Ethics Versus Efficiency in Global Healthcare

The recent shifts in the U.S. political climate and the questionable ethics of some in U.S. political leadership have led me, like many others I would imagine, to reflect on my role in politics, as an advocate for change, a representative for how I interpret the concept of justice, and perhaps most importantly, on the professional path I have thus far chosen. I have spent the last thirteen years surrounded by and involved in biomedical research and clinical medicine, experience I hope one day to apply to international development initiatives. Being intimately involved in biomedical research means that I, like my peers in the field, am required to have an in-depth understanding of the ethical responsibilities associated with such inquiry. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) requires proof of ethics training for funding eligibility, and every facility in which I have worked has had the additional requirement of yearly updates to ensure individual awareness and facility with that guidance. Trainings that fulfill this obligation cover and review everything from the United States Public Health Service Tuskegee Syphilis experiment in which African Americans who contracted that disease between 1932 and 1972 were left untreated, so as to examine its effects, and the wide variety of abhorrent human experiments conducted by the Nazis during World War II that led to the Nuremburg Code and the principle of voluntary consent (U.S. Government Printing Office 1949). Updates also address the Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations General Assembly 1948) and the Helsinki Accords (Riis 2003), the Belmont Report (the report of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research released in 1978) with its four key ethical principles for human-related research, and the rights and protections for non-human research animals (National Commission 1978). As violations of the current standards of ethics outlined in the Nuremburg Code, the Belmont Report and elsewhere continue to occur, the vast majority of scientists nonetheless, I believe, daily make every effort to uphold and often surpass those requirements. This essay explores an issue that seems to have escaped today’s medical research ethical safety net and which has been justified on the basis of cost and efficiency.  I offer an Aristotelean argument concerning vertical and horizontal justice as both a rebuke to the global healthcare community for permitting this situation and as a means to rectify it.

During the course of a recent literature review, I came across a curious subset of the human rights literature that highlighted the rather appalling idea of a health care and research ‘double standard.’ This scenario arises from a debate concerning whether a ‘placebo’ group is appropriate when testing a new pharmaceutical, combination of pharmaceuticals, or any other medical treatment not yet approved for general use by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States. The currently agreed upon ethical standard, known as clinical equipoise, is that a placebo group is not appropriate if an approved treatment for the same disease or condition exists, and indeed, should a pharmaceutical company attempt to bypass this requirement in a study taking place in the United States, regulatory intervention would be swift and the penalty or cost imposed would be significant. Biomedical researchers are required to provide the existing standard as a baseline of care and determine whether the new treatment constitutes an improvement compared to the old, rather than with respect to nothing at all (a placebo). The ethical principles governing this specific issue are beneficence (efforts to ensure that benefits outweigh risks) and non-maleficence (do no harm). There is no proviso in the Belmont Report or in current regulations for an exception to these principles.

Those who attained majority before the mid-to-late 1990’s may well remember the Pfizer case involving the now withdrawn antibiotic Trovan, a (then) new treatment for meningococcal meningitis. A lawsuit, that was settled out of court for $75 million, asserted Pfizer, in a 1996 meningitis outbreak in Nigeria, gave a reduced dose of the gold standard ceftriaxone to a control group to skew a study concerning the efficacy of Trovan to maximize the likelihood of demonstrating the superior efficacy of the new drug.

Plaintiffs also argued that Pfizer had falsified documents that indicated it had obtained informed consent from patients to participate, as well as general approval from the Nigerian government and their own institutional review board (IRB) for the clinical trial to take place. The study participants were children, and eleven of them died while many others suffered blindness, deafness and paralysis. It remains unclear whether those who acquired chronic conditions did so as a result of their disease (meningitis) or as a result of Trovan’s side effects. The drug was discontinued shortly after its regulatory approval, as evidence emerged of severe liver toxicity associated with its use (Petryna 2006).

When the situation that occasioned the lawsuit came to light, the public outcry was substantial and swift condemnation of Pfizer by the World Bank (WB), World Health Organization (WHO), and the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee followed. Given this history, one can be forgiven for surprise at learning that the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both vigorously defended a series of drug trials in 1994 in sixteen African countries that tested a shorter dosing regimen of an anti-retroviral (ARV) drug designed to reduce vertical (mother-to-child) transmission of HIV-1 by using a placebo group, as opposed to the longer-dosing regimen then considered the gold standard treatment for the virus. The rationale? Both funding organizations asserted that a placebo control was acceptable because the trials took place in ‘resource-poor settings’ and that the current standard of care in those countries did not include ARV therapy (Landes 2005). In another surprising example, Nicholson et al. have demonstrated that the WHO actually officially recommended a placebo in lieu of a gold standard treatment for multiple drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) between 1993-2002, but only for pharmaceutical trials taking place in low-and-middle-income countries (Nicholson 2016). The justifying rationale for this course of action was once again that these nations were ‘resource-poor’ settings and the gold standard of treatment was not, in fact, customary in them.  This was so according to WHO officials because insufficient infrastructure and government systems made it too difficult and costly to implement the standard of care enjoyed in the developed world.

This assertion failed to address the question of how individuals who were not treated adequately for MDR-TB affected the global fight against antibiotic resistance in general and whether their lack of care put the rest of the world’s population at greater risk of contracting these diseases. Sadly, there is no shortage of other examples similar to those I have presented here. While the neo-liberal celebration of unfettered free-market enterprise in which development and business currently operate may explain such instances as the Pfizer fiasco, it by no means offers a rationale for why three global flagship healthcare organizations would forego ensuring the basic ethical premise of medical and pharmaceutical research of beneficence that they had a significant hand in establishing.

The argument can be offered, and likewise rejected, that competing values and donor interests play a greater role in determining what projects and studies are funded and how they are designed than does ethics (Gonzalez-Block 2004). However, regardless of donor interest, government relations, resource availability or literally any other proffered rationale, WHO (and NIH and the CDC) purport to uphold specific ethical baselines in their work and are (or should be), therefore, bound by them.

Ethical principles, particularly with regard to how to treat large groups of vulnerable people in medical and health research, are not a new phenomenon. Indeed, they date at least back to Aristotle, whose work provided a simple, rational test for how to apply such standards as non-maleficence, beneficence, justice and autonomy (per the Belmont Report) (Landes 2005 and Culyer 2015). Aristotle offered a two-point evaluative approach to making ethical judgments: vertical and horizontal equity.

Horizontal equity requires that individuals who are similar in relevant ways (i.e., individuals who have MDR-TB, HIV-1 or meningitis, as in the examples outlined above) must be treated in the same way. Vertical equity, meanwhile, demands that people unlike one another in categorical ways must be treated differently in proportion to their differences. One example of how such can be practiced is the use of a sliding scale for fees at a health clinic in which wealthier individuals pay more for their care to help subsidize the treatment of those who cannot afford to pay, or cannot pay as much. Culyer has argued that this idea is not only Aristotelean, but also appears in the works of Karl Marx (Culyer 2015). I find it notable, too, that this ethical premise is taught in very nearly every major world religion.

Paradoxically, however, in the clinical trial examples sketched above, the WHO, NIH and the CDC, rather than interpreting the vertical equity principle as a directive to provide increased aid to those at greatest risk, instead concluded that need constituted a rationale for decreasing assistance and adhering to lower standards of care for such individuals. Notably, this convention was not adopted during a moment of crisis, as with the recent Ebola virus outbreak, during which officials waived the traditional process of approval for potentially viable vaccine candidates in light of the gravity of the situation underway. Even in such a moment, however, the ethical imperative of beneficence was arguably met in the Ebola crisis in that the course adopted was implemented in the view that those receiving a potentially lifesaving vaccine could possibly yield greater benefit than the risk(s) associated with its use, especially when compared to the risk of contracting (and dying from) the virus.

A straightforward course correction for these three major health organizations and any others that have elected to violate ethical principles in developing nation contexts is, quite simply, to apply the standards of care that they employ in trials and projects conducted in high-income countries. It is important to emphasize that such uniformly applied ethical criteria in ‘resource-poor’ settings may be very expensive indeed. However, this stance is firmly based on the human rights claims (as they pertain to human medical research) of the Helsinki Accords and the Belmont Report principles these organizations (and their major Western state sponsors) claim to uphold. This fact suggests that compliance with this approach is a non-negotiable imperative if WHO and other medical research organizations wish to retain any semblance of moral authority and ethical legitimacy.

 

References

Culyer, A.J., 2015. Efficiency, equity and equality in health and health care. Center for Health Economics Research Paper Series 120, University of York, pp.1-20.

Gonzalez-Block, M.A., 2004. Health policy and systems research agendas in developing countries. Health Research Policy and Systems2(1), p.6.

Landes, M., 2005. Can context justify an ethical double standard for clinical research in developing countries? Globalization and Health1(1), p.11.

National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biome Beha Resea and Ryan, K.J.P., 1978. The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research-the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. US Government Printing Office.

Nicholson, T., Admay, C., Shakow, A. and Keshavjee, S., 2016. Double Standards in Global Health: Medicine, Human Rights Law and Multidrug-Resistant TB Treatment Policy. Health and human rights18(1), pp.85-102.

Petryna, A., 2006. Globalizing human subjects research. Global pharmaceuticals: Ethics, markets, practices, pp.33-60.

Riis, P., 2003. Thirty years of bioethics: the Helsinki Declaration 1964-2003. New Review of Bioethics1(1), pp.15-25.

UN General Assembly, 1948. Universal declaration of human rights. UN General Assembly.

U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949. Permissible Medical Experiments. Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10: Nuremberg October 1946–April 1949. U.S. Government Printing Office 2(1), pp. 181-182.

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Rebecca Powell-Doherty is a second year MPH student from Charlotte, NC. She previously received her B.S. in Biology from NC State University in 2005 and her PhD in Immunology from UNC Charlotte in 2010. After graduation, she spent some years teaching undergraduate science courses and conducting post-doctoral work in the areas of inflammation and hemorrhagic shock. During her time at Virginia Tech, she has developed an interest in combining a scientific understanding of disease with social applications for improving the lot of those disproportionately affected by it.

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Evaluating the Meaning of Consent in the Gig-economy

Last week, Gerald Davis, the Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Business Administration at the Ross School of Business, and Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan, gave a talk in the Virginia Tech Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) Series, on the topic “New Institutions for a New Economic Order.” In his view, the increasing financialization of society has had tremendous impacts not only on the for-profit sector, but also on households and the state.

Nikefication, a term that he used to refer to a branding strategy without actual industrial processes behind it, is a direct implication of such irrepressible capitalist forces. Just imagine several American fashion brands such as Nike, Kate Spade, Michael Kors, and GAP that market their products in the United States, but produce most of what they sell abroad. Moreover, and similarly, many government programs are implemented by contractors today. Davis asserted that the way multi-national corporations now work and the contractorship of various jobs, has resulted in a deepening income inequality in the United States. With the advent of application-based businesses, such as Uber, AirBnb, Lyft, and Booking.com, investment models have shifted from a corporate-based and heavily industrialized process into peer-to-peer transactions organized by a programmatic application. In this regard, industrial organizations have also turned increasingly to a contractorship organizational model. For example, AirBnB, an online community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book accommodations, provides a platform for residence owners who want to rent their unoccupied rooms to earn extra income by signing up as lodging providers. This model requires zero physical investment on the part of the firm and creates no new full-time employees either. I here seek to analyze the meaning of consent in these sorts of firms by employing Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony and Marcuse’s concept of one-dimensional man.

There’s an App for That!

The Economist published a review entitled, “There’s an app for that,” [1] in January 2015 and it brought widespread attention to the fascinating changes in consumer behavior and expectations associated with the new form of exchange represented by that technology. Despite the lack of a widely-accepted definition for this new form of trade, which has been variously labeled the gig-economy, on-demand economy or sharing-economy (Petropoulos 2017; Burns 2017), it has expanded at an incredible rate and its reach is now global. This said, the fact there is no shared definition for the phenomenon has made it more difficult to determine the precise extent of consumer use of this form of exchange (Burns 2017).  An online organization, ‘The On-Demand Economy,’ consists of members of this emerging industry and now includes a variety of companies, whose foci range from delivery (e.g., Eat24 by Yelp, Postmates, and Ebay Now), to family care (e.g., Heal, Care.com, and Urbansitter), to parking reservations (e.g., Parking Panda, Spot Hero, and Luxe). According to officials at On-Demand, the United States alone has at least 682 firms operating in the gig economy, mostly in densely populated metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C.[2] The simplicity of the system makes it seductive for consumers. Because the demand for this type of service has increased exponentially in a short period, it is no surprise that a platform-based company such as Uber is now valued at $62.5 billion. However, despite their unprecedented growth, these firms have faced resistance and criticism for their unregulated character (Schofield 2014; Martin 2015).

