Star Wars, culture, and the ‘legitimate’ use of violence

Stormtrooper

In Star Wars: The Force Awakens (the latest iteration of the franchise), it is revealed that stormtroopers are known to one another not by ‘names’  but by an assigned letter and series of numbers (e.g. f4570). The viewer also learns that stormtroopers are ‘programmed’ from a young age. As well as serving to emphasise the good/evil dichotomy and embellish the rebel’s status as ‘the just’ – because like the societies we inhabit they allowed names and individuality – this also goes someway to explaining the motivation of stormtroopers and provides a condition for our developing sympathy towards them. They are ‘brainwashed’ and hence not entirely at fault for their misdeeds.

In another scene, a stormtrooper is portrayed showing concern for a felled comrade and attempting CPR. This is also the first instance (I am aware of) in the Star Wars series that we see the blood of a stormtrooper, a result of blaster fire – prick them do they not bleed? But this scene does not anticipate a ‘humanisation’ of stormtroopers later in the film as it could have done; it is a plot device to establish the character of an individual stormtrooper (indicating ‘I am not like the others’, rather than ‘they are all like me’) Continue reading

Inverting ‘Broken Window Theory’?

In 1982 George Kelling and James Wilson published a paper in the Atlantic outlining their ‘Broken Window Theory’. The theory begins from the observation, which is common enough, that small instances of ‘disorder’, such as the broken window of an abandoned house, are often followed by more disorder (i.e. more broken windows), and finally to destruction. What made Kelling and Wilson’s (henceforth K&W) contribution new was their attempt to transpose this insight into a social theory about the relation between crime and community. They argued that protecting the community from minor infringements can stop more severe infringements from becoming the norm.

The thesis I want to consider in a moment, is that something approaching the opposite may be true: that a relative improvement of community standards may lead to an increase of problems. Before getting to this I want to provide some more information about the original theory. Continue reading

The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism – A Critical Analysis

An orthodoxy of social science is that studies of ethics should be descriptive and not prescriptive; they should describe what is without evaluating what ought or oughtn’t be. But approaching this ideal – which not all aspire to – is no easy task, especially when important cultural values are involved.

A good illustration is a recently published academic article, ‘The Negative Association Between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World’ (you can read it here). In addition to being intended as descriptive it is also critical: it compares the judgements and practices of children of faith and non-faith using the standards of ‘pro-sociality’ and ‘altruism’. As its title suggests, religiousness was found to be inversely correlated with altruistic behaviour; in addition, some religious children were found to display greater punitive tendencies than the non-religious. But these contentious findings rely on a number of assumptions. Exploring them provides a good opportunity to examine problems of the relation of values to science. Continue reading

Prohibition of Alcohol in America (Quick Reflection)

This following is as a brief critique of the notion (sometimes expressed) that the 1933 repeal of nation-wide liquor laws in the USA is a knockdown argument against new forms of ‘prohibition’. “Prohibition never works. Look at Prohibition in America”.

The standard argument is as follows: consuming alcohol was very common in America. It was banned; yet many people still wanted to consume it. Therefore an extremely powerful criminal underworld emerged to produce and distribute alcohol; underground saloons sprung up, and the huge number of people who now consumed alcohol became ‘law breakers overnight’.

‘When there’s a will there’s a way’

I suspect it is no coincidence that this account sits in harmony with basic economic principles and the rule of ‘supply and demand’ – there was demand and therefore there developed a market. But the suggestion that barriers preventing people from obtaining what they desire will always erode of necessity (and a more harmful and unregulated system emerge), hides many complexities.

The wills are many as are the ‘ways’

In simple terms, prohibition fails when the will and ability to subvert the law (and its punishments) outclasses the will and ability to uphold the law.  In other words, the success or failure of prohibition is a result of the specific factors involved in the case (the arrangement of ‘wills’, availability of ways) rather than something intrinsic to prohibition itself.

Some specifics of the American Nation-Wide Prohibition 1920 – 1933

In understanding why Prohibition eventually failed so spectacularly it is useful to consider its particular context. Here are a few: alcohol is low tech and easily manufactured; alcohol has intrinsic value (it relaxes or disinhibits); it has symbolic value: related to a masculine ideal, or idea of a good time. Also, the extent of the ban was absolute, allowing no ‘pressure relief’ to cushion the severity of the law. This lack of pressure relief meant that the social function performed by alcohol, a relaxant after work, and as instituted in business practice -i.e. discussing a deal over a drink- was neglected.  This prohibition occurred at at time when relaxation was highly desirable- the era of the Great Depression.

Ultimately the government failed to win the argument with a highly individualistic people.

Few substances share the same characteristics as alcohol, and the social context of the 1930s America were unique. As a comparison, consider ‘soft drinks’ which are similar in that they are widely drunk, have symbolic value, and pose a health risk when consumed too often; yet soft drinks lack intrinsic value, they don’t have exclusive reign over a social function, and they are perhaps too easily manufactured. Would a massive black-market and criminal network develop to satiate the people’s will for soft drink were it prohibited?

