Book Review – Good Jobs, Bad Jobs

Arne Kalleberg‘s Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s is a very clear and detailed examination of the evolution of the labor market in the United States over the past 40 years, deepening the precarization conceptual framework presented in his 2008 ASA presidential address.

“Work in America has undergone marked transformations in the past four decades. Globalization and deregulation have increased the amount of competition faced by American companies, provided greater opportunities for them to outsource work to lower-wage countries, and opened up new sources of workers through immigration. The growth of  a ‘new economy’ characterized by more knowledge-intensive work has been accompanied by the  accelerated pace of technological innovation and the continued expansion of service industries as the principal source of jobs. Political policies such as the replacement of welfare by workfare programs in the 1990s have made it essential for people to participate in paid employment at the same time that jobs have become more precarious. The labor force has become more diverse, with marked increases in the number of women, non-white, older, and immigrant workers, and growing divides between people with different amounts of education. Ideological changes have supported these structural changes, with shifts towards greater individualism and personal accountability for work and life replacing notions of collective responsibility.

 These social, political, and economic forces have radically transformed the nature of employment relations and work in America. They have led to pervasive job insecurity, the growth of dual-earner families, and 24/7 schedules for many workers. More opportunities for entrepreneurship and good jobs have arisen for some, while others still only have access to low-wage and often dead-end jobs. These changes in have, in turn, magnified social problems such as poverty, work-family conflicts, political polarization, and disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender. The growing gap between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jobs represents a dark side to the booming American economy of the 1980s and 1990s; it has contributed to a crisis for the middle class in the United States in the past decade.” (1)

Every point in this quote then is developed in a full chapter, with a solid amount of empirical data to support the claims of generalized precarization. And all the points mentioned above also highlight an idea that I try really hard to convey to my students: nothing ever happens by chance in society. Things as they are – in this case, more bad jobs and increased precarization and risk shift – are the product of a variety of decision-making processes in various social institutions, shaped by ideologies (Kalleberg identifies neoliberalism here). And here we are, with massive changes in labor relations and work structures, operating under different norms. As a result, we work longer, in worse jobs, with less security and stability, reduced control over work activities and lower compensation.

Kalleberg also uses my favorite framework (Structure / History / Power or SHiP) to note that precarization used to be the norm until the end of the Great Depression. It is only the laws enacted during the 1930s that changed that normal state of precarity for workers. And economic conditions improved considerably during the post-War “Great Compression” until the late 1970s. This is a familiar story.

But what exactly are good/bad jobs? For Kalleberg, a good job is one that:

  • Pays relatively well and provides for increases over time;
  • Provides decent benefits;
  • Provides workers with some degree of autonomy and control;
  • Provides workers with some degree of flexibility and control over scheduling and terms of employment;
  • Provides workers with some degree of control over termination of the job.

Whereas a bad job is one that:

  • Pays low wages with limited prospects of improvements over time;
  • Provides limited benefits if any at all;
  • Does not enable workers to exert control over work activities;
  • Does not enable workers to have flexibility;
  • Does not enable workers to exert control over termination of employment.

This dichotomy used to be the basis for the well-known dual-labor market theory. Good jobs were part of  the primary labor market and bad jobs of the secondary labor market. Kalleberg argues that this labor market structure holds less and less as more good jobs are turning into bad ones (creating what Kalleberg calls a ‘subordinate primary labor market’) although the polarization still somewhat holds. And as the quote above notes, he identifies two major dynamics: (1) the impact of economic, social and political forces that shape social institutions and (2) the changes in the composition of the American workforce, namely, diversification. In other words, what we observe is not the product of uncontrolled market forces but of conditions that led to greater pressure for flexibility in an institutional environment where employers could take advantage of the typically American weakness of labor unions, compared to other Western countries.

These structural changes also led to changes in corporate governance, promoting a short-termist mentality where managers were now expected to manage the short-term bottom line for investors using a new tool at their disposal: human resources, as in investing less in them in favor of short-term profits, which meant the rise of non-traditional labor arrangements based on loose ties and limited loyalty between employers and employees. This was facilitated by the fact that the government progressively reduced its intervention on the labor market (can anyone name one thing done by the current secretary of labor in this administration?).

At the same time, right-wing think tanks worked hard to push for their favorite ideology: individualism, which, in turn, led to risk shift from companies and firms to individuals and households, individualization and a general sense of “you’re on your own.” This ideology provided the moral background for the dismantling of the social structures that had underpinned the post-war economy and its institutions.

The diversification of the American workforce meant that more vulnerable workers were entering the labor market, stimulating the growth of precarious and insecure jobs. This diversification also contributed to greater overall inequalities. Kalleberg notes specific consequences:

“First, education has emerged as the great divider between persons with good jobs and those with bad jobs. The workforce has become more polarized along education and skill lines due to the increasing number of highly educated college graduates, as well as the expansion in the population of low-skilled workers, such as immigrants from Mexico with weak English and less than a ninth-grade education.

(…)

Second, workers with relatively low-skills and education – such as nonwhites, the foreign-born, and older workers – are more vulnerable than others to these structural changes. […] This has encouraged employers to create jobs that pay poorly and are generally of low quality, since they now have access to a pool of workers who are willing (or forced) to work for low wages and in poor conditions: women, young people, older workers, less-educated workers, immigrants.

(…)

Third, the growth in labor force diversity has increased the variety of job rewards that workers seek to obtain from their jobs. The increase of women and the associated proliferation of dual-earner families in the labor force, along with the growth in educational attainments, have altered the kinds of rewards that people feel are important in their jobs. This growth has also shaped workers’ expectations for the kinds of rewards they feel entitled to obtain. In particular, many workers are now more likely to place greater importance on having more control over their work schedules and flexibility in their work times.” (57-8)

This increased flexibility has also been easier to implement in the growing service industries. But this has led to occupational polarization (between good jobs and bad jobs) thanks to (1) variation in skills required in diverse occupations, (2) a growing difference in the collective market power of occupational groups (power generated by unions or professional gatekeeping mechanisms such as certifications and accreditation), and (3) the increased power of managers by virtue of their control over human capital as resource.

Another factor in the growth of precarization is corporate restructuring. On this, Kalleberg argues that firms have choices between low-road strategies (de-skilling jobs, subcontracting, outsourcing, etc) and high-road strategies (investing in employees, for instance) when facing economic transformations. Most firms in the US have chosen low-road strategies, developing the core-periphery model of employment, with a limited and declining core of permanent workers, working on the firm’s core competencies, as opposed to peripheral workers (fully precarized, often outsources, managed by temporary work agencies, with no expectations of permanent employment and no ties to the employer beyond the contract duration; this includes all the non-standard work arrangements).

The novelty here, as Louis Uchitelle demonstrated in his book, The Disposable American, is that these have become common management strategies, more or less irrespective of economic conditions. Lay-offs and outsourcing and downsizing happen in recessionary as well as expansionary periods.

This leads to leaving workers at the complete mercy of market mechanisms. It is up to individual workers to maintain their skills and improve their social capital to, in turn, improve their employability. This also has multiple features:

“First, open employment relationships sever the psychological contract between employers and employees in which stability and security were exchanged for loyalty and hard work: the employee would exchange his or her loyalty and commitment in return for employers’ promises of job security, earnings and growth, and opportunities for advancement. The psychological contract was characterized by mutual trust and expectations about each other’s obligations and duties. Employers are now likely to terminate the employment relation if business conditions warrant cutbacks through practices such as downsizing, in an attempt to enhance effectiveness, short-term profitability, and other outcomes.

