Review: “Democratizing Inequalities”

Lee, Caroline W., Michael McQuarrie, and Edward T. Walker. Democratizing Inequalities: Dilemmas of the New Public Participation

Reviewed by Marielle Alvino

February 17, 2015

Democratizing Inequalities brings light to the complex nature of civic involvement by questioning the role of  institutions we assume to be channeling our voices. This collection of essays, curated and assembled by Sociology professors Caroline W. Lee, Michael McQuarrie and Edward T. Walker studies the quandaries of our generation, who despite unprecedented levels of interconnectedness, faces a democratic deficit.

Stylistically clear and logically cohesive, it is written to please the novel scholar.  Nevertheless, the merit of this collection lies in its refusal to oversimplify the mechanisms of civic mobilization. Rather, it outlines innovative participatory trends in terms of tensions. Thus, the book is quick to warn us that inclusion venues can become a channel to legitimate elite rule. It reminds us that initiatives can serve as distortionary sources of public knowledge rather than accurate mediums of communication. In short, it demystifies public participation as an inherently inclusive and transparent practice.

Of particular notoriety is Michael McQuarrie’s chapter “No Contest: Participatory Technologies and the Transformation of Urban Authority”. In it, MacQuarrie empirically defies the popular understanding of participation as a practice with normative effects. Instead, his study of Cleveland’s political crisis in the 1970s exemplifies the changing role of the concept of participation, morphing from a paradoxically unrepresentative channel of extremist dissent to a necessary political gauge for authority and civic socialization. Participation, McQuarrie thus claims, becomes a tool for the politician seeking his constituents’ approval.

Such gloomy findings may justify pessimistic prospects for activism. Nevertheless, taken as a whole these essays do precisely what its editors have ascribed: they pave the way towards a more critical awareness of public forms of participation. What they achieve is no small task.

By giving its reader diverse case studies differing across time and cause, Democratizing Inequalities immerses him into worker’s rights’ campaigns and Obama’s 2008 presidential race with comparable sophistication. In doing so, these essays instill a comprehensive knowledge of the underpinnings of participation initiatives. It is the dynamics and interactions of civil society actors, they explain collectively, which ultimately differentiates a sincerely representational project from a proxy war of interests.

The relevance of the text lies beyond the surfacing of this conundrum. In its conclusion, Lee, McQuarrie and Walker carve an insightful roadmap for future action. They ask we remain hopeful and engaged members of civil society despite mixed results. This last plight is not just void rhetoric. With this book, its authors have effectively endowed their readers with the critical skills and discernible reasoning to make these aspirations a reality.

Review: “The Political Economy of an Emerging Global Power: In Search of the Brazil Dream”

Lourdes Casanova and Julian Kassum. The Political Economy of an Emerging Global Power: In Search of the Brazil Dream. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Reviewed by: Matthew Michaelides
November 3, 2014

In the aftermath of the recent October 2014 reelection of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, pessimism has set in about Brazil’s future. After prior years of sustained economic growth and an acceleration of its economic fortunes, the country has experienced a period of low growth and underwhelming investment, generating uncertainty about the country’s direction. Now, many question the ability of the president to deliver on her economic and social promises as she prepares to begin her second term.

It is against this background that Lourdes Casanova and Julian Kassum make a timely argument for Brazil’s enduring potential in their new book, The Political Economy of an Emerging Global Power: In Search of the Brazil Dream. Casanova and Kassum demonstrate through a detailed analysis of the various challenges facing Brazil – from its poor public education system to its lacking infrastructure – that the recent economic slowdown constitutes a temporary delay, rather than a permanent halt, to the unleashing of Brazil’s economic power. Moreover, the text points to the ongoing development of a “Brazil Dream” based in the fight against social determinism, the development of strong public services, and the cultivation of international recognition, all alongside a relaxed – yet passionate – lifestyle.

