What Does This Say About These Societies?

Compare this:

“The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a federal lawsuit Thursday on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement. The legal action is part of a larger movement to reform inhumane conditions in California prisons’ Security Housing Units (SHUs), a movement dramatized by a 2011 hunger strike by thousands of SHU prisoners; the named plaintiffs include hunger strikers, among them several of the principal negotiators for the hunger strike.

(…)

SHU prisoners spend 22½ to 24 hours every day in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational or educational programming. Food is often rotten and barely edible, and medical care is frequently withheld.

More than 500 Pelican Bay SHU prisoners have been isolated under these conditions for over 10 years, more than 200 of them for over 15 years and 78 have been isolated in the SHU for more than 20 years. Today’s suit claims that prolonged confinement under these conditions has caused “harmful and predictable psychological deterioration” among SHU prisoners. Solitary confinement for as little as 15 days is now widely recognized to cause lasting psychological damage to human beings and is analyzed under international law as torture.

Additionally, the suit alleges that SHU prisoners are denied any meaningful review of their SHU placement, rendering their isolation “effectively permanent.” SHU assignment is an administrative act, condemning prisoners to a prison within a prison; it is not part of a person’s court-ordered sentence for his or her crime.”

To this:

“Prison authorities are considering hiring people to socialise with the mass killer Anders Behring Breivik should he be found guilty and sentenced to a long spell in jail, to avoid him being kept in total isolation.

The director of the Ila prison, Knut Bjarkeid, told the Verdens Gang newspaper that security surrounding the man who has admitted killing 77 people last year would make it “impossible to allow normal contact with others”.

The prison may therefore allow him to “play sports with the guards and hire someone to play chess with him”, said Mr Bjarkeid.”

This is, of course, on top of a bloated American prison system that incarcerates a greater share of its population than any other country in the world, with very little to show for it beyond the general collective satisfaction of “locking them up and throwing away the key”. See the difference in rates between the US and Norway where Breivik is incarcerated:

But beyond that, there is a very different approach to punishment and its meaning. A crime as severe as the one for which Breivik is being tried would certainly carry either the death penalty or as the very least a life sentence without parole. He would be dumped into one of the hellholes across the US, AKA: maximum security facilities and that would be it: pure retribution, pure neutralization.

The Norwegian approach considers him still a human being and if the state takes complete control of his person for a certain period of time, especially if it is long, then the state has to provide some measure of mental care: still retribution, still neutralization, but some rehabilitation and care.

One society is perfectly satisfied with a highly expensive, counterproductive, and massive punitive system that is purely retributive (heck, prison rape is a source of jokes). Another one does not consider it should stop being humane because it has to deal with a really bad person in the context of a small carceral system.

Kinda says a lot about both societies, doesn’t it?

It’s Not “Overcrowding”, It’s “Over-Incarcerating”

This editorial from Le Monde finally calls it what it is: there is no prison overcrowding problem, there is people over-incarcerating problem. And this is not because criminality has increased but rather because the criminal justice system sends more people to prison for activities that did not use to carry prison sentences and for less and less severe offenses. So, the hardening in sentencing – in the absence of higher criminality – is what has caused the prison population to swell. Culturally, this has translated into a narrative where “softness on crime” – an unfounded statement – is seen as an offense against society.

Le Monde does not take this idea to its large conclusions though. Who gets over-incarcerated? Mostly, the young, the minority, the poor. Incarceration, along with a whole range of other neoliberal policies designed to discipline the poor, something that Loic Wacquant has been writing about for 15 years and here again:

“The increasing penalization of poverty is a response to social insecurity; a result of public policy that weds the “invisible hand” of the market to the “iron fist” of the penal state.

(…)

First, the expansion and glorification of the police, the courts and the penitentiary are a response not to criminal insecurity but to the social insecurity caused by the casualisation of wage labor and the disruption of ethno-racial hierarchy. Second, we need to reconnect social and penal policies and treat them as two variants of poverty policy to grasp the new punitive politics of marginality. Third, the simultaneous and converging deployment of restrictive “workfare” and expansive “prison fare” partake of the forging of the neoliberal state.”

Note how the whole debt ceiling / spending cuts debate was also a class-based discourse of moralization and social disciplining applied only the disadvantaged. The whole notion of “shared sacrifice”, that is, a social notion, does not apply to the elite or the financial sectors whose sociopathy is accepted and rewarded. As Doug Henwood notes, the austerity programs implemented across Western countries are presented as programs of moral renovation and purification for sins of profligacy and lack of discipline.

This is the latest stage of a very socially neoliberal and culturally puritan program imposed from above, enforced through massive surveillance, that will result in both poverty and precariat trap.

