Carboniferous capitalism, climate and colleagues – a good day #isaforum2016

Today was the official start of the International Sociological Association Forum. There were four slots for paper presentations before the official welcome and an opening plenary. This blog post gives a (very!) brief summary of some of the highlights that I saw in my travels.

I went to the opening session of the Social Movements strand, that deliberately consisted of three women (all prominent thinkers in their fields).

Saskia Sassen gave an interesting talk on her recent work, looking at the question under what conditions can powerlessness become complex/under what conditions can the powerless make history. As followers of her work will know, she’s interested in cities, which she sees as always complex, incomplete, and having outlived the big closed systems that have washed over them. She worries, however, that the new ownership of chunks of ‘world cities’ by distant capital is changing things, with the amount of buy up doubling between 2013-14 ($600bn in the top 100 cities) to over 1 trillion in 2014-5. Her project dealing with this is aptly named ‘who owns the city? [Two books spring to mind – Ground Control by Anna Minton, and the novel Body of Glass by Marge Piercy).
Sassen asks ‘where is the frontier now’ (shades of JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians). We’ve thought of frontiers as colonial projects, land-grabs, mining, plantations, agriculture, but the real frontier now, says Sassen, is the big city (again, it made me think of Splintered Urbanism and the Stephen Graham master-work “Cities under Siege”, about the new military architecture of cities). For Sassen there were three small-scale/can be done anywhere practices worth of note
firstly, relocalising whatever parts of the economy you can (banning franchises too!)
secondly, a series of apps that could help build social capital (not a term she used). What kinds of application would be useful for poor people, could help them build links? Sassen closed with a challenge, that existing categories of analysis and governance cannot capture the new realities, and that people and ‘dead land’ are falling through the cracks.

Next up, Donatella della Porta  spoke of “neoliberal and counter-neoliberal temporalities”, pointing out that each new wave of protest brings new analytic needs. For della Porta the pre-2011 tools are not sufficient. She put forward a lovely quote (Bessinger, 2002) that reminds us that
“protests come in chains, series, waves, cycles and tides, ‘forming a punctuated history of heightened challenges and relative stability.”
She invoked William Sewell’s three temporalities (1999) around teleological, experimental and eventful temporalities, before turning to Karl Polanyi on the question of countermovements, and the cyclical re-emergence of accumulation by dispossession, moments of the ‘free market’ versus ‘social protection.
The final – and I didn’t get this point well, I fear – was about the notion of time intensification
densification of networks at the meso level
fluidization of structures at the macrolevel and
identity transformation at the micro level.

Definitely need to look into this more, but probably ATT (after the thesis)

Finally Shalini Randeria gave a talk on being “Caught between cunning states and international organisations: social movements as norm setters.”
She started by observing that movements against the enclosure of common land/property are both rural and urban (e.g. coastal zone privatisation and the creation of special economic zones (for exports). She pointed out that patent rights are often another form of enclosure (the appropriation of shared knowledge. For Randeria, as I think for Sassen, the question is where do you protest, who do you turn to to demand redress. She pointed out that if protesters went to national state, they would be told to pressure at the international level (IMF, World Bank, WTO), and if they did that, they were told that they should be talking to the ‘sovereign’ state. Reminded me a bit of Daniel Hausknost’s work on ‘agentic deadlock’.
Randeria then outlined how court cases are a new domain for struggle, especially given how so many regulations are made by governments and regulatory bodies rather than in a legislative process – so if members of parliament are useless, why lobby them or try to become them. She alluded to tensions, based on the different time/decision cycles, between activists working through courts and those still trying “traditional” lobbying.

She then turned to the thorny question of knowledge production – who it was for, who did it, and the ethical entanglements. She pointed out that there were things she knew that she could/would not publish because they would destroy important friendships she had with social movement actors, and betray confidences.
She pointed to the work of George Marcus on “para-ethnolgraphy” “the object of our enquiry are also producing knowledge on themselves”. Echoing a question Andy Stirling asked in Manchester weeks ago, who are our publics? Who are we writing for?

Randeria closed out with points about the cunning state. Cunning states, btw, are those that claim to be weak when they simply want to shift responsibility onto other actors. We need to be careful, that is, not to take self-representations of weakness at face value….

In the second session I got most from the first paper, which was on “social movement schools” – the training programs that various movements (in this example labor rights, civil rights, mindfulness and “FEMEN”) have conducted.
There’s an upcoming paper in Mobilisation by Larry Isaac (one of the presenters here) on the “Underground Workshops” in the 1950s and early 60s that taught  people how to do non-violent direct action (especially in not responding to physical intimidation and attacks). I asked about the metrics of success for these schools, and also about the impact of academia on activism.  On the latter, there was an interesting answer, that started out referencing Laclau, Jo Freeman and Piven & Cloward, but admitting these  impacts were in part because the academics were part of movements, and the movements read (but did not necessarily absorb!) the work.  On the latter question, mindfulness and intelligent design were cited by co-presenter Jaime Kucinskas (Hamilton College), and the role of famous people/celebrities as popularisers and legitimisers cited.  It is sadly true, as Susan George pointed out in the 1990s, that the right takes ideas, or rather their popularisation and the creation of common sense, more seriously than the so-called left.

