Monthly Archives: April 2008

End of the Semester (Grading Time)

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It’s that time of the semester…the end. That means loads of final papers to grade and less time for the blog. I hope to be done with all of that by May 9 and then have more time to write. I also am trying to convince someone to contribute a guest post on the American labor movement (nudge, nudge) in the next few days (weeks?).

Nobody that I tagged has responded. But Ben Neill added me to his blogroll, which was nice. Bob has a post on the books people are reading here.

Charles Tilly, 1929-2008

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Sociologist Charles Tilly passed away today (April 29, 2008). He was a mentor to and influence on a number of my professors. I’ll be writing an obit shorty. In the meantime, here is some information on the man and his work from his faculty bio at the Columbia University website:

Charles Tilly is Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science, Columbia University. His work focuses on large-scale social change and its relationship to contentious politics, especially in Europe since 1500. His most recently published books are The Politics of Collective Violence (Cambridge University Press, 2003), Contention and Democracy in Europe, 1650-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Social Movements, 1768-2004 (Paradigm Press, 2004), Economic and Political Contention in Comparative Perspective (Paradigm Press, co-authored and co-edited with Maria Kousis, 2005), Trust and Rule (Cambridge University Press, 2005), Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758-1834 (Paradigm Press, 2005, revised paperback edition of 1995 book), and Identities, Boundaries, and Social Ties (once again Paradigm Press, 2005).

He has recently completed Why? (Princeton University Press, forthcoming), the Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis (co-edited and co-authored with Robert Goodin, Oxford University Press, forthcoming), and Regimes and Repertoires (publisher pending). He is co-authoring (with Sidney Tarrow) Contentious Politics (under contract with Paradigm Press) and co-authoring (with John Coatsworth, Juan Cole, Michael Hanagan, Peter Perdue, and Louise A. Tilly) Politics, Exchange, and Social Life in World History (Wadsworth/Thomson). He is helping run the Russian Academy of Sciences – (U.S.) National Academy of Sciences joint project on conflict in multi-ethnic polities.

Charles Tilly’s writings on methodology are found here: http://professor-murmann.info/index.php/weblog/tilly

Free Markets and Food Riots Redux

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In a previous life (1990s) I studied the political-economy of development with an emphasis in the Indian subcontinent, in particular India and Nepal. I traveled to India in 1993 when the market was first opening to Foreign Direct Investment. Like the rest of my cohort I was extremely skeptical of “globalization” or capitalism in general. One book that had an impact on me at this time was Seldon and Walton’s, Free Markets and Food Riots: The Politics of Global Adjustment. The basic thesis is as follows:

In numerous countries in the global South, from the Middle East to Latin America, shock treatment in the form of structural adjustment, privatization, and so on established the conditions for “IMF Riots.” In the Middle East alone, major austerity protests occurred in Algeria (1987, 1988, 1990); Egypt (1977, 1986, 1987, 1989); Jordan (1989); Lebanon (1987); and Turkey (1978-1979, 1980, 1990). Sedden and Walton argue these outbursts were analogous to the “bread riots” in eighteenth-century Europe and “part of the process of international economic and political restructuring” that swept the globe from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Countries that pursued a more moderate course of economic liberalization (e.g. Mexico) experienced less unrest.

There were food riots in over thirty countries last week but the economic forces at play in 2007 are not the same as those in the 1990s. The reasons given for the current food crisis include:

1) Increasing oil prices. Oil is critical for agricultural production whether as gas in tractors or as a primary component of pesticides, etc.

2) Drought/Climate change. For example, Australia, a major wheat producer, has been experiencing drought for a decade.

3) Demand for biofuel. The NY Sun reports, an estimated 30% of America’s corn crop is now used for fuel instead of food.

4) The booming economies of India and China. Both countries are consuming more energy than in the past. And an increasing middle-class in both countries means that their food consumption patterns are changing. They want to eat more animal protein, especially in China. Today, China purchases 2/3 of Brazil’s soybean crop to feed animals.

Given that so many factors are contributing to these high food prices, what can be done to remedy the situation? The first thing Western nations can do is assist in situations of food emergency. We also need to cut subsidies to agribusiness. The United States and Western Europe should be ashamed that we tell poor countries to open their markets and cut subsidies (Haiti imports 90% of its food) while providing massive aid to our ADM and other mega-producers.

Meanwhile, back here in the U.S. Costco and other retailers are rationing the amounts of rice, flour and cooking oil they are selling to customers. Foreigners and immigrants are buying large quantities of grain and other foodstuffs to ship back home to their relatives in Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The dollar is weak and is buying less food overseas these days so they are asking for direct shipments of food instead. Yet as my wife pointed out to me, a lot of these packages will likely not make it to the families and loved ones they are intended to reach as the civil services in many of these countries (including the postal service) are rife with graft and other forms of corruption.

Read More:

AP: UN food agency needs hundreds of millions of hungy

Commodity Online: Food crisis is a silent tsunami

Foreign Policy: Seven Questions, the Silent Tsunami

The Hindu: UN food agency warms of eroding capacity

Seattle PI: A food disaster is brewing

Washington Post: U.S. Scrambles to Address International Food Crisis

Tag, I’m It

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I’m not much for these tag games, but I like the Contentious Centrist so I will comply and shut up…

Here are my tasks:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

I’m tagging Elder of Ziyon, the Kvetcher, Modernity Blog, Ben Neill, and Sultan Knish.

Not sure if they will all respond but what the hay.

