Donatella Della Porta on The Failure of Minimalist (Neoliberal) Democracy

Your must-read of the day from one of the most important sociologists of social movements:

“Neoliberalism is a political doctrine that brings with it a minimalist vision of the public and democracy, as Colin Crouch demonstrates so well in his Post-Democracy. It envisages the reduction of political intervention to correcting the market (with consequent liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation), an elitist concept of citizen participation (electoral only, and therefore occasional and potentially distorted) and an increased influence of lobbies and powerful interests.

The evident crisis in this liberal concept and practice of democracy is however accompanied by the (re)emergence of diverse concepts and practices of democracy, elaborated and practiced, among others, by social movements. In today’s Europe, they are opposing a neoliberal solution to the financial crisis, accused of further depressing consumption and thereby quashing any prospect for growth – whether sustainable or not.

Austerity measures in Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain have been met with long-lasting mass protests, which partly took the more traditional form of general strikes and trade union demonstrations, contesting the drastic cuts to social and labour rights.

But another type of protest has also emerged, not opposed to the former, but certainly different and more directly concerned with democracy: the criticism to democracy as it is now, and the elaboration of possible alternatives. “Democracia real ya!” was the main slogan of the Spanish indignados protesters that occupied the Placa del Sol in Madrid, the Placa de Catalunya in Barcelona and hundreds of squares in the rest of the country from 15 May 2011, calling for different social and economic policies and indeed greater citizen participation in their formulation and implementation. Before such a mobilisation in Spain, at the end of 2008 and start of 2009, self-convened citizens in Iceland had demanded the resignation of the government and its delegates in the Central Bank and in the financial authority. In Portugal, a demonstration arranged via facebook in March 2011 brought more than 200,000 young people to the streets. The indignados protests, in turn, inspired similar mobilisations in Greece, where opposition to austerity measures had already been expressed in occasionally violent forms.”

Which, of course all point to the much-debated crisis of legitimation:

“The indignados’ discourse on democracy is articulate and complex, taking up some of the principal criticisms of the ever-decreasing quality of representative democracies, but also some of the main proposals inspired by other democratic qualities beyond electoral representation. These proposals resonate with (more traditional) participatory visions, but also with new deliberative conceptions that underline the importance of creating multiple public spaces, egalitarian but plural.

Above all, they criticise the ever more evident shortcomings of representative democracies, mirroring a declining trust in the ability of parties to channel emerging demands in the political system. Beginning with Iceland, moving forcefully to Spain and Portugal, indignation is addressed towards corruption in the political class, seen in bribes (the dismissal of corrupt people from institutions is called for), as well as in the privileges granted to lobbies and in the close connection between public institutions and economic (and often financial) power. It is to this corruption – that is the corruption of democracy – that much of the responsibility for the economic crisis, and the inability to manage it, is attributed.”

Indeed, part of this crisis is the fact that the “there is no alternative” view has contaminated most mainstream left-wing party in Europe (the US democratic party is not left-wing, so, it was there all along, in a softer form than its Republican counterpart) and therefore, excluding extremist parties, there dominant parties have subscribed to the neoliberal view of minimalist democracy, so, they cannot be seen as offering an alternative to right-wing parties and their austerity programs and power-to-the-lobbies politics. After all, it is a socialist government that is implementing austerity in Greece.

This crisis of legitimation is also mixed with the alter-globalization meme against globalization from the top, through major transnational institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, summarized as the global democratic deficit.

So, according to Della Porta, what are the alternatives?

“But there is also another vision of democracy, the one which normative theory has recently defined as deliberative democracy, and which the global justice movement has elaborated and diffused through the social forums as consensus democracy. This conception of democracy is prefigured by the very same indignados that occupy city squares, transforming them into public spheres made up of ‘normal citizens’. It is an attempt to create high quality discursive democracy, recognising the equal rights of all (not only delegates and experts) to speak (and to be respected) in a public and plural space, open to discussion and deliberation on themes that range from conditions of distress to concrete solutions to specific problems, from proposals on common goods to the formation of collective solidarity and emerging identities.

This prefiguration of deliberative democracy follows a vision that is profoundly different from that which legitimates representative democracy, founded on the principle of majority decision making. Here, democratic quality is in fact measured in terms of the possibility of elaborating ideas within discursive, open and public arenas, where citizens play an active role in identifying problems, but also in elaborating possible solutions. It is the opposite of accepting a ‘democracy of the prince’, where the professionals elected to govern must on no account be disturbed, at least until fresh elections are held. But it is also the opposite of a ‘democracy of experts’, legitimised by output, on which European institutions have long relied.”

Yes, but let’s not forget that there is one major function that the state never gives up in its minimalist state: repression. So, any real challenge to the system will not be met with warm welcome and the propagandistic push-bakc will be massive (as it is in the UK after the riots) in order to generate a backlash against the movements.

Book Review – Les Places et Les Chances

I confess to being a big fan of the République des Idées collection from publisher Seuil. This collection is great for short works on sociology of inequalities, work as well as economic sociology. François Dubet‘s Les Places et Les Chances is no exception. In this book, Dubet explores the old sociological debate over equality of position (roughly similar to equality of results in the anglo-speaking world) and equality of opportunity, and pretty much settles the issue in less than 120 pages.

The book has a very clear structure. First, Dubet reviews the idea and application of equality of position using the French example. Then, he details the critiques of this model. He then turns to equality of opportunity, using the example of the United States, and then explores its shortcomings. Finally, based on this exploration, he explains why he thinks equality of position is actually better as a matter of policy and social justice.

The differences between these conceptions of equality is based on different conceptions of social justice. Equality of position is based on the idea of reducing inequalities of income or quality of life, or inequalities in access to vital social services and inequalities in security. These inequalities exist between social positions occupied by individuals that are different in terms of age, qualification, talent, etc. The point of equality of position is then to “tighten” the gap between position that organize the social structure. The point is not to prioritize individual mobility but to reduce the gap between positions. As Dubet puts it, the point is not to promise to the children of blue-collar workers that they will be able to move up the social ladder, but rather to reduce the gap in quality of life between SES. Egalitarianism is central.

On the other hand, equality of opportunities (égalité des chances, in French) is based on meritocracy, that is, to offer everyone a chance to reach the best positions in society. The point is not to reduce inequalities between positions but to try to eliminate discrimination and other obstacles that would distort competition between individuals that create preexisting hierarchies. This conception considers inequalities to be fair only if positions are open to all. The point is to have a fair competition without calling into question the gap between positions. In this model, diversity of racial and ethnic background have to be taken into consideration as well.

So, depending on which conception of social justice prevails, one might end up with very different social policies: reducing inequalities between position versus eliminating discrimination without touching the structure of inequalities. As Dubet notes, under the former configuration, one might push for an increase in minimum wage and improvement in living conditions in housing projects versus promoting access to higher positions for children from these areas. On the one hand, one can work to eliminate unjust social positions, or work to allow some to escape from them based on merit.

Similarly, these different conceptions of equality and social justice have been promoted by different social movements. Traditional left-wing, labor and unions movements have pushed for equality of position whereas identity-based movements have tended to promoted equality of opportunities.

For Dubet, the French system is based on a very Durkheimian conception of equality of positions combined with an organic conception of social solidarity. It is less an egalitarian system than a redistributive one based on social rights. Less inequalities leads to greater social integration. This system has its problems, though in that it enshrines regimes of social redistribution based on protected statuses and positions, often tied to work and organized labor. It is not a system that is well adapted for higher levels of unemployment and precarization. When this happens, resentment can happen as privileged workers resent paying for those excluded from the system and these excluded resent their very exclusion from it. This system does not prevent gender and racial discrimination and the presence of a glass ceiling.

This is usually when discourse to equality of opportunities: those left-behind by equality of position. For Dubet, then, the discourse of equality of opportunities gives voice to traditionally invisible categories: women and racial / ethnic minorities and other discriminated categories. In this conception, society is a mosaic of individuals with categorical privileges and disadvantages that define their life chances. This conception of social justice then involves fighting against discrimination and promoting access and reducing exclusion. This may involve compensatory policies. Cultural identities, as carried by individuals are central to this.

This conception focuses on individual mobility and individuals are seen as active agents, responsible for their actions as long as the competition is fair and the most meritorious have opportunities to advance as far as their merits will allow. Society is not seen as an integrated whole but as a dynamic entity based on individual choices and actions. Therefore, public policy is based on empowerment. Initial equality is provided but after that, every individual is on his/her own. There is no social contract, only individual ones.

For Dubet, this conception is based on a statistical fiction. The focus is on the elite of society: one counts the number and percentages of women and minorities in high position in politics, business, academia, etc. and deplores their underrepresentation, while relatively ignoring that their overrepresentation at the lower levels of society is just as unfair. For Dubet, the equality of opportunity model is more sensitive to success and the few Horacio Alger success stories than to the larger numbers stuck without possibilities of mobility for structural reasons that are the fate of the larger number.

Also, to conceive of inequalities in terms of discrimination leads the oppression Olympics and the establishment of hierarchies of oppression whereby individuals get to make the case for their victimization. This kind of accounting is a source of resentment (see poor whites resentment against African Americans for instance). For this model to work, individuals have to be obligatorily assigned to reified categories and identities, attached to certain amounts of privileges and disadvantages.

So, the social contract, instead of being based on equal dignity for all labor, becomes one of sports competition just as long as one ensures that the race is fair and some do not have greater socially-established obstacles than others. After that, let the best man/woman wins, and those finishing last can only blame themselves, their poor choices and lack of certain ethos. The moral order becomes one of personal responsibility. In this sense, the winners deserve what they get and should not have to share with the losers. The wealthy (a product of their superior characteristics) can individually decide to engage in charity, but it is indeed an individual decision, not a socially-enforced one in the name of social solidarity. This individualization of success and failure has been thoroughly discussed by Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman.

In this sense, for Dubet, such a conception is reactionary as it harks back to the day of social assistance only to the deserving poor based on moral criteria decided by their benefactors.

