The Oh-So-Very Stratified Social Media – Indian Edition

Hey kids, remember how the social media platforms were going to be the great equalizers? (providing we conveniently ignore the pesky digital divide)… well, not so much…

And the top of the caste distribution is represented as well:

Conclusion: social media platforms make is easier for people to promote narrow identities as it is easy for members to seek out people like themselves and avoid others. On a class basis, there is no great class shuffling but rather the reproduction of inequalities through class / caste-based social capital.

Book Review – Euroclash

Neil Fligstein‘s Euroclash: The EU, European Identity, and The Future of Europe is an application of Fligstein approach to economic sociology developed in his previous book, The Architecture of Markets (which, if I were remotely consistent, I would have reviewed first). A very simplified version of this approach is that markets do not fall from the sky but are institutionally grounded and developed by social actors.

Markets are also fields, in Bourdieu’s sense, where dominant actors try to establish rule to promote the stability with respect to the newcomers in the fields who might try to establish different rules. Markets are social structures defined by property rights, governance structures, rules of exchange, and conceptions of control.

“A field can be defined as an arena of social interaction where organized individuals or groups such as interest groups, states, firms and non-governmental organizations routinely interact under a set of shared understandings about the nature of the goals of the field, the rules governing social interaction, who has power and why, and how actors make sense of one another’s actions.” (8)

By definition, fields are dynamic in that power and resources are unevenly distributed among social actors and there are potential lines of tension and conflict over how the field is organized and function. And so, with the emergence and evolution of the EU, there has been the emergence of Europe-wide fields in a variety of social domains.

“Firms have moved from being participants in national markets to being involved in Europe-wide markets. They have come to invest all around Europe and employ citizens of many countries. Interest groups and social movement organizations have been part of constructing European political domains both in Brussels and occasionally emergent across national borders.  National nonprofit associations have pushed forward cooperation for professions, trade associations, charities, and hobby and sports groups on a trans-European basis. What these social fields have in common is that national-level organizations have formed larger groupings that have reoriented their attention from nations or single states to their counterparts across borders. These fields of action have brought people together from across the continent and now form one of the main supports for a more integrated Europe. Indeed, these horizontal linkages that cross borders form the basis for what can be described as a European society.” (1-3)

Indeed, the institutionally-based EU integration has facilitated an increasing variety of social interactions (beyond trade) between different kinds of actors: education, human rights, tourism, sports, to name a few. As people travel for work or leisure or education, they develop great social networks with like-minded Europeans with shared interest. These horizontal networks  contribute to changing the way these actors see themselves: as more European.

At the same time, those individuals who feel the most European are those who have developed the denser social networks of interactions within the EU, that is, those who have benefited the most from it: business people, academics and students and various categories of professionals. Those are the winners of the EU integration. Unsurprisingly then, being European has become a greater part of their identity as functioning within the structures of the EU is part of their lives.

On the other hand, the EU integration has also generated losing categories of people who have not benefited from integration (blue-collar workers, seniors) and have also less interaction with the institutions of the EU. They are more likely to perceive the EU as a threatening force responsible for dismantling national structures that used to protect their status. They are what is known as the “Euro-sceptics”. They still identify mostly with national interest and tend to see EU integration as a threat to national sovereignty.

The winners of EU integration are more likely to analyze social issues within a Europe-wide frame and push for EU solutions whereas the losers of EU integration see the EU as a source of problems that should be solved nationally. And so, the social distribution of winners and losers structure potential tensions and conflicts when it comes to further EU integration. In between these categories of people is an “on-the-fence” group (roughly, middle-class) whose views on the EU vary depending on issues and this group can sway EU-related vote one way or the other, for instance, in the case of France, they voted for the Maastricht Treaty, but against the EU Constitution.

In order to understand these fields. of course, one has to understand how the EU was created and evolved, the different institutions that structure markets. Fligstein, probably keeping in mind that his audience will be mostly US, devotes a couple of chapters to these topics. Indeed, the dynamics of EU integration and conflicts are impossible to understand without such background as these institutions shape (and have shaped) the current state of the EU and what domains are regulated at the EU level (trade, movements of goods and people) and which are still governed at the national level (welfare, labor and pensions, for instance), and which ones are somewhere in between (education and sports). After all, the EU is not like the US.

Fligstein also devotes a fascinating chapter on three examples of market creation within the EU: defense, telecommunications and football industries. For each case, the reader is treated with a thorough description of the field, the different actors, the EU institutional framework that restructured these industries and the current state of these industries (as the EU integration is an uncertain and unfinished project). The complexity involved in EU integration has to do with the fact that national states within the EU have different systems of governance and different interests. There is no such thing as capitalism but national capitalisms and a great deal of the EU institutional apparatus is dedicated to negotiating directives and treaties agreeable by all the member-states (and as Fligstein shows, this does not always end up with a race to the bottom).