Book Review – Traȋtres A La Nation

Stephane Béaud’s Traîtres À La Nation – Un Autre Regard Sur La Grève Des Bleus en Afrique du Sud (en collaboration avec Philippe Guimard) is perfect and great example of public sociology. It very nicely and powerfully shows what sociological analysis can do, especially with respect to a very high-profile event, such as the “strike” by the French football team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

I really do hope that this book will get an English edition. If that were the case, I would jump on it and make my students use in my undergraduate classes. It is written at the perfect level, uses a lot of concrete examples. There isn’t too much jargon but the sociological analysis is crystal clear and very powerful. And, of course, the topic is guaranteed to get people’s attention. One can point at this book and say “this is what sociology does.”

The starting point of the book, obviously, is the strike by the players of the national French team during the World Cup, followed by their shameful exit from that competition in the early stages (after a very controversial qualification), and the social and political fallout from these events. Considering how discussed these events have already been, what does sociology have to bring to the table? First off, most of the discussion has been tainted by moral, classist and racist considerations. Exit the glorious days of the “black, blanc, beur” winning team of 1998, now, the strike is denounced by politicians as the work of low-class, highly-paid little bosses and the hapless followers. The media and politicians engaged in moral condemnations. Putting oneself in the position of judge, prosecutor and jury is not what sociology does. The job of the sociologist, for Béaud, is the Weberian injunction of Verstehen.

The point of sociological analysis then is to put these events in the proper context (what I call SHiP – structure, history, power) and to retrace the sociological factors that shaped this French national football team (especially in contrast with the 1998 team). What Béaud engages in is what he calls “live sociology” in which moral judgment is suspended and social action is re-situated in is (muli-layered) context, understood as a system of constraints in which individual behavior occurs. That is, the challenge is to treat this event as a social fact (in Durkheim’s sense): the strike is a product of the deregulation of French professional football, structural causes, changes in recruitment, training and socialization of French footballers, the internationalization and precarization of football careers (based on changes in the legal framework). Alongside these structural factors are more institutional and symbolic factors, such as relationships between players and the media, as well as the group dynamics within the French team.

For those of you who don’t remember, the strike of the French team occurred after France’s main sports daily newspaper published the photo to the right, on its front page, after the defeat against Mexico. The comment between quotation marks is supposed to have been said by Anelka against French coach Domenech in the locker rooms. Following the alleged incident, Anelka was expelled from the team by the French Federation.

Arguing the fact that what goes on in the locker rooms is supposed to stay there, and never be divulged to the public, the players went on strike and issues a communiqué (actually drafted by the attorney of one of the players) also blaming the Federation for mismanaging the situation.

For Béaud, this reflects the growing tensions that have been building up between players and the media as well as the changes in these relationships. Whereas these relationships used to be simple and straightforward, if not friendly, they have become more formal, complex and marked by the professionalization of the players. While players used to be approachable, and locker rooms were not closed off to the press, interactions with players are now mediated by the entourage that is characteristic of the main players (attorneys, PR consultants, etc.) and the creation of mixte zones in stadiums is a perfect reflection of that. As a result, it is more difficult to get more than canned talking points out of the players who are already uncomfortable with public speaking.

At the same time, Béaud shows that what happened was not the product of the “little bosses” from the projects pushing the other players into the strike. The French team was indeed divided but not along racial and ethnic lines but rather into group statuses such as established players (incumbent players, those more or less guaranteed to play) versus substitutes. The established group is composed of players who have the most sport legitimacy and credibility, which puts them in positions of leadership.

Compared to other players also from the project, the established players are more sensitive to any feeling of symbolic humiliation and injustice, and they are more likely to experience a relative frustration with the poor game strategy of the French team in recent years, under the leadership of a discredited coach. So, in the 2010 French team, one finds the dominated group, the newcomers, and the recently selected players from African origin. Their lack of either integration in the team or football capital reduced the probability that they would go against the decisions of the established group. And the newspaper frontpage gave the team a unity it had never achieved before.

Add to this the role of the French Football Federation and its incomprehensible to reappoint a discredited coach (which appointing his successor right before the World Cup, thereby undermining him even further), the respective relationships between the players and this coach (certainly, several players from the established group had a grudge against him), the conflict between the FFF and the other major institution involved, the Professional Footballers League. And finally, the infiltration of the political and social tensions from the housing projects into the team all created a bundle of tensions that were bound to explode at some point… and did.

These events are also a reflection of the change in recruitment of players in French football. In the post-War period, one finds most French football players came from the blue-collar working-class (especially the clubs from Northern France). The trajectories of these players are quite different than what they are today. They usually spent their youth years in amateur football, still going to school to obtain technical and vocational qualifications. They become professional relatively late (in their 20s). Therefore, they receive a rather typical working-class socialization. The 1998 team is basically the last fling of that generation of players, with a specific sport and social ethos based on humility, collectivism, respect for the elders and explicit patriotism. This is the working-class before the precarization of the working-class of the deindustrializing years and the defeat of its political power. And the players of the 1998 team who did grow up in the housing projects did so before the ethnic contraction and marginalization of these areas and increased polarization.