(…)

Second, the market-mediated or open employment relations are characterized by a breakdown of the post-World War II social contract between capital and labor.

(…)

The demise of the old psychological and social contracts is reinforced by a normative context that legitimizes a more individualistic relationship and a decline in collective power. There is also a general decline in job security for all workers due to shifting norms of the employment contract. Employers are now less likely to be able to promise their employees security since their organizations are themselves more insecure. Employers may also not be inclined to offer employees security in exchange for loyalty and hard work since norms regarding the nature of the employment relationship have changed, and there are more options for employers to hire workers on an as-needed basis, such as through temporary help agencies and contract companies. There thus has been a decrease in the norm of lifetime employment with an employer.

(…)

The third feature of the market-mediated or open employment relationship is a transfer of risks away from employers and toward workers.” (84-7)

And one of the consequences of this demise has been more fully analyzed in Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character, whose title clearly depicts the psychological impact of this shift. And this precariousness which used to be limited to the secondary labor market has now spread and become more generalized, to all sectors of the economy and to more occupations and professions.

So, what is to be done in this context of deterioration of working conditions and employment relations?

Kalleberg suggests that what is needed is a new social contract to restore some forms of social security. For instance, the concept of flexisecurity, implemented in a few European countries combines flexibility of the labor force with strong social safety net as workers can be expected to keep shifting from job to job, therefore needing assistance and training. At the same time, the public sector should be source of more secure jobs. There is a need for a global social movement in favor of economic fairness and greater social security. Precarious labor, as neoliberal success, has been built on the ruins of traditional labor organizations. New social movements must emerge with global, national and local activist strategies.

This book is especially relevant because the current recession with its onslaught of austerity measures clearly illustrate the risk shift: while banks and others in the corporate sectors receive government monies and other protections against risks they took, workers are bearing the brunt of this structural adjustment policies that make them shoulder the price of systemic shock. But the current situation is the culmination of a trend started forty years ago, slowly and progressively, and now brutally implemented in its final stages all over developed countries, where the few remnants of social safety nets are being dismantled by national governments.

This book makes it clear that this was a long time coming and here we are.

Re-Embedding The Greek Crisis

I am always suspicious of broad generalizations about entire populations or generations. So, I am not entirely sure what to make of this argument by sociologist Sophia Mappa. Something to think about. It is in French, so here is the gist of it in English.

The starting point of her argument is that Angela Merkel’s inflexibility is incomprehensible to ordinary Greeks. The reason is that such inflexibility is rooted in the protestant culture of the 16th century, something well-known thanks to Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This moral culture is one of individual obedience to divine law, disregarded due to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a culture of glorification of labor as a means of salvation which led to human dominion over nature (and other humans) in order to generate wealth and where frugality and puritanism are the norms of individual moral conduct. According to Weber, this is what led to the rise of capitalism. For Mappa, this is what explains its persistence in Germany, even as this system is being questioned all over Europe, as part of both the economic crisis and the legitimation crisis. From this perspective, the laborious and strong Germans’s views of the weakening of their European neighbors stems from these protestant roots.

Mappa argues that German culture is both close and very different from European Latin cultures. It has produced grandiosity and misery at the same time, including a certain intolerance to other cultures and a desire to dominate them and force them to accept the German model. Merkel’s policies reflect such an attitude. Her position seems to push for the punishment of the heretic rather getting out of the crisis.

At the same time, Greek history has different roots, linked to the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. After all, according to Mappa, Greece did not directly contribute to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Westphalian order or capitalism (except as historical remembrance but not as active power player, if I may use that expression). The Greek state, set up in the 19th Century, was not a product of its people’s will. As with all colonized countries, the state apparatus, the constitutions, the kings, the polity and their financing, were provided, right off the bat, by the European chanceries.

The spirit of these institutions never took hold in Greek society. There was no adaptation or emergence of alternatives in order to get closer to Europe. The Greek society then invested these foreign institutions with its own culture, and especially with the centrality of the Church. And so, if it accepted Europe-approved kings, it opposed the emergence of central governance mechanisms, typical of the modern nation-state.

For Mappa, Greek political power is rooted, even to this say, in the imaginary of the Ottoman Empire, that of the beys and other clan chiefs, reigning over their clients and kinship networks, trading material welfare for political allegiance. The now-famous refusal to pay taxes, so widespread in this society, stems this imperial past where taxation was domination, and not construction of a central authority, for the common welfare (at least in theory) beyond particularisms. For the past two centuries, this state has been regulated from the outside: the European chanceries, the US after WWII, and since 1981, the European Commission.

For the past two centuries, then, those in charge of the state have submitted to the diktats from the outside, while adapting them to their own benefit and those of their clients and cronies. That is what the lat Prime Minister – Georges Papandréou – did, and that is what his successor, Loukas Papadimos, will do despite his much vaunted technocratic credentials.

Economically speaking, according to Mappa, there was never any collective acceptance of the spirit of capitalism. Economic activity remained tied to Greek history and traditional trade: agriculture, commerce, fishery, banking and tourism, but not industry. It is not that the Greeks are lazy, as Merkel and other might think. But, despite the common – yet false – idea that capitalism is part of human nature and therefore universal, the Greeks, as many others on this planet, do not get its spirit and mechanisms. And Greece’s entrance into the European Union has not changed that.

And quite predictably, European financial flows, allocated by the European Economic Community were used not for production, for clientelism and and consumption of European-made goods, including weaponry from France and Germany. And under neoliberal governance, the liberalization of the markets and competition from Western goods, the traditional gap between production and consumption led to the current disaster. For Mappa, without a doubt, there is a great deal of responsibility from the Greek society and especially its elite.

BUT… (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you)

European leaders are also to blame for their simplistic economic dogma and the illusion of their omnipotence in governing other countries. They are currently ruining their own societies and preventing EU peripheral countries from recovering from the crisis.

At this point, an EU commissioner would bring nothing to Greece. Quite the opposite. This would only be seen as yet another humiliation that would aggravate the despair and rebellion that are already quite widespread.

So, certain ideas need to be questioned: austerity measures, Merkel’s illusion that one can just shape societies at the snap of a finger, with some stern disciplining from the hegemon. It is not just the destruction of Greece that is at stake, but that of the entire European Union.

And if that was not convincing enough, there is this:

“Homelessness has soared by an estimated 25% since 2009 as Greece spirals further into its worst post-war economic crisis.

The country is now in its fifth straight year of recession and the official unemployment rate is nudging 20%, exacerbated by the austerity measures being pushed through in return for more bail-out money.

Greeks now speak of another section of society: the “new homeless”.

“They don’t have the ‘traditional profile’ of homeless people,” says Ms Nousi.

“They are well dressed and well educated. Until last year they had a good flat or a nice car – and now they have nothing.

“So it’s another kind of misery – another kind of poverty. We were not prepared for this poverty, but it exists.”

One of the new regulars at the kitchen is Vicky Kolozi.

A former journalist with the state broadcaster ERT, she lost her job a year ago and now cannot afford to feed herself and her daughter.

“It is hard to feel that I have to depend on this now,” she tells me.

And that reality is particularly harsh at the moment as Greece shivers in freezing temperatures.”