These case studies perfectly illustrate how the struggles for power by different actors (say the UEFA, the G-14, individual players and national leagues) using EU institutions (such as the Court of Justice) to shape the structure of the field (EU football) to their advantage, in the context of technological developments and media restructuring that considerably increased streams of revenues for leagues.

“The three case studies were chosen because they represent cases where European firms became organized on a European basis. They show clearly the dynamics by which previously nationally oriented firms turned toward a Europe-wide market as opportunities emerged, governments changed policy, and the EU intervened to create new collective governance. These processes have been messy and are not yet complete, but they demonstrate how organizing on a European wide basis provides for growth in firm size, revenues, and markets.” (122)

Fligstein then turn to the issues of European identity. Who are the European? That is, who are the people who identify as European to varying degrees alongside their national identity. I have already hinted at the answer above, so, I’ll just provide a longish quote that summarizes the confirmed hypothesis:

“As European economic, social, and political fields have developed, they imply the routine interaction of people from different societies. It is people who are involved in such interactions that are most likely to come to see themselves as Europeans and in a European national project. In essence, Europeans are going to be people who have the opportunity and inclination to travel to other countries, speak other languages, and routinely interact with people in other societies in the Europe-wide economic, social, and political fields. They are also going to be amongst the dominant material beneficiaries of European economic integration. They include owners of businesses, managers, professionals, and other white-collar workers who are involved in various aspects of commerce and government. These people travel for business, live in other countries for short periods of time, and engage in long-term social relationships with their counterparts, either in their firms or among their suppliers and customers, in their cohorts in other governments, or in the practice of their professions. Young people who travel across borders for schooling, tourism, and jobs (often for a few years after college) are also likely to be more European. Educated people who share common interests with educated people around Europe, such as similar professions, interests in charitable organizations, or social and cultural activities. (…) Finally, people with higher income will travel more and participate in the diverse cultural life across Europe. They will have the money to spend time enjoying the good life in other places.

If these are likely to be the people who are most likely to interact in Europe-wide economic, social, and political fields, then it follows that their opposites lack either the opportunity or interest to interact with their counterparts across Europe. Most importantly, blue-collar and service workers are less likely than managers, professionals, and other white-collar workers to have work that will take them to other countries. Older people will be less likely to be adventurous than younger people, and less likely to have learned other languages, or to hold favorable views of their neighbors; moreover, they will probably remember who was on which side on World War II. They will be less likely to want to associate with or have curiosity about people from neighboring countries. People who hold conservative political views that value ‘the nation’ as the most important category will be less attracted to travel, or to know and interact with people who are ‘not like them.’ Finally, less educated and less rich people will lack attraction to the cultural diversity of Europe and be less able to afford to travel.” (126-7)

The data do indeed confirm these trends even the pro-European numbers are still small, but then, the European project is still quite recent compared to the centuries of nation-building.

Another limit that Fligstein notes is the lack of strong social movements across European countries, organized horizontally. Indeed, social movements seem to be still organized nationally: groups that have grievance against the EU tend to petition their national governments for redress. [I would add that only movements that seem to have some European footing are those that relate to global issues, such as the opposition to GMOs… my view on this is that SMOs have done a great work to raise awareness globally and therefore scaling down to the EU level is not that hard. Scaling horizontally on EU-specific issues is trickier.]

In other words, there is no European civil society in a strict sense, no more than there is a Habermasian public space but a multiplicity of fora without actual coordination. This means that the groups that positioned themselves early on to have influence over the EU (businesses) are still the vastly dominant segment of the civil society as they have a strong lobbying presence in Brussels. This points to what has been called the “democratic deficit” of the EU.

This lack of horizontally-organized, EU-wide social movements and lack of public space also contributes to a still large lack of European identification and solidarity.

Since economic integration is largely complete, EU members have turned their attention towards building a European society. Fligstein identifies several threads leading to such a project: loosening up of intra-European migration which has increased movement of people within EU countries, the rise of Europe-wide civic associations (although a lot of Europe-wide are trade associations that emerged with the Single market in 1985). Education is the next big work-in-progress for the EU, with the Europeanization of the curriculum, the strengthening of language education and the harmonization of higher education degrees along with specific programs like Erasmus.

Here again, Fligstein notes one of the barriers to facilitating the rise of a European society: the lack of European culture. National cultures still largely dominate the field and popular culture is dominated by US media products. European culture is still largely limited to exchange of national programs between national tv networks along with movie co-productions. Music is still largely a national business with global corporations.

In the political field, national politics still dominates what happens at the European level. However, most mainstream political parties are now pro-integration (with the notable exception of England where resistance to integration has always been the strongest). Anti-European attitudes and platforms are political losers and relegated to nationalist / neo-fascist fringes who see the EU as an infringement to sovereignty and a dilution of the nation, or far left parties that see it as a neo-liberal plot.