In the next session Chris Rootes gave a thorough and thoroughly depressing overview of the climate “movement” in the UK.  He made the good Point that climate is a wicked problem – in scale, complexity, uncertainty, intermittent saliency – for the NGOs as well as for policy-makers.  Until the 2000 COP Meeting that fell apart, the big UK NGOs left climate change to the international “Climate Action Network”.  In 2005 things began to move a bit more (FoE and the Big Ask, Stop Climate Chaos) but there were ongoing issues about priorities, guarding of brands and priorities.  Only three big demonstrations have occurred (2006, 2009 and 2015), and Rootes was (rightly, imho) skeptical about the claims of the Transition Network to be bigger now than in 2010. (there are lots of zombie Groups listed on its website). Meanwhile, austerity has hit DEFRA (down from 7000 staff in 2002 to 2,100 in 2014) and other government bodies.  Some (conservation) NGOs are stepping in to do some of the work that the State used to do, but that comes with problems all of its own too…

Rootes concluded that environmental NGOs have limited capacity to Focus on climate Change, there is no mass movement, and declining local action.  Yup.

I then went to a session on “carboniferous capitalism “, missing the opening talk on “Modalities of Corporate Power in Carboniferous Capitalism: an Overview” but catching the others, on LNG plans in Canada, Appalachian coal and “The Coal Rush and Beyond – India, Germany and Australia”.

Paul Gellert (University of Tennessee) is looking at the Appalachian coal industry as it copes with enormous financial challenges. He is using Prechel “Big Business and the State” and a more recent (2012) article on the green economy versus the “new corporate environmentalism”, which sounds fascinating.  There was also Arrighi (World Systems Theory), Bunker and Ciccantelli (2005, 2007) and the Moore “Web of Life” book.

He had a nice graph too, of how coal is not, in fact, going away, at least globally.  Key take home was the use of multi-Level subsidiary firms to both disguise their power and also shed costs.

James Goodman is involved in a project examining proposed new coal mines in India, Germany and Australia – how do locals respond, why do mines go forward (or not)

Crucial to this is the notion of a climate dialectic, i.e. the climate crisis is not cyclical, but accumulative, and unlike other crises, not functional for capitalism. As the crisis deepens, it spills over into other fields, brings new actors into the political and policy arenas.Of note – a Special issue of Energy Policy on Coal, Climate and Development, July 2016…

In the final session of the day, UCSC Professor Andy Szasz, who taught me sociological theory in early 1992 (!), gave an entertaining account of a chap Russ George, who has done some “rogue geo-engineering”  (trying and failing to dump iron filings in the ocean near the Galapagos, and also the Canaries, before finally succeeding in a town off the coast of the Pacific North-West of Canada.  Szasz wanted us to think through the governance implications of all this (I was reminded of Thomas Schelling and his Manchester visit in 2010, where he was very enthused about solar radiation Management).

Next up Nils Markusson, (Lancaster University) explained the “Promises of Technical Fixes – Geoengineering Justifications of Defensive Spatio-Temporal Fixes”.  He gave an account of the birth of the term technofix (as with “Big Science” it originated with Weinberg in the 1960s) as an Expression meaning a cheap, reliable shortcut when compared to social Change.  It has of course become more of a slur, as Lisa Rosner put it in 2004 a “partial, ineffective, unsuccessful… one-sided approach, as opposed to a holistic one.”

Markusson talked about how techno-fixes are criticised on both a pragmatic level (will this work, or just kick the Problem down the road) and also the more philosophical Level (as symptoms of an unreasoning and unreasonable faith in Progress).  He then laid out the history of acceptance-rejection of geo-engineering, with lots of super-useful detail  (I must look into the Norwegian carbon tax of 1991 at some Point!)

The session closed out with Jean Philippe Sapinski (Universitz of Oregon) talking about “Climate Politics, Capitalism and the Governance of Solar Radiation Management (SRM).

SRM is about either stopping heat getting to earth (space mirrors and seeding clouds so they are whiter) or having it bounce off the earth better (paint your roof white, etc). Apparently there is an expectation that we will start to do some form(s) of this in the next ten years or so (as the depth of our predicament become obvious to all) and so then the question comes up of how to do it “legitimately”

So I skipped both the opening address and the opening plenary. No offence intended to the speakers at both, but you were outbid by the prospect of sitting in deckchairs talking with new friends, and then going for a meal with those same new friends. I am sure I will catch up with your thoughts via articles, books and any youtube videos the organisers post of your speeches.

Then it was time for wine/beer and nibbles and more new friends, all in the grand but not too intimidating courtyard of the main building of the University of Vienna. Talk about the imperial way of living! As befits a budding social scientist, I conducted auto-ethnographic research into the effect of free alcohol on cognition…

Things to look up

Hill “repackaging of science”

Bunker and Ciccantelli (2005, 2007

Things to look up after the thesis

All of it!!


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