NY Times: ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback
10-19-2010, 11:25 AM (This post was last modified: 10-19-2010 11:33 AM by achali.)
NY Times: ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback
Smells like some of that "paper of global white supremacy" spin in that a surge in focus on culture is immediately tied back into a oversimplified suggestion that "Daniel Moynihan was right." That misses the point, but the larger questions of how culture is and will be defined is a discussion that no one can afford to not have an interest in -- culture will continue to be tied to resources, if just more overtly in the coming decade. Intellectual Warfare at its finest.
Black America's "Issues": Structural or Cultural?
A terrible failure of black leadership in America
Black America's Crisis
Responses to Cosby's "isms."
Henry Gates: Forty Acres and a Gap in Wealth
‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback
For more than 40 years, social scientists investigating the causes of poverty have tended to treat cultural explanations like Lord Voldemort: That Which Must Not Be Named.
The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a “culture of poverty” to the public in a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.
Moynihan’s analysis never lost its appeal to conservative thinkers, whose arguments ultimately succeeded when President Bill Clinton signed a bill in 1996 “ending welfare as we know it.” But in the overwhelmingly liberal ranks of academic sociology and anthropology the word “culture” became a live grenade, and the idea that attitudes and behavior patterns kept people poor was shunned.
Now, after decades of silence, these scholars are speaking openly about you-know-what, conceding that culture and persistent poverty are enmeshed.
“We’ve finally reached the stage where people aren’t afraid of being politically incorrect,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociologist at Princeton who has argued that Moynihan was unfairly maligned.
The old debate has shaped the new. Last month Princeton and the Brookings Institution released a collection of papers on unmarried parents, a subject, it noted, that became off-limits after the Moynihan report. At the recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, attendees discussed the resurgence of scholarship on culture. And in Washington last spring, social scientists participated in a Congressional briefing on culture and poverty linked to a special issue of The Annals, the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
“Culture is back on the poverty research agenda,” the introduction declares, acknowledging that it should never have been removed.
The topic has generated interest on Capitol Hill because so much of the research intersects with policy debates. Views of the cultural roots of poverty “play important roles in shaping how lawmakers choose to address poverty issues,” Representative Lynn Woolsey, Democrat of California, noted at the briefing.
This surge of academic research also comes as the percentage of Americans living in poverty hit a 15-year high: one in seven, or 44 million.
With these studies come many new and varied definitions of culture, but they all differ from the ’60s-era model in these crucial respects: Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty. And they attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation.
To Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard, culture is best understood as “shared understandings.”
“I study inequality, and the dominant focus is on structures of poverty,” he said. But he added that the reason a neighborhood turns into a “poverty trap” is also related to a common perception of the way people in a community act and think. When people see graffiti and garbage, do they find it acceptable or see serious disorder? Do they respect the legal system or have a high level of “moral cynicism,” believing that “laws were made to be broken”?
As part of a large research project in Chicago, Professor Sampson walked through different neighborhoods this summer, dropping stamped, addressed envelopes to see how many people would pick up an apparently lost letter and mail it, a sign that looking out for others is part of the community’s culture.
In some neighborhoods, like Grand Boulevard, where the notorious Robert Taylor public housing projects once stood, almost no envelopes were mailed; in others researchers received more than half of the letters back. Income levels did not necessarily explain the difference, Professor Sampson said, but rather the community’s cultural norms, the levels of moral cynicism and disorder.
The shared perception of a neighborhood — is it on the rise or stagnant? — does a better job of predicting a community’s future than the actual level of poverty, he said.
William Julius Wilson, whose pioneering work boldly confronted ghetto life while focusing on economic explanations for persistent poverty, defines culture as the way “individuals in a community develop an understanding of how the world works and make decisions based on that understanding.”
For some young black men, Professor Wilson, a Harvard sociologist, said, the world works like this: “If you don’t develop a tough demeanor, you won’t survive. If you have access to weapons, you get them, and if you get into a fight, you have to use them.”
Seeking to recapture the topic from economists, sociologists have ventured into poor neighborhoods to delve deeper into the attitudes of residents. Their results have challenged some common assumptions, like the belief that poor mothers remain single because they don’t value marriage.
In Philadelphia, for example, low-income mothers told the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas that they thought marriage was profoundly important, even sacred, but doubted that their partners were “marriage material.” Their results have prompted some lawmakers and poverty experts to conclude that programs that promote marriage without changing economic and social conditions are unlikely to work.
Mario Luis Small, a sociologist at the University of Chicago and an editor of The Annals’ special issue, tried to figure out why some New York City mothers with children in day care developed networks of support while others did not. As he explained in his 2009 book, “Unanticipated Gains,” the answer did not depend on income or ethnicity, but rather the rules of the day-care institution. Centers that held frequent field trips, organized parents’ associations and had pick-up and drop-off procedures created more opportunities for parents to connect.
Younger academics like Professor Small, 35, attributed the upswing in cultural explanations to a “new generation of scholars without the baggage of that debate.”
Scholars like Professor Wilson, 74, who have tilled the field much longer, mentioned the development of more sophisticated data and analytical tools. He said he felt compelled to look more closely at culture after the publication of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s controversial 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” which attributed African-Americans’ lower I.Q. scores to genetics.
The authors claimed to have taken family background into account, Professor Wilson said, but “they had not captured the cumulative effects of living in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods.”
He added, “I realized we needed a comprehensive measure of the environment, that we must consider structural and cultural forces.”
He mentioned a study by Professor Sampson, 54, that found that growing up in areas where violence limits socializing outside the family and where parents haven’t attended college stunts verbal ability, lowering I.Q. scores by as much as six points, the equivalent of missing more than a year in school.
Changes outside campuses have made conversation about the cultural roots of poverty easier than it was in the ’60s. Divorce, living together without marrying, and single motherhood are now commonplace. At the same time prominent African-Americans have begun to speak out on the subject. In 2004 the comedian Bill Cosby made headlines when he criticized poor blacks for “not parenting” and dropping out of school. President Obama, who was abandoned by his father, has repeatedly talked about “responsible fatherhood.”
Conservatives also deserve credit, said Kay S. Hymowitz, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, for their sustained focus on family values and marriage even when cultural explanations were disparaged.
Still, worries about blaming the victim persist. Policy makers and the public still tend to view poverty through one of two competing lenses, Michèle Lamont, another editor of the special issue of The Annals, said: “Are the poor poor because they are lazy, or are the poor poor because they are a victim of the markets?”
So even now some sociologists avoid words like “values” and “morals” or reject the idea that, as The Annals put it, “a group’s culture is more or less coherent.” Watered-down definitions of culture, Ms. Hymowitz complained, reduce some of the new work to “sociological pablum.”
“If anthropologists had come away from doing field work in New Guinea concluding ‘everyone’s different,’ but sometimes people help each other out,” she wrote in an e-mail, “there would be no field of anthropology — and no word culture for cultural sociologists to bend to their will.”
Fuzzy definitions or not, culture is back. This prompted mock surprise from Rep. Woolsey at last spring’s Congressional briefing: “What a concept. Values, norms, beliefs play very important roles in the way people meet the challenges of poverty.”
10-23-2010, 03:14 PM (This post was last modified: 10-23-2010 03:15 PM by kamille.)
RE: NY Times: ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback
Your point about resources always being connected to culture is key. It made me want to add this piece to the record as well:
Scrutinizing the Elite ...