There are three major differences between the 1998 team and the 2010 team, sociologically speaking:

(1) There are now more players in the great and economically powerful European teams of England, Italy and Spain. A minority of them now play for French teams.

(2) Players are now recruited by training centers (famous institutions that detect football talents and develop them over several years, with hopes of professionalization right after graduation. These centers have made France the second exporting countries – after Brazil – when it comes to footballers, but they also close off earlier and earlier any real education and occupy a greater part of the players’ socialization) at an earlier and earlier age, and especially from the lower classes. Fewer players now come from the working-class French heartland, and more and more from the housing projects on the outskirts of France’s largest cities.

(3) There are now more players of African origin, especially sub-saharan Africa, as opposed to the Maghreb, and from players from France’s territories (Antilles, Guadeloupe, etc.).

This greater internationalization of football out of France is directly connected to the legal context created by the Bosman Ruling, which allowed players to have greater freedom of movement from one club to the next. This greater freedom has also led to the massive inflation of footballer compensation. All of a sudden, the most powerful European clubs were able to recruit players from all over Europe, and the players were able to demand higher pay for their services. These teams have been accused of pillaging other countries for their own benefit. If French football creates great players, the French teams are not economically strong enough to retain them once these players fully develop their potential. This has led former players to deplore the lack of “fidelity to the jersey”. This also means that teams are less likely to have a trademark style of play, as the recruitment is no longer local and long-term.

Now, a player will typically enter a training center around 15 years old (if not pre-training centers that recruit even younger players) and they may leave for a non-French team even before their training is complete to start playing for the club that has recruited them. And the Bosman Ruling allows these young players to change club more easily (making more money in the process). As a result, their trajectories are much less smooth and their socialization more chaotic as they leave their families at a fairly young age. For the lower-class parents of these players, to sign a professional contract is a way out of the project for their son and club scouts start contacting parents as early as possible (the competition is extreme), making them incredible offers. From the clubs’ perspective, these young players are commodities, and they expect rather rapid returns on investment, so as to re-sell the players at an even higher price than they paid for him.

This means that, at a young age, players have to be surrounded by a whole entourage of agents, attorneys for themselves and their parents, along with the usual trainers, PR people, etc. But in the context of increased precarization for the lower classes, social tensions in the projects, and the ever-more repressive policies put in place by the Sarkozy government, who could resist?

So, Béaud argues that the strike of 2010 in South Africa is an act of civil disobedience and also a reflection of all these structural and cyclical factors: the changes in socialization of the players, transformation of the labor market for French football players, the impact of geographical and sport migration and the corresponding social uprooting, along with the pressures tied to the obligation to perform earlier, faster and better in a very competitive context… on top of the group dynamics and the interpersonal and institutional issues mentioned above.

Béaud wraps up his study with an analysis of the evolution of the players of Maghreb origin in French football, inserting it as well in the social context of immigration and integration. The last two chapters of the book are less directly related to the 2010 fiasco but they additional layers to an understanding of French football in its social context.

As I mentioned above, this book is a great read (something that does not happen enough in sociology!) and a great example of public sociology and live sociology. Highly recommended… if you can read French.

