“What’s My Driver’s Name?”

The title for this post is one of the most hilarious things stated by Jackie Siegel in The Queen of Versailles, the documentary that reveals the oh-so-very privileged life and somewhat downfall of time-share tycoon David Siegel and his family. The first part of the documentary reveals their immense wealth in all its conspicuous consumption and opulence, including the massive building project  based on the Versailles castle which was supposed to become the largest, most expensive single-family home in the US, with something like 30 bathrooms so no one has to stand in line.

In that first part, there is everything barf-bag-worthy: the arrogance of power (David Siegel claims to have gotten George W. Bush single-handedly elected through illegal means, but he won’t tell which ones); the large brood spread over three wives including seven from the last one (each treated by their father as future employees rather than children, and as cute things to be dumped on nannies at the first sign of inconvenience by their mother… so no expectation of college apparently); the nannies and maids from the Philippines; the multiple dogs pooping all over and other exotic pets that the kids abandon to die cuz feeding them is, like, boring; and the piles and piles of stuff. The art accumulation, the couple and family portraits, though, are awful.

But, of course, Siegel owes his success all to himself.

But then, this all turned out to be a house of cards as Siegel’s empire relied on cheap money and the multiple mortgages packaged and sold into derivatives. So, when !@#$ hit the fan in 2008, they got hit pretty badly as well. The second part of the film shows the consequences of their downfall, such as taking the kids out of private school and putting them in *gasp* public school! This also involves having to fly commercial once the private jet and yacht have been auctioned off, or for Jackie to find herself learning at the Hertz counter that her rental has no driver. There is also the massive layoffs and David Siegel’s increasing moodiness and his taking his financial frustration out on his family. This downfall is perfectly symbolized by the decaying, incomplete, Versailles that ends up pushed on the market.

I expected these people were going to make me want to throw up but I ended up being surprised by how relatively grounded and down-to-earth Jackie turned out to be as her husband cranks up the complaining about the banks that won’t lend him cheap money anymore, and the lenders clamoring at his door for all the reimbursements on all the mortgages his company has taken out to finance the acquisition of all these resorts out of which he sell timeshares.

But one should not be fooled into thinking that there is a radical loss of privileges here. The Siegels certainly have lost a lot but they can still afford an opulent lifestyle, the nannies, the massive home. What they lost is the ability to have a lot of stuff done by other people, like party managers or having fewer maids and nannies, and no more private jet. This is still luxury by any definition.

It is also refreshing to hear Siegel acknowledging that his own addiction to easy money as allowed by the financial system combined to create the crisis and that he is not blameless in this. But unlike a lot of people, he still gets to raise a few millions here and there and he still has his business, even if it has to be shrunk to size. Mostly, he is pissed off at the crumbling of his pedestal, and probably the loss of power going with it.

If you teach sociology, this is a good and nuanced depiction of the extent of privilege and how it cushions failure while less privileged people get to enjoy the whole free fall. The film is rich in details so that one can probably spend quite a bit of time dissecting all the different cultural and social aspects of privilege beyond the massive amounts of money, especially how it makes one clueless at life.

Revisiting The Cultural Omnivores

Back in January, I reviewed Philippe Couleangeon’s book on the metamorphoses of distinction, a book in which he examines the changes in the concept of cultural capital and distinction in the context of mass education and multiculturalism. In the review, I noted,

“Regarding this configuration of the meaning of cultural legitimacy, Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphore of the omnivore, as opposed to the parochial working classes, univores. Therefore, cultural stratification would now look like an inverted pyramid where the upper classes are characterized by the diversity of their cultural repertoires and the lower classes by their limited ones. The definition of the cultural omnivore covers both quantity and quality (greater practice across a more varied repertoire that includes both high and mass cultural products, with a global / cosmopolitan outlook). Here again, of course, one should note that such eclecticism is facilitated by economic resources.

However, this does not mean that there is absolutely no exclusionary element to this eclecticism. Certain popular genres are still excluded (such as hip hop or heavy metal) from this more diversified repertoire that is defined more by its aversion to certain products and practices, than by its inclusion. Therefore, another distinction in cultural capital is between the active aversion of upper classes for certain practices and products as opposed to the passive ignorance of popular classes of the more traditional high culture. The lines of exclusion may have shifted but they are still present.

Coulangeon also associates this cultural eclecticism of the dominant classes to contemporary management practices, based on human capital and diversity, and in which some sort of multicultural communicative capital may be useful. But it is also connected to globalization as the cultural (and economic and political and social) elites have become more globalized (the transnational capitalist class, in all its components). Therefore, the possession of such multicultural capital is clear class marker as it reflects exposure to, and possession of, the cultural resources of globalization. This is where the profits of distinction now are located, and no longer in the classical humanities. And the acquisition of such multicultural capital is built through world travel, exchange and therefore a symbolic and material domination of space, beyond the “old” forms of distinction and cultural capital, more marked by a domination of time.

So, where does this leave us? It is rather clear that we should no bury the cultural dimension of class too quickly. This symbolic dominance attached to cultural capital is alive and well, but in reconfigured dimensions that take into account greater access to higher education, globalization, a decline in the traditional prestige of education as social institution, and the rise of new forms of cultural legitimacy, no less symbolically violent than their predecessors.”

Today, in a New York Times column, Shamus Khan produces a similar argument regarding elitism:

“Omnivorousness is part of a much broader trend in the behavior of our elite, one that embraces diversity. Barriers that were once a mainstay of elite cultural and educational institutions have been demolished. Gone are the quotas that kept Jews out of elite high schools and colleges; inclusion is now the norm. Diverse and populist programming is a mainstay of every museum. Elites seem more likely to confront snobbish exclusion than they are to embrace it.”

Khan notes the new character of this development in the context of rising cosmopolitan individualism and self-cultivation (the self as individual project, a theme upon which I have touched many times). In the process, the class-based nature of cultural is nicely made to disappear:

“Whereas the old elites used their culture to make explicit the differences between themselves and the rest, if you were to talk to members of the elite today, many would tell you that their culture is simply an expression of their open-minded, creative, ready-to-pounce-on-any-opportunity ethic. Others would object to the idea that they were part of an elite in the first place.”

And Khan makes a point similar to Couleangeon’s mixed with some culture of poverty-as-justification:

“Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like, the omnivore likes what he likes because it is an expression of a distinct self. Perhaps liking a range of things explains why elites are elite, and not the other way around.

By contrast, those who have exclusive tastes today — middle-class and poorer Americans — are subject to disdain. If the world is open and you don’t take advantage of it, then you’re simply limited and closed-minded. Perhaps it’s these attributes that explain your incapacity to succeed.

And so if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation. Their rhetoric emphasizes such individualism and the talents required to “make it.” Yet there is something pernicious about this self-presentation. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience. Talents are costly to develop, and we refuse to socialize these costs. To be an outstanding student requires not just smarts and dedication but a well-supported school, a safe, comfortable home and leisure time to cultivate the self. These are not widely available. When some students struggle, they can later tell the story of their triumph over adversity, often without mentioning the helping hand of a tutor. Other students simply fail without such expensive aids.”

