firstcontactI am always on the lookout for some new teaching ideas (I teach a 5/5 load, people, you have to find new things to do if you are not going to insane). So, I got First Contact – Teaching and Learning in Introductory Sociology, hoping it would contain a lot of ideas about teach intro (something I teach A LOT). The book was also reviewed in the July 2014 of Teaching Sociology (which is where I saw it mentioned). So, I decided to read the book before reading the review.

I have to say that this book turned out to be a major disappointment. The only way anyone can find this book useful is if they are completely new at teaching, as in, no teaching experience whatsoever, or completely clueless about this whole teaching business. So, if you are in that position, starting to teach from scratch, and this is your first introduction class ever, then, you might find this book helpful.

So, it may very well be that I have been teaching for a long time (I taught my first class in Spring 1997, language in society, as a graduate student, to linguistics major, at the University of Nice, in France). But I think that no matter how long one has been teaching, there is always room for improvement. And frankly, teaching has changed dramatically in the past 17 years of my teaching career. Technology has dramatically altered how we do things. Online education (or “education”, if one wants to be cranky about it) and hybrids have exploded into the field of digital learning. So, this isn’t your grandfather’s introduction to sociology anymore.

The interesting thing is that the basic building blocks of introductory sociology courses has not changed from where I started to teach in the United States in 2000. You just need to look at the table of content for any sociology text and go back 15 years, you won’t find much change in the way we teach introduction to sociology. So, any changes or innovation have to come from somewhere else. I was hoping the book would address the “somewhere else”.

I was also hoping to get some ideas about the perennial struggle of the sociology instructor: fight the psychology bias of American students, along with commonsense, and half-baked economic ideas.

While the book acknowledges all of these challenges (changes in teaching with increased focus on learning, the persistence of how we teach introduction to sociology, and the individualistic bias of our audience), it never really addresses them. And that is the main problem with this book: it remain much too general to be of use. The book painstakingly goes over every minute components of the syllabus but this is the wrong focus and that is not useful because this is information that is either largely provided by one’s institution, and it is not hard to find a generic template. One does not need a book for that.

The second major issue, to me, was that the book is not enough about sociology. A lot of what is mentioned, whether it’s about assessment or student engagement, could apply to any other discipline. Most of the time, the book reads like a compendium on best practices in teaching rather than specifically about teaching introduction to sociology.

The specific challenges of teaching sociology get only superficial treatment. When it comes to selecting course materials or discussing sociology directly, or reviewing the literature on teaching sociology, some of the references used date from the 80s or 90s. Sorry, but that does not cut it and it does not help dealing with contemporary issues in teaching introduction to sociology. Part of the frustration was that the book never really takes a stance on anything, whether it is on textbook and material options, or anything else. It lays out the issues but never really deals with them or takes a position.

So, again, if you are brand new to teaching, then, maybe, you’ll find this book useful and helpful. But if you have the slightest bit of experience, then, frankly, it will be waste of your time. Which is a shame because there is a need for a book on this topic, but this one is not it.

PunkSociologyHow can I not read this book with a title like this?

The central theme of is pretty simple:

  1. Sociology is in crisis and in need of renewal.
  2. The punk ethos is a good approach to provide such renewal.
  3. Punk sociology.

And that’s about it. In and of itself, that’s not a problem. The book is rather short (99 pages of pages) and reads more like a pamphlet more than a full-fledged sociological treatise on the subject of sociological crisis and renewal.

Let me get through the main points before offering my views on all this.

So, the starting point of the book is that sociology is in crisis for a variety of reasons: it is a fragmented discipline (which is why people often ask what sociology actually is and what sociologists do). As a result, the discipline faces uncertainty and identity crisis and the response has been to play it safe, which, according to Beer, is not what we should be doing. He also reviews some of the literature on the subject of the future of the discipline, from Howard Becker’s live sociology, to the advocacy for more openness and inventiveness when it comes to methods.

From this diagnosis, the questions are as such:

“How do we re-imagine the craft and promise of sociology? How do we find ways of being creative, inventive, and lively? How can we deploy the sociological imagination in creative ways? How can we resist the restrictions of uncertainty, crisis, and measurement?” (Loc. 344)

Beer comes back over and over to the promise of sociology as outlined by C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination and wants his book to be considered a contribution to the discussion of where we should take the concept at this point in the history of the discipline.

Beer also positions his book in the current academic context and the changes happening in universities, that we are all familiar with: universities as businesses, students as consumers, etc., all under the broad umbrella of neo-liberalization.

“It is obvious that we are not going to reverse the apparent marketization and neoliberalization of higher education. Instead, we need to think about how we should respond. The best response, that is to say the best form of protection, is to shape a discipline that is attractive, lively, and exciting. A discipline that draws people in.


It will also make it far more likely that value is seen to reside in the sociological project. This does not mean that we are ‘selling out’, it is not to go with the flow and to simply adopt the spirit of market-based competition into our lives. Rather it is to work towards a version of sociology that thrives under these conditions by offering an alternative voice and an engaging tone. Sociology will then thrive, because it will draw people into its debates, into its ideas, and into its findings, all of which are likely to provide alternative visions of the social world. This is a version of sociology that plays the game to its advantage. It is a version of sociology that succeeds by its own rules. This is a version of sociology that operates in the contemporary, if you will forgive the expression, knowledge economy, whilst providing a space for thought and provocation. My suggestion is that the best way to achieve all of this is to work on producing a discipline that fires people’s imaginations.” (Loc. 406)

What is that supposed to look like?

“what I am suggesting with punk sociology, is that we attempt to play along with the demands placed on us, but that at the same time we try to preserve a creative space. This will be a space in which sociology is not entirely bounded and shaped by the directions that are intended for it (by systems of government, measurement, and the rhetoric of impact). In other words, it uses an engagement with a creative cultural form to help direct it away from the obvious and to give it space to react and respond to the challenges it faces. The punk ethos, as one example, gives us the type of creative space and imaginative framework that might allow us to continue to thrive in a changing academic and social context, whilst also enabling us to be bold and confident, and to think in ways that escape from orthodoxy and conservatism.” (Loc. 418)

But is the punk ethos exactly? As defined by Beer, it involves a certain number of characteristics:

Punk Ethos

The idea then is that sociology should embrace these ideas (“punk sociology”) as the basis for renewal in the discipline:

“A punk sociologist is likely to want to think with and draw upon alternative and outside forms of knowledge – such as film, literature, TV, social media, and the like, as well as materials from across the scientific, computational, political, and journalistic fields – but this is not restricted to the outputs that might be labelled as punk. Rather this is about using punk as a resource for reflecting upon our very craft and the way we go about being sociologists. In this instance, punk is an approach rather than an object of study.” (Loc. 686)

A punk sociologist would questioning hierarchical and normative judgment on cultural products, would question the very existence of hierarchies, and would accept as equally valid high versus marginalized cultures. The punk sociologist would not treat her version of the social as privileged or superior or more valid and would value other sources of knowledge on the social without being threatened by them. Other accounts of the social (be they literary, visual, sonic, etc.) would be embraced by the punk sociologist. All knowledge is seen as subjective.

The punk sociologist would also be open to interdisciplinarity but also to breaking barriers and boundaries between researcher and researched, author and audience. This is where the deliberate unlearning comes in: we might want to reconsider our disciplinary training and conceptual / theoretical apparatus.

In addition, just like punk rock, punk sociology should aim for contributions that are “raw, stripped back, and fearless“:

“One of the key defining features of punk was its stance against forms of progressive or ‘prog’ rock. Similarly, if we are looking to provide points of comparison, then punk sociology might be understood to exist in counter-distinction to ‘prog’ sociology. This distinction provides a helpful starting place for thinking about the communication of sociological work. Prog sociology, as the academic adaptation of prog rock, could be understood to be sociology that is indulgent, maybe even self-indulgent, and self-congratulatory. This is sociology that is wrapped up in its own sense of self-importance. As with the prog rocker’s foregrounding of virtuosity, the prog sociologist is someone who uses their research to show off their virtuosity in research – the sociological equivalent, we might imagine, of a 10-minute guitar, keyboard, or drum solo. ‘Prog’ sociology uses research as a vehicle for demonstrating the abilities of the researcher.” (Loc. 861)

Instead, a punchier sociological style might help us keep up with the deluge of materials and news that circulate everyday and trigger debates that sociologists should be part of.

The punk sociologist should engage with the variety of media through which content circulates and, just like punk rocks had fanzines as opposed to glossy magazines, punk sociology should have alternative publications to the academic journal (blogs, for instance).

And the punk sociologist should be inventive in two ways: (1) in topics, questions, and research methods, and (2) in the way we deal with the neoliberal university. In both cases, the punk sociologist should refuse to play it safe. What does this mean?

“The punk sociologist uses the limitations of austerity to find creativity, to motivate their nothing-to-lose attitude, and to embed resistance and edginess in their outlook. They bounce off the restrictions and respond with creative means.” (Loc. 1089)

Now, if all this looks like very general statements of principle, with not much concrete substance, that is because that is exactly how the book is written. The reader will find very few examples in the book overall. The most sourced section is the lit review on the crisis in sociology.

Beyond that, I have several major issues with this book:

1. I understand that Pivot is an imprint that is based on quick turnover and publishing, but this book needed some serious editing. The writing is very repetitive. The same phrases are used over and over again.

2. Isn’t sociology always in crisis? Or when has sociology not been in crisis? When Talcott Parsons ruled US sociology? I see the “permanent crisis” state as a reflection of the well-known fact that sociology is obviously not a dominant discipline in the field of social sciences (political science, economics, and psychology get more respect, dammit). And one of the consequences of being in dominated status is a constant search for a relevance that is always in question in the academic context (and yes, especially now, with the whole idea that education = job training).

3. Looking back at the description of the punk ethos, couldn’t pretty much every new musical genre be described that way? At least partially? Doesn’t every new musical genre either borrow and absorb other genres, or clearly demarcate itself from others? Same deal for the questioning of hierarchy?