Another way in which this model fails, for Dubet, is that it categorizes (locks one into one’s identity) only to individualize. This model is incapable of truly reducing structural inequalities that would allow minorities, as category, to improve its conditions. That is only available to select individuals. So, the social justice granted to individuals does not translate into social justice for categories.

So, which model provides greater social justice, considering the fact that neither is perfect and has its problems? For Dubet, equality of position because it is more sensitive to the weakest members of society and is more likely to lead to greater equality of opportunities (whereas the opposite is not true). Furthermore, in an argument reminiscent of The Spirit Level (which makes the statistical argument for equality of positions as well), an equal society works better and is healthier and less structurally (and therefore interpersonally) violent than an unequal one, even for the wealthiest. Inequalities are corrosive to social life especially when the wealthiest categories disconnect themselves from the rest of society through gated communities or living in Richistan. Unequal societies are also more likely to face a political crisis of legitimacy which may promote extremist movements.

So, if equality is a social good in and of itself, it makes sense to promote policies of redistribution within a framework of equality of positions. Moreover, Dubet shows that equality of positions is more likely to reduce inequalities of opportunities and to increase social mobility. Indeed, data show that social mobility is greater in more equal societies. After all, smaller inequalities make upward mobility easier and downward mobility less painful (and let’s be spared once and for all the arguments about reduced productivity, freedom and creativity, these are bogus). Overall, equality of positions creates a less cruel society and certainly a less hypocritical one where the elite accepts the idea of equality of opportunities while using all means to block access to their own level through policy, social networks and all forms of capital.

Ultimately, following Nancy Frazer, Dubet states that social rights (redistribution) have to be separated from cultural rights (recognition). Social rights are matters of social justice whereas cultural rights are matters of ethics and democratic participation, but not necessarily social justice.

In the end, for Dubet, only equality of positions can lead to a sustainable egalitarianism and is a prerequisite to equality of opportunities and has fewer negative externalities.

I have to say that the demonstration is thoroughly convincing. Highly recommended.

Food Riots Are The Future

I think if there is one thing that exposes the failure of neoliberal governance through global institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank is the food regime. the global food regime is based on massive production out of the US and the EU through huge subsidies which hurt the agricultural sector in the periphery and leaves a lot of countries food-dependent. And that is combined with the IMF and the World Bank pushing for export-based agriculture in the periphery. This is a form of neo-colonialism.

Add to that the emerging effects of climate disruption that are already devastating parts of Africa and you have disasters waiting to happen. Because, as recent cases have shown, if there is one thing that people won’t stand for, it’s the lack of food:

“When grain prices spiked in 2007-2008, Egypt’s bread prices rose 37%. With unemployment rising as well, more people depended on subsidised bread – but the government did not make any more available. Egypt’s annual food price inflation continued and had hit 18.9% before the fall of President Mubarak.

Fifty per cent of the calories consumed by Egyptians originate outside its borders. Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, and no country in the region (except for Syria) produces more than a small fraction of the wheat it consumes. Should the global markets be unable to provide a country’s need, or if there are not enough funds available to finance purchases and to offer price support, then the food of the poor will become inaccessible to them. Already, in Egypt and Yemen, more than 40% of the population live below the poverty line and suffer from some form of malnutrition. Most of the poor in these countries have no access to social safety nets. Images of bread became central to the Egyptian protests, from young boys selling kaik, a breakfast bread, to one protester’s improvised helmet made from bread loaves taped to his head. Although the Arab revolutions were united under the slogan “the people want to bring down the regime” not “the people want more bread”, food was a catalyst.

“Bread riots” have been occurring regularly since the mid 1980s, following policies brought to us by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Among these were the reduction of agricultural subsidies and the encouragement of production of fruits and vegetables for export, at the expense of investing in local grain production. Export of value-added produce and the import of basic commodities such as wheat were monopolised by a small group of “entrepreneurs” protected by the security state who financially backed the ruling elite. The powerful countries provided encouragement and support. The US gave Egypt around $1.7bn last year, exceeded only by the $2.4bn it gave to Israel. Tunisia under President Ben Ali was viewed as the IMF model of “growth” and France offered to support him militarily through the uprising.”

And in any situation like this, the question is cui bono? Who benefits?

“Three trading giants, Cargill, ADM and Bunge control 90% of the global grain trade. They are all based in the United States. We know that if we do not improve food security we will remain hostage to those in power.”

And this is a step in the right direction:

Already the Egyptian interim government has decided to support farmers who produce wheat instead of the importers. It is too early to tell the extent of the programme but advisers to the new Egyptian agriculture minister have confirmed that it includes higher prices paid for local wheat, seed supply, agricultural extension assistance and improved local storage and transport.”

And the alternative to the lack of food are socially devastating:

“In the past year, the UN’s World Food Programme has begun a project to try to end aid dependency in Karamoja and make the 1.2 million there people self-sufficient.

Food handouts are being strictly regulated, but many villagers are complaining of food shortages and charities report an increase in street begging by children.

“It’s getting worse because now there’s no food for the children, they all come back to Kampala to beg to earn a living,” says Maureen Mwagale, who runs a small charity called Kaana.

“These children are both physically and mentally abused.”

The children, as young as two, sit on the pavement of a busy shopping area, hands outstretched for money. We found two – Longorio, aged four, and his three-year-old cousin Lochien, being looked after by his 13-year-old sister, Nachiru Ellen.

She said she used to go to school but because of the lack of food in Karamoja her parents sent her to Kampala. Between the three of them, they had earned about $1 (£0.62) that day.

(…)

The landscape of Karamoja is cruel and arid, the people among the poorest in the world.

The UN’s experiment includes planting thousands of acres of robust crop like sorghum and cassava that can withstand drought, starting new businesses and bringing infrastructure and some economy to the area.

But even now, serious glitches have arisen. The UN has cut school meals because of what it describes as an administrative problem with the supply chain.

“We used to have breakfast, lunch and supper,” says Diko Ben, the headmaster of Loodoi Primary School. “Now there’s just a midday snack. Many here are now malnourished and if it stays like this, I don’t think you will see a future.”

Mr Ben says 200 children, a quarter of the whole school, have left because of the lack of food, adding that every child in school means one less under threat of being sent to beg in the cities.

The UN says meals will be restored by September and that, with the Ugandan government, it is drawing up a plan to end the crisis over Karamoja children. But it is not in place yet.”

We need a different food production regime… also one that uses less water. Otherwise, one should expect more food riots exploding across the periphery. There is only so much risk society that the global poor can deal with.

The Importance of The Global Civil Society, Hence Its Necessary Sabotaging

Cohen and Kennedy (2007: 448) define the global civil society as such:

“While the civil society is made up of the networks of groups between the family and the state that try to influence political opinion and policy-making within the confines of nation-states, a global civil society includes all those social agents whose joint concerns and struggles stretch beyond the borders of their nation-states, as they try to shape the actions of a variety of powerful actors such as governments, IGOs and TNCs over issues and problems that cannot be tackled adequately, or at all, at any level other than the regional or global.”

The global civil society is seen as existing in this space not (yet) occupied by transnational corporations, the transnational state or the transnational capitalist class. It is incarnated into a variety of social movements (such as the alter-globalization movement) as well as social movement organizations (from ATTAC to the Muslim Brotherhood).

The global civil society is often seen as the only significant force to oppose globalization as it is shaped by hyper-globalizers of the neoliberal kind. It is often referred to as “globalization from below” (as opposed to the governance “from above” represented by the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO) or “globalization with a human face.” Such role as the last opponent to neoliberal globalization has a lot to do with the decline of trade unions in Western societies and the difficulties in unionizing in the semi-periphery and the periphery.

So, the global civil society relies of cross-border activities outside of the scope of the market or the governments and it is often associated with the crisis of legitimacy that traditional national political parties face and the democratic deficit at the global level.

The Gaza  flotilla represents a good case of cross-border activism engaged in by global civil society organizations face the opposition of major political forces from different countries: Israel, the US, Greece, to name the principle ones involved.

The actions against the second flotilla are described by Richard Falk as a war against the global civil society:

“The reports that two of the foreign flagged ships planning to be part of the ten vessel Freedom Flotilla II experienced similar forms of disabling sabotage creates strong circumstantial evidence of Israeli responsibility. It stretches the imagination to suppose that a sophisticated cutting of the propeller shafts of both ships is a coincidence with no involvement by Israel’s Mossad, long infamous for its overseas criminal acts in support of contested Israeli national interests. Recalling the lethal encounter in international waters with Freedom Flotilla I that took place on 31 May 2010, and the frantic diplomatic campaign by Tel Aviv to prevent this second challenge to the Gaza blockade by peace activists and humanitarian aid workers, such conduct by a state against this latest civil society initiative, if further validated by incriminating evidence, should be formally condemned as a form of ‘state terrorism’ or even as an act of war by a state against global civil society.”

There is a precedent to such action, as Falk notes, that many of us remember:

“It is useful to compare the Flotilla II unfolding experience with the Rainbow Warrior incident. At the time, the French nuclear tests in the Pacific were considered legal, although intensely contested, while the blockade of Israel is widely viewed as a prolonged instance of collective punishment in violation of international humanitarian law, specifically Article 33 of the 4th Geneva Convention. Although Israel could argue that it had a right to monitor ships suspected of carrying arms to occupied Gaza, the Freedom Flotilla II ships made themselves available for inspection, and there was no sufficient security justification for the blockade as the investigation by the UN Human Rights Council of the 2010 flotilla incident made clear. The overriding role of the blockade is to inflict punitive damage on the people of Gaza. Even before the blockade was imposed in 2007 all shipments at the Gaza crossing points were painstakingly monitored by Israel for smuggled weapons.