<p style=”text-align: justify;”><a href=”http://www.amazon.fr/Tra%C3%AEtres-nation-autre-regard-Afrique/dp/2707167169/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&amp;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1302999785&amp;sr=1-1″ target=”_blank”><img style=”margin: 5px;” src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41FnLegOc1L._SL500_AA300_.jpg” alt=”” width=”300″ height=”300″ /></a>Stephane Béaud’s <a href=”http://www.amazon.fr/Tra%C3%AEtres-nation-autre-regard-Afrique/dp/2707167169/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&amp;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1302999785&amp;sr=1-1″ target=”_blank”>Traîtres À La Nation – Un Autre Regard Sur La Grève Des Bleus en Afrique du Sud</a> (en collaboration avec Philippe Guimard) is perfect and great example of public sociology. It very nicely and powerfully shows what sociological analysis can do, especially with respect to a very high-profile event, such as the “strike” by the French football team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>I really do hope that this book will get an English edition. If that were the case, I would jump on it and make my students use in my undergraduate classes. It is written at the perfect level, uses a lot of concrete examples. There isn’t too much jargon but the sociological analysis is crystal clear and very powerful. And, of course, the topic is guaranteed to get people’s attention. One can point at this book and say “this is what sociology does.”</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>The starting point of the book, obviously, is the strike by the players of the national French team during the World Cup, followed by their shameful exit from that competition in the early stages (after a very controversial qualification), and the social and political fallout from these events. Considering how discussed these events have already been, what does sociology have to bring to the table? First off, most of the discussion has been tainted by moral, classist and racist considerations. Exit the glorious days of the “black, blanc, beur” winning team of 1998, now, the strike is denounced by politicians as the work of low-class, highly-paid little bosses and the hapless followers. The media and politicians engaged in moral condemnations. Putting oneself in the position of judge, prosecutor and jury is not what sociology does. The job of the sociologist, for Béaud, is the Weberian injunction of Verstehen.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>The point of sociological analysis then is to put these events in the proper context (what I call SHiP – structure, history, power) and to retrace the sociological factors that shaped this French national football team (especially in contrast with the 1998 team). What Béaud engages in is what he calls “live sociology” in which moral judgment is suspended and social action is re-situated in is (muli-layered) context, understood as a system of constraints in which individual behavior occurs. That is, the challenge is to treat this event as a social fact (in Durkheim’s sense): the strike is a product of the deregulation of French professional football, structural causes, changes in recruitment, training and socialization of French footballers, the internationalization and precarization of football careers (based on changes in the legal framework). Alongside these structural factors are more institutional and symbolic factors, such as relationships between players and the media, as well as the group dynamics within the French team.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”><a href=”http://e-blogs.wikio.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/LEquipe_Anelka_Domenech_UNE1.jpg” target=”_blank”><img style=”margin: 5px;” src=”http://e-blogs.wikio.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/LEquipe_Anelka_Domenech_UNE1.jpg” alt=”” width=”320″ height=”217″ /></a>For those of you who don’t remember, the strike of the French team occurred after France’s main sports daily newspaper published the photo to the right, on its front page, after the defeat against Mexico. The comment between quotation marks is supposed to have been said by Anelka against French coach Domenech in the locker rooms. Following the alleged incident, Anelka was expelled from the team by the French Federation.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>Arguing the fact that what goes on in the locker rooms is supposed to stay there, and never be divulged to the public, the players went on strike and issues a communiqué (actually drafted by the attorney of one of the players) also blaming the Federation for mismanaging the situation.</p>
<p align=”center”><object classid=”clsid:d27cdb6e-ae6d-11cf-96b8-444553540000″ width=”480″ height=”390″ codebase=”http://download.macromedia.com/pub/shockwave/cabs/flash/swflash.cab#version=6,0,40,0″><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true” /><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always” /><param name=”src” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/GBl8Ia5_dCA?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US” /><param name=”allowfullscreen” value=”true” /><embed type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” width=”480″ height=”390″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/GBl8Ia5_dCA?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true”></embed></object>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>For Béaud, this reflects the growing tensions that have been building up between players and the media as well as the changes in these relationships. Whereas these relationships used to be simple and straightforward, if not friendly, they have become more formal, complex and marked by the professionalization of the players. While players used to be approachable, and locker rooms were not closed off to the press, interactions with players are now mediated by the entourage that is characteristic of the main players (attorneys, PR consultants, etc.) and the creation of mixte zones in stadiums is a perfect reflection of that. As a result, it is more difficult to get more than canned talking points out of the players who are already uncomfortable with public speaking.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>At the same time, Béaud shows that what happened was not the product of the “little bosses” from the projects pushing the other players into the strike. The French team was indeed divided but not along racial and ethnic lines but rather into group statuses such as established players (incumbent players, those more or less guaranteed to play) versus substitutes. The established group is composed of players who have the most sport legitimacy and credibility, which puts them in positions of leadership. Compared to other players also from the project, the established players are more sensitive to any feeling of symbolic humiliation and injustice, and they are more likely to experience a relative frustration with the poor game strategy of the French team in recent years, under the leadership of a discredited coach. So, in the 2010 French team, one finds the dominated group, the newcomers, and the recently selected players from African origin. Their lack of either integration in the team or football capital reduced the probability that they would go against the decisions of the established group. And the newspaper frontpage gave the team a unity it had never achieved before.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”></p>

Book Review – The City and The City

The City and The City is the first book by China Mieville I have read. I got myself a Kindle copy when it got the Hugo Award. It is an awesome novel, and as usual, it is a great source for sociological analysis. At its most basic, The City and The City is a murder mystery coupled with a touch of conspiracy theory. But, as usual for sociologist me, the most interesting part of the book is the social context underpinning the story.

The story takes place in an unusual urban context of two city-states, Besźel and Ul-Qoma, that occupy the same physical space somewhere in Eastern Europe. The cities are divided between areas that are total (totally in one), alter (totally in the other) or crosshatched (in either). In areas that the cities share, citizens of either city have been socialized to unsense the other: to unsee, unhear, unsmell everything from the other city. And at the center is Copula Hall, the official border between the city and the city.