The phrase that caught my attention in this piece was "Income Defense Industry."
I found it interesting how the Income Defense Industry for those with lower incomes takes on the form of (things like) policies prohibiting the purchase of soda pop and other desirables with income supplements.
11-01-2010, 05:49 PM (This post was last modified: 11-01-2010 07:34 PM by achali.)
RE: NY Times: ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback
I'm reading Slavoj Zizek's "First As Tragedy, Then As Farce".. a marxist critique of the failures of capitalism.
Coming from the marxist perspective, it's no suprise but, one of the things he brings up is the irrationalities of focusing on culture period. Now, this itself has been a point of critique, from blacks in particular, of marxism -- this lacking of respect for the cultural perspective.
But Zizek is no amateur philosopher and his logic is sound. He seems to assign culture to the cause of survival, while arguing that the systemic "nature" of capitalism makes culture mostly irrelevant when it comes to the cause of justice (which he seems to argue can only be brought about through fundamental change).
So in short, he's saying the poor can survive with strong culture, in a sort of enlightened cynical bubble, but as long as the systemic injustice of capitalism prevails, justice will always be out of reach.
Whispers of late-stage Martin Luther King.
The reason I thought of this was because your post brought up the issue of the culture of wealth.
I also watched Frontline's report on the BP oil spill "The Spill" which, along with the other recent failures of corporations drenched in systemic greed, begins with focusing on the business culture of BP's board and executives (their propensity to cut costs even if it undermined safety, incompetence of individuals, hiring/promotion mistakes, etc).
Makes me wonder about the energy being put into studying either the culture of poverty or the culture of elites.
On one hand the discussion seems to enable those who do pro-active long-view cultural recovery work to find more financial opportunities for the work.
On the other hand, the root style of how the academy focuses on culture seems to reinforce the ignoring of the systemic failures of capitalism. Culture is linked with pathology -- i.e. it's only rational for the rich to protect their advantages, and it's correctable for the "next BP" to learn from the cultural mistakes of the past (hiring, risky decision making, etc. They even had other oil companies testify how unwise BP's company culture was supporting the hypothesis that this was a cultural failure of one company, not a systematic or ideological failure of an economic system's rules); and it's rational for the poor to waste money on short term pleasures when their larger world is one of despair.
The first half of Zizek's book is called "It's Ideology, Stupid!" (where he breaks down the ideology of capitalism, in contrast to the assumed rationality of capitalism, arguing Harold Cruse style that "Utiopias of alternative worlds have been exorcized by the utopia in power, masking itself as pragmatic realism" and the second part of the book is called "The Communist Hypothesis".
Cedric Robinson took a giant step in his articulation of a unique tradition of black radical critique of capitalism, but one of the reasons Zizek's arguments are so enticing is because aside from communism there still has yet to be a modern fundamental pro-active alternative to capitalism (Zizek dismisses small scale organizing as part of the "cynical bubble" movement, akin to closing your eyes and plugging your ears to the larger global system while creating local safe spaces -- which begs the maroon question -- see "Why Maroon Community Is Not Enough For Me" & "Remarks From A Refugee Turned Maroon". So, all he has to do after illustrating these many systemic failures is state a modernized communist hypothesis and it comes across as if it's the only modern alternative hope, because in a way -- within the matrix of western civilization -- it sorta is. Otherwise, until western civilization has its run, it seems folks will have to continue to endure the boom bust cycles of capitalism. Zizek means it as a challenge to the left to radicalize itself again, but it might serve as a sober reminder for radicals who aren't communists that those cynical bubbles will continue to serve as necessary retreats while capitalism continues to play out volatile cycles.
Here are some other interesting excerpts from the book.
p36: "... the temptation to 'morph' legitimate business into a pyramid scheme is part of the very nature of the capitalist circulation process. There is no exact point at which the Rubicon was crossed and the legitimate business morph into an illegal scheme; the very dynamic of capitalism blurs the frontier between 'legitimate' investment and 'wild' speculation..."
p66: "'Western Buddhism' is... a fetish: it enables you to fully participate in the frantic capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it, that you are well aware how worthless the whole spectacle is, since what really matters is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always withdraw... unaware that the 'truth' of his existence lies in the very social relations he tends to dismiss as a mere game."
p77: "... no less utopian is the liberal-pragmatic idea that one can solve problems gradually, one by one ('people are dying right now in Rwanda, so let's forget about anti-imperialist struggle, let us just prevent the slaughter'; or, 'one has to fight poverty and racism here and now, not wait for the collapse of the global capitalist order'). John Caputo wrote: 'I would be perfectly happy if the far left politicians in the United States were able to reform the system by providing universal health care, effectively redistributing wealth more equitably with a revised IRS code, effectively restricting campaign financing, enfranchising all voters, treating migrant workers humanely, and effecting a multilateral foreign policy that would integrate American power within the international community, etc., i.e., intervene upon capitalism by means of serious and far-reaching reforms... if after doing all that Badiou and Zizek complained that some Monster called Capital still stalks us, I would be inclined to greet that Monster with a yawn." The problem here is not Caputo's conclusion that if one can achieve all that within capitalism, why not remain within the system? The problem lies with the "utopian" premise that is is possible to achieve all that within the coordinates of global capitalism. What if the particular malfunctioning of capitalism enumerated by Caputo are not merely accidental disturbances but are rather structurally necessary?"
p78: "After denouncing all the 'usual suspects' for the utopianism then, perhaps the time has come to focus on the liberal utopia itself [...] what we are confronting in today's crisis are the consequences of the utopian core of this order itself." [...] "The ongoing financial meltdown demonstrates how difficult it is to disturb the thick undergrowth of utopian premises which determine our acts. As Alain Badiou succinctly put it: 'The ordinary citizen must 'understand' that it is impossible to make up the shortfall in social security, but it is imperative to stuff untold billions into the banks' financial hole? We must somberly accept that no one imagines any longer that it's possible to nationalize a factory hounded by competition, a factory employing thousands of workers, but that it is obvious to do so for a bank made penniless by speculation?' [...] let us not also forget that the sublimely enormous sums of money were spent not on some clear 'real' or concrete problem, but essentially in order to restore confidence in the markets, that is, simply to change people's beliefs!"
p.82: "Daewoo Logistics in South Korea announced that it had negotiated a 99-year lease on some 3.2 million acres of farmland on Madagascar, amounting to nearly half of its arable land. [...] The Daewoo representatives claim that their deal will also benefit Madagascar: not only is the land they are leasing not in use now, but, 'although Daewoo plans to export the yield of the land,... it plans to invest about $6 billion over the next 20 years to build the port facilities, roads, power-plants and irrigation systems necessary to support its agribusiness there, and that will create thousands of jobs for Madagascar's unemployed. Jobs will help the people of Madagascar earn the money to buy their own food -- even if it is imported.' The circle of postcolonial dependence is thus closed again..."
p.84: "In order to approach these problems adequately, it will be necessary to invent new forms of large-scale collective action; neither the standard forms of state intervention nor the much-praised forms of local self-organization will be up to the job."
