Privilege as Neutrality

In the British press, headlines were all over their new census and especially the decline in established religions, a development similar to what is happening in the US. In this context, it is interesting to read headlines like these:

“No longer the default religion: is being a Christian now a political statement?”

And in the article:

“Today’s results from the 2011 Census suggest that the number of those self-identifying as “Christian” in England and Wales – the religion question wasn’t broken down by denomination – has declined substantially from ten years previously. Then it was 72 per cent. The latest figure is 59 per cent. There has been an almost equivalent rise of 10 per cent in those ticking the “No religion” box, but it’s still only a quarter of the population.

(…)

Christianity has also become much more political. Debates about education, about the status of marriage, about abortion and medical ethics have became heavily dominated by questions of religion, and the dominant voices have often been religious ones (or, for that matter, anti-religious ones).”

This claim is absurd. Christianity has always been political. Religious organizations of various kinds have always thrown themselves in the political battles of the day. The main difference is that, for countries like the US or the UK, Christianity occupied a position of privilege while doing so and therefore could claim to not be political, and therefore above the fray, speaking only from a moral perspective, etc.

It is one marker of privilege to have one’s position seen as the default setting, the neutral center, the objective point of view. That is how whites are opposed to “people of color”, that is how we think LGBTs when we hear “sexual orientation”, that is how white males were seen as the only legitimate voting group in the last US presidential election and all the other groups were ideological and biased in their votes.

And it is also a marker of privilege to have one’s privilege never questioned and one’s supremacy never challenged. And we know that bad things can happen when such a perceived challenge arises.

But all privilege ends up being questioned or directly challenged through social movements or through softer nudges, micro-push-backs against the privileged position, whether is the removal of a nativity scene from public spaces or getting pummeled in social media when one asserts one dominance and supremacy as a given.

It is also interesting that privileged individuals are so used to their position to be silently accepted as the neutral, objective, non-biased setting that any push-back is perceived as an ideological aggression and having to share becomes a form of oppression. One can see that when, for the first times, religious people got pushed around a bit by the so-called “new” atheists. The cries of Christian oppression are based simply on the fact of having a few people listening to their religious discourse and going “really?”… and that’s all it takes. Or to simply be called to account for one’s dogma has been so unheard of that its occurrence is seen as aggression, followed by retreat to relativism (interestingly and ironically enough), that is, that everyone is entitled to their views and should not be questioned for them.

In other cases, take gay marriage, for instance, the claim is that, by getting married, gays are taking something away from straight marriage (“damaging the sanctity of marriage” or some such similar formulation).

What this all boils down to is privilege = exclusive access. What privileged individuals may be complaining about, in all cases, is potentially losing exclusive access to cultural dominance, or institutionally-based rights (marriage), treating all such as zero-sum games: if Christians have to share public spaces with other religions (as opposed to exclusive access for their nativity scenes), it is a loss to them, if straight people have to share the institution of marriage with LGBTs, it is a loss to them. From this view, culture and institutions are defined social spaces that cannot be expanded, so, sharing, when one had 100% of said social space, does mean a loss.

There is no conception of the possibility of increasing these social spaces. After all, the ability for LGBTs to get married does not reduce the ability of straight people to get married as social and institutional space can be expanded. The only possible expansion, for them, is the slippery slope one (LGBT marriage → bestiality). In this sense, privileged people are not only the potential losers of the deal, but because they also see themselves as the guardians of these social spaces – not for themselves, but for civilization, mind you – it is a double loss. Look back at the discourses of the opponents of the Civil Rights in the 60s and you will find these themes.

So, privileged individuals find themselves in the position to (1) see their privileges questioned, (2) having to now loudly claiming their privilege (which they didn’t have to do before, hegemony will do that for you), (3) having such loud claims ignored, shouted down or (worse) mocked, and as the article notes (4) being reduced to being just another interest group like the others (decentering). No wonder they get shrill (about gays, immigrants, women, abortion, contraception… anything to try to keep the moral center of a culture whose control is escaping them).

This is why social media have not been the preferred formats of privileged groups. By definition, these groups were already massively overrepresented in the traditional media (TV, radio), so, when new media spaces opened, they initially did not feel the need to go after them. And so, new media got populated by the non-privileged and became a source of alternative everything (news, sociability, entertainment, discourse, etc.). Hence the early cries against the outrages of bloggers, then the outrages of Twitter, etc.

A privileged position means you don’t need to shout because you’re the only one with a megaphone. When everybody can get their own and they’re making as much noise as you, it does feel like an aggression (free speech, for everyone else), and it does mean that your speech is no longer taken as the moral center nor does it command the same respect it used to (because you could have it backed up by the state). So, no, Christians have not become more political. They always were. It’s just that their old megaphone is losing battery power and everyone else’s megaphone is running on solar power and 4G wifi.

It’s The Inequalities, Stupid – A Never-Ending Story

This is the one new thing: ever since the economy crashed and burned and the Occupy movements, at least, there has been talk about social inequalities in the past three years or so. Otherwise, look at the media of the past thirty, and inequalities was a non-existent topic: the poor were poor because of their own individual shortcomings or the culture of poverty, or government dependency, etc. So, sociologists were the lonely crowd of Cassandras warning that no, really, inequalities were growing and this is bad for society as a whole. But being a dominated academic profession, they suffered the fate of Cassandra: they were not listened to or not downright ignored and dismissed as a bunch of lefty whiners.