On the other hand, certain groups, such as regional groups, have been able to use the EU human rights system to make gains against national states. All in all, the political field is far from stable and this is where the potential for euroclash is the greatest.

This is obviously a very detailed (and chock full o’data) book that perfectly demonstrates the strength of economic sociology and its capacity to bring back the social to explain the economic AND the consequences of embeddedness. It’s not an easy read especially for people completely unfamiliar with the EU but otherwise, it will be equally valuable to organization sociologists.

Book Review – The Myth of Individualism

In my never-ending pursuit of sociology books that I could use in my introduction classes that would show sociologists “in action”, I stumbled upon Peter Callero‘s The Myth of Individualism – How Social Forces Shape Our Lives. Anything titled “The Myth of…” is attractive to me as one of main objectives, I think, of introduction to sociology courses is to debunk all sorts of false notions through the use of sociological concepts, theories and methods – sociology as myth-buster, as Callero puts it (I love that phrase and might borrow it!). See my review of The Meritocracy Myth on that.

In many respects, The Myth of Individualism (TMoI) has a lot in common with the Meritocracy Myth (TMM). Both books set out to debunk the idea that one’s trajectory in life is almost exclusively based on innate and personal merits (good genes and hard work). Both books cover topics such as social class and institutional discrimination with a detour by Bourdieu, habitus and cultural capital.

The main difference is that TMM was more sociological than TMoI, that is, it goes more systematically to the data to explore different topics. TMoI is more narrative-based. It tells stories that are illustrative of the sociological point it tries to make. Personally, I prefer the former approach. I find it more persuasive and unassailable than the story-based format (after all, freshmen students tend to think that if they have a story that contradicts the story you’re telling them, they cancel out and that is enough to convince them you don’t have a point, they have a harder time arguing data).

Another aspect of the book I found less than persuasive is the use of personal anecdotes. Ok, actually, I really don’t like that in academic books. I don’t care that the author had an epiphany about a phenomenon by watching his 5-year-old kid do something or other. I know the intended audience is freshmen students, taking sociology for the first time and telling stories is a nice and simple way to ease them into the sociological perspective but I simply don’t think that personal anecdotes belong in such a book.

Now, some of the stories that Callero uses are interesting and sometimes riveting (like the story of the Unabomber or that of the Salem’s trials, based on Kai Erikson‘s excellent classical study of deviance Wayward Puritans). But I would confess that sometimes, I would have preferred less abstract discussion of topics such as identity and more nitty gritty data stuff (but again, I am not the audience for the book).

Actually, I finished the book thinking that it would be great to use alongside TMM. They complete each other pretty well, attack the same notions (individualism and meritocracy are intimately related), and debunk them with sociological concepts and theories. The narrative-based structure of TMoI makes it an easier and less dry read than TMM, but TMM is a more satisfying book from a sociological standpoint. At the same time, they complement each other as TMoI deals with more culture / socialization / identity / groups whereas TMM deals more with structural issues of gender, class and race (and the other isms). Put together, they are much better than traditional textbooks (which are of appalling quality anyway) and they cover almost every required topics of an introduction to sociology class (minus maybe issues of global stratification, population and environment). I think that would be worth it for both the students and the instructor.

Stigma… It’s Real and It Has Consequences

I know, I know, another post on intersex athletes and the humiliating testing they have to go through to satisfy the requirements of the athletic authorities. In the comments on a previous post, The Grumpy Sociologist pointed me to this BBC posdcast, which is a must-listen on what stigma feels like for stigmatized individuals:

As of Caster Semenya?

This, of course, belies the glamour photoshoot that was advertised last week where Semenya was all dressed up to look like a woman, to assuage our social anxieties regarding people who do not fit into the gender binary.

The violations that both athletes have had to endure truly fit Goffman’s definition of stigma as spoiled identity that limits someone’s full participation into society. Obviously, her athletic career is for now over and her social identity has been spoiled. Listen to the BBC podcast and pay attention to the questions about sexual development and how the athlete has to “justify” her biological apparatus.

The amount of symbolic violence inflicted upon these individuals is amazing and understandably overwhelming.

