Monday, September 26, 2016

James Ferguson, Global Shadows

James Ferguson, Global Shadows
Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2

James Ferguson views Africa as a particular positionality. He adopts, in other words, a relational perspective. "Africa" stands in for conditions of extreme inequality and weak and predator states. As Ferguson observes, Africans themselves understand their condition as a weakness. They are far from celebrating their condition as a mark of cultural difference. Neither do they think their problems are caused by being overrun by consumer goods from the West, the so-called McDonaldization of the world. They are aware that the real source of problems lies in the absence of political institutions, a lack that is closely related to Africa's place in the world economy. Ferguson's dual ability to think in terms of a world system and to emphatically take in his informant's world-view is remarkable.

Chapter 2 discusses what Ferguson dubs the "de-politicization of poverty." Poverty is depoliticized when it is localized, when it is exclusively tied to the performance of a particular nation-state. Ferguson observes this process in the talk about the underdevelopment of the small nation-state Lesotho. Commentators turned blind to the fact that Lesotho became a mere labor-reserve and commodity market for its large neighbor South Africa. Failing to adopt a relational perspective, these commentators missed the root causes of Lesotho's problems. In contrast, many critics effectively linked the poverty of the pseudo-nation state Transkei to the devastation caused by the Bantustans project undertaken by the policy makers of the Apartheid era. We learn from this contrast that talk of national independence can easily slide into a misguided localization/nationalization of what are really regional and indeed global issues.

Where does this leave us? The "global" can be an effective tool of analytical clarity; it can help us see in the dark, see through the "shadows." When severed from the "global," the local becomes the site of confused "culture talk" masking consequential political-economic inequalities. The "local" also operates as the site of exclusionary spatial enclaves where global forces, supported by the most regressive forces of the "local," operate in the most rent-seeking and shadowy fashion, ripping potentially stable and prosperous communities apart.    

Monday, September 19, 2016

Globalization and Neo-Liberalism

Globalization as a Political Project

Harvey, D. 2004 Spaces of Neoliberalization

Jacques, Martin 2016 “The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics” @ Eurozine

Kalb Don, 2005. From flows to violence: Politics and knowledge in the debates on globalization and Empire. In: Anthropological Theory 5: 176

Globalization can be fruitfully viewed as a political project, among other things. As a political project, it refers to "an emergent coalition between neo-liberals/market liberals and political liberals"(Kalb, 177) Gaining ground in the early 90's, this coalition puts forth a political program grounded in the civilizing force of trade. In this program, economic interests of autonomous individuals are made predominant. This approach is expected to produce prosperity and political order by holding in check collective passions fired by ethnic/religious claims. In the later 90's, Kalb observes, political liberals gain the intellectual upper hand in this alliance. Unlike market liberals, political liberals emphasize political institutions' role to create structures of accountability and preempt populist strongmen. Market alone, political liberals learn, fails to bring about political development.

It becomes clear from Kalb's account that political liberalism's ascendancy is in fact deeply contested. Illiberal mobilizations surface all around the world, from the Balkans to South East Asia. Kalb points to "culture talk" setting parochial notions of belonging against global demands. Globalism or global liberalism spearheaded by a profit-seeking transnational capitalist class gets challenged by ethnically or religiously driven mass mobilizations. It also becomes clear from Kalb's survey that empire/imperialism becomes the major strategy of globalist trans-nationalism as it strives to prevail against rivaling forces.

Kalb's account dovetails with Harvey's perspective on neo-liberalism as the restoration of class-power. Harvey too reads neo-liberalism politically, as the manifacturing of consent for policies which exclusively benefit capitalists, above all finance capitalists. The language of liberalism, with "freedom" "individualism" "autonomy" as its keywords, fits the bill in this hegemonic project. Harvey's task is to uncover the ideological mask of this hegemony and show that neo-liberalism has not generated wealth, it has merely re-distributed it away from the vast majority of the population to an upper strata. "Accumulation by dispossession" is the right term to describe this process. "Conversion of various forms of property rights(common,collective,state) into exclusive private property rights" drives the neo-liberal project.

