Göran Therborn published The Killing Fields of Inequality as what looks like an expanded version of a 2009 article on the same subject. And contrary to Picketty’s massive economic volume, Therborn’s book is short and sweet even though it covers some of the same territory. However, Therborn’s book focuses more on theoretical conceptualizations of inequality as well as its social consequences.

This is visible right off the bat in the way Therborn defines inequality:

“Inequality is a violation of human dignity; it is a denial of the possibility for everybody’s human capabilities to develop. It takes many forms, and it has many effects: premature death, ill-health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge or from mainstream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and of pride in oneself, and exclusion from opportunities and life-chances. Inequality, then, is not just about the size of wallets. It is a socio-cultural order, which (for most of us) reduces our capabilities to function as human beings, our health, our self-respect, our sense of self, as well as our resources to act and participate in this world.” (1)

This is, I think, one of the most powerful statement of what equality truly is, beyond the relatively simplistic (and always contentious, nevertheless) economic indicators that do not capture the multi-layered nature of the impact, and mixing of cause and consequence, of inequality. But it is precisely this multi-layered nature that necessitates a more nuanced and inclusive approach to examining inequality, which is what Therborn focuses on:

  1. a multi-dimensional conceptualization of inequality;
  2. within a historical and global context;
  3. produced through a variety of mechanisms;
  4. and often countered by equalization mechanisms (which Therborn argues for).

The simple idea is that inequality is produced by a variety of mechanisms and is therefore not inevitable (like some weird atmospheric event) and certainly not desirable considering the social devastation it produces (which reproduces it at the same time). As such, equalization mechanisms are needed and available.

So, first of all, inequality means exclusion which comes in two forms:

Two main doors of social exclusion

Out of these, Therborn notes three different effects (click on the image for larger view):

The mechanisms through whichinequality tears society apart

To summarize:

“The social space for human development is carved up and restricted, above all for the disadvantaged, of course, but not only for them. Secondly, the inequality of ownership of, control of or access to economic resources means that what has been produced in a given society can easily be dissipated by the privileged few. Thirdly, inequality of economic resources and their political deployment has negated the nineteenth-century liberal fears of democracy: that citizens’ power would encroach upon private property. Instead, big property owners have, most of the time in most countries, been able to dictate what is ‘sound economic policy’.” (22)

The greater the inequality, the more of all three effects we will observe.

No conceptual work would be complete with some distinction and clarification although I do not find his conceptualization of the difference between difference and inequality persuasive:

Difference Inequality
Assumed or given Socially constructed
No commonality assumed Assumed commonality
No violation of norm of equality Violation of norm of equality
Difference can coexist with inequality

I have to say that I am not really convinced by this. Differences can be as socially constructed as inequalities and these inequalities can be constructing through othering, that is, by denying any commonality with the class of people being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. Similarly, inequality is often based on some imposed norm of essential inequality (gender, for instance) whether that supposed essence is assumed to be religion, tradition, or nature.

How much equality do we need? Here, Therborn invokes Amartya Sen’s capability approach to punt: inequalities prevent billions of people from full human development. Therefore, the focus should be on increasing capability for all and reducing social bads.

The bulk of Therborn’s conceptual work goes to delineating the different types of inequalities (click on the image for a larger view):

Three kinds of inequalityAccording to Therborn, while the mechanisms of vital and resource inequalities have been amply studied, the social sciences have yet to give existential inequality the attention it deserves. On the one hand, I disagree: Therborn refers to sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. and those have been extensively studied. On the other hand, yes, there have been discussions within the social sciences regarding identity politics as existential inequality, so conceived, goes back to issues of privileges and disadvantages.

Resource inequality refers not just to economic matters but also education, all forms of cultural inequality, inequalities in symbolic and social capital, as well as inequalities of power.

Needless to say, the distinction is conceptual. There is no question that these different forms of inequalities overlap and influence each other, and have impacts on one another.

How are inequalities produced and maintained?

“Inequalities are produced and sustained socially by systemic arrangements and processes, and by distributive action, individual as well as collective. It is crucial to pay systematic attention to both. ‘Distributive action’ is here taken as any social action, individual as well as collective, with direct distributive consequences, be they actions of systemic advance or retardation, or of allocation / distribution.” (55)

Therborn identifies four such distributive actions, each involving both individual actions (what Therborn call ‘direct agency’) and systemic dynamics (click on the image for a larger view):

--Types of distributive action--I numbered these actions because Therborn see them as a cumulative continuum, with distanciation at one polar end, and exploitation at the other polar end of the continuum. Each layer adds more inequalities to the system, with exploitation (which includes slavery as extreme form) as the most unequal.

However, each one of these distributive actions can be countered by an equalizing mechanism:

--Types of equality mechanisms--

I numbered them to refer them to their respective distributive action (and like the distributive actions, these mechanisms can be individual or collective).

So, this is the basic conceptual apparatus that Therborn deploys to then get to the historical and empirical aspects of inequality, that is, match the concepts to the data. Note that the apparatus is more descriptive than predictive.

I have to say that this is where the book gets a bit tedious mostly because of the too-limited use of some data vizualization. It is really useless to read paragraphs and paragraphs of data. I wish these empirical sections had been better visualized. I think Therborn is going to lose a lot of non-specialist readers on that aspect alone even though it is a book that should get a wider audience than academic types.