What this means is that when one is walking – or driving through – the streets of Besźel, for instance, one must NOT see, hear or smell anything from Ul-Qoma (and vice-versa). People from either city practice this constant act of dramaturgy of not sensing the other city that exists in the same physical space. Goffman would have had a field day with all the studied non-0bservance that takes place as people, more or less automatically and immediately unsee things happening in the other city. In fact, the entire social structure of both cities is based on that unsensing so much so that when things happen that make that almost impossible, social order is on the verge of collapse and extreme measures are taken.

So, this common space has two social structures, one for Besźel and one for Ul-Qoma, two different cultures, languages, food, clothing, etc. And it looks like Ul-Qoma (a vaguely communist country, boycotted by the US) is the more economically dynamic of the two.

In this context, people are expected to thoroughly respect the division between the city and the city. If they violate the separations, they breach. They are then spirited away by Breach, the mysterious force in charge of enforcing the division. No one knows what happens to people who have been taken by Breach. In this society, breaching is the most serious offense that deserves the most serious punishment (although what that is remains a mystery, for most part of the book). It is a given that, at some point, someone will breach and we, readers, will get to figure out what Breach really is and what it really does. Breach is perceived as a kind of omniscient Big Brother with the power to detect any breach and swing into action when that happens. Not breaching is a major fear for all the citizens of the city and the city.

Needless to say, the city and the city are themselves marked by social conflicts: each city has its own nationalist movement, strict supporters of the Cleavage (the separation between the city and the city) as well as its Unifs, the unificators, the movements promoting the reunification of the city and the city.

Throughout the book, we follow the detective in charge of solving the murder as he navigates the complexities of this intricate structure in the course of his investigation. He is from Besźel, but at some point is assigned to Ul-Qoma so that we get to compare the two cultures.

Ultimately, his own breach is what gives us an insight into the way Breach works and to the conclusion of the book, which one could read as a perfect manifesto for the social construction of reality or ethnomethodology as his Breach avatar explains to him:

“Nowhere else works like the cities,” he said. “It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does. But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time … you can’t come back from that.”” (5664)

“Doing” the city and the city is a matter of minutiae of social interaction (accomplished and denied at the same time) and constitutes an enormous amount of interactive collaboration (also as necessary as it is denied). It is this architecture of interaction that sustains the dual social structure and collective underpinning of the city and the city.

A fascinating read.

First, Deviance, Then Stigma, Then Degradation Ceremony – Cat Dumper Edition

I have blogged about this yesterday. After the visible deviance, the strong social reaction (death threats via Facebook… that’s gonna make Todd Krohn warm up to Facebook!) and stigma (the woman was outed within hours of her deed), now comes the more or less obligatory shaming ritual, or, as Harold Garfinkel would call it, degradation ceremony:

“In a statement released on Wednesday, Ms Bale, a bank worker from Stoke, in Coventry, said: “I want to take this opportunity to apologise profusely for the upset and distress that my actions have caused.

“I cannot explain why I did this, it is completely out of character and I certainly did not intend to cause any distress to Lola or her owners.

“It was a split second of misjudgement that has got completely out of control.

“I am due to meet with the RSPCA and police to discuss this matter further and will co-operate fully with their investigations.

“I wish to reiterate that I am profoundly sorry for my actions and wish to resolve this matter to everyone’s satisfaction as soon as possible.””

The problem, Ms Bale, is that stigma tends to stick. It is not easy to shed especially if a catchy nickname has been attached to the offender, like the “cat dumper” (or “the Octomom” to use another example). Which means that this is very likely to become your master status for quite some time. Further social rituals may be required, such as volunteering at the British version of the ASPCA, in order to be able to get rid of that stigma.

From a purely selfish point of view, my deviance lectures just wrote themselves here.

The Patriarchy Continuum – Paying The Price for Refusing to Conform

I have blogged before about the fact that patriarchy is both structural and normative. It exists through institutions that reproduce patriarchal privilege and inequalities. But it is also a cultural system entirely contributing to the normative acceptance of patriarchal symbols, discourse and values. And as with any normative system, there is a price to pay for deviance. And the sanctions may be imposed by different social institutions (this is one of their functions), such as the family or the medical establishment.

Case number 1:

“A British couple were shot dead in an apparent honour killing in Pakistan after they refused to let their two daughters marry their nephews, a friend said yesterday.

Gul Wazir and his wife, Niaz Begum, were visiting relatives in Salehana, a remote village in Nowshera province, with their 28-year-old son Mehboob Alam when three men burst into the house and carried out the “revenge” attack.

Earlier in their visit, a row had erupted when Mr Wazir, a taxi driver, was asked by his Pakistan-based brother Noor if he would allow his daughters to marry his sons Awal Zamir and Rehman. The daughters, who had stayed at home in Alum Rock, Birmingham, rejected the proposals.

