David J Silverman writes: It has become commonplace to attribute the European conquest of the Americas to Jared Diamond’s triumvirate of guns, germs and steel. Germs refer to plague, measles, flu, whooping cough and, especially, the smallpox that whipsawed through indigenous populations, sometimes with a mortality rate of 90 per cent. The epidemics left survivors ill-equipped to fend off predatory encroachments, either from indigenous or from European peoples, who seized captives, land and plunder in the wake of these diseases.
Guns and steel, of course, represent Europeans’ technological prowess. Metal swords, pikes, armour and firearms, along with ships, livestock and even wheeled carts, gave European colonists significant military advantages over Native American people wielding bows and arrows, clubs, hatchets and spears. The attractiveness of such goods also meant that Indians desired trade with Europeans, despite the danger the newcomers represented. The lure of trade enabled Europeans to secure beachheads on the East Coast of North America, and make inroads to the interior of the continent. Intertribal competition for European trade also enabled colonists to employ ‘divide and conquer’ strategies against much larger indigenous populations.
Diamond’s explanation has grown immensely popular and influential. It appears to be a simple and sweeping teleology providing order and meaning to the complexity of the European conquest of the Western hemisphere. The guns, germs and steel perspective has helped further understanding of some of the major forces behind globalisation. But it also involves a level of abstraction that risks obscuring the history of individuals and groups whose experiences cannot be so aptly and neatly summarised. [Continue reading…]
A Paris prosecutor recently called for the former CEO and six senior managers of telecoms provider, France Télécom, to face criminal charges for workplace harassment. The recommendation followed a lengthy inquiry into the suicides of a number of employees at the company between 2005 and 2009. The prosecutor accused management of deliberately “destabilising” employees and creating a “stressful professional climate” through a company-wide strategy of “harcèlement moral” – psychological bullying.
All deny any wrongdoing and it is now up to a judge to decide whether to follow the prosecutor’s advice or dismiss the case. If it goes ahead, it would be a landmark criminal trial, with implications far beyond just one company.
Workplace suicides are sharply on the rise internationally, with increasing numbers of employees choosing to take their own lives in the face of extreme pressures at work. Recent studies in the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea, China, India and Taiwan all point to a steep rise in suicides in the context of a generalised deterioration in working conditions.
Rising suicides are part of the profound transformations in the workplace that have taken place over the past 30 years. These transformations are arguably rooted in the political and economic shift to globalisation that has radically altered the way we work.
In the post-war Fordist era of industry (pioneered by US car manufacturer Henry Ford), jobs generally provided stability and a clear career trajectory for many, allowing people to define their collective identity and their place in the world. Strong trade unions in major industrial sectors meant that employees could negotiate their working rights and conditions.
But today’s globalised workplace is characterised by job insecurity, intense work, forced redeployments, flexible contracts, worker surveillance, and limited social protection and representation. Zero-hour contracts are the new norm for many in the hospitality and healthcare industries, for example.
Now, it is not enough simply to work hard. In the words of Marxist theorist Franco Berardi, “the soul is put to work” and workers must devote their whole selves to the needs of the company.
For the economist Guy Standing, the precariat is the new social class of the 21st century, characterised by the lack of job security and even basic stability. Workers move in and out of jobs which give little meaning to their lives. This shift has had deleterious effects on many people’s experience of work, with rising cases of acute stress, anxiety, sleep disorders, burnout, hopelessness and, in some cases, suicide.
Kenan Malik writes: Over the past few decades, trade unions have weakened, social justice campaigns eroded, the left crumbled.
One consequence of this shift has been to lead many on the left to look to bureaucratic or managerial means of creating a more progressive society. This is one reason that the EU has become so important for many as an institution for protecting social needs and equal rights. It may also be one of the reasons for the generational division over the EU – many young people who have grown up from the 1990s onwards view the EU both as a vital component of their lives and identities and as a crucial institution for the enabling of social change.
A second consequence of the erosion of broader social movements is the creation of more fragmented, parochial, even sectarian, forms that popular disaffection increasingly takes. In an age in which there are few collective mechanisms to bind together the experiences and grievances of different groups and communities and to channel them into a common goal of social transformation, people often express their different experiences of discontent in very different ways.
