compensated through technology (including game consoles that are perfect for latchkey kids). (2) As deindustrialization pushed men away from manufacturing into the computer and information technology sectors, it left women stuck in the service sector that involved most of the emotional work. These service jobs pay less, are more physically demanding and are less prestigious. Even when women got into the ICT sector, it was in different, less “fun”, functions than men and the gendered division of labor persisted.

And despite technology, the second shift was still there, leaving women with less leisure time than men, and therefore less time to invest in video games that involve long hours of practice and involvement in building characters, accumulating goodies and reaching level after level. In other words, male privilege may have been challenged in a lot of spheres of social life but video games created a domain of “remasculinization” where the in-game experience is thoroughly based on the tropes and cultural scripts of hegemonic masculinity where sexism is rampant. As a result, there are fewer women gamers, a fact then used to claim that women are “naturally” less into gaming, a convenient justification that avoids looking into the structural dynamics of gaming. Actually, when given the opportunity and not drowned in sexist and misogynistic abuse, a lot of women love to game.

How does that fit with Empire?

“The world market is a dynamo at drawing people into the circuit of production and consumption, but it neglects, to a catastrophic degree, social and ecological reproduction – care for households, community, and environment. The ongoing sexism of virtual play mirrors this imbalance. Reproductive work, material and immaterial, has historically been performed overwhelmingly by women, and this, even after successive waves of feminism, still largely continues to be the case. The virtual play industry addresses itself to an ideal male subject, a ‘digital boy’ (Burrill 2008, 15) who can spend hours at game play and game production, and positions women, of not now as completely invisible other, still as a subsidiary participant, a ‘second sex’, making the dinner, sustaining relationships, and gaming occasionally, ‘casually’. It is precisely this non-universality, this prioritization of consumption and production over social and ecological reproduction, that males virtual play so symptomatic of Empire.” (23)

What is especially introduced by virtual play is the concept of playbor (play as labor as a form of immaterial labor). Players are free laborers, toiling for fun and for a price but they offer their free labor. Playbor has four aspects;

  • microdevelopment ( a lot of games are created by small teams in someone’s garage, being micro-developed until a select few get bought by giant corporations while millions of others just crash and burn)
  • modding (modifications and improvements on already commercialized and released games by altering the codes)
  • MMOs (massive multiplayer online games where the players are running massive experiments in community- and team-building for free)
  • machinima (players creating cinema from games)

Playbor is the version 2.0 of the hacker culture based on autoproduction, networked cooperation and self-organization. All four modalities of playbor are free labor provided by the players to the companies commercializing the games. Playbor is now also a tool used in corporate training and the knowledge economy in general.

Similarly, the virtual game industry is paradigmatic of cognitive capitalism:

“Cognitive capitalism is the situation where workers’ minds become the ‘machine’ of production, generating profit for owners who have purchased, with a wage, its thinking power.


To speak of cognitive capitalism is specifically to suggest the recent rise to prominence of a set of industries for whom the mobilization, extraction, and commodification of advanced forms of collective  knowledge are foundational: the computer hardware and software industries; the biotechnology, medical, and pharmaceutical sectors; the financial analysis sector, marketing, and data mining; and an array of media and entertainment enterprises, including video games. All these industries, in turn, presuppose a socially ‘diffuse intellectuality’, generated by an increasingly vast educational apparatus. (Vercellone 2007b).” (37-8)

Cognitive capital has specific characteristics:

  • production of software to record, manipulate, manage, simulate and stimulate cognitive activity;
  • intellectual property rights, patents, trademarks, and copyrights become the main mode of revenues in an increasingly rent economy, or turning living knowledge into dead knowledge (studied unoriginality)
  • globalization: sectors of cognitive capital aim for the global market in both production and consumption;
  • dependence on the cognitariat: a workforce with intellectual, technological and affective skills that needs to be organized, disciplined, and ultimately exploited (through three devices: creativity, cooperation and cool)
  • cognitive capital is also the terrain where owners and workers conflict.

In that respect, the whole chapter dedicated to EA is highly enlightening.