Hassan Ahmed, a friend of the family, said yesterday that Mr Wazir had refused the offer because his daughters were worried about the language barrier and cultural differences. As a result, a meeting of four village elders was called, who sided with Mr Wazir.

The family had thought the matter was closed, but on Friday three men sprayed bullets at the couple as they chatted over breakfast, Mr Ahmed said. Their son was upstairs taking a shower. Hearing the gunfire, he rushed downstairs to find his parents dead.”

Case number 2:

“Gangs of men dressed in black from his newly opened Centre for Spiritual and Moral Education roam the streets lecturing passers-by about the evils of alcohol and the right kind of Islam. Women too are targeted by Mr Kadyrov’s reforms. In 2007, in violation of Russian law, he issued an edict banning women without a headscarf from schools, universities and other public buildings. Since June, unidentified men with paintball guns have driven round the centre of Grozny shooting at girls with uncovered heads. On state television, Mr Kadyrov said he didn’t know who was responsible for the attacks but added: “When I find them I will express my gratitude.” The Chechen President has also boasted that Chechen men can take “second, third and fourth wives” and that he believes polygamy is the best way to revive his war-ravaged republic.

According to some estimates, one in five Chechen marriages begins when a girl is snatched off the street and forced into a car by her future groom and his accomplices. The internet is full of videos of these “bride stealings”, set to romantic music. The practice has seen a resurgence since the end of the conflicts with Russia and, in a nation that is awash with guns, violence is prevalent and the abductors of women enjoy a culture of impunity. More often than not, the girl is pressured into marrying her kidnapper to preserve family honour and avoid triggering a blood feud. Some are resigned to their fate and make a surprising success of their marriages.

For others, that is far from the case. Lipkhan Bazaeva, who runs an organisation called Women’s Dignity, says brides are often brought in by mothers-in -law who believe the girl is possessed by evil spirits. “Just imagine – her son has stolen a girl he liked and married her. What they want is a nice, quiet, hard-working woman in the house, not someone who’s feeling down from the moment she wakes up and who’s hysterical in the evening. So they take them to the mullah.” The mothers-in-law do not help, she adds, typically making scant effort to be compassionate or nice to the reluctant bride.

Mullah Mairbek Yusupov is a small bearded man dressed in a green surgeon-style top and skull-cap. He appears pleasant and softly spoken – until he gets to work. The patient was lying blindfolded on her back, wearing a long flowery robe. Mr Yusupov began yelling verses from the Koran into her ear and beating her with a short stick. “She feels no pain”, he said. “We beat the genie and not the patient.”

The woman, probably in her early 20s, was writhing on the bed : “Shut up! Leave me alone!” she growled. Mr Yusupov claimed this strange voice belonged to the genie possessing her. He shouted back: “Take your claws out of this woman. Aren’t you ashamed? Go on! Leave her body like you did last time, through her toe.”

With a deadpan expression, Mr Yusupov explained that the genie inside the girl was 340 years old. He was not a Muslim – he was a Russian man called Andrei and he had fallen in love with his victim. The genie was so jealous that he made her leave her husband. This was already the seventh time he’d treated this patient.

The girl’s aunt who had watched the exorcism said her niece was “stolen” at the age of 16 and had since been through two divorces. “She wants to be alone all the time,” she sighed. “She doesn’t want to talk or see anyone and nothing makes her happy.” The girl’s despairing family was hoping doctors at the Centre could turn her into an obedient wife so they could marry her off again.”

The Evacuation of the Social in Socially-Themed Movies

There is nothing I can add to this great post by Jeremy Levine on two movies I decided not to go see precisely because what he writes was entirely predictable from the trailers:

Precious:

And The Blind Side:

Because, you see, there was never any real need for social movements and policies on racial equality. White Christian folks would have done it all anyway, on their own terms. After all, that is what wealthy White Christians do, save black kids because their families can’t take care of them (as illustrated in Precious).

So, these socially-themed movies completely evacuate the social except in its negative consequences seen as the a-historical and a-social product of dysfunction and deviant behavior only to be solved by the goodness of white and upper class people. Social policy (automatically equated as welfare which codes as “bad and inefficient and ineffective” in American social unconscious) does not work and is unnecessary.

These movies are part of the common American discourse that systematically rejects the idea of social determination (as opposed to meritocracy) by social allocation of social privileges and disadvantages, in favor of a childish view that one has “to believe in oneself” and have the “right values” to succeed. The significant result is the absence of coherent social policy in the US since this underlying view indicates that the poor are deviant to be sanctioned. Or, in “inspirational movies” (code for “sappy”, childish, and fit to be aired on the Hallmarks channel), individuals saved by other individuals (or families since in such a view, the family is the only social institutions that matters and is therefore undermined by non-family related mechanisms such as social policies).

Oh, and in both movies, the black dysfunctional individuals to be saved are grossly overweight.

