Saturday, March 29, 2008

The price of rice

The price of internationally traded rice has roughly doubled in the past several months. There are several independent factors that seem to be contributing causes for this sudden spike in prices (New York Times story, Toronto Globe and Mail story), but the bottom line is that this is very bad news for many developing countries in Asia and Africa. Poor people everywhere spend a high percentage of their income on food. If the price of the chief staple food rises abruptly, this will predictably cause suffering and hunger among the poor. Amartya Sen's penetrating ideas on issues of hunger and famine are as relevant today as they were two decades ago (The Political Economy of Hunger, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation). And, as Sen discovered, prices and incomes are critical determinants of malnutrition and famine. And recall that current estimates of the number of malnourished people in the world approach one billion!

Another important symptom of food distress for the world's poor -- the UN food program announced a few days ago that high prices have exhausted its budget (emergency appeal). It has called upon donor nations to provide immediate supplemental funds to permit it to continue its crucial programs.

This shift in international market conditions will also have the potential for creating civil unrest in several countries. There are already signs of urban unrest in the Philippines, where rice riots and disturbances have already occurred. The Times story cited above mentions food riots in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. Governments that fail to assure the availability of affordable food supplies will be reminded of the volatility of the issue of food -- from medieval Europe to revolutionary France to Poland in the 1970s.

There seems to be a similar issue percolating in North America -- a sustained rise in the prices for wheat and maize over the past year. In this case the cause seems to be the increased demand for grain created by ethanol production on a large scale. Americans spend a smaller percent of income on food, so the immediate consequences are less damaging to population welfare. But this trend suggests a similar caution that we need to heed -- we need to pay attention to the stability and sustainability of the world's food system.

Food security is an important dimension of a developing country's long-term welfare and stability. These issues haven't gotten much attention in the international press in the past decade or so. Neo-liberal doctrines, market restructuring, and the Washington Consensus have pushed these more material aspects of economic development to a lower priority and visibility. But maybe current conditions will bring the issue back to center stage.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Anonymity and civility

The topic of civility on the internet has gotten a lot of ink recently (posting, posting, posting). People flame each other online in ways they would never do in a public meeting. And this tendency is most extreme in anonymous postings on blogs and web sites.

What is it about anonymity that sometimes brings out the worst in people? Fundamentally it is the separation between speech and accountability that sometimes poisons anonymous speech. Plato speculated about the Ring of Gyges in the Republic: how would people behave if their actions were entirely untraceable? And English moralists had similar fears about the Masquerade in the eighteenth century: social functions in which men and women attended in masked costumes were bound to create moral disorder (web page). Anonymous speech on the internet seems to provide a real-world test of the proposition. And, by the evidence, there are a fair number of people who will take the cloak of anonymity as permission to express outrageous, harmful, and fundamentally disrespectful things to and about others.

And it is interesting to realize that this is not a twenty-first century development. One of E. P. Thompson's final books was a careful study of the social conflicts in rural eighteenth-century England (Whigs and Hunters), where he focuses on the "Black Act" -- a package of laws designed to squelch poachers, timber thieves, and other rural misbehavior. Two behaviors in particular were prohibited with severe penalties -- going about in a mask and conveying anonymous, often threatening, letters. Anonymity was a tool that was used by individuals and groups to threaten and coerce landlords, wardens, and gamekeepers. Thompson describes a raft of anonymous letters and their social function in "The Crime of Anonymity" (included in Albion's Fatal Tree).

Here are some examples of anonymous letters that Thompson quotes in the appendix to "The Crime of Anonymity":

Ms orpen i am informd that you and your family whent before last year and glent up what the pore should have had but if you do this year it is our desire as soon as your corn is in the barn we will have a fire for it is a shame you should rob the pore ...


this will all com true
this is to give notis that you millers and shop keeper all
kill the over Seeer
had best to take keare of youer selves and mind that you
arnt kild and if you dont sink with your folower [flour] we will make
tom Nottage is a dam Rouge
you sink for we have rob your Mill seavel [several] Times and we
kill him for one there is 4 more we will kill


To The Damd Eternal Fire Brands of Hell Belonging to Odiham and its Vicinity. In other Words to the Damd Villans of Farmers that with hold the Corn that please God to send for the Poeple of the Earth away from them.


And a response from the forces of order --

Guineas Reward

Whereas some wicked and evil disposed Person or
Persons, did write a Letter, addressed to Joseph Bulmer,
threatening to take his Life, and to burn his Premises, unless
he would advance the Shipwright's Wages--and did put the
same Letter under the Door of the Compting-House of
Messrs. R. Bulmer and Co. in South Shields, where the same
was found on the Morning of the 14th Inst.

Whoever will give Information so that he, she, or they,
may be convicted thereof, will be paid a Reward of ONE
HUNDRED GUINEAS by the said Messrs. Bulmer, on
the Conviction of such Offenders or any of them ...

So what are we to make of this curious behavior from two centuries ago and from the present? One piece of the story of anonymity is the situation of "speaking truth to power". Anonymous threats and accusations are "weapons of the weak" in James Scott's terms (Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance). They are a way for powerless people and groups to express and advocate their claims without repression. And they can be a potent social instrument of power as well, constraining the power and behavior of the high and mighty. It is why the complaint box doesn't require a sign-in process. Thompson puts it this way: "The anonymous threatening letter is a characteristic form of social protest in any society which has crossed a certain threshold of literacy, in which forms of collective organized defence are weak, and in which individuals who can be identified as the organizers of protest are liable to immediate victimization" (Albion's Fatal Tree, 255).