Another aspect of Empire is the use of social machines:

“A social machine is a functionally connected assemblage of human subjects and technical machines, people and tools.” (70)

In the case of virtual games, the assemblage goes as follows:

  • technical machine: the console (replaced by the human body with Wii and then Kinect)
  • corporate machine: the EULA, patents and copyrights attached to any device, the flows of capital, labor and technology
  • time machine: the profitable using up of software and other virtual commodities that have a limited life (consoles are sold at a loss, all the money is in the software that have a planned obsolescence)
  • machinic subjects: the mobilization of hard core gamers (mostly in the trope of  the hypermasculine “man of action”)
  • transgressive war machines of hacking and piracy
  • machine wars between the three corporate giant of the gaming world
  • global biopolitical machine of Empire:

“The Xbox, the PS3, and even the charming Wii are machines of Empire; their technological assemblages of circuitry and cell processors build the corporate territories of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, which in turn are components in the worldwide capitalist machine.


Consoles are intimate machines, seamlessly inserted into our domestic or personal space or even carried close to our skin, responsive to our skills and prowess, becoming, with the Wii, remote body extensions.” (93)

Hence is extended a society of control or surveillance society, with our consent and enjoyment.

Having laid out the structural context of gaming in the first part of the book, the authors move on, in the second part, to the actual games that banalize the idea of permanent war by socializing boys early on through war play. This is especially crucial in the aftermath of the War on Terror, which officialized a state of permanent conflict everywhere against elusive, never quite clearly defined enemies. For Hardt and Negri, after all, war is not for conflict resolution between countries but for control and order in the global system.

In this context, war is

  1. interminable and therefore becomes a general phenomenon and a permanent mode of social relations
  2. lacking boundaries as ‘security’ becomes the rationale for incursions everywhere and anywhere and where the boundaries between domestic and international become blurry
  3. legitimizing a permanent state of exception, which requires the suspension of rights
  4. the new normal

Virtual games provide an important agent of socialization to all of this. War becomes part of the culture of everyday life and joins, again, the video game culture and the military apparatus and the overlaps are rather obvious. For instance, developments in military thinking involve Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT), a scenario that is often played out in different games (such as the Full Spectrum series) and in real life (in the cities of Iraq, for instance or the US cities by a more and more militarized police).

Banalization of war not only habituates and socializes the population to permanent war, but it also maintains its will to fight. Through the exercise of virtual violence, the games train, discipline and disinhibit deadly aggression against enemies, or at least, socialize people to indifference to torture, mass killing of these “others”. The mass media play their part in that process as well.

And then, there was World of Warcraft as illustration of biopower. The makers of the game try to control the game “from above” and in most aspects of the game while the gamers organize themselves “from below”. Running an MMO requires tight governance in the face of constant violations, hacking and modding with specific sanctions and surveillance mechanisms while being careful to not kill the fun out of the game through too much control and sanctions. And this gets trickier as the gaming population increases with a gaming boom in Asia, especially China.

In WoW, Gold is what matters and gold farming is booming but gold farmers are reviled and stigmatized by other players as fake players. At the same time, one forgets that gold farmers are also real-life super-exploited workers by corporations that supply a demand, mostly from wealthier players. This is a rather perfect illustration of the relationship workers / consumers of core countries have to workers from the periphery and semi-periphery.

This phenomenon (along with the exploitation of peripheral workers to work up the levels – power leveling – by western players) was nicely illustrated in Cory Doctorow’s novel, For The Win.

“Here the intersection of Blizzard’s [the company that produces WoW] digital biopower with the material biopower of Chinese capitalism snaps into sharp focus. Wgen Blizzard polices the digital realm of Azeroth (a kingdom created from the commercial enclosure of cyberspace) for virtual gold farmers, the offenders it seeks are likely to be actual peasant farmers who have left or been thrown off their fields by Chinese capitalism’s enclosures, abandoning an impoverished and ecologically devastated countryside for its cyber-connected cities. Some have probably been displaced by megaprojects such as the Three Gorges Dam, supplying insatiable demand for electrical power, primarily for industry, but also for Internet servers, in China’s eastern’s coastal cities.” (145)

And corporations do not like gold farming because it impedes on the free labor provided by paying players. And so, the super-exploited players bear the brunt of exploitation AND discipline so that playbor can prevail and continue to provide massive quantities of free labor. As a result, the production relations of the real world are reproduced in virtual world as well in hyper-subsumption (the gradual full colonizing of every sphere of life by capitalist social relations).