And beyond Greece, Italy:

“With around one in three young Italians now unemployed, many of its younger generation are contemplating emigrating to destinations as far afield as Africa and South America, in the hope of better employment prospects.”

Legitimation Crisis 2.0

Cue London Calling references:

But let us not play clueless here. Things have been brewing for a while in England. Remember the Vodaphone protests? Or the anti-university fees protests?

So, whatever the initial reason for the uprising in Tottenham, it is clear that many of the countries where austerity policies are being imposed from above on the general population are facing socially explosive situations.

Israel:

“About 250,000 Israelis have marched for lower living costs in an escalating protest that has catapulted the economy onto the political agenda and put pressure on the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu planned to name a cabinet-level team on Sunday to address demands by the demonstrators, who in under a month have swollen from a cluster of student tent-squatters into a diffuse, countrywide mobilisation of Israel’s burdened middle class.

Israel projects growth of 4.8% this year at a time of economic stagnation in many western countries, and has relatively low unemployment of 5.7%. But business cartels and wage disparities have kept many citizens from feeling the benefit.

“The People Demand Social Justice” read one of the march banners, which mostly eschewed partisan anti-government messages while confronting Netanyahu’s free-market doctrines.

Police said at least 250,000 people took part in Saturday’s march in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities, a greater turnout than at marches on the two previous weekends.

Demonstrations on such a scale in Israel – which has a population of 7.7 million – have usually been over issues of war and peace. In a Peace Index poll conducted by two Israeli academics, around half of respondents said wage disparities – among the widest of OECD countries – should be the government’s priority, while 18% cited the dearth of affordable housing.”

Chile:

“It began as a series of peaceful protests calling for reform of the Chilean government’s education system, with students staging mass kiss-ins, dressing up in superhero costumes and running laps around the presidential palace. But on Thursday these surreal protests exploded into violence as school and university students clashed with police and seized a TV station, demanding the right to a live broadcast in order to express their demands.

The Chilean winter, as it is being called, appears to have captured the public mood, just as the Arab spring did six months ago.

After a day of street clashes, 874 people had been arrested and department store in the capital was smouldering after being attacked by protesters. Outrage against the rightwing government of Sebastiàn Piñera boiled over, with polls showing he is more unpopular than any leader since the fall of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Striking school students led the charge as they tried to march on the presidential palace early on Thursday, only to be thwarted by hundreds of police in riot gear and clouds of teargas. Tucapel Jiménez, a member of the Chilean congress, called for sanctions against government authorities who authorised what he called “brutal repression” by riot police.

“This is unacceptable, the centre of Santiago is a state of siege,” said university student leader Camila Vallejo, tears rolling down her face after being doused in teargas. “The right to congregate has been violated.”

And one must not forget the protests in Greece and Spain as well as the Arab Spring.

What we see is the global civil society rising up against what is clearly exposed as the alliance of the corporate sector (as opposed to small businesses who are as much on the receiving end of austerity policies) and Western governments (along with global governance institutions, the BCE, etc.). What we are are witnessing, to borrow Habermas’s phrase, is a major crisis of legitimation, where governments are blamed for making everybody pay for the failures and excesses of the financial sectors.

It is not just that national government are complying with corporate demands but that they turn repressive in the process leaving the image of the state-as-institution in cahoots with the wealthy and ready to strike at the slightest sign of process or even anticipating trouble through massive surveillance. The message is clear: dissent will not be tolerated as the whole anti-terror apparatus is used not against terrorists but against cyber-dissenters and protesters:

“DOJ indicted 16 alleged hackers today, 14 of whom were purportedly involved in hacking PayPal after it refused to accept payments for WikiLeaks.

(…)

Now, I’m not surprised DOJ indicted these folks. I’m not arguing that, if they did what DOJ alleged they did, they didn’t commit a crime.

But I can’t help but notice that DOJ has not yet indicted anyone for the DDoS attacks–the very same crime–committed against WikiLeaks 8 days earlier than the crime alleged in this indictment.

I’m guessing DOJ has a very good idea who committed that crime. But for some reason (heh), they haven’t indicted those perpetrators.

In fact, I’ll bet you that DOJ also has a better explanation for why PayPal started refusing WikiLeaks donations on December 4, 2010–two days before this alleged crime–than they describe here.

But we mere citizens are privy to none of that. As far as we know–because of choices about secrecy the government has made–a crime was committed against a media outlet on November 28, 2010. That crime remains unsolved. Indeed, DOJ has never made a peep about solving that crime. Meanwhile, today, 14 people were indicted for allegedly committing the very same crime the government–inexplicably, at least according to its public statements–has not pursued.

According to the public story, at least, the rule of law died with this indictment today. The government has put itself–the hackers it likes, if not employs–above the law, while indicting 14 people for the very same crime committed just weeks before those 14 people allegedly committed their crime.”

And this as well:

“In March this year, more than 150 UK activists were arrested while occupying Fortnum & Mason in a protest against tax avoidance. They were held in cells overnight and charged with aggravated trespass. Earlier this month, the charges against all but 30 were dropped, as it emerged the chief inspector at the store had given protesters assurances they would be allowed to leave the store unhindered.

The incident generated widespread fear about crackdowns on the right to protest, against a backdrop of strikes and protests against government cuts. Similar cries have not occurred in the wake of arrests of individuals allegedly linked to the hacker collectives Anonymous and LulzSec in the UK, United States and Europe.

Yet if the criminalisation of dissent is happening anywhere, it is here.

The maximum penalty the Fortnum & Mason activists faced for aggravated trespass is three months in prison. Participating in even the simplest of hacking operations is punishable by up to 10 years in prison in the UK, and up to 20 years in the US.

Since December, Anonymous and LulzSec have engaged in a series of politically motivated hacks, often in support of WikiLeaks, including attacks taking the Visa and Mastercard websites offline in the wake of the WikiLeaks blockade, a hack on security firm HBGary revealing a proposal to Bank of America to discredit hostile journalists and activists, and attacks against the CIA and the UK’s Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca).”

And, as any reader of Max Weber knows,the most essential monopoly of the state is that of legitimate physical violence. In order to exercise power, the state must have the ability to force compliance with laws and judicial decisions. Ultimately, then, the state monopoly over physical violence is considered legitimate. For Weber, this is the monopoly that all states have in common and it is a considerable resource as it allows the state to enforce all its other monopolies. In most states, violence is not the main means of governance, especially in democracies but it is a means available nonetheless. Indeed, in most societies, except in rare cases of self-defense, most members of society or groups are not allowed to use physical force against others. Only the state, through its agents and specialized institutions (law enforcement and the criminal justice system,) has the right to arrest, incarcerate or even execute. However, for this monopoly over physical force to be considered legitimate, it must be (1) moderate and controlled, and (2) exercised within the limits of the law. If state violence goes beyond these limits, then, it tends to not be considered legitimate by members of society and to trigger adverse reactions against the excesses of the state. Practices of repression (such as kettling) and secret jurisdiction fail on both count. And without legitimacy, violence is just violence.