Book Review – The Everyday Life of Global Finance

Paul Langley‘s The Everyday Life of Global Finance: Saving And Borrowing in Anglo-America is obviously a very relevant book for our times and a very illuminating one at that. The starting point of the book is this:

“It is only over the last quarter of a century or so that stock market investment has become somewhat ordinary and mundane, very much embedded in everyday life. But what transformations have taken place in routine saving practices in order that more extensive investment relationships have been forged? How are these relationships produced and consolidated, and in what ways do they contain their own vulnerabilities and contradictions? Do these new relationships signal a genuine and inclusive ‘democratization’ where the financial markets are made to work for all, or does investment in the financial markets remain out of reach for many? What are the implications of these relationships for our understanding of finance more broadly, and for political action that, once again, might serve to place Wall Street’s financial markets ‘on the defensive’?” (3)

The book then examines the changes in credit practices as made available to individuals through a variety of networks and the interconnection of these networks of ordinary borrowing with the capital markets. Capital markets themselves are part of the networks of global finance. Indeed, the book revolves around a series of concepts (financial networks, financial power, financial identity and financial dissent) that capture the nature of every day life of finance and the changing nature of saving and borrowing. Langley also mobilizes Michel DeCerteau’s approach on the sociology of everyday life as well as Foucault’s ideas relating to discipline and surveillance in the constitution of the borrower-investor subject, an identity ridden with contradictions, never fully achieved and a trigger for dissent. Financial networks, power, identity and dissent constitutes the main topics of the book.

The starting point of the evolution of saving and borrowing corresponds with the dominance of neo0liberalism in Anglo-America (the book’s scope, the US and UK). The neoliberal ideology and economic dominance successfully redefined investment as rational form of saving:

“Significant here is a reworking and a re-reckoning of ‘risk’, which is viewed positively in networks of everyday investment, and negatively in networks of thrift and insurance. It follows, therefore, that the transformation of Anglo-American saving entails the partial displacement of networks of thrift and insurance by networks of everyday investment.” (53)

In the context of the “new economy”, the new discourse then became that prudent saving and insurance were conservative and timid, not to mention inefficient to provide for a future income compared to the calculable and predictable (thanks to a variety of tools) riches to be had once one joined capital market investments. If one type of saving (traditional thrift and insurance) is low-risk but low-return and certainly insufficient to provide for one’s future compared to another type of saving (investment), then, it makes more sense to invest than save.

This represented a major cultural shift. Everyone could make a lot of money provided one exercised personal responsibility, the mantra of the 1980s and 90s that also justified scaling back on welfare provisions. This shift was also presented as liberating: one could exercise more control over one’s life by taking charge of one’s financial future. This was also a shift from collective arrangements (insurance) to individualized ones (personal portfolio of investment).

At the collective level, this was matched by the waves of privatization (especially in the UK). Welcome to the shareholder society, one in which, as Margaret Thatcher said, there was really no such thing as a society but only individuals and their families, in charge of their finances, operating as free agents. Such shift was also supported by tax incentives, of course and became even more visible in the shift from occupational pensions and defined benefit plans to 401ks and defined contributions plans.

The trend here is individualization (a concept strongly developed by Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman) whereby individuals have to find individualized / private solutions to systemic and structural contradictions, all packaged as increased freedom in a climate of where traditional savings and pensions are presented as old-fashioned or in crisis (Social Security). Interestingly, then, personal investments come to be seen as better alternatives, responsibly managed by rational actors using the proper tools and reading the financial sections of newspapers to find the best investments. Because, after all, one can better manage one’s money than the government (that discourse made a big comeback in George Bush’s failed attempt to partially privatize Social Security).

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is not just it’s unveiling of these cultural shifts and their impact on everyday investment practices but what Langley, using Foucault, calls “the making of everyday investor subject” (90). That is, these transformations did not just operate at the structural and institutional levels but all the way down to the crafting of a neo-liberal subjectivity and subject as free investor in charge of one’s investment as rational actor. In other words, the creation of a neo-liberal self.

“The calculative technologies present in networks of everyday investment call up a subject who embraces financial market risk, deploys various calculative measures of risk/reward in relation to different equities and mutual funds, and manages risk through portfolio diversification. The subject position of the everyday investor is also authorized and legitimated in the broader neo-liberal moral and political discourse.” (92)

This subjective reconfiguration is not limited to the investing subjectivity. It also extends to other aspects of one’s life (something also studied by Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character):

“New worker subjects are summoned up, for example, who hold the portfolio of skills and experiences that are necessary to embrace the risks and receive the rewards of flexible labour [sic] markets.” (92)

This is very much in line with what I have described in previous posts as the redefinition of education as skills acquisition where workers go back to school on a regular basis not for the education experience but to acquire the set of skills that will put them, it is thought, in a more rationally-analyzed competitive position on the job market. It is then up to workers to monitor their skills portfolio, just as, as investors, they are expected to monitor their investment portfolio. In both cases, the assumption is that both financial and work futures are knowable things and it is up to the investor / worker to find the tools to analyze financial and career prospects. In both capacities, entrepreneurship is required, and sanctioned if absent, hence the relevance of Foucault’s approach on disciplinary techniques of the self.