That being said, Therborn reviews the data based on his inequality three-part apparatus. Regarding vital inequalities:

“For recent increases in vital inequality, there are two main suspects. One is increasing economic uncertainty and polarization, between the unemployed and the labour market marginalized, on the one hand, and the surfers on the boom waves, on the other. The other is nowadays often called ‘lifestyle’, but is better termed ‘life-options’. It is not so much a choice of style as a perspective of possible options. People who have little control of their basic life situation, of finding a job, of controlling their work context, of launching a life-course career, may be expected to be less prone to control the health of their bodies – to notice and to follow expert advice on tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, on diet and exercise – than people who have a sense of controlling their own lives.” (82-3)

Regarding existential inequalities:

“Even though blatant, institutionalized existential inequality, such as racism, sexism and ruthless developmentalism or ‘civilizing’ zeal, have been eroded, existential inequality is still permeating contemporary societies.

(…)

There are also current social tendencies driving new forms of existential inequality: de-industrialization outsourcing, immigration of the poor, and labour market marginalizations. Such tendencies are now directed against an ‘underclass’ of people marginalized or excluded from the labour market, the second generation of industrial immigrants, poor single mothers, the children of de-industrialized workers. In Britain, they have been given a new pejorative identity as the ‘chavs’ (Jones 2011). In a US conservative bestseller portrait, they are a new ‘lower class’, unmarried, lazy, dishonest and godless (Murray 2012). Class is here returning as an existential put-down.” (88-9)

[Note: I totally resent that Therborn cites Murray repeatedly, just positing him as a conservative rather than an awful racist who should have been banned for academic status ever since the publication of the giant pile of horse manure that is The Bell Curve.]

And as for resource inequalities, the story is well-known: deindustrialization, rise of financial capitalism, globalization and the rise of transnational forces able to undermine the social safety nets. On education, Therborn, I think Therborn engages in too much generalizing (for instance, that private systems are better at the primary and secondary levels). One cannot, on the one hand, deplore the persistence of educational gaps and not see the impact of private systems on such persistence.

As for power,

“Within nations, social movements, collective associations and wide-franchised elections – democratization, in short – have brought about a major equalization of political resources, once monopolized by monarchs and other despots. But, as with economic resources, political equalization has been stopped or reversed recently, by de-unionization, political party erosion, and general social dissolution of the popular classes. A difference from what has happened to economic resources, which are ever more concentrated, has been the rise of electronic social media and their possibilities of self-generated mass communication.” (99)

I think the jury is still out on that one. There may be a crisis of legitimation, but yesterday’s European Parliamentary elections show that the reaction is not one of demand for more democracy. Quite the opposite.

Therborn shows that progress on vital inequalities is still inadequate, even in some developed countries. At the same time, again, in developed countries, there has been considerable progress on existential inequality (gay rights, for instance), but I would argue that this has been at the expenses of resource inequalities. In other words, the power elite has figured out that they could keep on beating up on unions and the poor, as long as there was some (cost-free) progress on identity politics matters, there would be no class-based social movements to demand changes.

So where does this leave us:

“Violent revolutions, large-scale industrial wars, profound economic crisis – strong storms have been necessary to tame the ferocious anti-egalitarianism of late-feudal, patriarchal and modern capitalist societies. However, there has also been a fourth kind of egalitarian moment. Under certain circumstances, far-reaching peaceful social reform has been possible. This is obviously the experience most relevant to the current world.” (155)

And by fourth moment, Therborn mean “les trente glorieuses” (the post-WWII period until the 1980s) and the current political movement in Latin America.

When it comes to reducing inequalities, Therborn argues that this will require forces of equalization and that these can be divided in two: forces of demand (for equality) and forces of supply (those social actors who can actually deliver equalization) based on their motivations.

So, regarding these forces of demand, exit the labor movement and the working class, enter identify-based movements and what Therborn solidaristic individualism:

“Solidaristic individualism – ‘I want to choose my own lifestyle, but I am concerned about the possibilities of others to make their choice’ – is a vital force of equality. It provided the vibrant, albeit unsustainable, dynamic of the Occupy movements (see, further, Castells 2012; Mason 2012).” (162)

I think he is absolutely right on that.

What of the forces of supply, then?

“Equality derives basically from demand. But as social equality is a social force of cohesion, of combat as well as of development, it has its forces of supply, driven first of all by fear. There is the fear of the unequals, of their anger and their possible protests and rebellion. Secondly, there is the fear of the external enemy, the fear of not being up to the lethal capacity of the latter. Thirdly, there is the fear of backwardness, and projects of inclusive national development. While fear is a basic source of equalization measures by the powerful and privileged, it is not the only one. Ruling elites and/or their staff are not always fully absorbed by their own privileges and greed. They are not necessarily incapable of comprehensive visions and far-sighted strategic calculations – occasionally even of empathy with their subjects.” (163)

Again, here, I would argue that the elites have been able to continue the pursuit of resource inequalities by trading it for existential equalization.