4. As for punk sociology itself, the way it is described, it seems to me that, precisely because the discipline is so diverse, we are already doing all of that: crossing boundaries, finding new types of data and types of sociological questions, looking at new trends in media and other fields. Sociologists blog, tweet, etc. and generally engage with the topics of the day in formal (through traditional academic publications) and informal (through blog posts, tweets, FB posts, etc.) ways. And this has led to a proliferation of sociological voices, not just the usual academic stars.

It is also weird to see punk sociology described as one that does not rank cultural products… Bourdie’s Distinction, anyone?

5. As for taking risks, that is all well and good, but in the context of tightening academic labor markets, limitation of tenure protections, etc., that seem a tall (and very vague) order. I am not sure what this specifically involves, and creativity and inventiveness are always good, but Beer needed to be clearer as to what this implies and how to deal with being tossed out of academia as a result.

In the end, Beer asks, what else are we going to do?

I don’t have an answer (or maybe I’m just a prog sociologist) but one thing is certain: I teach at a community college so, my workload is all teaching (5/5! That ain’t for the faint of heart) and this is where one gets to be more safely creative (although I wouldn’t put my tenure on the line. Call me a sellout) because we are not constrained by the requirements of research and publication. I really do think that cc faculty should be doing a lot more public sociology.

But the bottom line is that I don’t think there is much that is new here (and it is very possible that I missed the point entirely… wouldn’t be the first time). From where I stand, punk sociology already exists in a multitude of places, practiced by a lot of sociologists, functioning within their own national, institutional, and organizational constraints, I don’t think the punk framing brings a lot to the table here.

ExpulsionsEvery new book by Saskia Sassen is always a small event for me, since she is one of my favorite contemporary sociologist. This one is no exception. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy is a bit shorter than Sassen’s usual length but it has the usual “big picture” and dense writing that are characteristic of her style. Sassen is both an empirical and theoretical sociologist, so, every book of hers, marshalls a deep conceptual apparatus to explain disparate occurrences (or thick realities, as she calls them in this book). She sees these distinct and not-entirely similar trends are subterranean expressions of larger assemblages driven by a dual logic of inclusion / expulsion within the global context. However, this is ground-level work.

That’s a mouthful but that is the general idea and throughout the book, Sassen uses a variety of datasets and case studies to make her points, exploring in greater details four visual expressions of this inclusion / expulsion logic:

  1. shrinking of the economic spaces,
  2. the new rush for African land,
  3. financialization of everything,
  4. environmental destruction.

In all these four domains, we found the same logic of inclusion (something brought onto the global capitalist system) / expulsion (the exclusion and marginalization of the “losers” of the inclusion logic). Since the point of the book is to make the logic of expulsions visible, the focus is on extreme cases. However, because expulsion is the flip side of inclusion, it can occur in a context of economic growth, and therefore, remain deceptively out of sight. In addition, the inclusion / expulsion duality is often overlaid with a complexity / elementarity (yes, that’s a word, I checked) duality where complex mechanisms (such as financial instruments concocted by high-level mathematicians, and comprehensible by only a few) led to the elementary logic of expulsion (mass foreclosures).

The resulting expulsions Sassen define as elementary brutalities produced by complexity. Such complexity comes in various forms (again, financial instruments, structural adjustment programs, “free trade” contracts that lead to land dispossession, complex resource extraction technologies), through various institutions and organizational forms, but they lead to expulsions all the same, and acute ones at that.

But no matter what specific form such expulsions take, they all are part of a mechanism of what Sassen calls ‘savage sorting‘: the sorting of who will matter and be counted in economic indicators, and who will not and be sentence to live at what Sassen calls the systemic edge.

First, Sassen identifies the latest shift in capitalist accumulation with the 1980s. This is a familiar story: the end of the post-War period with its focus on redistribution, inclusion, social protections, etc. Reaganomics-type of economic policy in Western countries, the “lost decade” in the Global South led to an inversion of inequality dynamics with increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top and stagnation for the rest of social classes. Such a reversion of the “Trente Glorieuses” was not a conspiracy of the elites but also a systemic product of institutional, organizational, and technological processes. Not only that but this concentration could, for the first real time, be scaled up to a truly global level. This complex mix, Sassen calls a predatory formation.

But then, what Sassen is really interested in is not the nth statistical description of increased inequality and/or poverty. What she points to is something akin to a statistical ethnic cleansing where the expelled from shrunk (yet growing) economies are simply no longer visible (hence the picture of growth). The economic space is shrunk by pushing out the marginalized, those who no longer receive unemployment benefits, those who leave, those who are incarcerated, those who have committed suicide. Most of these things have happened or are happening in one way or the other, Sassen often uses the extreme example of Greece after the 2007 economic collapse: Greece underwent several waves of austerity imposed by the EU and its economy was pronounced as recovering because the measures and indices that are supposed to show such recovery actually ignore the social collapse.

So, on the one hand, there is the measured corporatized economy, now existing as a shrunk space, after divestment from social-contract, social-welfare-related expenses. It is not hard to see this is exactly what has happened to the countries subjected to austerity programs imposed from the EU:

“It leads one to wonder if this brutal restructuring was undertaken precisely in order to achieve a smaller but workable economic space that would show growth in GDP according to traditional metrics — even if it necessitates the expulsion from the economy, and its measures, of significant shares of the workforce and the small business sector. After all, a mere hint of GDP growth can be a positive signal to investors and financial markets, and this is a key achievement from the perspective of current IMF and European Central Bank policy — and not only in the EU. The alternative survival economies that are emerging exist in a different economic space, one that falls outside formal measures and indicators. For now they are not enough to meet the needs of the expelled and of the merely impoverished.” (43)

To put it simply, the logic of displacement looks like this:

Displacement (1)

This combination of shrinking of economic space / expulsion has occurred irrespective of the political / economic systems in place. For instance, if one look at incarceration in the United States, one can see a mix of privatization and deregulation (that is, the opening up of a market / corporate space), along with systemic racism and massive expulsion. But all of elements in the image above are the product of predatory formations that are themselves a mix of different institutional, organization, and technological mechanisms. On the face of it, they may look very different from each other and unrelated, but once reconceptualized as part of such logic of inclusion / expulsion, they bear some very Wittgensteinian family resemblances.

Sassen also demonstrates that the same logic of inclusion / expulsion is at work in the current land grab made necessary by (1) the rise in demand for industrial crops, such as biofuels, and food crops, and (2) growing interest from global investors (hence the rise in food prices). On the ground, this means the expulsion of small farmers, who then join the legions of urban poor, themselves expelled from the economic growth of the global cities, creating what Mike Davis had nicknamed Planet of Slums.

At the same time, this mass acquisition of land in the Global South was made possible because the IMF and the World Bank have used debt reduction as part of a disciplining regime, that was, again, supposed to integration countries of the Global South into the global economy, but resulted in elementary expulsions, as governments from these countries had to agree to conditions akin to austerity programs (the infamous structural adjustment programs). Sassen describes at length the mechanisms of land acquisition in the context of the discipline-through debt reduction.

A similar logic is at work in the financialization of everything that was so central to the crisis of 2008:

“The financialization of a growing number of economic sectors since the 1980s has become both a sign of power of this financial logic and the sign that it is exhausting its growth potential in the current phase, insofar as finance needs to use and invade other economic sectors in order to grow. Once it has subjected much of the economy to its logic, it reaches some type of limit, and the downward curve is likely to set in. One acute illustration of this is the development of instruments by some financial firms that allow them simultaneously to bet on growth in a sector and bet against that sector.” (137)

This is also a well known story and it is not hard to see the expulsions it created. The best documentary on that subject is Inside Job which does a good job of showing the globally-interrelated dynamics that created the pre-crisis situation: Wall Street, US academia, global investors, pension funds (local, national, and global), etc.

Finally, Sassen turns to her last form of expulsion: expulsion from the biosphere. The anthropocene era means that humans are having an irreversible effect on the biosphere’s ability to regenerate. This leads to the creation of dead landscapes through a variety of human practices that affect wildlife and fauna (we recently learned that extinctions are at an increasing pace) and flora. Sassen goes through a multiplicity of local instances and examples which can be mapped out below:

Expulsions from the biopshere (1)The fact that these instances of environmental degradation (that involves our now-familiar dynamic of inclusion / expulsions) can be found in a variety of political economies show that no system has a monopoly over bad environmental management.

Having gone through an enormous amount of data and a multiplicity of cases, Sassen pulls it all together in her concluding chapter where she explores more thoroughly the idea of systemic edge, whose key dynamic is incorporation (inclusion) / expulsion. The way I see it, Sassen uses incorporation / inclusion in two senses: (1) to describe the post-War period where redistribution mechanisms led to the incorporation of more actors within the system (minorities, women, etc.) and (2) as bringing something within the realm of the capitalist world-system (areas or sectors that were previous not included but now could, thanks to technology, institutions of global governance, etc.

But from her own examples, it is that second meaning that seems the most relevant at this point: inclusion comes at a price: expulsions in all the forms Sassen describes, be they social, economic, or ecological.This reads as very pessimistic as the book ends with the defining of the systemic edge as a space of expulsions, where the expelled are relegated. I guess her next book should be about that space since she spent this one describing the shrinking space at the system’s center.

Indeed, this is a very rich book that feel a bit unfinished. I do hope she gets to write Part II – Life at the Systemic Edge or some such title.

This is not an easy book but it is worth anyone’s while. What is important, I think, is how Sassen takes “stories” that most of us are now familiar with (the end of the Trente Glorieuses), the neoliberal turn, increase inequalities (a fertile topic before Picketty-mania stroke!), slum-ification of the global cities, environmental degradation, and then reconceptualizes them as part of a set of predatory formations. The strength of the book is, I think, in its deployment of Sassen’s conceptual apparatus. So, I wish this book got more play but not, it’s all Picketty all the time, and I’m concerned that this will eclipse a work that should receive greater publicity.

In any event, here is Sassen speaking about expulsions at the LSE:

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.

Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of The Wealth Gap is not technically a sociology book, but it is an important piece of reporting on a topic that, I think, is central to the discipline as a whole. After all, sociologist have been harping about increasing inequality and its consequences long before it was cool (that is, long before Occupy, and Picketty-mania).

Overall, the book is organized along a “compare and contrast” format, alternating chapters of the way “the system”, and especially the social structures of social control deal with the powerful and wealthy v. the powerless and poor or near-poor.

For people who follow the news, none of what is in the book will be entirely surprising, but the contrasting structure of gentle handling of the powerful by their regulatory agencies compared to the kafkaesque nightmares of stop-and-frisk, and border policies, and welfare present a powerful picture of grotesque inequalities at the individual level.

And quite frankly, even cynical me was horrified at the ways these structures used by, or imposed upon, the poor and powerless actually work (or don’t work). In effect, these chapters are a perfect reflection of what Frances Fox Pivens depicted decades ago regarding the welfare system: a system designed to NOT provide its prescribed services, and that would crumble if it had to (exposing the real levels of social precarity). In addition, what all three systems have in common, whether it’s stop-and-frisk, the border / private prison system, or the welfare system is that they are designed to discipline the poor and minorities, more than anything else (paging Foucault).

Of course, it is neither innocent nor coincidental that each of these systems deal with minorities: African Americans, undocumented migrants, and single mothers. By contrast, the chapters on the powerful deal with massive scale mismanagement and fraud, including on public money, committed by powerful, white, men, who almost never see any kind of accountability.

Taibbi’s main issue is this:

“We’ve become numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.” (Loc. 80)

And how we got to this point. These are both cultural and structural issues:

“Finding the answer to some of this turns out to be easy, just simple math. Big companies have big lawyers, most street criminals do not, and prosecutors dread waging long wars against bottomless-pocketed megabanks when they can score win after easy win against common drug dealers, car thieves, and the like. After winning enough of these blowout victories, the justice bureaucracy starts drifting inexorably toward the no-sweat ten-second convictions and away from the expensive years-long battles of courtroom attrition.

Unquestionably, however, something else is at work, something that cuts deeper into the American psyche. We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.


It’s come around to that point of view at the end of a long evolutionary process, in which the rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.” (Loc. 141)

And that is the point, for Taibbi, is that one cannot understand what is going on in the United States without both sides of that picture: more than ever, and to an even greater extent, the rich do get richer, and the poor get prison (the 10th edition!).

“We’re creating a dystopia, where the mania of the state isn’t secrecy or censorship but unfairness. Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty, our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process. Winners get rich and get off. Losers go broke and go to jail. It isn’t just that some clever crook on Wall Street can steal a billion dollars and never see the inside of a courtroom; it’s that, plus the fact that some black teenager a few miles away can go to jail just for standing on a street corner, that makes the whole picture complete.” (Loc. 316)

This, for Taibbi, is a perfect illustration of the state of inequality in the US. And as we all know, what we witness today, and is described at length by Taibbi, is the culmination of trends that started in the 80s and led us to the 2008 recession. It is a combination of deregulation that let companies grow bigger and stronger, and therefore harder to prosecute, dismantling of the regulatory tools (Glass-Steagall), globalization and technological innovation that gave us stateless corporations.

And there is also a change in attitude towards prosecuting the corporate powerful that is encapsulated by the 1999 “collateral damage” memo penned by Eric Holder that started the idea that prosecuting corporations might lead to the collateral damage of job loss and community damages, and that these collateral damages should figure in prosecuting decisions. Funny how we never asked the question of collateral damages when government drafted the War on Drugs legislation that would devastate entire communities through the massive incarceration of young African-American men.

“From abandoning criminal prosecutions in favor of deferred prosecutions and nonprosecution agreements, the state now began to emphasize fines as a new means of settling with white-collar criminals.” (29)

And gloating about the imposition of what looks like heavy fines to us mortals, but are mere pennies to the corporations that have to pay them.

This change also has to do with a mechanism that C. Wright Mill would have recognized very-well: the power elite revolving door:

“The same process was now about to transform the federal law enforcement system, thanks in large part to new president Obama, who ushered in a herd of Ivy Leaguers and high-powered corporate defense lawyers to be his top crime-fighting officials. This new crowd of bookish lawyers was headlined by the Columbia University/Covington & Burling duo of Holder as attorney general and Lanny Breuer as head of Justice’s Criminal Division, essentially the top crime-fighting job in the country.” (31)

And indeed, Taibbi devotes a few chapters explaining how the recession of 2008 was neither a technical screw-up, or a few bad apples, or reckless borrowers, but corporate crime on a massive scale:

“Not mere technical violations, mind you, not just a thumb on a scale here and there, but crime, real crime, the kind of thing people once went to jail for. Specifically, this was a massive criminal fraud scheme, something akin to a giant counterfeiting operation, in which banks mass-produced extremely risky, low-quality subprime mortgages and with lightning-quick efficiency sold them off to institutional sucker-investors as highly rated AAA bonds. The hot potato game targeted unions, pension funds, and government-backed mortgage companies like Fannie Mae on the secondary market.” (38)

Time and time again, the evidence is there for law enforcement to see and yet, nothing happens. Part of the reason is collateral damage (a version of Davis / Moore explanation for stratification: some people are just more functionally necessary than others): just a whiff of possible job loss is enough to make prosecutors back off. But there is also the fact that large banks and corporations can marshall armies of well-paid, private attorneys to drag their cases for years, at great costs to underfunded government agencies that do not have the manpower to deal with such complicated cases, and with the risk of losing in the end. It’s better just to slap a fine that will look big to the public and will spare everybody else. And as the quote above notes, most of Obama’s top Justice department officials come from corporate law firms. There is a certain amount of empathy and thinking that, really, these are not “real” crimes.

But go to the other end of the social ladder and one can observe the legacy of another awesome gift from the 80s: the broken windows theory of law enforcement. This is a version of the slippery slope trope: if you let petty crime go unpunished (broken windows), then, you open the door to more serious criminality. So, the solution is to crack down on petty crime to prevent said slippery slope. Stop-and-frisk is an avatar of that idea, with extra dose of racism on top.

“These were programs like the infamous CompStat system and other lesser-known outgrowths of the celebrated “broken windows” urban policing strategies, programs whose effectiveness depended upon massive numbers of low-level arrests for minor violations.

All over America, indigents or the merely poor were being hauled in in ridiculous numbers, often detained even if just for a short time, given tickets, and searched. These cast-a-wide-net street-policing strategies were ostensibly designed to snag illegal guns or serious criminals with outstanding warrants, but they didn’t always work out that way. At exactly the time Holder was penning his famous memo in the late 1990s, the abjectly purposeless arrest was becoming more and more common, even as, perversely, the numbers of actual violent crimes committed had begun to drop precipitously.

And as every individual who’s ever been charged with a crime knows, anyone facing criminal arrest can expect collateral consequences. A single drug charge can ruin a person’s chances for obtaining a student loan or a government job. It can nix his or her chances of getting housing aid or a whole range of services—even innocent members of your family may lose access to government benefits. You can lose your right to vote and your access to financial aid. You can even have your children taken away.

But no police anywhere were officially asked to weigh the collateral consequences of arrests for prostitution, stealing cars, assault, selling weed, jumping turnstiles, even the simple offense of being homeless. There’s no memo in the Justice Department that wonders aloud what happens to the families of those sorts of arrestees. Instead, the new trend in policing is and has been to aggressively no longer care about any of it.” (52)

An additional consequences of the application of this kind of criminology (if you can call it that), in addition to its failure, is that it shatters any kind of legitimacy the police might have in poor and minority neighborhoods

And, so, for Taibbi, the divide in the United States today is between the arrestable and nonarrestable classes. The arrestable classes are the poor, the minorities, the single mothers, the undocumented migrants, for such crimes as standing on the street (if you don’t believe that black men are being arrested for standing on the sidewalk and talking to people  – loitering – you need to get out more).

The chapter that Taibbi devotes to stop-and-frisk is a kafkaesque nightmare where black men can be arrested 50, 60 times for just being there, not charged, but detained for days (hello, job loss), then having to deal with the court system (having to show up multiple times, whether it works with one’s job or not or be convicted in absentia), being represented by overburdened public defenders (when they’re not incompetent), and finally, being pushed to accept a deal that might leave one free, but with a criminal record. Don’t even think about fighting back against baseless charges. Justice by attrition.

Of course, the mechanism is well-known: after having pushed countless African-American men to agree to plea agreements, the criminal justice system then uses these aggregated masses of conviction to declare African-Americans as a criminal class to be subjected to more law enforcement, and the cycle repeats itself.

The power of Taibbi’s book is in these stories: of being arrested while coming home from work and not being able to show up for work the next day because one has not yet been processed, being caught in a dragnet where what matters is the stats (can anyone say “big data”?), and they have to be big. And the people caught in this nightmarish “logic” do not have the armies of well-paid private attorneys to fight back against it. So, they agree to plea just so they can go home and not have to show up for court again, but now, they have a record. And then, they get arrested again, and again, and again… and now they have a record.

“There are two important concepts here that work hand in hand. One, there’s the idea that failure to follow a police order, no matter how stupid or unreasonable, is cause for an arrest or a summons. The second idea is that the prosecutor can essentially turn any misdemeanor case against almost anyone into a de facto conviction, simply by filing charges and following through long enough with pretrial pressure to wrest a plea out of the accused.

These two concepts operating together have resulted in a new policing method, one that relies upon thousands of arrests for trivial offenses, real and imagined.” (130)

On the other hand, when it comes to corporate crime, it’s all different.

“What’s happened now, in this new era of settlements and nonprosecutions, is that the state has formally surrendered to its own excuses. It has decided just to punt from the start and take the money, which doesn’t become really wrong until it turns around the next day and decides to double down on the less-defended, flooring it all the way to trial against a welfare mom or some joker who sold a brick of dope in the projects.