“Although entrepreneurialism apparently shears the financial government of the self from the attributes of prudence and self-denial, it is nevertheless highly disciplinary. Neo-liberal government is not associated with an end to financial self-discipline, but with new forms of financial discipline that include investment as a technology of risk.” (92)

In both cases, enforced autonomy becomes the desirable cultural norm through rational investment based on tool-based analysis of either the financial markets or the labor conditions and demands. In popular culture, this has translated in a flurry of shows and books on self-help or self-management, investment advice websites and television channels where the investor has to collect all the right information and analysis to, in the end, make individualized decisions. Consequently, government agencies now more and more turn themselves into education and advice bureaus rather than social service offices. Local governments offer classes on private investment, portfolio diversification, etc. The tool are available and individuals can only blame themselves if they do not use them and do not adequately plan for a knowable future. And they certainly cannot expect the government to take care of them because of their own failure. In the parlance, individuals have to increase their financial literacy and capacity.

Indeed, the negative mirror image of the responsible investor is that of the irresponsible non-saver who expects others (the government, the employer) to take care of his retirement for him. That subject is stigmatized and depicted as doomed to a lousy retirement with limited income. For Langley, then, the everyday investor has to be constantly engaged and willing to embrace risk and knows how to use calculation tools to decipher the signs of market shifts.

But what the discourse of the investor subjects masks is that investor subjects are also workers and consumers (among other things) and this creates major contradictions in for the investor subject as these other identities face structural conditions and demands that might conflict with those of calculated and rational investment. But this discourse invokes a complete depoliticization of social relations and economic policy. The discourse of the investor subject ignores the political realities and the structure of the risk society and assumes that rational tools are available to all in an even playing field not characterized by precarization. For instance, investor subjects are summoned to build up their portfolio…

“However, worker entrepreneurs necessarily confront new uncertainties over employment contracts, hours, pay, and conditions that, obscured by discourses of risk/reward, are likely to undercut their capacity to perform the subject position of the investor. The responsible investor who builds a portfolio of securities in order to provide for his or her future requires a disposable income to invest. Investment is not a one off event, but a set of ongoing calculative performances of self care that rely, for the vast majority of individuals and households at least, on relatively predictable wages.” (109)

Ironically, shareholder value may actually be built on labor uncertainties. Hence the contradiction. The worker entrepreneur is supposed to be flexible and mobile whereas the investor subject is expected to steadily build his portfolio. And not to mention that the consumer subject is also expected to express continuous preferences through consumer credit and practices that reveal one’s status, autonomy and choices. Thanks to consumer credit, the consumer subject has also experienced the liberation from the need for available capital for consumption. In this nexus lie major contradictions and sources of tension. But in all realms of construction of the subject, the political has been evacuated to be replaced by calculable rationality. The attempt to re-politicize these subjects is the focus of financial dissent either through ethical investment or resort to alternatives (such as credit union or solidarity economics) or even art.

In spite of the de-politicized and de-socialized discourse of the investor subject, the world of everyday borrowing is marked by the persistence of inequalities built into the system and where the stratifying logic is based on calculable indexes such as the credit score. The world of everyday borrowing is stratified whereby borrowers are classified into categories such as “prime” or “subprime” or “high risk”. Access to credit by low-credit score borrowers renders the old-fashioned redlining obsolete in the face of what is known as ‘exploitative greenlining’.

Low-income, high-risk individuals are now included into the system, at the interstices between the prime credit sector and the alternative forms of borrowing. With practices such as risk-based pricing (where by credit card conditions are tailored based on the risk represented by borrowers, as calculated through a variety of tools), financial exclusion takes the form of exploitative inclusion into the financial networks via subprime networks which hide the hierarchical, stratified and discriminatory nature of the system of everyday borrowing. The margins are now within the system. At the same time, discriminatory practices (such as the charging of higher interest rates) can now be presented as technical matter (based on an objective credit score, for instance) rather than discrimination.

When it comes to the subject then, the task becomes one of maintaining a good credit score as disciplinary technology of the self. A bad credit score becomes a stigma that limits autonomy and freedom.

“The ever-greater outstanding financial obligations of a majority of individuals and households, created primarily through mortgage and consumer credit networks, entail the disciplinary summoning up of the subject of the responsible and entrepreneurial borrower. A failure to meet outstanding obligations is to be ‘cavalier’, casual, careless, irrational, and irresponsible. Even when critical attention comes to focus on the practices of lenders, for example, neo-liberal policy recommendations tend to concentrate upon the rationality of responsible borrowers as ‘consumers’.” (185)

So, that is another layer of self-discipline that is added to that of investor subject. And here again, consumer subjects are expected to consume but face their financial obligations in the most rational fashion, by maintaining their credit score as well as comparing the different cards to detect the best deals. Failure to behave responsibly, in this sense, involves disciplining through higher interest rates or credit dry-up. Financial obligations then have to be managed as much as an equities portfolio through calculative strategies. In addition, what kind of card an individual possesses is also a status signal of one’s wealth and worth.