For the future, Therborn sees three potential battlefields (and they are all institutional and systemic: family, capitalism, and nation as all three are essential in producing inequalities. There has been a lot of progress on the family front, not just with the redefinition of family in and of itself (and the progressive acceptance of multiple family forms) but also with respect to children’s rights. Ultimately, that battlefield is about individual rights to form families of one’s choice. When it comes to capitalism, though, Therborn goes back rights tied to labor and against precarization. Finally, the national battlefield goes to rights of citizens:

“Asserting the rights of citizens means, first of all, a vigorous defence of democracy, of people’s right to self-determination. Citizens have a right to assert their collective will regarding their economy and their environment over any private capital interests, or any anonymous global aggregation of, e.g., financial markets. The ongoing 2008 crisis, caused by an absence of any civic control over the opulent little world of reckless speculators and high-stake casino-gamblers, acted out more in Europe than in America, is the costliest defeat of the North Atlantic democracies since the German crash of 1931–3.” (173)

Therborn argues that these battlefields might not be primarily in developed countries but outside of the Global North. But he also thinks that certain factors will lead to fighting for equalization:

  1. the obvious cost of misery that is visible to all;
  2. the crisis of legitimation for the elite after they destroyed the economy;
  3. equality is good for society.

I am not so sure about #1, the rise of the Tea Party, and fascist parties all over Europe are precisely movements that are based on a complete lack of compassion for underdogs and victims of all forms of inequalities. They are based on resentment and hatred. That’s an extra obstacle that Therborn does not consider.

Yes, the elites have been somewhat discredited but the challenges have been limited: a threat of protest at commencement speech, the short-lived Occupy movement and Arab Spring movements. None of the contestation has led to any systemic change.

Yes, equality is good for society and there is ample data to prove it, but the dominant discourse is not that idea at all, and especially considering, again, my response to #1.

So, this is a book very much worth reading and important. I don’t agree with all of it. The conceptual apparatus is worth exploring and using. The diagnosis is sound, but the prescriptions, I think, are a bit too optimistic.

Nevertheless, I think this is required reading for all sociologists.

And while you’re at it, also go read Kathleen Geier’s review.

[This is a repost from a review I posted when this book came out, but it seems like the topic of unpaid internship is making a comeback on the Internet, so, revisiting this might be useful.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have already posted quite a bit about David Harvey‘s Rebel Cities: From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution:

It is somewhat of a given that every book by prolific David Harvey is an important book. He is a sharp analyst of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and has the ability to write very clearly about rather complex matters. His writing is engaging, full of examples that illustrate the concepts he uses in his deconstruction of the logic of 21st century capitalism. At the same time, as my previous posts on the subjects have shown, he is not shy about being critical of the left for its fetishism of the local and organizational forms (currently: the horizontal and non-hierarchical).

My previous posts have focused mainly on chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the book. That is where the heart of the argument is and we’ll see why in a minute.

The heart of the book, of course, is the concept of “right to the city” and the centrality of the city as locus of power in 21st century capitalism, but also as locus for potential anti-capitalist movements:

“The city, the noted urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” If Park is correct, then the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. How best then to exercise that right?

Since, as Park avers, we have hitherto lacked any clear sense of the nature of our task, it is useful first to reflect on how we have been made and remade throughout history by an urban process impelled onwards by powerful social forces. The astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years means, for example, that we have been remade several times over without knowing why or how. Has this dramatic urbanization contributed to human well-being? Has it made us into better people, or left us dangling in a world of anomie and alienation, anger and frustration? Have we become mere monads tossed around in an urban sea? These were the sorts of questions that preoccupied all manner of nineteenth-century commentators, such as Friedrich Engels and Georg Simmel, who offered perceptive critiques of the urban personas then emerging in response to rapid urbanization. These days it is not hard to enumerate all manner of urban discontents and anxieties, as well as excitements, in the midst of even more rapid urban transformations. Yet we somehow seem to lack the stomach for systematic critique. The maelstrom of change overwhelms us even as obvious questions loom. What, for example, are we to make of the immense concentrations of wealth, privilege, and consumerism in almost all the cities of the world in the midst of what even the United Nations depicts as an exploding “planet of slums”?

To claim the right to the city in the sense I mean it here is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way. From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while control over the use of the surplus typically lies in the hands of a few (such as a religious oligarchy, or a warrior poet with imperial ambitions).” (3 – 5)

At the same time, capitalism and urbanity have been associated with crises and social movements throughout the 20th and 21st century (and before), so there are clearly capitalist and anti-capitalist dynamics revolving around the urban context that are separate from strictly class / labor dynamics. And that is what Harvey is interested in: to examine the nature of 21st century capitalism and to find interstices and spaces of contention and conflict through which social movements could emerge and challenge hegemonic arrangements. The global city is the perfect nexus for all of this.