The nearest book to me is George Nash’s, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945. It’s the last required book in my course on twentieth century American history. The class also read Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 and Van Gosse’s Movements of the New Left, 1950-1975: A Brief History with Documents, among other things.

Here is the quote:

The leaders of the new conservatism are not now, nor will they be, identified with the American business community. They are clearly identified with natural law philosophy and revealed religion. The seat of the new conservatism is not a hereditary aristocracy which America lacks, but the Churches and theological faculties which are playing an ever more important role in American life.

This is from conservative historian Stephen Tonsor of the University of Michigan, who was vigorously rebutting Schlesinger’s persistent attempts to link conservatism with the business class in the U.S. This quote is from 1955.

Thoughts on the Current Debate: A Perspective from the U.S.

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[Image courtesy of Zombietime.]

I haven’t found the time to post a response to what Bob, Marko and the Drink Soaked Trots for War have been writing the past week or so. I’ve found the discussion stimulating aside from the occasional juvenile outbursts. I certainly find the West vs. Anti-West perspective to have some utility, especially vis-à-vis the current anti-totalitarian struggle we are facing.

The generic left-right divide does not actually capture the complexity of people’s politics in the U.S. these days. For example, an individual may be considered “conservative” on foreign policy issues and “liberal” on domestic issues. Plus, when you actually start to examine positions on specific issues things get more muddled. I’ve known many working-class individuals who are very “liberal” when it comes to wages, health care, and pensions but very “conservative” when it comes to the environment or matters of concern to the lgbt community.

Why this is the case is an interesting question to ponder. IMHO most Americans have similar ambiguities in their political identities. I suspect that part of it is we don’t have a long history of political parties tied to specific political ideologies like democratic socialism, communism, etc. in the United States. The parties espousing these sorts of ideas were all relatively short-lived, especially compared to those of Europe. This continuous institutional history goes a long way in explaining differences in worldview between American and European workers.

I think the entire issue of reality, cognition, and perception gets overlooked in these discussions and debates. It’s my contention, and I realize it’s a strong claim, that most people involved in radical politics in the United States are not involved for reasons that many would consider political. Instead, involvement in these groups and organizations provides a sense of belonging and identity.

Most of the actions that take place under the rubric of “radical politics” in the U.S. has very little actual political content, at least in relation to domestic or foreign policy. As Kevin Harris has argued, many people who join these marginal political groups are participating in a self-delusional political fantasy:

My first encounter with this particular kind of fantasy occurred when I was in college in the late sixties. A friend of mine and I got into a heated argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of anti-war protest. To me the point of such protest was simple — to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason — because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective.

Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability. Thus, when he lay down in front of hapless commuters on the bridges over the Potomac, he had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not.

They were there merely as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.

For want of a better term, call the phenomenon in question a fantasy ideology — by which I mean, political and ideological symbols and tropes used not for political purposes, but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal or collective fantasy. It is, to be frank, something like “Dungeons and Dragons” carried out not with the trappings of medieval romances — old castles and maidens in distress — but entirely in terms of ideological symbols and emblems. The difference between them is that one is an innocent pastime while the other has proven to be one of the most terrible scourges to afflict the human race.

I’ve found that most people on the radical left (whether “authoritarian” or “libertarian”) subscribe to various forms of fantasy ideologies. For them, politics is about validating their own personal political beliefs (like being “anti-state”) rather than accomplishing anything political. That’s not to say that the libertarian left holds uninteresting political beliefs. But let’s be honest, how many of these black-hooded youths actually thinks “the state” is going to collapse anytime soon?

I used to consider myself an anarchist. Anarchism was–key word being was–a thriving political movement in the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because it had a strong foundation in working-class communities. Today it is mostly a fad for middle-class college students, like socialism in general. This, not government repression, explains the movement’s weakness. These ideologies lack any sort of appeal amongst the classes they were once associated with. Historian Ron Radosh refers to this as the “leftover left”.

Marko articulates similar thoughts when he writes:

It may be true, philosophically speaking, that anarchists who support autonomous communes are fundamentally different from statist socialists who support a centrally planned economy, but given the unlikelihood that the ideals of either will ever be realised, I do not consider it particularly worthwhile to discuss such differences. What matters is where one stands on concrete issues relating to struggles that are actually taking place…

And this is the key point: real, meaningful change is possible under the existing liberal-democratic order, whereas there is no reason to believe that this order can be overthrown and replaced by something radically different and better. If I have ‘made my peace’ with the existing order, it is not because I think the existing order is perfect, but because it is an existing order that can be improved, whereas the radical-left alternatives do not offer any realistic prospect for successful progressive change.

That’s the clincher. As I’ve written elsewhere, utopian political programs lead to dystopian outcomes. Reform is necessary in any society or system of government, economics, jurisprudence, and so forth. But revolution, at least as dreamed by the radical left in the U.S., is a fantasy.

Cinematic Orchestra at the Jazz Standard

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The Cinematic Orchestra played last night. My wife and I had the opportunity to check them out last September at Webster Hall and it was a great show so I knew we’d want to check them again when they came back to town. Last night’s show was at the Jazz Standard which is a really nice club. The setting is much more intimate than Webster Hall and you can actually sit down at a table instead of standing the entire set. In our case the table was front and center less than a half a foot from the stage.

We arrived for the second set (9:30) and it was short but sweet. Some of the songs I remember are “Flite,” “All that You Give,” “Evolution,” “To Build a Home,” and “Breathe.” Everyone was great but drummer Luke Flowers and guitarist Stuart McCallum were the standouts that night. Here is a vid for “Flite”