That’s what nobody gets, that the two approaches to justice may individually make a kind of sense, but side by side they’re a dystopia, where common city courts become factories for turning poor people into prisoners, while federal prosecutors on the white-collar beat turn into overpriced garbage men, who behind closed doors quietly dispose of the sins of the rich for a fee.” (84)

Emphasis mine. This quote is quintessential Taibbi.

Taibbi then moves on to re-telling the story of the Lehman Brothers collapse but the point is the opposite as with stop-and-frisk: high crime, committed by people in high places, no criminal accountability. Taibbi is pretty good at explaining the complex machinations involved with securitization. That could be a tedious topic but it is not. But actually, prosecutors do count on the fact that this stuff is boring and complicated so, the public will not be clamoring for prosecution, especially when the party line on the media is that what happens might be unethical (it is) but not illegal (though it is). Taibbi does a good job of explaining the illegal nature of it all.

Taibbi then turns to his second case of the powerless getting the book thrown at them when the powerful get off scots-free: Gainesville, Florida:

“A ferocious federal immigration rule called 287(g) that essentially deputizes any and all state and local law enforcement officials to arrest undocumented aliens on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Today every local official with a badge—every cop, sheriff, ranger, or even game warden—has the power to instantly separate children from mothers, husbands from wives. All America, from the smallest town on up, has become a dragnet.” (199)

And here again, people arrested are thrown into a bureaucratic mess that also now involves private prisons, that Taibbi describes as such:

“A giant legal purgatory in which detainees don’t have any real rights or enjoy any real due process. People disappear into it, hundreds of thousands a year, and become less like prisoners with rights than like objects or packages to be crated and shipped out like cargo. ICE even has a UPS-style tracking system that allows immigrant families to punch in a number and see where their deported relative is in his or her serpentine journey through the detention system. In the real justice system, you get habeas corpus; in the shadow system, you get a tracking number to see where your familial “package” is. (201)

Similarly, the power of this is in the individual stories of people actually caught up in this system. The ICE system is described in gruesome details, with immigration judges that are actually employees of the Department of Homeland security, the pushing of stipulations (the ICE equivalent of plea bargains whereby migrants get deported fast, before they get to see an attorney), etc.

And there is a class divide here as well:

“There’s a new class of people whose goal is to become above citizenship. Live in America, conduct your trades in the weaker regulatory arena in London, pay your taxes in Antigua or the Isle of Man. Keep the rights but offshore the responsibilities. The flip side is that there is a growing subset of people, like undocumented immigrants, who live below the level of full citizenship. If the first group is stateless by choice, these people are involuntarily stateless and have virtually no rights at all.” (206)

And with private prisons in the mix, as Taibbi puts it, migrants are the new cash crop. And the consequences are also far-reaching. Basically, the whole arrest / deportation system puts its victims in the hands of cartels in Mexico as this is who meets them when they get thrown across the border. And this is all very profitable:

“Overall, the corrections industry is one of the soundest stock/equity bets in the world, with soaring revenues—the industry as a whole pulled in more than $5 billion in America in 2011.

The jailing-Hispanics business is the perfect mix of politics and profit. Companies like CCA donate generously to politicians everywhere, particularly at the state level. The firm has spent as much as $3.4 million lobbying in a single year and on average spends between $1 million and $2 million a year.


Local police forces go along because the federal government compensates them for their detention of immigrants. A program called the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) pays local police forces out of the federal kitty for any detained immigrants who meet certain criteria (they’re undocumented, they stayed for at least four days, and they’ve been convicted of at least two misdemeanors). According to the GAO, states received about $1.6 billion annually in SCAAP payments through the end of the 2000s, and the numbers are likely to rise in this decade.” (215)

And this where this connects to corporate crimes of massive scale:

“In many states across the country still, immigrants from south of the border have to take taxis and bicycles everywhere they go, because the law enforcement presence is so massive that traveling any other way is a huge risk. Capture can mean the loss of everything, from never seeing a spouse again to being kidnapped, in addition to being thrust into debt for years. And this is for crimes that are essentially administrative in nature, immigrating in a proscribed way, trying to live without the right papers.

But on the flip side, there are certain kinds of crimes a native-born American can commit without any risk of arrest at all. It turns out that we prosecute administrative/political violations like serious crimes, and serious crimes like administrative violations. ” (241)

Probably because he could not resist, Taibbi also includes in the book the story of a Canadian company, Fairfax, to illustrate that not only were Wall Street people criminals, but also insane and malevolent and yet, get away with it.

Finally, Taibbi gets to its 3rd case of the way the powerless are handled by governmental bureaucratic systems: the welfare system. Here again, the stories are powerful. The amount of humiliation and degradation one has to endure to get measly benefits in the US, or, as is shown in the book, in California, is enormous. And here as well, that system is a nightmare:

“Today, every single person who applies for aid and is accepted has to be preemptively searched. These people are almost all nonwhite. And while in L.A. in the late 1980s, the person visiting the home of someone like Maria Espinosa was just a social worker from the local welfare office, the state has since upgraded. In San Diego now it’s a law enforcement official, a representative of the district attorney’s office, who comes in to look through your underwear drawer.” (316)

Because, you see, one has to be sure that the sluts are not living with a man as that would automatically be considered fraud. So, you apply for welfare, and then, you have to sit at home, sometimes for weeks, waiting for some guy to show up and go through all your stuff, while he insults you throughout the entire ordeal. These guys really seem to get off on that power. Too bad if you have a job though or if you need to go to the doctor. If you are not home when the official shows up, no benefits. The idea is that if you request aid, then, you have to be willing to endure all kinds of abuse without protesting.

“In those tens of thousands of searches over the years, P100 investigators have looked in every nook and cranny, finding sins everywhere. They rejected an applicant who shared an apartment with a roommate for failing to properly label her food in the refrigerator—how could the state be sure, after all, that the applicant wasn’t illegally sharing food with her roommate? They rejected a woman for having a Victoria’s Secret bra (“How can you afford this?” the investigator asked, again holding up the item with the favored pencil eraser end), for having too big a jacket in the closet (it must be a man’s!), for having a teenage son whose pants were too ghetto (too baggy—again, it must be a man’s clothes). Searchers looked in dresser drawers, in bathrooms, in freezers and refrigerators, under and behind couches, everywhere.” (317)

And so, if you need public assistance, your basic rights are forfeit. Protection against illegal search and seizure? You have to give that up. Oh, and never mind the bureaucratic mistakes that are made within the system and leave people without benefits. These are practically impossible to correct. And the way the system works, you never get to talk to the same caseworker twice. Every call or every visit to a welfare office will land you a different person that has to start from scratch and may have a different opinion on your case (that’s of course, after the several weeks it takes to get into the system in the first place).

“The entire world becomes a legal minefield. If you’re poor and on public assistance, just about anything you do that defines you as a living human being can turn into the basis of a fraud case. Getting laid can be fraud. Getting sick can be fraud. Putting your kids in day care can be fraud. Not “sounding poor” can be fraud.


I spent a year following a few people in different parts of the country and watched as they tried to receive their benefits on the one hand and avoid being prosecuted for fraud on the other. Both activities turn out to be essentially full-time jobs.” (329)

And in this case, it all started with Bill Clinton and welfare reform. As banks and corporations became more and more deregulated, the lives of the poor and minority became more and more regulated. Corporate fraud is massive, but it is welfare fraud that is massively investigated.

Oh, and here’s the kicker:

“For instance, in 2011, the state of Ohio—the same state that lost tens of millions in the early 2000s when its pension fund bought severely overpriced mortgage-backed securities from a Lehman Brothers banker named John Kasich, who would later become governor—tried to recoup some of its losses by sending out 22,000 notices to Ohioans seeking “overpayments” in either welfare or food stamps. Many if not most of these “overpayments” were actually the state’s own errors, but they went as far back as 1986 anyway, seeking checks as small as $78.” (341)

Taibbi’s chapter on robosigning and the epidemic of illegal foreclosures is also horrifying regarding the way deregulation led to rampant criminality. And the pity the poor whistle-blower who ends up living in a trailer for her conscience.

For credit card debt, the game is even more rigged:

“Once a bank like Chase “serves” its delinquent customer, there are just three paths on the flowchart of outcomes. They are:

The customer doesn’t show up in court and loses by default judgment.

The customer answers the summons and settles with the bank.

The customer answers the summons and contests the case.

In the first two cases—and this is a crucial part of this entire scheme, and the key reason that Linda’s bosses were so unconcerned about the absence of good paperwork in the debt sale—the collector typically does not come into court with any supporting documentary evidence. “They almost never have [evidence] on the first appearance,” says Straniere. All the collectors have, typically, is a complaint and the assertion of an owed balance. But in the vast majority of cases, that’s enough. Two-thirds of the time, the defendant doesn’t show and loses automatically.” (374)

And defendants don’t show up because collectors only have to say they delivered the summons, no signature or receipt needed. Too bad if you changed address and the summons never reached you. But if the defendant shows up and contests the case, collectors usually simply drop the case.

But the bottom line is this:

“What all this means is that the bulk of the credit card collection business is conducted without any supporting documentation showing up or being seen by human eyes at any part of the process. The meat of the business is collecting unopposed default judgments from defendants who either never receive a summons or receive one and never appear in court.

For debt buyers like DebtOne, the whole game is a bluff. If they buy a pile of open accounts or already-won judgments, what they’re banking on is collecting from delinquent customers who don’t fight back.” (376).

So, what does this amount to? None of this is dysfunctional or a system of justice gone wrong. It is all by design and the designers might even convince themselves that this is the way things should be.

“There’s a concrete difference between how we treat an individual who commits fraud within the structure of a giant multinational company with a lot of settlement money lying around, and how we treat, say, an ordinary broke person who commits welfare or unemployment fraud.