“Fast-forward once again to our current conjuncture. International capitalism was on a roller-coaster of regional crises and crashes (East and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001, and so on) until it experienced a global crash in 2008. What has been the role of urbanization in this history? In the United States it was accepted wisdom until 2008 that the housing market was an important stabilizer of the economy, particularly after the high-tech crash of the late 1990s. The property market absorbed a great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction (of both inner-city and suburban housing and new office spaces), while the rapid inflation of housing asset prices, backed by a profligate wave of mortgage refinancing at historically low rates of interest, boosted the internal US market for consumer goods and services. The global market was stabilized partly through US urban expansion and speculation in property markets, as the US ran huge trade deficits with the rest of the world, borrowing around $2 billion a day to fuel its insatiable consumerism and the debt-financed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

But the urban process underwent another transformation of scale. In short, it went global. So we cannot focus merely on the US. Property market booms in Britain, Ireland, and Spain, as well as in many other countries, helped power the capitalist dynamic in ways that broadly paralleled that in the US. The urbanization of China over the last twenty years, as we shall see in Chapter 2, has been of a radically different character, with a heavy focus on building infrastructures. Its pace picked up enormously after a brief recession in 1997 or so. More than a hundred cities have passed the 1 million population mark in the last twenty years, and small villages, like Shenzhen, have become huge metropolises of 6 to 10 million people. Industrialization was at first concentrated in the special economic zones, but then rapidly diffused outwards to any municipality willing to absorb the surplus capital from abroad and plough back the earnings into rapid expansion. Vast infrastructural projects, such as dams and highways—again, all debt-financed—are transforming the landscape. Equally vast shopping malls, science parks, airports, container ports, pleasure palaces of all kinds, and all manner of newly minted cultural institutions, along with gated communities and golf courses, dot the Chinese landscape in the midst of overcrowded urban dormitories for the massive labor reserves being mobilized from the impoverished rural regions that supply the migrant labor.

(…)

China is only one epicenter for an urbanization process that has now become genuinely global, in part through the astonishing global integration of financial markets that use their flexibility to debt-finance urban projects from Dubai to São Paulo and from Madrid and Mumbai to Hong Kong and London. The Chinese central bank, for example, has been active in the secondary mortgage market in the US, while Goldman Sachs has been involved in the surging property markets in Mumbai and Hong Kong capital has invested in Baltimore. Almost every city in the world has witnessed a building boom for the rich—often of a distressingly similar character—in the midst of a flood of impoverished migrants converging on cities as a rural peasantry is dispossessed through the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture.

These building booms have been evident in Mexico City, Santiago in Chile, in Mumbai, Johannesburg, Seoul, Taipei, Moscow, and all over Europe (Spain’s being most dramatic), as well as in the cities of the core capitalist countries such as London, Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York (where more large-scale urban projects were in motion in 2007 under the billionaire Bloomberg’s administration than ever before). Astonishing, spectacular, and in some respects criminally absurd urbanization projects have emerged in the Middle East in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a way of mopping up the capital surpluses arising from oil wealth in the most conspicuous, socially unjust and environmentally wasteful ways possible (such as an indoor ski slope in a hot desert environment).

(…)

But this urbanization boom has depended, as did all the others before it, on the construction of new financial institutions and arrangements to organize the credit required to sustain it. Financial innovations set in train in the 1980s, particularly the securitization and packaging of local mortgages for sale to investors world-wide, and the setting up of new financial institutions to facilitate a secondary mortgage market and to hold collateralized debt obligations, has played a crucial role. The benefits of this were legion: it spread risk and permitted surplus savings pools easier access to surplus housing demand, and also, by virtue of its coordinations, it brought aggregate interest rates down (while generating immense fortunes for the financial intermediaries who worked these wonders).” (11 – 13)

This is the initial state of affairs. In the following chapters, Harvey, then, goes digging for the contradictions in this system in order to carve out spaces of contention for alternative social movements, especially since the dynamics quoted above have created vast inequalities of wealth and power (what with triumphant neoliberalism) that are highly visible in the global cities, with their cosmopolitan and privileged core and their peripheral slums, with their mass consumption levels and therefore, their great dependency on labor for both goods and services and the necessity of absorption of surplus value (so central to capitalism). Where neoliberalism is the most visibly dominant is also where it is most vulnerable. The amount of displacement and dispossession taking place in global city can be matched by counter-dynamics of anti-capitalist movements, IF they can organize around a new definition of what the working class is.

Those were basically the premises laid out in chapter 1. For those of us who had read Harvey’s previous book, The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism, chapter 2 will feel very familiar as it summarizes the current crisis. The core of Harvey’s argument really takes off in chapter 3, all through chapter 5 (so, you can refer to my blog posts listed at the beginning of this post). Chapters 6 and 7 read like columns that were published when things started heating up in Spring 2011, and especially during the London riots in Summer 2011 (I blogged about it at the time). They are very short, much less analytical and in-depth than the preceding chapters. This is where Harvey introduced the concept of feral capitalism:

“The problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all it’s worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shopkeepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.

A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery—particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected—has become the order of the day.

(…)

Every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way—more blatantly and visibly, in the streets. They mimic on the streets of London what corporate capital is doing to planet earth.” (155 – 6)

Chapter 7, also short and column-ish rather than full-on analysis, address Occupy Wall Street:

“But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront the Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and, by putting human bodies in that place, to convert public space into a political commons—a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and ongoing struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, and now the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked. What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook, that really matter.” (161 – 2)

It is not hard to see why Harvey would be interested in OWS, which is why I was a bit disappointed to not find a full-fledged analysis of the movement in the book. Apart from this two-page chapter, there is nothing on OWS, at least not explicitly. Of course, one can easily read between the lines of his analysis in chapters 3, 4 and 5 and see what applies to OWS (the organizational fetishism, for instance), which makes this absence all the more remarkable.