And cultural openness becomes another tool for symbolic violence and a justification for social inequalities as reflection personal defects rather than products of class dynamics that are hidden and the Khan neatly highlights:

“Look at who makes up the most “talented” members of society: the children of the already advantaged. Today America has less intergenerational economic mobility than almost any country in the industrialized world; one of the best predictors of being a member of the elite today is whether your parents were in the elite. The elite story about the triumph of the omnivorous individual with diverse talents is a myth. In suggesting that it is their work and not their wealth, that it is their talents and not their lineage, elites effectively blame inequality on those whom our democratic promise has failed.

Elites today must recognize that they are very much like the Gilded Age elites of old. Paradoxically the very openness and capaciousness that they so warmly embrace — their omnivorousness — helps define them as culturally different from the rest. And they deploy that cultural difference to suggest that the inequality and immobility in our society is deserved rather than inherited. But if they can recognize the class basis of their success, then perhaps they will also recognize their class responsibility. They owe a debt to others for their fortunes, and seeing this may also help elites realize that the poor are ruled by a similar dynamic: their present position is most often bound to a history not of their own choosing or responsibility.”

Welcome to the world of the cosmopolitan ethics and the spirit of 21st century capitalism.

Read the whole column, it’s great.

Protecting Social Privilege = Not Wanting to Share Toys

By now, you have all probably been exposed to the Hunger Games racist fiasco (neatly collected and curated here). The story goes something like this: once upon a time, a lot of young people (mostly white) read a trilogy and much enjoyed it. Unsurprisingly, the books were put into film production. When the initial casting was disclosed… Horror and Abomination… some parts had been given to *gasp* BLACK actors. One was obvious (Rue was described as dark-skinned in the book) but the main other (Cinna, not really described in the book) was shocking.

After all, no racial description means white, by default, right? Especially since Cinna is a good guy. Read the Tumblr entries and note how that is the issue. In our cultural and symbolic universe, white = goodness, purity, innocence, and black = darkness and other ominous qualities. By the time the first movie was released, the white young people were appalled that someone had taken their book and changed that one, all of a sudden, central characteristic… without asking them.

This goes back to a point I have made several times: the cultural schemes that guide and shape our experience and perception of others, cultural products and experiences are discreetly racist. The non-white casting just acted as a trigger for the racist background knowledge (in Alfred Schutz’s sense) and pushed that aspect to the forefront.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

And speaking of that, yesterday, came the earth-shattering news that Instagram had released an app for Android. Oh dear. The cool kids who have been using it through their Apple products were not pleased and they all unleashed their distress on Twitter:

See also here.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

Here is the lesson: when a group enjoys a certain privilege, whether in terms of race, economic or social status, part of the privilege is having, or having access to, something that others don’t have. In typical in-group logic, the “something” in question becomes “ours”, part of who we are, of what we experience and enjoy together, and this enjoyment is based on exclusion. The exclusion makes “us” feel special and deserving (even though the “something” is unearned).

Once a system opens up and the dreaded “others” (racial minorities, lower classes or *egad* Android users – who can also be totally snotty, I should add) have access to “our” special “something”. It feels like “we” are being dispossessed of what is rightfully “ours” even though “we” are the deserving ones and “they” are not. This reaction towards Instagram for Androids is very reminiscent of the resentment towards affirmative action: the resentment is based on the – thoroughly false – idea that whites got in college through exclusively their own merits while blacks had to be pushed there by the government. More than that, for every black making it to college, it is automatically assumed that a more qualified white got excluded.

Now, apps are not educational public policy but the logic of privilege still applies as well as that of ingroup v. out-group dynamics.

That being said, this made me laugh out loud (or LOL as the cool kids say):

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go download Instagram for Android, just because I know it will piss “them” off.

Book Review – Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction

Philippe Coulangeon‘s Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction: Inégalités Culturelles dans la France D’Aujourd’hui provides an overview of the state of cultural capital and profits of distinction 30 years or so after, well, The Distinction, in the context of massification of higher education and public policies of cultural democratization and democratization of culture (and no, that’s not the same).

This is an interesting book but not an easy read. The writing is quite convoluted with a lot of intricate sentences containing qualifiers and modifiers and sub-propositions. If you are not familiar with French, you are going to need to do a lot of sentence mapping to figure it out. It is a shame because the book has a lot of good points and anyone interested in issues pertaining to cultural capital should read it.

The book explores four main questions:

1. What is today the role of culture is the structuring of class relations?

2. What are the consequences of the mass higher education starting in the 1960s and with even more intensity throughout the 1980s and 90s? Has this massification reduced the cultural dimension of class structuring?

3. What has been the impact of public policy regarding cultural democratization?

4. And finally, have all these developments transformed the norms of cultural legitimacy and the symbolic dimension of social domination?

1. So, is culture still a “classing” factor, or a class marker? Does The Distinction still hold? In the study, Bourdieu and his co-author extends the idea of cultural legitimacy and dominance to a whole range of cultural practices and lifestyles and show that the social stratification of taste, style and modes of consumption is as important that consumed goods and products. In Bourdieu’s terms, there is a structural homology between the space of social positions and the space of lifestyles.

This forms of stratification of taste and lifestyle, combined with reproduction of inequalities in education, contributed to highlight the symbolic dimension of social class relations. And in both contexts, the establishment of norms of “good taste” and proper school dispositions contributes imposing forms of symbolic violence against the subordinate classes. Ways of eating, dressing, talking, etc. mark people along class lines. The imposition of such norms, legitimated as non-class based, serve as mechanisms of closure and exclusion.

Another aspect of symbolic violence is to disguise the arbitrariness of dominant norms of taste as individualized (therefore, a lack of taste is an individual shortcoming) rather than class-based exclusion. The same goes for academic success where class-based legitimate curriculum favors the children of the dominant classes, but success and failure is promoted as a matter of  “ability” (an individual trait) or other individual characteristics. These forms of class-based institutional discrimination are still quite prevalent in a lot of social settings (such as job interviews, entrance exams and social networks).

But is it the case that class is now less important, as a social marker, than gender or race / ethnicity, for instance? Coulangeon argues that that is not the case. the data on French cultural practices still show significant social distinctions. It should not be forgotten that the consumption of cultural goods takes money. And in the context of increasing inequalities and economic crisis, the upper classes are still the ones with money to spend, as a larger part of their income, in that department. As such, access to the most legitimate cultural practices is still largely marked by strong inequalities whether these practices are public (such as museum visits, attendance at classical music concerts, etc.) or domestic (reading).

At the same time, this inertia of cultural habits has also been accompanied by a relative decline of the most legitimate practices even in the dominant classes without a corresponding democratization (the upper classes may read less but it does not mean that the lower classes read more).

And third evolution: there seems, according to Coulangeon, to have been a lowering of the profits of distinction to be gained from legitimate cultural practices, especially the domestic ones, so that upper classes are then more likely to engage in public practices.

2. What of all this in the context of the massification of higher education. Wouldn’t one expect a greater access to higher education to expand the consumption of dominant cultural practices? Coulangeon makes mince meat of two common criticism of greater access to higher education: (1) a decline in the social value of college degrees as they become more widespread, and (2) a decline in academic ability alongside grade inflation. On the first one, he argues that the fact that young people with college degrees having a hard time finding jobs may have more to do with the labor market and greater precarization than the value of degrees per se. If anything, it is more costly to NOT have a college degree today than ever before. As to the second one, the decline arguments are usually based on data that compare generations that are hardly comparable. Rather compare college students of today with college students of yore, it would be more significant to compare individuals with comparable background, and see the differences between those who received college degrees and those who did not.