A person was unintentionally killed by the French acts of sabotage, and so far no one has died as a result of these efforts to disable and interfere with Flotilla ships, although the Irish vessel, MV Saoirse (‘freedom’ in Gaelic), was disabled in such a way that if the damage had not been discovered before heading to sea, the ship reportedly would have likely sunk with many passengers put at extreme risk of death. Perhaps, the most important distinction of all, is the failure to claim any right to act violently against peaceful protesters even though the French state was officially engaged in an activity directly associated with its national security (weapons development). In contrast, the Israelis are seeking to avoid having their universally unpopular and criminal Gaza policies further delegitimized, and claim the entitlement as a sovereign state to engage in violent action, even if it endangers nonviolent civilians. In effect, it is a declaration of war by Israel against global civil society as over 50 nationalities are represented among the passengers on the Flotilla ships.”

The flotilla certainly fits the bill of global citizens sharing a concern about a particular issue that gets no resolution through the usual political channels especially when the same discredited actors are over and over put in charge of a dead peace process. As Tony Karon notes,

“In a scathing commentary on the folly of the Obama Administration relying on Dennis Ross to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar notes that Ross has been at the center of just about every failed initiative on that front over the past two decades — and that now, as ever, he is running interference for the Israelis, sustaining what he says is an illusion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to make major concessions while restraining the U.S. from putting any significant pressure on him.

There’s nothing new about those hoping for a game-changing U.S. intervention groaning at the news of Ross — the personification of two decades of “process” without end — being put in charge.”

But I also want to note that there is sometimes a certain romanticism attached to the global civil society, as the great democratic movements of people all over the world as opposed to the undemocratic, unpopular and unaccountable agencies of global governance. True enough but the global civil society is not democratic. It is self-selected and just as unaccountable to anyone except members of the organizations that compose it. Also, religious fundamentalist movements around the world are part of the global civil society. So, we should be careful about these aspects.

Secondly, the Gaza flotilla itself is a good example of the activism and attention that a chosen conflict receives, as opposed to stealth conflicts. Virgil Hawkins has demonstrated in his book that the Israel / Palestine conflict, as chosen, receives a disproportional amount of media, political and activist attention. In this sense, political and activist forces see the world through the same lenses, albeit reaching different conclusions.

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).

Backlash Against Internet-Centrism?

I recently reviewed Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, noting that the book is a thorough debunking of cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism, defined as such:

““While cyber-utopianism stipulates what has to be done, Internet-centrism stipulates how it should be done. Internet-centrists like to answer every question about democratic change by first reframing it in terms of the Internet rather than the context in which that change is to occur. They are often completely oblivious to the highly political nature of technology, especially the Internet, and like to come up with strategies that assume that the logic of the Internet, which, in most cases, they are the only ones to perceive, will shape every environment that it penetrates rather than vice-versa.” (Loc. 214)”

Actually, both can be illustrated as such (from Cartoon Movement, a great site that you should all bookmark):

And nicely promoted by this major political figure as well:

“The Nobel peace laureate and human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi spoke yesterday in a BBC lecture of the vital role played by communications technology in modern democratic uprisings and said she was not morally opposed to the use of violence in exceptional circumstances.

The Burmese opposition leader and general secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD) has recorded two speeches for the annual BBC Reith Lectures, which were smuggled out of Burma last week.

In the first, which will be broadcast on Radio 4 next Tuesday, Ms Suu Kyi compared the 23-year struggle to win democracy in Burma to the fast-moving revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and said that the widespread availability of internet-based technology in the Arab world had been a crucial factor in the success of those movements.”

But one wonders whether there isn’t a backlash against cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism from the very media that promoted these views until recently. For instance, take this item:

“The internet is an extraordinarily powerful tool. It has changed how we do business, how we do politics, and even how we change our leaders – at least some of the time.

But the ease with which we now communicate – the efficiencies we take for granted – can give us a false sense of how easy it is to follow through on some of these changes. Despite the importance of social media in fomenting revolution, and even in deposing deeply unpopular leaders, governing in the real world is not as easy as governing online.

This struck me last week when I listened to one of Egypt’s new online generation talking enthusiastically about the future. His thesis was that once people have tasted freedom, once the oppressive leader is gone, they will naturally live as free people and build a new, democratic society without much central oversight. I wish I could believe that it will all be as easy for Egyptians as running a Facebook group was.

Generally, the internet is a tool for people whose basic needs are already being met. Members of the upper middle class in any country, including Egypt, often seem to forget that for most people, the value created on the internet cannot feed, clothe or house their families.

In centuries past, revolutionaries were farmers or blacksmiths or merchants; now they are Google executives and Facebook friends. The internet joins together the elite of the world. But it also cuts people off from the past and a sense of history. The exciting things that happen online are not the same as what happened offline in countries such as Romania and Kyrgyzstan, let alone in Libya.

(…)

I don’t want to be gloomy. People in the Middle East and other emerging democracies have definitely changed from their recent experiences, and their expectations have been raised. But they need to understand the challenges they face in building a new society.

The internet may have made this transition seem too easy. In online communities, it’s fairly easy to build consensus. Membership is voluntary, and people who don’t like the rules can leave. Or they can be kicked out: there is no requirement for due process.

Moreover, many resources are infinite on the internet. People aren’t fighting over scarce housing or lucrative jobs. They are befriending one another, sharing information, and accumulating status, points, and experiences.

But in the real world, even online, things aren’t so easy.”

What the author of this column is arguing for is what Morozov also argues for: the contextualization of technology into society and social structure and institutions and the fact that social movements in the Middle East still have to contend with what I call SHiP (Structure / History / Power) and those don’t vanish overnight after a few rounds of stern Tweets. In other words, let’s not be naive.

Especially when it comes to the ubiquitous nature of the surveillance society:

“The young man in the dark jacket and gray baseball cap worn backward seems to have had a good day shopping at Best Buy in Owings Mills, judging by the size of the blue bag he’s carrying as he steps out of the store, glancing quickly to his left in the direction of the surveillance camera. You can see him online now — or anytime — and the Baltimore County Police Department hopes you’ll know something about him.

The image of the person who police believe was involved in a car break-in and credit card theft last month is part of a high-tech citizen “iWatch” program unveiled Thursday by the police. iWatch features an online tip system monitored 24 hours a day that can receive text messages, and offers crime alerts featuring video surveillance pictures.

“You can’t fully protect yourself or others unless you are informed,” Police Chief James W. Johnson said at a news conference Thursday morning at police headquarters in Towson.

The program is the latest in a series of technological steps Baltimore County police have taken, joining departments across the country and the world in finding new ways to use computers and gadgets to enforce the law. Such initiatives have won praise, but also drawn some concern about how information gathered by technology will be used.

Baltimore County has introduced digital license plate readers attached to police cars that will alert the officer inside when he’s just passed a car that might be stolen or registered to a criminal suspect. In Florida, the Miami-Dade County police have just bought a new flying surveillance drone built by a military contractor. In London, police are using facial and tattoo-matching software with surveillance video pictures.

Johnson announced Thursday that the program is accepting sign-ups for e-mailed crime alerts and online reports of anything from possible terrorist activity to abandoned cars and graffiti. He said in the past the police might get surveillance video of a criminal suspect shown on a TV newscast for a few seconds, but the new system expands the potential exposure of the material.”

But the backlash will not come as a reaction to the extensive surveillance we are subjected to whether it is in the name of crime-fighting or in for the protection of intellectual property by corporations.

I think part of a potential backlash will come as a result of Wikileaks. I would argue that Western governments have been very cyber-utopian as long as activists used their online tools away from the West, and against governments the West did not like (Iran, or now Libya) or from whom Western governments could (with much hypocrisy) dissociate themselves (Egypt, Tunisia, with a few hiccups in the case of the French governments). And so, as long as we were only talking about the so-called Arab Spring, everything was all well and good in cyber-utopia. Information circulating freely was going to take down dictatorships.

But with Wikileaks (and then Anonymous), it was a different game. Western governments (especially the US) became the target and then, it was no fun anymore. All of a sudden, there were cries of irresponsible leaks of information. Information needed to be vetted by “real” and responsible journalists before being released to the larger public. Now, the traditional media, exposed as guardians of information on behalf of the powerful social actors (public and private), had to justify their legitimacy against the free flow of information they thought was so great when it was about Iran.

So, Wikileaks ruined the party:

“In January 2008, someone uploaded to WikiLeaks a cache of documents, including hundreds of pages of internal correspondence of a major Swiss bank, Julius Baer. On closer inspection, the cache appeared to show that large amounts of money – sums ranging from $5m to $100m per person – were being, er, shielded in the Cayman Islands from tax authorities in various jurisdictions.

It was all, of course, perfectly legal: wealthy people put capital into trusts based in the Cayman Islands. This allows them lawfully to avoid paying tax on profits from investments, because legally those profits belong to the trust which, as a Cayman “resident”, itself pays no tax. But the trustees can distribute money to the trust’s beneficiaries, who may be residents of the UK and indeed, for all I know, pillars of society or even members of the Tory party.

Legal it may be, but mostly these folks don’t like knowledge of their ingenious wheezes to enter the public domain. It’s so vulgar, don’t you know. And the banks that handle their money like it even less. So Julius Baer went apeshit about the leaks. Its lawyers persuaded a judge in California to shut down wikileaks.org and that, it thought, was that.

You can guess what happened. In no time at all, mirrors of the WikiLeaks site popped up everywhere. The First Amendment crowd in the US started taking an interest. Suddenly, the whole world knew about Julius Baer’s wealth-management services. The California judge had second thoughts, wikileaks.org was restored and CBS News reported the decision under the headline “Free speech has a number: 88.80.13.160” – the IP address of the WikiLeaks site. And a major Swiss bank retired to lick its wounds.

What’s instructive about the Julius Baer case is how clueless the bank and its agents were about the net. They looked like blind men poking a tiger with a stick. It was amusing at the time, but it was too good to last. It was inevitable that the corporate world would wise up and in the past few weeks we’ve begun to see some of the results of that re-education process. And it ain’t pretty.”

But Morozov himself is skeptical when it comes to Wikileaks in its present form while recognizing an emerging global transparency movement:

“Why can’t WikiLeaks just continue as it is? If anything, the US embassy cables have made it clear that the success of a WikiLeaks campaign greatly depends on who gets to analyse the leaks and who gets to publicise them.