p.93: "In order to cope with these threats [population growth, the consumption of finite resources, carbon gas emissions, and the mass extinction of species] the dominant ideology is mobilizing mechanisms of dissimulation and self-deception which include a will to ignorance: 'a general pattern of behavior among threatened human societies is to become more blinkered, rather than more focused on the crisis, as they fail.' The same goes for the ongoing economic crisis: in late Spring 2009 it was successfully 're-normalized' -- the panic blew over, the situation was proclaimed as 'getting better', or at the very least the damage as having been controlled (the price paid for this 'recovery' in the Third World countries was, of course, rarely mentioned) -- thereby constituting an ominous warning that the true message of the crisis had been ignored, and that we could relax once again and continue our long march towards the apocalypse."
p.98: "[The antagonism between the] Included and the Excluded is the crucial one. Without it, all others lose their subversive edge -- ecology turns into a problem of sustainable development, intellectual property into a complex legal challenge, bio-genetics into an ethical issue. One can sincerely fight to preserve the environment, defend a broader notion of intellectual property, or oppose the copyrighting of genes, without ever confronting the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded. [...] Corporations such as Whole Foods and Starbucks continue to enjoy favor among libeals even though they both engage in anti-union activities; the trick is that they sell their products with a progressive spin. [...] In short, without the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded, we may well find ourselves in a world in which Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian battling against poverty and disease, and Rupert Murdoch the greatest environmentalist mobilizing hundreds of millions through his media empire. There is another key difference between the first three antagonisms and the fourth: the first three effectively concern questions of the (economic, anthropological, even physical) survival of humanity, but the forth is ultimately a question of justice. If humanity does not resolve its ecological predicament, we may all vanish; but one can well imagine a society which somehow resolves the first three antagonisms through authoritarian measures which not only maintain but in fact strengthen existing social hierarchies, divisions and exclusions."
11-02-2010, 03:09 AM
RE: NY Times: ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback
[quote='achali' pid='1881' dateline='1288648162']
Thank you for sharing this info and continuing this conversation...
Need to check out this book...
Want to read thru your comments more thoroughly, but this reminded me of a panel discussion that I walked into late on Friday. It was between 3 artists whose work in some way addresses hegemony and colonialism. I came in to catch a woman asking these artist basically "so what now?". It felt like she was frustrated with all the talk about and around 'Capitalism' and what exactly folks were supposed to do as an alternative. I couldnt tell if it was a question for everyone or just what artists in particular were supposed to handle this issue in the art market. Some other folks echoed this sentiment and basically sounded like they were tired of folks talking about 'big bad capitalism' with no recourse or plan or alternative...
Before I get to the artists' response, the question of context came up...i thnk the speaker's point was that this issue of 'what now?' is a very Western question since there are other societies/communities who are living the 'alternative' (until they get brought into the globalization pot i suppose) and we have to address our dialogue as one of a western dialogue...not totally sure about that, but an interesting interjection...
One of the artists responded by saying that in addition to calling the systematic practices of capitalism and how it is operation in this idea of cultural hegemony, that spaces of dialogue like these panels were equally as important...but that possibly can be qualified as was zizek calls 'small scale organizing'...but i liked how he did try to link the systematic failures with cultural hegemony..
another artist commented that just recognizing that (and im simplifying) the bottle of water you buy cost a life was one way...for me, that's just awareness that doesnt really hit anything in my opinion...
the other artist argued against the idea, as in the article kam posted, "You have to come in accepting that there will always be poor people in society and there will always be wealthy people in society"...saying that that very idea is symptomatic of the flawed thinking that a capitalist system relies upon to perpetuate itself...
i can say i left there tired and a bit confused b/c it seemed as tho the conversation was just going in circles...conversation can be productive, but i feel like the conversations even amongst the folks i know is also becoming normalized...almost like we feel 'radical' for even having the conversation and that's it...that's probably a result of time spent in academia to i guess...i feel like, at least for myself, an important step is taking the time to really educate myself on the histories of these systems more thoroughly than what was taught in the liberal institutions i attended and still look too to some degree...it's crazy how many soundbites of anti-capitalism/marxism rhetoric i can recall but have difficulty really understanding(and addressing) the depth of what is being dealt with enough to begin to consider the core foundation of these systems...
still processing this conversation and the texts you shared...
11-02-2010, 02:13 PM
RE: NY Times: ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback
I know what you mean. Part of those types of circular discussions is, as you mentioned, peeping that folks are there for therapy sometimes just as much or more than they are there to share answers. And realizing that, and realizing that that's ok and natural is a worthy understanding I think. Like you said, learning is as much a part of the struggle as anything else. Getting to a point where one actually internalizes that honestly and in a deeply personal way is only finally up to the individual (we can't gift revelation, only testimony). But the more we know the more we can share and hopefully inspire each other to want to know even more. It's definitely a marathon.
Here's an interesting interview... touches on this guy's (James Scott, Poli Sci scholar form Yale) experience with work within an increasingly globalized system, some of his lessons from marxism, the patient evolution of his work, and some other things. Here are some excerpts.
James Scott on Agriculture as Politics, the Dangers of Standardization and Not Being Governed
What would a student need to become a skillful scholar or understand the world in a global way?
Here I have a definite opinion. We can assume, in the kind of trade-union sense of the word, that everyone who becomes a scholar is going to be trained in their specialties and disciplines, so I take that for granted. But what I’m fond of telling students these days, is that if 90% of your time is spent reading mainstream political science, sociology, anthropology, and if most of your time is spent talking to people who read the same stuff, then you are going to reproduce mainstream political science, sociology and anthropology. My idea is that if you were doing it right, at least half of the things that you should be reading would be things from outside of your discipline, as most interesting impulses come from the margins of a discipline or even externally. Interesting scholarship in social sciences arises when you see a foreign concept as applicable and adding something to your field. Now I give that advice as a theoretization of my practice. When I was working on The Moral Economy of the Peasant, I read all the peasant novels I could get my hands on; all the oral histories; in short, as much as I could stuff from outside of political science. If you look at the works that have been influential historically, you can tell by the index or bibliography that the author has been reading a lot of things that are outside the normal range of standard, mainstream work.
But if you decide to do something broad and challenging, you’ll face some difficulties and resistance from the established academic machine. Take Barrington Moore’s The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, again one of those great works. This book was turned down six times by publishers, because specialists on each of the fields he covered had problems with the chapters about those subjects.
On the other hand: how important is it to publish articles? A colleague of mine reported how many people actually read academic articles—and the number on average was less then three. So the majority of article publishing is essentially a vast anti-politics machinery put together to help people get tenure, and that holds even for peer-reviewed articles. Professional advancement depends increasingly on a kind of audit system for number of peer-reviewed articles et cetera, a kind of mechanical system that is an anti-politics machine, an effort to avoid making qualitative judgments about how good something is. It is something particularly common to democracies, where you have to convince people you are objective, you’re not playing favors, there are no qualitative judgments, and it’s just comparing the numbers. So, if you are producing an article, and it’s going to be read by three people, then why are you doing this in the first place? You should find another line of work, where you have a little impact on the world. If you’re doing it to please the discipline looking over your shoulder, it’s going to be alienated labor, and I fully grant it is more difficult to make your way if you want to do it otherwise. It’s easy for me to say, because I came along at a time when there was this romance about the third world—anything on the third world was likely to get published. So I am conscious of the fact that life was easier for me than it is for students today. But on the other hand: unless you prefer a clerical nine-to-five job in which you put in your hours, you might as well be doing something exciting even if it’s harder to sell.
You are an agrarian by training; yet all of your texts are decisively political. What’s so political about agriculture? And what are the policy implications for state-making and development in the 3rd world?