And in aligning its interests and policies with that of the financial sector (the “banksters”, for short), the state has chosen a partner that has no more legitimacy and has been exposed in all its dysfunctions. Three examples will suffice:

Will Hutton:

“”No major advanced economy is doing anything to promote growth and jobs,” says George Magnus, a senior policy adviser to investment bank UBS. He is right. Wherever you look, it is an economic horror story. Put bluntly, too many key countries – the UK in the forefront, with private debt an amazing three and half times its GDP, but followed by Japan, Spain, France, Italy, the US and even supposedly saint-like Germany – have accumulated too much private debt that cannot be repaid unless there is exceptional global growth.

(…)

The markets’ reaction is made worse by herd effects – magnified by the many instruments, so-called financial derivatives, that have been invented supposedly to hedge and lower risks but which in truth are little more than casino chips. Long-term saving institutions such as insurance companies and pension funds now routinely lend their shares – for a fee – to anybody who wants to use them for speculative purposes. The financial system has become a madhouse – a mechanism to maximise volatility, fear and uncertainty. There is nobody at the wheel. Adult supervision is conspicuous by its absence.

What is required is a paradigm shift in the way we think and act. The idea transfixing the west is that governments get in the way of otherwise perfectly functioning markets and that the best capitalism – and financial system – is that best left to its own devices. Governments must balance their books, guarantee price stability and otherwise do nothing.

This is the international common sense, but has been proved wrong in both theory and in practice. Financial markets need governments to provide adult supervision. Good capitalism needs to be fashioned and designed. Financial orthodoxy can sometimes, especially after credit crunches, be entirely wrong. Once that Rubicon has been crossed, a new policy agenda opens up. The markets need the prospect of sustainable growth, along with sustainable private and public debt.”

Ha-Joon Chang:

“The debate focuses on how budget deficits should be controlled, with the dominant view saying that they need to be cut quickly and mainly through reduction in welfare spending, while its critics argue for further short-term fiscal stimuli and longer-term deficit reduction relying more on tax increases.

While this debate is crucial, it should not distract us from the urgent need to reform our financial system, whose dysfunctionality lies at the heart of this crisis. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the rating agencies, whose incompetence and cynicism have become evident following the 2008 crisis, if not before. Despite this, we have done nothing about them, and as a result we are facing absurdities today – European periphery countries have to radically rewrite social contracts at the dictates of these agencies, rather than through democratic debates, while the downgrading of US treasuries has increased the demands for them as “safe haven” products.

Was this inevitable? Hardly. We could have created a public rating agency (a UN agency funded by member states?) that does not charge for its service and thus can be more objective, thereby providing an effective competition to the current oligopoly of Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch. If the regulators had decided to become less reliant on their ratings in assessing the soundness of financial institutions, we would have weakened their undue influence. For the prevention of future financial crises we should have demanded greater transparency from the rating agencies – while changing their fee structure, in which they are paid by those firms that want to have their financial products rated. But these options weren’t seriously contemplated.

Another example of financial reforms whose neglect comes back to haunt us is the introduction of internationally agreed rules on sovereign bankruptcy. In resolving the European sovereign debt crises, one of the greatest obstacles has been the refusal by bondholders to bear any burden of adjustments, talking as if such a proposal goes against the basic rules of capitalism. However, the principle that the creditor, as well as the debtor, pays for the consequences of an unsuccessful loan is already in full operation at another level in all capitalist economies.

When companies go bankrupt, creditors also have to take a hit – by providing debt standstill, writing off some debts, extending their maturities, or reducing the interest rates charged. The proposal to introduce the same principle to deal with sovereign bankruptcy has been around at least since the days of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. However, this issue was tossed aside because the rich country governments, under the influence of their financial lobbies, would not have it.

There are other financial reforms whose absence has not yet come back to haunt us in a major way but will do so in the future. The most important of these is the regulation of complex financial products. Despite the widespread agreement that these are what have made the current crisis so large and intractable, we have done practically nothing to regulate them. The usual refrain is that these products are too complicated to regulate. But then why not simply ban products whose safety cannot be convincingly demonstrated, as we do with drugs?

Nothing has been done to regulate tax havens, which not only depriven governments of tax revenues but also make financial regulations more difficult. Once again, we could have eliminated or significantly weakened tax havens by simply declaring that all transactions with companies registered in countries/territories that do not meet the minimum regulatory standards are illegal.

And what have we done to change the perverse incentive structure in the financial industry, which has encouraged excessive risk-taking? Practically nothing, except for a feeble bonus tax in the UK.

A correct fiscal policy by itself cannot tackle the structural problems that have brought about the current crisis. It can only create the space in which we make the real reforms, especially financial reform.”

David Harvie and Keir Milburn:

“Neoliberalism no longer “makes sense”, but its logic keeps stumbling on, without conscious direction, like a zombie: ugly, persistent and dangerous. Such is the “unlife” of a zombie, a body stripped of its goals, unable to adjust itself to the future, unable to make plans. It can only act habitually as it pursues a monomaniacal hunger. Unless there is a dramatic recomposition of society, we face the prospect of decades of drift as the crises we face – economic, social, environmental – remain unresolved. But where will that recomposition come from when we are living in the world of zombie-liberalism?

In the midst of such hopelessness the phone-hacking scandal seemed to offer a moment of redemption, but as the news cycle moves on we are left wondering what effect it will really have.

Hackgate cannot be treated in isolation. Since the financial “meltdown” of 2007-08 we have witnessed similar scenes, and similar outrage, around MPs’ expenses and bankers’ bonuses. We have witnessed not one but two media feeding frenzies around the repression of protest. The first followed the police attack on the G20 protests in 2009 and the death of Ian Tomlinson, with the second erupting around the outing of undercover police officer Mark Kennedy, leading to the unprecedented unmasking of another five undercover police officers acting within the environmental and anti-capitalist movements. The refusal of the Metropolitan police to investigate the full extent of phone hacking is, then, the third scandal revealing the political character of contemporary policing.

The phone-hacking scandal, and particularly the web of complicity revealed in its cover-up, is undoubtedly more significant than some of these other scandals, but positioning it among them allows us to raise a question that has rarely been asked: why now?

The answer is inescapable: we are living through something epochal. These scandals are part of a more general social and economic crisis sparked by the financial crisis. What’s less clear is the exact nature of the relationship between crisis and scandals, and therefore the scandals’ political significance.

Hackgate reveals the mechanisms of a network of corruption whose broad outlines were already understood. What we see, however, is not a distortion of an otherwise functional system but one element of a system that can only operate through such corrupt mechanisms. What we are seeing, through its moment of decomposition, are the parochial arrangements through which neoliberalism was established in the UK.

Neoliberal governance has common traits across the planet. But its instantiation in each country has been shaped by the peculiarities of that country’s history. In each, a different (re)arrangement emerged between sections of the ruling class that would enable the imposition of neoliberal policies on populations that, on the whole, didn’t want them.

Rupert Murdoch, and the tabloid culture he helped to establish, was central to this process in the UK, not least with the defeat of the print unions at Wapping. Other elements of that compact include a Thatcherite Conservative party and a neoliberalised Labour party, a highly politicised police force and, especially after 1986’s big bang deregulation of the stock market, the dominance of finance capital. It is no coincidence each of these elements has been racked with scandal in the past few years.