None of these two activities can currently be done in-house and WikiLeaks has to partner media outlets such as the Guardian and Der Spiegel, borrowing their journalists and essentially making them serve as both “data analysts” (who go through the leaked material to separate the important from the trivial) and “advocacy co-ordinators” (who write articles on issues that WikiLeaks finds important – even though in reality it has little editorial control over what gets written in the end).

As it grows, WikiLeaks will become even more dependent on its partners. Thanks to its easily recognisable global brand, it does have the capacity to attract more leaks – but it doesn’t have the matching capacity to make sense of them, let alone identify leaks that might be fake – and this latter type is poised to become more ubiquitous, given WikiLeaks’s growing list of enemies. Geeks don’t always make suave data analysts.

Similarly, one of the main challenges facing WikiLeaks is learning how to discriminate between different documents: data storage may be getting cheaper and leaks may be becoming more ubiquitous but the events of the past few months have shown that WikiLeaks is a more formidable actor with less data, not more. So while everyone can upload files to its site, these files won’t make a difference until someone knowledgeable (and salaried) takes a look at them – and, even better, spends a week or two chasing the characters involved.”

Then, there is this from Morozov himself:

However, for now, Wikileaks still serves its boogeyman function well enough for Western media, corporations and governments. But if leaking organizations hit too close to home, expect a swift reversal and all of a sudden, the very same Internet-centrists will be quick to decry the anarchic and anomic nature of the Internet and they will have to reach no further than some guys impersonating lesbian bloggers (or some such thing) to prove their point.

Book Review – The Net Delusion

Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom is an important book that aims to make us think about networking technologies beyond the simplistic and utopian delusion that the Net = freedom. It is also very compelling, but then, I’m a cyber-crank, so, what do I know. Sarcasm aside, this book is a great read for anyone interested in the intersections between networking technologies and ideologies as well as political power. And Morozov provides quite a bit of historical context to let us know that we have been there before, that is, proclaiming a bit too quickly the emancipatory power of a new communication technology: faxes in the days of the Cold War, Twitter now.

His book is a call to not make the same mistake and exercise a bit of nuance and critical thinking regarding the new ICT tools. Part of the problem, according to Morozov is that we have not yet learn to “think” about these tools. The neoconservative view of promoting democracy (kinda) via the Internet (like Voice of America used to do) may be discredited but there is no compelling alternative to account for the multiple layers of interaction between governments, social movements, social institutions and their uses of networking technologies.

The other major problem is that Western thinkers are stuck in a Cold War mode of thinking (all quotes from Kindle edition):

“Lost in their own strategizing, Western leaders are pining for something that has guaranteed effectiveness. Many of them look back to the most impressive and most unambiguous triumph of democracy in the last few decades: the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly—and who can blame them for seeking to bolster their own self-confidence?—they tend to exaggerate their own role in precipitating its demise. As a result, many of the Western strategies tried back then, like smuggling in photocopiers and fax machines, facilitating the flow of samizdat, supporting radio broadcasts by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, are given much more credit than they deserve.

Such belated Cold War triumphalism results in an egregious logical fallacy. Since the Soviet Union eventually fell, those strategies are presumed to have been extremely effective—in fact, crucial to the whole endeavor. The implications of such a view for the future of democracy promotion are tremendous, for they suggest that large doses of information and communications technology are lethal to the most repressive of regimes.

Much of the present excitement about the Internet, particularly the high hopes that are pinned on it in terms of opening up closed societies, stems from such selective and, at times, incorrect readings of history, rewritten to glorify the genius of Ronald Reagan and minimize the role of structural conditions and the inherent contradictions of the Soviet system.

It’s for these chiefly historical reasons that the Internet excites so many seasoned and sophisticated decision makers who should really know better.” (Loc. 141 – 149)

And that is precisely the ideological positioning that Morozov beats back throughout the book. Just like Cold Warriors thought the free flow of goods would automatically lead to democracy, they think the same about the free flow of information. For them, the revolution (of the market-friendly kind) will be blogged and tweetered and tumblred (or choose your favorite platform).

This belief Morozov calls the Google Doctrine:

“The Google Doctrine—the enthusiastic belief in the liberating power of technology accompanied by the irresistible urge to enlist Silicon Valley start-ups in the global fight for freedom—is of growing appeal to many policymakers.” (Loc. 166)

That is, the naive belief that Internet is always on the side of the underdog. Morozov also uses the phrase “cyber-utopianism” to describe the view that the Internet is always and ever a force of good without recognizing that it does have dark sides (such as the ubiquitous surveillance society, whether it comes from the public or the private sector). Morozov reserves its harshest criticism for cyber-utopianism, such as this:

“Cyber-utopians ambitiously set out to build a new and improved United Nations, only to end up with a digital Cirque du Soleil.” (Loc 173)

Ouch.

And cyber-utopians both overestimate the capacity of the Internet to promote democracy while at the same time underestimating its capacity to penetrate all aspects of life, for better and for worse. So, for Morozov, we need to be able to overcome cyber-utopianism to think clearly about the role and potential of the Internet.

But cyber-utopianism is not the only approach that leads to thinking badly about the Internet. Morozov also attacks Internet-centrism:

“While cyber-utopianism stipulates what has to be done, Internet-centrism stipulates how it should be done. Internet-centrists like to answer every question about democratic change by first reframing it in terms of the Internet rather than the context in which that change is to occur. They are often completely oblivious to the highly political nature of technology, especially the Internet, and like to come up with strategies that assume that the logic of the Internet, which, in most cases, they are the only ones to perceive, will shape every environment that it penetrates rather than vice-versa.” (Loc. 214)

In this sense, The Net Delusion is a very sociological book that places technology (the Internet) in its proper social context and examines how it operates under different social conditions, as used by different kinds of social actors. It takes a somewhat more sociologically deterministic to fight a strong technologically-deterministic approach that has so far prevailed. Why, because Morozov thinks Internet-centrism is dangerous:

“Their [Internet-centrists’] realistic convictions, however, rarely make up for their flawed methodology, which prioritizes the tool over the environment, and, as such, is deaf to the social, cultural, and political subtleties and indeterminacies. Internet-centrism is a highly disorienting drug; it ignores context and entraps policymakers into believing that they have a useful and powerful ally on their side. Pushed to its extreme, it leads to hubris, arrogance, and a false sense of confidence, all bolstered by the dangerous illusion of having established effective command of the Internet. All too often, its practitioners fashion themselves as possessing full mastery of their favorite tool, treating it as a stable and finalized technology, oblivious to the numerous forces that are constantly reshaping the Internet—not all of them for the better. Treating the Internet as a constant, they fail to see their own responsibility in preserving its freedom and reining in the ever-powerful intermediaries, companies like Google and Facebook.” (Loc. 221)

And the price of such stance is to ignore how much the Internet has served the powerful very well so far, at the expense of the powerless. At the same time, as Morozov shows, for a brief moment, the Iran Revolution seemed to validate the Internet-centrist view that Twitter was going to liberate Iran and that better information could be obtained from the micro-blogging site than from traditional media. This was where we were going to see the liberating power of technology. Truly, the revolution was twittered. No authoritarian government would be able to resist its power.

And so, from the Western power centers, all that is needed is the proper funding to the right dissident groups. After all, just five days ago, one could read this in the New York Times,

“The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “Internet in a suitcase.”

Financed with a $2 million State Department grant, the suitcase could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.”

Of course, commentators quickly pointed out the irony of this considering the way Wikileaks was treated by the same government, with the helpful assistance of the private sectors, especially ISPs. And, as Morozov notes, Al-Qaeda has also been quite adept at using the Internet, a far cry from an emancipation movement.

And ultimately, as of time of writing, the Iranian regime seems more solidly in place than other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East although the so-called Arab Spring has also led to the same Western pronouncements. Just today, for instance:

“The Arab Spring owed much to the internet and the mobile phone; social networking sites nurtured, co-ordinated and shaped revolutions. But these instruments of modernity also bore witness to revolution’s ugly twin: government suppression – tanks sent in against protesters in Banias, Saudi snipers on the rooftops in Bahrain, tear gas in Tahrir Square.”

And though there has been recognition that ultimately, revolutions require people taking to the streets and facing state repression, and though the jury is still out as to what will follow the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism persist because (1) they involve quasi-religious beliefs, and (2) they make Westerners feel good because, after all, we (the West) created these technologies and look at the good they are doing. And after all, if dictators are censoring the Internet, that means it must be a 100% force for good.

As Morozov notes,

“But refusing to acknowledge the Internet’s darker side is like visiting Berkeley, California, cyber-utopian headquarters, and concluding that this is how the rest of America lives as well: diverse, tolerant, sun-drenched, with plenty of organic food and nice wine, and with hordes of lifelong political activists fighting for causes that don’t even exist yet. But this is not how the rest of America lives, and this is certainly not how the rest of the world lives.” (Loc. 559)

In addition, both cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism involve a lack of examination of the role of corporations in these technologies, ignoring the fact that invasions of privacy, control of information and forms of authoritarianism can come from corporations as much as governments, if not both.

And at the same time, Western diplomats, commentators and policy-makers may make life more difficult for dissidents when they talk up the emancipatory and revolutionary power of the Internet so much so that dictators become keen on using the technologies themselves for repressive purposes.

Indeed, another misguided cyber-utopian belief is that authoritarian governments around the world, are composed of uncool, unsavvy idiots who sit on their thumbs and are clueless regarding ICTs whereas the cyber-dissidents are the cool kids who will always be able to outsmart them, if only we give them the proper tools. I would argue that such as extremely naive view is plainly exposed in Robert J. Sawyer’s Wonder.