This came to me in the middle of the Vietnam Wars, as people were fighting wars of national liberation. At that point, people began to see for the first time the Vietnamese peasant, the Algerian peasant, the Mexican peasant, as the carrier of the national soul. While it may have been incorrect, the idea was that the peasant as the ordinary Vietnamese stood for the Vietnamese nation in some way. That brought me to agriculture: if you wanted to understand insurrections in Vietnam, you had to understand peasants; and if you wanted to understand peasants, you had to understand things like land tenure, crops, and so forth. It has gone so far that I started out with political violence thirty-some years ago, and now I am studying the domestication of plants and animals!
You can be labeled as a critic of the modernizing project inherent in states. Can you give an example of a contemporary form of governing you do endorse or would promote?
The degree to which a planning process is inflected at every level by democratic processes—for all the messiness that it introduces—seems to me to lead in the long run to more satisfactory outcomes for everybody concerned, and it also results in the kind of commitment to the results in which people felt that they had an adequate part in shaping. Examples are rife of successfully designed plans thought up from above, that fail because the people for whom this planning was designed, have had no stake in it. I don’t want to get rid of the modernization project, I just want to tame the rule of experts.
I remember that I was in Berlin at the Wissenschaftskolleg, and there was a woman, Barbara Lane, there who was an architectural historian. We went to a housing area, where two types of Seidlungen or housing were to be found together: Bauhaus housings and a competing housing project by National Socialist architects. It was interesting to me, that the Bauhaus architects had figured out exactly how many square meters people needed, how much water they needed, how much sunlight, playground space… They had planned for an abstract human being; and the architecture could have been executed anywhere in the world. Whereas the Nazi architects had build genuine homes, with little chimneys, small front steps in brick—all these references to vernacular architecture that was part of the German cultural tradition. I realized that in a sense, the international aspiration of the Bauhaus school was to be placeless and universal, as IKEA does now. I found myself a little embarrassed that I would rather have lived in a dwelling designed by the Nazis than a Bauhaus home, but it does illustrate my point of governing: how is it executed? With what level of ambition in mind?
How important is Marxism for you in explaining how the world works?
When I used to be asked about my relation to Marxism I used to say that I’m a crude Marxist, with the emphasis on ‘crude’, in the sense that I look at the material basis of any political struggle, and I think class and material basis are the best points of departure for analysis. And what I add to that—and that’s why I was so taken with Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation—is that it seems to me a powerful argument about the way the economy was embedded historically in other social relations and could not be extracted from it until the early 19th century when the laissez-faire ideology was elaborated. The struggle that Polanyi points to is a struggle that we’re still engaged in, and certainly after the Washington Consensus we’re going to have to invent forms of social protection of the kind Polanyi talked about. Whether we call them socialism or not, it is the kind of self-defense of people’s life chances and subsistence. How to protect ordinary human beings against market excesses is a classical socialist question still very much to the fore.
In a strange way, I find myself nostalgic for the Cold War, in two senses. First, I think you could argue, as my colleague Roger Smith argued, if you want to understand the success of the civil rights movement in the US, one major reason during the Kennedy era was the fact that the US was losing the Cold War in part—they thought—because of the fact that we were a racist society. So winning the Cold War became premised upon reforms I fully endorsed, to make society more equitable. Secondly, when it was a bipolar world, the US and the West were interested in land reform in places where the land distribution was wildly unequal. After 1989, the IMF and the World Bank have never talked about land reform again.
So while the mechanical teleological Marxist class struggle discourse has simply been proven wrong historically, the Polanyi kind of socialist questions are all alive and well.
What is neoliberalism in your definition?
In a sense, the pervasiveness of neoliberal ways of talking has the effect of turning people into calculators of advantages. There is this book, Everything I learned about love I learned in business school, and it’s about ‘cutting your losses’, about having a ‘mission statement’, about ‘measuring performance’… In a curious way, in terms of classical political economy, Hobbes thought we needed a state to restrain our appetites, and it may be that the neoliberal state has so colonized our way of decision-making (stimulating our appetites), that the neoliberal state has in fact created the human actor that now does have to be restrained by the state.
In your last book, The art of not being governed (Google preview), your focus is on places and peoples in South-East Asia that were reluctant to be incorporated into the nation-state system. It is a historical book; does it, despite of that, have any lessons for the present?
Next to what I mentioned earlier about recognizing the choice not to be incorporated into the state as a consciously evasive political choice, I would argue that since the Second World War, these place have been incorporated into the nation-state, albeit not everywhere and unevenly. We need to invent ways of association and cooperation across state boundaries and forms of limited sovereignty like Catalonia. The only alternative today is somehow taming this nation-state, because it can’t be held at bay—it is increasingly usurping these frontier regions—the movie Avatar, which pretends you can burn bridges and keep ‘modernity’ away is simply utopian. So I think the task for indigenous peoples is to somehow slow down and domesticate the advance of the nation-state in ways that will make their absorption more humane.
11-07-2010, 06:59 PM (This post was last modified: 11-07-2010 07:10 PM by achali.)
Amilcar Cabral's theory of class suicide & revolutionary socialism by Tom Meisenheld
References to romanticism and notions of patience. Arguing against dismissing "class suicide" as romantic, the author argues that this may indeed be true but it is not as romantic as other oft cited theories of 1) "spontaneous democratic mass movements", or 2) "socialist revolution/movement organized and led by workers and peasants with an 'organic leadership' drawn only from these classes".
Essentially, the author admits that all three theories are romantic, but argues that Cabral's theory was perhaps the most realistic of the romantic.
That admission leaves you wondering -- if all revolutionary theories are romantic and it's a matter of degree, how hopeful can folks be for real change? This made me think about the idea of liberation struggles being a "marathon" (mentioned in an above post in reference to Zizek's "...Then As Farce" book) and the concept of patience.
The idea of Cabral's class suicide -- the most realistic opposition to imperial capitalism from the author's perspective -- seems to put a lot of hope in a revolutionary element of the petty bourgeoisie committing class suicide after political liberation is won, which almost whispers of a truly revolutionary talented tenth. If the author is right and "the final power of capitalism as a global system lies in the politics of the conservative fraction of the nationalist petty-bourgeoisie", then while the struggle is not mostly fought by them, it will come to a point where it hinges on the evolution of the character and culture of the "lower-level" petty bourgeoisie. This puts us in a familiar position: being patient with people as they fail and learn the lessons in life that humble them, which lead them to reeducate/enlighten themselves. I also wonder if it's perhaps more realistic to think of liberation happening in steps across generations -- just as the Civil Rights Movement was a accumulation of decades of struggle occurring far before the 50s. Perhaps in the Third World, political liberation without "essential elements" like class suicide was the role of one generation, and perhaps another generation must live through the lessons of incomplete revolution to then understand the actual importance of certain missing essential elements, whatever they are. And perhaps a third generation actually puts those lessons in action, and so on...
Paul Gilroy and Bell Hooks: Thinking about capitalism
Monthly Review: http://www.allbusiness.com/trade-develop...026-1.html
Amilcar Cabral's theory of class suicide & revolutionary socialism
This is a most difficult time for revolutionary socialists. The rapid collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union, the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas, the many problems of Cuba, and the demise of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism in Africa all force a serious questioning of basic ideas and strategies. It is a time when global capital seems to rule nearly unchallenged throughout the world. If revolutionary socialism is to be revitalized, received truths about revolution and socialism must be reviewed. Serious questions must be asked. Why so many failed revolutions ending in some form of elitist rule? So far most answers to this question wisely stress a global context of resurgent capitalism; however, it also is important to probe socialist revolutions internally.