So, at least, that is less the case. At the same time, the evidence on the growth of inequalities and the deleterious impact of that growth on society as a whole is pretty much an open and shut case since the publication of the Spirit Level. Why then is it surprising to see articles that seem to discover this new thing that is widening stratification and its impact?

Income inequality has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression, and the recession has done little to reverse the trend, with the top 1 percent of earners taking 93 percentof the income gains in the first full year of the recovery.

The yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots — and the political questions that gap has raised about the plight of the middle class — has given rise to anti-Wall Street sentiment and animated the presidential campaign. Now, a growing body of economic research suggests that it might mean lower levels of economic growth and slower job creation in the years ahead, as well.

“Growth becomes more fragile” in countries with high levels of inequality like the United States, said Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund, whose research suggests that the widening disparity since the 1980s might shorten the nation’s economic expansions by as much as a third.

Reducing inequality and bolstering growth, in the long run, might be “two sides of the same coin,” research published last year by the I.M.F. concluded.”

Well, yeah, but this is an interesting shift for the IMF:

“For years, economists have thought of such inequality in part as a side effect of policies that fostered the country’s economic dynamism — its tax preferences for investment income, for instance. And organizations like the World Bank and the I.M.F., which is based in Washington, have generally not tackled inequality in the world head on.

But economists’ thinking has changed sharply in recent years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this year warned about the “negative consequences” of the country’s high levels of pay inequality, and suggested an aggressive series of changes to tax and spending programs to tackle it.

The I.M.F. has cautioned the United States, too. “Some dismiss inequality and focus instead on overall growth — arguing, in effect, that a rising tide lifts all boats,” a commentary by fund economists said. “When a handful of yachts become ocean liners while the rest remain lowly canoes, something is seriously amiss.

The concentration of income in the hands of the rich might not just mean a more unequal society, economists believe. It might mean less stable economic expansions and sluggish growth.

That is the conclusion drawn by two economists at the fund, Mr. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg. They found that in rich countries and poor, inequality strongly correlated with shorter spells of economic expansion and thus less growth over time.

And inequality seems to have a stronger effect on growth than several other factors, including foreign investment, trade openness, exchange rate competitiveness and the strength of political institutions.

For developing economies, the channels through which inequality might drag down growth seem clear. Inequality might foster political instability and lead to violence and economic destruction, for instance, a theme that fits for Arab Spring countries, like Egypt and Syria.

For the United States, such channels are now the subject of intense research interest, with economists examining whether and how the gap between the rich and the poor fueled the recession and what it might mean.”

How did this increase inequalities happen? By redistribution… to the top:

The rise in inequalities is not new then but it has finally become an acceptable topic of discussion although not as much as one would hope considering its importance ans we know why: because it questions the system that created these income and wealth gaps that even the IMF says we should pay attention to.

Chrystia Freeland’s quick take on class warfare as ideological construct and rhetorical device to shut down discussion on inequalities.

Freeland from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

And a longer discussion between Chrystia Freeland and Matt Taibbi on Moyers’s program on the same topic (take the time to listen to and watch the whole thing, it is worth it):

Matt Taibbi and Chrystia Freeland on the One Percent’s Power and Privileges from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

So what is to be done? Mark Thoma suggests empowerment of the working class as a partial path through employment:

“Why doesn’t the unemployment problem get more attention? Why have other worries such as inflation and debt reduction dominated the conversation instead? As I noted at the end of my last column, the increased concentration of political power at the top of the income distribution provides much of the explanation.

Consider the Federal Reserve. Again and again we hear Federal Reserve officials say that an outbreak of inflation could undermine the Fed’s hard-earned credibility and threaten its independence from Congress. But why is the Fed only worried about inflation? Why aren’t officials at the Fed just as worried about Congress reducing the Fed’s independence because of high and persistent unemployment?

Similar questions can be asked about fiscal policy. Why is most of the discussion in Congress focused on the national debt rather than the unemployed? Is it because the wealthy fear that they will be the ones asked to pay for monetary and fiscal policies that mostly benefit others, and since they have the most political power their interests – keeping inflation low, cutting spending, and lowering tax burdens – dominate policy discussions? There was, of course, a stimulus program at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, but it was much too small and relied far more on tax cuts than most people realize. The need to shape the package in a way that satisfied the politically powerful, especially the interests that have captured the Republican Party, made it far less effective than it might have been. In the end, it had no chance of fully meeting the challenge posed by such a severe recession, and when it became clear that additional help was needed, those same interests stood in the way of doing more.

(…)

The imbalance in political power, obstructionism from Republicans designed to improve their election chances, and attempts by Republicans to implement a small government ideology are a large part of the explanation for why the unemployed aren’t getting the help they deserve. But Democrats aren’t completely off the hook either. Centrist Democrats beholden to big money interests are definitely a problem, and Democrats in general have utterly failed to bring enough attention to the unemployment problem. Would these things happen if workers had more political power?”

It boils down to class.

And more recently, Tim Noah makes a related case, arguing for stronger labor unions:

“The simplest thing government could do to reverse the 33-year growth in income inequality is to make it easier to start and maintain a union.

Although income inequality is growing in comparable nations around the world, it is more extreme and growing more rapidly here. A big reason is that labor unions, which have faced rough times everywhere with the rise of globalization, have declined much more in the United States.