Traditionally, there has been a strong correlation between level of education and cultural attitudes and practices. So, logically, the expansion of higher education should have led to a corresponding expansion of the demand for legitimate cultural goods. According to Coulangeon, that has not been the case. Part of this has also to do with the greater porosity between the educational institution and mass media culture. This means that the current generation of college students has high levels of consumption of such mass media and entertainment products, and less of legitimate, scholarly-approved cultural goods. Socially, there has also been a decrease in the  cultural authority of education as a social institution, and its ability to legitimate cultural goods and practices.

What has happened then, according to Coulangeon, is an inverted mimetism: rather than college students from the lower classes adopting the cultural habits – albeit imperfectly – of the upper class, it is students of the upper classes that have absorbed cultural tastes and practices of mass, popular culture. This does not mean that class differences have completely disappeared. Family background, in terms of cultural capital, still matters. But a main effect of the expansion of higher education is that working-class families now realistically consider college as part of the educational aspirations for their children.

However, Coulangeon notes two additional effects of the expansion of higher education: (1) a loosening of class solidarity replaced by a greater individualistic outlook on social mobility, based on equal opportunity, and (2) beyond a relative uniformization (through the irruption of popular culture into academic culture as the numbers of working-class students increased), there is a stark contrast in terms of living conditions: as upper class students see their time as students as a time of innovation and experimentation, working-class students live it as exposure to precarization (rather than the social and financial autonomy an earlier entry into the labor market gave them in previous generations). Class still matters.

Finally, the decline in cultural authority of the institution of higher education is also a product of its expansion. As more working class students gained access to college, the aura of prestige enjoyed by the institutions declined. The greater the social distance between the working class and the institution, the greater the prestige. And vice versa. Social proximity led to reduced prestige.

3. Public policy in the cultural domain has been based on two different conceptions: (1) cultural democratization, that is, increasing access to “high” culture for the masses, such greater access being defined as a universal social good; and (2) greater democratic culture, that is, legitimizing of erstwhile marginalized cultural forms (originating from specific ethnic minorities, for instance, or lower-class forms). How has this worked?

Coulangeon argues that, when it comes to cultural practices, social origins (generating dispositions) may still exert a heavy weight compared to social position (hence, greater weight to cultural habits inherited during family socialization than through education). But this needs to be qualified somewhat in the context of plural socialization that creates a volatility of cultural tastes. At the same time, with a lessening of the level of prestige and legitimacy enjoyed by the educational institution, there has a been a corresponding decline of the profits of distinction connected to the possession of high cultural capital alongside the emergence of new culturally-valued goods and practices (such as a cosmopolitan outlook and soft skills).

There is therefore a redefinition of what cultural legitimacy means.

4. Regarding this configuration of the meaning of cultural legitimacy, Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphore of the omnivore, as opposed to the parochial working classes, univores. Therefore, cultural stratification would now look like an inverted pyramid where the upper classes are characterized by the diversity of their cultural repertoires and the lower classes by their limited ones. The definition of the cultural omnivore covers both quantity and quality (greater practice across a more varied repertoire that includes both high and mass cultural products, with a global / cosmopolitan outlook). Here again, of course, one should note that such eclecticism is facilitated by economic resources.

However, this does not mean that there is absolutely no exclusionary element to this eclecticism. Certain popular genres are still excluded (such as hip hop or heavy metal) from this more diversified repertoire that is defined more by its aversion to certain products and practices, than by its inclusion. Therefore, another distinction in cultural capital is between the active aversion of upper classes for certain practices and products as opposed to the passive ignorance of popular classes of the more traditional high culture. The lines of exclusion may have shifted but they are still present.

Coulangeon also associates this cultural eclecticism of the dominant classes to contemporary management practices, based on human capital and diversity, and in which some sort of multicultural communicative capital may be useful. But it is also connected to globalization as the cultural (and economic and political and social) elites have become more globalized (the transnational capitalist class, in all its components). Therefore, the possession of such multicultural capital is clear class marker as it reflects exposure to, and possession of, the cultural resources of globalization. This is where the profits of distinction now are located, and no longer in the classical humanities. And the acquisition of such multicultural capital is built through world travel, exchange and therefore a symbolic and material domination of space, beyond the “old” forms of distinction and cultural capital, more marked by a domination of time.

So, where does this leave us? It is rather clear that we should no bury the cultural dimension of class too quickly. This symbolic dominance attached to cultural capital is alive and well, but in reconfigured dimensions that take into account greater access to higher education, globalization, a decline in the traditional prestige of education as social institution, and the rise of new forms of cultural legitimacy, no less symbolically violent than their predecessors.

Protecting Privileged People’s Sensitivity

Which is why, as demonstrated by this Cracked article (Cracked tend to be a mixed bag but this one hits the nail on the head) regarding five persistent prejudice in movies that contribute to, you guessed it, the reproduction of racism and patriarchy:

5. They Still Can’t Show a Black Man Dating a White Woman (Unless That’s What the Whole Movie Is About):

“It’s not just our imagination. The “Audiences Don’t Want to See Black Men Taking Our White Women” thing is so ingrained that Will Smith claims that Cameron Diaz lost the lead role opposite him in the movie Hitch because producers were worried about “the nation’s problem of seeing a black man and a white woman getting intimate.” So, Cuban-American Eva Mendes was cast instead. Hollywood has apparently decided that Mendes is a nice compromise to the black man/white woman problem — she gets those roles again and again and again.”

4. Only the Pretty Girls Are Allowed to Live AKA, the Vasquez always dies meme.

“We’ve convinced ourselves that there’s such thing as “ass-kicking supermodels” for the same reason female slasher movie survivors tend to spend the last hour of every film running and screaming at the top of their lungs. There is so much psychology behind that concept of the lone female slasher movie survivor that there is an entire book about the phenomenon and what it means (Men, Women and Chain Saws). The author points out that when the last person standing in a horror movie is a man, you never see him screaming or crying with fear (imagine Arnold’s character in Predator doing that), but with women, it’s required. For the most part, we won’t sympathize with her unless she spends a certain amount of time helpless and terrified.”

3. Movies Are Still Weirdly Prudish About Some Subjects, mostly, women having fun with their sexuality and enjoying it. And abortion too. You can make as many rape jokes as you want, but abortion is a big no-no.

2. If It’s a Blockbuster, the Star Better Be White (or Will Smith). Well, that one is pretty much self-explanatory. And even when it’s Will Smith (or Denzel Washington, but he’s getting older), the black stars tend to be of lighter-skinned with fine features.

1. We Still Don’t Care About History That Doesn’t Involve White People, which is something I have discussed under the “white savior” heading. Only white people can liberate oppressed minorities or indigenous peoples (see the Guarani in The Mission or the Naavi in Avatar), only white people clear agency and the guts to make the tough moral decisions that need to be made based on the lessons taught by minority characters (with limited agency and dysfunctional cultures).

If you put this all together, you can clearly see that all of these memes protect privileged people’s sensitivities and reproduce their privileged position, whether it is class, gender, race and heteronormativity. They assign agency, capacity for action and leadership to already privileged category and erase challenges to privilege. And in all of them, the only moral viewpoint that matters is that of the privileged category. Which is why these memes persist: because they allow the main audience’s viewpoint to prevail, and therefore, makes privileged audiences more comfortable and allows greater potential for identification with main characters.