Similarly, mortgage borrowers are supposed to keep track of interest rates, calculate repayments of principal and interests and continuously refinance when conditions are deemed favorable. Access to mortgage became also essential in the constitution of the neo-liberal subject. Home ownership is a marker of individualization, autonomy and wealth but also a mark of sound financial management. After all, renting is a waste of money.

“Owner-occupation has thus been held out as an aspiration for all in an explicitly moral economy that demarcates what is respectable and acceptable on the one hand, from that which is unrespectable and unacceptable on the other.” (193)

But more than that,

“Owner-occupation has become, then, an entrepreneurial, financial, and house strategy as the home becomes an object of leveraged investment.” (195)

Home ownership then contributes to the successful performance of the investor subject. Default and foreclosure becomes the stigmatizing failures of those who have become, through their own carelessness and irresponsibility, unable to meet their financial obligations. But here again, the contradictions are obvious: home-ownership as investment (through flipping, for instance) only works in the context of ever-increasing home prices and increasing incomes. That is, as mentioned, the home-owner subject is constructed as separate from other social identities. Borrowing obligations are best met through continuous and rising incomes.

For Langley, the past fifteen years have created a specific illusion that has now been dispelled:

“The performance of multiple, neo-liberal financial subject positions – primarily ‘the investor’ on the savings side, and ‘revolver’ and ‘leveraged investor’ on the borrowing side – have been largely complementary for the last fifteen years or so.” (205)

But this has come to an end with the collapse of the housing bubble, the reset of interest rates on many mortgages and the corresponding shock-waves across the capital markets (as all these domains are interconnected networks whereby for instance, prime mortgage lending companies often own sub-prime subsidiaries and mutual and hedge funds have invested in a variety of products based on mortgages).

This edifice of disciplinary technologies of the self is now under questioning and the contradictions have become very visible.

This is indeed a great book and I have only offered a simplified account of very rich descriptions of these mechanisms of everyday finance. This book definitely needs to be read with an eye on what has happened since the economic collapse but also with an eye on the discourse of economic stimulus, for instance. In many ways, the discourse of the stimulus has been one of technicalities, a technical matter to be solved with rational analysis and the right instruments. At the same time, there have been pressures to reintroduce moral and social considerations (who gets help? What about executive bonuses? Is it logical to reward executives who have ‘failed’? Etc.).

A very relevant read.

Invisibility of The Dominant and Salience of the Minority

One of the things that Jackson Katz demonstrates in Tough Guise is how being in the dominant category (white, male, straight, upper class) means having these social categorizations taken as the default option and therefore invisible and never questioned. Conversely, being minority (non-white, woman, LGBT or lower class) involves a degree of salience, that is, one will have one’s behavior and actions constantly interpreted through the prism of such minority categorizations.

This fact was particularly on display this week with the confirmation hearing for Judge Sotomayor. Her status as woman and Latina was constantly brought into the discussion related to how these statuses would influence (and have influenced) her decisions from the bench. These kinds of questions are never asked from white men in confirmation hearings ("how much do you think your whiteness influences your judicial decision?").

It is a no-win situations for minorities, all their actions are interpreted by the dominant group as based on, or caused by, their minority status no matter how much they might deny it. But if minority individuals integrate their minority experience into their practices, then, they get accused of playing identity politics and losing objectivity (an attribute assumed to always be present in what dominant group individuals do and say). So, from the dominant group’s perspective, it is invisibility for me but salience for thee.

In other words, being minority is a master status whereas being part of the dominant group is an unexamined and assumed-to-be irrelevant background. It is a powerful strategy to retain power, as Jay Livingston demonstrates:

To have one’s dominant statuses remain invisible and unquestioned is a social privilege that allows its possessor to claim for himself the mantel of objectivity and rationalism while minorities have their minority status stick to them and "taint" (from the dominant group’s perspective) everything they do and leading them therefore to inferior decision-making, such as judicial action.

Indeed, Judge Sotomayor will most likely be confirmed and become a Justice on US Supreme Court but you can be sure that each and every one of her decisions will be scrutinized for signs of ethnic or gender bias whereas her white male colleagues will get a pass.