Private-sector union density peaked in the early 1950s at almost 40 percent. Today it’s down to 7 percent, which is about where it was when Franklin Roosevelt entered office. It’s as if the New Deal, which made possible the rise of America’s labor movement, never happened.

Revitalizing labor is not a popular cause nowadays, even among liberals, but there’s little point in even discussing how to solve the inequality problem if you won’t consider ways the government could help rebuild — really, stop suppressing — unions. If you graph a line charting the decline in union membership and then superimpose another line charting the decline in middle-class income share, the lines will be nearly identical. That is not a coincidence.”

Of course, none of this is going to happen and for now, we are stuck in the vicious cycle of weak growth and inequalities deplored by Joseph Stiglitz.

But ultimately, it’s the inequalities, stupid.

Book Review – Les Rémunerations Obscènes

Philippe Steiner‘s Les Rémunerations Obscènes is a pamphlet more than a book per se. With a 134 pages of text, it a short and clear read on the topic of the stratospheric compensations received by corporate CEOs and their lack of justification. However, the book is not just a rant against these compensations packages. Steiner systematically debunks one by one, armed with both economic and organizational sociology and some solid references to research, all the justifications commonly employed to rationalize the levels of CEO compensation.

The book is also shock full of data detailing the various levels of compensations, their evolution and trajectories, alongside some more well-known data on the increase of inequalities and wage stagnation for the rest of the population. The icing on the cake comes from some morceaux choisis from CEOs themselves, in their own words, explaining why they should be paid such obscene compensations. Finally, the book ends with a few suggestions as to what should be done.

The sociologists will also find in the book some constant references to classical (Weber, Durkheim) and more contemporary sociologists as Steiner goes through some SHiP (Structure / History / Power) demonstration to explain how we got to these levels of compensation, why the upward trend has been so steep and continues to this day irrespective of objective factors such as performance. Steiner has done his homework and the bibliographical references are quite extensive for such a short book.

Using Weber, Steiner argues that the obscene levels of compensation have nothing to do with capitalism, which is supposed to temper the irrational passion for profit-seeking through a variety of mechanisms. The unleashing of greed is not part of such mechanisms. The corporate übermenschen (as Steiner calls them, “surhommes”) have managed to disconnect themselves from social ties that would link them to social norms and a general sense of the way the mere mortals live. The strong ties to the political world also increase the amount control that these men (yes, men) exercise over their own enrichment. And has been recently exposed, it is Goldman Sachs world. The rest of us just live in it.

The strongest parts of the book are those where Steiner explains the organizational processes at work in determining CEO compensations, especially the work of compensation committees. These committees may be composed of other CEOs, and they may use information provided by consulting firms specialized in constructing remuneration packages. This is where social capital and social networks analysis is central. These compensation committees look like a game of revolving door and mutual back-scratching disguised under rationalizations such as preventing CEOs from leaving the country if they do not get a globally-competitive level of compensation, the ability to attract the best and brightest. In reality, this looks more like CEOs looking at each other’s compensation and saying “I want at least what they have!” The processes are those of a very close and tight-knit in-group.

What of the argument that compensations packages are often tied to performance (in terms of stock value) and therefore, there is a level of accountability? Steiner reviews the research and shows that that is simply not the case. First of all, there are all the anecdotes of golden parachutes. Second of all, compensations never decrease based on bad performance. They might not increase but that is it. Steiner shows that salaries and bonuses rise in ways unconnected to stock prices and values.

So, are CEOs so rare and so incredibly talented that their compensation levels have exploded? Steiner invokes his Micromégas regime of competition, with reference to Voltaire: minuscule differences between individuals translate into massive differences in compensation between CEOs and the rest. At the same time, CEO contribution to the value of firms is minimal. At the same time, throughout organizations and recruiting firms, there is the belief in extreme individual agency, that is, the belief that whatever firm results are fully attributable to CEO decisions. This belief is taken as religious dogma (except, of course, when the company collapse and all of a sudden, someone like Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling argues that he didn’t know anything that was going on in the firm). If “I” did all this, then, “I” deserve to appropriate such a high share of profits, not the hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of people who have contributed to innovation, productivity, etc. And this appropriation has to be at a level comparable to that of other CEOs, worldwide.

On the other side of things, firms that design compensation packages tend to think that (1) they will not be able to attract the “right” candidates if compensation packages are not tempting enough, and (2) that a company would symbolically debase itself if it did not come up with a phenomenal compensation package (one that is more impressive than that of comparable firms). This triggers compensation inflation as chain reaction.  Companies offer enormous compensation packages as status signals that reflect on them.

Steiner also analyzes the current indignation regarding executive compensation using Durkheim’s concept of moral economy, that is, the social evaluation of the functions and compensation. The level of contestation has to do with the legitimation crisis that has been intensified by the economic crisis, itself revealing the disconnect between compensation levels and the collapse of their justifications. Of course, politicians have grabbed the theme of a moralization of executive compensation, but the tangled web of political/corporate connections guarantees that said moralization will not go beyond rhetoric.

Invoking The Spirit Level, Steiner ends by noting that obscene compensation is a social pollution, contributing to rising inequalities and their deleterious effects. The book is a bit short on solution (fiscal policy), which is a shame but changing the structural nature of obscene compensation probably would take a whole book in itself.

In light of the current crisis and the imposition of “sacrifices” on populations across the Western world, this topic is highly relevant. In the context of the upcoming French presidential election, and as the main candidates start to unveil their platforms, this book comes out at the right time and should be mandatory reading to said candidates.