But, of course, authoritarian governments have done no such thing. Indeed, they have used the very same technologies to find and neutralize dissidents. As Morozov notes, the Internet can actually strengthen a regime rather than simply, and by default, undermine it. In a variety of social, economic and political contexts, the effects of the Internet are far from simple and straightforward. As Morozov puts it,

“The Internet does matter, but we simply don’t know how it matters.” (Loc. 711)

Why not? Because a whole lot of people are quite satisfied with a combination of Cold War triumphalism and handy metaphors (“the Great Firewall of China”) that give the illusion of full understanding of what is going on. Either way, what is lost in the process is a focus on structural, historical and institutional conditions under which activists, NGOs, civil society actors and governments operate. And because the Internet still relies on a physical infrastructure often controlled by governments, those can still turn it off when they feel threatened (as did happen in Egypt). And after all, it is also naive to think that authoritarian governments have not adapted to a world where information circulates widely.

Indeed, Morozov shows how governments sometimes have no need to exercise heavy-handed censorship on the Internet to stifle dissent: just put a bunch of cat videos on. More seriously, the entertainment component is what has allowed the Russian government to have little need for censorship. The idea that simply giving people access to more information will automatically make them want consumerist democracy and act upon such want is naive as well.

After all,

“Most Americans were exposed to political news not because they wanted to watch it but because there was nothing else to watch. This resulted in citizens who were far better politically informed, much more likely to participate in politics, and far less likely to be partisan than today. The emergence of cable television, however, gave people the choice between consuming political news and anything else—and most viewers, predictably, went for that “anything else” category, which mostly consisted of entertainment.” (Loc. 1177)

This is also why East German leaders used to allow their citizens access to West German television: escapism, depoliticization and pacification and, as Morozov notes, greater support for the regime because West German TV programs made life more bearable. Many an authoritarian leaders have figured out that consumerism and Western popular culture more generally have a depoliticizing effect and are willing to capitalize on that. And, of course, global capitalism easily accommodates such combinations of political authoritarianism and neoliberal economic policies.

There is another way in which the Internet may actually undermine the possibilities of dissent:

“The real reason why so many scientists and academics turned to dissent during Soviet times was because they were not allowed to practice the kind of science they wanted to on their own terms. Doing any kind of research in the social sciences was quite difficult even without having to follow the ideological line of the local communist cell; collaborating with foreigners was equally challenging. Lack of proper working conditions forced many academics and intellectuals either to immigrate or to stay home and become dissidents.

The Internet has solved or alleviated many of these problems, and it has proved excellent for research, but not so excellent for bringing smart and highly educated people into the dissident movement. Collaboration is now cheap and instantaneous, academics have access to more papers than they could have dreamed of, travel bans have been lifted, and research budgets have been significantly increased. Not surprisingly, by 2020 Chinese scientists are expected to produce more academic papers than American ones.

(…)

This has happened at the expense of severing their ties to local communities.

(…)

Their connection to politics in their native countries has also been severed; paradoxically, as they have gotten more venues to express their anger and dissent, they have chosen to retract into the nonpolitical.” (Loc. 1388 – 99)

So, for Morozov, we need to find more and better ways of making people care so that we don’t exchange just videos of cats and celebrity gossips. There is a need to nurture more critical thinking (I would argue that this would require changes in the way academia relates to society, social movements and ICTs as well, but in the current context, more critical thinking will not be happening).

In this sense, Morozov thinks we may be getting aspects of both Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (with the pacification of the masses with cheap entertainment and of George Orwell’s 1984 (with the massive surveillance) and not just in authoritarian regimes but in democratic ones as well, and quite a bit of this has come to us courtesy of the Internet which has made surveillance, censorship and propaganda easier. And many of the tools to do so may come from Western corporations, such as Facebook never-ending quest to invade the privacy of its users.

And let us not forget, as the Wikileaks episode has shown us, that censorship might take the form not of government action, but of private entities denying access to content or destroying online communities and it is quite cheap to do as well:

“Before the advent of social media, it took a lot of effort for repressive governments to learn about the people dissidents are associated with. The secret police may have tracked one or two key contacts, but creating a comprehensive list—with names, photos, and contact information—was extremely expensive. In the past, the KGB resorted to torture to learn of connections between activists; today, they simply need to get on Facebook.” (Loc. 2678)

And similarly,

“The private sector will surely continue churning out innovations that can benefit secret police everywhere. Without finding ways to block the transfer of such technologies to authoritarian states or, even more important, the kind of limits that should be imposed on such technologies everywhere, the West is indirectly abetting the work of the secret police in China and Iran.” (Loc. 2747)

More than that, it is now clear that many of us are quite comfortable providing information that is available to everyone on the Internet. We post photos and videos on Facebook and Twitter, we “tag” people on these photos, we provide location informations and leave all sorts of traces all over the Web or via our mobile phones. Who needs the KGB or that guy in “The Lives of Others“.

In addition, as Morozov notes, sociologists have shown that many Facebook users use Causes application and join group more as a Goffmanian device for the presentation of self than actual activism, hence the rise of the slacktivist at the expense of actual advocacy. Mobilizing might have become easier but mobilizing is different from organizing and acting:

“It’s not so hard to imagine how any protest movement might be overstretched by the ease of communications. When everyone can send a tweet or a Facebook message, it’s safe to assume that they will. That those numerous messages would only increase the communication overload and may slow down everyone who receives them seems to be lost on those touting the virtues of online organizing.” (Loc. 3335)

For Morozov, the real danger is this:

“The danger that “slacktivism” poses in the context of authoritarian states is that it may give young people living there the wrong impression that another kind of politics—digital in nature but leading to real-world political change and the one underpinned entirely by virtual campaigns, online petitions, funny Photoshopped political cartoons, and angry tweets—is not only feasible but actually preferable to the ineffective, boring, risky, and, in most cases, outdated kind of politics practiced by the conventional oppositional movements in their countries.” (Loc. 3397)

Am I the only one reminded of the Obama Fan Base and the 2008 presidential election campaign?

Now, what of the real Internet activism of the Anonymous kinds? The kind where cyber-guerilla attack government or corporate sites with DDoS as a means of dissent (something that some European courts have ruled to be a legitimate form of dissent)? Morozov argues for a more nuanced approach rather than the quick labeling of such actions as terrorism. After all, who would mind if an authoritarian regime were hit by such attacks? So, why is it any different when it’s Lufthansa or Vodafone?

At the same time, the Web is far from being a utopia itself as it is home to anti-democratic groups and individuals. Free flow of information says nothing about the quality of information that circulates and it does not automatically equate greater demand for democracy, tolerance and equality. Far from it.

And of course, we conveniently forget that none of this entirely free:

“Just as today’s Internet gurus are trying to convince us that the age of “free” is upon us, it almost certainly is not. All those free videos of cats that receive millions of hits on YouTube are stored on powerful server centers that cost millions of dollars to run, usually in electricity bills alone. Those hidden costs will sooner or later produce environmental problems that will make us painfully aware of how expensive such technologies really are. Back in 1990, who could have foreseen that Greenpeace would one day be issuing a lengthy report about the environmental consequences of cloud computing, with some scientists conducting multiyear studies about the impact of email spam on climate change? The fact that we cannot yet calculate all the costs of a given technology—whether financial, moral, or environmental ones—does not mean that it comes free.” (Loc. 4738)

So, the bottom line, for Morozov is we have not really thought about the Internet yet, and we certainly have not paid enough attention to the social embeddedness of technology:

“Throughout history, new technologies have almost always empowered and disempowered particular political and social groups, sometimes simultaneously—a fact that is too easy to forget under the sway of technological determinism. Needless to say, such ethical amnesia is rarely in the interests of the disempowered.” (Loc. 4814)

It indeed remains to be seen whether the Internet has affected the balance of power in various societies or if the digital divide has entrenched stratification systems. And any discussion that is imbued with technological determinism tends to de-socialize and de-politicize the impact of such technologies, something which, de facto, benefits current power holders.

As Morozov notes,

“Every new article or book about a Twitter Revolution is not a triumph of humanity; it is a triumph of Twitter’s marketing department.” (Loc. 5004)

And with that, the temptation is strong to re-formulate social problems as technological problems for which technological solutions (rather than public policy) are to be found. To discuss social issues in terms of technological fixes then evacuates social, economic and political factors that might lead to questioning the larger social structures.

So assuming that we could get rid of cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism, what should we have in their place? Morozov offers a kind of cyber-realist manifesto:

“Instead of centralizing decision making about the Internet in the hands of a select few digerati who know the world of Web 2.0 start-ups but are completely lost in the world of Chinese or Iranian politics, cyber-realists would defy any such attempts at centralization, placing as much responsibility for Internet policy on the shoulders of those who are tasked with crafting and executing regional policy.

Instead of asking the highly general, abstract, and timeless question of “How do we think the Internet changes closed societies?” they would ask “How do we think the Internet is affecting our existing policies on country X?” Instead of operating in the realm of the utopian and the ahistorical, impervious to the ways in which developments in domestic and foreign policies intersect, cyber-realists would be constantly searching for highly sensitive points of interaction between the two. They would be able to articulate in concrete rather than abstract terms how specific domestic policies might impede objectives on the foreign policy front.

(…)

Cyber-realists wouldn’t search for technological solutions to problems that are political in nature, and they wouldn’t pretend that such solutions are even possible.

(…)

Cyber-realists wouldn’t allow themselves to get dragged into the highly abstract and high-pitched debates about whether the Internet undermines or strengthens democracy. Instead, they would accept that the Internet is poised to produce different policy outcomes in different environments.” (Loc. 5229 – 49)

As I said above, an important book.

Water Wars

We started hearing about water wars in 2002 with the notorious case of the conflict in Cochabamba, Bolivia where a scheme to privatize water distribution backfired dramatically and perfectly illustrated everything that seems wrong with globalization: a semi-peripheral government in debt, the World Bank steps in and demands privatization of everything, only one very large transnational corporation steps up and gets a sweet deal (low price, 16% guaranteed profit, ownership of private wells), reduces service and enormously raises prices on water. Activists and indigenous people fight back. The government represses.

So, while I was in Italy last week, I could not help notice these signs all over the place (my photo):

Well, it appears that Italy is having a referendum today on the possible privatization of water (on top of voting to getting back to nuclear power and giving Berlusconi more immunity).