A good example of what happens when that is not the case is the mini-controversy that has erupted over the casting of the upcoming Hunger Games movie:

And especially these two posters:

See this post for the full controversy which boils down to: how dare they make these characters I like BLACK!! And read the rationalization for the outrage: the (mostly white) readers had imagined these characters as good, gentle and ultimately victims of the Capitol’s oppressive system, as, of course, white (like them). The book is rather clear in its description of Rue that she is black. For Cinna (the character played by Lenny Kravitz), there is no particular description, so, it was open. It is especially revealing that some commenters assumed that Cinna was white because the book depicts him as sweet and lovable (and therefore, not possibly black). you can go read the whole sorry thread at the link.

All these commenters lamenting that Cinna is, OMG, black which does not fit with a nice, gentle, sweet, and good character are tapping into a whole trough of media representations of black as the opposite of all these things, without a shred of awareness. And I am sure they would all deny any racism on their part. It is just not the way they imagined the character. And being white, they must be right. And now they are stuck with an impossibility to identify.

How dare the movie producers do that to them?

Monique Pinçon-Charlot On Social Hypocrisy and Self-Preservation

Of course, everyone and their brother has been talking about Warren Buffett’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he breaks rank with his social class to claim too low a level of taxation on the wealthy like him and to advocate for higher taxation. Of course, this has won him a lot of applause from the liberal / progressive side and, at least, relative silence on the right instead of the usual reactions ranging mockery to cries of socialism and class warfare. And yet, Buffett has not said anything that has not been said for years now. Well, that is what social privilege based on prestige is (in the Weberian sense), you get listened to and not summarily ignored or insulted. And from the left, you get plaudits for looking like you’re playing against your own privileged team and demanding greater justice and equality in the name of some degree of social solidarity.

Well, hogwash, says sociologist of the Rich, Monique Pinçon-Charlot. This social hypocrisy and self-preservation. For her (and considering her body of work, she definitely knows what she is talking about), the wealthy can see the rising amount of destabilization around the world and they can read the writing on the wall and they have a good sense of the amount of resentment directed at them. They are getting scared. So, they publicly make statements seemingly offering a few sacrifices to appease the masses. There is no significant solidarity movement involved.

After all, everyone can see that significant fiscal and economic measures have been targeted at the financial sector and the wealthiest classes, both recovered rather quickly while the middle and lower classes continue to sink. Even the Greek bailouts were massive gifts to the wealthy Greeks. So, whatever sacrifices are offered by wealthy people like Buffett will be largely symbolic because extreme wealth is not just monetary. As Pinçon-Charlot puts it, wealth is an iceberg, the vast sums of money that we see are only the tip. Wealth is also cultural, symbolic and social and these are forms of capital that are as valuable as economic capital which they sustain and reinforce.

So, according to her, expect more such calls for solidarity and monetary offerings from the top of the social ladder, and do not believe a word of it. It is a self-preserving strategy for fear of the barbarians at the gates.

Book Review – Les Places et Les Chances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, Really, Moral Entrepreneurs Should STFU (Part II)

Via my comrade-in-arms, Karl Thompson, this open letter to David Cameron’s parents beautifully makes a great point about the similarities in values between looters and, well, upper-class looters (except, those don’t get stigmatized and subject to repressive public policy):

“Dear Mr & Mrs Cameron,

Why did you never take the time to teach your child basic morality?

As a young man, he was in a gang that regularly smashed up private property. We know that you were absent parents who left your child to be brought up by a school rather than taking responsibility for his behaviour yourselves. The fact that he became a delinquent with no sense of respect for the property of others can only reflect that fact that you are terrible, lazy human beings who failed even in teaching your children the difference between right and wrong. I can only assume that his contempt for the small business owners of Oxford is indicative of his wider values.

Even worse, your neglect led him to fall in with a bad crowd.

There’s Michael Gove, whose wet-lipped rage was palpable on Newsnight last night. This is the Michael Gove who confused one of his houses with another of his houses in order to avail himself of £7,000 of the taxpayers’ money to which he was not entitled (or £13,000, depending on which house you think was which).

Or Hazel Blears, who was interviewed in full bristling peahen mode for almost all of last night. She once forgot which house she lived in, and benefited to the tune of £18,000. At the time she said it would take her reputation years to recover. Unfortunately not.

But, of course, this is different. This is just understandable confusion over the rules of how many houses you are meant to have as an MP. This doesn’t show the naked greed of people stealing plasma tellies.

Unless you’re Gerald Kaufman, who broke parliamentary rules to get £8,000 worth of 40-inch, flat screen, Bang and Olufsen TV out of the taxpayer.

Or Ed Vaizey, who got £2,000 in antique furniture ‘delivered to the wrong address’. Which is fortunate, because had that been the address they were intended for, that would have been fraud.

Or Jeremy Hunt, who broke the rules to the tune of almost £20,000 on one property and £2,000 on another. But it’s all right, because he agreed to pay half of the money back. Not the full amount, it would be absurd to expect him to pay back the entire sum that he took and to which he was not entitled. No, we’ll settle for half. And, as in any other field, what might have been considered embezzlement of £22,000 is overlooked. We know, after all, that David Cameron likes to give people second chances.

Fortunately, we have the Met Police to look after us. We’ll ignore the fact that two of its senior officers have had to resign in the last six weeks amid suspicions of widespread corruption within the force.

We’ll ignore Andy Hayman, who went for champagne dinners with those he was meant to be investigating, and then joined the company on leaving the Met.

Of course, Mr and Mrs Cameron, your son is right. There are parts of society that are not just broken, they are sick. Riddled with disease from top to bottom.

Just let me be clear about this (It’s a good phrase, Mr and Mrs Cameron, and one I looted from every sentence your son utters, just as he looted it from Tony Blair), I am not justifying or minimising in any way what has been done by the looters over the last few nights. What I am doing, however, is expressing shock and dismay that your son and his friends feel themselves in any way to be guardians of morality in this country.

Can they really, as 650 people who have shown themselves to be venal pygmies, moral dwarves at every opportunity over the last 20 years, bleat at others about ‘criminality’. Those who decided that when they broke the rules (the rules they themselves set) they, on the whole wouldn’t face the consequences of their actions?

Are they really surprised that this country’s culture is swamped in greed, in the acquisition of material things, in a lust for consumer goods of the most base kind? Really?

Let’s have a think back: cash-for-questionsBernie Ecclestonecash-for-accessMandelson’s mortgagethe Hinduja passportsBlunkett’s alleged insider trading (and, by the way, when someone has had to resign in disgracetwice can we stop having them on television as a commentator, please?); the meetings on the yachts of oligarchsthe drafting of the Digital Economy Act with Lucian Grange; Byers’, Hewitt’s & Hoon’s desperation to prostitute themselves and their positions; the fact that Andrew Lansley (in charge of NHS reforms) has a wife who gives lobbying advice to the very companies hoping to benefit from the NHS reforms. And that list didn’t even take me very long to think of.”

But it is truly a form of social privilege to lord it over and turns what is truly unearned privilege into a sign of higher morality. In any event, this makes the point, often repeated but never really listened to, that criminality and deviance are not traits of the lower classes. They are just the only ones made to pay for their actions. Up the social ladder though, one is quite safe. Every once in a while, the most outrageous cases will be made examples of  just to show the rest of us that privilege is no protection (see: Bernie Madoff) and that the system is fair. But most often, high-class criminality (or simple malfeasance) is free (see: 2008 recession).