Book Review – Games of Empire

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

The main argument of the book is this:

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

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

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

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

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

Why virtual games?

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

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

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

How does that fit with Empire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(…)

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

Cognitive capital has specific characteristics:

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

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

Another aspect of Empire is the use of social machines:

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

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

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

In this context, war is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The key is to have all three coalesce.

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Book Review – Intern Nation

Welcome to the brave new world of work, where you work more and get paid nothing! Travailler plus pour ne rien gagner (maybe that should be Sarkozy’s slogan for his reelection campaign!). This is the reality experienced by more and more people in the US, and thoroughly explored by Ross Perlin in Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.

The premise of the book is that internships have exploded in numbers as they have become an almost mandatory of someone’s education in order to gain legitimate entry on the labor market. But Perlin considers them to be “a form of mass exploitation hidden in plain sight” (xiv), with roughly 9.5 million college students, roughly 75% will participate in at least one internship before graduation. He argues that a significant share of those are unethical if not illegal.

In other words, interns are becoming the fastest-growing category of American workers, the largely unpaid ones.

The simple fact of non-payment, for Perlin, also points to the fact that internships have become a site of reproduction of privilege as only those of financially comfortable background can hope for the glamorous internships in Congress, in Hollywood or television and journalism that truly open doors for permanent (and paid) jobs, guaranteeing that the upper-classes will remain the major cultural producers in the mass media. In that sense, internships contribute to both exploitation and reproduction of inequalities in opportunities.

Finally, Perlin argues that internships devalue labor, especially for young people and at entry-level positions at the same time that interns may displace workers.

The book itself is full of a variety of examples in a diversity of settings. The first chapter is dedicated to the Disney internships whose promotion is so present at so many college campuses, as Disney runs one of the largest internship program, with 7,000 to 8,000 interns every year:

“In its scale and daring, the Disney Program is unusual, if not unique – a “total institution” in the spirit of Erving Goffman. Although technically legal, the program has grown up over thirty years with support from all sides with almost zero scrutiny to become an eerie model, a microcosm of an internship explosion gone haywire. An infinitesimally small number of College Program “graduates” are ultimately offered full-time positions at Disney. A harvest of minimum-wage labor masquerades as an academic exercise, with the nodding approval of collegiate functionaries. A temporary, inexperienced workforce gradually replaces well-trained, decently compensated full-timers, flouting unions and hurting the local economy. The word “internship” has many meanings, but at Disney World it signifies cheap, flexible labor for one of the world’s largest and best-known companies – magical, educational burger-flipping in the Happiest Place on Earth.” (3-4)

Needless to say, Perlin is merciless in his investigation of the world of internships, and Disney is not the only entity getting a drubbing, but is presented as somewhat representative of the trend: “a summer job with a thin veneer of education, virtually unleavened by substantive academic content.” (8).

Perlin identifies two major post-War trends that contributed to the internship explosion:

1. The rise of the “new” economy, post-industrialism, service jobs and networked capitalism along with its cohort of contingent labor. This casualization of the workforce is a well-known trait of the post-fordist regime based on flexibility and exploitation and the rise of the ubiquitous “independent contractor”, a catch-all category.

2. The rise of the field of Human Resources and the “Human capital” approach to education.

What this boils down to is what Bauman and Beck have described as individualization in the post-modern era. Students now have to see themselves as having to cultivate individually their own human capital and internships do just that. The student is his/her own entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of one’s self, one’s own independent contractor.

This is also part of the trend of vocationalism in education, that is, seeing education as job training rather than, well, education.

Perlin also notes that internships have also risen on the ashes of traditional apprenticeships that have a medieval connotation and have long been associated with industry and the trades. There are still a few apprenticeships in the US, they are usually paid, with benefits and unionization. There is still an Office of Apprenticeship as part of the government but it seems to be a well-kept secret and the trades are not the hot career when one dreams of working for Google.

I was also surprised to learn that a great deal of internships might actually be illegal (not that anyone is watching). The Fair Labor Standards Act is still the law of the land and, based on a US Supreme Court decision and explained by the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, one category of people is exempt from the FLSA provisions: trainees. And since the USSC has never ruled on interns, they are considered trainees, therefore exempt. Except that there are six condition that must ALL be met for trainees to be exempt, as listed by Perlin:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee.
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wage for the time spent in training.

All six criteria have to be met for a position to be considered exempt. If one of these provisions is not met, then, it’s a job and it falls under the provision of the FLSA. How many internships actually meet all six criteria? Who knows. So, employers just looking for cheap labors should not get interns or their internships are illegal. But again, who’s checking? Although Perlin does mention that the Obama administration did increase the number of DOL inspectors.

More than that, because they are not considered workers, unpaid interns receive none of the protection against discrimination or harassment that regular employees get (however inadequate) and they have no legal recourse. On the other hand, corporations receive $124 million annual contribution in the form of free labor.

Perlin is also severe in his critique with regards to what he considers the complicity of colleges and universities in the explosion of exploitative internships. Schools endorse internships without a second thought. Sometimes, they make money off of deal with employers or non-profit organizations. And they provide the academic cover in the form of academic credit for sometimes questionable internships. Often, academic credit is supposed to replace the pay that anyone would normally receive for the same work that interns do. So, not only do students pay for credit, but they don’t get any pay for the internship. They pay to work for free.