Socialist revolutions have appeared most often at the periphery of world capitalism rather than in its center. In 1917 the first Marxist revolution occurred in Russia, not in Great Britain or Germany where Marx seemed to expect it; in 1949 the site was China; in 1959 it was Cuba; and more recently revolutions in the name of socialism triumphed in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central America. Lenin, Bukharin, and more recently Samir Amin are perhaps correct to suggest that a primary contradiction of advanced monopoly capitalism lies between the developed core-countries and the exploited periphery. Classical Marxism, of course, placed socialist revolution in the developed world under the agency of a majority industrial working class. Revolution in the periphery, to the contrary, occurs through a different social agency and contains the dangers of a logic of substitutionism. Socialist revolutions have occurred in places that are not fully industrialized, where the forces of production are at best developing, where the industrial proletariat is very small, and where most people are peasants and farm laborers. The current character of global capitalism and the increasing misery that results from the economics of structural adjustment and recolonization continue to create revolutionary situations first and foremost in the Third World. Once again, the future of socialism lies in the regions of the world least studied by Marx and Engels. Socialists need a theory of revolution set in the periphery of global capitalism. Fortunately, there is a revolutionary socialist theorist whose ideas directly address this situation, Amilcar Cabral.(1)
Amilcar Cabral was the revolutionary socialist leader of the national liberation movement that freed Guinea-Bissau from Portuguese colonialism. Although he was an important historical actor, here I am most interested in his development of a general theory of socialist revolution in the periphery. Born in 1924 in Portuguese Guinea, Amilcar Cabral was schooled on the island of Cape Verde and studied agronomy in Lisbon. In 1951 Cabral returned to Guinea as an agronomist for the colonial service and directed a nationwide agricultural survey. This work gave him an extensive and intensive knowledge of the socio-economic structure of colonialism in Guinea-Bissau. Around 1954 Cabral helped to organize a liberation movement which eventually became the PAIGC (African Party for Independence for Guinea and Cape Verde). PAIGC was small and its core members were petty-bourgeois civil servants and other salaried employees. Cabral's revolutionary strategy emphasized the political mobilization of the masses around practical material issues rather than grand theoretical ideals. Cabral tragically was assassinated as part of an attempted party coup designed by the Portuguese and internal dissidents. Eight months later, in 1962, independence came for Guinea-Bissau but sadly without Cabral himself.
Cabral's theory of socialist revolution, true to the methodological materialism of Marxism, is based on a thorough understanding of the real socio-economic situation of the Third World. Cabral argues that the fundamental motive force of history is the development of the forces of production. Each mode of production, based in certain productive technologies, results in turn in a particular social class structure. Colonial economies and agricultural policies dramatically changed the internal situation of the colonies through the mechanization of production and the concentration of land ownership; that is, through altering the colony's mode of production from one based on hand tilling of small or communal plots to mechanized agriculture on large private holdings. Social classes became anchored in private ownership and technical knowledge. High-cost machinery and export production empower foreign capitalists, their technicians, and their local allies who gain control over the economic direction of the country. Colonialism also resulted in the denial of indigenous cultures and identities and the absorption of a European way of life. Imperialism, Cabral argues, is a structure of exploitation where the imperialist power controls the development of the forces of production in another society and thereby takes charge of its history.
While he was aware that imperialism had in fact changed the operative forces of production in his country, Cabral also knew that the national proletariat was very small. He realized that the majority of the residents of what was to become Guinea-Bissau were peasants. The cities were characterized by the presence of a "declasse" element composed of a true lumpen proletariat and a group of new young migrants from the countryside. The country also had a small petty-bourgeoisie that could be subdivided into high officials and professionals and a second fraction of lesser officials and farmers. The former "higher" petty-bourgeoisie tended to adopt a pro-imperialist/colonialist politics but the "lower" petty-bourgeoisie may well participate in a struggle for national liberation due to its education and its direct experience of colonial discrimination and imperialist exploitation. There also might be a small comprador elite. This, of course, is a class structure common throughout much of the periphery of global capitalism. Regardless of the theoretical dogmatism of some, peripheral societies are largely made-up of peasants, marginalized quasi-urbanites, the petty-bourgeoisie, and a small national elite. Cabral recognized that peripheral societies are composed mostly of peasants and that it is this class that necessarily would be the largest physical force in any successful social revolution.
Cabral posited that - in the age of monopoly capitalism - third-world movements against imperialism had become the central events of history. Real social change involved winning indigenous control over the forces of production while mere political independence would result in the continuation of imperialism as neocolonialism. Political independence is not the end of the liberation struggle but only a phase within it. History itself, after all, is determined by the development of the forces of production so a people can only reclaim its history by gaining control over their own productive technologies. Anything less is simply neocolonialism.
Cabral's determination of the class structure of Guinea convinced him that, contrary to some applications of Marxism to the Third World, there was no single class agent capable of successful revolution. Cabral argues that the main social class contradiction in peripheral societies was between internal and external supporters of imperialism and the masses as a "nation class." The potential for revolution lies in the formation of an anti-imperialist alliance of various social classes including the peasantry and the petty-bourgeoisie. This "class nation" may in its totality only desire political independence, but it alone is capable of beginning the process that might end in a social revolution led by its more radical sections. Only after independence would there emerge a national bourgeoisie and other elites and the "lower social classes," including the lower petty-bourgeoisie and a group of associated intellectuals-like Cabral himself--who provided the theoretical leadership of the revolution. This latter group would be particularly important in a situation without a majority working class with revolutionary socialist aims.
It should be clear that, excluding some Guinean particularities, Cabral described a social class structure common to much of the Third World. Socialist revolutions there must be built without a working class majority. This has been the situation of historical socialist revolutions from Russia to Nicaragua. Third World revolutionaries "must install a working class consciousness in a society without a working class." The majority of the population are peasants who make up the principle "physical" force of the revolution. They may be anti-imperialists but, without ideology and leadership, they are not likely to become socialist revolutionaries. This leadership can be provided by a revolutionary fraction of the petty-bourgeoisie, the class most likely to have had extensive direct contact with both imperialism and revolutionary socialist theory.
Cabral felt that a key to the possibility of successful revolutionary socialism on the periphery lies in the post-independence role of the petty-bourgeoisie leadership of the nationalist movement. Will they be lured by the promises of neocolonialism into being satisfied with mere political independence? Will they merely use their political control to turn the state into a means of ruling class formation? If so, political independence will not bring true liberation defined as popular control of the forces of production. If the nationalist leadership simply acts on its own narrow class interest within the context of global capitalism, the petty-bourgeois class will preserve and reproduce itself as a privileged class, perhaps becoming a national pseudo-bourgeoisie. This is a strong temptation for the petty-bourgeoisie in that it allows them to retain positions and powers of leadership after a nationalist political victory. Social revolution, however, requires that the petty-bourgeois leadership of the independence movements commit a kind of "class suicide."