Italy is not the only place where water is at issue. The Patagonia region of Chile is also facing unrest and government repression over the possible construction of hydro-electric power plants.

Ironically, it is an Italian corporation that is slated for the construction, but the whole thing looks a lot like the Cochabamba case.

And in all cases, it is truly the people versus the alliance of corporations and government. At least, the Italians get to have a say.

Susan Faludi on The Mother-Daughter Power Failure

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a speech by über-feminist Susan Faludi of Backlash and The Terror Dream fame (if you haven’t read these books, then, what are you waiting for?). So, here is what I got from her speech.

Faludi started with the assertion that everyone acknowledges that feminism is successful. Liberals would state that we’ve come a long way while conservatives commonly state that all the ills of society are due to feminism. However, through her work, Faludi has met many women who consider feminism to have been both beneficial and a disappointment, what she calls the “yes, but…” problem that has several dimensions:

1. Yes, women are not 50% of the workforce but they occupy the same positions and professions as before. Women are still underrepresented in the media. The wage gap is still there and whatever reduction there has been there has been because of declining men’s wages. So, disillusionment is widespread as essential hurdles never really got lifted. It seems that the possibilities of remaking society have eluded us.

2. There is, of course, the [well-funded] relentless barrage of antifeminist commentary, what Faludi calls the Bozo The Clown Punchbag syndrome: every bad in society is because of feminism. You name it, feminism did it! And, of course, there is still, obviously, the abortion rights issue that is especially central now.

3. Feminism has been hijacked by the marketplace: to be feminist is to have the freedom to consume.

4. And that is even without going into the persistence of gender violence and lack of proper family policies.

All this means that women’s voices are still vastly under-heard while the antifeminist voices (I would say anti-women) are loud, clear and quite strident. As a result, while there have been partial gains, feminism, as a movement, never seems to have a sure footing.

For Faludi, there are three dynamics standing in the way of real transformation:

1. Feminism is still a sixties movement, with its insistence on the personal, its rejection of authority and leadership, and persistent generational conflict, what Faludi calls the mother-daughter power failure. This power failure means the inability to really figure out ow to pass power down from women to women.

But it wasn’t always like this. In the 19th century, feminism was the crusading mothers fighting for the rights of their daughters in the campaigns about suffrage, abolition, temperance. Later on, though, America as a whole repudiated the power of the mother with consumerism and sexuality with mothers portrayed as humorless prudes, suffragists as whiners. The movement faded out until the sixties which was a daughter-only movement (Christine Stansell’s matrophobia, the fear of becoming your mother).

And now, the second wavers are aging and facing the criticisms of the third wavers. [This reminded me of the public exchange between Katha Pollitt and Jessica Valenti (actually, you should read Valenti’s column first, then Pollitt’s response).]

So, for Faludi, the question is how to build a sustainable movement in the face of persistent generational conflicts.

2. The second dynamic is that of consumerism as a distraction from serious debate (about real bread-and-butter and social justice issues) as opposed to vapid discussions that do not challenge the culture. Faludi thinks we should talk about poverty and single-motherhood (the two being, of course, related) rather than which real housewife is the biggest bitch (my formulation).

3. The third dynamic is “the vision thing”, that is, the failure to envision a feminist future and a project as to where women liberation should lead. For instance, yes, there are more women in the professions, but this means more women entering patriarchy-based institutions that they never created and where they do not change the stage. As Faludi – channeling Charlotte Bunch – put it, “you can’t add women, and stir.”

This inability to answer these questions and challenges has opened the door for conservative women to claim the label and redefine feminism as simply about the choice to self-expression. They are the ones shifting the political landscape.

So, what is to be done? For Faludi, we should return to the economic and political world where single mothers are a huge demographics and have it the worst socially. Single mothers deserve our attention and admiration. We need to change the system to liberate them. This would help healing the generational rift, which, for Faludi, is the major problem for feminism as a social movement. We need to come up with a new vision of family away from patriarchal institutions.

I should add that Susan Faludi was a great speaker, and a delightful to guest to hang out with afterwards. I want a new book from her, dammit!

The Visual Du Jour – Protests!

Via Natasha Chart,

The legend is as follows:

  • Red: deaths
  • Orange:major injuries, damage, arrests, Yellow: minor injuries, etc.
  • Green: Peaceful

The number of pickets refers to  size:

  • 1: Under 100,
  • 2: 100-1000
  • 3: 1000-10000
  • 4. 10K – 100K,
  • 5. Over 100K.

It is not completely exhaustive, of course, but it is still very neat and well done.

Interestingly, even though there are protests in the US, that country is vastly under-protested considering the policies coming down the pike.

Manuel Castells on Social Movements and The Internet (Again)

Manuel Castells has an interview for the Open University of Catalonia where he again discusses the role of the Internet in the recent social movements in the Middle East.

While acknowledging that the current uprisings in the Middle East are the first social movements truly facilitated by the Internet, Castells says he is not surprised by such a development, especially in light of his mass self-communication concept. After all, the transformation of communication technologies creates new spaces for the mobilization and organization of social movements. The Internet provides significant tools to overcome communication and censorship barriers as well as state repression. However, the Internet is a necessary but not sufficient condition for this. The roots of the uprisings have more to do with persistent exploitation, oppression and humiliation by state powers. However, the probability of success of an uprising is how quickly it can mobilize before the state reacts. Clearly, the Internet accelerates such mobilization.

Of course, the Internet can only play its mobilizing role if people are actually connected. And this was the case in Egypt where 40% of the population over 16 is connected, and taking into account not only home connections but also cybercafes and universities, that number reaches roughly 70% and we know how central the youth of Egypt were to the uprising. One should also take into account the role smart phones and cell phones (about 80% of urban adults are connected that way). Now, all these connected people have not taken to the streets but enough of them have done so and felt connected and unified enough to effect regime change. And in this case (and as may be the case throughout developing countries), mobile access via cell phones has become a greater tool of connection than traditional Internet access. The real digital divide, in this case, is in terms of bandwidth and quality of connection, but not access.

At the same time, Castells does not believe that governments have the tools to successfully block the networks. The Egyptian government tried and failed to block access and the recovery time from these attempts was quite fast. The difference between the various social movements has more to do with how much repression and violence governments can mete out and how much of it ends up on Youtube. But no matter, the seeds of rebellion have been planted and it is now only a matter of time.

Castells also notes a shift in the kind of leadership that emerges out of the current movements. Traditionally, movement heroes like Daniel Cohn-Bendit or Lech Walesa emerged out of political grassroots and continued on to have political careers. On the other hand, the Egyptian movement saw the rise of Wael Ghonim, a young Google executive, with technological, rather than political expertise. It does not look like he wants a political future either.

What of the Muslim Brotherhood then, who claimed to have made full use of Internet capabilities (even their own version of Wikipedia)? For Castells, that is not so remarkable since Internet use is practically mandatory for any organization that does not want to be left behind and outdated. Internet use per se does not mean much anymore, and it certainly does not mean electoral victories to come. After all, the movement totally passed them by. More than that, the government tried to exaggerate the risk of Muslim Brotherhood takeover the same way that Franco used the fear of communism, to present themselves as bastions of stability, even though the Spanish communist party scored rather low in elections. That didn’t work. The risk of Muslim radicalization (and that is not the gentrified Muslim Brotherhood) will only emerge if the military does not keep its promise of free elections.

Regarding the role of the traditional media, Castells argues that they have no choice but to make alliances with the new media organizations (such as Wikileaks) or face irrelevance, marginalization and the complete collapse of their business model. When such alliances exist, though, as with the case of Al-Jazeera, there is no denying their power for social change. However, context matters and such uprisings are not likely to happen in Asia in general or China in particular (the urban youth are getting richer and the rural poor are too far away).

So, I guess it’s not yet time to throw away our traditional relative deprivation and resource mobilization models for social movements.

The Non-Twitter, Non-Facebook Revolutions

In this Guardian column, Evgeny Morozov (whose book I confess to not having read – yet) tempers the cyber-utopians’ proclamations of the power of social networking to bringing democracy to the Middle East. It is a must-read that goes over some now-familiar topics I have blogged about: the fact that real social movements still require old-fashioned people on the streets taking real risks against the powers they are fighting.

And yes, Twitter and Facebook may be useful tools, but they are simply that, tools. This should not be a very controversial idea, so, for Morozov, there must be something behind the quick and superficial embrace of the notion of political power of social media platforms:

“First of all, while the recent round of uprisings may seem spontaneous to western observers – and therefore as magically disruptive as a rush-hour flash mob in San Francisco – the actual history of popular regime change tends to diminish the central role commonly ascribed to technology. By emphasising the liberating role of the tools and downplaying the role of human agency, such accounts make Americans feel proud of their own contribution to events in the Middle East. After all, the argument goes, such a spontaneous uprising wouldn’t have succeeded before Facebook was around – so Silicon Valley deserves a lion’s share of the credit. If, of course, the uprising was not spontaneous and its leaders chose Facebook simply because that’s where everybody is, it’s a far less glamorous story.

Second, social media – by the very virtue of being “social” – lends itself to glib, pundit-style overestimations of its own importance. In 1989, the fax-machine industry didn’t employ an army of lobbyists – and fax users didn’t feel the same level of attachment to these clunky machines as today’s Facebook users feel toward their all-powerful social network. Perhaps the outsize revolutionary claims for social media now circulating throughout the west are only a manifestation of western guilt for wasting so much time on social media: after all, if it helps to spread democracy in the Middle East, it can’t be all that bad to while away the hours “poking” your friends and playing FarmVille. But the recent history of technology strongly suggests that today’s vogue for Facebook and Twitter will fade as online audiences migrate to new services. Already, tech enthusiasts are blushing at the memory of the serious academic conferences once devoted to the MySpace revolution.