Nevertheless, Harvey offers a few recommendations for the OWS movement:

“To succeed, the movement has to reach out to the 99 percent. This it can do and is doing, step by step. First there are all those being plunged into immiseration by unemployment, and all those who have been or are now being dispossessed of their houses and their assets by the Wall Street phalanx. The movement must forge broad coalitions between students, immigrants, the underemployed, and all those threatened by the totally unnecessary and draconian austerity politics being inflicted upon the nation and the world at the behest of the Party of Wall Street. It must focus on the astonishing levels of exploitation in workplaces—from the immigrant domestic workers who the rich so ruthlessly exploit in their homes to the restaurant workers who slave for almost nothing in the kitchens of the establishments in which the rich so grandly eat. It must bring together the creative workers and artists whose talents are so often turned into commercial products under the control of big-money power.

The movement must above all reach out to all the alienated, the dissatisfied, and the discontented—all those who recognize and feel in their gut that there is something profoundly wrong, that the system the Party of Wall Street has devised is not only barbaric, unethical, and morally wrong, but also broken.

All this has to be democratically assembled into a coherent opposition, which must also freely contemplate the future outlines of an alternative city, an alternative political system, and, ultimately, an alternative way of organizing production, distribution, and consumption for the benefit of the people. Otherwise, a future for the young that points to spiraling private indebtedness and deepening public austerity, all for the benefit of the 1 percent, is no future at all.

(…)

In the face of the organized power of the Party of Wall Street to divide and rule, the movement that is emerging must also take as one of its founding principles that it will be neither divided nor diverted until the Party of Wall Street is brought either to its senses—to see that the common good must prevail over narrow venal interests—or to its knees. Corporate privileges that confer the rights of individuals without the responsibilities of true citizens must be rolled back. Public goods such as education and health care must be publicly provided and made freely available. The monopoly powers in the media must be broken. The buying of elections must be ruled unconstitutional. The privatization of knowledge and culture must be prohibited. The freedom to exploit and dispossess others must be severely curbed, and ultimately outlawed.” (162 – 3)

As I mentioned above, any book by David Harvey is an important book and I would consider him one of the most important “translators” of Marxian thought (I don’t really like the term “vulgarizer”). He does provide a deep yet clear analysis of both the workings of 21st century capitalism, locates them in the longue durée, sniffs out the contradictions and exposes them for all to see, hopefully (for him) leading up to social movements rushing through these interstices opened by these contradictions.

This book should be mandatory reading for activists and anyone interested / involved with the anti-capitalist movements around the world.

In the end, whatever the future of capitalism, it will be an urban future, so, any movement that hopes to contest the hegemony had better have some urban planning of its own ready. This book offers a good starting point.

I should end by noting that Harvey, as he recommends a redefinition of the working class beyond the factory workers, offers The Salt of the Earth as example of the kind of broad mobilization that is needed. In the case of the film, it is rural communities. Harvey thinks the same should be done for urban communities:

By SocProf.

The Guardian has a great series of graphs trying to summarize the impact of the Thatcher years.

[Disclaimer: I loathed her.]

This one is my “favorite”:

As the article notes,

“As Britain learnt to come to terms with the idea of “no such thing as society”, unemployment shot up under the Conservatives to levels not seen since the Great Depression. The figures show how it lags behind the economy – even after the recession was over, many were unemployed.”

Also, deindustrialization:

And housing prices:

For more on the Thatcher legacy, you must read this blog post by PhilBC, over at A Very Public Sociologist.

I do not follow sports, except for the World Cup of Soccer. And I especially do not follow American sports such as baseball, basketball or football (or as we Europeans call it, American football, since the real football is what Americans call soccer). But, I do enjoy reading Dave Zirin’s columns and books. So, I was happy to pick up his latest, Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down.

The book is a global tour of what sports trends that Zirin finds encouraging as they match his lefty politics. So, he takes us on a tour that includes the role of soccer fans in the revolution in Egypt and more broadly the Arab Spring, or athletes as labor fighting back against corporate league bosses and owners, women pushing for greater opportunities, and gay players coming out. Overall, Zirin sees major shifts in the world of sports, hence the “Game Over” title, as it points to the idea that sports is not the same. Something dramatic is changing. And as with any progressive change, there is backlash.

“Over the last thirty years, the athletic-industrial complex has transformed itself into a trillion dollar, global entity. One way it’s done this is by making its product and its players as explicitly apolitical as possible. From Peyton Manning to Derek Jeter to Danica Patrick, the dominant message projected by athletes has been that it’s far more important to be a brand than an individual, and that a modern jock should never sacrifice commercial concerns for political principle. This credo echoes Jesse Owens, the great Olympic star, who once said, “The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside.”

ESPN, twenty-four-hour talk radio, and a seemingly bottomless appetite for distraction have exploded the size of our sports world— and its profits— into the stratosphere. In conjunction with this expansion, politics has also been actively discouraged by management and slammed by sports columnists. Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell toward the end of his life dubbed it rule number one of “the jockocracy”: sports and politics just don’t mix.