Stealth Conflicts – The Blog

In addition to his book, Virgil Hawkins created a blog on the topic of Stealth Conflicts. It is a great addition of up to date info and data on these conflicts (and maybe a way to publish materials that did not make it into the book). For instance, compare these two maps which neatly illustrate the issue of ‘chosen’ versus ‘stealth’ conflicts:

This one is a map based on the level of conflict-related mortality by continent from 1990 to 2007:

Conflict-related mortality

And this one which sizes up conflicts by continents based on their coverage by CNN:

CNN Conflicts

Obviously, Africa, which is overwhelmingly dominant in the first map, shrinks to a small fraction of its size in the CNN map whereas the Middle East, Europe and the Americas grow disproportionately. This explains why the bombing of Gaza, as horrendous as it is, got wall-to-wall coverage these past days (you can thank the Governor of Illinois’s chutzpah for the current distraction) while persistent conflicts in the DRC remains largely uncovered despite the very recent massacre of more than a hundred people by the LRA, an organization that, I think, is way worse than the Hamas… but that’s just me.

The contrast between the maps also explains why conflicts in the former Yugoslavia got enormous media coverage while conflicts that took place almost at the same time (such as the genocide in Rwanda) got much more limited attention despite lower mortality.

Among the factors that account for such discrepancies: nationalism and capacity to identify with the victims, political interests, presence of media agencies and bureaus in affected countries, race to the bottom as competition in the Western media, possibility of simplifying the conflict to fit into a neat moral narrative with innocent victims and evildoers.

Bolivia on the Brink – Part II

BoliviaVia Liberation, the rich Bolivian region of Santa Cruz has declared its autonomy after a successful – but illegal – referendum. The “yes” obtained around 82% of the votes with 30 to 40% abstention. This autonomy gives the region expanded powers in political and economic matters, at the expense of the central government. In particular, the new status gives Santa Cruz increased power over administration of land policy and the sale of natural resources, especially natural gas. For the government, this is a ploy by the local oligarchy and wealthy landowners to enrich themselves and protect their exclusive interests. However this issue is resolved institutionally, Santa Cruz started a chain reaction: 3 out of 9 regions have now planned to hold their own autonomy referenda.

According to Le Monde, things started with constitutional disputes between the central government and the opposition right-winged prefects of 6 of the 9 provinces.

But as nationalist leader Andres Soliz Rada states, both parties are liquidating the national state: the right-wingers by getting regional autonomy because they do not like governmental policies, and the central government by giving way to extreme multiculturalism with three flags and 36 languages.

But at the heart of this is land policy: the government-sponsored constitutional reform would limit the size of latifundia to 5,000 to 10,000 hectares whereas Santa Cruz lands largely belongs to 40 families. The largest plantations might be redistributed to peasants, something, of course, unacceptable to the local landowning oligarchy (via Le Nouvel Observateur). This result of the referendum is a blow to the government since Santa Cruz generates 30% of the GDP of Bolivia. The bottom line is economic, as stated in the Independent,

“The new constitution is at the source of the regional discontent with the central government. Its strong pro-indigenous and socialist content and the controversial way in which it was approved – inside an army barracks – have made it a rallying point for opposition forces across the country. (…) The reason for the opposition is economic more than anything else, although racist smears have tainted the arguments of both camps. In recent years Santa Cruz has grown from an outback region into Bolivia’s economic powerhouse, responsible for a third of the national GDP. The region boasts 40 per cent of the country’s arable land and one fifth of its gas reserves.

The Morales government is pushing for more control over those resources, claiming the benefits should go to the country’s poor as a whole. The Santa Cruz government says it deserves a larger slice of the profits from fossil fuels.”

And the Bolivian ethnic divisions are very clear: the “white” elite in Santa Cruz was very much in favor and the instigator of the referendum whereas the indigenous populations opposed it. And it can get pretty ugly (via the Guardian):

“The vote also expressed hostility to the government’s championing of indigenous communities which scrabble for survival in the highlands, a very different Bolivia to Santa Cruz and the relatively prosperous eastern lowlands. (…) “My family is voting for autonomy because the Indians want to dominate us,” said Olga Tordolla, a woman in a largely indigenous quarter of Santa Cruz city known as Plan Tres Mil. “They are racist, they hate white people.””

Ah yes, the Americas’ beleaguered white people, always oppressed, always hated. But in this case, this is truly the revolt of the white elite against an elected president whose policies are too redistributive for their taste. There is reason for the rich ranchers and right-wing militias to be worried after the “pink tide” that is sweeping South America (via another Guardian article).

“Ecuador and Paraguay elected radical outsiders as Presidents, Venezuela continued espousing socialist revolution, and Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay retained left-wing governments.”

The big question now is whether this vote is going to be the first step in stopping Evo Morales’s policies. The answer is not clear. After all, his government just nationalized four oil companies.

This includes three oil companies with foreign capital. The government also has plans to nationalize telecommunications companies.

There is now a stand-off as to which policies will prevail: the quasi-apartheid system that favors white ranchers and right-wing militias, or the socialist mixed with indigenous identity politics of Evo Morales.

To be continued.

Photo Source: Leo La Valle/EPA, in the Guardian.