Jacques Martin's opinion piece points to rising popular discontent with neo-liberalism. The challenge for me is to make sure this discontent does not take the form of a reactionary shoring up of so-called ethnic or cultural differences. To prevent such a reactionary form, we must maintain a focus on social and economic rights and reflect about non-capitalist/though still global forms of property and social organization. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Problem-Space of Globalization

The Problem-Space of Globalization

Comaroffs, 2000 Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming. Available at:

Ong, A and Collier, S 2005. Introduction, from Global Assemblages.. Blackwell Publishing

Anna Tsing, 2000. The Global Situation. In: Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 15/ 3. Pp: 327-360.

Further reading: Karl Polanyi. “The Great Transformation,” Boston, MA, Beacon Press

"To invoke the global at the turn of the second millenium is to call attention to the speed and density of interconnections among people and places" (Tsing, 331) "By globalism, I refer to the endorsements of the importance of the global"(Tsing, 330)

The global refers to the increased speed and density of interconnections among people and places. The interesting question for me here is how we connect to each other in this newly fast and dense context. Do we connect as mere bearers of labor-power with a pre-determined set of interests or do we connect as whole moral persons? I ask this question in light of the following quote from Polanyi: 

"To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their          natural environment, indeed, even of the amount of and use of purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity 'labor power' cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this particular commodity. In disposing of a man's labor power, the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity 'man' attached to that tag. Robbed of the protective covering of human institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as the victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation." (Karl Polanyi,76)

Polanyi wrote this before the advent of the "global" and accompanying ideology of globalism. He wrote it to highlight the dislocation caused by modern industrialization. Man, he said, needs the protective covering of human institutions to prevent or survive such dislocation. Man's physical and mental health is beholden to the protection offered by institutions. Recalling here the earlier diagnosis of the global as increased speed and density of connections, we can note the continuing relevance of Polanyi for today: increased speed and density of connections would wear man out in the absence of protective institutions.

The essay by Comaroff&Comaroff promotes reflection along these lines:

"The roots of this process lie deeper: in the interiors, and the animating forces, of the Age of Millennial Capitalism- in particular, in its impulse to displace political sovereignty with the sovereignty of "the market..." to parse human beings into free-floating labor units, commodities, clients, stakeholders, strangers, their subjectivity distilled into ever more objectified ensembles of interests, entitlements, appetites, desires, purchasing "power."( Comaroff&Comaroff, 333)

"We seek instead to draw attention to, to interrogate, the distinctly pragmatic qualities of the messianic, millenial capitalism of the moment; a capitalism that presents itself as a gospel of salvation; a capitalism that, if rightly harnessed, is invested with the capacity wholly to transform the universe of the marginalized and disempowered" (Comaroff&Comaroff, 292)

Millenial capitalism, a form of capitalism tethered to the occult offers quick and false promises of salvation. In my view, it degrades man's rationality and dignity. It perpetuates irrational/mystified explanations of the world system and devalues hard, honest and socially responsible work. It realizes in the most jarring way what Polanyi has predicted- vice, perversion, crime, starvation.

On the other hand, millenial capitalism captures only one side of the contemporary reality. In many ways, it is only a fiction/ideology, albeit a very powerful one. The reality contains other sides, more concrete bits of human interaction.

"In contrast to the abstract globe conjured by social science globalism, the scholarship I am imagining would stress the concreteness of "movements" in both senses of the word: social mobilizations in which new identities and interests are formed and travels from one place to another through which place-transcending interactions occur."(Tsing,350)

As a composite concept, the term "global assemblage" suggests inherent tensions: global implies broadly encompassing, seamless, and mobile; assemblage implies heterogeneous, contingent, unstable, partial and situated. (Ong&Collier,12)

Can we find meaningful interactions among moral persons- not mere bearers of labor-power- somewhere in these "global assemblages"?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Anxiety of the Whistleblower

How do whistleblowers fare in America, arguably one of the most advanced democracies in the world? Whistleblowers, to remind you, are those employees who sue their companies for fraud or harm to public at large. Although there are plenty of legal documents which are enacted to protect them, they usually end up in less-than-ideal conditions, often job-less, anguished and alone. Fred Alford tells us that whistleblowers learn and teach us that the statements below are all lies( Whistleblowers, page 49):

"That if one is right and persistent, things will turn out all right in the end

That it makes sense to stand up and do the right thing.