Yet over the last several years, the specter of politics has been haunting sports. Cosell’s Golden Rule has been repeatedly and flagrantly breached. More athletes are speaking out across the political spectrum as a series of revolutions, occupations, and protests has defined the global landscape. The real world is gaining on the sports world and the sports world is starting to look over its shoulder.” (Locs. 258-270)

As always, Zirin has a punchy writing style and he definitely takes sides. At the same time, there is, unsurprisingly, in every line, an undying love of sport. But Zirin always has an eye for the relationships between sports and society, dominance and resistance. This is true here as well.

“Our sports culture shapes societal attitudes, relationships, and power arrangements. It is where cultural meanings— our very notions of who we are and how we see each other, not only as Americans but also as individuals— play out. It frames the ways in which we understand and discuss issues of gender, race, and class. And, as ever, it is crucial for understanding how these norms and power structures have been negotiated, struggled with, and resisted.” (Locs 367-370)

The book is rich in stories in context that will keep even the least interested reader (like me) interested in the subject. Overall, in the US, Zirin sees the end of the “shut up and play” rule where athletes are not supposed to have opinions beyond their brand preferences. And there is often a price to pay if players do speak up and get political.

At the same time, Zirin reminds readers that players are labor, with unions, operating in environments of unprecedented corporate power and owners who engage in David Harvey’s accumulation by extraction, passing on the burden of the economic crisis and bad managements to the players. In that sense, sports is a perfect reflection of socioeconomic trends that affect the American society as a whole.

And so, the lockouts we have all heard of over the previous years are about very basic labor issues:

“Our side of the table, the average career for a football player is 3.6 years. It takes you three years and three games in order to get five years of health care coverage when you’re done playing. If you play any less than three years you don’t get any health care coverage when you retire. If you play three years and three games, you still only get five years . . . so you take a guy who graduates from college at 22, the average career is 3.6 years, let’s say he plays four years. Players are retiring at the ripe old age of 26. Five years of health care coverage and everything after that, every injury you have is a preexisting condition. Try to find insurance for that. So when they say to me, it’s a battle between billionaires and millionaires, that’s where I start.” (Locs 520-525).

Of course, in different ways, a lot of Americans face this exact same situation with the health care system. Athletes get it much younger and much more dramatically.

This corporate power is accompanied by what has long been Zirin’s pet peeve, and the subject of his previous book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (reviewed here), massive public subsidies to very wealthy teams and their “wronged billionaire” owners. And as with the American society where wealth has been transferred upwards over the past thirty years, the same goes for the big leagues, like the NBA, where massive wealth gets transferred from the public and the players to the owners.

But why was soccer fanhood so central to the Arab Spring?

“In many countries with an authoritarian bent, the clubs are allowed to exist and even thrive, under the tacit understanding that it’s better for young, frustrated men to take out their anger on themselves and the police than on the government.” (Locs 732-733)

Thus were born the Egyptian Ultras who were so present on Tahrir Square. And so, as much as they were supposed to stay away from politics, the Ultras trained themselves to be revolutionaries as they went against the other fans. Similarly, athletes and fans in Bahrain also took to the streets, with less success though. Several star players were arrested and tortured there.

Even more globally, to have the privilege of organizing a major sports event, such as the Olympics or the World Cup of Soccer often means a shock doctrine for the less privileged:

“Increasingly, these rising economic powers are also vying for the honor and prestige of hosting international sporting events. In the twenty-first century, such events require more than merely stadiums and hotels. The host country must provide a massive security apparatus, the means to crush any opposition, and the ability to create the kind of “infrastructure” that modern games demand. That means not just stadiums, but sparkling new stadiums; not just security, but the latest in antiterrorist technology; not just new transportation to and from venues, but the removal of unsightly poverty along those paths. That means a willingness to spend billions of dollars in the name of creating a playground for international tourists and multinational sponsors. What this all requires is what the decaying Western powers, at this point, cannot provide: massive deficit spending and a state police infrastructure ready to displace, destroy, or disappear anyone who dares stand in their way.” (Locs 993-1000)

For anyone following the British press, there was a lot of coverage of these issues before the London Olympics. And one just has to look at current events to find items reflecting exactly that:

“Brazilian riot police armed with batons, teargas and pepper spray have forcibly evicted an indigenous community from a dilapidated museum complex next to the Maracanã football stadium.

The forced relocation, which led to scuffles, arrests and accusations of brutality, comes amid growing pressure on the hosts of the next World Cup to accelerate preparations that have fallen far behind schedule. Renovation of the stadium, which will host next year’s final, was supposed to have been completed at the end of last year, but there are doubts that it will be ready for a friendly between England and Brazil in June.

The museum has been the focus of a protracted legal battle between squatters, who claim the site should be used to promote indigenous culture, and the municipal authorities, who want to knock down a graffiti-covered eyesore and modernise the area before the world’s attention moves to Rio de Janeiro.

“We were negotiating, and then the government resorted to force,” said Urutau Guajajara, a bare-chested man wearing a feathered headdress who described himself as a professor of the Guajajara ethnic group. “The police were very violent.”

“It was shocking,” said Ingrid Paul, an Argentinian who has lived in the community for the past three weeks. “The police were obviously preparing for a fight. They came in with masks at 2:30am. We were all affected by the gas, even a three-year-old child.”