Third, the people who serve as our immediate sources about the protests may simply be too excited to provide a balanced view. Could it be that the Google sales executive Wael Ghonim – probably the first revolutionary with an MBA – who has emerged as the public face of Egypt’s uprising, vowing to publish his own book about “Revolution 2.0″, is slightly overstating the role of technology, while also downplaying his own role in the lead-up to the protests? After all, the world has yet to meet a Soviet dissident who doesn’t think it was the fax machine that toppled the Politburo – or a former employee of Radio Free Europe or Voice of America who doesn’t think it was western radio broadcasting that brought down the Berlin Wall.”

I would also argue that all the talk of the role of social networking sites pushes other topics of discussion to the background: how these regimes have maintained themselves in power for so long thanks to Western military assistance, that is, assistance in repressing their social movements; the role of increased impoverished youth in the context of economic globalization; the rise in food prices as a result of factors such as climate change and financial speculation.

It’s much more fun and hip to talk about how Twitter allowed activists to bypass governmental censorship. As the article linked above notes,

“Nowhere is immune to this wave of rebellion because globalisation is a fact; all the world’s markets are intricately interlinked, and woe in one place quickly translates into fury in another. Twenty years ago, things were more manageable. When grain production collapsed in the Soviet Union during the 1980s and what had been one of the world’s greatest grain exporters became a net importer, the resulting surges of anger brought down the whole Communist system within a couple of years – but stopped there. Today there are no such firebreaks, and thanks to digital communications, events happen much faster.

Why are all these revolutions happening now? Plenty of answers have been offered: the emergence of huge urban populations with college degrees but no prospect of work; the accumulation of decades of resentment at rulers who are “authoritarian familial kleptocracies delivering little to their people”, as Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation put it; the subversive role of Facebook and Twitter, fatally undermining the state’s systems of thought control.

Absent from this list – to the combined bewilderment and relief of the US and Europe – are the factors that were universally supposed to be driving populist politics in the Middle East: Islamic fundamentalism coupled with anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism. As one Egyptian pointed out after the fall of Mubarak, at no point during weeks of passionate revolt did either the Israeli or the US embassies become a target of the crowd’s fury, even though both are within easy reach of Tahrir Square. “Not so much as a Coke can was thrown over the wall,” he said.

(…)

The first warnings of what was to come appeared in the form of a briefing paper on the website of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in December. “Recent bouts of extreme price volatility in global agricultural markets,” it said, “portend rising and more frequent threats to world food security. There is emerging consensus that the global food system is becoming more vulnerable and susceptible to episodes of extreme price volatility. As markets are increasingly integrated in the world economy, shocks in the international arena can now transpire and propagate to domestic markets much quicker than before.”

The “shocks” all occurred a long way from Cairo and Tunis. They included fires in Russia last autumn which wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres of grain; heavy rains in Canada, destroying the wheat crop there; hot, dry weather in Argentina which destroyed the soybean crop; the Australian floods which ruined the wheat harvest. The Middle East accounts for one-third of worldwide wheat imports. The combined effect of these far-flung agricultural problems was to bump up the food price index by 32 per cent in the second half of 2010.

(…)

For the poor of the Middle East, the price shocks at the start of this year were like experiencing a second killer earthquake in three years – but unlike with an earthquake, there was someone you could blame. So angry were the food price protesters in Tunisia that, after Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali declared a state of emergency and promised to reduce the price of food. But it was too little, too late: by mid-January he was gone.

Tunisia’s turmoil, warned The Washington Post as the toppled president flew off into exile, “has economists worried that we may be seeing the beginning of a second wave of global food riots”. As we know now, it turned out somewhat differently. Food riots in 2008, revolutions in 2011 – what, where, who is next?”

But yeah, it’s much less glamorous than Revolution 2.0.

Book Review – A Strange Stirring

Obligatory disclaimer: I have said it before, I’ll say it again: I am a big fan of Stephanie Coontz ever since I read The Way We Never Were and The Way We Really Are. Her Marriage: A History is an absolute must-read.

I was not sure I wanted to read her latest book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. After all, this is not my generation. And having been raised in France, Betty Friedan was nowhere near as famous as Simone de Beauvoir. But then, this is Stephanie Coontz, so, knowing how well she writes, that book could only be good and available on Kindle. Smart decision on my part. That book is excellent.

It seems to me that, in this book, Coontz has several objectives:

  • To examine the social and cultural context of gender relations in which The Feminine Mystique was published.
  • To get a sense of how it was received by the women (and men) who read it at the time and what impact it had on their lives.
  • To provide a fair assessment of Friedan herself through a review of the critiques that have been launched at her ever since the publication of the Feminine Mystique.
  • To see how far we have come since the publication of the book, and assess Friedan’s predictions.

According to Coontz, one of the main things that Friedan’s book accomplished was this:

“A half century after they read the book, many of the women I talked to could still recall the desperation they had felt in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and their wave of relief when Friedan told them they were not alone and they were not crazy.” (Loc. 193)

But is there still any relevance to Friedan’s book today?

“And yet three themes still resonate today. One is Friedan’s forceful analysis of consumerism. “The sexual sell,” as she termed it, is even more powerful than in the 1950s, although it is now most destructive for girls and teens rather than for housewives. Second is Friedan’s defense of meaningful, socially responsible work—paid or unpaid—as a central part of women’s identity as well as men’s. And third is her insistence that when men and women share access to real meaning in their public lives, they can build happier relationships at home as well.” (Loc. 235)

But before getting into the Feminine Mystique per se, Coontz reviews the massive institutional discrimination that women in the US had no choice but to endure, from the “head and master” laws, to employment discrimination, to lack of legal protections. Double standards were the norm at every level of the social structure. It is quite amazing how much we have forgotten that the “Golden Age” that social conservatives want to return to was based on so much oppression and coercion, including, of course, in reproductive matters and issues of sexual harassment and violence.

One of the most shocking part of the book, to me, was the extent to which psychiatry played the role, now played by evolutionary psychology, of enforcing conservative and segregated gender roles by using “science” (in that case Freudian psychoanalysis) as a justification for systemic discrimination. Psychiatry also played the role of enforcer of gender norms telling women that there was something wrong with them if they were not fully happy in their roles of stay-at-home wives and mothers, for these roles were perfectly adapted to the “feminine nature”.

Coontz does a great job of reviewing the stuff published in women’s and self-help magazines on these subjects and exposing what is rank reactionary ideology rather than behavioral science. For instance, on domestic violence:

“The authors observed that the wives typically did not call the police until more than a decade after the abuse began, often following an incident where a teenage child intervened in the violence. But rather than lamenting the women’s long delay in seeking assistance, the psychiatrists explained that the child’s intervention disturbed “a marital equilibrium which had been working more or less satisfactorily.” To hear them tell it, most problems in such marriages were the fault of the wives, whom they described as “aggressive, efficient, masculine, and sexually frigid.” In many cases, the psychiatrists suggested, the violent incidents served as periodic corrections to the unhealthy family role reversal, allowing the wife “to be punished for her castrating activity” and the husband “to re-establish his masculine identity.”” (Loc. 445)

In other words, psychiatry played a major role in perpetuating the mystique, making women feel guilty or doubting themselves for needing something other than baking cookies and ironing shirts for their sense of self and identity. So, for many women, it was quite a relief when they read Friedan’s book because Friedan clearly put a name to what they had been feeling, and explained the oppressive culture and whole institutional apparatuses dedicated to maintaining the mystique: women were not allowed to fulfill whatever potentials they had, as men were pushed to do.

Psychiatry was not the only culprit. The social sciences, and specifically, Parsons’s structural-functionalist sociology validated this polarized view of gender with his division of labor between the (masculine) instrumental role (bread-winning) and the (feminine) expressive role (homemaking, nurturing). Within this division of labor, women had to be careful not be castrating harpies or too nurturing though. And they certainly should not try to take over the instrumental role.

Of course, this division was the gender version of “separate but equal” as women were treated as second class citizens. The glorification of “true” femininity was a call to conformity, to be enforced more brutally if necessary (electroshock treatments and medication were common to treat the “housewife syndrome”)

However, Friedan was not a feminazi who took down the entire Western civilization by telling women to walk out and become selfish. Quite the opposite, as Coontz demonstrates:

“The Feminine Mystique contained no call for women to band together to improve their legal and political rights. Instead, it urged women, as individuals, to reject the debilitating myth that their sole purpose and happiness in life came from being a wife and mother, and to develop a life plan that would give meaning to the years after their children left home.

(…)

There is no male-bashing anywhere in The Feminine Mystique. Friedan actually placed more blame on women than on men for the prevalence of the mystique, which she called their “mistaken choice,” and she wrote repeatedly that women would become better wives and mothers if they developed interests beyond the home

(…)

Friedan simply urged women to pursue an education and develop a life plan that would give meaning to the years after the children left home.” (Loc. 752 – 65)

Friedan also argues that the oppressive 1950s were a backlash against the feminism of the late 19th – early 20th century (Coontz then demonstrates that that period was no golden age of feminism either). At the same time, after the disruptions of the Great Depression and WWII, some socio-economic stability was welcome.

“Responding to these inducements, and misled by so-called experts who explained that it was abnormal to want anything else, women made the “mistaken choice” to retreat into domesticity.” (Loc. 817)

The next step in the ideological construction of the mystique was the association of femininity not just as domesticity but as consumerism. The housewife is a savvy consumer. It was through consumption dedicated to improve her household that a woman could show her creativity. This is what Friedan called the sexual sell. Coontz notes that this is the chapter of the Feminine Mystique that seemed to have the most impact on its readers.

At the same time, any good oppressive ideological construction has to throw in some double bind. The double bind, in that case, was momism:

““Modern” thinkers in the 1920s and 1930s had criticized the nineteenth-century cult of domestic motherhood not because it limited women’s rights but because it gave women too much moral authority within the home. In 1942, building on this anti-maternalist sentiment, Philip Wylie published his vituperative Generation of Vipers, which blamed women for dominating the home front to the point that they emasculated their husbands and smothered their sons.