If there is one thing that is clear, whether with the success of Slumdog Millionaire or the current occupation movement, it is that the city (especially the global city) is a key site of Empire, and Grand Theft Auto is a perfect illustration of the centrality of the urban environment. The global cities are where we can see the full spectrum of global stratification and the consolidation of global hierarchies, where massive wealth but also surveillance and repression take place. GTA is a perfect representation of the neoliberal urbanism:

“GTA’s constitution of a metropolitan entirely enveloped by, and subsumed within, crime also performs a normalization of corporate criminality. Its game world asserts that crime is the way the universe is – the way money changes hands, business is done, society organized; it is the nature of reality. Why be outraged when the financial rulers of the world disregard the pettiness of the law, since all of this just reveals their superior grasp of the rules of the game? The omnipresence of crime in Liberty City is thus one more cultural contribution to the generalized indifference that greets the news of corporate crimes in Empire,  an indifference whose rational kernel is perhaps, as David Harvey observes, the popular assumption that criminal behavior is hardly ‘easily distinguishable from the normal practices of influence-peddling and making money in the marketplace.’ (2007, 166)” (178)

And if GTA presents a world that is thoroughly corrupt, it does not offer any alternative than to be really good at the rotten game. There is no way out of Empire. GTA may be satirical but it also normalizes the state of affair as “that’s just the way it is”.

But for the authors, there are alternatives to the games of Empire, the games of Multitude, which are the subject of the final part of the book. Multitude is the counterreaction to Empire, all the forms of resistance and activism to the logics of Empire. Multitude manifests itself in different ways:

  • through new subjectivities, new forms of producing, cooperating and communicating on a global scale and mobilizing skills to subvert Empire – subjective capacity
  • through new social movements opposing global capital – social movements
  • through the development and protection of alternatives such as open source, indymedia and other forms of freeing information from global capital – political project

The key is to have all three coalesce.

In the case of video games, resistance from the multitude takes a variety of forms all subsumed under the concept of countergaming:

  • Counterplay: acts of contestation within the established games of Empire and their ideologies
  • Dissonant development: emergence of critical content in a few mainstream games, dissident infiltration
  • Tactical games: dissemination of radical social critique through game designed by activists
  • Polity simulators: serious educational and training projects
  • Self-organized worlds: independent production of game content in MMOs
  • Software commons: challenges on the whole intellectual property rights regime

This follows rather closely the logic of “another world is possible” made famous by the World Social Forum. And all six paths are part of repertoires of contention within the game world. And all of them may contribute potential paths to exodus from Empire. The authors present a whole variety of examples of the ways this can be accomplished. After all, Empire is a contested terrain and multiple forms of resistance are always at work in the minutiae of social life as well as the major social institutions.

It is a very dense book but a very important one to understand the logic of Empire, as a good introduction to the work of Hardt and Negri, as well as new social movements.

Highly recommended.

The Pleasure Periphery – Rules Are for The Natives

Via Denis Colombi, every year, we have to endure coverage of the Paris – Dakar (which is no longer from Paris to Dakar but never mind), where wealthy white men (and such races are gendered phenomena) get to use peripheral or semi-peripheral countries for their enjoyment, in a typical neo-colonialist fashion.

Years ago, I got to meet a few people who did the Paris – Dakar, and they were discussing the norms of the race. One such norm was that if you or someone from your team ran over some natives, you should NOT stop under any circumstances. Keep going, as these people might get brutal if you run over their kids. The bottom line was that the local population was either a hindrance (they force you to slow down and waste precious minutes to the finish line), or straight a hostile force to avoid, which was hard to do as the race got through populated areas.

Well, the geographical location of the race may have changed, but the lack of respect of local rules has not:

“En marge de cette épopée motorisée des temps modernes, le respect des règles n’est pas toujours exemplaire. La Funam (Fundación para la defensa del ambiente), une association argentine de défense de l’environnement opposée à l’existence de tels rallyes, a constaté 28 “graves infractions” au code de la route perpétrées par certains des concurrents du Dakar, “mettant gravement en danger la population locale”. Cela se passait le 3 janvier, lors du trajet de liaison de la deuxième étape qui menait les concurrents de Córdoba, où est basée cette association, à San Miguel de Tucumán, sur une route extrêmement fréquentée, située à une centaine de kilomètres au nord de Córdoba.