That the family is a haven in a heartless world. Spouses and children will not abondon you in your hour of need.

That ours is a government of laws, not men.

That loyalty isn't equivalent to herd instinct."

It turns out that even in advanced democracies our familial and civic lives depend more on herd-instinct and habit than 'rightness' or 'public good'. For many, it is more prudent to keep one's edges round and stick with others in the group than to do the right thing and suffer the resultant loneliness. This insight is reminiscient of Tocqueville's observations about America in his Democracy in America:

"When the inhabitant of a democratic country compares himself with all those about him, he feels with pride that he is the equal of anyone of them; but when he comes to survey the totality of his fellows, and to place himself in contrast with so huge a body, he is instantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance and weakness. The same equality which renders him independent of each of his fellow-citizens taken severally, exposes him alone and unprotected to the influence of the greater number. The public has therefore, among a democratic people, a singular power, which aristocratic nations cannot conceive of, for it does not persuade to certain opinions, but it enforces them, and infuses them into the intellect by a sort of enormous pressure of the minds of all upon the reason of each...."

The families, organizations and political parties that compose the public sometimes act in conformity and unison. They thus create a 'singular power.' Think of this as the center of a circle drawing multiple forces around it into itself. Whistleblowers are the best people to tell us about how strong that force is. This is because they resisted that force and suffered for it.

This does not mean, however, that this is a overwhelmingly uniform society. There are divisions and conflicts between the forces composing the public. Furthermore, these are not minor divisions: they are about ultimate values of life. American democracy, to its credit, contains their conflicts effectively. Sandel describes this containment as follows.

Thomas Nagel, "Sandel and the Paradox of Liberalism",110

"[Moral and political conflicts in America] are not just about the best means to pursue generally accepted ends. They are about ultimate values. Yet they do not threaten the stability and legitimacy of the system. Except for a small lunatic fringe, citizens of the United States are prepared to accept the results of the political and legal process even when those results contravene some of their most fundamental convictions. Americans may vilify one another as bigoted religious fanatics or morally depraved atheists, racist reactionaries or crypto-totalitarian socialists, but they know they will not be put up against the wall if their party loses an election."

This organization of the political space demands from us the virtue of tolerance when we lose in social and political contests. But, again, what about the convictions and the systematic losses of the whistle-blowers? Are these losses to be suffered in silence? True, whistleblowers are usually not 'put up against the wall.' But, they suffer in a heartless world and end up losing their sanity and connectedness to others. Is that loss tolerable?

Let us think, now, with Wolin, Politics and Vision, page 590:

"While the powers and responsibilities of the presidency have accordingly kept pace with the growth of Superpower, the powers and responsibilities of the citizen have shrunk- also accordingly. This becomes most apparent when important elections loom. The media aided by the pollsters proceed unchallenged to construct either a Pavlovian democracy conditioned to respond to stupefying questions("public opinion polls show that 60 percent of the voters believe that the president is doing a good job"), or a democracy fragmented into abstract categories of citizens who do not consciously know, associate, or colloborate with each other on the basis of such categories-"over thirty years old," "women earning over 50000 a year," and so on."

Is this, then, a Pavlovian democracy with a diminished sense of community? Fragmentation seems overwhelming. Our civic preferences are aggregated by putting us in abstract groups- boxes- that do not mean much to us.

But maybe we should not rush ahead too far like this. We are allowed to seek solidarity outside these given boxes: we can find our own ideological niche. Nagel is partially right. We can fight from within these boxes in ways meaningful to us. We can refuse to be Pavlov's dogs. This, in a way, is a system that makes whistleblowers possible.

Yet, again, the moment the whistleblower tries to deny fragmentation and connect to others, to public at large, he is pushed away. He is rendered insignificant and weak. Can the society contain his/her resultant anxiety? That seems to be the great challenge of our democracy now- more so than public opinion and the problems associated with majority rule.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

T.S Eliot and the Dwarf-Chief of the Little People: Insights on Education and Leadership

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of the earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning
--- T.S. Eliot

Ceaseless exploration takes us through unfamiliar and uncharted territory. We should try, however, to find our way back to home, the place where the journey began. We can thus come to see what is belonging to our home- what is familiar- with new eyes. The new knowledge we acquire finds its way to the depths of our identity, our starting-point.