Book Review – Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist

Well, it is not often that I dislike a book as much as I did Peter Berger‘s Adventures of An Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore.

Before I even get into the book per se, I should mention I didn’t know much about Peter Berger himself beyond reading the modern classic The Social Construction of Reality, with Thomas Luckmann when I was in college (it was mandatory reading, quite good too). But beyond that, I never read anything else, mostly because of his focus on religion (a topic which by and large bores the stuffing out of me). I tried reading his Invitation to Sociology (because I had read the bit on debunking) but got bored quickly.

This means that I was not prepared for what turned out to be the intellectual autobiography of a right-wing privileged old white man (a characterization he would probably deny since he thinks the whole class / race / gender thing is a really bad thing in sociology) who has been so, so oppressed by these awful lefties and feminists. Hanging out at the Texas ranch of the main organizers of Iran-Contra though, that didn’t bother him too much.

It is quite amazing to read someone who seemed to have had an easy academic career (at least, from what he tells, but things were certainly more relaxed when he started) engage in some non-stop whining about how the lefties are ruining sociology, hanging out with some hard-core right-wingers, and then, adopt a holier-than-thou “reasonable centrist” attitude all the while dismissing anyone outside of his circle of privileged colleagues with concerns about the less privileged. No one seems less aware of privilege, power and conflict than he is.

Let me walk you through some morceaux choisis. At first, the book was quite interesting, going over the early formation of a sociologist through French literature and Weber. And a little detour through debunking:

“Sociology is akin to comedy because it debunks the social fictions. By the same token, it is potentially liberating. It shows up the ‘bad faith’ by which individuals hide behind their roles and forces them to confront the reality of their own freedom. In the same process sociology must debunk the religious legitimations of the social fictions.


Sociology derives its moral justification of its debunking of the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression and cruelty. (…) Sociology liberates by facilitating a standing outside one’s social roles (literally, an “ecstasy” – ekstasis) and thereby a realization of one’s freedom. (…) Sociology suggests that we are puppets of society, but unlike puppets we can look up and discover the strings to which we are attached, and this discovery is a first step toward freedom.” (74-6)

So far so good. I started taking issue with Berger in his assessment of modernity. He still considers that we are living in modern times. Apparently the whole post-modern theoretical developments passed him by. His big idea is that modernity did not lead to secularization but to pluralism (multiplicity of religions and spiritual approaches). Pluralism undermines established religion but offers individuals multiple choices as to how spiritual they wish to be and in what kind of religious organizations. Basically, what he described is Lyotard’s death of the grand narratives and Bauman / Beck’s individualization thesis which mark the end of modernity and the advent of post-modernity or any other such formulation, such as liquid society. To hold on to the modernity frame leads to a lot of category mistakes (including the one regarding, for Berger and his wife – who obviously has never read Stephanie Coontz – that the bourgeois nuclear family is the most functional, something blatantly untrue in the individualized and increasingly mobile society).

The second main issue I had was Berger’s declaration that capitalism is great and good and works everywhere while socialism is an utter failure. While Berger likes to position himself as the reasonable centrist in a world of ideological extremes (although right-wing ideologies don’t much him anywhere near as much as left-wing ideologies, apparently), he does see the world in black and white. For instance, in his ringing endorsement of capitalism over socialism, there is no considerations of the successful social democracies of Scandinavia nor is there any examination of capitalism in totalitarian states (for instance, the Latin and South American dictatorships of the 70s and 80s, fully supported by the US).

Focused as he is on culture (at the expenses of stratification of any kind), his examination of the development model of the Asian tigers revolves around the mushy neo-confucianism without a shred of examination of the role of the developmental state that Manuel Castells has so thoroughly examined. Nor does he take into account the impact of structural adjustment programs imposed on countries of the Global South (an expression he finds confusing) and that led to the debt crisis and the lost decade of the 80s. For someone who claimed to be concerned with the “calculus of pain” (how much pain should people endure in the name of development, and that pain is taken to be only economic, never political, so, capitalism in totalitarian environments is ok), that’s a pretty big shortcoming.

The point at which Berger leaves sociological territory, in the book, to get into the purely political is when he recounts the 60s. As he states, he was in favor of the Civil Rights, was repelled by racism but, basically, the DFHs ruined the whole thing with their radicalism. As a result, he became conservative, started hanging out with such non-ideological people as Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter and writing for Commentary. Berger really has it in for the feminists, depicted as oppressive and doctrinaire and impervious to reason.

A great deal of his discontent with feminists and other non-right-wing people is depicted in a chapter titled “Politically Incorrect Excursions”. In my book, everyone who invokes “political correctness” loses all credibility. Those are usually privileged individuals who disliked having their privileges questioned and that is exactly the case here. And, he pulls one nice little Dawkins as well against feminists, at the same time showing his privilege and his ignorance of feminism:

“Another matter, though, is the continuing definition of women as victims – and that in the Western societies which have accorded to women a degree of privilege unequalled in human history and indeed unequalled in any other contemporary society.” (158)

Well, women were not “accorded” certain rights. They fought for them, won some battles and lost others. And we still live in a patriarchal system. But the whole idea of a privileged white man telling women to STFU because they have it so good in Western societies kinda proves the point of why we need feminism. This sense of privilege (which is never examines and never questioned) is especially displayed in Berger preferred methods: coffee house sociology (hanging out with like-minded academics and coming up with ideas within that small limited circles – Berger keeps mentioning the same people over and over again) and sociological tourism (go hang out with other privileged people in other societies, then, write a book).

Among other politically incorrect excursions? The aforementioned retreat at the Texas ranch of Iran-Contra perpetrators while they were hashing out the whole murderous enterprise (but he didn’t take part because he was more focused on Jamaica. Still, the very fact that he was invited for the occasion is revealing), helping the tobacco industry in fighting back against regulations. And advocating an incremental approach to the dismantlement of apartheid. In all of these cases. Berger relishes in his over version of “if I’m pissing off both sides, then, I’m doing the right thing”:

“A morally sensitive social scientist will, I think, instinctively move toward middle positions (middle between radical change and stubborn preservation) on most issues.” (177)

No, a morally sensitive sociologist would move toward the position of greater social justice. I wonder what Berger would have made of the younger Nelson Mandela and the ANC of the 1960s.

as the book goes on, it feels like Berger is lowering his guard and getting more and more ideological himself. Take his description of BU President John Silber:

“Some on the faculty perceived him as a right-winger, which was certainly a misperception. He was a lifelong Democrat, very much in the pre-1960s tradition of Democratic Party liberalism. But he was also an American patriot, staunchly anti-communist, opposed to abortion on philosophical grounds, and contemptuous of fashionable political correctness.” (183)

Emphasis mine. So, (1) to be a Democrat is to not be a patriot, (2) let me remind everybody that pre-1960s Democrats tended to be pro-segregation, and (3) for Berger, something based on “philosophical grounds” (which is what reasonable men do) is much better than on ideological grounds (which is what evil lefties do).

And, when dealing with conflict, Berger certainly falls into the category of “both sides are doing it”, completely ignoring the power imbalances that may be involved. For instance, regarding his involvement in South Africa, he describes the late apartheid period as a “time of intense political conflict” as if the parties were equal and equivalent. It was not a time of intense political conflict, but a time of intense political repression marked by systematic torture from a white supremacist regimes.