Neoliberalism, however, requires more than the internal realignment of a national ruling class. Every semi-stable form of capitalism also needs some sort of settlement with the wider population, or at least a decisive section of it. While the postwar Keynesian settlement contained an explicit deal linking rising real wages to rising productivity, neoliberalism contained an implicit deal based on access to cheap credit. While real wages have stagnated since the late 1970s, the mechanisms of debt have maintained most people’s living standards. An additional part of neoliberalism’s tacit deal was the abandonment of any pretence to democratic, collective control over the conditions of life: politics has been reduced to technocratic rule. Instead, individuals accepted the promise that, through hard work, shrewd educational and other “life” choices, and a little luck, they – or their children – would reap the benefits of economic growth.

The financial crisis shattered the central component of this deal: access to cheap credit. Living standards can no longer be supported and, for the first time in a century, there is widespread fear that children will lead poorer lives than their parents. With the deal broken, parochial ruling arrangements in the UK have started to lose coherence.

The scandals, therefore, are symptoms not of renewal but rather of neoliberalism’s zombie status. The scandals represent the zombie’s body decomposing even as it continues its habitual operation.”

It is indeed ironic that neoliberals have been harping for the last three decades on the need for a flexible workforce, for the need for individual adaptation to market diktats against agents of stability (seen as bad and archaic) such as unions and anyone reluctant to embrace the brave new world of work. And yet, neoliberals are the most rigid people in their thinking and policy-making. The policies they demand are always the same, albeit with different names. But whether one calls one’s preferred policies austerity, shock therapy or structural adjustment, it is the same model imposed the world over, with the same disastrous consequences: people on the streets, repressed by failing states whose main functions are now to appease the financial sector through continuation of the Great Risk Shift, cool the mark out, and failing that, good old-fashioned repression (and then, you can use prison labor as the ultimate flexible workforce).

And the article mentioned above does emphasize the role of the cultural and information industries in the neoliberal project as well as its dark underbelly. But what is also striking is the lack of accountability all around while making other people pay in a variety of ways:

As Ian Welsh has mentioned many times, in the US, the only acceptable form of stimulus is military spending. indeed, this matches Michael Mann’s prescient view of the US based on his typology of power: a military giant, an economic backseat driver, a political schizophrenic and an ideological phantom. Hence, there has to be a next war (except, they won’t be called wars because that does not sound very nice) because that is all the political class accepts and understands. File that under the militarization of everything:

“The United States is expanding its role in Mexico’s bloody fight against drug trafficking organizations, sending new C.I.A. operatives and retired military personnel to the country and considering plans to deploy private security contractors in hopes of turning around a multibillion-dollar effort that so far has shown few results.

In recent weeks, small numbers of C.I.A. operatives and American civilian military employees have been posted at a Mexican military base, where, for the first time, security officials from both countries work side by side in collecting information about drug cartels and helping plan operations. Officials are also looking into embedding a team of American contractors inside a specially vetted Mexican counternarcotics police unit.

Officials on both sides of the border say the new efforts have been devised to get around Mexican laws that prohibit foreign military and police from operating on its soil, and to prevent advanced American surveillance technology from falling under the control of Mexican security agencies with long histories of corruption.

(…)

The United States has trained nearly 4,500 new federal police agents and assisted in conducting wiretaps, running informants and interrogating suspects. The Pentagon has provided sophisticated equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters, and in recent months it has begun flying unarmed surveillance drones over Mexican soil to track drug kingpins.”

And in case it’s not clear enough:

“Several Mexican and American security analysts compared the challenges of helping Mexico rebuild its security forces and civil institutions — crippled by more than seven decades under authoritarian rule — to similar tests in Afghanistan. They see the United States fighting alongside a partner it needs but does not completely trust.

(…)

When violence spiked last year around Mexico’s industrial capital, Monterrey, Mr. Calderón’s government asked the United States for more access to sophisticated surveillance technology and expertise. After months of negotiations, the United States established an intelligence post on a northern Mexican military base, moving Washington beyond its traditional role of sharing information to being more directly involved in gathering it.

American officials declined to provide details about the work being done by the American team of fewer than two dozen Drug Enforcement Administration agents, C.I.A. officials and retired military personnel members from the Pentagon’s Northern Command. For security reasons, they asked The New York Times not to disclose the location of the compound.

But the officials said the compound had been modeled after “fusion intelligence centers” that the United States operates in Iraq and Afghanistan to monitor insurgent groups, and that the United States would strictly play a supporting role.”

So, in more and more countries, the nasty mechanisms of the neoliberal state – reduced to its repressive functions on behalf of financial interests – are being exposed, should we really be surprised that the world is catching fire? (Well, except the US for reasons already discussed) It still remains to be seen whether the much-vaunted civil society is up to the challenge.

Sociopathic Cluelessness (or Clueless Sociopathy) – Reading “Chavs” 1

When I mentioned in my Twitter timeline that I had started reading Owen Jones‘s Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class, one of my Twitter followers asked that I post about it as I read. And, of course, one should always do what one’s Twitter followers demand! Therefore, I will post bits and pieces as I read the book, and a full review when I am done.

One of the things that Jones explores at the beginning of the book is where part of the clear contempt for the British working class – as made obvious by the use of “Chavs” as stigmatizing designation – comes from (a phenomenon one would find in the US as well) political and structural factors.

For Jones, this contempt is rooted in the 30 years or so of neoliberal policies that have devastated the British industrial working class, especially during the Thatcher years. Very systematically, and very successfully, the Thatcher administration put in place policies that destroyed the old-fashioned industrial unions, deindustrialized the country, implemented a monetary policy that made British exports highly expensive, hence promoting imports.

At the same time that industrial, working-class communities were being destroyed, Thatcher implemented policies that will sound familiar to American readers: reduction in benefits from the welfare state at the same time that ranks of the poor and unemployed were swelling, introduction of the VAT (one of the most regressive forms of taxation), big tax cuts for the wealthy, and heavier tax burdens on everyone else.

Here is a short passage from the book:

“For everyone else, taxes went from 31.1 per cent of their income to 37.7 per cent by the end of 1996, courtesy of the ‘party of low taxes’. The real income of the poorest tenth collapsed by nearly a fifth after housing costs. The slice of the nation’s wealth they owned nearly halved. A family with three children in the bottom 10 per cent of the population was £625 a year poorer in 1996 than when Thatcher arrived in N0 10. There were five million people in poverty in 1979; by 1992, the number was closer to fourteen million. And while the top 1 per cent saw income growth of just under 4 per cent a year under the Conservatives, if you were in the median income it went up by an average of only 1.6 per cent.

Geoffrey Howe [former Chancellor of the Exchequer under Thatcher] was a little uncomfortable when I read him statistics showing that the living standards of the poor had actually declined. ‘I haven’t often considered it in that form because… No, I don’t, I don’t sort of leap around at that, it’s… at the end of the period they’ve got better off, I think?‘” (63)

Emphasis mine.

I think what Jones describes here is a phenomenon I have discussed in a previous post. That is, there is an inherent sociopathy to conservative ideology: the very denial of anything collective as having value, the reduction of all social issues to moral issues to be analyzed as individual virtues or faults, and the indifference to the fate of people deemed faulty. That sociopathy is often accompanied with either cluelessness, as Howe displays above, or downright mean-spiritedness (hence the “Chavs” designation).

Either way, the construction of the working-class as morally bankrupt underclass that it is pointless to help because (1) they are beyond redemption, and (2) they should be helping themselves by grabbing their share of the trickling-down (that is always supposed to happen any day now), provides neat ideological cover for a series of destructive policies whose impact on the lower rungs of the social ladder can be conveniently ignored or for punitive policies that are supposed to discipline the riff-raff (war on drugs and mass incarceration being the best representatives of this).