Sur la base de nombreuses photos (à voir ici) qui prouvent ces infractions, la Funam a porté plainte le 6 janvier auprès du tribunal de Córdoba. Cette démarche vise les pilotes des véhicules photographiés, contre lesquels est demandée l’application de la loi, à savoir l’imposition des amendes correspondantes, à leur retour dans la province de Córdoba lors de la 12e étape, le 14 janvier. La Funam fait remarquer que la loi argentine prévoit qu’un étranger ne peut sortir du pays sans s’être acquitté des contraventions dues. Elle ajoute que de telles infractions se produisent sur pratiquement toutes les étapes de liaison.

La Funam demande en outre qu’une enquête soit menée afin de savoir si les responsables de la prévention routière et de la police de Córdoba ont reçu des consignes pour ne pas intervenir lors de ces infractions. Elle exige également de la part de ces entités qu’elles fassent respecter le code de la route lors du retour de la compétition dans cette province.”

The photos are indeed revealing of violations of the rules of the road in populated areas and apparent indifference from the authorities, hence one of the complaints as to whether police officers had received instructions as to not intervene, as the organizers of the race give money to the host countries.

This is not surprising. One of the characteristics of the pleasure periphery is that norms are suspended for Westerners, whether we are talking about drug us or sex trafficking or any other kind of activities that are either frowned upon or downright illegal in Western countries.

In the example I gave above, race organizers actively encouraged a hit-and-run attitude. In exchange for the ability to transgress norms for one’s own pleasure, the host country gets money and does not ask too many questions.

Beyond the exploitation aspect of this, in the case of such races, the environmental cost is great (which is part of the reason why the race was moved away from Africa).

But as I mentioned above, there is also a gender aspect to this (indeed, quite often, the pleasure periphery is enjoyed by Western men). These races are fake versions of rugged adventures, relying on one’s wits, struggling against a hostile environment (the sand deserts of Africa!) in a manly competition where many norms are suspended (except those of white male solidarity in case of accidents). This is fake, of course, as the whole organizational infrastructure of the race provides layers of protection against adversity (despite high profile accidents and deaths), so the pilots are not on their own at any time. Help is always at hand. But it is enough for these men to finish the race unshaven, disheveled, with cotton scarf flying in the wind, to pretend to have crossed the Sahara all on their own.

It is yet another way in which white male privilege is made invisible.

The Many Faces of Neo-Colonialism – Toxic Jeans and Cotton Subsidies

The brutal form in Lesotho – Robin Hammond’s Toxic Jeans:

Do watch the entire slideshow and while you’re at it, explore Robin Hammond’s entire portfolio. It’s a terrifying and amazing visualization of the dark side of globalization.

And then, there is the “softer” neocolonialism, just as devastating:

“The continuing struggle of cotton growers in the poorest region of the world is highlighted today by a report which reveals the many billions of dollars paid to rival farmers in the biggest economies since international talks began to make trade more fair.

As the Doha trade talks enter their tenth year this week, the Fairtrade Foundation calculates that the US, the European Union, China and India have in that time paid their cotton farmers $47bn (£29bn) in subsidies in total – flooding the international market and pushing down the global price for competitors, especially in west Africa, says the charity.

As a result, farmers in the four biggest cotton producing countries of west Africa are losing out on vital income which would help people in rural areas and pay for roads, schools and other developments to reduce their dependence on aid, it claims.

Introducing the report, The Great Cotton Stitch-up, the business secretary, Vince Cable, quotes an estimate by the charity Oxfam that the subsidies are costing west African cotton farmers and their families millions of dollars a year in potential income. A report by Oxfam in 2002 estimated the lost income at $191m (£118m) each year.

“The current system of subsidies cannot be right and certainly is not fair,” writes Cable. “The principles of Fairtrade need to be integrated and reflected in the global trading system. The UK government is committed to working towards this aim.”

So, let’s not talk again about “free” trade, shall we. This situation is not new. The US and EU have been pushing for the peripheral countries to open themselves to cheaper – because subsidized – agricultural imports, which destroy local agriculture and makes very big food corporations wealthier.

Ultimately, such practices are responsible for the persistent poverty in the periphery:

“Moussa, who started growing cotton 17 years ago, farms two hectares of land, which yield 500-800 kilos a year. Yet despite the quantity and quality of cotton he produces, he is barely able to feed his children.