“In certain cases, paying college tuition to work for free can be justified – particularly if the school plays a central role in securing the internship and makes it a serious, substantive academic experience. Providing credit certainly can cost the school in terms of supervision time and administrative work, although the costs are unlikely to match those of a classroom experience. And in the most miserable, increasingly common scenario, employers use the credits in an attempt to legitimize illegal internships while universities charge for them and provide little in return, and interns are simply stuck running after them, paying thousands of dollars for the privilege of working for free.” (86)

Instead, of course, colleges and universities actively promote internships  just like they have online education as a low-cost (for them) option to get money from students. The worst offenders, in my view, have the (often for-profit) colleges and universities who offer their credits to highly expensive private internship-abroad organizations (both shall remain nameless, as in, no free publicity, but their practices are truly disgusting) who charge thousands of dollars for unpaid internships outside of the US, but there are also all the non-profit organizations, largely staffed by interns in the name of “service-learning” or the start-ups that wouldn’t even get off the ground if they didn’t use free labor. How many NGOs or such companies would not function without free labor? Or maybe they would need to revise their activities or business plans or pay interns minimum wage.

The other issue that is central, in my view, and that Perlin discusses at length, is this: what about the students who have mandatory internships in their curriculum but cannot afford unpaid work? Or whose parents cannot support them? Well, they get left behind in the race to pad one’s résumé with prestigious internships. In other words, the ability to engage in unpaid internships is yet another privilege that the already-privileged enjoy, at the expense of other students. While privileged students might spend the summer on Capitol Hill, interning for a Congressperson for free (even though there is a big bogus element to these internships, as Perlin shows), others actually have to work to pay for next year’s tuition.

And in addition to the experience and the lengthening of one’s CV, these privileged students get to network and accumulate social capital, something that their less privileged counterparts do not get to do. And finding prestigious internships in the first place is a matter of social connections. For instance, the donor to an NGO can pretty much impose to have a child or relative or friend as intern. Access matters a lot, when it comes to internships.

“Many internships, especially the small but influential sliver of unpaid and glamorous ones, are the preserve of  the upper-middle class and the super rich. These internships provide the already privileged with a significant head start that pays professional and financial dividends over time, as boosters never tire of repeating. The rich get richer or stay rich, in other words, thanks in part to prized internships, while the poor get poorer because they’re barred from the world of white-collar work, where high salaries are increasingly concentrated. For the well-to-do and wealthy families seeking to guarantee their offspring’s future prosperity, internships are a powerful investment vehicle, and an instrument of self-preservation in the same category as private tutoring, exclusive schools, and trust funds. Meanwhile, a vast group of low- and middle-income families stretch their finances thin to afford thankless unpaid positions, which are less and less likely to lead to real work, and a forgotten majority can’t afford to play the game at all.” (162)

And did I mention that women are more likely to get unpaid internships than men?

And you wonder why there is an ideological continuity between politics, news and think tanks and other organizations. It is a Village and they’ve interned there before.

Part of the issue is that there is a high demand for internships (as a result of becoming an academic / graduation requirement), so much so there are now internship auctions where employers auction an internship and potential interns bid on it, and it goes to the highest bidder but not the most qualified candidate.

Of course, other countries are getting on the action as well, exploiting interns. Remember Foxconn, the company that makes your iPad and other Apple goodies, that became famous because its working conditions were so awesome that workers kept killing themselves? So much so that they now have to sign contracts promising not to commit suicide? Yup, that Foxconn… Check this out:

“Foxconn seems to have become the world’s biggest abusers of internships. According to a detailed report recently compiled by university researchers in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the company uses interns extensively in at least five of its major plants, compensating them at the lowest possible pay grade (under $200 per month) and often forcing them against the law to work nights and overtime. In order to avoid paying for the medical and social welfare owed to regular employees, Foxconn has in some cases reportedly filled more than half of its assembly line jobs with interns – usually with the cooperation of hundreds of schools that stand to receive a fee in return.” (196)

Welcome to the new world of labor casualization, precarization and flexibility. These global workers now have their very own patron saint: San Precario

Also, San Precario is transgender. The five icons represent income, housing, health, communication and transport. That is, there is, hopefully, a rising movement against precarization, that includes interns, as part of the global civil society.

Perlin himself offers a series of recommendations to make internships more meaningful and more fair, based on the six criteria above. But most of all, his book is a wake-up call to a major trend that has gone largely unrecognized and unexamined, and one can see why. It is an important book for anyone interested in labor issues and the future of work.

The Global Uniformity of Privilege

Via Africa is a Country (a site you should bookmark), get your puke bag:

Yup, it is the South African version of “Real Housewives of (Wherever)”.

“In Helen Zille’s Western Cape, MTV is currently filming, “Clifton Shores,” a reality TV series about a group of mostly white, young people (four Americans and three South Africans “who serve as their guides to life in a new country”) predictably working for an events company and “having fun” in Clifton, a wealthy district of Cape Town on the other side of Table Mountain. The producers promise that Cape Town, “… a new and exotic location for US audiences,” has “European style and African spirit in equal abundance,” and that the show “… will showcase the glamorous lifestyle of Cape Town’s rich and fabulous.””

What I find striking is how much these women look like their counterpart in the wealthy counties of the US and how much they look like each other. And from this advertising picture, I am not entirely sure where the African spirit is, because all I see is the (more or less tanned) whiteness and the beach bodies of women whose only physical activity is to work out with a personal trainer to keep the size 0 and less for wealthy men.