It is against this background that much of the Brexit debate became polarized between, on the one hand, a liberal Europeanism that celebrated the managerial over the democratic, and ignored, or underplayed, the undemocratic character of EU institutions, and, on the other, a Euroscepticism that played on hostility to migrants, and that, in conflating democracy and national sovereignty, advanced a narrow, divisive notion of democracy. What was missing was the argument for a pan-European solidarity built from the bottom up, and which sought to break down national barriers through the extension of democratic institutions, not their emasculation. [Continue reading…]
Larry Elliott writes: In the age of globalisation, the idea was that a more integrated Europe would collectively serve as the bulwark that nation states could no longer provide. Britain, France, Germany or Italy could not individually resist the power of trans-national capital, but the EU potentially could. The way forward was clear. Move on from a single market to a single currency, a single banking system, a single budget and eventually a single political entity.
That dream is now over. As Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform thinktank put it: “Brexit is a momentous event in the history of Europe and from now on the narrative will be one of disintegration not integration.”
The reason is obvious. Europe has failed to fulfil the historic role allocated to it. Jobs, living standards and welfare states were all better protected in the heyday of nation states in the 1950s and 1960s than they have been in the age of globalisation. Unemployment across the eurozone is more than 10%. Italy’s economy is barely any bigger now than it was when the euro was created. Greece’s economy has shrunk by almost a third. Austerity has eroded welfare provision. Labour market protections have been stripped away.
Inevitably, there has been a backlash, manifested in the rise of populist parties on the left and right. An increasing number of voters believe there is not much on offer from the current system. They think globalisation has benefited a small privileged elite, but not them. They think it is unfair that they should pay the price for bankers’ failings. They hanker after a return to the security that the nation state provided, even if that means curbs on the core freedoms that underpin globalisation, including the free movement of people.
This has caused great difficulties for Europe’s mainstream parties, but especially those of the centre left. They have been perfectly happy to countenance the idea of curbs on capital movements such as a financial transaction tax, and have no problems with imposing tariffs to prevent the dumping of Chinese steel. They feel uncomfortable, however, with the idea that there should be limits on the free movement of people.
The risk is that if the mainstream parties don’t respond to the demands of their traditional supporters, they will be replaced by populist parties who will. The French Socialist party has effectively lost most of its old blue-collar working class base to the hard left and the hard right, and in the UK there is a danger that the same thing will happen to the Labour party, where Jeremy Corbyn’s laissez-faire approach to immigration is at odds with the views of many voters in the north that supported Ed Miliband in the 2015 general election, but who plumped for Brexit last week.
There are those who argue that globalisation is now like the weather, something we can moan about but not alter. This is a false comparison. The global market economy was created by a set of political decisions in the past and it can be shaped by political decisions taken in the future. [Continue reading…]
Catherine Rampell writes: The age of autarky is again upon us.
Britain, in two weeks, will vote on whether to leave the European Union, that great postwar project to promote both peace and prosperity.
No matter that economists have almost uniformly warned that a possible “Brexit” would devastate the British economy, with an estimated cost of approximately $6,000 per British household. Disregard news that markets are already freaking out about the consequences for the pound and the overall financial sector; that high-skilled talent has become skittish about moving to the British isles, whose relationship to the E.U. in a post-Brexit world is as yet unknown; and that foreign clients have begun suspending or delaying contracts with British companies.
Who cares that these small islands, so dependent on the continent for both what they consume and where they send their exports, are putting so much economic activity at risk?
Many Brits want to withdraw, to show they’re separate and politically self-determined and not really into all this expensive pan-ethnic, pan-European unity rubbish. So withdraw they might. Recent polls show the “leave” and “stay” contingents about evenly split.
Financially self-defeating as it may seem, the British are hardly alone in their flirtation with economic, political and cultural separatism. [Continue reading…]
We live in a world where large numbers of people are connected by just a few degrees of separation. But while having friends of friends all over the globe can be great for holidays, trade and networking, travel also allows viruses to move like never before.
Zika is the latest “explosive pandemic” to be declared a global emergency by the World Health Organisation. But viruses don’t just target humans – they can infect all forms of life from bacteria to bananas, horses to honeybees.
A lethal combination of the Varroa mite and the deformed wing virus has resulted in the death of billions of bees over the past half century. In a study published in the journal Science, colleagues from the Universities of Exeter, Sheffield and I report how the virus has spread across the globe.
Koert Debeuf writes: The anti-forces of the liberal order, authoritarian nationalism and religious extremism are back with a vengeance. The most obvious example of the return of authoritarian nationalism is Russia. The same trend is also clear in most member-states of supra-national Europe, not the least in Hungary and Greece. Religious extremism is on a scary height in the Arab world, but also in parts of Africa, India and Myanmar.