Class suicide by the revolutionary petty-bourgeois leadership amounts to listening to its own revolutionary consciousness and the culture of revolution rather than acting on its immediate material interests as a social class. It must sacrifice its class position, privileges, and power through identification with the working masses. This unlikely event depends on the power and material basis of the revolutionary consciousness of sections of the petty bourgeoisie. The idea of class suicide by the revolutionary leadership is perhaps Cabral's most important message to socialist revolutionaries today. The absence of class suicide has blunted the progressive potential of many revolutions originally conducted under the banner of socialism. It is perhaps romantic to expect the leaders of revolutionary struggles to "wither away" and release power during the transition to socialism. It may never occur. But, it seems clear that if it does not happen socialist revolutions tend toward a more or less authoritarian statism--whether quasi-socialist or state capitalist--rather than true socialist democracy. The final power of capitalism as a global system lies in the politics of the conservative fraction of the nationalist petty-bourgeoisie that chooses to adapt to transnational capitalism because that route promotes its own class interests.
The notion of "class suicide" by the petty-bourgeois leadership at first glance may sound unrealistic but it is much less so than the most popular competing images of socialist revolution in the Third World. Some suggest that "true" socialist revolutions must be the spontaneous outburst of the masses themselves. Often this seems to imply that these events will occur without formal political organization or a division of political roles between leadership and masses. The argument is that socialism must be radically democratic even when it is a nongovernmental revolutionary movement or even when it is involved in the long ardors of an armed struggle. This image of socialist revolution as spontaneous mass democracy is much more romantic than the idea of class suicide. No revolution can succeed without organization and leadership. To state that socialism can only come through a spontaneous mass movement without leaders and followers, without organization, without ideology and direction simply is to say socialism will not come.
The second image of socialist revolution in the Third World is that it will occur as a result of a movement organized and led by an alliance of workers and peasants with an "organic leadership" drawn only from these classes. This image, though one I too am fond of, is too romantic to match with historical reality. The lesson of history seems to be that socialist revolutions in the periphery were led by Mao in China, Ho in Vietnam, Castro and Che in Cuba, Ortega in Nicaragua, MonDlane and Machel in Mozambique, and Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Marxist class analysis, of course, expects this to be the case when it discovers that peasant consciousness at best is radical only in the sense that peasants want to own the land possessed by large landowners and when it finds that the working class in the Third World is new, small, and - as a class-in-itself - not yet conscious of itself as a social class with a material interest in socialist transformations.
Peasants and workers in the Third World will only become a force for socialism if they meet a political leadership that knows socialist theory and can present it to them. In most peripheral societies the class that has both the kind of educational experience that includes some knowledge of Marxism and the kind of personal experience that includes oppression at the hands of imperialism and colonialism is indeed the petty bourgeoisie. After all, socialism is a "scientific" theory and attitude which comes to few people without teaching, thought, and even debate. It is a fact that it is sections of the petty bourgeois that are most likely to be the leaders of socialist movements in the Third World. It is not romantic to think that socialism will come to the periphery via political organizations with petty-bourgeois leaders that must in the end commit a kind of "class suicide;" rather it is romantic to think otherwise. To be a realistic possibility, class suicide must be grounded in an equally material base such as radically new social institutions that protect the petty-bourgeoisie leadership from the temptations of power and lead it to give up its positions of privilege. This is, I believe, the final importance of the political mechanisms of direct democracy advocated by Marx and Engels (2) such as immediate recall, worker's salaries for political leaders, the rotation of tasks, popular courts, and a people's militia. It should be obvious that if leaders have some kind of permanency in office, are paid a luxurious salary, and claim special abilities they quickly will be removed. "Class suicide" will happen not by the power of will or consciousness alone. It will only happen if the material experiences of leaders are formed by institutional structures of radical socialist democracy. Militarist organization and "democratic centralism'' may well be necessary for armed struggle and other periods prior to the taking of power, but they must be rejected by the very design of "post-revolutionary" political institutions.
Both liberation and socialism require bringing all hierarchies of privilege to an end, both those external to the revolutionary movement and those within it. It is better to have leaders and structures that anticipate and are prepared for a post-independence class struggle that includes the requirement of "class suicide" than to deny its reality through the romance of a spontaneously socialist majority working class.
1. For good studies of Cabral and his life, see Jock McCulloch, In The Twilight of Revolution (1983) or Ben Magubane, "Amilcar Cabral: Evolution of Revolutionary Thought" in Ufahama (1973). Cabral's own writing is well-represented in Revolution in Guinea (1969).
2. See the discussions in The Civil War in France and The Critique of the Gotha Programme.
Thomas Meisenhelder is Professor of Sociology at California State University, San Bernardino.
01-29-2011, 04:21 PM
RE: NY Times: ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback
Not sure where this fits in the thread, but I thought it would be worth posting b/c of the connection with the initial article...
Culture still doesn’t explain poverty
“‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback.” So read the headline of Patricia Cohen’s front-page article in the October 17, 2010 edition of The New York Times.
The article was prompted by a recent issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science under the title, “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty.” In their introductory essay, the editors, Mario Luis Small, David J. Harding, and Michèle Lamont, strike a triumphant note:
Culture is back on the poverty research agenda. Over the past decade, sociologists, demographers, and even economists have begun asking questions about the role of culture in many aspects of poverty and even explicitly explaining the behavior of the low-income population in reference to cultural factors.
Cohen begins with a similar refrain:
For more than 40 years, social scientists investigating the causes of poverty have tended to treat cultural explanations like Lord Voldemort: That Which Must Not Be Named. The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a ‘culture of poverty’ to the public in his 1965 report on ‘The Negro Family.’
Cohen uncritically accepts two myths woven by William Julius Wilson, the prominent Harvard sociologist, and repeated by his acolytes: first, Moynihan was clobbered for bringing to light compromising facts about black families, and second, that this torrent of criticism constrained a generation of social scientists from investigating the relation between culture and poverty, for fear that it would be pilloried for “blaming the victim.” Thus, a third, patently self-serving myth: thanks to some intrepid scholars who reject political correctness, it is now permissible to consider the role that culture plays in the production and reproduction of racial inequalities.
These myths add up to something—a perverse obfuscation of American racial history. They suggest that for four decades academia has abetted a censorial form of anti-racism that prevented serious research into the persistence of poverty among black Americans. If only, the mythmakers insist, we stopped worrying about offending people, we could acknowledge that there is something amiss in black culture—not, as the politically correct would have it, the politics of class—and that this explains racial inequality.
Notwithstanding the election of Barack Obama, the last 40 years have been a period of racial backlash. The three pillars of anti-racist public policy—affirmative action, school integration, and racial districting (to prevent the dilution of the black vote)—have all been eviscerated, thanks in large part to rulings of a Supreme Court packed with Republican appointees. Indeed, the comeback of the culture of poverty, albeit in new rhetorical guise, signifies a reversion to the status quo ante: to the discourses and concomitant policy agenda that existed before the black protest movement forced the nation to confront its collective guilt and responsibility for two centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow—racism that pervaded all major institutions of our society, North and South. Such momentous issues are brushed away as a new generation of sociologists delves into deliberately myopic examinations of a small sphere where culture makes some measurable difference—to prove that “culture matters.”
• • •
It is indisputable that the publication of Moynihan’s report on “The Negro Family” evoked a torrent of criticism and that Moynihan was thrown on the defensive. I remember seeing him on Meet the Press in late 1965, pleading for understanding:
I was trying to show that unemployment statistics, which are so dull, and you read so many of them, and you don’t know what they may mean, and they’re hard to believe—that unemployment ended up nonetheless with orphaned children, with abandoned mothers, with men living furtive lives without even an address, that unemployment had flesh and blood and it could bleed. That’s all I was trying to do.