After their eviction, some of the indigenous people were taken to temporary housing provided by the government. Others sang songs, smoked pipes and handed out leaflets declaring: “513 years of struggle: resist the expulsion of the multi-ethnic indigenous group of the Maracanã.”

In the aftermath, police and TV helicopters buzzed overhead. Officers armed with automatic rifles cordoned off the area and several dozen police vehicles – including armoured personnel carriers – lined the streets.

The government says it is necessary to raze the building as part of the renovation of a rundown area that is supposed to be transformed into a sports and entertainment hub.”

It is all here: the pushing the poor to the side so they don’t stain the perfect landscape for the global media; the militarization of security, the use private military / security companies with shady accounting and overspending of public monies; the forced and inadequate relocations. It is the cleansing of urban centers for the benefit of the global elite and the few who will be able to afford the steep ticket prices for the main events (with massive corporate buys that leave a lot of empty seats as happened in London). And ultimately, the public will be stuck with the bill. In the case of the World Cup in South Africa, Zirin coined this phenomenon “Invictus in reverse” where it even got worse:

“Then there were the assassinations. In a story that made international news but gained next to no notice in the United States, two people (on a discovered list of twenty) were assassinated for “whistle-blowing” on suspected corruption in the construction of the $ 150 million Mbombela Stadium. The Sunday World newspaper attained the list, which included two journalists and numerous political leaders.” (Locs 1230-1233)

Nevertheless, in a country plagued by massive poverty and the heritage of apartheid, enormous amounts of money were spent on infrastructure just for one global event, like the grandiose Moses Mabhida Stadium.

And of course, no political opposition must be seen or heard at global sports events. No dissent must be allowed. The poor and disadvantaged must be out of sight. Only the “approved” vendors are allowed, so regular street vendors are pushed out of the way and reap no benefit from the in-pouring of global money. And the global media will be silent on the police brutality that will necessarily occur. Nothing must ruin the global spectacle.

Inevitably as well, Zirin devotes a full chapter to the shame of Penn State and its revered coach in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

“This is what happens when a football program becomes the economic, social, and spiritual heartbeat of an entire region. Joe Paterno was the personification of everything that made Penn State matter in football, in academics, and in much of the state. When something becomes that valuable, a certain mind-set kicks in: Protect JoePa. Protect Nittany Lions football. Protect the brand above all. In a company town, your first responsibility is to protect the company.

But Penn State never was an “outlaw program.” It was what every school was supposed to aspire to become. Now every athletic director or school president has to reckon with the fact that they have been looking up to an institution that places such value on football that children can become collateral damage. Let JoePa’s last teachable moment be this: If your football coach is the highest-paid, most revered person on your campus, you have a problem. If your school wins multiple championships and a booster drops money to build a statue of the coach, tear it the hell down. And if you think children are being raped, the minimum just isn’t good enough, no matter whether or not you wear a crown.” (Kindle Locs 1695-1703)

And Zirin has a few choice words as well for the students who rioted in support of Paterno and his team, a jock culture that has mutated into malignancy, as he calls it. And in the wake of the Steubenville horror, these words certainly ring true. At the same time, Zirin is also critical of the way the NCAA interjected itself into what is a legal matter. Zirin also has a full chapter on the NCAA and its exploitation of student-athletes in the context of state retrenchment from academia:

“Given the grim budgetary realities that surround state universities today, the numbers boggle the mind. According to USA Today, salaries of new head football coaches at the 120 bowl-eligible schools increased by 35 percent in 2011. Average pay has now ballooned to $ 1.5 million annually, an increase from $ 1.1 million. Over the last six seasons, football coach salaries have risen by an astonishing 55 percent. This has happened as tuition hikes, furloughs, and layoffs have continued unabated. In an era of stagnating and falling wages, compensation for coaching a college football team traces a trend line that rises like a booster’s adrenaline during bowl season. The question is how— not just how this is possible given the stark economic realities of most institutions, but how schools can be this shameless.” (Locs 1864-1869)

Intercollegiate sport is unsustainable but it is somehow sacred and therefore protected from cuts. And despite claims to the contrary, Zirin shows that money from athletics does not trickle to the rest of academic institutions.

Zirin also covers materials he covered in his film Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports,

He does cover race, gender and LGBT issues in sport, with a specific focus on Caster Semenya and her shameful treatment by the sports authority, dedicated to determining her gender, even if it meant subjecting her to a series of degradation ceremonies. Zirin argues that there is something especially rotten when it comes to gender and track and field.

“Track and field has had a particular preoccupation with gender, especially when it intersects with race. Fifty years ago, Olympic official Norman Cox proposed that the International Olympic Committee create a separate category of competition for black women, “the unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites.’ ” For years, women athletes had to parade naked in front of Olympic officials for inspection. This gave way to more “sophisticated gender testing” to determine if athletes have what officials still perceive as the ultimate advantage: being a man.