“Sometimes, the young ones cry because they’re so hungry,” he says, his face impassive. “I become very angry when I’m not able to get enough food for my family. All the time, I feel sad.” Last month, two of his youngest children contracted malaria and his three-year-old son almost died because Moussa couldn’t afford to buy medicine. “That made me very afraid. It makes me feel ashamed because I am the chief of the family but I am not able to protect them. In our culture, this is unacceptable.”

Moussa’s life is being buffeted by forces beyond his control, put into motion by industrialised, wealthy nations thousands of miles from this dry, hot corner of Africa. In the United States, the scale of government support to 25,000 cotton farmers has thrown the international trading system out of kilter. The political lobby for cotton is one of the strongest in US agriculture, a legacy of the post-Depression, dust-bowl era, when embattled farmers had to be helped back on to their feet.

But while America’s economic landscape has changed, the practice has remained: in 2008/2009, cotton producers were awarded $3.1bn (£1.9bn) in subsidies, which, astonishingly, exceeded the market price by around 30%. The EU and China award its farmers similar grants, albeit on a lesser scale.

The result has been overproduction, the rise of fast, disposable fashion and the artificial lowering of world cotton prices. The consequences are felt most deleteriously by the poorest farmers at the end of the supply chain, men such as Moussa, who battle each year to eke out an existence. The price of west African cotton has fallen every year since 2003 and despite the recent spike in prices, there has been a long-term decline in real terms since the 1950s. Today, Moussa sells one kilo of cotton for 185 Central African francs (CFA) – about 24p. That translates to a maximum annual income of just £200.”

It all goes back to the unfair rules of trade set by core countries to their advantage. But hey, if these farmers can’t make money growing cotton, maybe they should go work for a factory that makes jeans, right? Use their comparative advantage: large supply of labor made cheap and kept cheap.

Good Documentaries on Oil

With all the discussion floating around the Internet regarding the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought I would mention two documentaries that, I think, do a really good job at addressing issues regarding oil production and consumption.

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash (full video here) is my favorite so far because it does not have the sob stories and emotional heartstrings heavy pulling that activist documentaries often use, which I find annoying and unconvincing.

The film deals with peak oil, how we got to it, which areas of the world are already there, which ones have not reached it yet, how we are dealing with peak oil (with more intensive, complicated, expensive and risky drilling… sounds familiar?) and the social, economic and political consequences of life after peak oil (resource wars, as only one effect).

The film itself is extremely well done, in terms of graphics, visual and other devices to explain peak oil. Even better, the people sounding the alarm about peak oil and telling us that there are basically no new significant reserves of oil to be found nor new ways of drilling are not environmental activists but people from the oil industry.

It also deals with the question of increasing consumption as China, India and other countries are avidly industrializing and mimicking Western models of development in the context of peak oil and the geopolitical consequences as rich countries try more and more aggressively to gain or maintain their access to oil (see: Sudan, Darfur, genocide).

At the same time, it shows that there are no real alternatives to oil (other sources of energy do not come close to fulfilling energy needs), so changes in ways of life are the only way to go.

This is a very rich documentary that is chock full of information even without dealing with environmental issues. It specifically focuses on peak oil, production and consumption and politics.

Crude: The Real Price of Oil is completely different. This is more on the activist side of documentaries. Crude deals with the class action lawsuit engaged in Ecuador against Texaco / Chevron for the environmental and health damage the company inflicted upon the indigenous communities. So, there are sob stories.

The documentary is more personalized as we follow the travails of the attorneys on the plaintiffs’ side, especially the young Ecuadorian attorney for whom this is the first case (his brother was tortured, mutilated and assassinated just before the court case started… by mistake, the assassins were looking for the lawyer).

It is a classical David versus Goliath story: powerless indigenous communities with cash starved attorneys versus giant global corporation with the means to drag the case for decades (as is already the case, a common pattern for oil companies).

Certainly the images of pollution and contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon are shocking. The main damage is done by the pits that Texaco dug as dumps, then covered with dirt when the company left Ecuador.

The objections from Chevron / Texaco are ones we have often heard before either from other oil companies or tobacco companies: the case is brought by lawyers who want to line their pockets; no one can prove definite cause and effect between contamination and health problems (the tobacco industry polished that one), and besides, how do you know that that black goo is oil or that it’s Chevron oil? None very convincing.