Perhaps. However, it is grossly inaccurate to say, as Wilson does in the Annals, that Moynihan came under fire for bringing to light facts that “could be construed as unflattering or stigmatizing to people of color.” Or that Moynihan was prescient, in that the segment of black children born outside marriage has doubled from one-quarter in 1965 to one-half today.
The problem from the beginning was not Moynihan’s publication of what were actually well-established facts, but rather his distorted interpretation of these facts. Moynihan made the fatal error of inverting cause and effect. Although he acknowledged that past racism and unemployment undermined black families, he held that the pathology in “the Negro American family” had not only assumed a life of its own, but was also the primary determinant of the litany of problems that beset lower-class blacks. To quote Moynihan: “Once or twice removed, [the weakness of family structure] will be found to be the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or anti-social behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.” Moynihan followed with an even more inflated claim: “At this point the present tangle of pathology is capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world.” And then the zinger: “The cycle can be broken only if these distortions are set right.”
This last statement had dire implications for public policy, especially when placed in historical context. In The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (1967), Lee Rainwater and George Yancey wrote:
The year 1965 may be known in history as the time when the civil rights movement discovered, in the sense of becoming explicitly aware, that abolishing legal racism would not produce Negro equality.
By 1965 the words “compensation,” “reparations,” and “preference” had already crept into political discourse, testing the limits of liberal support for the black protest movement. In Why We Can’t Wait, published in 1964, Martin Luther King observed: “Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror.” Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, went further, declaring that this “radical” turn by some movement leaders had precipitated “a crisis in liberalism.” As early as 1965 Moynihan was on record as opposed to anything that smacked of “preference,” asserting, much as Wilson did 22 years later in The Truly Disadvantaged, that policy had to be universal rather than targeted specifically for blacks.
With his report on “The Negro Family,” Moynihan shifted the conceptual framework that underlay policymaking. Instead of attacking racist barriers, he suggested that legislation focus on the putative defects of “the” black family. In his concluding section, “The Case for National Action,” Moynihan called for “a national effort” to strengthen the Negro family, though, as the sociologist Herbert Gans pointed out in a 1965 article in Commonweal, Moynihan offered no specific policy recommendations for accomplishing that end. Not only did he leave a vacuum that could be filled with a politics that blamed blacks for their own troubles, but he also tacked on an ominous addendum:
After [the repair of the black family], how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation’s business.
In short, the Moynihan report elicited fierce condemnation because it threatened to derail the black liberation movement in its pursuit of equality. In one palpable example of that derailment, a 1966 White House conference called “To Fulfill These Rights,” which might have been an opportunity to chart the next phase of the protest movement, instead was overshadowed by preoccupation with the Moynihan report and the ensuing controversy.
• • •
Far from having a chilling effect on researching and thinking about culture in relationship to poverty, the debate over the Moynihan report spawned a canon of critical scholarship. For the first time, scholars came to terms with the economic underpinnings of the nuclear family, which tends to unravel whenever male breadwinners are unemployed for long periods of time, as was true of white families during the Depression.
No longer was the nuclear family, with its patriarchal foundations, the unquestioned societal norm. The blatantly tendentious language that pervaded the Moynihan report—“broken homes” and “illegitimate births”—was purged from the professional lexicon. More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison, the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented, “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.”
Yet even Moynihan’s harshest critics did not deny the manifest troubles in black families. Nor did they deny that the culture of poor people is often markedly at variance with the cultural norms and practices in more privileged sectors of society. How could it be otherwise? The key point of contention was whether, under conditions of prolonged poverty, those cultural adaptations “assume a life of their own” and are passed down from parents to children through normal processes of cultural transmission. In other words, the imbroglio over the Moynihan report was never about whether culture matters, but about whether culture is or ever could be an independent and self-sustaining factor in the production and reproduction of poverty.
Many scholars have challenged the notion of culture as an independent, causal factor in generating poverty, and none more effectively than Elliot Liebow in his 1967 study, Tally’s Corner. Liebow’s subjects were men who had neither regular jobs nor stable families and took refuge on the streetcorner where they devised “a shadow system of values” to shield themselves from a profound sense of personal failure.
Liebow did not deny culture—indeed, he documented it in scrupulous detail. However, he insisted that the streetcorner man was not a carrier of an independent cultural tradition. To be sure, there were obvious similarities between parents and children, but Liebow held that these were not the product of cultural transmission, but rather reflected the fact that “the son goes out and independently experiences the same failures, in the same areas, and for much the same reasons as his father.” Thus, it is not their culture that needs to be changed, but rather a political economy that fails to provide jobs that pay a living wage to millions of the nation’s poor, along with a system of occupational apartheid that has excluded a whole people from entire job sectors throughout American history.
Liebow is not alone. Although left scholars insist that poverty is rooted in political economy, it is preposterous to accuse them generally of eliding culture. Indeed, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who first used the term, was an avowed socialist, and the culture of poverty entered popular discourse through the ideas of another socialist—Michael Harrington, in his 1962 book, The Other America. Both men preferred structural explanations of poverty. They argued that the despair and coping mechanisms associated with the culture of poverty were anchored in conditions of poverty, and that the only remedy for the culture of poverty was the elimination of poverty itself.
If Moynihan’s critics were unusually vociferous, this was because they understood what was at stake. Moynihan and his supporters contended that the poor were victims of their own vices, thus shifting attention away from powerful political and economic institutions that could make a difference in their lives. If those institutions were absolved of responsibility, the poor would be left on their own.
• • •
The claim that the furor over the Moynihan report stymied research on lower-class culture for four decades is patently false. What was the massive underclass discourse of the 1980s if not old wine in new bottles—Moynihan’s culture arguments repackaged for a new generation of scholars and pundits?
As with the culture of poverty, the conception of the underclass had liberal origins. In his 1962 book Challenge to Affluence, Gunnar Myrdal borrowed a Swedish term for the lower class, underklassen, to refer to people who languished in poverty even during periods of economic growth and prosperity. This term entered popular discourse with the 1982 publication of Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, based on a series in The New Yorker.
Then, between 1986 and 1988, there was an outpouring of articles in U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly, Fortune, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and Time, all providing graphic and frightening portrayals of pathology and disorder in the nation’s ghettos. The image was of poverty feeding on itself, with the implication that cultural pathology was not just a byproduct of poverty but was itself a cause of pathological behavior. This was the explicit claim of a 1987 Fortune article by Myron Magnet:
What primarily defines [the underclass] is not so much their poverty or race as their behavior—their chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, nonwork, welfare dependency and school failure. ‘Underclass’ describes a state of mind and a way of life. It is at least as much cultural as an economic condition.
Social science lagged behind journalism, but by the late ’80s, with the backing of charitable foundations, a cottage industry of technocratic studies appeared charting the size and social constitution of the underclass. In his 1991 article “The Underclass Myth,” Adolph Reed noted the reinstatement of the culture-of-poverty theory during the Reagan-Bush era. The pendulum had swung so far to culture that Reed was pleading for a restoration of structure:
We should insist on returning the focus of the discussion of the production and reproduction of poverty to examination of its sources in the operations of the American political and economic system. Specifically, the discussion should focus on such phenomena as the logic of deindustrialization, models of urban redevelopment driven by real-estate speculation, the general intensification of polarization of wealth, income, and opportunity in American society, the ways in which race and gender figure into those dynamics, and, not least, the role of public policy in reproducing and legitimating them.