"He will be a Chief," said the Dwarf-chief. I can give him nothing. He already possesses the power to become great if he will use it. Let him cultivate his senses, let him use the powers which Ah-badt-dadt-deah[God] has given him, and he will go far. The difference between men grows out of the use, or non-use, of what was given them by Ah-badt-dadt-deah in the first place... In you as in all men are natural powers. You have a will. Learn to use it. Make it work for you. Sharpen your senses as you would sharpen your knife. Remember the wolf smells better than you do because he has learned to depend on his nose. It tells him every secret the winds carry because he uses it all the time, makes it work for him. We can give you nothing. You already possess everything necessary to become great. Use your powers. Make them work for you, and you will become a chief."

The dream of Young Plenty Coups of the Crows tribe. In this dream, he is taken up and counseled by the Dwarf-chief, the head of the Little People, legendary creatures who lived in the hills and valley near Pryor, Montana. Quoted in Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, p.125

"We can give you nothing": at first, this sounds odd. Teachers surely do have something to give; otherwise, we would not seek their help. But, upon closer introspection, I realize that Dwarf-chief expresses a profound insight. He knows that Young Plenty Coups, like the rest of us, already has the raw material to work on- his natural powers. What he requires is a willingness to depend on what he has- like the wolf who uses his senses to learn the secret of the winds. Attunement to, not overcoming of, what we have is the key.

The Dwarf-chief's perspective is not far from that of T.S Eliot. They both urge us to look back at our starting-points- our senses, natural powers and convictions- in the midst of a perilous journey of educative exploration. Upon looking back, we will be equipped with new insights about ourselves. We will also be more willing to take up new quests and bring new gifts to the house of our being. These gifts are not things that decay or perish with time- like money, status and might. They are rather values that connect deeply with the innermost part of our nature- our curiosity, desire to sharpen our skills and yearning to understand what is around us, for example, the last piece of the earth, the secret of the winds or how best to take care of the public realm.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Musicians as Citizens of an Unknown Homeland

Marcel Proust, The Prisoner and the Fugitive, Penguin, page 235-236 quoted in Jon Elster, Reason and Rationality, page 18

"Each great artist seems to be the citizen of an unknown homeland which he has forgotten[...] It is not that musicians can remember this lost homeland, but each always remains unconsciously in tune with it; he is overcome with joy when he sings the songs of his country, he may sometimes betray it for the sake of glory, but when he seeks glory in this way he moves further away from it, and only finds it when he turns his back on it."

In this quote by Proust, our attention is drawn to certain crucial themes, that of an "unknown homeland," something like an unconscious attunement to a place of belonging and finally glory. The joy of singing the songs of one's country has less to do with universal and objective rules of music and aesthetic than a sense of intuitive, unreflective and visceral sense of belonging to common experiences and relations. This joy is also related to the ability to appreciate the intricacies of one's language and experience of people one has grown up carefully observing.

The relation between that joy and glory that Proust describes is complicated. At first, they do not seem to easily go together. Joyous belonging to one's roots repels the pursuit of glory for that joy is too intermixed with collective suffering- maybe, ironically so- to allow for any kind of self-aggrandizement. Yet, glory, Proust says, does indeed come by following that initial repulsion.It can only be gained as an unsolicited award. Glory is gained when we cooperate with our fellow citizens to confront the source of collective suffering. Such is the lovely 'pragmatic incoherence'(to use a term of Jon Elster) of belonging somewhere deep down to a homeland, unknown but forever sought through melodies.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Reflections on the "Plague"

Let us reflect on certain passages from Albert Camus' Plague.