Puzzled in Cultural Hegemony

An online poll conducted by Future Work Initiative, Time Magazine, and Burson Marsteller, between November 16-25, 2015, sought to capture the views of a representative sample of 3,000 Americans concerning the on-demand economy.[3],[4]  Because the survey sample was representative of the U.S. population, its developers argued that its results suggested that the equivalent of an estimated 45 million American adults have provisioned goods and/or services through popular on-demand economy models such as ride sharing (Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar), accommodation sharing (Airbnb, VRBO, Homeaway), service platforms (Handy.com, Care.com, Taskrabbit), car rental (Car2go, Zipcar, Getaround) or food and goods delivery (Instacart, Postamates, Caviar). Demographically, the survey found that 61% of those who have offered such services (often called offerers) were male, 55% were members of a racial or ethnic minority, 51% were ages 18-34 and 41% were urban residents. Moreover, the majority of the offerers claimed that they were in a better economic situation compared to the year before. Slightly more than 60% of those responding believed that their economic standing would continue to improve in the year ahead. Fully 71 % of survey respondents working in the industry in some capacity indicated they felt positive about doing so, while only 2% indicated the opposite. The remaining 27% of those responding claimed to be neutral concerning their employment experience.

Nonetheless, 58% of those responding also suggested that the industry exploits the fact it is unregulated. As Burns (2017) has contended, the gig economy is not as simple as accepting jobs through an app on the phone. It is, rather, a growing portion of the economy whose workers “… work with no benefits, no job security, and no unions” (2017, 89). Furthermore, by using the rhetoric of attractive self-employment and low barriers to entry, companies such as Uber and Postmaster can easily hire drivers and/or handymen as independent contractors, without investing large sums to provide what a traditional company would offer its employees, namely training or a safety net. In doing so, these firms in effect ask individuals to forego benefits and a measure of security for flexible working hours and the freedom to conduct business relatively autonomously. This fact confirms Davis’s observation that economies of scale are no longer applicable under this scheme. This is because a platform-based company creates its equity in the form of computer programs and applications, which are much less costly to produce than large scale machines or industrial infrastructure. What these companies do is basically (re)create a niche within the existing market by employing infrastructure and/or expertise owned by the “workers” it employs (e.g., Uber drivers use their own cars).

Furthermore, the gig-economy also influences some high-skilled professions by challenging the traditional business model on which they have long rested and by suggesting that those jobs could be accomplished or approached differently. For example, a platform called HEAL is designed to bring a doctor to a patient’s home simply by tapping on a smart phone screen, without the need for cash.[5] The system’s founder, Nick Desai, has argued that the $3 trillion healthcare industry in the U.S. is fundamentally broken. Doctor shortages cause long wait times, which prompt patients to use urgent care, options, which provide fewer treatment options and at higher cost.[6] By shifting to a peer-to-peer transaction model, Desai has suggested, doctors ideally could have more time to care for fewer patients with greater efficiency. Since physicians would see patients in their homes, they could offer more nuanced treatments, since they would have direct knowledge of the environmental conditions and lifestyles of those they are seeking to assist.

This essay was prompted by my sense of puzzlement regarding the reigning ideology that has encouraged the establishment of this sort of demand-economy in the U.S. Today’s pseudo-self-sustaining culture encourages individuals to monetize every dimension of their lives. Such is certainly true of the gig-economy. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian neo-Marxist theorist who lived in the early part of the 20th century, offered a theory of cultural hegemony that sought to explain how those advantaged in capitalist society use cultural institutions to maintain their privilege and power. He defined hegemony as

the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production (Gramsci 1971,12).

The shared-economy model exhibits two important elements of hegemony as Gramsci defined that condition––it allows both consent and domination to coexist by means of the way offerer/worker-company relationships operate—and thereby legitimates the coercive power of capitalism. Consider Uber, for example. Popular consent for this new form of business activity has been relatively easy to achieve because it requires few background checks, does not demand much by way of qualifications except for two very basic ones, i.e. a driver’s license and an automobile with four doors, and provides the offerers convenience and competitive fares for their (under-employed) resources. Marcuse (1964) argued that the advanced industrial society has created false needs that trap individuals into the one-dimensional role of seeking to fulfill unbounded desires. In his view, one-dimensional thought and behavior wither ones’ ability to think critically and behave appropriately when confronted with capital-induced oppression. Seen through this lens, society has fallen into the following conditions: a relentless cycle of production and consumption mystification exacerbated via mass media; common contractorship of goods and services provisioning; and the emergence of a contemporary mode of thought, which in the on-demand economy, is clearly affirmed as especially practical.

A case study of Tom,[7] a 24-year-old bicycle courier in London who works for an app called Deliveroo that appeared in the Guardian newspaper, demonstrated that he confronted an employment situation with only limited options available to him as a member of the working class. When he signed up to be a part-time cycle courier, the company that employed him assigned him to work for at least three-hour shifts and offered pay of £7 an hour and £1 per delivery, without health insurance, paid time off or sick pay. The firm also expected him to provide and maintain his own bicycle and to ride in heavy traffic and all weather conditions. He told the author of the news article concerning him that he believed his employer wants citizens to perceive that its delivery riders, “are all young, middle class-men who wear trendy clothes, making a little extra cash”[8] which is simply not true, given that most of the workers are doing it full-time and as their primary position. Though he is very critical of the unfair conditions under which he works, Tom remains in his role because he loves cycling and because he believes he does not possess adequate qualifications to obtain other jobs.[9]

As many gig industry firms treat their “workers” in quite similar ways (i.e., no sick leave, no health insurance, flexible hours, etc.), I support Gramsci’s argument that Tom’s tacit consent, and that offered by millions of other workers in similar situations, preserves capitalistic domination.  Furthermore, this also renders repression as economically and socially natural for all workers who choose this form of employment. My judgment is that these values are not natural, but instead are created by people with vested interests in particular social, economic, and political orders. Lastly, the idea of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” —that one can succeed if one just tries hard enough—is a false aphorism that has achieved the status of received popular wisdom. This claim is untrue because it masks what is, in fact, a system of structural sexism, racialism, and ableism that prevents disenfranchised populations from effectively pulling bettering their conditions. The logical follow-up question further to this realization is, is it possible to attain passage of laws aimed at minimizing the economic costs of such relentless cultural pressure, given the reality that the nation remains under the sway of a dominant neo-liberal public philosophy?

NOTES

[1]  http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21637355-freelance-workers-available-moments-notice-will-reshape-nature-companies-and

[2] https://theondemandeconomy.org/about/

 

[3] http://www.burson-marsteller.com/what-we-do/our-thinking/on-demand/ondemand/

[4] http://time.com/4169532/sharing-economy-poll/?xid=homepage

[5] https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/heal. The company is financially supported by 17 investors including the pop-artist, Lionel Richie, and has collected $26.9M Series A venture funding within two years since firstly introduced in October, 2014.

[6] http://www.forbes.com/sites/katherynthayer/2016/10/20/why-the-doctor-will-see-you-at-home-now/#55f290d05ef0

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/money/2016/jun/15/he-truth-about-working-for-deliveroo-uber-and-the-on-demand-economy

[8] Ibid.

[9] Op. Cit.

 

References

Burns, Rebecca. 2017. Bargaining with Silicon Valley. Dissent 64 (1):89-94.

Gramsci, A. 1971. Selections from the prison notebooks (trans. Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith). New York: International Publishers.

Marcuse, H. 1964. One-dimensional man. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Martin, Chris, J. 2015. The sharing economy: a pathway to sustainability or a nightmarish form of neoliberal capitalism? Ecological Economics 121: 49-159.

Petropoulos, Georgios. 2017. An economic review of the collaborative economy. Policy Contribution 5: 1-17.

Schofield, H., 2014. Short-let apartments spark Paris row as Airbnb thrives (online). BBC News Available: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30580295 [Accessed February 28, 2017]

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Putu Apriliani is a Fulbright scholarship recipient from Indonesia currently pursuing her doctoral degree in Planning, Governance, and Globalization (PGG) in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include diverse community economies and collectivist democracy and their intersections with race, class and gender.  She is also a certified trainer in microfinance. She earned her B.A. and M.A. in Economics from Udayana University in her native nation. She loves to participate in cultural events, Zumba class and volunteer work in her spare time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is Climate Change real? Greenhouse Gases, Climate Science and the Human Outlook

The question of the immanence and character of climate change received attention in the recent Presidential election campaign in the United States.  In particular, the candidates debated how to view the growing concern among scientists and many in the general public about rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.  CO2, a greenhouse gas, has both natural and anthropogenic sources. Some of its natural causes include respiration, decomposition, volcanic eruptions etc. Anthropogenic sources include deforestation, power generation, agricultural practices and burning fossil fuels, to name a few.

Global CO2 levels have been maintained over time by a delicate process known as “The Carbon Cycle.” This is a biogeochemical succession in which carbon, a common element on Earth, is exchanged and recycled through biological, geological, hydrological and atmospheric processes. The carbon cycle occurs across millions of years, or longer. A very small input or output that strays from this fragile balance unleashes a domino effect that affects many other natural cycles and processes, which in turn influence life itself.

There is a misconception that anthropogenic sources are the lone cause of increasing CO2 levels.  Natural sources have always been a primary factor raising CO2 levels throughout Earth’s history. But, lately, the release of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere by anthropogenic sources has been increasing carbon dioxide levels considerably. Fossil fuel burning emissions, electricity production using fossil fuels and cement production accounted for 91% of human source carbon dioxide emissions in 2014. Deforestation is the second largest human source of CO2 emissions (Van der Werf et al., 2009, 737). While these processes have been emitting increased amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the land and ocean carbon sinks have seen a net decrease in the amount of that element they have been absorbing in recent decades (Le Quéré et al., 2013, 177). The main land sink for carbon dioxide comprises forests and other plant life that take in the gas and release oxygen. With increasing deforestation and land use changes, the amount of oxygen release and carbon absorption is considerably lower now than it was in past decades (Van der Werf et al., 2009, 737).

The ocean sink consists of phytoplanktons and zooplanktons that absorb CO2 from the upper ocean and then carry it down to the depths as they sink, thereby becoming incorporated into oceanic sediments. The carbon dioxide then interacts with chemicals in the sediments to form mineral assemblages that sequester carbon naturally for many years (Raven and Falkowski, 1999). Repeated studies have shown that a substantial increase in atmospheric CO2 emissions accompanied the Industrial Revolution (1760 AD onwards). Assuming a steady state in biological carbon processes, an additional 30% increase in carbon intake by oceanic sinks has occurred since the Industrial Revolution (Raven and Falkowski, 1999).

Methane, CH4, another important greenhouse gas, also plays a role in the rise in global average temperatures that is resulting in climate change. Natural sources of CH4 occur mainly in wetlands, which produce about 78% of the chemical. Such marshlands are highly temperature sensitive (Christensen et al., 2004). Fossil fuel burning and livestock farming are important human sources of methane (Bousquet et al., 2006). One of the earth’s largest methane sinks is its permafrost, a thick layer of frozen soil that circles the globe’s poles. Significant spikes in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and resulting temperature increases are now causing the permafrost to melt, thereby emitting large amounts of CH4 back into the atmosphere (Christensen et al., 2004).

Increasing greenhouse gas concentrations could also eventually warm the oceans, leading to changes in currents that arise from the deep. This would change the microclimates of local regions that depend on those flows for their ways of life. When the deep ocean warms, this could also potentially release the carbon stored in its upper sediments.

Elevated carbon levels change ecosystems substantially, through direct and indirect effects. Certain plants have been able to adapt and increase their photosynthesis levels as CO­2 levels have increased, while others have not been able to do so. Rising carbon dioxide concentrations influence plant flower gestation rates, flowering times, longevity and seed quality. Such conditions are also likely to reduce the number of plant pollinators or change their characteristics (Bazzaz, 1990). Soaring temperatures might also lead to extinction of certain crucial species of plants, thereby changing entire local ecosystems.

Local, state and national governments and international organizations must take responsibility to educate the general public about the crucial and currently observable changes in climate that are already occurring. Existing evidence, samples, records, publications and facts must be assembled and presented in easily communicable ways that intrigue and enlighten audiences at the same time. Governments of all nations must assign science research related to climate change high priority. The recent U.S. President’s proposal to reduce the research budgets of agencies that focus on climate science and related issues is deeply concerning and disheartening. Should budget reductions of the magnitude proposed occur, such action could significantly set back the progress made so far to address climate change world-wide. And, unfortunately, President Donald Trump is not alone in his stance. Climate change doubters and skeptics claim to believe these misguided proposals represent a political “victory” in favor of “sound science.”

The general populace must become aware of the global phenomenon that is climate change and fight to preserve our Mother Earth, not just for us, but also for future generations. As mentioned above, the Earth is able to thrive by balancing delicate interconnected natural cycles and processes. A small imbalance in one cycle can potentially lead to a large counter effect that cascades and changes life and comfort as we know it. The approximately 7 billion people on Earth could make a substantial difference in ameliorating and ultimately reversing climate change if we all unite and take measures to preserve and conserve the bounty that we obtain from our Mother Earth.

I conclude with a quotation from the movie “Interstellar”:

We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.

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References

Bazzaz, F.A., 1990. The response of natural ecosystems to the rising global CO2 levels. Annual review of ecology and systematics21(1), pp.167-196.

Bousquet, P., Ciais, P., Miller, J.B., Dlugokencky, E.J., Hauglustaine, D.A., Prigent, C., Van der Werf, G.R., Peylin, P., Brunke, E.G., Carouge, C. and Langenfelds, R.L., 2006. Contribution of anthropogenic and natural sources to atmospheric methane variability. Nature443(7110), pp.439-443.