If you choose to take the money over and over again from the Wall Street crowd while the welfare moms keep getting jail and community service, now suddenly you’ve institutionalized the imbalance. From there, it’s not long before the tail starts wagging the dog. A massive, unconscious tendency toward reverse profiling occurs. Because, thanks to all these various factors, executives from giant multinationals simply don’t end up in the prison population, law enforcement soon starts to operate on the reverse principle, that those huge companies are not the places where jailable crimes take place. So even white-collar investigators start to look for targets elsewhere, like at smaller businesses.” (408)

Again, emphasis mine.

So, obviously, this is a very rich, well-researched, detailed book, but very well-written narratives and stories that will make your blood boil more than once.

Highly recommended.

Everyone and their brothers is talking about this NYT article regarding Google search on giftedness and their gender bias:

“MORE than a decade into the 21st century, we would like to think that American parents have similar standards and similar dreams for their sons and daughters. But my study of anonymous, aggregate data from Google searches suggests that contemporary American parents are far more likely to want their boys smart and their girls skinny.

It’s not that parents don’t want their daughters to be bright or their sons to be in shape, but they are much more focused on the braininess of their sons and the waistlines of their daughters.

Start with intelligence. It’s hardly surprising that parents of young children are often excited at the thought that their child may be gifted. In fact, of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old,” the most common next word is “gifted.” But this question is not asked equally about young boys and young girls. Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” Parents show a similar bias when using other phrases related to intelligence that they may shy away from saying aloud, like, “Is my son a genius?””

This was illustrated with this:

Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius-

Which leads to the more general point on the persistence of gender roles (big surprise).

Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius 2

I would like to note that the gender bias on giftedness perception is something already noted in Wilfried Lignier is his sociology of gifted children. I had reviewed his work last year on the old blog. I am reposting it below.

What attracted me to Wilfried Lignier‘s book, La Petite Noblesse de L’Intelligence – Une Sociologie des Enfants Surdoués (“The Little Nobility of Intelligence – A Sociology of Gifted Children”)  is that it seemed to do what sociology does best: debunk commonsense notions and examine the social production of accepted ideas and practices. I was not disappointed.

The book is a great illustration of how sociology can debunk common discourse whether it comes from parents and organizations or from psychologists. What Lignier offers is an analysis of the social production of “gifted children” as objective, naturalized and essentialized objects.

At no point in the study (because it is a study and the book has all the appendixes and methodological notes that are required and the chapters are all rich in quotations from interviews between Lignier and parents of gifted children) does he examine whether there is such a thing as gift (or precocity, as is the more common French term, precocité) or not, because that is not the point.

Having read a few reviews of the book on French blogs, it is obvious that that bugs the heck out of parents of gifted children who quickly accuse him of lacking empathy and of refusing to acknowledge the real existence of gifted-ness (if there is such a word). Way to miss the point, guys. In many ways, but with less extremism and no death threats, the parents, in these reviews, behave like the parents of autistic children confronted with the evidence that autism is not caused by vaccines.

There is no doubt that in the community of parents of gifted children, this book will hit nerves because at no point does the author pay any consideration to the reality of the label of gifted. He just examines how the category was historically constructed, how the label is assigned and validated by the psychological profession, which children are more likely to receive such label, how parent appropriate the diagnosis and act upon it, mostly in relation to schools. The question of whether or not gifted-ness exists is completely besides the point and Lignier would be a poor sort of sociologist if he accepted it just like that.

So let me go over some of the main points of the book, with a qualifier (that Lignier himself mentions repeatedly): the analysis applies to the French context. There is no doubt that the social processes that he describes would be greatly different in another country, especially the US where the social construction of gifted-ness took an entirely different path as the French one.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the social construction of the concept of “gifted children” from a historical perspective. It shows how psychometric tests (IQ and Wisc but not exclusively) became the evaluative standard through which children became diagnosed as gifted (the discussion over the term itself, different in French, of course, is itself revealing). But France is a late comer in this respect, with the expansion of use of these tests on the 60s and the 70s while the US has been using them since WWI. In France, and this is significant, the use of IQ was pushed by advocacy groups rather than scientific ones. One of the reasons for this is that the label of over-intelligence is initially seen with suspicion (for a society that has had its experience with Nazi übermenschen, that is not so surprising… in my view). It is actually one association that is responsible for making the label of gifted lose its illegitimacy by destroying the myth of the gifted super-boy (viewed with moral suspicion) to the gifted child whose gift must be nurtured as a matter of child welfare (the gifted child is a suffering child, for whom school is a setting not his/her needs). So, the point of recognizing gifted-ness is a care perspective. Secondly, the advocacy discourse emphasizes that nurturing gifted-ness is a matter of national interest and should be treated as a natural resource. It is the main psychologist involved with this association that coins the concept of dyssinchrony still in use.

Lignier shows that the strategies of advocacy groups would not have succeeded if it had not been for a certain complicity between them, right-wing governments and the media (especially with shows that started the movement of reality tv where people appeared to pour out their most intimate issues, the suffering gifted child and his/her parents were perfect targets for those kinds of shows). But the key here is that legitimizing gifted-ness was mediated through the idea of social and school suffering. Right-wing governments conferred state legitimacy to the concept of gifted-ness, followed by its scientific redefinition (through psychometric testings). The idea was then socially anchored.

Once the concept was legitimized by the state, psychologists filled the gap as suppliers to an increasing demand through books targeted at the general public, of the self-help and counseling type, followed by scholarly and academic publications. This publishing supply was almost exclusively a response to a demand from advocacy groups for resources, as opposed to the emergence of a scientific field from within the discipline. One can appreciate how this came full circle: advocacy groups push for the legitimation of the label, the state provides, psychology provides its scientific imprimatur which validates the label in objective (as opposed to militant) terms. Basically, psychology, as a field, unquestionably accepted the validity of the label a priori, and the only scientific discussions were over which instruments were the most reliable to diagnose a condition whose name itself was discussed. Battle of the instruments and battle of the label but no questioning of the basic premise of the very existence of the condition along with its corresponding social vulnerability and problematic relationship with the school environment.

Throughout the literature and the advocacy movement, the idea of social vulnerability is constantly used as an offset to claims of superiority, which, themselves are often softened under some sort of “not really superior but different” to avoid outright claims of “being better”. And the next piece of the social construction of the gifted child is that schools are a hostile environment for gifted children whose intellectual good will gets broken because the system is not adapted to them. They need help and are not receiving it adequately within the school system.

For Lignier, it is not surprise that the rise in claims to gifted-ness, in majority made by upper-class parents, have increased with the massification of education and the overall increase in education levels in the general population. As Lignier’s data show, parents after parents complain about the uniformization effect of the school system, too pedestrian for the gifted children. Also under critique is the supposed egalitarian philosophy that dominates the school system (in France) which is at the root of the problems that these children face (apparently, none of these parents have read Bourdieu). These children are bored, not challenged enough, so they get in trouble and are treated as disciplinary problems rather than recognized for who they are (Lignier’s data, as we will see, contradict this view which seems more a myth than reality).

So, how do parents find an alternative to the dominant school discourse and practices? Enter the psychologists (mostly in private practice), armed with their arsenal of “objective” tests which will prove what the schools cannot recognize: the specific intellectual and cognitive properties of their children. What is interesting, of course, is the conjuncture between parents who approach psychologists with a preexisting idea (they have a gifted child) and psychologists who have found their niche in the psychological field. Which is why parents may get their children tested several times if they do not get the diagnosis they want in initial rounds (I was surprised how early some children get tested… 2, 3, 4 years old). Very often, parents then are only seeking a scientific validation, which, they hope, will push the schools to accept the special needs of their children, which may lead to skipping a class, being tracked into specific section, etc.

Even though one of the major claims of advocacy groups is that one can find gifted children in all social milieus (but some social conditions may hide or stifle gifted-ness), the data show a different reality. Lignier’s data show an over-representation of the privileged classes and an under-representation of working classes. To nuance things a bit more, the data show that where a child from a working class background is diagnosed as gifted (a minority), its parents are more likely to have been downwardly mobile. And in the more common cases where children of privileged classes are diagnosed as gifted, it is more likely that the family has been in such classes over several generations. It is not surprise to find that cultural capital (and the corresponding socializing practices) play a major part here. The critique of IQ and other similar tests is well known in terms of mobilizing cultural dispositions that are more widespread in the upper classes.

And, of course, upper class parents are more likely to have the cultural dispositions where they can even consider discussing intellectual excellence with a professional. As Lignier’s data show, intellectual precocity is a matter of cultural lifestyle where what Lignier calls the “psychological ennoblement” of the child is even an attractive proposition. Interestingly enough, the diagnosis is especially sought after by business owners and managers as well as people working in medical settings. But why business owners and managers? According to Lignier, people in these categories (mostly men) are the most likely to have a psychological view of abilities and leadership skills that are not necessarily validated by the school system. Therefore, they seek alternative forms of “certification” of their competencies. They do not think they owe their position to the school systems but to “natural” skills that are entirely psychological and much less related to scholarly abilities.

The other important finding is that the vast majority of tested children are boys. Even when parents have several children, they are more likely to have the boy rather than the girl tested. Gender selection then, which largely excludes girls, happens before testing. Parents see it less necessary to have them tested. How do they explain it? Often, parents see signs of precocity in disruptive behavior in school, something that girls are less likely to be involved with. Girls have more autonomy, the story goes, and therefore are better able to manage their precocity. They are more invisible. So why send to the psychologist a child who does not have any problems? But very often, parents do betray a sexist vision of intelligence: daughters are seen as scholarly, good in school, and therefore more ordinary because they fit into the system. Boys are the ones with the form of psychological excellence that does not adjust easily to it. In other words, when girls succeed (in school), parents shift the goal posts. And there were no family in Lignier’s data where the daughter was gifted but not the boy while the opposite happened consistently. Interestingly, the data show that very few of these children, boys and girls, are not successful in school. The gifted child suffering in school is actually not the norm, and yet, it is the ideological construct that persists in parents’ and advocacy groups’ discourse.