More than that, he later described Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique as a”feminist assault on the conventional family” (discussing his wife’s book on family). He also wrongfully blames Roe v. Wade for the emergence of the religious right (something many times debunked) as well as Jimmy Carter for organizing a conference on families rather than family. And here is how he describes that conflict:

“On one side the pro-family and anti-abortion (“pro-life”) movements merged, while on the other side the pro-abortion (“pro-choice”) movement allied itself with other socially progressive causes. Probably more by accident than by deliberate decisions, the social conservatives became an important constituency of the Republican Party, while the social progressives assumed a dominant role in the Democratic Party. Abortion became a doctrinaire litmus test on both sides.” (200)

How clueless can one be. Seriously, “pro-family” versus “pro-abortion”. And let us not mention the Southern strategy. Oh, and he and his wife are against gay marriage because it would undermine the “bourgeois family” (his phrase, not mine) and because children are, in their view because studies show otherwise, better off raised by their biological parents. I’m guessing he’s against adoption then.

And for my fellow sociologists, enjoy this little bit:

“In sociology the mantra of  ‘class, race, gender’ had come to dominate work in most areas of the discipline; a diffuse left-liberalism had in many placed hardened into a repressive orthodoxy.” (203)

So says the man who has had a very privileged academic career. And not a shred of evidence as to why such a view is wrong. It just does not fit with his privileged-functional, cultural-essentialist perspective, so, it’s ideological and repressive.

And to get a sense of his cluelessness, get this,

“I remember a conversation with some black people in South Africa [he usually mentions names everywhere, but not here apparently]. They expressed strong resentment about the continuing privilege of the white minority despite the demise of the apartheid regime. I said that I could understanding their feelings [how nice of him], but [you knew there was a “but” coming and that there is some white-splaining coming] I suggested a mental experiment: Forget the race of these people for a moment [because, you know, in South Africa, race is not really relevant]. Just look at their economic functions, which the country needs and which blacks especially need. Then look at them as an economic asset to be exploited, not for their sake but for yours. My argument failed to convince [no !@#$].” (217)

I wonder why these black people were not convinced by this little bit of white patronizing.

And that last quote, to me, is perfectly revealing of Peter Berger the man and the sociologist.

And because I needed a brain-cleanser after making through that book:

Whaddaya Know: Austerity Means Long-Term Poverty and Greater Inequality

Nobody could have predicted that outcome </sarcasm>:

“Last week, Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou once again succeeded in getting a majority of Greek lawmakers to push through an austerity and privatization package worth €78 billion ($111 billion). In doing so, he was responding to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission. Indeed, many economic experts see the package’s measures as the only way to fend off an imminent national bankruptcy at the last minute — and the only way to save the euro from an even worse fate.

But is Papandreou saving his country to death? Savas Robolis thinks he is. “People are afraid,” the 65-year-old says — they’re afraid of an uncertain future. Employees are particularly scared because they carry an unfairly high proportion of the tax burden. As a professor of economics and social policy at Athens’ Panteion University and director of the Labor Institute of the General Confederation of Greek Workers, Robolis knows what he’s talking about.

According to his calculations, roughly 930,000 of Greece’s 960,000 registered companies have fewer than five employees. Most of these very small companies are “not very competitive,” he says, and primarily focus on providing products and services to the 3.5 million private households in Greece. If household incomes sink, consumer demand will automatically fall as well. As Robolis sees it, this would mean a swift end to these small companies because they don’t have enough liquidity to tide them over.

“That’s exactly what’s happened,” Robolis complains. Over the last year, roughly 60,000 of these mini-companies have gone belly up, and he predicts at least as many closings in 2011.

In 2010, the number of jobless in Greece rose by 230,000, to reach 14.8 percent. Given Greece’s weak social safety net, unemployment is more or less tantamount to social bankruptcy. For example, unemployment benefits are only available for a year at a monthly rate of less than €500. After that, the state offers practically no assistance. Officials estimate that only about 280,000 of the 800,000 people without jobs are still eligible to claim unemployment benefits. This has resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of homeless people — by up to 25 percent in Athens alone.

According to official data, unemployment is expected to climb to between 17 percent and 18 percent by the end of 2011, but the true figure could be as high as 23 percent.”

Also, how can brain drain and reduced demand promote economic recovery?

“At that time, the result was a wave of emigration to places like Germany. Robolis thinks the same thing could happen today — but with one big difference: The people who left Greece in the 1960s were mostly unskilled workers. Robolis fears that the coming wave could be well-educated individuals with college degrees.

Greece has its tourist attractions and agricultural products. But apart from beaches, olive oil and feta, the economy doesn’t have much to offer. As much as 70 percent of of Greece’s economic output depends on private consumption, according to a recent study of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a think tank with ties to Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

However, according to the study, in the last quarter of 2010, reductions in salaries and pensions drove consumption down 8.6 percent, retail sales shrank by 12 percent and 65,000 stores had to be shut down. Robolis predicts that, by 2015, when the new austerity measures are scheduled to take full effect, the standard of living for employees and pensioners will be 40 percent lower than it was in 2008.”

But what about the wealthy? Oh, they’re doing fine:

“But while the lines continue to get longer outside food banks, many of the wealthy are getting through the crisis more or less unscathed. The average Greek consumer is now forced to pay the third-highest VAT rate in Europe, the third-highest social insurance contributions and the second-highest fuel taxes.

Two-thirds of Greeks regularly pay their taxes as well. Indeed, “contrary to widespread views,” as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung study put it, these taxes are automatically deducted along with social contributions from the paychecks of Greeks employed in both the private and public sectors. It is mainly the small wealthy class that manages to cheat the authorities out of €40 billion in tax each year. That is the OECD’s estimated volume of annual tax evasion. The Greek central bank puts the losses at somewhere between €15 billion and €20 billion.”

So, apart from entrenching long-term poverty and extreme privilege, as well as making sure banks get their ill-loaned money back, what will exactly these austerity measures do? Or maybe these three consequences are the goal: make the country conform to neoliberal standards.

How will Western populations like their precarized existence now that they are getting a tasted of the structural adjustment programs (because that is what these measures are) that have long been foisted on the global South?

Book Review – Chavs

I have already posted on Owen Jones‘s Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class (see here and here). Another good subtitle for this book could be “the not-so-hidden injuries of class” (to riff on Richard Sennett’s classic book). If Jones is not a sociologist, he should be one because his book is a perfect illustration of the sociological imagination with its focus on structure / history /power regarding the treatment of the working class.

If one expects an exotic description of the Chav culture, one will be disappointed. What Jones does is take this social phenomenon: the stigmatization of the working class by the political and media sphere (with their capacity to spread prejudice and stereotypes) and retraces the roots of that phenomenon, culturally, structurally and politically. He examines when the concept of Chavs as the target for so much social contempt emerged, who created it, who benefits from it and what are the real social consequences for the targets of such stigmatization.

For Owens, the roots of the stigmatization of the Chavs are to be found in Thatcherism. The policies implemented by Margaret Thatcher and pretty much every British administration have resulted in deliberately breaking the backs of the unions and destroying the industrial working class, thereby succeeding in deindustrializing Great Britain. As a result, and unsurprisingly, these policies left a lot of working class communities devastated with no job prospects, surviving on precarized and low-paying occupations and public benefits.

Out of this devastation emerged the myth that everyone who had the drive and aspiration of becoming middle class did so and that those left behind were the lazy, irresponsible, feckless, etc. Since their being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder is the product of their own failing and moral faults, why should they get help? This myth, because it is a myth, has thoroughly been incorporated into the culture so that it hardly questioned.