The US and Europe seem to be too tired and powerless to halt this decline. Even though both liberal powers know what they want, both are deeply divided. It looks like both powers are facing a global system failure and have no idea how to deal with it. Both know that their influence and power is not what it used to be, but they haven’t found a new role yet. It’s not an exclusive Western problem. The entire world is plunging into an identity crisis.
What is an identity crisis?
An identity crisis or existential crisis is a psychological state of mind of — mostly high-achieving individuals who feel depressed, angry and lost and question the very foundations of their lives. It usually occurs after a traumatic experience such as an extreme disappointment, a broken relationship, the death of a loved one or a sudden loss of status. These traumas result in a loss of confidence and self-esteem.
In trying to find a way out of this depressive disorder people tend to take four different paths: anchoring, isolation, distraction and sublimation. Isolation is an attempt to keep all negative feelings outside. Distraction is trying to prevent the mind from turning on itself. Sublimation on the other hand is refocusing on positive energy in order to keep the negative away. However, the path that most people with an identity crisis are taking is the one of anchoring: finding a well-known fixation point such as religion, closed social groups or one particular idea or ideology. People are looking for the security and warmth of a group, or what I call a tribe. In Arabic there is a word for this: qabaleya, or tribalization. It is the choice to go back to the tribe, its warmth and clear-cut identity. What’s interesting is that psychologists have found that in looking for a way out of an identity crisis people often prefer a negative identity rather than a weak identity.
What counts for individuals counts for groups as well. It makes sense to say that societies can suffer from an identity crisis too. The first study of the psychology of the masses was written in 1895, by Gustav Le Bon in his book ‘Psychologie des foules’. Since then many Social Psychology studies have drawn similarities between the psychology of individuals and that of groups. Psychiatrists too have been researching how groups can suffer from a kind of equivalent of the mental disorders usually only attributed to individuals. Psychiatrist and politician John Lord Alderdice even suggested psychologically informed strategies to address such crises in the psychology of large groups including the regressive pattern I am calling tribalization and other phenomena such a fundamentalism, radicalization and the cycle of terrorism.
Societies –just like individuals –can suffer traumatic experiences too. The anthropological study of René Girard shows how traumatic experiences make tribes focus on their core identity, returning to a stronger emphasis on law, culture and the sacred, and how they deal with their fear and aggression by turning against ‘the Other’ — — the scapegoat mechanism. Just like individuals societies often respond to traumatic experiences with an identity crisis by regressing back into what they know best from the past — what I am describing as tribalization. They go back to the tribal (old) ideas and tribal (old) behavior. These tribal ideas are mostly based on myths of a great past as the only way towards a great future. Tribalization is a process that almost always includes the creation of enemies. [Continue reading…]
Peter Brannen writes: At 5:30am I awoke to the sound of the diesel chug-chugging of a lone lobster boat carving into the glassy Atlantic. An audience of shrieking gulls hushed in the engine’s wake as it rumbled through the narrow strait that separates the United States from Canada. After the boat pushed out into the open ocean, the gulls resumed their gossip, and I began preparing for a day on the water, still groggy from the night before, after joining a group of researchers over beer. I had come to Lubec in Maine with a bizarre question: what was 9/11 like for whales?
I sleepwalked to the pier and helped pack a former Coast Guard patrol boat with boxes of underwater audio-visual equipment, as well as a crossbow built for daring, drive-by whale biopsies. A pod of 40 North Atlantic right whales had been spotted south of Nova Scotia the day before and, with only a few hundred of the animals left in existence, any such gathering meant a potential field research coup. ‘They even got a poop sample!’ one scientist excitedly told me. The boat roared to life and we slipped past postcard-ready lighthouses and crumbling, cedar-shingled herring smokehouses. Lisa Conger, a biologist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), manned the wheel of our boat, dodging Canadian islands and fishing weirs. As the Bay of Fundy opened before us, a container ship lumbered by to our stern: a boxy, smoking juggernaut, as unstoppable as the tide.
‘After 9/11, we were the only ones out here,’ Conger said over the wind and waves. While this tucked-away corner of the Atlantic might seem far from the rattle of world affairs, the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC of 11 September 2001 changed the marine world of the Bay of Fundy, too.