And besides, between the dresses, accessories and shoes, these are not outfits in which you can do much of anything except stand there and be pretty. File that as all the ways in which objects and clothes reflect how we live, by class, race or gender.

Sleep as Social Privilege

I know this story is supposed to be inspiring: all these disadvantaged students, working their butts off in midnight classes, trying to offset some social disadvantages. But this reminds me of the UPS job / night class programs that Marc Bousquet described in How The University Works. What I see is that privileged students get to sleep at night, and reap the benefits of rest for study and (maybe) work. Sleep deprivation is bad for one’s health. Individual “inspirational” stories do not make up for the lack of decent social and economic policy that would allow these students to complete their education without having to sacrifice valuable sleep time.

So, the underlying story is that getting a good night sleep then becomes a social privilege enjoyed by some, whereas others literally lose sleep to get a degree. But fear not, they are celebrated for their strong work ethic and capacity to overcome obstacles… Something I do not deny but it would be nice if someone would mention that this is one more example of “no salvation by society”… it is up to individuals to find solutions to socially-generated problems through squeezing as much resource as they can from their lives, in this case, sleep.

Norms, Laws and Democratic Accoutability Are For Little People

A while back, Denis Colombi blogged about the traders as a subculture whose deviance is tolerated by the larger culture. The traders are treated as a mythical category that is somewhat exempt from conventional forms of sociability and social restraint. But as a result of the economic collapse, this view is being questioned and revised.

First in line, Nouriel Roubini – he who accurately predicted the collapse and he basically calls for an end to social-normative exemption and deep structural changes:

“The “Greed is good” mentality is a regular feature of financial crises. But were the traders and bankers of the sub-prime saga more greedy, arrogant, and immoral than the Gekkos of the 1980’s? Not really, because greed and amorality in financial markets have been common throughout the ages.

Teaching morality and values in business schools will not tame such behavior, but changing the incentives that reward short-term profits and lead bankers and traders to take excessive risks will. The bankers and traders of the latest crisis responded rationally to compensation and bonus schemes that allowed them to assume a lot of leverage and ensured large bonuses, but that were almost guaranteed to bankrupt a large number of financial institutions in the end.

To avoid such excesses, it is not enough to rely on better regulation and supervision, for three reasons:

·        Smart and greedy bankers and traders will always find ways to circumvent new rules;

·        CEOs and boards of directors of financial firms – let alone regulators and supervisors – cannot effectively monitor the risks and behaviors of thousands of separate profit and loss centers in a firm, as each trader and banker is a separate P&L with its own capital at risk;

·        CEOs and boards are themselves subject to major conflicts of interest, because they don’t represent the true interest of their firms’ ultimate shareholders.

As a result, any reform of regulation and supervision will fail to control bubbles and excesses unless several other fundamental aspects of the financial system are changed.”

So, what does he advocate?

1. Radically alter compensation for traders (eliminate short-term bonuses and provide bonuses for long-term performance so as limit high risk taking behavior with other people’s money).

2. Reinstate Glass-Steagall or put in place a similar law to reestablish the separation between different forms of banking.

3. Roubini notes how much the system is ridden with conflicts of interest but provides no real solution.

4. Break up too big to fail firms.

More radically, Todd Krohn, over at The Power Elite, argues that we are not just talking about tolerate deviance and exemption from the norms but of downright criminal behavior but that, as Reiman famously stated, the rich get richer and the poor get prison and the white collar criminals get to remain unregulated:

“As regular readers know, I have argued consistently and forcefully over the past three years that the “Great Recession” was, fundamentally, caused by white-collar crime on Wall Street (thus giving new meaning to the phrase “Street crime”). The only serious writer arguing on a national scale who agrees, and who has laid out the evidence in a series of award-winning articles, is Matt Taibbi. Two months ago I mentioned an article he wrote back in June regarding the so-called Wall Street Regulation bill. This bill ended up passing in late July and fulfilled Taibbi’s prediction: a toothless, gutted piece of Washington chicanery, sold by both major parties, the Congress and the Obama administration as “the toughest financial reform since the ones we created in the aftermath of the Great Depression.” As Taibbi, writing in this week’s Rolling Stone, cryptically notes, “that would maybe be more impressive if Congress had passed any financial reforms since the Great Depression, or at least any that didn’t specifically involve radically undoing the Depression-era laws.” He also goes on to vividly recount how the last, great chance to regulate Wall Street and make those who wrecked the economy through their crimes pay for what they did, was gutted in a series of last-minute “whorebotchery” (a great word).”

Taking it even further, Peter Wilby, in the Guardian, exposes the dark face of massive charitable donation: whisk policy control away from elected governments into the hands of the wealthy donors:

“It is surely admirable – isn’t it? – that 40 US billionaires, led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have signed the “giving pledge” to donate half their fortunes to charity. Far better that they open their wallets to deserving causes than that they spend yet more money on yachts, carbon-emitting private jets or garish mansions. Well, yes. Salute Gates, whose foundation has already saved perhaps five million lives through the development and delivery of vaccines against diseases such as TB. Salute Buffett who says his children won’t inherit “a significant proportion” of his wealth. The filthy rich, or some of them, have shown they have a heart.

But let’s be clear. Money paid to charity is exempt from tax; the US treasury already loses at least $40bn (£25bn) a year from tax breaks for donations. So billionaires, not the democratically elected and (at least theoretically) accountable representatives of the people, get to decide on the good causes. Those who already wield enormous economic power can determine social priorities too. Of course, the poor also contribute to charity but most don’t get the tax breaks because they don’t pay income tax.”