I am not saying that every socially-themed movie should be a thorough lesson on structural violence but some movies have done it much better than these two apparently, for instance, City of God.

Punishing The Poor – Children Edition

For those of you who remember my review of – and multiple posts on – Loïc Wacquant’s Punishing The Poor, this will seem a perfect illustration. As you remember, Wacquant’s thesis is that the neoliberal state, as it loses power on the economic and social fronts as a result of neoliberal policies it embraced, reasserts itself by punishing the poor, through prisonfare for men, and workfare for women. But what of the children?

Here is the answer (via Lambert over at Corrente):

So, shall we add “drugfare” after prisonfare and workfare? It’s a trifecta. Also, in addition to material punishment, the poor often have to endure a variety of indignities that are part of the symbolic violence they receive as well, such as being blamed and stigmatized for a variety of conditions deemed to be the results of their lack of self-control and a general “too much” attitude: too much sex, too much violence, and too much food…

That is in the context where children living in poverty are more likely to be on food stamps and therefore less likely to receive a healthy diet.

Of course, another important structural part of the story is the American health care system which makes it cheaper to prescribe drugs than use other forms of therapy along with the fact that a lot of doctors do not accept Medicaid patients. The options are severely limited. I would also bet that poor children are more likely to be labeled and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and seen as disruptive. So, that works well with the idea of poor as a category of people whose behavior has to be controlled and normalized (middle class white norms, that is).

Poverty as socially constructed and engineered deviance and therefore legitimate target for various forms of social control is what it is.

The Exempts – Social Privilege 101

This

reminded me of this, that is, a blog post where I used Denis Colombi’s starting point on traders as exempt from social norms that the rest of us are expected to follow. In other words, up until recently (that is when proverbial !@#$ hit the proverbial fan), we still lived on the “greed is good” ideology, based on the popularized notion that if we let the traders run loose and anomically, we would all benefit either specifically through the higher returns on our investments (forget the class il-logic here) or more generally through greater wealth throughout society.

The main similarity is indeed that traders are not the only “exempts”. Celebrities of various types also enjoy exemption from the norms (as long as they entertain us in one way or another, if they become too creepy, then it’s game over and stigmatization falls down on the debased celebrity who then – if said celebrity is a she – becomes a regular feature as number one segment on misogynist Olberman’s Countdown).

But one aspect that is often forgotten is not the constant temptation on celebrities morality, as Williams contends, but rather the sense of entitlement that comes with exemption from deviant stigmatization: traders are entitled to their bonuses despite the consequences of their financial behavior, and male celebrities are entitled to unrestrained sexuality (if heterosexual, of course) covered by the alibi of the “constant temptation.”

Note that whether we are talking about celebrities or bankers and traders, it is mostly male behavior we are implicitly discussing.

Here is a big difference as well: we tolerate celebrity deviance because the assumption is that “these people” are different and a rare category. There aren’t that many Tiger Woods. And the deviance itself may be a form of entertainment (and a lucrative industry), again, up to a point, as also illustrated by the case of Michael Vick or Tom Cruise. And this (although I find the analogy a bit unfortunate),

True enough, the other factors involved might be that, before it all collapsed, bankers and traders were also exempt as a result of race and social class translated into political clout and cultural validation (“ownership society” trope as well as “running things like a business” as automatic signifier of efficiency) itself translated in the popularity of MBA programs. Paging Jürgen Habermas on colonization of the lifeworld by the system, and now crisis of legitimation.

So, now that we have transgressions on the part of the exempts, as a society, we demand some degree of contrition and restitution depending on the transgression. Mostly, it is going to be largely symbolic: Tiger Woods will apologize profusely, get counseling and find religion.

As for the bankers, racial and class privileges means that they never have to say they’re sorry. Because the bottom line is that the economic collapse has not altered the structured system of privileges. A few (again, largely symbolic) punitive measures might be enacted (probably more severe in the UK and France than the US), but no structural regulations will emerge. Again, a punitive outlook is never a sound basis for public policy.

Either way, significant systemic change through serious regulation and redistribution will have to wait for another day.

The crisis of legitimation, though, is quite real and its effects (visible in the US through the Palin / Teabaggers social movement) could be potentially dangerous in the face of looming environmental catastrophes and more economic devastation.

Fall From Grace – Sports and Stigma

Any fan of football (soccer for Americans) has heard of it – the infamy:

The hand that gave France its qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. For non-soccer fan, especially on this side of the Atlantic, that move is not allowed. It’s cheating. And this started a storm. Remember Howard Becker, deviance only matters if it is seen and noticed by the audience. In the age of widespread media and the Internet, this particular act of deviance did not go unnoticed even if the referee did not see it.

And once deviance is noticed, sanctions follow. But what kinds of sanctions? Informal ones for sure as large numbers of people expressed their anger in a variety of fora all over the Internet. Thierry Henry and the French team got called all sorts of names for this. Henry for the deed, and the French team for accepting its qualification based on cheating.