The Tuskegee Experiment – Australian Edition

Via the Independent,

“The Australian government has launched an investigation into claims that aboriginal children seized from their parents during the 1920s and 1930s were secretly used as guinea pigs for leprosy treatments. The allegations surfaced at a Senate inquiry this week into plans to compensate the “stolen generation” of aboriginal Australians who were taken from their families as part of a government programme.”

I guess after all that has already been disclosed regarding the “stolen generation”, this is not a surprising discovery. The eerie parallel with the Tuskegee experiment flows from the same logic: that of dehumanization of the “other” whoever that other happens to be. And even when the legal system of discrimination is dismantled, its effects do not disappear as institutional discrimination is harder to uproot and eliminate than individual discrimination. As a result, Australia ends up with this level of stratification:

“Australia’s 450,000 aborigines are the country’s most disadvantaged social group, with a life expectancy 17 years lower than their white counterparts. They are three times more likely to be unemployed, and 13 times more likely to be imprisoned.”

So far, the Australian PM, Kevin Rudd has issued a historic apology for past mistreatment. How about so real social policy for current social ills that affect the Aborigines disproportionately?

Unrecognized and Invisible in Israel

Via The Guardian, the indigenous Bedouins are facing the all-too common fate of indigenous peoples who do not fit nicely within the culture of capitalism (something described fairly extensively by Richard Robbins).

“Tens of thousands of bedouin – Arabs who have lived a semi-nomadic life on the land for many generations and who all carry full Israeli citizenship – live in 39 “unrecognised villages” in southern Israel where their homes are subject to frequent demolition. (…) Twayil is one of the villages worst hit by the recent increase in demolitions. The Talalqah clan was moved from the area in the 1950s, a time when Israel’s Arab population was subject to military rule. In 1978, clan members bought plots of land in Lakiya, one of seven townships established for the bedouin on the advice of a government committee, thinking they could restart their lives. But they have not received their land and soon discovered Lakiya was built on land claimed by another bedouin tribe. Eventually, they returned to Twayil, where they now live surrounded by the signs of demolitions and without even basic services like water or electricity.”

Israel has plans for the land occupied by the Bedouins, either for resources exploitation or to establish settlements, so in a move not that different from the relocation of Native Americans to reservations, the Bedouins are to be relocated to specific townships. It has not worked before, as the previous excerpt indicates, but maybe it will work this time.

“However, the seven townships to which it wants the bedouin to move are already overcrowded and have poor living conditions – in stark contrast to the new communities being built nearby for Israelis relocating to the Negev. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2003 all the townships ranked among the eight poorest areas of Israel. But of the newly built communities around Beer Sheva, with their predominantly Jewish populations, two were in the top five wealthiest areas of the country.”

I guess not. Jimmy Carter took some heat when he used the term “apartheid” regarding Israel, but how else to describe the treatment of this indigenous group. Of course, the Bedouins are full citizens of Israel but the villages they occupy technically do not exist (which is why they get demolished all the time) and they have no claim to the land they live on. And actually, these people do not “occupy” the land (as Israel occupies the Occupied Territories). They have lived there for a long time and sometimes still have documentation of such residency. They are not squatters. It is deliberate Israeli land policy that has created such a situation, as stated by Lucy Mair, the author of a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report (press release, full report) on this issue.

“Many Israelis believe the country’s Bedouin citizens deserve their lot – that they have trespassed onto land that wasn’t theirs and willfully built without proper permits. Yet during months of research for Human Rights Watch I found the opposite to be true. Bedouin presence on this land in the Negev dates back generations. Some Bedouin have documents to show that their fathers and grandfathers bought land from other Bedouin or paid land taxes to the Ottoman and British authorities before the state of Israel was founded. Others showed Human Rights Watch the ruins of family homes and school buildings from decades ago, or graveyards where their ancestors were buried in the 1800s. And others showed us military orders asking Bedouin to “temporarily” leave their villages in the early 1950s.

But these displaced Bedouin were never allowed to return to their ancestral villages. Israel passed a series of laws in the 1950s and 60s confiscating the land from which the Bedouin were displaced and registering it in the name of the state. In the 1960s, when Israel drew up its first master plan, planners purposefully ignored the Bedouin villages, rendering them illegal with a stroke of the pen, thus denying them access to building permits and basic services. These state actions are the root cause of the terrible conditions that tens of thousands of Israel’s Bedouin citizens endure to this day.”

Land policies are one of the major means, according to Richard Robbins, to produce ethnocide, that is, the cultural elimination of indigenous culture (along with military intervention, extension of government control, cultural modification policies, attempts as assimilation through education presented as progress, and economic development). We can see some of these strategies at work in this case as well. It is hard to see how this situation could improve considering the lack of sympathy from the Israeli population and the fact that the Bedouin are not as media-savvy as the Zapatistas in making their case to the international community via global media.