Conger leads the field team in Lubec for Susan Parks, a biology professor at Syracuse University. As a graduate student, Parks found that right whales were trying to adapt to a gradual crescendo of man-made noise in the oceans. In one study, she compared calls recorded off Martha’s Vineyard in 1956, and off Argentina in the 1977, with those in the North Atlantic in 2000. Christopher Clark, her advisor, had recorded the Argentine whales and, when Parks first played back their calls, she thought there must be some sort of mistake.
‘It was older equipment – reel-to-reel tapes which I’d never used before – so I went to Chris to ask if I had the speed of the tape wrong because the whales sounded so much lower in frequency than the whales I had been working with.’
In fact, Parks discovered, modern North Atlantic right whales have shifted their calls up an entire octave over the past half century or so, in an attempt to be heard over the unending, and steadily growing, low-frequency drone of commercial shipping. Where right-whale song once carried 20 to 100 miles, today those calls travel only five miles before dissolving into the din. [Continue reading…]
Sean McElwee writes: There’s a lot of talk of Karl Marx in the air these days – from Rush Limbaugh accusing Pope Francis of promoting “pure Marxism” to a Washington Times writer claiming that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is an “unrepentant Marxist.” But few people actually understand Marx’s trenchant critique of capitalism. Most people are vaguely aware of the radical economist’s prediction that capitalism would inevitably be replaced by communism, but they often misunderstand why he believed this to be true. And while Marx was wrong about some things, his writings (many of which pre-date the American Civil War) accurately predicted several aspects of contemporary capitalism, from the Great Recession to the iPhone 5S in your pocket.
Here are five facts of life in 2014 that Marx’s analysis of capitalism correctly predicted more than a century ago: [Continue reading…]
Eliane Glaser writes: Two hundred years ago this month, groups of artisan cloth workers began to assemble at night on the moors around towns in Nottinghamshire. Proclaiming allegiance to the mythical King Ludd of Sherwood Forest, and sometimes subversively cross-dressed in frocks and bonnets, the Luddites organised machine-wrecking raids on textile factories that quickly spread across the north of England. The government mobilised the army and made frame breaking a capital offence: the uprisings were subdued by the summer of 1812.
Contrary to modern assumptions, the Luddites were not opposed to technology itself. They were opposed to the particular way it was being applied. After all, stocking frames had been around for 200 years by the time the Luddites came along, and they weren’t the first to smash them up. Their protest was specifically aimed at a new class of manufacturers who were aggressively undermining wages, dismantling workers’ rights and imposing a corrosive early form of free trade. To prove it, they selectively destroyed the machines owned by factory managers who were undercutting prices, leaving the other machines intact.
The original Luddites enjoyed strong local backing as well as high-profile support from Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, whose novel Frankenstein alludes to the industrial revolution’s dark side. But in the digital age, Luddism as a position is barely tenable. Just as we assume that the original Luddites were simply technophobes, it’s become unthinkable to countenance any broader political objections to contemporary technology’s direction of travel.
The promoters of internet technology combine visionary enthusiasm and like-it-or-not realism. So dissent is dismissed as either an irrational rejection of progress or a refusal to face the inevitable. It’s the realism that’s particularly hard to counter; the notion that technology is an unstoppable and non-negotiable force entirely separate from human agency. There’s not much time for political critique if you’re constantly being told that “the world is changing fast and you have to keep up”. Which is a bit rich given that politics infuses the arguments of even technology’s purest advocates.
As Slavoj Žižek has noted, the language of internet advocacy – phrases like “the unlimited flow of information” and “the marketplace of ideas” – mirrors the language of free-market economics. But techno-prophets also use the lingo of leftwing revolution. It’s there in books such as James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, and in Vodafone’s slogan, “Power to You”; in the notion that blogs, Twitter and newspaper comment threads create a level playing field in the public debate; and it’s there in the countless magazine features about how the internet fosters grassroots protest, places the tools of cultural production in amateurs’ hands, and allows the little guy immediate access to information that keeps political leaders on their toes. This is not Adam Smith, it’s Marx and Mao.
In fact, both rhetorics – of the free market and of bottom-up emancipation – serve to conceal the rise of crony capitalism and the concentration of power and money at the top. Google is busily acquiring “all the world’s information”. Facebook is gathering our personal data for the coming world of personalised advertising. Amazon is monopolising the book trade. The abandonment of net neutrality means corporate control of the web. Once all our books, music, pictures and information are stored in the cloud, it will be owned by a handful of conglomerates.