And so, where the traditional unionized working class was feared, the post-Thatcher working class is both an easy target for stigmatization as racist throwbacks or as the butt of jokes in the media and popular culture.

Case in point, the Slobs:

Vicky Pollard:

Lauren Cooper:

Stupid, ugly, uncouth, obnoxious and loud-mouthed, filthy, ill-mannered, and happy to spend their ill-gotten taxpayers money on dumb stuff. Have I left anything out?

And they can sometimes be dangerous because they’re out of control (too much sex, too much food, too many kids, too much welfare) and therefore the only legitimate state intervention is disciplinary: slap them with ASBOs or throw them in jail:

And so, the Chavs provide convenient ideological cover:

“It is both tragic and absurd that, as our society has become less equal and as in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased. Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society. What if you have wealth and success because it has been handed to you on a plate? What if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? To accept this would trigger a crisis of self-confidence among the well-off few. And if you were to accept it, then surely you would have to accept that the government’s duty is to do something about it – namely, by curtailing your own privileges. But, if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom. Chav-hate justifies the preservation of the pecking order, based on the fiction that it actually a fair reflection of people’s worth.” (137)

But of course, such a crisis of self-confidence would never occur in the first place as there is the opposite myth that the rich are that wealthy because they deserve it, earned it, and are worth it. It is a toxic mix of Weberian Protestant Ethic, social Darwinism and Ayn Rand thrown in as well. The upper classes and power elite have convinced themselves that they are not at the top because of inherited privilege but because of their own superiority. And this is based, of course, on class denialism, which I have already discussed.

The key here, according to Jones, is that the working class then have been the recipients of devastating public policy that have decimated their communities, and they are now left to find individual solutions to social problems, and will be blamed if they fail to do so. Downward mobility was socially-induced and collectively experienced but survival has been individualized. And, of course, if the solutions they find – informal employment, for instance – are not found to fit within the normative expectations of work and employment, they will be blamed for that too.

Jones also touches upon the political backlash that has not surprisingly emerged out of that state of affairs, namely, the rise of the British National Party, driven mostly by the political marginalization of the working class. After all, which major political party, in England, represents the interests of the working class and working poor? The Tories, never, and New Labour, certainly not:

“The demonization of the working class has also had a real role to play in the BNPs’ success story. Although ruling elites have made it clear that there is nothing of worth in working-class culture, we have been (rightly) urged to celebrate the identities of minority groups. What’s more, liberal multiculturalism has understood inequalities purely through the prism of race, disregarding that of class.” Taken together, this has encourage white working-class people to develop similar notions of ethnic pride, and to build an identity based on race so as to gain acceptance in multicultural society. The BNP has made the most of this disastrous redefinition of white working-class people as, effectively, another marginalized ethnic minority. ‘Treating white working-class as a new ethnic group only does the BNP a massive favour,’ says anthropologist Dr Gillian Evans, ‘and so does not talking about a multiracial working class.’

It is unlikely that the BNP will ever win significant power, not least because of chronic incompetence and infighting, of the kind that crippled the party after the 2010 general election. But its rise is like a warning shot. Unless working-class people are properly represented once again and their concerns taken seriously, Britain faced the prospect of an angry new right-wing populism.” (225)

This issue is not unique to England. As Western economies collapse, so obviously because of the actions of the upper financial classes, and as many countries are implementing drastic austerity measures that will hit the middle and working classes very hard why leaving the actual culprits to their comfortable bailouts, the level of anger is guaranteed to rise. What the crisis has made so blatantly and painfully obvious is that Western governments are dedicated to the protection of the elites and the financial institutions and class, at the expense of everyone else.

I would argue that everything written in Jones’s book shows us that they have been preparing the ground for the past 30 years to neutralize any dissent, from the mechanisms of the surveillance society to the cultural work of stigmatizing the poor and glorifying the wealthy, to the progressive dismantlement of the social protections that had been built in the post-War period.

So, this book is extremely relevant beyond the English case. It is written in a very engaging style but is very well sourced and documented. For sure, it is clear where Jones stands but it does not negate the facts of policy and results that are also presented in details. Highly recommended.

The Visual Du Jour – Filthy Rich Socialization

Do check out this series of photo in Der Spiegel on children of the Russian über-wealthy. I know these photos are posed, but boy do they all look stiff:

As the article notes:

“SPIEGEL ONLINE: None of the children in your book are smiling. Is childhood missing from your pictures of children?

Skladmann: I wouldn’t say that. But they live in a secluded world. Some leave that world, to go to a public ballet school, for example. Their parents are attempting to make up for the Soviet times — they only want the best for their children. They receive private language lessons, they go swimming or play tennis. The lives of these children are very planned and regimented. That forces them to grow up quicker.”

Privilege 101 – Straight-splaining

Straight-splaining is to gay-straight conversations on sexual preference what man-splaining is to men-women conversations on gender. Just as man-splaining is men explaining to women how they behave, when they should think, which issues should be prioritized on gender topics, straigh-splaining consists of straight people telling LGBTs how they should be behave, what they should think and do regarding sexual preference-related issues such as coming out.

These forms of paternalistic explanations from privileged individuals, directed towards minorities and marginalized categories are quite common. They occur in conversations about gender, sexual preferences, as just mentioned, but also regarding race (when dominant group members lecture minorities on how they should feel about, or perceive, racism), or religion (where atheists are lectured as to how they should address religious people on religious issues).

Most invariably, these lectures involve injunctions directed at the socially subordinate group to not be so sensitive on relevant issues, to not rock the boat, to not be to blunt or assertive, to take care of not offending the dominant group because that is not helpful. And most of all, these injunctions are couched in the language of efficacy: minorities are more likely to get results by complying with demands of “good behavior” from members of the dominant group: it’s for minorities’ own good, you see.

It is one of the most powerful forms of privileges because it assumes that minorities do not know what is good for them, have limited understanding of the prejudice and discrimination against them. And it further assumes that members of the dominant group know better, by default. Members of the dominant group are the final arbiters of such matters: if they see prejudice and discrimination, it is because there is prejudice and discrimination. If they don’t see it, then, it is because it is not there and if minority group members insist that there is, they are accused of being over-sensitive.

Case in point (via Max P.):

“München – Die Debatte über ein mögliches Outing homosexueller Fußballer gewinnt an Intensität: Nun hat sich auch Nationalelf-Kapitän Philipp Lahm eingeschaltet – und schwulen Profi-Fußballern davon abgeraten, sich zu outen.

“Für denjenigen, der es tut, würde es sehr schwer werden”, sagte der beim FC Bayern München spielende Lahm der Illustrierten “Bunte”. Seiner Einschätzung nach würde ein offen schwuler Fußballer Schmährufen ausgesetzt sein. “Es ist schade, aber Schwulsein ist im Fußball – anders als in Politik und Showgeschäft – immer noch ein Tabuthema.”

Er selbst habe aber “keinerlei Berührungsängste” mit Homosexuellen. Deshalb wäre ein schwuler Mannschaftskollege für ihn auch kein Problem, so der 27-Jährige.