Christensen, T.R., Johansson, T., Åkerman, H.J., Mastepanov, M., Malmer, N., Friborg, T., Crill, P. and Svensson, B.H., 2004. Thawing sub-arctic permafrost: Effects on vegetation and methane emissions. Geophysical research letters31(4).

Le Quéré, C., Andres, R.J., Boden, T., Conway, T., Houghton, R.A., House, J.I., Marland, G., Peters, G.P., Van der Werf, G., Ahlström, A. and Andrew, R.M., 2012. The global carbon budget 1959–2011. Earth System Science Data Discussions5(2), pp.1107-1157.

Raven, J.A. and Falkowski, P.G., 1999. Oceanic sinks for atmospheric CO2. Plant, Cell & Environment22(6), pp.741-755.

Van der Werf, G.R., Morton, D.C., DeFries, R.S., Olivier, J.G., Kasibhatla, P.S., Jackson, R.B., Collatz, G.J. and Randerson, J.T., 2009. CO2 emissions from forest loss. Nature geoscience2(11), pp.737-738.

http://whatsyourimpact.org/greenhouse-gases/carbon-dioxide-emissions

https://www.netl.doe.gov/research/coal/carbon-storage/carbon-storage-faqs/what-are-the-primary-sources-of-co2

https://www.co2.earth/global-co2-emissions

http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2014/0312/How-do-oceans-absorb-carbon-dioxide-Scientists-find-clues

https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/climatescience/greenhousegases/industrialrevolution.html

https://news.agu.org/press-release/study-as-alaska-warms-methane-emissions-appear-stable/

http://whatsyourimpact.org/greenhouse-gases/methane-emissions#footnote1_foqyt53

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6331/1243?utm_campaign=toc_sci-mag_2017-03-23&et_rid=287526361&et_cid=1233226

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/03/trump-s-nih-budget-may-include-reducing-overhead-payments-universities?utm_campaign=news_weekly_2017-03-24&et_rid=287526361&et_cid=1235549

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Kannikha Kolandaivelu is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Geosciences. She obtained her Master’s degree in Geosciences from the same department. Kannikha earned a B.E. in Civil Engineering at Anna University in India.  Her interest in learning more about the inner workings of our planet Earth brought her to Virginia Tech. She is focusing on Thermal Geophysics for her doctoral research. In addition to science she is interested in short-story writing, mostly fiction; authoring blog posts; reading and pondering the purpose of life and human existence.

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Empires and Barbarians: The EU and Violence at its Margins

The Brexit referendum to leave the European Union (EU) has been applauded by some scholars and politicians as a victory for the sovereign people of Great Britain in response to the undemocratic and technocratic nature of the EU. These analysts consider the United Kingdom’s (UK) decision to withdraw from the Union a win for state institutions and political responsiveness at the state level (Cunliffe & Ramsay 2016). Brexit has been critiqued by other scholars, however, as a cynical and wishful attempt by UK elites and right-wing conservative politicians to resurrect Britain’s former imperial glory by strengthening the UK and its Commonwealth, or the so-called “Anglosphere” (i.e., its former colonies: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the USA), as an alternative to the supranational and globalized EU “invader” (Bell 2016; Morozov 2016). Yet, while proponents on both sides of this argument rightly criticize the EU bureaucracy as removed and even immune from popular and public contestation, neither scholarship critiques the EU’s increasingly illiberal external policies, whether successful or not, which I argue are quite evident if the Union is examined through a “EU-as-empire” conceptual lens.

Political theory and international relations have had difficulty as fields identifying the EU as a “political object.” Theorists and politicians alike have made various attempts to define this sui generis or “unidentified political object” (Delors 1985). In an effort to conceptualize the EU, scholars have theorized the entity as a “normative power (Manners 2002), “post-modern (Diez 1997),” “civilian power (Telo 2006),” or a “communion” (Manners 2013).

In contrast to the above conceptualizations, the “EU-as-Empire” argument, popularized by Jan Zielonka’s 2006 Europe as Empire, claims that the Union can, and perhaps should, be viewed as some form of empire. Former EU Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso buttressed this argument by labeling the Union a rather paradoxical “non-imperial Empire” (Mahony 2007). An important aspect of considering the EU-as-empire is what Behr has termed “governing from a distance” (Behr and Stivachtis 2015, 11). In essence, political entities that use policies “that are supposed to and organized to govern over vast geographical and territorial dimensions” are inherently violent because these strategies often ignore place-specific and contextual situations in favor of “universal,” and in this case, Western-based frames of reference (Behr 2015, 33-34). As a result, they recreate core-periphery relationships reminiscent of former imperial rule (Behr and Stivachtis, 2015). Thus, although this brief post does not seek to determine whether the EU can truly be considered an empire, it does argue that the “EU-as-empire” scholarship highlights the Union’s increasingly coercive policies in the developing world. This has been particularly evident in the EU’s efforts to prevent the migration of people, specifically sub-Saharan refugees, from moving into the Schengen zone. Even though disagreement between a share of the member states and the EU Commission concerning how to “solve” the so-called “refugee crisis” has seemingly fractured concord among them, the Commission and some of its member states, including Spain, Italy, and Germany, nonetheless continue to employ coercive policies in an attempt to halt the “flood” of refugees (Nail 2016).

While U.S President Donald Trump’s attempted immigration ban and the rising xenophobia in the UK, as well as in several other EU member’s states (e.g., Germany, France, Hungary) has garnered attention in the media, the Commission’s effort to prevent continued outmigration of people from several sub-Saharan African nation-states, including Eritrea, from which large numbers of refugees have emanated, has resulted in a number of EU agreements with several dictatorial regimes. For example, one of the primary refugee routes into the Union leads through Libya. While Muammar Gaddafi was in power, he accepted “aid” from Italy to halt the movement of African refugees through his nation and on into the EU (Macdonald 2017). After the 2011 Arab Spring, the Union’s Commission and its member states proposed not only new initiatives with Libya, but also with Sudan’s president Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (Plaut 2017). Moreover, Plaut has highlighted the fact that the EU has given the one-party government in Eretria, which has never faced elections, 200 million Euros in “development aid” without any strictures concerning how the money could be used (2017) in order to gain that regime’s cooperation in stanching migration.

While the EU Commission, member states and various other institutions continue to promote a liberal and cosmopolitan Union, their simultaneous efforts to “govern from a distance” reflect a political entity that is beset by contradictions. In addition to the policies noted above, the heavily militarized Spanish enclaves in North Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, which play an integral role in preventing refugee movements, further evince the coercive nature of the EU’s attempts to “secure” its territory (Peters 2011).

In conclusion, while this essay did not seek to prove that the EU is an empire, it is my hope nevertheless that it reveals some of the contradictions present among the Union’s normative claims and its external policies. That touchstone should allow a more nuanced critique of the EU’s refugee policies.

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References

Behr, Hartmut, and Yannis Stivachtis. 2015. Revisiting the European Union as empire, London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis.

Behr, Hartmut. “‘Empire’, ‘governing from the distance’, and the mitigation of violence.” In Hartmut Behr, and Yannis Stivachtis. 2015. Revisiting the European Union as empire, London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis.

Bell, Duncan. “The Anglosphere: new enthusiasm for an old dream.” Prospect, February 2017. Accessed February 2017. Available at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/anglosphere-old-dream-brexit-role-in-the-world

Cunliffe, Phillip, and Peter Ramsay. “Hard v. Soft: misrepresenting Brexit.” Defend Democracy Press, November 11, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2017. Available at http://www.defenddemocracy.press/post-uk-referendum-brexit-debate/

Delors, Jaques. “Speech by Jaque Delors.” Luxembourg: Office for official publications of the European Communities, September 1985, No 9. Accessed March 19, 2017. Available at http://www.cvce.eu/content/publication/2001/10/19/423d6913-b4e2-4395-9157-fe70b3ca8521/publishable_en.pdf

Diez, Thomas. “Postmoderne und europäische Integration: Die Dominanz des Staatsmodells, die

Verantwortung gegenüber dem Anderen und die Konstruktion eines alternativen Horizonts.’” Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen 3 (2), (1997): 255-281.

Macdonald, Alastair. “Libya not accepting Italy migrant deal: EU presidency Malta.” Reuters, January 16, 2017. Accessed March 19, 2017. Available at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-libya-italy-idUSKBN14X193

Mahony, Honor. “Barroso says Eu is an empire.” euobserver, July 11, 2007. Accessed March 19, 207. Available at https://euobserver.com/institutional/24458

Manners, Ian. “Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?,” Journal of Common Market Studies, 30, no. 2 (2002): 235-58.

Manners, Ian. “European communion: Political theory of European union.” Journal of European Public Policy, 20, n0. 4 (2013).

 Manners, Ian and Philomean Murray. “The End of a Noble Narrative? European Integration Narratives After the Noble Peace Prize. Journal of Common Market Studies, 54, no. 1 (2016): 185-202.

Nail, Thomas. “We are entering a new epoch: the century of the migrant.” Aeon, December 14, 2016. Accessed January 15, 2017. Available at https://aeon.co/ideas/we-are-entering-a-new-epoch-the-century-of-the-migrant

Plaut, Martin. “Europe’s African ‘wall’ now almost complete.” MartinPlaut Blog, January 16, 2017. Accessed March 1, 2017. Available at https://martinplaut.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/europes-african-wall-now-almost-complete/

Peters, Katharina Graca. “Ceuta and Melilla: Europe’s High-Tech Fortress.” Der Spiegel, August 10, 2011. Accessed March 18, 2017. Available at http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/ceuta-and-melilla-europe-s-high-tech-african-fortress-a-779226.html

Rexhepi, Piro. “Europe wrote the book on demonising refugees, long before Trump read it.” The Guardian, February 21, 2017. Accessed March 19, 2017. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/21/europe-demonising-muslim-refugees-legitimise-trump

Telo, Mario. 2006. Europe: A Civilian Power? European Union, Global Governance, World Order, UK: Palgrave Macmillian.

Viatcheslav Morozov. “Brexit Symposium: Brexit, Critique of Colonialism and the Crisis of Democratic Representation.” E-IR, September 10th, 2016. Accessed November 10th, 2016. Available at http://www.e-ir.info/2016/09/10/brexit-symposium/

Zielonka, Jan. 2006. Europe as Empire: The Nature of the Enlarged Union. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Johannes Grow is a third-year PhD student in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) program. He received his Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs (MPIA) and a B.A in International Studies from Virginia Tech. His research interests include: Social and Political Theory, Empire, International Relations, Critical European Studies, Postcolonial Theory and Critical Geopolitics. He currently teaches International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech.

 

 

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“Fake News” in Informational Ecology

This essay grapples with the latest weapon in information warfare in the United States: “fake news.”  The introduction of “fake news” into the political discourse by the Donald Trump administration has exposed the fragility of the political reality constructed and disseminated by media outlets. I contend that the effects of this phenomenon within the informational ecology of U.S. politics are not new. Rather, fake news is the latest iteration of informational partisanship within our democratic capitalist society, the (re)production of which has been amplified and accelerated by the rise of social media. As a remedy, I suggest abandoning claims to objective knowledge supported by media sources.

To be exact, fake news as a term dates to the Progressive era in American politics when William Jennings Bryan (one of the first “populists”) used it in his publication, The Commoner to attack anonymous articles unfavorable to his campaign.[1] The term gained contemporary popularity after a bizarre incident in which a North Carolina man, having consumed “fake news” posted to Reddit, drove to Washington D.C. with an assault rifle to “investigate” an alleged child-prostitution ring run by Hillary Clinton in the basement of a pizzeria.[2] His arrest sparked national attention to the political implications of online media and the dissemination of less than reputable information through outlets more interested in serving as advertiser click-bait than watch-dogs of democracy. Since the incident, and ironically, given its provenance, the Trump administration and the American right have shown little restraint in using the term and have weaponized it to attack news outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, or as a label for any story potentially damaging to the image of the White House.[3] Most recently, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich attempted to connect “fake news” to “fake education” in an assault on American universities[4] through a sympathetic media outlet, Fox Broadcasting.[5]

Fake news, as a term, has been used to dismiss information, questions, inquiries and stories threatening to the perceived standing, credibility or legitimacy of the Trump administration. The President, employing Twitter,[6] has claimed that any inquiries into his ties with Russia, and its possible hacking of the November 2016 United States national election,[7] are motivated by fake news propagated by Democrats[8] to damage his administration and draw attention away from their election losses. The effect of the vacuity of “fake news” as a signifier is particularly dizzying considering the recent resignation of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, following a news account exposing his discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyev,[9] after the Department of Justice had warned the White House that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to manipulation by the Kremlin.[10] Indeed, Flynn had allegedly deceived Vice President Mike Pence concerning the content, frequency and duration of his contacts with Kislyev for several months. Trump and several White House officials have repeatedly denied any ties to the Kremlin and Kellyanne Conway, councilor to Trump, has downplayed what this episode might suggest concerning the President’s judgment or ability to make prudent staff choices.[11] After NBC journalist Matt Lauer dismissed Conway’s comments as nonsensical, Trump used Twitter to condemn the news accounts of Flynn’s conversations, without elaborating on his relationship to Russia.[12]  Members of the press and Congress have repeatedly asked the President to approve an independent investigation of his relationship with Russia  (and that of his recent campaign) since he has maintained such an effort would reveal nothing, but he has steadfastly refused to do so.  Meanwhile, he has assumed a defensive posture and created a carnival-like spectacle as he has flung “fake news” charges against his perceived opponents calling for such an inquiry. Not surprisingly, his relationship to the mainstream media has descended into acrimony.[13] For example, Trump was forced recently by several journalists to clarify a comment concerning the media as the “enemy of the American people” that he repeated at the recent annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He defended his contention by asserting that his comment was directed at “fake news.” The difficulty with his clarification, however, is that he appears to consider any critical or unflattering press coverage as “fake,” so much of the mass media was included in his broad claim.