Another characteristic of children diagnosed as gifted is that (1) they get tested early and (2) that their parents are heavily invested in their schools through a variety of channels. All this points to a heavy involvement  and framing by the parents of the kind of cultural childhood their children experience, as early as possible. These parents clearly want to keep as much control over the education experience of their children as well. Oftentimes, pulling their children out of public schools and enrolling them in private ones has to do with the ability to control more greatly the school environment as these parents are often explicitly critical of the school environment. Those are also parents who heavily invest in extracurricular activities that are often individual (avoidance of team sports and preference of individual sports, private music lesson, etc.). All this points to trying to minimize situations where parents have less control (paging Annette Lareau). It is concerted cultivation on steroids. In this context, it is not surprising to find unemployed or underemployed highly educated mothers who have then the time to invest their cultural capital in a very strong and structured way.

Despite all the advocacy talk of the vulnerable child, practically no parent follows up a diagnosis of gifted-ness with care options. What they do though is engage in a symbolic economic exchange with the school system in order to obtain benefits for their children (as already mentioned, like skipping a grade). It is armed with the scientific diagnosis of gifted-ness that as symbolic good that parents then challenge the evaluation system so dominated by the institution of the school system in France. This diagnosis validates parents’ preexistence distrust of this institution (despite their children’s overall success in it, which shows the success of the advocacy group ideological work). What is threatening to these parents is the massification of, especially, primary education. Most of their discontent actually disappears once their children enter the secondary, and then higher, education system is which more differentiating and their  children can pick more “elite” tracks and majors and they can join the “state nobility” described by Bourdieu.

But overall, Lignier shows that parents are more reformist than revolutionary when it comes to challenging the educational system in France. They want privileges for their children and an individualization of their educational socialization that they – the parents – can control. Very few parents ended up removing their children from the system entirely.

The focus on elementary education as focus on mistrust and discontent also comes from parents’ conception of their children abilities as “natural”, sometimes hereditary, but NEVER a product of the school system. Parents sometimes even deny their own involvement as they produce the narrative of gifted-ness as one of surprising and unexpected discovery, something that emerged spontaneously, without any prompting from the outside.

As you can see, this is a very rich book and one could only do it justice by quoting some of the multiple interview excerpts that Lignier uses, which, I can’t do here, obviously. But this is a great example of what a sociological analysis can bring to a topic that has so far been limited to and claimed by other disciplines (such as psychology). It is not the easiest read but it is not hard either, again, thanks to the many interview excerpts.

And here are some videos of Lignier himself discussing his research.

Part 1

Entretien Wilfried Lignier (1ère partie) by contretempsweb2

Part 2:

Entretien avec Wilfried Lignier (2ème partie) by contretempsweb2

Part 3:

Entretien avec Wilfried Lignier (3ème partie) by contretempsweb2

And here too:

Wilfried Lignier – La petite noblesse de… by Librairie_Mollat

Hallsworth[Disclaimer: the publisher sent me a copy of this book for review.]

Simon Hallsworth’s The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds is as much a study on gangs in the context of street informal organizations and of critical criminology. Come to think of it, it reads like a “how-to” and “how-not-to” study gangs.

The focus of the book is on the UK context but some of critiques and prescriptions are more broadly applicable (especially considering the apparent fondness of US “gang experts” in the UK policy-making circles). Overall, the book does not pull punches when it comes to the current state of the field of gang research and policy-making, and advocates for a different way of analyzing gangs.

In a sense, what Hallsworth advocates is a return to Durkheim’s original prescription for social research: do not accept commonsense categories as the unquestioned starting point for analysis. These categories are not neutral. They are the product of history and power relations within given field (to rope in Bourdieu). And so, to accept these categories without subjecting them to analysis is to commit an elementary mistake and therefore contribute to the reproduction of the power relations that gave rise to these categories in the first place.

For Hallsworth, this applies especially to categories such as “gangs”, “gang culture”, or “gang problem” which are then used to deploy a whole field of experts, policies, and prescriptions dedicated to dealing with the “gang problem”. The contestation of this deployment is the central theme of the book:

“Where do I situate my analysis? To begin with, it marks my response to the position staked out by John Pitts and his followers who see gangs today as the new face of youth crime and who, by and large, appear happy to blame them for everything. As will become clear, I have no time whatsoever for this position. I do not accept that gangs are the new face of youth crime; I do not accept that gangs today are large and corporate, and nor do I hold with other widely-held gang ‘truths’ as exemplified in claims to the effect that they coercively recruit members or are habitual rapists. The book is, then, in one respect at least, a wholesale challenge to contemporary gang orthodoxy that prevails today in that confused state called the UK.” (13)

And so, Hallsworth proceeds to debunk the current myths (used and taken as true, though) regarding gangs:

  • The myth of the corporate gang as key drug-player: gangs exercise control over the drug trade in the UK in a very structured fashion with gang elders at the top of gangs structured as corporations all the way down to “tinies” and young gang members at the bottom.
  • The myth of the new gang violence in urban context.
  • The myth of the new weapons of the gang world: guns and dogs.
  • The myth of rape as new gang weapon.
  • The myth of gangs as forces in social destabilization (for instance, as causes and actors in the 2011 London riots, as blamed by PM Cameron).

For Hallsworth, the bottom line to all these myths is that they are variants of “kids, these days”. They assume the complete novelty of drugs and violence rather than a permanent, and long-standing feature of street life in the UK, especially in working class areas. There are many continuities between past street life features and present, such as

  • violent territorialism
  • drug dealing
  • street-fighting kids

But then, if these continuities were acknowledged, where would the moral entrepreneurs du jour find their moral panic?

One of the main critiques that Hallsworth deploys is against what he calls gang-talk and gang-talkers. Gang-talk is the commonsense narrative (constructed and repeatedly used by gang-talkers – the “experts” on gangs – and conveniently propagated by the media and politicians), repeating most of the myths listed above: that the gang threat is new, unprecedented, growing, more dangerous than ever, because the gangs are now structured like corporations (except criminal) and recruit younger and younger members who can never leave the gang once in.

“‘Gang talk’ has come to provide the interpretive grid by and through which divergent social problems are rendered legible, even when the events in question are by no means solely or even remotely gang-related.


Gang talk, I will argue, constitutes a free-floating discourse that can operate wholly independently of gang realities as these unfold in any street context” (68-9)

As Hallsworth puts it, gang talk is a language game (a la Wittgenstein), with its own vocabulary, rules of composition, and structure. Therefore, gang-talk propagates a series of tropes about gangs, that are then accepted and repeated without examination, but that are supposed to expose the “truth” of the gangs. This is all performative logic: the more the tropes of gang talk are uncritically repeated across media, the more they are taken as accurate description of the reality of the gangs. Conversely, any alternative perspective on gangs will be met with resistance and skepticism, and ultimately silenced as not fitting the tropes of gang talk. As dominant discourse, then, gang talk becomes the only plausible narrative as it becomes embedded in commonsense.

Gang talk, however, is neither neutral nor benign. It is a discourse of power:

“By ‘gang talk’, I mean to designate a discourse about gangs that has wide currency. It is a discourse that operates to make meaningful the world of gangs both to those who produce this discourse and to others who are receptors of it. By and large, the producers of gang talk (hereafter ‘gang-talkers’) are those with a vested interest in gangs (of some sort) but who are not of the world of gangs they talk about. They may be journalists looking for a good story about them, enforcement agencies that want to suppress them, practitioners on the hunt for gang suppression money, the public who are scared of them, academics wanting to study them, or policy-makers who have been given the mission of developing anti-gang strategies.” (70)

Again, this sounds a lot like Becker’s moral entrepreneurs and it is not surprising that gang members themselves adopt the tropes of gang talk along the way, as dominant cultural discourse. Nevertheless, gang talk is a fantasized representation rather than objective description but it is treated as such.

As conspiracy discourse, gang has the following elements:

  • Novelty: the kinds of gangs we have today are completely new and we have never seen anything like it before… and they are spreading.
  • Proliferation: they were a few of them, now there are many (add: immigration has something to do with that), and now, there are even women and children joining in.
  • Corporatization: gangs used to be disorganized, but now, they are structured like corporations and formal organizations.
  • Weaponization (I’m not sure it’s a word and Hallsworth spells it the British way, with an “s” rather than a “z”… I americanized it): instead of fists and boots, now, they have guns and dogs. They are more violent and deadly.
  • Penetration: they expand outside of their usual territories and colonize new ones.
  • Monstruousness: gang members are different from “normal” people.

[Sorry but those are the concepts used by Hallsworth.]

Out of these generic ideas, gang-talkers can extract gang membership checklists (Hallsworth provides a full one) and they read like the old Reefer Madness and include such things “dropping out of positive activities”, whatever the heck that means. Such items of gang membership are convenient because they can depict pretty much everybody, and so, if one goes looking for gang members, then, one is guaranteed to find them.

But again, gang talk is neither neutral nor benign:

“But there is also an ideological function to gang talk that needs to be acknowledged. In the post-welfare, neoliberal state where penal-fare as opposed to welfare increasingly defines the way in which poverty is managed (Wacquant 2009); gang talk helps establish the terms in and by which the global precariat, the losers in the neoliberal, winner-takes-all society, are now defined. Together with underclass thinking more generally, it reconstructs the lives of the urban poor as feral outsiders; as a population to whom pain dispensation appears necessary and not least just. It constructs them in Neil Christie’s terms as a suitable enemy at the same time it establishes the included society as a suitable victim.” (83)

And it accomplishes this through othering those designated as gang members as part of logic of the moral panic involving the usual components of exaggeration, distortion, prediction, and symbolization.

In addition to his critique of gang talk and gang-talkers, Hallsworth provides a counterpoint to a specific trope of gang talk, namely, the idea that gangs are not structured like corporations and formal organizations. According to this trope, the gang now resembles a typical Weberian bureaucracy, with its hierarchy, impersonality, rules and regulations, top-down governance, and division of labor, etc.