Let’s leave aside that being male is not the be-all, end-all of athletic success; wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition, and opportunity determine the development of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome ever could. Essentially, the physical reality of intersex people calls into question fixed notions we are taught to accept about men and women in general, and athletes in sex-segregated sports like track and field in particular.” (Locs 2334-2342)

So, in the case of Caster Semenya,

“In the Caster Semenya case, there are important questions few in the sports media dared ask. Why should it matter if she is maxing out her every biological advantage? No one claims that basketball star Yao Ming had an unfair advantage because he is seven foot five. No one asked if swimmer Michael Phelps’s mammoth, flipper-like feet unfairly skewed the competition. If anything, he was praised for being, as one announcer said breathlessly, “built to swim!” Why isn’t Caster Semenya, with her slender hips and powerful muscles, “built to run”? If Semenya’s biology is not “normal,” it’s worth asking, what world-class athlete does have a normal body?” (Locs 2346-2351)

We can all suspect what the answers are to these questions. And they all point to our collective discomfort when it comes to intersex individuals and anyone, for that matter, who does not fit neatly in the socially-acceptable gender boxes. But Zirin sees a few hopeful signs of greater openness in the world of LGBT sports.

But racism has not disappeared either and Zirin is merciless towards NBA commissioner Stern:

“Racism reverberates with particular strength in the NBA because no other sport tries so aggressively to market African American players to an overwhelmingly white, middle-class “ticket-buying” audience. This dynamic causes a set of resentments and tensions that Stern seems unable to navigate. Instead of building bridges, he napalms them. Every scuffle, every fight, every elbow on the court is subject to the kind of hand-wringing that would be unheard of in fight-happy hockey. Every scandal is a commentary on the culture, attitudes, or even, as ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd opined, the “absence of fathers” in the African American community. In other words, race is discussed, but never explicitly— and never as a way of analyzing the assumptions of the analysts themselves. Instead, the discussion often merely reinforces racist attitudes about players, their backgrounds, and their states of mind.” (Locs 2766-2772)

So, as one reaches the end of Zirin’s book, which is mostly about hopeful trends, one does wonder whether these trends are real or just a set of nice anecdotes but far from social movements to make sports more publicly accountable, more labor-friendly, less racist, sexist and homophobic. Frankly, I don’t know. Sometimes, it seems as if Zirin is overplaying his hand but then, he’s the expert, not me.

 But then, it does not take much to remind us of the persistence of racism in the world of sports, whether from audience at stadiums in Europe or sports commentators:

 “The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is, if you think about it, a pretty nasty song. It dreams, in one of its more memorable verses, that the “blood of the impure” will “irrigate our fields.” It’s a rousing anthem, to be sure, and I myself can frequently be heard humming it to myself in advance of a match being played by Les Bleus, or as I ride my bike or do the dishes. I’ve found that it’s sometimes hard to find a French person (at least if you hang out, as I do, with too many intellectuals), who can actually sing it without irony. And yet, over the past 26 years, the question of whether a particular subset of French men – those who play on the national football team – sing the Marseillaise under certain conditions has been a rather unhealthy obsession in France (we’ve blogged about it before, when Kinshasa-born flanker Yannick Nyanga sobbed uncontrollably during the anthem ahead of a rugby match vs Australia last year).

We are now being treated to what feels to me like Act 467 of this drama. Karim Benzema, as anyone who attentively watches French football matches knows, doesn’t sing the anthem before matches. In a recent interview, asked why, he answered in a pleasingly flippant way: “It’s not because I sing that I’m going to score three goals. If I don’t sing the Marseillaise, but then the game starts and I score three goals, I don’t think at the end of the game anyone is going to say that I didn’t sing the Marseillaise.” Pushed further on the question, he invoked none other than Zinedine Zidane who, like Benzema, was the child of Algerian immigrants to France – and who also happens to be the greatest French footballer of all time, and the one to whom the team owes its one little star on its jersey: “No one is going to force me to sing the Marseillaise. Zidane, for instance, didn’t necessarily sing it. And there are others. I don’t see that it’s a problem.”

Ah, Karim, but it is a problem, don’t you see? In fact, your decision about whether to vocalize or not, as you stand in line under the careful scrutiny of cameras, about to enter into a hyper-stressful and aggressive sporting match during which your every action will be dissected and discussed, is an unmistakable sign about whether or not the true France will survive or alternatively be submerged in a tide of unruly immigrants and their descendants.

Notwithstanding the fact that, as Michel Platini has noted, in his generation no footballers ever sang the Marseillaise, and that “white” footballers – even the Muslim Franck Ribéry, who at best mutters a bit during the anthem but is much more enthusiastic in his pre-game prayers to Allah – are rarely if ever asked this particular question, even so some will continue to insist that your choice not to sing is a window onto your disloyal soul. As the Front National explained: “This football mercenary, paid 1484 Euros per hour, shows an inconceivable and inacceptable disdain for the jersey that he is lucky to be able to wear. Karim Benzema does not “see the problem” with not singing the Marseillaise. Well, French people wouldn’t see any problem with having him no longer play for the French team.””

For the record, I’m French “de souche”, white. I know La Marseillaise is a stupid war song and I never bothered to learn it and I have never sung it in public events. But the whole “disdain for the French jersey” theme is not new and it came to the fore especially after the incident at the World Cup of Soccer in South Africa where the French team refused to train and practice and ultimately, left the tournament in shame (see my review of a French book on this very subject).

Anyway, read Zirin’s book.