Social stigma is also part of the game:

Note how the hand, a violation of soccer’s norms is depicted as “crime” and an inflammatory one at that. Audience perception is central indeed in the very definition of seriousness of the deviant act. In Europe, soccer is serious business. Part of it, of course, has to do with the fact that both teams were playing their qualification for the world’s most important soccer event, the World Cup. The stakes were high. Played at a local level, this would have been a simple incident, sanctioned by a red card (because done so closed to the goal cage) and maybe a suspension.

Well, Henry might not be suspended and the international soccer authorities have ruled out the possibility of a rematch, but certainly, France’s participation to the World Cup is now stigmatized, tainted and comments about the way France got there will be made at the Cup and its defeat at whatever stage (if that happens) will be depicted as well-deserved. And even if France were to win (an unlikely proposition at this point), the win itself will be tainted.

And because this incident happened at a high-stake international game, criticisms are heaped not just over the player himself, but the entire team and the country.

An additional aspect of personal stigma that Goffman studied is how stigma completely reconstructs the stigmatized person’s identity around the stigma itself so that the stigma becomes the individual’s master status, pushing into the background any other other identity that the individual possesses:

It is too early to tell whether the stigma will “stick” and for how long. Certainly, again, this will hold through the World Cup. And this will require acts of contrition of Henry’s part (he has already done that).

At the same time, European soccer players are brands in themselves and attract sponsorship individually as part of their usual team. This is another potential source of sanctions. Will Henry lose his sponsors and therefore part of his earning? THis might be so as the stigma now attached to Henry might reflect on his sponsors.

As with the case of Caster Semenya, the deviance is socially produced, collectively noticed. But the difference with Henry, is that Semenya had to face potential formal sanctions based on formal procedures that affected her basic gender identity. In Henry’s case, so far, the sanctions are only informal in nature but stronger in intensity. In Henry’s case, his “nice guy” identity as well as his status in the international classification of soccer player will take a major hit along with his monetary value. But because Henry’s sport is team-based, his offense spill over onto the entire team.

However, in Semenya’s case, the formal procedures guaranteed a conclusion, which was reached today (with a lot left unsaid and ambiguities):

Will Semenya retain a trace of the stigma? Will this be mentioned if she competes again? The stigma might be “easier” for Semenya to shed as her sex is not something she can control where Henry’s act was plainly under his control. Semenya cannot help who she is whereas Henry could have avoided the deviant act that stigmatizes him.

But either way, in both case, the deviant label was applied based on not just visibility but notice. Semenya’s performance was questioned because groups decided she “looked” masculine (by socially defined criteria, such as heavy muscularity). Henry’s hand was captured on video for the world to see and social context made his deviance a “crime” of “inflammatory” nature.

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.

Spouting BS As Social Privilege

Denis Colombi notes this wonderful gem from former Judo superstar turned right-wing politician (you see where this is going, don’t you?):

Let me offer a rough translation of this steaming pile:

“To me, a woman doing judo or in another sport, that’s neither natural not rewarding. For children’s well-being, I think a woman’s place is at home. It is the mother that has it in her genes, her instinct, that capacity to raise children. If God gave women the capacity to procreate, it’s for a reason.

So, this woman, when she has a job outside the home, by choice or necessity, she can no longer fulfill this essential nurturing function. (…) I consider this nexus to be destructured. The foundations of humanity, and nurturing, in particular, are partially shaken.

I have been told I am misogynist. But all men are. Except fags.”

Lovely.

As Colombi notes, in the context of the “big debate” on national identity promulgated by our oh-so concerned administration, gender equality has been posited by officials as a foundation of the Republic. After all, that is the reason why there is discussion to ban certain types of Muslim veils. So, what if instead of very White, very French David Douillet, a Maghred immigrant man had stated the nonsense quoted above? You can bet the outrage would be all over the place, taken as representative of “what Muslim men think of women” and their inability to assimilate into the French society, and duly stigmatized.

Will Douillet be stripped of his French nationality for refusing to accept one of the essential foundations of the Republic: gender equality? Colombi asks, rhetorically, and tongue firmly in cheek. Of course not. What an absurd notion. Stigma is not attached what is done, but to who does it and how the corresponding societal reaction, as Howard Becker has taught us.

Despite claims to generality (“all men think like that”), Douillet’s drivel will not be taken as representative of his ethnic group. That only works for minorities. They are the ones facing sanctions, symbolic and others, for their every move. Spouting nonsense without having to suffer much consequences for it is a form of social privilege.

That’s the sociological interpretation. My more, well, down-to-earth view is below:

Douillet

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.

Book Review – Punishing The Poor

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

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

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

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

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

Wacquant himself explains it in this video:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very powerful book.

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