Hallsworth describes this mode of thinking (the gang as bureaucracy) as arborealism and describes it as shown below (sorry, bad picture from page 117):


Hallsworth argues that gangs are informal organizations with a rhizomatic structure (see Deleuze and Guattari), as depicted below:



This structure is very much akin to a flexible network, with nodes, clusters, and links, always in a state of reconfiguration based on the demands of the situation and the structural constraints under which the gang operates. Nodes move in and out of the network and are loosely connected to it (as opposed to the “military” model of recruitment promoted by gang-talkers). A rhizomatic structure is decentered and non-hierarchical and the intersections between nodes are not as predictable as those of bureaucratic structures. And where a tree-like bureaucracy is heavily territorialized, a rhizomatic structure is deterritorialized.

Now, Hallsworth does not argue for an “either/or” typology here. Gangs may follow hybrid structures as well but it is misleading and inappropriate to use the corporate structure as model for the gang, as this would lead to a Gilbert Ryle-type of category mistake. How could gangs be bureaucratic when relationships are based on kinship and clientelism and violence is valued. Gangs are also not impersonal organizations. Quite the opposite, actually, as relationships are highly personal. Moreover, because of the larger social context and the illegal activities that gang members engage in, reality is highly unpredictable and cannot be made more certain just by wishing it or issuing a few memos and new regulations. Most of gang actions are situational and contextual, and ever-changing. And if there is a business logic at work sometimes, it is complicated personal and emotional factors that can lead to violence and deaths, and sometimes, for stupid reasons. Because gang life is inherently unstable, so is its structuring. And it is this instability that make it almost impossible for gang to structure bureaucratically and territorialize. In this sense, gangs are assemblages more than formal organizations.

And when gangs do end up territorialized, it has more to do with discriminatory practices that “lock them up” in ghettos (or estates) than with anything else. Those are usually deprived environments where the legitimate economy is poorly represented and therefore where the informal one is more likely to take roots with the corresponding informal organizations. And so then territorial borders are not as hard and fast as gang-talkers make them to be as gang members are not just tied to the gang but also to family members and relatives living in the same projects or estates.

Regarding the drug and violence aspects, Hallsworth identifies three main imperatives of street life (but not exclusive to it): the search for pleasure, the search for money, and the search for respect. On this, in a very Mertonian fashion (see: strain theory), Hallsworth argues that drugs and violence play a part in all three imperative in a deprived context. And all three imperatives are fulfilled in a context of hegemonic masculinity (see: Connell) that is not new to young working-class men. In this sense, a lot of the violence that is attributed to gangs is actually part of the larger context of street life for the working class. That is the appropriate framework and context to understand it.

These three imperatives are fulfilled young working class men in the context of their exclusion from upward mobility:


But this is also in the context of their inclusion into the larger consumer culture.

And so, they innovate, as, again, mode of adaptation to the strain, as Robert Merton conceptualized it. The persistent presence of these men on the street, hanging out, reflects their waiting for opportunities and figuring out where the action is, for pleasure, money or respect.

Finally, Hallsworth connects what is truly the novel aspect here: the rise of the precariat. This is the larger context for informal street life and informal street organizations. In the post-War period – the rise of the welfare state – violence and drugs were not unknown. However, there was greater local regulation of it. And as soon as young men left school for the factory, got jobs, got married, then, they left the informal organizations behind.

In the current neoliberal context, inaugurated by Thatcher, this trajectory no longer exists. Mass deindustrialization and precarization have destroyed the fairly linear path from basic education to factory work, from adolescence to adulthood. The normative context of regulation from within the working-class is gone. To be sure, part of this normative context was hegemonic masculinity, and that has not changed.

But again, what is truly new is the precarization of the working class and the structural violence unleashed by right-wing governance (yes, including New Labour). I do wish the concept of structural violence were used more as it provides a powerful explanation for self-destructive interpersonal violence at play now, in the context of stalled social mobility in the face of consumer culture. Paraphrasing Bauman, Hallsworth then call the members of street organizations the “flawed consumers” of late modernity.

But gang-talkers have no interest in that socio-economic context. Hence, Hallsworth ends his book with a tongue-in-cheek list of lessons on how to develop a gang problem:

  • Lesson 1: Turn a problem of groups into a problem of gangs (that is, treat any group or collective behavior AS gang behavior)
  • Lesson 2: work closely with journalists (they love sensationalism)
  • Lesson 3: create a dedicated gang-busting unit
  • Lesson 4: employ academic ‘gang experts’ to confirm your problem (bonus if they come loaded with meaningless data)
  • Lesson 5: create a gang-intervention strategy (ban all sorts of thing: like hanging around)
  • Lesson 6: bring on the practitioners: academics, of course, but also former gang members (everyone loves redemption stories) but do not include long-term field practitioners, focus on short-term strategies couched in buzzwords.
  • Lesson 7: cash in and live well.

Now, this is a really interesting book. I could have done without the chapter on biographical ethnography. It did not add much to the overall thesis of the book. And as I was reading it, I could not help but think that the famous Gang Leader for A Day fell into all the traps that Hallsworth warns against, and constitutes a form of gang talk in itself (after all, it made its author quite famous for an academic).

I think this is a must-read for all criminal justice, criminology students and academics, as well as sociologists of deviance.

Barbara Garson‘s Down The Up Escalator – How The 99% Live is part of the non-fiction sub-genre of “the human face of [insert socioeconomic trend here]”. In this case, the trend is the precarization of the American workforce. This book is not dissimilar from Louis Uchitelle’s The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. On both cases, the focus is on the precarization of workers whose jobs are not supposed to be precarious: they are not part of the uneducated employees of Walmart or fast food joints.

Garson’s book depicts the latest consequences of the 2008 recession:

“For all my intellectual grasp of the downward trends for American workers, I just can’t believe that these four generous/selfish, mellow/excitable, unique/ordinary, and highly employable individuals will simply remain the long-term unemployed. Even though they might.” (Loc. 660)

Indeed, Garson’s book is a series of vignettes about people who thought their lives were relatively secure only to have the rug pulled from under their feet either because of unscrupulous mortgage lenders, the lay-offs following the recession, or just plain bad luck. These people never thought they would face precarization first-hand so fast. Most of Garson’s interviewees are educated, have been connected to the labor market for a long time. Heck, several of them are part of the much-vaunted creative class. This was not supposed to happen to them. For those, they did not go underwater quickly as their previously high-paying jobs gave them savings, and some margins that allowed them to have expenses that could be cut back. But things are not looking up for them.

“The Kennys may indeed have failed to grasp opportunities that would leapfrog them over others. But their basic economic mistake was to assume that salaries, house prices, and savings would gradually increase over the years. In other words, the Kennys fell behind because they didn’t fully grasp that they weren’t going to get ahead.


But adjusting to downward mobility would have required a midlife course correction that’s inimical to Americans of their generation. As I’ve said, down is an un-American direction.” (Loc. 1193)

By following her subjects over a period of time, Garson can see the progressive destabilization that marks these people’s lives as things do not improve for them. Sure, a few of them make mistakes along the way, but this is what happens in Bauman’s liquid society where individuals are supposed to find their own solutions, on their own, to structural problems foisted upon them. And, especially for the African American and working class (often overlapping) subjects of Garson’s book, there is no margin for error. To find individual solutions to systemic problems is no easy task. As several of Garson’s subjects show, it takes time, perseverance to face a mortgage modification system that is downright Kafkaesque (and full of very shady people).

“To most underwater homeowners, the word “modification” referred to an ineffective government program meant to keep people in their houses. But there are many ways to modify the terms of a mortgage. Litton Loan Servicing is known among consumer advocates for offering mortgage modifications that fail and leave homeowners owing more than ever. This is how that works out profitably for them: Normally, a mortgage servicer passes along all of the interest and principal it collects to the banks or investors who own the mortgages. The servicer earns its money from regular service fees, late penalties, and special charges like the ones involved in modifications. But a mortgage servicer normally can’t offer a modification (a change in a loan’s basic terms) without the consent of the loan’s owner. This, as we’ve seen, can be hard to get. But Litton and its associates buy up delinquent or otherwise malodorous mortgages at a discount. With the original investors out of the picture, Litton is free to grant modifications in its own interest.


During the course of most Litton modifications or “trial” modifications, the homeowner’s payments can consist almost entirely of fees and new interest. By offering one likely-to-fail modification after another, Litton can collect payments like Alice Epps’s $4,939 a month for as long as the homeowner can pay. The company is free to raise or even lower the payments if it decides that’s the best way to squeeze out a few last drops. But since almost none of the money goes to paying off the mortgage debt, the recipients of Litton modifications often wind up owing more than they would have if they’d never been granted the favor. When they’ve paid all they can, they lose the house.” (Loc. 2576)

This would perfectly fit what Charles Derber describes as part of the sociopathic society (the title of his latest book):

“A sociopathic society breeds routinized, institutionalized pervasive and fierce sociopathy that chips away at its own foundations.

Sociopathy is antisocial behavior by an individual or institution that typically advances self-interest, such as making money, while harming others and attacking the fabric of society. In a sociopathic society, sociopathic behavior, by both individuals and institutions, is the outcome of dominant social values and power arrangements. A sociopathic society, paradoxically, creates dominant social norms that are antisocial – that is, norms that assault the well-being and survival of much of the population and undermine the social  bonds and sustainable environmental conditions essential to any form of social order.” (3-4)

Even though the book, for the most part, is a series of individual stories of downfall and getting stuck, Garson is not ignorant of where this is all coming from. And so, the book marshals statistical trends correctly putting the blame where it belongs: Reaganomics. The unraveling of the upper-middle and middle class we are witnessing is the end point of policies that started 30 years ago.

“When factories started closing or moving abroad in the 1970s and 1980s, we were told not to worry. Yes, some blue-collar workers might have to be pensioned off. But the rest of us would become “information workers” in the “postindustrial society.” The important thing was to acquire the skills of the future.