This was the first ‘quick reflection’. The point is to raise an idea for contemplation [edited for brevity]

Ethics and the International Garment Industry: Part Two

Last week I criticised, in particular, one aspect of Hobbes’ own critique of the ‘ethical shopper’ paradigm, his argument that western brands have weakened due to shifts in global economic structures. I won’t rehash this here, the image below captures the gist of my argument: western brands are more powerful than ‘mega suppliers’.

brands.suppliersWestern mega brands have great financial resources. The most popular brands are the biggest players in negotiations with manufacturing interests. The largest of the ‘mega suppliers’ is much smaller than the three brands listed here (Nike, H&M, Walmart – crudely represented here in terms of net profit). Not only are western brands already popular and becoming more so in developing markets; these markets have their own homegrown brands with potential to rival western brands on the global stage.

Here, I want to continue to defend the role that brands and pressure on brands plays in global reform while exploring Hobbes’ argument that formal institutional means (state/international laws) should be used to push global reform and also the problems associated with the ascent of new markets in developing countries (a relative decline of western market power). Continue reading

Ethics and the International Garment Industry: Part One

A couple of months ago ‘human rights consultant’ Michael Hobbes wrote a critique of the ‘ethical shopper’ paradigm of global manufacturing reform, followed several days later by a more pointed addendum. His critique is fixed around the argument that major western fashion brands are not as powerful as they are thought to be and that in the future they will become weaker. As such, he argues that consumer pressure on brands is not effective as a force for change.

His main points are:

(1) An evolution in global apparel (the rise of ‘megasuppliers’ and ‘fast fashion’) means that not even brands have precise knowledge of where their products are made;

(2) Western consumption will decline over the coming decades: the new big markets are in developing countries, and it is goods that are manufactured for these markets that are produced in the worst conditions;

(3) As a result of the changing dynamics of consumerism (the rise of new middle classes in developing countries), the importance of western brands will diminish in favour of an ‘undifferentiated goods’ model of production.

Maybe even more than the other reasons I’ve outlined, this is why consumer advocacy campaigns are never going to improve working conditions in the developing world: Western markets simply don’t matter as much as they used to. India produces twice as much clothing for its own consumers as it does for us. Fifty-six percent of the clothing produced in China is for the Chinese market. Both of those numbers are only going to grow. (Michael Hobbes)

Continue reading

Sex at the Margins (Book Review)

Agustin

Agustin’s now eight-year old book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry is perhaps better read as three different angles on the same subject rather than as a unified thesis. The first section is an attempt to critique popular conceptions of sex work as different from other forms of work, or migration as wholly distinct from tourism; the second section offers a genealogical argument of the ‘origins’ of the contemporary social (helper) sector through the enlightenment and industrial revolutionary periods. This leads into the final section: a criticism of the employees of contemporary NGOs that focus on prostitution and human trafficking.

In a rough attempt to unify these three themes, Agustin’s analysis is that contemporary conceptions and policies regarding prostitution serve the interests of state power as well as the individual egos of those who identify with the cause to ‘rescue’ sex workers. The former, which is little developed in the book, is about sovereignty and population ‘control’, the latter is about self-esteem and the exercise of agency of those who find their purpose in helping others. The irony, Agustin argues, is that these helpers achieve their goals but oppress those they (think) they are helping. Continue reading

Between Two Laws – Max Weber

The title of this blog refers to a letter-to-the-editor written by Max Weber known as Between Two Laws.

Weber’s ‘Between Two Laws’, published in Feb of 1916, serves principally as a justification of Germany’s involvement in the war and as a criticism of pacifism. In addition it includes several interesting reflections on the relationship between political power and culture, and between religious ethics and politics.

Weber’s central argument in this piece is that Germany had an obligation to enter the war for its own sake as well as for the sake of other nations. This obligation, premised upon Germany’s status as a powerful state, is not couched in terms of concerns for prosperity, freedom, or safety, but in terms of  culture: Germany should fight to ‘determine the character of culture in the future’. The failure of Germany to do so would lead to a Europe shared out between ‘Russian regulation’ and the ‘conventions of English speaking ‘society’’; a result for which Germany alone would be bear responsibility because only it –not Norway, Switzerland etc. – had the power to sway the outcome. Germany’s involvement in WWI is therefore characterised as a ‘historical necessity’ ‘imposed by fate’.