It all boils down to avoiding collective accountability and derailing democratic mechanisms. As annoying and frustrating governments may be, they still carry some degree of legitimacy and accountability (somewhat) and we have not found a better democratic mechanism. Massive charity takes resources away from the public and redirect them towards specific private agendas.  Through such donations, the wealthy also exempt themselves from their share of democratic participation through taxation. At the same time, they exert disproportionate power over social and economic policy with government. This basically closes almost every door to public participation.

And in the name of efficiency, massive donations may be geared towards projects that have immediate visibility (providing bed nets to fight malaria) but do not deal with underlying issues of development that do not provide immediate gratification to the donors but are crucial to deal with global poverty over the long term. And it avoids any questioning of the global economic system.

For another way in which the wealthy manage to extract wealth from the system, to the detriment of the public is powerfully see this post by Dave Johnson on how tax cuts are thefts and Ian Welsh’s post “It’s not your money.” The two simple diagrams that Johnson uses could not be clearer:

Book Review – Euroclash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are Flu Shots Like Bonuses?” – Social Privilege Yet Again

Some people deserve to live disease-free more than others. That’s the beauty of the being part of the power elite. Is there any privilege that the financial class does not enjoy?

What everyone is thinking:

Social Privilege and Allocating Blame

  • If a white person commits an atrocity, it’s because that person has mental health problems
  • If a non-white person commits an atrocity, it is because non-white people all have self-control problems of some kind (translation: they’re not as civilized as “we” are)
  • If a person with an Arab name (Note to the media: there is no such thing as a “Muslim” name) commits an atrocity, it’s terrorism as part of some global jihad

So,

  • A white person committing atrocities does NOT mean all white people should be stigmatized, it meant this person should have been helped
  • A non-white person committing atrocities means that “they” cannot assimilate to “our” country and “our” culture. They are forever foreign and they are a suspicious categories that needs scrutinizing for their legal presence. Or confined in large numbers.
  • A person with an Arab-sounding name committing an atrocity means ALL Arabs and Muslims (they’re all the same, right?) are jihadists, except some of them are “active” and others are still “sleepers” (like we learned by watching 24). Therefore, they should be subjected to society-wide stigma and scrutiny, and maybe a little roughin’ up or anything in the name of security.

No, no, don’t thank me, I’m glad I could clarify that for y’all.

Book Review – Bright-Sided

No one writes about the American culture like Barbara Ehrenreich. At the same time, Ehrenreich never lets anyone forgets that there is a socially stratified reality out there and that cultural trends are often ideological scaffolding supporting unequal and precarious systemic conditions for most of us. Her latest book, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is no exception.

In this book, Ehrenreich takes on the “positive thinking” industry, tracing its roots back as a reaction to the fire-and-brimstone Calvinism of 18th-19th century America and following the movement all the way to the corporate culture of magical thinking that got us where we are today, through the monumental success of garbage like The Secret, positive preaching of the likes of Joel Osteen and positive psychology.

As usual, Eherenreich’s style is a combination of sarcasm and bafflement as to how supposedly smart people can believe such nonsense along with constant reminders that this stuff is all well and good but there is a harsh reality out there that needs to be addressed, no matter how positive one’s outlook is, to the point of self-delusion.

Ehrenreich also relates her own experience with positive thinking when she got cancer dove into the world of support group along with, and there lies the problem, the whole “mind over matter” mentality underlying positive thinking: if you wish something strongly enough and positively enough, it will happen. Similarly, you can “beat” the cancer through positive thinking. And above all, cancer patients are enjoined to not see themselves as “victims”. Getting cancer is reformulated as an opportunity to reexamine one’s life.

Wait, where have we heard that before? Well, in a lot of corporate motivation stuff. Remember “who moved my cheese?” That is part of the same movement. You were laid off? Hey, that may be the best thing that ever happened to you because now, you can go look for new sources of “cheese”! Don’t waste time blaming your boss or the economy. Losers, whiners and pessimists with a victim’s complex do that. Positive thinkers create their own opportunities through a change in their attitudes!

All this is part of the individualizing trend that Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman discussed in the context of neoliberalism and globalization. No more salvation by society, Peter Drucker told us. It is every individual for hirself, with one’s own set of skills (to be managed like assets and periodically updated) AND the right attitude. But the bottom line is that every person is on their own, with their own cancer or medical condition or their own broken career and precarized future. All the positive thinking industry is dedicated to make people accept that without protesting against the structural conditions that promote such insecurities and risks (in Beck’s sense).

So, for all the support groups, online communities of cancer survivors (not patients or victims!), cancer becomes a private experience, a private battle:

“I’m not so sure, but without question there is a problem when positive thinking ‘fails’ and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place. At this point, the exhortation to think positively is ‘an additional burden to an already devastated patient,’ as oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written.” (42)

After all, positive thinking can never fail, rather people fail at positive thinking.

Nothing better illustrates positive thinking as magical thinking than the best-selling, Oprah-certified piece of garbage that is The Secret. I cannot express how much I loathe the whole The Secret Thing. It is an insult to all people in the world in situation of misery, poverty, war, genocide or deprivation more generally. It is a childish justification for selfish greed and lack of concern for social issues. It is also a form of individualization of social conditions.