In vertigo inducing displays, left[14] and right-wing[15] media outlets have adopted “fake news” as part of their political and epistemic vocabulary. Fake news is not a new phenomenon— think The National Inquirer—but its virulence in our nation’s political ecosystem has been aided by the internet, as its transmission occurs at virtual light speed through social media. In fact, recent research has exposed an elaborate network of social media sites as dissemination points for misinformation, mixed with legitimate news.[16] Algorithms beyond the control of any single actor sort information based on popularity and user viewing habits, leading to an organic system of dissemination to individual viewers. This system is driven foremost by data analytics that are part of a pursuit of profits attached to website advertising fees. That is, “fake news” is, at bottom, propelled by capital interests and transmitted by the social media users’ consumptive choices.

Regardless of its purveyor, or the administration’s use of the term, fake news is a kind of deliberative pollution that preys on information bubbles formed based on internet users’ digital footprints. Sophisticated click-bait advertising entices users into confirmation biases already dangerous to democracy and creates more doubt concerning the veracity of information counter to their existing beliefs. Again, this is no new phenomenon. In his farewell address former President Barack Obama mentioned a “great sorting” of information through media outlets as dangerous to the exercise of democratic citizenship.[17]

Massive media conglomerates, for example, now move daily to capture the attention of viewers and hold their viewership by shaping information so as to ensure it is palatable to that audience.  The subtlety of such media frames prime the deliberative environment toward debates concerning taste rather than reason, as news comes to resemble entertainment, rather than cultivating citizens to serve as “the anxious, jealous guardians of democracy.”[18] To the extent this trend now holds popular sway, citizens are daily being molded into consumers of entertainment rather than true participants in the democratic process. The rise of the 24-hour news outlet and subsequent ratings war between CNN and Fox News have neatly split the polis into two broadly consumptive camps able to access information with the click of a TV remote. In the pursuit of profit, these news channels have created distinct identities that have become their brand signatures in their quest for ratings and advertising dollars.  Capitalism created the need for spin and each of these channels has catered to the subtle and specific tastes of broad swathes of information-consumers. Regardless of the side of the aisle one may personally prefer, this great sorting has continued and new skirmishes[19] between these institutions occur daily as they contest for[20] market preeminence.

President Trump’s distaste for specific media outlets is also nothing new. The Nixon administration’s bald hostility toward the media is well known.[21] However, Nixon stepped into an environment already charged with hostility toward the “mainstream media” and exploited that situation. Human Events, a well-known conservative publication, had already been at work carving out a conservative counter space in the media since 1961.[22] That journal’s greatest contribution to the national discourse was the idea of a “liberal media,” which claimed that major media outlet frames were strong and structurally biased political force in the national dialogue. The idea that the most widely cited and admired mass media outlets were “liberal mouthpieces” accelerated the rise of media partisanship and news consumers began to divide along ideological and party lines.[23] These differences are most conspicuous today when media organizations such as Fox or Breitbart claim to be “fair and balanced” because they will broadcast or print what other major organizations will not. This argument allows these news outlets to frame other journalism as biased as a part of their attempt to tear down the façade of journalistic objectivity. The counternarrative spun by their opponents is that outlets such as Fox serve the Republican party’s interests,[24] or, in the case of Breitbart, cater to white nationalist sympathies.[25]

The branding narratives and counternarratives mirror the challenges that fake news poses for democracy. Taste plays a role in citizen/consumer informational insularity and it appears to be working to undermine the foundational capacity of the demos to act in the public interest. The weightlessness of information transfer, the consumptive practices of viewing publics, the motive force of profit in producing informational bubbles and the clear partisanship of media outlets suggest that information transfer in our democratic capitalist society is inherently biased. Discerning “fake news” from fair and balanced representation rests on a citizen’s ability to parse reality and requires critical reflection. Fake news may represent the latest iteration of information challenge presented to the demos, but its effects, as I have argued, are not new. It is very easy to get turned around in the bewildering environment of online media. In order to see the forest for the trees, I suggest that readers and viewers abandon claims to knowing the absolute truth of any matter reported in the spirit of recognizing the limitations of their consumptive practices.

Recognizing that we are participating in a market when we read our standby publications and that this market will perpetually reinforce frames tailored to our tastes should help us remember that no news is objectively reported and that claims to objectivity fall apart when considering the larger political ecology of information. Rather than a weapon to demonize the opposition, the presence of fake news in our conceptual framework can humble our more rabid moments as it serves as a reminder of the power of the media in constructing our political reality.

Notes

[1] LaFrance, Adrienne. “How the Fake News Crisis of 1896 Explains Trump.” The Atlantic. January 19, 2017. Accessed March 02, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/01/the-fake-news-crisis-120-years-ago/513710/.

[2] Goldman, Cecilia Kang and Adam. “In Washington Pizzeria Attack, Fake News Brought Real Guns.” The New York Times. December 05, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/05/business/media/comet-ping-pong-pizza-shooting-fake-news-consequences.html?_r=0.

[3] Blake, Aaron. “Analysis | The White House’s big ‘fake news’ cop-out.” The Washington Post. February 26, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/26/fake-news-is-a-potent-political-strategy-its-also-a-cop-out/?utm_term=.3ef1b00a1663.

[4] “Gingrich: ‘Fake News’ Phenomenon Is ‘Extraordinarily Dangerous'” Fox News. February 27, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://insider.foxnews.com/2017/02/27/newt-gingrich-fake-news-based-fake-education-donald-trump-left-wing-press.

[5] Tani, Maxwell. “The timing once again suggests that Trump tweets after watching Fox News segments.” Business Insider. January 26, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-tweets-fox-news-segments-2017-1.

[6] Trump, Donald J. “Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!” Twitter. February 26, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/835916511944523777.

[7] Sanger, David E. “Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Election Hacking.” The New York Times. December 29, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/us/politics/russia-election-hacking-sanctions.html.

[8] “Trump blasts Dems for peddling ‘fake news’ Russian narrative.” RT International. February 27, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.rt.com/usa/378698-trump-fake-news-russia/.

[9] Phipps, Claire, Alan Yuhas, Julian Borger, and Sabrina Siddiqui. “Michael Flynn resigns: Trump’s national security adviser quits over Russia links – as it happened.” The Guardian. February 14, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2017/feb/14/flynn-resigns-donald-trump-national-security-adviser-russia-links-live.

[10] Smith, David, Sabrina Siddiqui, and Ben Jacobs. “White House was warned about Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia – sources.” The Guardian. February 13, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/13/donald-trump-white-house-michael-flynn-reince-preibus.

[11]Posted By Tim Hains On Date February 14, 2017. “Matt Lauer vs. Kellyanne Conway on Flynn Resignation: “Your Explanation Doesn’t Make Any Sense”.” Video | Real Clear Politics. February 14, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2017/02/14/matt_lauer_vs_kellyanne_conway_on_flynn_resignation_your_explanation_doesnt_make_any_sense.html.

[12] Trump, Donald J. “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N. Korea etc.?” Twitter. February 14, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/831510532318429184?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw.

[13] “Bill O’Reilly says acrimony between Trump and the media has escalated into ‘war’.” The Blaze. February 27, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.theblaze.com/news/2017/02/27/bill-oreilly-says-acrimony-between-trump-and-the-media-has-escalated-into-war/.

[14] Ingraham, Christopher. “Why conservatives might be more likely to fall for fake news.” The Washington Post. December 07, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/12/07/why-conservatives-might-be-more-likely-to-fall-for-fake-news/?utm_term=.caeaf6307a14.

[15] Lahren, Tomi. “Bathrooms go back to normal and the leftist mainstream media lets the fake news flow.” The Blaze. February 22, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.theblaze.com/video/final-thoughts-bathrooms-go-back-to-normal-and-the-leftist-mainstream-media-lets-the-fake-news-flow/.

[16] Ingram, Mathew. “What a Map of the Fake-News Ecosystem Says About the Problem.” Fortune. November 28, 2016. Accessed March 1, 2017. http://fortune.com/2016/11/28/map-fake-news/.

[17] “President Barack Obama’s Farewell Address (Full Speech) | NBC News.” YouTube. January 10, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://youtu.be/siyBp8Csugk.

[18] “President Barack Obama’s Farewell Address (Full Speech) | NBC News.” YouTube. January 10, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://youtu.be/siyBp8Csugk.

[19] Nazarian, Adelle. “Peak ‘Fake News’: Buzz Feed, CNN Target Trump with Admittedly Unverifiable Russia ‘Memos'” Breitbart. January 11, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2017/01/10/fake-news-avalanche-caused-cnn-buzzfeed-targeting-trump/.

[20] Nashrulla, Tasneem. “Here Are Some Of The Incendiary Stories Published By Trump’s Chief Strategist.” Buzz Feed. November 14, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/tasneemnashrulla/here-are-some-of-the-most-controversial-stories-published-by?utm_term=.vcda1OgDY#.itYBQEqeR.

[21] Major, Mark. “Conservative Consciousness and the Press: The Institutional Contribution to the Idea of the ‘Liberal Media’ in Right-Wing Discourse.” Critical Sociology 41, no. 3 (2015): 484. doi:10.1177/0896920514528816.

[22] Ibid, pp 487

[23] Hemmer, Nicole. “The Conservative War on Liberal Media Has a Long History.” The Atlantic. January 17, 2014. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/01/the-conservative-war-on-liberal-media-has-a-long-history/283149/.

[24] Easley, Jason. “Fair And Balanced Facade Blown To Bits As Trump Endorses Fox News As State TV.” Politicus USA. January 25, 2017. Accessed March 01, 2017. http://www.politicususa.com/2017/01/25/fair-balanced-facade-blown-bits-trump-endorses-fox-news-state-tv.html.

[25] Borchers, Callum. “‘Can you name one white nationalist article at Breitbart?’ Challenge accepted!” The Washington Post. November 15, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/15/can-you-name-one-white-nationalist-article-at-breitbart-challenge-accepted/?utm_term=.48c9d026edc7.

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Alex Stubberfield is a second-year PhD student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT). He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Philosophy at SUNY Brockport and continued his education at Virginia Tech earning a Master’s  degree in Philosophy, and a Masters of Public and International Affairs with a graduate certificate in Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Organization Management. His research concerns political theory, media, social theory, culture and corporate citizenship. He currently teaches American politics as an instructor in the Political Science department.

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Politics, Prediction and the Rise of Donald Trump Introduction

Many academics and pundits were surprised by the recent presidential victory of Donald Trump. The Americanists within political science provide unique resources for explaining and predicting the political landscape, yet few scholars of political behavior anticipated Trump’s narrow win. For his part, one philosopher was so confident Trump’s political ambitions were doomed that he endorsed the businessman in the primaries in an effort to foment factionalism within the GOP (Leiter, 2015). This disconnect between analysts’ expectations and reality poses a problem. How can we, as scholars, explain the failed predictions of many of our peers?  Any fully adequate account would consider a wide range of plausible rationales. This post considers only a small subset of those reasons. I first consider poor reasoning by engaged citizens and academics alike, then turn to features of political science that may have led in part to the recent erroneous election forecasts concerning Trump.

Psychologists and logicians have developed several explanations for the types of fallacious reasoning that citizens and analysts may commit. For example, these researchers have found that humans tend to be overly optimistic and to favor groups and information that confirm their biases (Nickerson, 1998). That is, like-minded individuals often form de facto echo chambers that reject countervailing evidence while affirming confirming information.  These findings surely explain some of why so few academics and pundits correctly predicted the 2016 American presidential election results. These psychological and logical mistakes were almost certainly in play during this election cycle, as they are in many other arenas. As such, they do not provide a unique answer to the question of why many predictions went awry for this election. Moreover, people who conduct polling are trained to avoid such tendencies. Baumeister and Bushman, for example, found that deliberative processing of information reduces the rate of fallacious reasoning and cognitive bias (2010, 155). Nevertheless, such training did not prevent erroneous predictions in 2016. I turn instead to unique features of political science to explain the relatively poor electoral predictions of many academics in the recent presidential contest.