The Precariat

Or precarized proletariat (link to video… do watch the entire thing, it is well worth 10 minutes of your time).

And if you think this is limited to low-incomes, think again:

“Western Europeans and Americans are about to suffer a profound shock. For the past 30 years governments have explained that, while they can no longer protect jobs through traditional forms of state intervention such as subsidies and tariffs, they can expand and reform education to maximise opportunity. If enough people buckle down to acquiring higher-level skills and qualifications, Europeans and Americans will continue to enjoy rising living standards. If they work hard enough, each generation can still do better than its parents. All that is required is to bring schools up to scratch and persuade universities to teach “marketable” skills.

(…)

But the financial meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent squeeze on incomes is slowly revealing an awful truth. As figures out last week from the Office for National Statistics show, real UK wages have not risen since 2005, the longest sustained freeze in living standards since the 1920s. While it has not hit the elite in banking, the freeze affects most of the middle class as much as the working class. This is not a blip, nor the result of educational shortcomings. In the US, which introduced mass higher education long before Britain, the average graduate’s purchasing power has barely risen in 30 years. Just as education failed to deliver social democratic promises of social equality and mobility, so it will fail to deliver neoliberal promises of universal opportunity for betterment.

(…)

We are familiar with the outsourcing of routine white-collar “back office” jobs such as data inputting. But now the middle office is going too. Analysing X-rays, drawing up legal contracts, processing tax returns, researching bank clients, and even designing industrial systems are examples of skilled jobs going offshore. Even teaching is not immune: last year a north London primary school hired mathematicians in India to provide one-to-one tutoring over the internet. Microsoft, Siemens, General Motors and Philips are among big firms that now do at least some of their research in China. The pace will quicken. The export of “knowledge work” requires only the transmission of electronic information, not factories and machinery. Alan Blinder, a former vice-chairman of the US Federal Reserve, has estimated that a quarter of all American service sector jobs could go overseas.

Western neoliberal “flat earthers” (after Thomas Friedman’s book) believed jobs would migrate overseas in an orderly fashion. Some skilled work might eventually leave but, they argued, it would make space for new industries, requiring yet higher skills and paying better wages. Only highly educated westerners would be capable of the necessary originality and adaptability. Developing countries would obligingly wait for us to innovate in new areas before trying to compete.

(…)

It suggests neoliberals made a second, perhaps more important error. They assumed “knowledge work” would always entail the personal autonomy, creativity and job satisfaction to which the middle classes were accustomed. They did not understand that, as the industrial revolution allowed manual work to be routinised, so in the electronic revolution the same fate would overtake many professional jobs. Many “knowledge skills” will go the way of craft skills. They are being chopped up, codified and digitised.

Brown, Lauder and Ashton call this “digital Taylorism”, after Frederick Winslow Taylor who invented “scientific management” to improve industrial efficiency. Call centres, for example, require customers to input a series of numbers, directing you to a worker, possibly in a developing country, who will answer questions from a prescribed package. We are only at the beginning; even teaching is increasingly reduced to short-term, highly specific goals, governed by computerised checklists.

Digital Taylorism makes jobs easier to export but, crucially, changes the nature of much professional work. Aspirant graduates face the prospect not only of lower wages, smaller pensions and less job security than their parents enjoyed but also of less satisfying careers. True, every profession and company will retain a cadre of thinkers and decision-makers at the top – perhaps 10% or 15% of the total – but the mass of employees, whether or not they hold high qualifications, will perform routine functions for modest wages. Only for those with elite qualifications from elite universities (not all in Europe or America) will education deliver the promised rewards.

(…)

Governments will then need to rethink their attitudes to education, inequality and the state’s economic role.”

But they will not, not until they get forced to do it. And even then, I don’t think our power elite can think outside of the neoliberal frame.

Also: (I haven’t read it yet. I’m waiting for the paperback to come out here)

The Tyranny of The Local

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

Example 1:

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

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

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

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

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

Example 2:

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

Alissa J. Rubin/The New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit Default Swaps – Explained

Chad Gesser is right, this is a very good and short (and yes, simplified, but it has to be if you’re going to make it short) explanation of this specific aspect of casino capitalism  – CDS – that triggered the crisis. It also mentions the larger issue of Congress / Wall Street too cozy relationship, and the privatization frenzy that is the trademark of neo-liberal dominance. As Neil Fliegstein told us: governments create markets. Markets are fields defined by (1) property rights, (2) governance structure, (3) rules of exchange, and (4) conceptions of control. It is the neoliberal state that created the conditions for this disaster and continues to protect its features:


Watch CBS News Videos Online

And as a perfect illustration of the Great Risk Shift, all this gambling with other people’s money or with no real money, ended up with mass socialization of losses and privatization of the loot that resulted from this predatory system.

Book Review – Prisons of Poverty

Loïc Wacquant‘s Prisons of Poverty is the shorter, more reader-friendly and activist-oriented version of Punishing The Poor. It touches upon the same topics: the double-pronged way in which the neo-liberal state disciplines the poor: workfare and prisonfare. One cannot be understood without the other.

Contrary to Punishing The Poor, clearly directed at an academic audience, the audience for Prisons of Poverty (PoP) is the general public. In other words, PoP is more an exercise is public sociology.

On a symbolic level, it is the way in which the neo-liberal state, having divested itself of significant power in economic and social matters through privatization, for instance, reasserts its power against the powerless.

Social disinvestment → Carceral reinvestment

The book also deals with the spread of the ideologies that support this double-pronged approach to public policy directed at the poor from the United States, to Western Europe and to some semi-peripheral countries such as Brazil through the popularization of unfounded ideologies and phony criminology such as “the broken windows” theory promoted by the likes of Rudy Giuliani and his entourage.

In other words, having created conditions of precarization and of what Ulrich Beck has called the risk society, the neoliberal state makes a comeback against the poor by forcing them into the lower layers of the workforce through “welfare reform” and through mass incarceration through the criminalization of pretty much everything. As Wacquant puts it, it is the “new government of social insecurity” (1). This took place through five trends:

  1. Vertical expansion or carceral hyperinflation
  2. Horizontal expansion of the penal dragnet
  3. Onset of carceral “big government”
  4. Resurgence and prosperity of private incarceration
  5. Carceral affirmative action

But contrary to the “prison-industrial complex” theory (thoroughly debunked in this book), mass incarceration is only one side of new government of poverty. For Wacquant, mass incarceration contributes to the regulation of the bottom layers of the labor market in three ways:

  1. “Discipline the reticent fractions of  the working class by raising the cost of strategies of resistance to desocialized wage labor via “exit” into the informal economy” (79-80).
  2. “Help to “fluidify” the low-wage sector and artificially depresses the unemployment rate by forcibly subtracting millions of unskilled men from the labor force” (80).
  3. “Facilitate the development of subpoverty jobs and the informal economy by continually (re)generating a large volume of marginal laborers who can be superexploited at will” (81).

At the same time, whatever is left of social service programs are turned into massive mechanisms of surveillance where the poor have to abdicate their privacy in order to receive services, making the process as stigmatizing as possible.