But anonymity can also be a tool of oppression and intimidation. Anonymous messages and actions can be intimidating and harmful on a range of levels, from irritating and insulting to slanderous and reputation-destroying. The anonymity of the klansman's sheet and hood was deliberate: it made it all the more impossible for the people oppressed and threatened by the KKK to retaliate against the pharmacist or gas station owner who cowered within. And it permitted the threat of Klan violence to be all but irresistible.

The discussions that are occurring online about civility often invoke Jurgen Habermas and his ideas about the public sphere as a place for open and civil debate (e.g., The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society). (James Gordon Finlayson's Habermas: A Very Short Introduction gives a very good introduction to Habermas's thought.) The idea here is that publicity is an essential component of a democratic polity: people engage with each other in a public space, and they embody an ethic of mutual respect that permits profound disagreements to occur without the collapse of civility. And, through these public interactions the citizens develop the possibility of a deeper consensus about what is to be done.

So it seems that the categories of privacy, anonymity, civility, and public democracy are all tied together somehow. And the internet gives this mix of sometimes conflicting values a particular urgency.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

William Gibson's future

All Tomorrow's Parties expressed a lot of it: William Gibson's dark but somehow humane picture of what the modern world might be heading for. First the dark part -- nation states that have fallen apart into NoCal and SoCal and the Kombinat states; whole communities of people living anarchically and precariously -- but astonishingly, harmoniously -- on the earthquake-damaged Oakland Bridge ("interstitial communities," as Gibson's observers call them); corporations that use deadly force to recruit top scientists from each other; weird new viruses that cause deadly epidemics and psychotic disorders; and, of course, the matrix of computer systems, hackers, console cowboys, and software simulations that constitute a counterpoint reality to all of it. And there is a lot more in Gibson's imagination: a trend spotter who has a visceral allergy to brand marks, a Japanese anthropologist studying the micro-communities of what has become of North America, and, most recently, an elusive Chinese-Cuban crime family in quiet war with the national security apparatus of the United States government (Spook Country). Across the whole canvas there is a feeling of what Gibson refers to as "bit-rot" in a website that's beginning to degrade: a social order that is no longer functioning.

So what is the humane part of the corpus? So many of the characters Gibson creates are decent, moral people, coping within the context of social breakdowns that they can't entirely evade but can somehow live around. There is Chevette, the taut, orphaned bicycle messenger in San Francisco, living with the aging Skinner on the Oakland Bridge, bringing hot-and-sour soup up to the tiny cubicle Skinner has created on an upper reach of the bridge. There is Rydell, the ex-cop, ex-private security guard for a post-modern convenience shop, with a generous spirit and a willingness to go to bat for his friends. (He'll go up against a team of assassins with a chain gun, if he needs to. ) And there is Fontaine, the used-stuff dealer on the bridge, friend to Skinner, and -- once again -- a morally grounded man coping in a world of nutty and irreversible breakdowns.

What the social message seems to be is something about non-sustainability. It's the opposite of utopia; it's a cool vision of what some of the most visible currents in contemporary society might lead to. (The currents that are highlighted include unfettered corporate power, accelerating breakdown of social welfare systems, states that no longer govern, cities that simply "sprawl" from Boston to Atlanta, and technologies that play an entirely ambiguous role in supporting human welfare.) Here is how things can fail to work out for us, Gibson seems to be saying. Our complex, interdependent, technologically skilled but socially inept civilizations seem to be falling apart in Gibson's worlds. And ordinary people have to find their own human solutions, locally and provisionally. There's a recurring motif of "re-use" of things -- the knife that Skinner forges from a motorcycle chain and gifts to Chevette after his decline and death, or the intricate "collage" boxes that figure into the plot of Neuromancer. And re-use maybe points the way to a greater degree of sustainability?

It's not exactly a social philosophy. It's not Hobbes, for example, offering a description of the state of nature and the war of all against all. And it's not Rousseau, expecting community to emerge from the commonality of shared interests. The category of power comes into the novels again and again -- power used capriciously, self-interestedly, corporately, and unforgivingly. But at the same time the universe that Gibson describes is not one lacking moral rules. The people involved in the novels express their own commitments, loyalties, and values. But what does not seem to be possible in Gibson's world is a polity -- an organized community establishing a system of law and assuring the basic welfare of all its citizens. "Justice" is not a part of the picture. The closest thing to a functioning society that is described in the novels is the bridge community -- the refugees from San Francisco who have taken up precarious residence on the Oakland Bridge, building ramshackle shelters, shops, gardens, and pubs out of recycled industrial materials, bits of plastic, and used motorcycle parts. And the bridge community seems to be entirely anarchic -- the only order that exists is the order that is created and enforced by the bridge dwellers themselves.

Gibson's novels are placed in the genre of science fiction. But the genre isn't quite right. Really, they could be called "futurist social fiction" in the way that Thomas More's Utopia was social fiction: a vision of what a social realm might look like. And in this description, the work is very appropriate content for ChangingSociety.