Political Science and Rationality

Marquis de Condorcet provided a boon to democracy in an essay in 1785, by showing that voting may be conducive to deciding on the best alternative. The Condorcet Jury Theorem holds that if each voter has a greater than 50 percent chance of choosing the better of two alternatives, adding more voters increases the probability of arriving at the best result (McCannon, 2015). For example, if each voter has a 0.6 chance of selecting the superior alternative, it takes only 300 voters for that result to become a statistical certainty (List and Goodin, 2001, 13). This argument has long been understood as a vindication of democracy, insofar as it implies that an informed electorate is more likely than not to make good choices. Moreover, the sheer size of contemporary populations is, in this view, large enough to ensure the selection of the better choice in a voting decision.  Similar work in game and rational choice theory has sought to predict policy outcomes and voter behavior.  These approaches embrace an axiomatic commitment to the view that agents act in their best interests, whether as preference maximizers or satisficers (Simon, 1982). Accordingly, these analysts contend, one can predict outcomes and decisions based on models anticipating the choices of individuals within various scenarios. This is, for example, fundamentally what game theory does. It suggests political decisions become readily predictable when one assumes rational, informed agents acting in their self-interest with transparent and transitive preferences. Unfortunately, these models often fail to predict electoral decisions. Further, this scholarship dismisses as irrational or leaves unexplored whole areas of voting behavior. For example, this view cannot explain, and so dismisses as irrational choice-making, the fact that poor voters often vote for individuals who campaign on promises to reduce the welfare programs on which they depend.

Conventional accounts of rationality, in terms of promoting one’s interest or adopting the most efficient means to an end fail to account for these types of political behavior. Part of why some analysts were surprised by the results of the November election arose from their dependence on these approaches. Of course, turnout and problems with ensuring trustworthy responses to pollsters also explain part of the miscalculation, but my proposal, sketched below, can account for these considerations.  I next briefly provide a sense of the direction that political studies must move, in my view, if it is to develop and sustain a capacity to explain and predict voting choices with routine accuracy.

Affective Politics

First, political scientists must place more emphasis on the affective dimensions of voter behavior and policy choice to describe and predict political phenomena.  A sense of pride, and shared purpose within a community seem to be just as viable predictors of voter decisions as self-interested economic behavior, for example.  This insight allows observers to assess puzzles such as the approval rating of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, which consistently is above 80 percent in his nation despite a tanking economy and rapidly devaluing Ruble, not to mention the seizure of Crimea and growing tensions with Europe (Heintz, 2016). Part of the reason for Putin’s popular standing is doubtless the fact that state-controlled media disseminates a pro-Putin message. Silencing journalists via jailing and assassination has also become frighteningly common during the current Russian President’s’rule. Despite these realities, a sense of pride in their nation and leader as powerful and influential seems to compensate for at least a share of the losses in wealth and savings that many Russians have suffered during his tenure. While good data on this question is not available, my hypothesis is that this variable (i.e., Putin as a symbol of national pride) at least partially explains the Russian electorate’s tolerance of continued economic decline under his leadership. Similarly, a sense of pride in being an American and valorization of the demos against contrived “others” are not accounted for by rational choice theory models. Americans have the information available to them that shows that ISIS is not a major direct threat to them. But, as with their Russian counterparts, many US citizens did not act on that information in the recent election, even though they possessed it, adopting a fear-filled stance instead. In light of these facts, I posit the following: analysts should acknowledge that popular consent may also be rooted in non-rational factors, such as a sense of pride.

Conclusions

Rational choice and informed voting models are excellent heuristics. They may provide a helpful basis for describing how an electorate ought to behave. Further, we can systematically study deviations from such posited “rational” behavior, given accurate assumptions about the specific ends voters view as worthy of pursuit. But overall, interested analysts must engage with the reality that the passions, more than reason, dictate the conduct of most people most of the time.  With that acknowledgement as their starting place, those interested in describing voter behavior more accurately will be in a better position to do so. While this essay does not prove that there is a need for a methodological shift in political voter behavior models or that political scientists culpably failed (there is little, for example, they can do about dishonest poll responders, after all), I hope it directs more attention to the affective dimension of politics as analysts develop new approaches to describe and predict citizen voting behavior.

 

References

Baumeister, R.F. and B.J. Bushman, 2010. Social psychology and human nature, brief version.     Nelson Education.

Heintz, J., 2016. “Putin’s popularity: the envy of other politicians.” U.S. News & World Report.    Available at: http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2016-09-08/putins-popularity-            the-envy-of-other-politicians [Accessed February 16, 2017].

Leiter, B., 2015. “I support Donald Trump for the Republican Presidential Nomination.” Leiter     Reports: A Philosophy Blog. Available at:            http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2015/07/i-support-donald-trump-for-the-republican-      presidential-nomination.html [Accessed February 16, 2017].

Nickerson, R.S., 1998. “Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises.” Review of general psychology2(2), p.175.

McCannon, B.C., 2015. “Condorcet Jury Theorems.” Handbook of Social Choice and Voting, pp.140-162.

List, C. and, R. E. Goodin, 2001. “Epistemic Democracy: Generalizing the Condorcet Jury           Theorem.” Journal of Political Philosophy, 9: 277–306. doi:10.1111/1467-9760.00128

Riker, W.H., 1982. Liberalism against populism: A confrontation between the theory of      democracy and the theory of social choice. Waveland Press.

Simon, H.A., 1982. Models of bounded rationality: Empirically grounded economic reason (Vol. 3). MIT press.

Amiel Bernal is a Ph.D. Candidate in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought) program.  His primary area of research is epistemic injustice within analytic philosophy.  He earned his Master’s degree in Philosophy at Virginia Tech and continues to teach as an instructor for that department. Bernal received his Bachelor’s degree in History, Philosophy and Social Studies Education from Colorado State University. His nonacademic interests include Ultimate Frisbee, weight lifting and travel.

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What Machine Kills Fascists? A Critical Reflection on the Political Power of Sound in the Trump Era

Folksinger Woody Guthrie with his famous Gibson Guitar

(Photo by Al Aumuller)1

 

 

 

 

Introduction

It is well known that the original writer of the song belted out by a David Bowie like-clad Lady Gaga, “This Land is your Land,2 during her Super Bowl 51performance on February 5, 2017 was the radical American songwriter Woody Guthrie. An iconic photo has preserved him for history holding a guitar with the words “This Machine Kill$ Fascists” in capital letters taped on its body above the strings. Indeed, this image is so well known that the Gibson guitar company has obtained a handsome return by replicating Guthrie’s 1945 Southern Jumbo model instrument complete with sticker3 (consumers may use it or not at their option) for a price of $2,429. The idea that a guitar or a song is a machine with the power to elicit violence, peace or productivity, continues to be a radical notion some seven decades after Guthrie sat for the famous photograph.

While teaching the course Southern Music: Music, Power, Place at Virginia Tech (Spring semester, 2017) the class’s students and I have discussed authenticity and another power of music; its capacity to create places. Conversations about music, specifically sound, as a national signifier have been difficult in our mediated age. Consumable performances and performers are much more highly sought after in recent years than strictly aural experiences in our nation thanks to live feeds, snapchat, instant replay and our cultural attraction to the visual. For instance, without the colorful drones that accompanied her, a knowledge of Guthrie’s politics and live tweeting commentary, many would have had a difficult time connecting only the sound of Lady Gaga’s performance to politics. This represents one example in which politics and the power of the voice have been usurped or made stronger by the visual, leaving listeners to ignore or fail to acknowledge the very powerful independent effects of sound. Another, and much more easily deconstructed example is Beyonce’s powerful Super Bowl 50 performance of “Formation” on February 7, 2016 from her critically acclaimed and extremely popular CD, Lemonade. The musical accomplishment represented by the album is undeniable; however, it was the visuals of the star’s performance at football’s annual great event that many citizens read as political.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyonce in Performance: Super Bowl 50, February 7, 2016 (Credit on vibe.com website: Instagram) 4

(http://www.vibe.com/2016/02/beyonce-boycott-formation-super-bowl/)

 

A more personal understanding of the potential political power of sound occurred for me on January 22, 2017 when I rose at 2:30 a.m. to travel with a number of women and men from Blacksburg, Virginia to the Women’s March on Washington, DC. My trip was made possible through the generous donations of community members who wanted to be there, but could not participate and kindly made my attendance possible instead. To prepare, those attending made posters and I also purchased a t-shirt on which I wrote the message “Together Forward, Not One Step Back.” I also retrieved my red bandana from its storage place to wear in solidarity with the union miners and mountain top removal activists about whom I often teach. Those travelling together—myself included— did not, however, think about songs or chants we might use during the event. For me personally, this experience mirrored another that occurred just a few months earlier when I stood in solidarity on the steps of Burruss Hall with students concerned about attacks on immigration, acts of hatred being unrecognized and the need for increased resources for minority students at Virginia Tech and other universities. The irony, as we embarked on our sojourn to the March was, as at the previous event at Virginia Tech, we were seeking to be heard and recognized, an inherently sonic aspiration, but we were not at all mindful of that fact. As we began our trip, we imagined that our messages would largely be shared visually.

These two events, in combination with listening, voting, teaching, protesting, watching and analyzing popular performances, have led me to return to projects that first intrigued me during my initial semester at Virginia Tech in 2013. I was interested at that time in the vocalization of the political; that is, the political as expressed in sound. This essay relies heavily on those early research projects.

Indeed, this Reflection explores the voice as a space of resistance in the modern political schema. The questions I originally asked linked to this concern were: How does one account for a shifting, changing or evolving voice? How can voice be expressed in a way to free individuals from imposed identity(ies) and socio-cultural oppression? How do we become aware of what we cannot hear? How can we train our ears to listen? Mbembe has suggested that, “[s]uch research must go beyond institutions, beyond formal positions of power, and beyond written rules, and examine how the implicit and explicit are interwoven. . .” (2005, 69). There is much deeper research to be conducted on each of these concerns as well as actions to be organized to address them. The scope of this effort is admittedly limited and I welcome further conversations.

 Sound

I use the terms “sonic” or “sonic spaces” to describe an area occupied by sound, which includes, but is not limited to the voice. Allegiances are spoken, nations are called to prayer and individuals also learn to exercise their ability to defend themselves by saying the word “no.”  A multitude of studies have explored the intersections of politics and song and these have often received attention on nightly network news. Those reports have addressed, for example, Pussy Riot, T. Rex, Kendrick Lamar, Bono and U2, the Dixie Chicks, Wagner and recent Nobel Prize recipient Bob Dylan. Songs provide the rhythm and cadences for political movements and eruptions. My interest here is the voice as a political agent, captured by Michel de Certeau’s statement, “More reverential than identifying membership is marked only by what is called a voice, (voix: a voice, a vote) this vestige of speech, one vote per year” (1984, 177).

Robert Jourdain has defined voice, as “…two or more simultaneous, interrelated lines of music. Nearly all music consists of multiple voices, including a bass line, treble line and parts between” (1997, 343). For Jourdain and a number of other music scholars, voice is a means to a collective sound; music. For others, music is a means to engage in discussions, not of harmony and tonality, but instead of language and lexicons.

History of the Voice as Political

            Music allows for communication beyond words and I propose that sound can catalyze changes beyond policy. This stance implies that the voice can serve as a micro and macro agent of change. Within my own area of study, the geographic and diasporic region of Appalachia, music is intrinsically connected to protest, and women, particularly, have often employed it as a tool of subversive activism. The Encyclopedia of Appalachia has described the links between music and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s:

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is the subject of several protest songs associated with Appalachia. Guy Carawan, while working at the Highlander Folk School, then located in Monteagle, Tennessee, in the late 1940s and the 1950s, reworked the old African American sacred songs ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize’ for striking textile and tobacco workers. Carawan’s version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ was adopted by Martin Luther King Jr. as the official theme song of the March on Washington, a central event in the 1960s phase of the Civil Rights movement. Carawan’s achievement is indicative of the influential stature and unquestionable dignity of Appalachia’s rich legacy of protest song. (Encyclopedia of Appalachia, http://encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=55)

The gendered use of the voice in protest movements was also clear in the example of “Aunt” Molly Jackson, who performed “I Am a Union Woman,” “Kentucky Miner’s Wife” and “Dreadful Memories.” According to the entry treating her life in the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, “in 1931 she met with a delegation sent by the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners and subsequently traveled to New York City, “soon appearing before an audience of twenty-one thousand people” where she discussed living conditions in Eastern Kentucky and shared the songs noted above (“Aunt Molly Jackson,” Encyclopedia of Appalachia, http://encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=121). The power of the female voice in leading public protest was also evident in Sarah Gunning’s “Down on the Picketline (1932),” Jean Ritchie’s “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” (1963) and “The Blue Diamond Mines” (1964), Malvina Reynolds’ “Clara Sullivan’s Letter” (1965), and Hazel Dickens’ “Clay County Miner” (1970), “Black Lung” (1970), “The Yablonski Murder” (1970) and “Coal Mining Woman” (c. 1970)5 These songs became anthems for securing better working conditions for the poverty-stricken workers of Appalachia (“Coal Protest,” Encyclopedia of Appalachia, http://encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=55). This legacy of the voice in harmony, used to unify and to resist has been on my mind as I observe the current activist activities in the U.S.  Jourdain has argued that the disruption of existing norms that these songs represented constituted, “violations of standard expectations [that] continue to be expressive” (1997, 313). But I wonder about protests today—how are we violating social expectations of expressiveness? How can we subvert standards of oppression, violence, dehumanization, etc. while also working outside the often oppressive norms of the popular culture, but within the realm of translation? How can we hold to a hope in the power of the voice and yet address meaningfully the frequent systemic voids in the collective? That is, how can we listen and identify what is missing in existing public understandings and expectations and norms?