Something bad has been creeping up the occupational ladder. First it hit blue-collar workers like Duane; then it hit pink-collar office workers like his wife. The college educated appeared to be keeping a couple of rungs ahead of it. But starting in the late 1990s, real income has been falling sharply for people with college degrees—so far excluding PhDs. You might say that the Pink Slip Club members were a generation and a half behind (or ahead) of the people in Evansville. But it was catching up to them even before the downturn.” (Loc. 1213)

And this is the important part of that story: this is not something that just happened in the magical realm of economic markets, something that few superior humans can comprehend and no one should tamper with. This was by design. Hence the sociopathic society.

And the sociopaths are still around:

“This wild mortgage lending wasn’t dictated by masses of poor people storming the banks demanding credit. It was fueled by a relatively few people with large piles of money that desperately needed to be invested. Hedge fund owners, pension fund managers, and European bankers are among the folks who bought mortgage-backed securities. But like others charged with great piles of cash to invest, they can reasonably blame the money itself.” (Loc. 2738).

And they blamed the underwater homeowners as well, the poor, the African Americans, etc. This still speaks volume to the dominant ideological climate created over these past thirty years, mainly through the conglomeration of corporate media.

But what comes through loud and clear from Garson’s book is the corrosive nature (to paraphrase Richard Sennett) of the current system as precarization creeps up the social ladder. As Garson herself notes,

“None of the recession sufferers we spoke with in Down the Up Escalator were hungry, and only one was truly homeless. But most of them couldn’t be sure where or when they’ll work, how long they’ll be able to stay in their homes, whether they’ll ever be able to retire or to have a baby, and more generally what will happen next.” (Loc. 3494)

Welcome to the liquid society or the risk society or the sociopathic society. Take your pick. Either way, it is a pretty gloomy scenario.

This is overall an engaging and accessible read that really goes into some details of these individual stories, which reads like old-fashioned journalism. At the same time, it does take in the big picture without being to wonky. This is clearly a book for the general public and one hopes it gets wide  diffusion.

Here is a video of Barbara Garson on Bill Moyers:

Surviving the New American Economy from on Vimeo.

[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:

In his latest book, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in The Internet Age, Manuel Castells tries his hand at public sociology. Those of us who are regular readers of Castells’s work know him for a very dense writer of massive opus. In this particular – and shorter – book, Castells links his conceptual apparatus and interest in current protest movements in a way that is more concise and readable for a general audience.

I have already dedicated a post on Castells’s concept of power. But Castells’s conceptual toolbox is more complex than this, developed at length in Communication Power. In Networks of Outrage and Hope, Castells provides a simplified and more concise version of the arguments made in Communication Power and then applies them to the various social movements that have grabbed public attention and shaken democratic governments and dictatorships alike around the world. For Castells, these movements represent a new form of social movements in the context of the network society.

Power is the first concept of Castells’s grounded theory of communication power. A second major concept is that mass self-communication, using the Internet and wireless networks as platforms. The mass communication part of this is obvious. The self-communication part might be less so:

“It is self-communication because the production of the message is autonomously decided by the sender, the designation of the receiver is self-directed and the retrieval of messages from the networks of communication is self-selected. Mass self-communication is based on horizontal networks of interactive communication that, by and large, are difficult to control by governments and corporations. (…) Mass self-communication provides the technological platform for the construction of the autonomy of the social actor, be it individual or collective, vis-à-vis the institutions of society. This is why governments are afraid of the Internet, and this is why corporations have a love-hate relationship with it and are trying to extract profits while limiting its potential for freedom (for instance, by controlling file sharing or open source networks).” (7)

In addition, the concept of networks in a global context is relevant as well. Rather than go through the details of Castells’s nuanced description of the various networks involved, I summarized the idea in the image below:


There should be more arrows, obviously, but it might get crowded. You get the idea. In these flexible and changing network configurations, the state and political systems still have a preeminent place. Indeed, states still provide for the stability of the overall system through institutions and regulations. After all, it is states that came to the rescue when the financial global system collapsed in 2008. And, in a Weberian fashion, Castells reminds us that, ultimately, the state has the monopoly on the use of force. The state is the default network for the proper functioning of all the other networks.

How do networks connect with each other? Through a mechanisms Castells calls switching power: the power that programmers have to connect or disconnect networks, and the power that switchers have to operate the connections between networks (politicians, lobbyists, financial elites, media corporations, etc.). But, in a very Foucauldian way, Castells notes that power always produces resistance in the form of reprogramming networks and disrupting dominant switches.

And when it comes to resistance to power, social movements are the main actors. The success social movements is highly dependent on autonomous communication, that is, communication that is autonomous from state or corporate control. Traditionally, modes of mass communication were entirely under state control. Castells argues that is no longer the case with the Internet and wireless networks. What makes current social movements different is their hybrid nature: extensive use of online tools and physical occupation of urban space. For all the “cool” factor of the virtual aspect of social movements, Castells argues that physical occupation of urban space is crucial for three reasons:

  1. It creates community and allows participants to overcome fear, a fundamental threshold to solidify social movements;
  2. It emphasizes the symbolic nature of the specific space that is being occupied;
  3. It creates a Habermasian public space for deliberation and sovereign assemblies.

Hybrid space 2

Armed with this conceptual apparatus, Castells sets out to analyze the major social movements of the past few years, starting the precursors (Tunisia and Iceland), then turning to the Egyptian revolution, the Arab Spring, the Indignadas in Spain, and Occupy Wall Street. Out of all these separate cases, Castells creates an ideal-type of the social movement in the network society.

“Throughout history, social movements have been, and continue to be, the levers of social change. They usually stem from a crisis of living conditions that makes everyday life unbearable for most people. They are prompted by a deep distrust of political institutions managing society. The combination of a degradation of the material conditions of life and of a crisis of legitimacy of the rulers in charge with the conduct of public affairs induces people to take matters into their own hands, engaging in collective action outside the prescribed institutional channels, to defend their demands and, eventually, to change the rulers, and even the rules shaping their lives. Yet, this is risky behavior, because the maintenance of the social order and the stability of political institutions express power relationships that enforced, if necessary, by intimidation and, in the last resort, by the use of force.” (219)

And while I don’t agree with Castells that all human behavior is based on six fundamental emotions (fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, happiness, anger), because that is too sweeping a statement, it is not hard to see how anger is the trigger and fear is the repressor that needs to be overcome through the process of communicative action that gives rise to collective actors.

But, the specific structural factors of increased inequalities and crisis of legitimacy combine with an emotional trigger (a specific event such as the public immolation in Tunisia) based on outrage against injustice, but also hope for possible change. Beyond that, here are the features of the ideal-type of a social movement in the network society:

  • These social movements are networked in multiple forms (multimodal, on/offline, using various platforms, existing and new… strength of weak ties, anyone?), without a central node, and with a decentered structure.
  • The social movements involve occupation of urban space.
  • This creates a hybrid space of autonomy that is the new spatial form of networked social movements.
  • This also creates its own form of time: timeless time based on the timeless nature of virtual space and the day-to-day structuring of physical occupations.
  • These movements start spontaneously, following an emotional trigger.
  • These movements are viral.
  • These movements transition from outrage to hope after they create a space of autonomy based on deliberation, and leaderless structure.

Here is a graphic summary of the consensus flow in Occupy movements:


  • These movements are based on horizontal networks that facilitate cooperation, togetherness and solidarity that undermines the need for formally identified leadership.
  • These movements are highly self-reflective.
  • These movements are confrontational but non-violent. They did engage in civil disobedience.
  • Unless the goal of the movements is to take down a dictatorship, these movements are rarely programmatic. They are more aimed at changing the values of society. This particular aspect of OWS used to drive the media nuts as they wanted to know what the occupiers wanted, specific demands and political platforms. But these movements are political through and through as they practice direct, deliberative democracy.

So, for Castells, the Internet is both a tool but it is also an essential condition to create and maintain leaderless, deliberative and participatory movements, and to foster a culture of autonomy. Autonomy is central to Castells. Whereas Bauman and Beck argue that a major trait of contemporary society is individualization, Castells argues that it is through individuation that autonomy becomes possible:

“Individuation is the cultural trend that emphasizes the projects of the individual as the paramount principle orientating her/his behavior (Giddens 1991; Beck 1992). Individuation is not individualism, because the project of the individual may be geared towards collective action and shared ideals, such as preserving the environment or creating community, while individualism makes the well-being of the individual the ultimate goal of his/her individuated project. The concept of autonomy is broader, as it can refer both to individual and collective actors. Autonomy refers to the capacity of a social actor to become a subject by defining its action around projects constructed independently of the institutions of society, according to the values and interests of the social actor. The transition from individuation to autonomy is operated through networking. which allows individual actors  to build their autonomy with likeminded people in the networks of their choice. I contend that the Internet provides the organizational communication framework to translate the culture of freedom into the practice of autonomy.” (231)

There is a lot more detail in the book about each specific social movements but Castells only presents part of the picture. First, I think he is a bit too optimistic about the liberation potential of the Internet and wireless networks. We have seen that governments and corporations are quite adept at using these technologies for their own purposes, in terms of surveillance and data mining. That aspect is completely absent from the book.

Also, the book is focused on specific, and largely progressive, social movements. It ignores the rise of reactionary social movements, whether it is the reaction against the legalization on gay marriage in France (probably, that happened after the book got published), or the rise of fascist movements in countries that got hit the hardest by the recession, whether it is the Tea Party movement in the US, Golden Dawn in Greece, and other resistance movements from the far right. These movements address the legitimacy crisis from a completely different angle. But they would require different conceptual tools.

But beyond that, this book feels like “Castells for Beginners”, written for the general public, and not the usual academic audience. The analysis of actual movements is a bit rosy-eyed and I think there should be some debate regarding Castells’s overall analysis of these social movements, regarding their effectiveness and persistence (or lack thereof, on both counts) but I do agree with Castells’s contention that the Occupy movements were more about consciousness-raising than programmatic politics. However, the jury is still out on the success of movements in the Arab world despite the success in overthrowing dictatorships in a few countries.

But one cannot fault Castells for engaging with the current issues, using his sociological toolbox, and for doing so in an accessible way.


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.