(…)

In the view of most psychiatrists and the writers who popularized their works, “momism”—whether it took the form of overly strict or overly indulgent behavior—was the cause of almost every social ill. It produced sissies, murderers, and homosexuals. It even produced Nazism.

(…)

These attacks on women’s influence inside the home coexisted and sometimes merged with the attacks on their power outside the home, so that women got it coming and going: They were blamed for devoting too much attention to their children as well as for devoting too little.” (Loc. 997 – 1009)

And one also has to remember that this was taking place in the political context of McCarthysm where deviation from the dominant ideology was a sure sign of being a communist, or, at the very least, a fellow traveler. And from feminism to communism, in that ideological context, it was a short leap.

What is also interesting is that as much as Friedan depicted the 1950s as monolithic times of oppressive conservative ideology, of which the feminine mystique was gender component, what Coontz shows that the strength of book was not so much that it was a precursor to social change, but that it captured some underlying currents of social change that were already underway: increased number of women in the workforce (which also corresponded with the rise of the service economy), increased presence of women in colleges and universities.

Still, discrimination was pervasive and there were social and cultural limits to what was considered acceptable, in terms of education and paid employment and the media of the time bombarded women with images of idealized white, middle-class households. It is not hard to imagine that women’s magazines readership was at an all time high. And these magazines promoted a traditionalist ideology.

What has not really changed is that whatever problems were identified in couples and families, they were women’s fault. And they were the ones who had to change. Men, somehow (and still today) were seen as immutable entities whose ego and identity were so fragile that they needed constant nurturing and could not withstand the slightest challenges, for instance, in the form of a wife taking night classes at the local college:

“If a woman left home to get a job, she was threatening the last bastions of masculinity. But if she devoted all her attention to making her home a place of comfort and fulfillment, she was either overdomesticating her husband or putting too much pressure on him to keep up with the Joneses. If she left a child with a babysitter to take a part-time job, she was neglecting the next generation. But if she lavished too much attention on her children, she might produce a whole generation of homosexuals.

(…)

One of the quickest routes to a best-selling book in the 1950s was to explain how women’s behavior—whether as wives, mothers, or career women—was to blame for the “crisis of masculinity” that supposedly characterized the era.” (Loc.1444 – 1450)

That is still the case today.

Coontz also spends several chapters dedicated to tow of the major critiques of The Feminine Mystique: that it deals only with conditions of middle class and white women. But according to Coontz, middle-class women were more likely to experience the negative effects of the Feminine Mystique than working-class women who were not the target of women’s magazines or the psychiatric establishment.  As Coonz notes,

“Women who attended college in the 1950s were especially likely to have been taught the “scientific” findings of Freudian psychiatrists and functionalist sociologists that any woman who wanted more meaning in life than she found in the kitchen and nursery suffered from psychological maladjustment. The magazines targeted to housewives of their race, income, and educational level promoted the views of Freudian psychiatrists and other human behavior “experts” about “healthy” and “unhealthy” gender roles more often and in more detail than did the periodicals aimed at white working-class or black middle-class women. The result was that educated housewives who did not feel what they knew they should be feeling experienced a special kind of self-doubt.”

While their distress may have been less rooted in material deprivation than that of working-class and minority women, it was in some ways more bewildering. And it was more frequently turned inward, because most of Friedan’s readers recognized their privileges and acknowledged their own complicity in creating the life that was now making them unhappy. Many felt terrible because they did have the choice not to work and thought there was something wrong with themselves for not being properly grateful for that advantage.” (Loc. 1973 – 82)

On the other hand, when it came to working class women:

“The working-class women’s experience with want and hardship directed their attention to the external world and other people as the main threats to their happiness and security. The pain of middle-class housewives arose out of the contradictions between what they were told they should be feeling and what they actually felt.” (Loc. 2043)

When it comes to race, African-American women were much more likely to experience economic insecurities, on top of all the niceties of the segregation regime. And they were much less likely to be the recipients of governmental subsidies that allowed many working-class whites access to the middle-class. Quite often, middle-class African-American women had no choice but to work. And at that particular point in history, their political energies were going into the Civil Rights movement as many of them felt that struggle was more urgent than gender issues.

Actually, as Coontz notes,

“Many critics have since argued that Friedan oversold the benefits of employment in The Feminine Mystique, waxing eloquent about its role in building women’s self-esteem while ignoring the fact that few jobs available to women involved creative and satisfying work. But I believe the book suffers from the opposite flaw. Friedan did not appreciate the intangible rewards, such as a sense of self-confidence or independence, that women could gain from work she dismissed as unskilled or menial.” (Loc. 2207)

Finally, Coontz spends a whole chapter dealing with Friedan herself, her shortcomings and imperfections, the fact that the Feminine Mystique was not a radical feminist book and her proposals were quite limited and did not challenge the institutional status quo. She certainly was instrumental in organizing the feminist movement of the 1960s but she did not do so single-handedly. As Coontz states, the feminist movement would have emerged even without the book but it certainly was a powerful catalyst and it contributed to pulling the curtains on the ideological construction of the mystique. It shed light on how oppressive the culture was to women:

“AFTER STRIPPING AWAY THE GRANDIOSE CLAIMS ABOUT THE IMPACT OF THE Feminine Mystique, its achievements are still impressive. The book was a journalistic tour de force, combining scholarship, investigative reporting, and a compelling personal voice. And for an important layer of women, reading the book was a life-changing experience.

Friedan exposed her readers to a rigorous criticism of mainstream psychiatry and social sciences, introducing them to the progressive ideas embedded in the new humanistic psychology. To modern readers, Friedan’s acceptance of many 1950s shibboleths about controlling mothers, weak men, and the “ominous” growth of homosexuality seems particularly dated, but at the time, Friedan was highly effective in exposing the contradictions in this ideology. As historian James Gilbert points out, she repeated the Freudians’ indictment of mom-ism “only to sabotage their arguments, turning them upside down to plea for the liberation of women from cultural stereotypes.” If you want men to be free of controlling wives and mothers, she argued, you must free women from the compulsion to focus all their energy on marriage and motherhood.” (Loc 2720 – 7)

So where are we now, almost fifty years after the publication of the The Feminine Mystique? Coontz reviews the statistics on marriages and families. And a lot has certainly changed. The changes are actually neatly summarized in a blog post by Claude Fischer and a bunch of interesting graphs:

There is no doubt that opportunities have increased for women in terms of education and employment. And Friedan was mostly right about a lot of things (except her views on homosexuality). Studies have now also shown consistently that egalitarian marriages tend to be happier. However, prejudice and discrimination have not disappeared and the current Republican war on women is a convulsive illustration of this phenomenon. Sexism and the rape culture are still alive and well.

And, as I have mentioned before, if psychiatry has taken a bit of a back seat to the enforcement of conservative gender roles, evolutionary psychology can be counted to present gender roles of the 1950s as eternal human nature (see also Denis Colombi’s post on the general subject of evo psych).

There are also still manufactured ideological constructs designed to undermine women, be they the myth of “opting-out” or the mommy wars. And there are still major structural constraints. For instance, one should consider the fact that the US, among rich countries, has the least family-friendly set of policies in the context of increased social inequalities and insecurities. Coontz goes over these persistent systemic, cultural and ideological hurdles with some details but there is nothing there that anyone reading Melissa McEwan or Echidne does not already know.

Overall, the book is very rich and a pleasant read and should be mandatory for young women as, I am sure, most of them have no clue as to what it took to get them the opportunities they have.

As always, Stephanie Coontz rules.

Manuel Castells on The Great Disconnect

In the Spanish publication La Vanguardia, Manuel Castells takes stock of the role of information and communication technologies as used by social movements against authoritarian regimes. In the context of the network society, Castells notes the great disconnect (pun probably intended) between the global connectedness of the global civil society and the protest movements on the one hand, and the futile attempts at controlling messengers and message by governments on the other hand. As Castells puts it, this is the “new specter haunting the hall power around the world: free communication across Internet networks”. It is a justice globalist imaginary versus old and tired nationalism.

As the recent protest movements have exposed, governments may try to censor, shut off networks, arrest or even kill but this is a wasted effort because whoever controls communication has power. Shooting the messengers (sometimes literally) did not stop the message. And even though democracies have free speech protections, they are not immune to trying to control what goes on on the Internet. In China, such control may take the form of blocking social networking websites but that does not stop blogs and chatrooms. So, governments are beginning to design systems to shut down the Internet and mobile networks when they fear a crisis. Ahmadinejad tried that in 2009 and Mubarak as well more recently.

There is no big button allowing a head of state to shut down the Internet (although the US Congress is considering such a technology, FSM protect us if they seriously get to it, keeping in mind the moonbats current in the House of Representatives). What Mubarak did, though, was simpler: to order ISPs to shut down. It was not a complete shutdown and it did not work because the global civil society then kicked into gear to provide substitute access and networks. So, there was no Twitter revolution but there certainly was a global solidarity network, composed of hacker networks, networks of volunteer computers, use of proxies, smartphones used as modems, connections routed via phone numbers and use of old-fashioned fax machines.

Castells notes the role of entities like Telecomix in keeping communication open with Egypt. Telecomix created a program that searched Google automatically to find all the possible phone and fax numbers that could be used to send information in and out of Egypt. In addition, Google and Twitter made available speak-to-tweets applications.

What mattered, for Castells, was the combination of a variety of media, including graffitis, printed materials and occupation of urban space, and face-to-face networks along with all the virtual activity and the central role of Al Jazeera despite the black-outs the network suffered. Ultimately, attempts at blocking the Internet proved costly and futile. Castells cites the OECD estimates of $90 million. The additional economic costs were estimated at $3 million per day. And, of course, it did not work. Information still circulated between urban space and cyberspace with no disconnect.

However, Castells notes that this is not what was decisive at the local level. What made the difference is that the protestors had lost their fear. The usual violence and intimidation did not work. He argues that, as with Iran, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, Libya and Tunisia, the governments “have already lost the battle of/for the minds.” And the global networks made that disconnect very visible. And governments around the world should take note.