Shifting the Focus from Eye-to-Ear

One must look no further than one’s television computer screen to notice the ways in which the feminine voice currently is subverting power. Between the 2017 Super Bowl half-time show by Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s Oshun inspired 2017 Grammy performance, issues of gender, class, race, systemic oppression, and the feminine have recently been highlighted on otherwise white, masculine, heteronormative, neoliberal stages. While Gaga appears tepid in comparison to Beyonce, and the powerful role of the feminine voice was evident, the privilege of the visual in both performances was striking. While the role of women in disrupting power through sound has continued into the Trump era, the means of message dissemination have changed. In a world which now communicates through screens, would those watching these events be able to hear the strains of activism present in these performances without the visual imagery with which each was presented?

Is it possible that our expressions are problematically visually centered? I believe so. Visuals can be misleading and easily manipulated.  From crowd size to television programs, what one has seen and accepted previously is difficult to dismiss in our current era. Indeed, it may be that it is possible for sound to violate norms more easily than visuals can. That is, words may be more difficult to censor, manipulate and misinterpret. Sounds are less readily blocked out. Thinking of Foucault’s gaze, what if the way out of that theorist’s posited panopticon cannot be seen? (Foucault, 1975). What if it can only be heard and manifest through voice or vocal vibrations? I next briefly provide a few examples of this too often untapped potential of sound and voice.

  • Sound supports. Walking back from the Women’s March to our buses, a man leaned out of an upper story window. He was nodding his head giving us a thumbs-up sign as we walked by. The memory is blurred, but I believe he was wearing a pink beaded necklace in solidarity. Soul-filled music poured out of his window; a female voice from an earlier era. Perhaps it was Nina Simone.
  • Sound disrupts. As we walked back to the buses too, I stopped, and asked my friends, “Do you hear that?” Playing very clearly, hovering above the marchers returning to their homes was country western singer Toby Keith’s retaliation-driven anthem “Courtesy of The Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).” I did not hear the performances during the march, but rather was swept up in the drums, songs and chants around me. Keith’s hyper-masculine voice echoing was not the disjuncture I expected, but it nonetheless reminded me of the power of sound. Ambulances. Whistles. Arguments between neighbors on the other side of a wall. These sounds also routinely disrupted us as we walked and marched and we often found ways to tune them out, but, our experience in Washington convinced me that even one’s best efforts are almost always inadequate to that challenge.
  • Sound gathers. At varying points during the March our large group was swept up, moving apart in a sea of pink hats and posters. One marcher held an American flag high in the air—I would search for it and know my group was not far. When the crowd grew too thick to spot the flag, our group began chanting “LET’S GO HOKIES” and found one another by doing so, much to the interest and annoyance of some of our fellow marchers.

One lesson I took away from my participation in the Women’s March is that sound must be consciously wielded. A final anecdote illustrates this point. A few months ago, a group of students stood on the steps of Burruss Hall, as I recounted above, and chanted, ‘This is what democracy looks like.” Cameras gathered in front of those students, who were seeking to be heard and recognized. That is, paradoxically, even in the powerful raising of voices together, the protester’s chants privileged the visual, and sought visual recognition. The look of democracy was also emphasized—yet the chants were all the same. Is this what democracy sounds like? What does democracy sound like?

Conclusion

The ability of the feminine to render its needs via collective voice, and the capacity and willingness of a patriarchal system to listen to those claims, translate and hear them, are interwoven in problematic ways. At the March on Washington, participating women were seen through images distribute by friends and family on social media, creating a powerful mirroring of personal politics and judgments. However, and again paradoxically, the intersectional claims raised by those gathered were largely lost in the translation of stories and voices to images “liked,” shared and replicated. I am not arguing that the March was not an igniting agent for a significant movement, but that our medium of sharing is immensely important, as often the media we choose (the visual), requires the literal and metaphorical removal of diverse and marginalized voices.

Even with its flaws, the Women’s March offered those participating and observing alike, a space to “sing.” Returning to Lady Gaga’s decision to bring Woody Guthrie’s song (if not his message), to one of the nation’s biggest stages, I wonder, is it possible that the power of individual and collective voice is too often overlooked today by those organizing public protests of various sorts? What can we learn from previous generations, and how can we best apply their methods of protest in an age of hyper-mediated sharing? How do we find harmony amid our new chaotic understandings of time and space? And most importantly, what labor must we do to attune our ears to the power of voices, especially those of women and of vulnerable populations more generally, to ensure that their interests and concerns receive attention?

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Additional Readings

http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-music-donald-trump-cant-hear

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/11/arts/music/donald-trump-inauguration-performers.html

About the sounds of the Women’s March:

http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/1424-we-shall-overcomb-music-as-protest-at-the-womens-march/

http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/janelle-monae-to-perform-at-womens-march-on-washington-w461782

http://www.npr.org/sections/allsongs/2017/01/23/511186649/a-flash-mob-choir-at-the-womens-march-turned-this-unknown-song-into-an-anthem

Notes

1 Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun (uploaded by User: Urban) – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c30859. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4945422                                                            2 Please note I am only referring to her performance of “This Land is My Land,” not the lyrics of her controversial song “Born This Way.”                                                                                              3 http://www.gibson.com/Products/Acoustic-Instruments/Round-Shoulder/Gibson-Acoustic/Woody-Guthrie-SJ.aspx                                                                                                                               4 (http://www.vibe.com/2016/02/beyonce-boycott-formation-super-bowl/)                                               5 This list of performers is not exhaustive, but does reflect the massive body of relevant work women have produced.

References

“Aunt Molly Jackson,” Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2013, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 13 Dec 2013 http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=121), Accessed February 14, 2017.

Butler, Judith, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Who sings the nation-state?: language, politics,

belonging. Seagull Books Pvt Ltd, 2007.

“Coal-Mining and Protest Music,” Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2013, Encyclopedia of

Appalachia. 13 Dec 2013, http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=55, Accessed February 13, 2017.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1984

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1975, esp. pp. 195-228.

Jourdain, Robert. Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures our Imagination. W. Morrow, 1997.

Mbembe, Achille, “The Intimacy of Tyranny,” in Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, Eds. (2nd ed.). The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Oxford: Routledge Publishers, 2006, pp. 66-71.

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Jordan Laney is a candidate for the Ph.D. in the Alliance for Social Political Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT), with concentrations in social and cultural thought. Her dissertation research focuses on bluegrass music festivals as sites of identity construction. Jordan has been recognized as a Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellence (GrATE) Founding Fellow, Diversity Scholar (2014), is co-editor emeritus of SPECTRA: The ASPECT Journal and served as a Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives Fellow (2015-2016). Jordan’s research, teaching and service are informed by her experiences as a first -generation college student from the Appalachian region. She hopes to continue developing educational programs that critically examine the intersectional and hidden histories of rural areas to prepare communities for more just futures http://jordanlaney.com/

 

 

 

 

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Musings on The Human-Ecology Imaginary

Contemplating events at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in Standing Rock, South Dakota, many people have found it hard to connect Indigenous values with their own beliefs about their relationships to the land on which they live. I am no sage, nor was I raised in an Indigenous culture. However, in the name of creating community among Reflections readers, and emerging from my concerns arising from the dispute concerning possible use of sacred Sioux Tribal land for an oil pipeline in South Dakota, I am stimulated to share a recent personal epiphany regarding my understanding of the sacredness of land.

I periodically drive south from Virginia into Tennessee and travel Interstate 26 as it winds its way into North Carolina, and I am always intrigued by the many Native American sounding names on the road signs. I find myself wondering what I might discover in the Watauga watershed and what the names Unicoi, Okolona, and Unaka signify in historical terms.  When did Sycamore Shoals State Heritage Park and Winged Deer Park, near Johnson City, Tennessee, come into being and what was there before the land was set aside as public parks?

As I zip by in my car at 70 miles-per-hour, I wonder what stories this land and these waterways could share. And, yet, as intrigued as I am year after year, I never take time to stop and learn more about this area or the specific places that have long captured my attention. I never delve into the history, the stories or the traditions, past and present, of this portion of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. I simply speed by, in my time-pressed existence, to my destination.

However, recently, while in Asheville, North Carolina visiting friends, I read Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (Basso, 1996) and it occurred to me that these sites I pass every few months and whose names always strike me, are likely attached to the language of my Native American and Appalachian ancestors who lived in these regions. I found myself wondering whether there were, and possibly still are, family stories about these locations. On a recent trip, I mused about why this possibility had not previously crossed my mind; why I had not sought out the wisdom surely contained in these places.

As I continued to reflect, I found myself asking what it would mean to live in a world that actively drew on the knowledge represented by places. Would such a society treat land as a sacred being sought out for companionship? Would residents of such a society rethink elements of their otherwise currently technocentric lives? Would our public policies be different? Would we disavow today’s reigning dictum of profit over place?

Anthropologists, such as Basso who authored the book on the Western Apache, dedicate their professional, and often personal, lives to exploring and sharing the stories and cultural understanding of diverse groups that are otherwise too often not given voice. These analysts may be viewed as agents who help us see our collective assumptions. They do so by acknowledging the complexity of the woven fabric created by the cultural stories told and documented by Indigenous peoples and by recognizing that those narratives are recounted with supreme facility generation after generation to teach, heal and preserve shared beliefs.

But their work also points to something still deeper concerning human beings and their relationship to the land they inhabit.  Indeed, it suggests something so deep that it could penetrate my analytical, pragmatically trained mind and force me to recall the knowing that surely is, under the many layers of modernity, within each of us.  It is about this abiding, deep seated awareness that Basso astutely observed, “Inhabitants of their landscape, the Western Apache are thus inhabited by it as well, and in the timeless depth of that abiding reciprocity, the people and their landscape are virtually as one” (1996, p.102, emphasis in original). That is, the Western Apache belief system highlights the intersubjectivity of human-land reciprocity. Basso’s book offers many more strikingly perceptive and thoughtful statements synthesized from conversations with Western Apache tribe members during a more than 30-year period. Each such observation, like the “arrows” discussed by the tribe members, pulled me deeper into thoughts about the symbiotic, communicative relationship between nature spirits and human beings, or as it might also be regarded, the human-ecology imaginary.

The interviews and stories Basso recounted also prompted me to reflect on how our society considers the constructed relationship between space and time. The Western Apache portray that linkage in healing ceremonies that transcend the concept of time. Their ontology stands in direct opposition to modern life and science. To the broader public, such a perspective is either not in its collective consciousness or is ignored or denied as unorthodox. Perhaps for this reason, few researchers cross the boundary of “appropriate” inquiry to share such views that were born in a time before science came to dominate our individual and collective sensibilities. For this reason, too, individuals, Indigenous or not, often do not share their non-conforming views concerning relationships to land, space and time in public venues.

Nonetheless, I found myself wondering how dominant societal norms might change if ancestral voices, via ancient stories of land and nature, were widely employed to teach morality, identity and resiliency? How could we open individually and collectively to the offers of healing such a possibility would represent? How could individuals with no Indigenous affiliation enter into such relationships? Could this be done without unethical appropriation or cooptation of Native beliefs and customs?

These substantial questions only begin to scratch the surface of the potential insights offered by the Western Apache and other Indigenous peoples. From the Western Apache tradition, I have been pondering the belief that wisdom arises from three antecedent conditions: bíni’ godilkǫǫh (smoothness of mind), bíni’ gontŁ’iz (resilience of mind) and bíni’ gonŁdzil (steadiness of mind) (Basso, 1996, p. 131). Basso revealed that, for the Western Apache, steadiness of mind is achieved by looking inward and eliminating all inner incongruences, whereas, resilience of mind is attained by learning how to cope with and recover from external forces. Once these attributes are attained, a person may develop smoothness of mind, “the primary mental condition required for wisdom” (Basso, 1996, p. 131). I find it deeply intriguing that the Western Apache believe:

none of these conditions is given at birth, each must be cultivated in a conscientious manner by acquiring relevant bodies of knowledge and applying them critically to the workings of one’s mind. Knowledge of places and their cultural significance is crucial in this regard because it illustrates with numerous examples the mental conditions needed for wisdom as well as the practical advantages that wisdom confers on persons who possess it (Basso, 1996, p. 130).

 

I was struck by this contention because the Western Apache beliefs felt so profoundly relatable to my life. The tribe teaches that the knowledge of place aligns individuals with their highest potential for wisdom. For this reason, I became convinced that I owe it to myself to further explore eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina and seek to learn from the places located there that still retain their Native names. My first steps toward developing a relationship with the area follow. My knowledge to date is paltry and must be supplemented by sustained efforts to come to know this terrain first hand, but it represents a start.