Albert Camus, Plague, Vintage International,121

Toward two o'clock the town slowly empties, it is the time when silence, sunlight, dust, and plague have the streets to themselves. Wave after wave of heat flows over the frontage of the tall gray houses during these long, languid hours. Thus the afternoon wears on, slowly merging into an evening that settles down like a red winding-sheet onto the serried tumult of the town. At the start of the great heat, for some unascertained reason, the evenings found the streets almost empty. But now the least ripple of cooler air brings an easing of the strain, if not a flutter of hope. Then all stream out into the open, drug themselves with talking, start arguing or love-making, and in the last glow of sunset the town, freighted with lovers two by two and loud with voices, drifts like a helmless ship into the throbbing darkness. In vain a zealous evangelist with a felt hat and flowing tie threads his way through the crowd, crying without cease: ' God is great and good. Come unto Him.' On the contrary, they all make haste toward some trivial objective that seems of more immediate interest than God.

In the passage above, the town infected with the plague longs for 'the least ripple of cooler air.' It looks for a sign to revert back to the ordinary. 'The ordinary' promises to heal the town more effectively than the cry of the zealous evangelist.

Plageu, 131-32

Next day Tarrou set to work and enrolled a first team of workers, soon to be followed by many others. However, it is not the narrator's intention to ascribe to these sanitary groups more importance than their due. Doubtless today many of our fellow citizens are apt to yield to the temptation of exagerrating the services they rendered. But the narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature.... Those who enrolled in the 'sanitary squads,' as they were called, had, indeed, no such great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do, and the unthinkable thing would then have been not to have brought themselves to do it. These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease and convinced them that, now that plague was among us, it was up to them to do whatever can be done to fight it. Since plague became in this way some men's duty, it revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of all.

The plague reminds the town dwellers of the need for political organization. They craft institutions to this end. They build "sanitary squads" based on voluntary membership and an altruistic spirit. Camus insists that this formation is not driven by heroism. The inhabitants of the town simply heed 'the right thing to do,' a reasonable 'concern for all.' They start taking care of the public realm.

Also consider the following remark of Jean Tarraou"

What is natural is the microbe. All the rest- health, integrity, purity (if you like)- is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man... is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.

Excellence is revealed to be vigilance and the will to fight the forces of decay in nature. Consider the sanitary squads with full attention. Camus argues against Aristotle: Man is not political by nature. Man becomes political to bend nature to his will.

Let us continue:

Plague 182

For the first time exiles from those they loved had no reluctance to talk freely about them, using the same words as everybody else, and regarding their deprivation from the same angle as that from which they viewed the latest statistics of the epidemic. This change was striking, since until now they had jealously withheld their personal grief from the common stock of suffering; now they accepted its inclusion. Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed, the here and now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.

Plague thus creates a collective 'here and now.' That undermines the imagination and subjectivity required of love and friendship. What remains is a 'common condition of exile,' not particular attachments that had earlier defined the ordinary course of life.

Plague 228

" My brothers"- the preacher's tone showed he was nearing the conclusion of his sermon-" the love of God is a hard love. It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality. And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and deaths of children........ Thus in some churches of the south of France plague victims have lain sleeping many a century under the flagstones of the chancel. and priests now speak above their tombs, and the divine message they bring to men rises from that charnel, to which, nevertheless, children have contributed their share."

The preacher comes back to reconcile fathers to the death of their children, or to God who lets that happen. He summons people to a 'hard love' as if their contemporary predicament was not hard enough. 'Hard love to ward off hard pain' is the formula of his religion. Even dying children, in his view, help that hard love to grow.

Plague 236

Meanwhile the authorities had another cause for anxiety in the difficulty of maintaining the food-supply. Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops. The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing. Thus, whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men's hearts.

Things seem to change. The inequalities of political economy replace the levelling that plague had earlier brought about. Profiteers- who probably did not hear the preacher's sermon- add to the 'misery by the microbe' another kind of misery, 'misery by man.'

Plague, 308

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from the books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

The town recovers. 'Ordinary happiness' comes back. Dr. Rieux is cautious, however. He knows his science and its grim reality. His caution contrasts with the excitable preacher. Against the apologetic hard love of the priest, Camus sets the calm wisdom and responsible care of the scientist doctor. Note, however, that Dr. Rieux is out of place in Oran. Will he ever be happily adjusted to it, or to the world in general?