Power ‘injurious to culture’

According to Weber, it is only within communities that have abandoned all ambition for political power that ‘other virtues may flourish’ – virtues such of the arts, as well as a democratic culture; as such, he argues that it would actually be in Germany’s interest to renounce power and organise itself into ‘politically impotent cantons’ modeled after Switzerland. However, Weber cynically states, ‘then we should wait and see’ for how long other nations would allow the cultural idyll to survive; and he follows this by arguing that, in fact, the culturally superior Switzerland depends upon German power to deter threats to its sovereignty. Countries that benefit from German power while criticising it and espousing pacifism are branded pharisaic. The power of Germany, then, is characterised as a costly burden, but alas, a necessary one.

Religious ethics or world politics

The final argument in this letter reflects upon the relation between religious ethics and ‘worldly laws’. Weber’s take is that:

The New Testament should either be left out of such discussions entirely or it must be taken seriously … Anyone who has even a penny of investment income which others have to pay directly or indirectly, anyone who owns any durable goods or consumes any commodity produced not by his own sweat but by that of others, lives off the operation of that loveless and unpitying economic struggle for existence which bourgeois phraseology designates as ‘peaceful cultural work’ (Weber, 1994: 78).

He continues this theme by propounding that Christians should renounce all relationship with the ‘worldly’ “laws” from which material benefits are born, extending this renunciation to include those “laws” of the social world ‘devoted to the beauty, dignity, and honour … of man as a creature of this earth’. Everyone who does not commit to a full rejection of the benefits of modern society is to be ‘bound by the laws of this world’ including the ‘inevitability of war’, and should, to the best of their ability, fulfil the ‘demands of the day’ within the circumstances fated them.

 

To summarise the three main themes in this letter:

  • Power is burdensome but necessary. It harms those who wield it and obliges them to act.
  • Power is opposed to (bourgeois) culture; culture does not thrive beneath it, yet cannot survive without it.
  • Compromise is incompatible with ‘high’ ethical principles; if principles are to be held they should be committed to with absolute consistency.

Analysis

There is some difficulty determining the sincerity of Weber’s statements in this text because they were written during a war. For this reason it is perhaps tempting to explain the text as propaganda. No doubt Weber had political intentions in writing to the public, but nonetheless, many of the letter’s themes and statements are echoed elsewhere in Weber’s corpus; and the assessment (Paul Honigsheim’s) of Weber’s disposition as one of ‘tragedy’, ‘nevertheless’ are imbued throughout: alas, the ‘law’ of the power pragma determines the ‘fate’ of the world; nevertheless, this one must accept and work within its boundaries.

As an aside, this sense of the regrettable but inevitable pervades Weber’s work and seems (to me) to suggest a flaw in Weber’s very well-known project for ‘value free’ science; for while Weber presents his assessment as realistic as opposed to idealistic I am suspicious that this ‘realism’ coincides with Weber’s ideals (consider Weber’s defence of capitalism as ‘inevitable’ in the 1904 Objectivity preamble, and his positive defence elsewhere of the virtues of freedom and autonomy in the economic sphere).

In the case of the present text Weber opens up several avenues, which if chosen, could avoid ‘fate’ (at least temporarily): the first is his suggestion that Germany could renounce its ambition for power. This alternative is, however, given the provisos: only if Germany could accept that it be overrun by England and Russian in the near future; or if the German people can accept the ‘disgrace’ that would come from their about-face.

Weber provides the second alternative to ‘fate’ in his reflections on the relation between power and the religious, where one can choose between a deep religious ethic or – in the best case- a more worldly humanist ethic that is bound to the nation state. This position can be characterised as an either/or modification of Luke 20:25: give therefore to Caesar what is Caesar’s OR give to God what is God’s. The point Weber appears to be arguing is that any compromise of an ethic that attempts to transcend the ‘facts of the day’ sullies it irrevocably: one cannot be both above something and a part of it. There is also an aspect to this argument which extends deeper than politics or economics: the choice between human culture or religious commitment and the rejection of that culture in toto – this is a theme I plan to return to in the following months.

Rather than war, Weber uses the example of the ‘pitiless’ capitalism to further his point, stating that any benefit that is enjoyed as result of exploitation (in Marx’s sense of surplus value) corrupts those who claim to oppose it. The difficulty posed by this example (if its premises are accepted) is that it would be virtually impossible to avoid being implicated in exploitation. It is questionable whether even a traveling religious figure (such as Tolstoy in his final weeks whom Weber refers to respectfully) could survive without thes­­e benefits. In any case, as with his alternatives to a German power state, the choice is framed as one between the near impossible or foolish, and the level-headed acceptance of ‘inevitable’ fate.

Viewed in this way, Between Two Laws perhaps serves as lens into Weber’s more strictly sociological works: because while Weber probably intended this text as ‘soft’ propaganda, attempting to make the best of a war already underway (hence inevitable), it nonetheless contains many of the arguments and tendencies Weber has expressed in his more disinterested works.

Max Weber 1994, ‘Between Two Laws’ in Weber: Political Writings, (eds) Lassman P, Speirs R, Cambridge University Press.