  • ➝ Okolona: A marker along the highway within Johnson City, Tennessee simply states the name without descriptors. However, the term most likely comes from the Chickasaw word Okalaua, meaning peaceful, yellow or blue water. Interesting, it has been proposed that tribal people who were moved with the 1887 Dawes Act were taken from Tennessee and placed into, what was later called Okolona county, Mississippi.
  • ➝ Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area: European settlers proclaimed a town in this area in 1772. The “Transylvania Purchase” of 1775 transferred Cherokee lands to those colonizers, which resulted in a series of attacks on the incomers by the tribe. Tennessee established the park in 1976 on the grounds of Fort Watauga, constructed 200 years before, in 1776, to protect settlers from continuing Cherokee attacks. The Watauga River runs through the area, creating shoals prime with fish and wildlife.
  • ➝ Unaka: The name Unaka is rooted in the Cherokee language symbols ᎤᏁᎦ, and term unega, meaning “white,” and is the historic name of the subrange of the Appalachian Mountains bordering Tennessee and North Carolina. They are said to be comprised partly of white stones/quartz. The Cherokee National Forest and the Pisgah National Forest protect sections of the Unaka Mountains; the Appalachian Trail traverses their crest. Unaka is also the name given to an unincorporated community in Cherokee County, NC, located within the Nantahala National Forest.
  • ➝ Unicoi: The Unicoi Mountains run through the small town of the same name nestled near the Cherokee National Forest. The name Unicoi also comes from the Cherokee root word unega. In this context, it refers to the low-lying clouds and fog that often drape the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the early morning or on humid or moist days. Unicoi is a main resupply point for Appalachian Trail hikers and Nolichucky River enthusiasts. It is also a hub and home to workers of the CSX railroad. The community’s first post office opened in 1851.
  • ➝ Watauga watershed: The name’s meaning is lost to history, as reported by John Preston Arthur in his 1915 classic ethnology of the region (Arthur, 1915). The Tennessee portion includes parts of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington Counties in the northeast part of the state and drains approximately 614 square miles into the Boone Reservoir. The region contains two Designated Natural Areas: Watauga River Bluffs Designated State Natural Area, a 50-acre site, and Hampton Creek Cove Designated State Natural Area, a 693-acre reserve. The watershed contains 123 documented rare plant and animal species.
  • ➝ Established in 1991, Winged Deer Park, near Johnson City, is a 200-acre district park. The Robert Young Cabin, built in the early 1770′s, is the oldest building on the property. The park also commemorated the Massengill Monument to honor Henry Massengill Sr. and Mary Cobb, who in the 1760s were considered the first permanent European settler family to the area.

REFERENCES

Arthur, John Preston. (1915). A History of Watauga County, North Carolina: With Sketches of Prominent Families. Richmond, VA: Everett Waddey Co.

Basso, Keith. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. (1996). Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press.

City of Johnson City Tennessee (n.d.) Winged Deer Park. Retrieved January 16, 2017 from http://www.johnsoncitytn.org/parksrec/facilities/

Cooper, A. (2015, June 12). Native American Tribes & the Indian History in Okolona, Mississippi. Retrieved February 2, 2017 from http://www.americanindiancoc.org/native-american-tribes-the-indian-history-in-okolona-mississippi/#forward#forward

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okolona,_Mississippi

n.a. (n.d.) Henry Massengill and Mary Cobb. Retrieved February 2, 2017 from http://cafamilies.org/thomas/h_massengill.html

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Watuaga Watershed. Retrieved January 16, 2017 from http://www.tn.gov/environment/article/wr-ws-watauga-river-watershed

Van West, C. (2009). Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Retrieved January 16, 2017 from http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entry.php?rec=1289

Wikipedia sites, accessed February 2, 2017:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sycamore_Shoals_State_Historic_Area

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unaka_Range

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicoi_County,_Tennessee

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicoi_Mountainshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicoi,_Tennessee

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Rachael Kennedy is a Doctoral Candidate/ABD in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education.  She is particularly interested in the concept of community viability as it relates to regions’ ability to develop and sustain community food systems. She is exploring this concern both domestically and internationally by means of a sociological perspective that highlights the catalysts of initiation, community engagement, leadership style and power structure. Kennedy embraces a social justice stance that honors participatory research and community-based programming. She is intrigued by interdisciplinary approaches to major social problems and. was inducted into the Virginia Tech chapter of the Interdisciplinary Research Honor Society in 2013, which she now serves as President. Kennedy won a Fulbright Scholarship to Turkey for 2015-2016 and learned much from the Turkish people during her time in that country.

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Social Movements, Neoliberal Policy and Indian Democracy

Dominant social narratives pressing for the relentless expansion of the neoliberal state through extension of state assistance through grants and other welfare measures have been widely criticized for both the way the programs are set up and for failing to reach those for whom they are intended. Many view such welfare measures as a necessary political offset to the continued rapid growth of corporate capital. India stands out as a unique case of state intervention and redistribution at a time when many governments around the world are vigorously curtailing social welfare expenditures.

During the past decade, the Indian national government has passed several laws, such as the Right to Education Act, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Food Security Act and the Right to Information Act, that ensure that individuals receiving state welfare services have rights concerning those benefits. I contend that this situation could only occur because the form that democracy takes in India allows marginalized people(s) to assert their rights. The people’s movement that has resulted in these statutes has played a multifaceted role in efforts to initiate bottom-up development as well as in national policy-making. That movement’s efforts in turn resulted in these polices becoming more sustainable as groups demanded their rights and services and rendered politics more accountable in the process.

At the same time, these new government programs have served as a life line for the poorest of the poor during a period of continuing decline in agricultural production and urban area population expansion, with cities experiencing difficulties in absorbing that population influx. I argue that the specific ways social movements practice democracy in India may be laying the foundation for more radical governance possibilities in the future.

Scholarly consideration of neoliberalization has often been confined to its origins and manifestations in the North, namely Great Britain and the United States (U.S.).  However, in 1991, India, under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Finance Minister, and later Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, began a slow process toward adopting such goals. The Indian economy has grown at a consistently high rate since, although there has been some slowing in recent years (IMF, 2015). India’s economy expanded 7.3 percent year-on-year in the last three months of 2015, slowing from 7.7 percent growth in the previous quarter, but in line with market expectations (IMF, 2015).  By comparison, global growth, currently estimated to have been 3.1 percent in 2015, is projected at 3.4 percent in 2016 and 3.6 percent in 2017. Trade as a percentage of GDP stood at 25 percent in 2011 in India and the country remains one of the most sought after foreign direct investment (FDI) destinations (Roy, 2014).  But even as India has opened its borders to free movement of goods and capital, it has simultaneously maintained social welfare programs at the top of its policy agenda, thus attempting to pursue an Adam Smith notion of the power of free trade to have a noticeable, but not sole impact, to ensure human wellbeing. India stands out in the neoliberal era as a uniquely large-scale case of continued state intervention at a time when governments around the world have been curtailing state expenditures in virtually all areas except defense (World Bank, 2015).

Neoliberalism can be defined as both an ideology and a policy model; in both cases its adherents emphasize the value of free market competition (Harvey, 2005). Although interested scholars continue to debate the defining features of neoliberal thought and practice, the public philosophy is most commonly associated with the extension of laissez-faire economics into non-economic areas of society. In particular, neoliberalism is often characterized by its advocates’ belief in sustained economic growth as the means to achieve human progress, its confidence in free markets as the most-efficient mechanism by which to allocate a variety of resources, its emphasis on minimal state intervention in economic and social affairs and its commitment to free trade and capital mobility (Harvey, 2005; Roy, 2014).

Neoliberal “rule of the market” involves cutting public expenditures for social services, massive deregulation of many sectors and privatization of previously publicly owned goods or services. In general, neoliberalism devalues the concepts of “the public good” and “community” in favor of replacing them with “individual responsibility.”  This ideology has been widely embraced despite the fact that neoliberal states have often been called upon to intervene on behalf of their richest and most powerful actors in order to maintain the power and influence of those groups.

Criticism of Development as Rights-based Approach

With India’s neoliberal turn during the past 25 years, a new dynamic logic has tied the operation of “political society” (comprising the peasantry, artisans and petty producers in the informal sector) with the hegemonic role of a “neoliberalized” bourgeoisie in “civil society.” In other words, India is a unique case in the neoliberal era because numerous social movements have pushed the state to temper the excesses of neoliberal claims by maintaining and extending welfare programs.  The logic is sustained by the state’s efforts to stem the ill-effects of primitive accumulation of capital with anti-poverty programs. The question here is how this state of affairs came to be and how this politics works in the larger society.

Chatterjee has argued that the state’s balancing act is a necessary political condition for the continued rapid growth of corporate capital in India (2008). The state, with its mechanisms of formal democracy in regular, largely accepted elections, is the space in which the political negotiation of demands for the distribution of resources, through fiscal and other means, are articulated and made manifest through programs aimed at providing the livelihood needs of the nation’s population, including its large cadre of poor.

According to some analysts, electoral democracy makes it unacceptable for the government to leave marginalized groups without the means of labor and to fend for themselves, since this carries the risk of turning them into “dangerous classes” (Dreze, 2004).  However, for Chatterjee, the emphasis on development as freedom gained through political and economic rights does nothing to challenge the underlying source of the unequal system, i.e. the State and its support of a neoliberal society (Chatterjee, 2008).

While I agree with these critiques in theory, the desperate realities of Indian poverty mean that rights-based development approaches play an important role in making India’s grassroots democracy practices unique. India currently has a higher malnourishment death rate than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, (Dreze and Sen, 2013) for example, and more then 40 percent of India is confronting active insurgency (Report, 2008). This reality underscores the vital importance of the 30 kilograms of food distributed monthly by the national government to families below the poverty line of Rs 350 (USD 5), as required by the Right to Food Act. The Right to Food (RTF) campaign, which secured this state action, is not merely a temporary pressure group that gained increased allocations to public food aid programs. Instead, it is an ongoing social movement with a much broader agenda, playing an important role in challenging the barriers that people face in gaining access to the public programs and resources to which they are entitled, creating new ways to press the state to expand them, and ultimately ensuring the government is accountable for ensuring entitlements.

In this way, hunger and malnutrition have become a political priority that did not end with enactment of the RTF Act, since the Act requires the State to monitor continuously whether resources are reaching their intended beneficiaries.  From the perspective of the State, constantly mobilizing social movements such as the RTF campaign constitute continuing pressure in contrast to more temporary initiatives. What critics such as Chatterjee ignore is that these food programs not only provide basic sustenance, but also strengthen marginalized individuals and communities, especially different tribal and Dalit groups, which in turn has encouraged the maintenance of their respective political struggles. Eighty percent of the beneficiaries of the RTF Act are Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Dreze and Sen, 2013).

Bob Marley once said that a hungry man is an angry man. Hungry men (and women) can bring revolutions, but how are such actions possible? Movements and revolutions are a result of planned strategic activities that develop during long periods. How can the angry man fight with an empty stomach?  Thus, critiques of rights-based approaches should focus not on the results of formal political processes, such as the Right to Food Act, for doing nothing to challenge the underlying system of neoliberalization, but instead on these as stepping stones to more fundamental changes to political and economic systems.[1]

Why Ongoing Public Pressure is Key

The permanence of campaigns such as the RTF highlight the unique quality of Indian informal democratic strategies, such as public hearings, awareness campaigns, street protests and civil disobedience, which serve as an ongoing check on bureaucrats, contractors, dealers and money-lenders who have mercilessly exploiting marginalized individuals for so long.  This brings us back to the complementarity between local action and other higher scale processes, such as judicial activism and lobbying at the state level. In all these respects, there is an urgent need to bring the campaign to a higher plane, drawing on the whole spectrum of formal and informal democratic institutions. Thus, the response to the violation of one fundamental right, access to food, is mobilized to work for ancillary issues that in general challenge larger systemic forces of neoliberalization and state oppression.

What made the Right to Food campaign possible?

Democracy as space of resistance for robust civil society

As far as formal democratic institutions are concerned, India is doing reasonably well from a historical and international perspective. As Dreze has illustrated, in comparison with the U.S., India fares much better in many respects: India has a much higher voter turnout rate (the United States is near the bottom of the international scale in that respect), has institutionalized more extensive provisions for political representation of socially disadvantaged groups and is less vulnerable to the influence of “big money” in electoral politics (Dreze, 2004). There is also far greater pluralism in Indian than in U.S. politics in terms of ideological representation. Dozens of political parties, from the extreme left to the far right, are represented in India’s lower house, in contrast to the U.S. two-party system (with virtually identical political programs). In short, by contemporary world standards, Indian formal democracy appears in a reasonably good light as far as its institutional foundations are concerned.  Having said this, the ongoing challenge for Indian self-governance is how to continue to mobilize populations in the face of ongoing challenges such as economic insecurity, lack of education, social discrimination and other forms of disempowerment. The informal democratic processes that thrive in India are key to alleviating these negatives, especially in terms of providing spaces for marginalized communities to exert pressure on governmental institutions.

Notes

[i] On one hand, India has very strong rights-based national movements like the Right to Food campaign, while on the other hand, India has witnessed strong Dalit and Tribal Communities involved in the rights-based approach. Together, these have led to the development of skills and resources at the local community level to negotiate with the authorities. Further research needs to occur concerning the interplay between the two and how they share skills, resources and awareness/consciousness of rights and how these have played a pivotal role in not just making political structures more accountable and sustainable, but also in supporting other movements.

Photos

ICDS- Integrated Child Development Center (Anganwadi )at a Village in Bihar

Women working at an NREGA (National Rural Employment Gurantee Act) worksite in a village in Bihar JPG

Women raising slogans in a Village Meeting

References

Chatterjee, P. (April 19, 2008). Democracy and Economic Transformation in India. Mumbai: Economic & Political Weekly.