One cannot help but notice that Chevron’s attorneys in Ecuador are white whereas the Ecuadorian attorneys for the plaintiffs are obviously from indigenous ancestry.

Apparently, the lawsuit is still going on. Chevron is now suing the makers of the film to obtain all the raw footage that was shot.

Crude is a movie that is useful when it comes to the issues of indigenous peoples. I would have liked more facts / history, / how indigenous life is affected (more in details, that is) / deforestation, less “let’s follow these courageous guys around”.

Failing Global Food System: Failure of Entitlement, Land Grab and Neocolonialism

Let’s start with Amartya Sen’s insight on entitlements:

“Economist Amartya Sen (1990:374) suggested that people command food through entitlements – that is, their socially defined rights to food resources. Entitlement might consist of the inheritance or purchase of land on which to grow food, employment to obtain wages with which to buy food, sociopolitical rights such as the religious or moral obligation of some to see that others have food, or state-run welfare or social security programs that guarantee adequate food to all. Not all of these kinds of entitlements exist in all societies, but some exist in all.  From this perspective, hunger is a failure of entitlement. The failure of entitlement may come from land dispossession, unemployment, high food prices, or lack or collapse of state-run food security programs, but the results are that people may starve to death in the midst of a food surplus.

Viewing hunger as a failure of entitlements also corrects ideological biases in the culture of capitalism, the tendency to overemphasize fast growth and production, the neglect of the problem of distribution, and hostility to government intervention in food distribution. Thus, rather than seeing hunger or famine as a failure of production (which it seems not to be), we can focus on a failure of distribution (see Vaughn 1987:158). Furthermore, we are able to appreciate the range of possible solutions to hunger. The goal is simply to establish, or reestablish, or protect entitlements, the legitimate claim to food. Seeing hunger as a failure of entitlements also focuses on the kinds of public actions that are possible. For example, access to education and health care are seen in most core countries as basic entitlements that should be supplied by the state, not by a person’s ability to pay. And most core countries see basic nutrition as a state-guaranteed entitlement, in spite of recent attempts in countries such as the United States to cut back on these entitlements. Thus, by speaking of entitlements, we can focus on the importance of public action in dealing with world hunger.” (Robbins 2008: 186)

In this article, what Felicity Lawrence describes is precisely a pattern of failure of entitlement alongside a neocolonial system of food production, resulting in overproduction of some items, and scarcity of others:

“The root cause of hunger and famine is rarely crop failure alone. It is about who controls and benefits from the land and its resources. About 1 billion people, or one in six of the global population, go hungry today, even though more food is being produced than ever. And yet, around the same number of people are overweight or obese and likely to have their lives cut short by diet-related disease. We have, in other words, a food system that is failing.

It is a food system that is profligate with finite resources – with fossil fuels for agrochemicals, artificial fertiliser, processing, packaging and transport, with water that is increasingly scarce, and with soil that is being eroded and degraded.

It delivers an excess of food that is unhealthy for the affluent and yet is incapable of producing enough calories for the poor. And it is a system in which the value of the food chain has been captured at each point, from seed to field to factory to shop, by powerful transnational corporations. (Rich countries don’t like to do empire these days so they have privatised it.)”

One should add that the IMF and the World Bank, as their structural adjustment program requirement, often demanded that government end subsidies or price support for food products, often resulting on food riots (IMF riots already mentioned in previous posts).

This is indeed a neocolonial system that we can see at work in Africa, for instance, where a new land grab is at work:

The World Bank is still promoted land grab programs that it acknowledges have no benefits for the affected communities:

Presentation of initial results fo the World bank study during the  panel, "Is there a global land rush?" at the World Bank Land  Conference, April 26, 2010.“The partial glimpse of the [World Bank] study presented in Washington last week sheds some light on an answer. The Bank initially wanted to do a comprehensive study of 30 countries, the hot spots for the land grabs. But it had to cut back severely on its expectations because, as it admits, the governments would not provide them with information. The corporations wouldn’t talk either, we were told by people writing the country chapters. This in itself is a powerful statement that says volumes about the hush-hush nature of these deals. If the World Bank can’t get access to the information, who can?