Reed ended on a note of personal exasperation: “I want the record to show that I do not want to hear another word about drugs or crime without hearing in the same breath about decent jobs, adequate housing, and egalitarian education.”
Yet here we are, two decades later, with a special issue of a prestigious journal, the Annals, launched with fanfare and a congressional briefing, bombastically claiming that “culture is back on the policy agenda,” as though it had not been there all along. Even as the editors take up this “long-abandoned topic,” however, they are careful to distance themselves from culture-of-poverty theorists who were accused of “blaming the victim,” and they scoff at the idea that the poor “might cease to be poor if they changed their culture.” Indeed, readers are assured that “none of the three editors of this volume happens to fall on the right of the political spectrum.” Alas, the culture of poverty has not made a comeback after all. The new culturalists have learned from the mistakes of the past, and only want to study culture in the context of poverty—that is, in the selective and limited ways that culture matters in the lives of the poor.
True to form, the rest of the Annals issue is a compendium of studies informed by this “more sophisticated” conception of culture. One study examines “How Black and Latino Service Workers Make Decisions about Making Referrals.” Another explores how poor men define a “good job.” Still another ventures into the perilous waters of the black family, examining the “repertoire of infidelity” among low-income men.
The problem is less with the questions asked than with the ones left unexamined. The editors and authors are careful to bracket their inquiries with appropriate obeisance to the ultimate grounding of culture in social structure. But their research objectives, methodology, data collection, and analysis are all riveted on the role of culture. Is obeisance enough? If the cultural practices under examination are merely links in a chain of causation, and are ultimately rooted in poverty and joblessness, why are these not the object of inquiry? Why aren’t we talking about the calamity of another generation of black youth who, excluded from job markets, are left to languish on the margins, until they cross the line of legality and are swept up by the criminal justice system and consigned to unconscionable years in prison where, at last, they find work, for less than a dollar an hour, if paid at all? Upon release they are “marked men,” frequently unable to find employment or to assume such quotidian roles as those of husband or father.
Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one? Does it matter how they approach procreation, how they juggle “doubt, duty, and destiny” when they are denied the jobs that are the sine qua non of parenthood? Aren’t we asking the wrong questions? Do the answers bring us any closer to understanding why this nation has millions of racial outcasts who are consigned to a social death?
Obeisance is not enough. The Annals issue caps off with an article by William Julius Wilson on “Why Both Social Structure and Culture Matter in a Holistic Analysis of Inner-City Poverty.” Wilson wants to show “not only the independent contributions of social structure and culture, but also how they interact to shape different group outcomes that embody racial inequality.” At first blush this appears to be a sensible, even unassailable stance. But what is Wilson getting at with his prosaic language about the interaction of structure and culture? The answer is found several pages later: “One of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural traits that may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility.” This is tantamount to blaming blacks for the racism of employers and other gatekeepers.
Like Moynihan before him, Wilson has committed the sin of inverting cause and effect. He thinks that black youth are not socially mobile because of their cultural proclivities—“sexual conquests, hanging out on the street after school, party drugs, and hip-hop music.” But a far more convincing explanation is that these youth are encircled by structural barriers and consequently resort to these cultural defenses, as Douglas Glasgow argued in his neglected 1981 book, The Black Underclass. Liebow had it right when he stripped away surface appearances and put culture in its proper social and existential context:
If, in the course of concealing his failure, or of concealing his fear of even trying, [the street-corner man] pretends—through the device of public fictions—that he does not want these things in the first place and claims he has all along been responding to a different set of rules and prizes, we do not do him or ourselves any good by accepting this claim at face value.
It makes little sense to compare—as Wilson does—the culture of a pariah class with that of mainstream youth, putting aside the fact that white suburban youth also strut around in saggy pants, listen to hip-hop music, and are far more prone to drug use than are their ghetto counterparts. Wilson’s theoretical postulates about “deconcentrating poverty” have also led him to support the demolition of public housing across the nation. Is this how cultural change takes place, with dynamite, the destruction of poor communities, and the dispersal of its residents? Or do we have to transform the ghetto itself, not by reconstructing the identities of its people, but through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty and joblessness?
While he routinely violates his own axiom about the integral relationship between culture and social structure, Wilson injects what might be called the “culturalist caveat.” In a section on “the relative importance of structure and culture,” he concedes, “Structural factors are likely to play a far greater role than cultural factors in bringing about rapid neighborhood change.” But what structural changes does he have in mind? Despite the fact that Wilson’s signature issue for many years was jobs, jobs, jobs, since his cultural turn there has been nigh any mention of jobs. Affirmative action is apparently off the table, and there is no policy redress for the nation’s four million “disconnected youth” who are out of school and out of work.
Instead, Wilson places all his bets on education—specifically, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a schooling and social services organization predicated on the idea that the challenge is to “take the ghetto out of the child,” much as earlier missionaries and educators sought to “take the Indian out of the child.” Wilson trumpets HCZ’s “spectacular” results, citing a study by Harvard economists Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer that purports to show that HCZ students are closing the achievement gap with students in public schools. However, these findings are based on a single class on a single test in a single year. Also, the measure of progress was scoring at “grade level” in math and reading, and as critics have pointed out, grade-level work is a weak predictor of future academic success. Furthermore, thanks to score inflation—not only prepping students for the test but also lowering the score required for achieving grade level—marks were up throughout New York on the 2007 exam, the one that Dobbie and Fryer analyzed.
Never mind; the die is cast. With Wilson’s backing, the Obama administration has made HCZ the model for twenty “Promise Neighborhoods” across the nation. At best, however, HCZ is a showcase project that, even multiplied twenty times, is no remedy for the deep and widening income gap between blacks and others. At worst, the Obama administration is using it to camouflage its utter failure to address issues of racism and poverty.
• • •
The new culturalists can bemoan the supposed erasure of culture from poverty research in the wake of the Moynihan Report, but far more troubling is that these four decades have witnessed the erasure of racism and poverty from political discourse, both inside and outside the academy. The Annals issue makes virtually no mention of institutionalized racism. To be sure, there is much discussion of poverty, but not as a historical or structural phenomenon. Instead we are presented with reductionist manifestations of poverty that obscure its larger configuration.
Thus there is no thought of restoring the safety net. Or resurrecting affirmative action. Or once again constructing public housing as the housing of last resort. Or decriminalizing drugs and rescinding mandatory sentencing. Or enforcing anti-discrimination laws with the same vigor that police exercise in targeting black and Latino youth for marijuana possession. Or creating jobs programs for disconnected youth and for the chronically unemployed. Against this background, the ballyhooed “restoration” of culture to poverty discourse can only be one thing: an evasion of the persistent racial and economic inequalities that are a blot on American democracy.
The methodological reductionism that is the hallmark of the new culturalists is a betrayal of the sociological imagination: what C. Wright Mills described as exploring the intersection between history and biography. Instead, the new culturalists give us biography shorn of history, and culture ripped from its moorings in social structure. Against their intentions, they end up providing erudite justification for retrograde public policy, less through acts of commission than through their silences and opacities.
08-10-2011, 09:00 PM
RE: NY Times: ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback
This is interesting to read about the causes of poverty. We are working with a local group to eliminate poverty. This is very helpful to read. Thanks.
User(s) browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)