Harvey, D. (2007). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

International Monetary Fund . (2015). International Monetary Fund Report- India . New York: IMF.

Report, E. C. (2008). Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas. New Delhi : Planning Commission of India .

Sen, J. D. (2013). An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions. Princenton University Press.

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Pallavi Raonka is a third -year doctoral student in the Sociology department at Virginia Tech. Her areas of interest include social movements, global political economy, subaltern theories, development and South Asia. She is investigating the longstanding contentious relationship between Adivasi(indigenous) and State actors in the context of the ongoing Maoist Insurgency in Jharkhand, India. Pallavi received her  BA- Psychology from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Vadodara, India, and her M.A. in Rural Development from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India.

 

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Cooperative Organizations: Toward an On-Going Practice of Democracy

Introduction

The United States (U.S.) recently completed a national election. Millions of people went to the polls and voted for President as well as for legislators and considered referenda on multiple issues. Shortly before the election, current U.S. President Barack Obama told a crowd in North Carolina that the “fate of the republic” and the “fate of the world” depended on how they planned to vote (“US Election” 2016). Yet, despite the asserted high stakes, only 58 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot on November 9, 2016 (Bialik 2016). This response is typical and turnout is consistently much lower for state and local elections (Holbrook and Weinschenk 2014). Indeed, local political contests often attract fewer than 20 percent of registered voters.

Not only did less than 6 in 10 registered voters participate in this year’s national vote, but on election night, popular comedian Stephen Colbert also told his audience that the election had taken up “precious brain space” (Luibrand 2016). He argued that whether “your side won or lost,” Americans do not have to “do this” for a while. He concluded by saying it was now time to “get back to your life” (Ibid.). Along similar lines, journalist and political writer Matt Taibbi wrote days before the election that Americans should turn off politics permanently. He asserted that the only meaningful avenue most Americans have for political expression is voting every four years and he urged Americans only to think about politics when such concerns intersect with their “real lives” (Taibbi 2016)(Taibbi 2016). Colbert and Taibbi’s comments reflect a common misconception that conflates democracy with voting and asserts a sharp distinction between democratic participation and daily life.

However, as Rothschild has argued, there is very little “flesh on the skeleton of democracy” if it only consists of periodic voting (2009, 1038). Indeed, according to Sen (2005), casting a ballot is only one part of the “much larger story” of democracy. In addition to voting, democracy entails the exercise of “participatory reasoning and public decision-making” (Ibid.). Perry has argued aptly that without people actively participating in ruling themselves, “there is no democracy—no rule (kratia) by the people (demos)” (2014, 205).

With this robust view of democracy in mind, I here explore democratically organized cooperatives as an example of sites in which democracy as active self-governance is realized in their members’ daily lives. I have first sought to problematize the idea that democracy entails only voting in periodic government elections. Secondly, in view of the fact that many Americans are not even participating in this weaker understanding of democracy as voting, I follow Rothschild’s argument that democratic cooperatives represent one possibility to “catalyze” political interest and engagement among more Americans (2009, 1024).

Cooperatives as Sites of Lived Democracy

Directly challenging Colbert and Taibbi’s assertions of a binary distinction between democracy and private life, there are many individuals who participate in organizations that practice democracy on a daily basis. Many such entities fall under the “cooperative” umbrella. Cooperative organizations are “owned, controlled and operated for the benefit of their members” (“Types of Cooperatives” 2016). They typically adhere to seven principles of cooperation: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community (“About Us” 2016). The degree to which active and regular democratic participation occurs varies by cooperative (Low, Donovan, and Gieseking 2012).

However, there are more than 200 cooperatives in the U.S. and thousands around the world that actively work to include all members in decision-making processes with equal standing (Kennelly and Odekon 2016, 165). These include what are typically called “worker cooperatives,” which are owned and managed by each firm’s employee/owners—examples include the Arizmendi Bakery in San Francisco, CA and New Era Windows in Chicago, IL—as well as a network of living cooperatives organized as the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO). These organizations often do not operate along hierarchical rational-bureaucratic models of authority, but rather on the basis of what Rothschild-Whitt has called collectivist-democratic authority (1979, 511). According to Rothschild-Whitt, democratic control is the “foremost characteristic” of such entities (1979, 518).

The decision-making mechanisms used by democratically organized cooperatives vary. Such organizations often operate on the basic assumption of one-person, one-vote (Estey 2011, 358). Some use majority-rule voting while others pursue consensus building strategies (Rothschild-Whitt 1979, 512). Additionally, individuals may cast their votes publicly or by private ballot (Harnecker 2009, 31). Ng and Ng have argued that, in theory, any organization can incorporate varied democratic practices (2009, 83). However, the cooperatives of interest here institutionalize such processes and require, as Ng and Ng have suggested, “open meetings” in which all members have equal decision- making authority (Ibid.). The key point is that all members of such organizations have equal standing not only to participate in decision-making processes, but also to authorize, through majority voting or consensus, their collective decisions on a regular and on-going basis.

Democratically structured cooperatives assume different organizational forms. Some operate as for-profit businesses while others pursue non-profit objectives. According to the Democracy at Work Institute, there were 256 worker-owned and managed cooperatives in the United States in 2013, which operate on a one-person, one- vote rule.[1] Other organizations, such as NASCO, coordinate democratically structured living cooperatives in which residents share equally in the responsibilities of daily life, such as cooking and cleaning, and make decisions collectively on issues pertinent to their households (“About Us” 2016). In cooperatives, members—employee/owners in for-profit worker organizations and residents in housing entities—participate daily in decisions that affect their lives. Such practices demonstrate that democratic organizational governance is possible in both the economic and personal/private spheres. The next section explores how these experiences can help to build citizen engagement in wider political processes.

Cooperatives Build Democratic Capacities 

Democratic self-governance has intrinsic value (Sen 1999, 10). Individuals and groups should have the ability to participate in decisions that affect their lives (Fraser 2008, 411; Scholte 2002, 285). Democratic cooperatives can facilitate this process.[2] Additionally, beyond the valuable exercise of self-governance for cooperative members, participation in such organizations can also help members build the virtues and capacities necessary to participate in democratic public institutions at all levels of governance.  

According to Perry, democratically organized workplaces can work to break down class divisions among members (2014, 206). Reducing or eliminating in cooperatives the distinction between professionals who make decisions and nonprofessionals who carry out tasks prescribed by those in authority provides individuals an “education” in the capacities necessary for self-governance. This participation teaches citizens how to be active rather than passive as well as how to include the views and interests of others in their deliberations (Ibid.). Furthermore, workplace cooperatives offer institutional arrangements that facilitate prolonged and meaningful contact among people of different backgrounds. Perry has argued such interactions in democratic workplaces have more potential to reduce prejudice based on race, gender and other identity markers than occurs in hierarchical, capitalist workplaces (206, 216).

Two studies addressing worker cooperatives in Hong Kong and Venezuela have offered further insights into the value of daily democratic practices as incubators of civic virtue and capacity. Ng and Ng have asserted that conflict is inherent to participatory democracy (2009, 185). Members of the three Hong Kong cooperatives these scholars studied found this characteristic emotionally taxing. However, participants in one of the cooperatives reported that their engagement had helped them improve their interpersonal and conflict management skills and that they had become more patient and tolerant through their involvement in the organizations (2009, 197). Harnecker has also argued that many Venezuelan cooperative members became more active in their communities as a result of their participation in such organizations (2009, 35).

These findings, both in the United States and other contexts, point toward the daily practice of democratic self-governance as a potential component of addressing societal divisions and building the skills necessary to ensure civically engaged citizens. Given that voter turnout is particularly low in the U.S. compared to many other nations, the country might look toward democratic cooperatives as an alternative space in which individuals can exercise self-governance and as a model that may build engagement with broader democratic processes.

Conclusion

Varman and Chakrabarti have perceptively observed that the practice of democracy is an “evolving reality” (2004, 187) that requires acknowledging the difficulty of building democratic norms and negotiating the contradictions and challenges of maintaining them. For this reason, calls such as Colbert and Taibbi’s to disengage from active self-governance or to define it as only periodically relevant to the supposed “real world” are misguided in their conflation of democracy with the act of voting and failure to recognize the difficult, on-going civic virtue and engagement necessary to maintain self-governance.

Finally, in a thoughtful exploration of democratic practices in the workplace, Pausch concluded that: “Citizens cannot become convinced democrats if they—in their daily lives, in schools and in their workplace—do not experience democracy” (2013, 16). Democratically structured cooperatives represent one mechanism by which individuals in the United States may begin to build daily experiences of lived democracy that offer the potential for encouraging wider and deeper citizen engagement in their collective self-governance. While the number of democratic cooperatives is relatively small, these organizations serve as an existing nucleus that suggests that alternatives are possible as well as templates for building new and restructuring existing organizations.

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Notes

[1] Forty-two percent of these cooperatives started as hierarchical capitalist businesses (“A State of the Sector” 2015).

2 Though cooperative organizations are primarily of interest here for the ways in which they both practice and teach democratic self-governance, there is also evidence to suggest that worker-owned and managed cooperatives are at least as efficient as hierarchical capitalist businesses and in some cases more so (Kennelly and Odekon 2016, 167–68). Additionally, the Democracy at Work Institute reports that a 67 organization sub-sample of the 256 worker-owned and managed cooperatives in the US had a slightly higher average profit margin than comparable hierarchically organized firms (“A State of the Sector” 2015).

 References

“About Us.” 2016. NASCO. Accessed November 1. https://www.nasco.coop/about.

Bialik, Carl. 2016. “No, Voter Turnout Wasn’t Way Down From 2012.” FivtThirtyEight. http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/no-voter-turnout-wasnt-way-down-from-2012/.

Estey, Ken. 2011. “Domestic Workers and Cooperatives: BeyondCare Goes Beyond Capitalism.” WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 14: 347–65.

Fraser, Nancy. 2008. “Abnormal Justice.” Critical Inquiry 34 (3): 393–422. doi:10.1086/589478.

Harnecker, Camila Piñeiro. 2009. “Workplace Democracy and Social Consciousness: A Study of Venezuelan Cooperatives.” Science & Society 73 (3): 309–39. doi:10.1521/siso.2009.73.3.309.

Holbrook, Thomas M., and Aaron C. Weinschenk. 2014. “Campaigns, Mobilization, and Turnout in Mayoral Elections.” Political Research Quarterly 67 (1): 42–55. doi:10.1177/1065912913494018.

Kennelly, James J, and Mehmet Odekon. 2016. “Worker Cooperatives in the United States, Redux.” The Journal of Labor & Society 19: 163–85.

Low, Setha, Gregory T. Donovan, and Jen Gieseking. 2012. “Shoestring Democracy: Gated Condominiums and Market-Rate Cooperatives in New York.” Journal of Urban Affairs 34 (3): 279–96. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9906.2011.00576.x.

Luibrand, Shannon. 2016. “Stephen Colbert’s Poignant Sign-off to the 2016 Presidential Election.” CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-late-show-stephen-colberts-poignant-sign-off-to-the-2016-presidential-election/.

Ng, Catherine W., and Evelyn Ng. 2009. “Balancing the Democracy Dilemmas: Experiences of Three Women Workers’ Cooperatives in Hong Kong.” Economic and Industrial Democracy 30 (2): 182–206. doi:10.1177/0143831X09102419.

Pausch, Markus. 2013. “Workplace Democracy From a Democratic Ideal to a Managerial Tool and Back.” The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal 19 (1): 1–20.

Perry, Forrest. 2014. “Reducing Racial Prejudice through Workplace Democracy.” Journal of Social Philosophy 45 (2): 203–27. doi:10.1111/josp.12060.

Rothschild-Whitt, Joyce. 1979. “The Collectivist Organization: An Alternative to Rational-Bureaucratic Models.” American Sociological Review 44 (4): 509–27.

Scholte, Jan Aart. 2002. “Civil Society and Democracy in Global Governance.” Global Governance 8: 281–304.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. “Democracy as a Unversal Value.” Journal of Democarcy 10 (3): 3–17. doi:10.1353/jod.1999.0055.

———. 2005. “The Diverse Ancestry of Democracy.” The Financial Times, June 13.

“Series US Worker Cooperatives: A State of the Sector.” 2015.

Taibbi, Matt. 2016. “After This Election, Turn It Off: Let’s Never Follow Politics Again.” Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/after-this-election-turn-it-off-w448974.

“Types of Cooperatives.” 2016. Cultivate.coop. Accessed November 23. http://cultivate.coop/wiki/Types_of_Cooperatives#Producer_cooperatives.

“US Election 2016: Obama Warns Fate of World at Stake.” 2016. BBC. http://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2016-37854525.

Varman, Rahul, and Manali Chakrabarti. 2004. “Contradictions of Democracy in a Workers’ Cooperative.” Organization Studies 25 (2): 183–208. doi:10.1177/0170840604036913.

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 Jake Keyel - PhotoJake Keyel is a second-year doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include critical migration and refugee studies, international ethics and the connections between state violence and displacement and deepening democratic practices of governance. Prior to enrolling at Virginia Tech, he worked for five years in the non-profit sector focused with organizations focused on integration of new immigrants, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College in Sociology and a Master’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Middle Eastern Affairs from Syracuse University.

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