As a sociologist, PoP is less satisfying than Punishing The Poor. And I certainly wish Wacquant would contrast this work to the treatment of corporate and financial criminality that has been unveiled in the context of the global recession where every possible rationalization has been offered to avoid the idea of systemic failure and class analysis. The only time where class has factored into the discussion of the recession, it is as potential culprit (all these poor people taking out mortgages that they could not afford). Thankfully, that argument has been thoroughly debunked.

In any event, it seems the US government found its economic power again to bailout the financial system without criminalization or stigmatization of an entire class. Compare and contrast.

Makeover Nation

“On the DVD boxed set of MTV’s Pimp My Ride, season two, there reads a compelling tag line: “there are to wheels too worthless, no ride too ragged. There is no ride unpimpable!” In this statement of egalitarian optimism comes a promise of reclamation and renewal for a plurality of ratty, tattered, and decrepit bodies. We are encouraged to believe that no body is a priori blocked from transformation. In this doctrine that no ride is unpimpable that sounds across the wider makeover genre, we hear an equally reassuring promise that once rides have been pimped, physical bodies nipped and tucked, personal style tweaked, families super-nannied, and rooms pizazzed, these renovations themselves will entitle After-bodies to take up residence in a territory where all citizens are beautiful, heterosexually fulfilled, and, most of all, confident and welcoming of the gaze (a position coded as both celebrated and of the celbrity). such is the power of transformation that makeovers empower subjects to voice wondrous statements of jubilation and reward (“I can do anything now!” “I’m going straight to the top!”). These discourses tie the workings of the makeover to the broader constitutions of citizenship predicated on meritocratic mobility within free markets and societies.

(…) TV makeovers participate in projects of citizenship, where the neoliberal mandate for care of the self in service of the market fuses with value of a mythic, egalitarian America to create a new imaginary territory I call Makeover Nation. In Makeover Nation, one’s selfhood is intelligible through and on the body or its various symbolic stand-ins (cars, kids, homes, etc.) and functions as a critical element of both belonging to and participating in a democracy.”

Brenda R. Weber (2009), Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 37-8.

Book Review – Punishing The Poor

I cannot emphasize enough what an important book Loïc Wacquant‘s Punishing The Poor – The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity is. Except, I have already done that by posting various quotes that I thought were important and made essential points as I was reading the book.

The main argument made by Wacquant is that the social policy of transition from welfare to workfare cannot be understood unless it analyzed in conjunction with the rise of prisonfare (mass incarceration of certain categories of the population). Workfare and prisonfare are two sides of the same coin: the areas where the neoliberal state can still assert its authority once depleted of its economic and social policy functions.

As neoliberal policies get implemented (in the name of globalization or moralization of society through work or punishment), a lot of people find the rug pulled from under their feet, mostly the poor and more specifically single women with children and minorities. What to do with these? Well, for the women, it will be workfare. For the men, it will be prisonfare.  This seems a bit simplistic but the data clearly show such a trend. In the United States, this is combined with the inherent structural and institutional racism at the heart of society. Prisonfare is the lastest mode of black subjugation and control along with ghettoization.

For Wacquant, the combination of workfare and prisonfare fulfills both economic and symbolic functions for the neoliberal punitive state (as workfare is equally punishing as prisonfare) fight the crisis of legitimacy that pervades all developed democracies as the state divests itself from its capacity to set economic policies and abandons policies of social justice and redistribution. With the help of the media, public attention is directed not at the massive transfer of wealth to the top of the social stratification ladder but rather on designated “incorrigible” deviants: welfare cheats and parasites, criminals and pedophiles against whom the ever-more intrusive mechanisms of the surveillance society are applied.

Of course, this all is based on a series of lies that nonetheless produced and dispersed throughout society, mostly, again, through the media: that the US is spending enormous amounts of money on welfare (False: AFDC never accounted for more than 1% of the federal budget) or that crime is on rise, perpetrated by ever younger and more dangerous “predators”. Here again, this is false: crime has been on the decline for a long time irrespective of the policies implemented or not. See below, for instance as Americans still believe that there is MORE crime (and by that, they think street crime):

Wacquant himself explains it in this video:

Regulating the poor is indeed the major outcome of these policies but there is not, according to Wacquant, some large-scale conspiracy as such a conspiracy would require much more competent coordination and centralization as is available in the United States. What we see are the logical conclusions and results of separately adopted neoliberal policies: liberalization / privatization on the economic domain, shrinking of the state in the name of efficiency, and de-socialization of waged labor (along with waves of outsourcing and off-shoring) along with a moral cultural outlook on social deviance. Such economic policies are bound to be devastating on certain segments of the population which then need to be controlled for their individual moral failings, largely depicted in terms of lack of self-control and responsibility.

Either way, the victims of neoliberal policies are irresponsible, unproductive individuals who need to be disciplined (in Foucault’s sense) and that is the job left to the state, with the recourse of private sector actors such as private welfare / child welfare administrations and private prisons. In this sense, in this punitive environment, structural conditions leave the most vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves even though their ghettoization prevents them from improving their conditions. Then, they are blamed for their lack of ability to get out of them.

There is, of course, one type of economic activity which would lead to better economic results: illegal economy. This is where the policies of the War on Drugs work to prevent those deprived of socialized wage labor from one exit from poverty, lending them, of course, in prison, serving large sentences for which there is no parole.

These very real economic impact of the neoliberal state on the poor is coupled with a persistent stigmatization that successfully covers the fact that these policies, workfare and prisonfare, do not have much to show for themselves almost 15 years after their implementation. But this is also the one weak point I found in Wacquant’s book: it needs some major statistical and data updating. Most of the data date back from the 1980s and the most recent date from the 1990s. One would want to know the state of these trends now. A lot can happen over 10 years, especially since these 10 years cover the entire Bush presidency.

Moreover, Wacquant also demonstrates that this double regulation of poverty (through workfare and prisonfare) has been exported to Europe, stating with the liberalization of the state through Thatcherism in the UK, the Kohl years in Germany and the oh-so memorable Chirac years as PM in France. Even the various left-of-center parties, such as the socialist parties in Western Europe have embraced the law-and-order view of the state and neoliberal economic “reforms” all the way to Sarkozy’s slogan to “work more to earn more”… we all know what happened to that in these past years.

In a way, this book truly illustrates the best of sociological analysis: it is a combination of solid data analysis, identification of patterns and trends and use of theory to pull it all together and a very convincing and critical demonstration. In this, this is a powerful book. I am not sure it is readable at the undergraduate level though and that is unfortunate because I am always on the lookout for great sociological books for my students to read to get a sense of how powerful sociological analysis is. Or at the very least, it should be offered as guided reading, with a lot of work to be done on the instructor’s part to guide the students through it many levels of analysis.

A very powerful book.

.

Surveillance Society 2.0 – NeoConOpticon

The apparatus of surveillance society is reaching further and deeper into many domains of life and it is very clear that it is not about protecting us against amorphous threats but about controlling us. And the surveillance-industrial complex stands at the ready to assist the neoliberal state to reach new levels:

Needless to say, the definition of what counts as “deviant behavior” can be quite variable and elastic and one can already see the multiplicity of applications in a variety of settings. This is pretty chilling.

“Crime and riots”, huh? How about political demonstrations against the advances of the neoliberal agenda? Does that count as “deviant behavior” to be controlled? The absurdity of it all, of course, is these new technologies might provide an enormous amount of data but very little information unless a lot of people get recruited to sift through these mountains of behavioral data and find the overactive-bladdered, cold-nosed terrorist.