The Bank decided instead to base its study on the projects that have been reported by the media and captured on the website. The Bank identified nearly 400 projects in 80 countries in this way, nearly one quarter (22%) of which are already being implemented. The study thus makes it plain that the global land grab is very real and moving along faster and further than many have assumed  (See box for a basic glimpse of what the study is expected to say.)”

The Bank’s most significant findings, however, are about the impacts of these projects on local communities. Its overwhelming conclusion, shared at the land conference last week, is that these projects are not providing benefits to local communities. Environmental impact assessments are rarely carried out, and people are routinely booted off their land, without consultation or compensation. The Bank even revealed that investors are deliberately targeting areas where there is “weak land governance”.”

Euphemism du jour: “weak land governance”. I am currently working on a piece on landless peasants and this directly apply to most such movements, from the Brazilian MST to Via Campesina. The conditions and deprivation of entitlements may vary but the results tend to be the same at the local, national and global levels:

“It is a system of extraordinary sophistication and yet also of startling fragility, vulnerable to climate shocks and energy price spikes. But it has not been created by accident. US and European government policies postwar have fostered it – with agricultural subsidies that have encouraged surplus of their own commodity crops, and with trade agreements and loans through international financial institutions that have forced markets in poorer countries open to take those crops and the processed junk diets their manufacturers like to make of them.”

Catastrophic Sociology

Over at Sociology and Criminology at Keele, Mark Featherstone applies Virilio’s theory of catastrophe to Haiti’s recent earthquake. First he summarizes Virilio’s theory in a clear fashion:

How does this apply to a natural disaster like the earthquake?

This resonates with Pierre Le Hir’s article in Le Monde:

It all goes back to SHiP (Structure / History / Power). Natural disasters are what they are but they differentially affect societies based on their history (in Haiti, slavery, revolution and then constant neo-colonial interventionism), social structure (corruption and largely non-functioning government, mass poverty) and power (omnipresence of gangs, corrupt police, unfavorable regime of global governance).

And as studies show (based on research on known earthquakes since 1900), the number of victims of earthquakes is not correlated to the severity of of seismic activity nor to the density of the population in the affected area but to the level of poverty or wealth.

This holds true for any natural disaster. In the past twenty years, 98% of the two million victims of such disasters were in poor areas. At the same time, the economic losses to developing countries due to natural disasters were twenty times what they are for developed countries. It is a double penalty. And it shows no signs of going away.

The study of natural disasters is the study of global inequalities.

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.

The Uses of The Periphery: Garbage Dump

It is a fairly long report but well worth it and with a great slideshow.

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.

ASA 2009 – Tribute to Raewyn Connell – Part 1

As part of the Gender and Sex sessions, Michael Messner had put together a tribute to Raewyn Connell. Connell herself was in attendance. The panel was composed of Patricia Yancey Martin, Joan Acker, and Raka Ray. In this first part, you will find videos segments of PYM’s contribution as well as Raka Ray’s.

I apologize for the poor quality of the videos. The room was too small for such a venue and I got stuck standing at the back of the room holding my camera above the crowd (and getting cramps in the process… try doing that for about an hour!) and shifting from foot to foot. Also, you might need to crank up the volume on your computer. I also did not shoot the entirety of the contributions as this would have made the files too big and unloadable (is that a word?). Instead, I shot what I thought were “logical” shorter segments.

The first panelist, Patricia Yancey Martin basically provided an overview of Connell’s work. Here is part 1 of her contribution:

Part 2:

Part 3:

For her part, Raka Ray focused her contribution more on Connell’s latest work, Southern Theories, praising but also challenging Connell for not going far enough in criticizing the lack of post-colonial turn in sociology, that is, sociology not assuming its imperialist part, as reflected by the universalizing tendencies of Northern theories, starting with, of course, Comte, Durkheim, Marx or Weber. I thought her contribution very interesting (but she moved a lot, which made my filming work harder!).

I should note though that since I am much more attuned to theories and globalization than I am to gender and masculinities, the greater interest I found in Ray’s contribution may very well just be a reflection of my own bias.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

The next part will include Connell’s reponse as well her comments during the Q/A segment of the session.

Book Review – Bad Samaritans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solar Imperialism?

It is not an unheard-of pattern: North African countries have something we need, so, we will invest and go take it. Note how no representative from these countries was interviewed for this article, only Westerners.

Environmentally, this seems to make sense, if only "these people" would behave!