All this might feel like harmless “feel good” new agey nonsense but the injunction to cut oneself off from “negative people” (that is, anyone with a realistic grasp of the world) has normative implications that can be pretty nasty, from being ostracized to being laid off. This reminded me of my college where mediocre administrators make stupid decision with predictable negative consequences that we, faculty, are expected to fix. And when we mention they got us into this mess because they didn’t do the analysis or we did it for them but they ignored it, the response is always “well, are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” or various injunctions to let go of the past and be future-oriented (because heaven forbid that we might learn from our mistakes). Actually, academia has become heavy on the administrative side imbued with the positive thinking corporate-think.

But what’s with the all the mystic stuff? According Ehrenreich,

“What attracts the coaching profession to these mystical powers? Well, there’s not much else for them to impart to their coachees. ‘Career coaches’ may teach their clients how to write resumés and deliver the self-advertisements known as ‘elevator speeches,’ but they don’t have anything else by way of concrete skills to offer.” (63)

Well yeah, because, again, once you take out the social context and some generic encouragement to go back to school for some skill upgrading (gotta keep the “me” brand up to snuff), there is nothing else, really.And the same goes for positive psychology (I confess that, as a sociologist, I always get a tingle of schadenfreude when psychology gets knocked around a bit as Ehrenreich does… but then, Ehrenreich is a frequent guest / keynote speaker at ASA meetings, and a very popular one too).

There is a nastier side to this though. The “be positive” mantra, in the context of the “lean and mean” global economy, means not just that people have to what Hochschild long ago called emotional work as part of the service economy. No, being positive is more about working harder for less in a forcibly cheerful manner for fear that the slightest hint of “negativity” (sin of sin in the positive thinking movement) might put one as number 1 on the list of next layoffs. So, the obligatory constant self-monitoring is no longer for any trace of sin (as the old Calvinist religion had it) but relentless persistent self-examination for any trace of pessimism.

“The work of Americans, and especially of its ever-growing white-collar proletariat, is in no small part work that is performed on the self in order to make that self more acceptable and even likeable to employers, clients, co-workers, and potential customers. Positive thinking had ceased to be just a balm for the anxious or a cure of the psychosomatically distressed. It was beginning to be an obligation imposed on all American adults.” (96)

In other words, employers can now bombard their employees with “motivational” literature and DVDs as a sort of emotional blackmail and social control in the workplace. Out with the old-fashioned clock watching, in with the “right attitude” as mode of Foucauldian discipline. And so, all of a sudden workplace walls are now filled with stupid motivational posters with their stupid clichéd pronouncements.

And of course, in the United States, there is no amount of nonsense that can’t be made more nonsensical by mixing it with dumb religion, hence the success of Osteens and others of their ilk. In this “theology”, one finds the usual “be positive, you’re not a victim” tripe along with “God wants you to be rich” or “God got you laid off so you would embrace all these wonderful opportunities (that have not materialized yet but don whine about that)”. Of course, this makes the pastorpreneurs very very wealthy.

Ehrenreich ends her exploration of the positive thinking movement by showing how it has influenced the corporate world: the housing bubble was never going to burst. House prices were always going to go up forever. The market would continue to grow and self-correct (remember Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God?). Ehrenreich shows how much the overlords of the corporate world, detached from reality as their wealth, lifestyle and power makes them ended up believing the mantras of positive thinking and “laws of attraction”. Heck, such magical beliefs were also held by Alan Greenspan.

Ultimately though, whether it is positive thinking, Christian science, positive psychology or whatever other new age, religious drivel du jour, this all boils down to ideological constructs that blame the victims of structural conditions that block their opportunities, and justify gross social inequalities.

“This victim-blaming approach meshed neatly with the prevailing economic conservatism of the last two decades. Welfare recipients were pushed out into the low-wage jobs, supposedly, in part to boost their self-esteem; laid-off and soon-to-be laid-off workers were subjected to motivational speakers and exercises. But the economic meltdown should have undone, once and for all, the idea of poverty as a personal shortcoming or dysfunctional state of mind. The lines at unemployment offices and churches offering free food include strivers as well as slackers, habitual optimists as well as the chronically depressed. When and if the economy recovers we can never allow ourselves to forget how widespread our vulnerability is, how easy it is to spiral down towards destitution.” (206)

That’s nice but Ehrenreich forgets one thing- and that is the one GLARING omission of her book – Americans elected for President the ultimate motivation speaker, positive thinkers and religious charismatic. Not a system-changer, as we clearly know now (even though the signs were there before the election). The Hope-and-change theme made a lot of people feel good about themselves, about their ability to happily vote for a black man (“we nominated the black guy” exclaimed Chris Bowers after the Democratic nomination).

A lot of people patted themselves on the back for the positive feeling of being so enlightened and of participating in a collective experiment in positive thinking in action, without affecting the system one damn bit. Obama sold himself as a brand, very successfully. A lot of people embraced Obama, proudly proclaiming they contributed to changing the world (not the universe, mind you but close enough). And one can find in his speeches all the themes of positive thinking that Ehrenreich describes in her book. And yet, somehow, she missed that part.

Social Stratification – Class, Race and Gender

Via Susie,

Ten Dollars an Hour from Ben Guest on Vimeo.

This is a great video to use if you teach introduction to sociology. The class, racial and gender dynamics are unmistakable (“she’s eager to please!”… well duh, if you make attitude a condition to continued employment, yes, the lowest paid employees are the ones who have to do most of the emotional work).