You can find the NeoConOpticon report here (pdf version). What does neoconopticon mean? Of course, it is reminiscent of Bentham’s Panopticon, so often reference as part of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. NeoConOpticon is the version 2.0:

NeoconopticonDef

See also the blog that will keep track of this program:

I am sure they will not run out of things to talk about.

This, of course, correlates with Loïc Wacquant’s idea that massive surveillance (prisonfare and workfare as part of that) is the way in which the neoliberal state authoritatively reasserts itself once faced with the Habermasian crisis of legitimacy. The state may no longer provide a safety net or decent economic conditions, but at least, it can preserve our way of life against the enemies from without (terrorists) and those from within (criminals and socially irresponsibles)

It is actually quite disconcerting that these developments take place without much protests from the populations of Western countries as their economic security and democratic freedoms are being eaten away at, ever so incrementally.

Heck, we don’t even have to bend over anymore:

Surveillance Society: The State Side of Neoliberalism

“A central ideological tenet of neoliberalism is that it entails the coming of ‘small government’: the shrinking of the allegedly flaccid and overgrown Keynesian welfare state and its makeover into a lean and nimble workfare state, which ‘invests’ in human capital and ‘activates’ communal springs and individual appetites for work and civic participation through ‘partnerships’ stressing self-reliance, commitment to paid work, managerialism. The present book demonstrates that the neoliberal state turns out to be quite different in actuality: while it embraces laissez-faire at the top, releasing restraints on capital and expanding the life chances of the holders of economic, and cultural capital, it is anything but laissez-faire at the bottom. Indeed, when it comes to handling the social turbulence generated by deregulation and to impressing the discipline of precarious labor, the new Leviathan reveals itself to be fiercely interventionist, bossy and pricey. The soft  touch of libertarian proclivities favoring the upper class gives way to the hard edge of authoritarian oversight, as it endeavors to direct, nay dictate, the behavior of the lower class. ‘Small government’ in the economic register thus begets ‘big government’ on the twofold frontage of workfare and criminal justice. The results of Americas grand experiment in creating the first society of advanced insecurity in history are in: the invasive, expansive, and expensive penal state is not a deviation from neoliberalism but one of its constituents ingredients.” (307-8)

Emphasis mine.

Which gets me to this:

This is a perfect illustration of the quote above. Mayors of different cities are all bent out of shape because of unsupported claims of increasing insecurity. Then comes the government offering them money to equip their towns with all sorts of surveillance gadgets that are guaranteed to make delinquency decrease (never mind that this has been the trend already). The mayors then will turn to private companies that will pocket the state’s money and promote and provide said surveillance gizmos.

The thing is, these security measures are useless and costly. No small or medium town is going to hire the staff necessary to sift through the enormous amount of data generated by video-surveillance and other technologies. Moreover, some surveillance technologies are so ineffective that there are bill proposals to ban wearing certain types of headwear so that the camera can identify people.

And what kinds of nefarious activities is the surveillance apparatus supposed to deter and prevent? Terrorism?

The goal then is to equip small medium-sized businesses against the riff-raff and other social undesirables who interfere with commerce. At the same time, this government financing will play the role of economic stimulus for the surveillance industry.

This is where Loïc Wacquant is correct to note that there is no big neoliberal conspiracy to control and confine the poor. Measures like these are largely ineffective but they do funnel state monies towards a particular industry. It reasserts a symbolic sense of state agency seen as the great protector of small and medium sized businesses and helping local collectivities fight against the always-amorphous insecurity. It does not matter that a practical examination reveals major flaws, the benefits are material (state monies toward a private industry) and symbolic (fighting insecurity).

Such measures also draw a symbolic demarcation between the categories and entities considered in need of protection and state action and those from whom they need to be protect. Anyone participating in the capitalist activities of production and consumption are to be protected (the little business of civil liberties is treated as irrelevant in the name of security) against those who do not contribute either to production (unemployed, the socially-assisted) or consumption and do not subscribe to the norms of society.

As Wacquant notes in his book, this is also a perfect example of the important from the US of the ‘broken windows” theory. It did not work there and there is no reason to think it will work in France either.

From Keynesian Solidarity to Neo-Darwinist Competition

“Comparative analysis of the evolution of penality in the advanced countries over the past decade reveals a close link between the ascendancy of neoliberalism, as ideological project and governmental practice mandating submission to the ‘free market’ and the celebration of ‘individual responsibility’ in all realms, on the one hand, and the deployment of punitive and proactive law-enforcement policies targeting street delinquency and the categories trapped in the margins and cracks of the new economic and moral order coming into being under the conjoint empire of financialized capital and flexible wage labor, on the other hand.

(…)

These trends implicate and intricate with one another in self-perpetuating causal chain that is redrawing the perimeter and redefining the modalities of government action: (1) the commodification of public goods and the rise of underpaid, precarious work against the backdrop of working poverty in the United States and enduring mass joblessness in the European Union; (2) the unraveling of social protection schemes, leading to the replacement of the collective right to recourse against unemployment and destitution by the individual obligation to take up gainful activity (‘workfare’ in the United States and the United Kingdom, ALE jobs in Belgium, PARE and RMA in France, the Hartz reform in Germany, etc.), in order to impose desocialized wage labor as the normal horizon of work for the new proletariat of the urban service sectors; and (3) the reinforcement and extension of the punitive apparatus, recentered on the dispossessed districts of the inner city and urban periphery which concentrate the disorders and despair spawned by the twofold movement of retrenchment of the state from the economic and social front.

The Keynedian state, coupled with Fordist wage work operating as a spring of solidarity, whose mission was to counter the recessive cycles of the market economy, protect the most vulnerable populations, and reduce the most glaring inequalities, has been succeeded by a state that one might dub neo-Darwinist, in that it erects competition and celebrates unrestrained individual responsibility – whose counterpart is collective and thus political irresponsibility. The Leviathan then withdraws into its regalian functions of law enforcement, themselves hypertrophied and deliberately abstracted from their social environment, and its symbolic mission of reasserting common values though the public anathematization of deviant categories.” (1-5)

Public Agitation as Pornography

In which Loïc Wacquant proves yet again that he is one of the greatest sociologists around:

“The public agitation over criminal “security” (insécurité, Sicherheit, seguridad) that has rippled across the political scene of the member countries of the European Union at century’s close, twenty years after flooding the civic sphere in the United States, presents several characteristics that liken it closely to the pornographic genre, as described by its feminist analysts.

(…)

The law-and-order merry-go-round is to criminality what pornography is to amorous relations: a mirror deforming reality to the point of the grotesque that artificially extracts delinquent behaviors from the fabric of social relations in which they take root and make sense, deliberately ignores their causes and their meanings, and reduces their treatment to a series of conspicuous position-takings, often acrobatic, sometimes properly unreal, pertaining to the cult of ideal performance rather than to the pragmatic attention to the real. All in all, the new law-and-order geste transmutes the fight against crime into a titillating bureaucratic-journalistic theater that simultaneously appeases and feeds the fantasies of order of the electorate, reasserts the authority of the state through its virile language and mimics, erects the prison as the ultimate rampart against the disorders which, erupting out of its underworld, are alleged to threaten the very foundations of society.” (xi-iii)

So what are y’all waiting for? Get your copy! From what I have read so far, this book is a tour de force.