Using the lens of political scientist Joseph Nye, Casanova and Kassum analyze Brazilian social and economic life by their contributions to Brazil’s soft and hard power. While they find that Brazil’s main asset is its soft power – its vibrant culture coupled with the new Brasília consensus economic model – gains in diplomatic means, military capabilities, and economic might have also enhanced Brazil’s power on the global stage. At the same time, the authors add to Nye’s original typology a third indicator, social inclusion, in which Brazil has made great strides in the last decade but still has a strong need for improvement.

In combination, the authors’ analyses of Brazil’s weaknesses and its areas of strong potential, paint a humbling and inspiring portrait of a country on the rise. While challenges remain, the country’s fundamentals are strong. With some effective policy-making in the next few years, Brazil may still capitalize on them.

Review: “Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy”

Saskia Sassen. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. (Harvard University Press, 2014).

Reviewed by Ethan Raker
September 30, 2014

Crippling poverty, extreme inequality, and irreversible destruction of the biosphere: how do we understand the reality and extremity of the global condition? This is the austere question posed in Saskia Sassen’s latest book, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. From the wealth divide between the ultra-rich and the poor to the creation of “dead land” from fracking plots of the earth, Sassen demonstrates existence of a critical place, located ostensibly at the systemic edges of society, in which current modes of thinking about these conditions is insufficient. We lack both language and conceptualizations of these extremities. Sassen’s text is a reminder of transformations over the past fifty years and a caution against what the next fifty may bring. Her’s is not a thesis restricted to a singular focus but a unique amalgamation of the ecological, economical, and the political into a sociological analysis of the “expelling” occurring on the globe today.

Saskia Sassen, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, is one of the most prolific urban sociologists writing today. Her seminal work, The Global City: New York, London, and Tokyo, develops a unique understanding of globalization through the lens of the city, the site in which political, social, and economic processes materialize on a global scale. In her latest book, Expulsions, Sassen shifts her focus to the margins of these systems. She employs a de-theoretical analytic framework to understand the mechanisms behind the banishing of specific populations and biospheres across disparate localities. One of the obvious strengths of the text is this methodological move, the grounding of the text not in macro-level theory but in the reality of ground level. Sassen’s writing is undeniably that of an academic. At times, it is complex and difficult to decipher, but the exploration of the familiar realities on the ground aids in its reading.

Some of Sassen’s empirical evidence seems conventional for the extant literature, e.g. the rising levels of wealth and hyper-profits in high finance, and the inescapable impoverished condition of urban, black men. Nevertheless, Sassen weaves them as both necessary and relevant to her broader argument. Additionally, the real substance of Sassen’s thesis lies in the chapter titled, “Dead Land, Dead Water,” in which she develops the most unique case of expulsion. She analyzes, amongst others, two mining manufacturers operating in very different political and geographical contexts: Norilsk, Russia and Montana, United States of America. Although these two mining facilities are effectively killing the land and contributing to high levels of pollution, they developed in very unique political economies. The point, then, is that these expulsions are not unique to a singular location or context. They occur across the globe. Furthermore, Sassen highlights the current logics of carbon trading agreements in which nations essentially purchase rights to pollute the biosphere. This type of brutal degradation, Sassen argues, exists in multiple domains, and they emerge at the edges of systems.

In the end, the reader is left with an important ontological question: are our modes of understanding and categorizing inequalities and brutalities enough? Sassen convincingly suggests that in order to comprehend the severity of what exists (or will soon not exist) at the margin, we must adopt new categories and new ways of conveying and addressing these “expulsions.” Readers expecting specific policy recommendations may be disappointed. Instead, Sassen allocates the bulk of her pages to making visible the complexities and extremities of various situations at the systemic margin.

In its analytic framework and angle, Expulsions is deeply sociological. However, Sassen once again proves why she is so widely read. The text is insightful for not just the sociologist, but the economist, biologist, and politician, and above all, the global citizen.