Seine Sichtweise widerspricht der des DFB-Präsidenten Theo Zwanziger, der sich für ein Outing schwuler Fußballer ausgesprochen und ihnen die Hilfe des Verbandes zugesagt hat. “Ich würde es mutig finden und begrüßen, wenn sich ein Bundesliga-Spieler outen würde. Er hätte auch die Unterstützung des DFB und von mir”, sagte Zwanziger im März. Ob jemand seine sexuelle Ausrichtung öffentlich mache, müsse aber jeder für sich selbst entscheiden.

Auch Nationaltorwart Manuel Neuer und Nationalstürmer Mario Gomez, Mannschaftskollege von Lahm, hatten im Laufe der gerade beendeten Saison schwulen Berufskollegen zum Outing geraten. Sie sahen darin anders als nun Lahm kein Problem.”

Yes, I know it’s in German. Philipp Lahm, captain of the Bayern Munich, one of the best German teams in the Bundesliga, is telling his gay colleagues to stay in the closet, for their own good, because, were they to come out, they would have to endure the homophobia of football audiences. He, of course, has absolutely no problems with gays. This is a big deal because he is not just anybody. On the other hand, the head of the German league is encouraging gay players to come out, and praising the courage it takes to do so.

The argument that stadium audiences are homophobic and that players would be jeered at is bogus, of course. Racist insults have never stop football teams from fielding racial minorities when it suits them. This is one of the saddest, and yet quite normal, part of football.

But it is indeed a strong sign of privilege when one takes it upon oneself to lecture gay players regarding such an important personal decision as coming out as if gay players had not considered the arguments. It is another case of “listen to your betters”. It is especially interesting to see members of the dominant group, as Captain Lahm does here, invoke the “it’s not me. I’m good with it. But society is not ready for this” argument to justify voluntary marginalization.

Because here again, dominant group members have a better sense of where society is at regarding minority issues than minorities, and one should never go against society, argues the straight-splainer while shaking his head as he deplores its lack of openness. Or as Lahm puts it, there is still a gay taboo in football, it’s a shame but there it is.

The phenomenon of man-splaining, straight-splaining or God-splaining is so widespread and so taken-for-granted that to challenge it is to be perceived as angry, “raging” or hostile, so used to having their privilege recognized in discourse are dominant group members. A perfect example is the reception that so-called New Atheists receive when they challenge people of faith. Religious people are so completely used to never having their religious views challenged (another major sign of privilege) that the most basic question is perceived as open warfare.

And, of course, to cast one’s opponent as angry or hostile, is a nice way of dismissing the issues by focusing on tone and arguing for civility (which, in that case, means not questioning privileged discourses and ideologies).

The Best Habitus Money Can Buy

One of the strengths of sociology (among its many, many other strengths) is to take the disparate pieces of the social puzzle – anecdotes and stories of all kinds – and put them together, in the proper context, composed of the social structure, historical processes and power dynamics (something I call SHiP, Structure, History, and Power). In doing so, it shows the inanity of common sense interpretations that often take the form of moral pronouncements.

For instance,

“A Manhattan woman has sued a $19,000-a-year preschool her daughter attended, arguing that the program failed to adequately prepare her daughter for the test required to enter New York City’s hypercompetitive private school system.

The suit, filed by Nicole Imprescia on Friday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, said the York Avenue Preschool had not fulfilled its stated commitment to prepare her 4-year-old daughter, Lucia, for the intelligence test known as the E.R.B.

“The school proved to be not a school at all, but just one big playroom,” the suit claimed.

Many preschools boast that they can prepare students for the test, helping them score high enough to catch the attention of elite private schools. The preschools have become a component of a mini-industry that also includes costly consultants and test preparation materials.


The suit charges that preschool education is critical to a child’s success in life, quoting from various news articles. “It is no secret that getting a child into the Ivy League starts in nursery school,” says one. “Studies have shown entry into a good nursery school guarantees more income than entry into an average school,” says another.

Ms. Imprescia enrolled her daughter at York in 2009, when she was 3, but took her out one month into her second year when, rather than preparing for the E.R.B., her daughter was “dumped” into a class with 2-year-old children, talking about shapes and colors, according to the lawsuit. The suit said the school refused Ms. Imprescia’s demand to return that year’s tuition. It did not say whether Lucia had taken the test.”

Claude Fisher puts this in the context of increasing inequalities that goes beyond income and wealth differentials:

“Reardon collected data from 19 nationally representative studies of children’s cognitive achievement for ages ranging from 1 to 18. The studies were conducted from 1960 to 2007. He compared the average scores of children who came from high-income families (those at the 90th percentile, which is about $160,000 in today’s dollars) to those from low-income families (those at the 10th percentile, about $17,500 today). The first group always does a lot better on age-appropriate reading and math tests than the second. But the key finding is that the test gap has been widening for a generation; it is about 35% larger for kids born around 2000 than for kids born about 1975.

Strikingly, over the same period the gap in test scores between black and white children, about which much has been written, shrank. The rich-poor gap is now one-and-a-half times larger than the race gap; 50 years ago it was just about the reverse.”

In other words, the wealth and income gap has turned into a growing cognitive development gap where class matters more than race. Now, the topic of social reproduction in education is a topic that most sociology students encounter with Bourdieu’s work on the subject. Bourdieu emphasizes that cultural capital and differences in habitus (class-based dispositions that shape behavior) partly account for academic achievement differentials. One’s habitus is a product of socialization and contributes to reproduction of class differences.

And Bourdieu’s work showed that an upper-class habitus matches more closely behavioral and academic expectations in schools than a working-class habitus (Fisher mentions Annette Lareau’s now famous study of different socializing modes, where working class parents tend to let their children grow up more “naturally” whereas upper-class parents use a “concerted cultivation” model).

So, by putting toddlers in exclusive prep pre-schools, parents like the one mentioned in the article are trying to lock in their social privileges and pass them on to their children. This is what these exclusive prep pre-schools are selling: the earliest possible socialization into a given habitus that will set children on an elite path of education. This is a perfect example of using one’s economic capital to obtain extra cultural capital.

As Fisher notes,

“In recent decades, the academic expectations for the well-cultivated child have risen. And the things you can buy to cultivate their academic skills have boomed: educational software for infants, early childhood educational programs, pre-school enrichment classes, after-school lessons, tutors, summer camps with intellectual themes, and so on. Reardon cites research suggesting that professional child-rearing advice articles and books more and more stress intellectual cultivation. Also, middle-class parents have been spending more time with their children and spending more money on their children. Even among parents with the same level of education, the ones with more income seem increasingly better able than those with less income to raise their children’s test scores.

While some enrichment activities are free (if a parent has time — which is another thing money can sometimes buy for you), many require purchases – books, software, special classes, coaches, travel, and the like. If these things actually make an intellectual difference, then their proliferation in recent years can explain Reardon’s findings.”

So, it is not just that the children of the upper classes are living behind the physical walls of gated communities, but they also live in a segregated cognitive and social world where their parents carefully cultivate each and every one of their experiences as a way of holding on to their privileges and making sure that no one outside of their class challenge them.

But, as Robert Frank also noted in his book, Richistan, the very wealthy are profoundly afraid of the slightest sign of very subtle downward mobility (from the multimillionaire class to the millionaire class, to be sure) and they feel the strain of intensifying competition between themselves and other members of Richistan (after all, they have the overall social system as they want it, with no more competition from the precarized middle class).

And so, poor Ms Imprescia wasted a whole MONTH of her three-year old daughter’s life and did not get the proper return on investment in terms of cultural capital.

Get Claude Fisher’s book!