Book Review: Understanding Governance in Contemporary Japan: Transformation and the Regulatory State by Masahiro Mogaki

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 11/02/2020 - 10:49pm in

To the still small library of books on Japanese public policy in English, Masahiro Mogaki adds a well-focused study of the Japanese state and its core executive in Understanding Governance in Contemporary Japan. This is a well-evidenced analysis, finds Hajime Isozaki, but its elite perspective may not easily convince critics who see Japanese governance through more corporatist or pluralist lenses.

Can the Japanese government still control its own ICT environment and set effective anti-trust policies in the digital era?

Understanding Governance in Contemporary Japan: Transformation and the Regulatory State. Masahiro Mogaki. Manchester University Press. 2019.

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How should national governments (however big or small) grasp and propose appropriate remedial measures to the current intricated relationships among citizens, governments and tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple (GAFA)? Studying how a powerful but mid-sized country, such as Japan, fixes the contents of its regulations can offer some important lessons. Here Masahiro Mogaki’s book, Understanding Governance in Contemporary Japan, is both timely and informative.

The book covers Japanese policy-making on both information and communication technology (ICT) and anti-trust regulations, which are not necessarily regulated by a single agency and consequently are not necessarily discussed side by side. It considers from a comparative perspective how states can be transformed differently in response to apparently similar exogenous shocks – as when the growth of giant multinational companies is now allegedly posing similar challenges to countries. Mogaki primarily probes into these issues through conducting extensive elite interviews in Japan, but also makes reference to some equivalent cases in the UK and New Zealand.

The author’s task is to try to understand how the Japanese state has been reconstituted since the 1980s from a heavily state-planned, development economy into a more modest regulatory state today. Mogaki chiefly takes an ‘elites matter’ standpoint, seeing the state as an asymmetrically resourceful and dominant entity in the society (14). He writes:

During the era of the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) government, the core executive [a group of key state actors composed of related Cabinet ministers, party politicians outside the cabinet and civil servants (24)] pursued discretionary regulation within inner regulatory policy communities as a strategy to sustain its position of asymmetric dominance over actors within key policy sectors, with their actions shaped by a particular set of structures.

The book begins with an analytical framework that makes particular reference to the concept of the ‘core executive’. The author then explains and analyses what happened to Japanese regulations in the two domains of ICT regulation and anti-monopoly policies. The text draws on extensive testimonies from ‘insider’ witnesses of these events. Mogaki concludes by synthesising the findings of his extensive research into the historical trajectories of these two policy areas. He also elaborates on the degree to which his analytical framework can comprehensively explain different outcomes among different policy domains and different countries.

The ‘core executive’ analytical framework developed rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s to understand and explain how political power is distributed and exerted in the British government. It followed after some rather dualistic UK debates between advocates of the traditional concept of a collegial ‘cabinet government’ and those of a more hierarchical ‘prime ministerial government’ concept, as witnessed by the abrasive leadership style of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The concept of a core executive was introduced by Patrick Dunleavy and R.A.W. Rhodes to accommodate highly diverse patterns of coordination and decision-making across different policy areas in practice. It stressed that power among key actors is determined in a relational manner (see also Martin J. Smith 1999).

Several things make Mogaki’s research distinctive here. First, he extends the range of the Japanese core executive beyond the executive branch of the government, to include key ruling-party politicians. Second, he combines the core executive concept with elitist perspectives to explain the changing but also enduring structure of Japanese governance arrangements.

The continuities of elite power are buttressed by persuasive evidence that a small-scale non-statutory institution, the ‘preliminary examination system’ of the long-term ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), for a long time systematically granted LDP backbenchers a critical influence in all stages of policy-making process inside the government (39). This seems to stand in stark contrast to other parliamentary system countries, such as the UK, where strong party whips have long marginalised the roles of backbench MPs. (However, the House of Commons behaved far more ambitiously and independently during the exceptional ‘hung Parliament’ period of protracted Brexit negotiations from 2017 to 2019. Yet early indications are that the December 2019 election’s restoration of a single-party majority government has returned the UK almost back to its traditional patterns of governance.)

Mogaki observes that while the influence of Japanese backbenchers in the dominant party has declined in modern times, the relative power both of frontbenchers and top civil servants has increased. It is particularly remarkable that in spite of the fact that ministries have shifted their roles a great deal since the 1980s towards being ex-post, rule-based regulators, and many long-serving area-specialised politicians have withdrawn from political life since the 2000s, a more politicised unstable policy-making with no strategic planners has resulted (162).

On the other hand, it is not so plainly evident that Mogaki provides conclusive evidence that the Japanese core executive is as fully ‘asymmetrically dominant’ as his elitist viewpoints posit. Some longstanding explanations of the Japanese polity and society still seem to keep the field – such as a corporatist perspective (‘corporatism without labor’ (T.J. Pempel and Keiichi Tsunekawa 1979), or a pluralist perspective (such as Michio Muramatsu and Ellis S. Krauss’s ‘patterned pluralism’ and Masahiko Aoki’s ‘bureau-pluralism’). Some cases in the ICT policy arena show that other actors than politicians and top civil servants have sometimes been influential. For instance, a monopolistic company (the NTT, or the Nippon Telegraph and Telecommunication Company) was powerful enough to block legislation against their interests through lobbying (40-41). Perhaps we need more concrete evidence of the marginality of other societal actors in order to contend that the Japanese core executive as a whole has maintained an asymmetrically dominant position in policy-making and implementation (144).

Yet the book successfully gives detailed and consistent accounts of how the Japanese state has maintained its capacity to keep a grip on emerging issues in two policy areas, rather than being hollowed out by drastic changes in technologies and competitive environments. For instance, even the most contemporary and complex issues posed by GAFA are being addressed in forthcoming new regulatory legislation, which is supposed to be proposed to the Diet in 2020.

Overall, this book provides a well-evidenced narrative of how the Japanese state has been transformed into a regulatory state since the 1980s. It shows that the Japanese state or its core executive has played significant roles in each critical moment of this shift within both the ICT and anti-monopoly areas. Since the book is basically a retrospective on past policy processes in Japan, the analyses would be enriched by further probing into the ever-changing contexts of ICT and anti-monopoly regulations in a future where global enterprises are enhancing their comparative strengths and emerging as strong political actors against ‘smaller and weaker’ nation states. As the author shows with the Japanese case, each (reasonably substantial) country can respond somewhat distinctively to exogenous global challenges, guided by their different institutions, traditions and political systems.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatory, North Tower (Manish Prabhune CC BY 2.0).


Book on the Bloody Reality of the British Empire

John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (London: Bookmarks Publications 2006).

John Newsinger is the senior lecturer in Bath Spa University College’s school of History and Cultural Studies. He’s also a long-time contributor to the conspiracy/ parapolitics magazine Lobster. The book was written nearly a decade and a half ago as a rejoinder to the type of history the Tories would like taught in schools again, and which you see endless recited by the right-wing voices on the web, like ‘the Britisher’, that the British Empire was fundamentally a force for good, spreading peace, prosperity and sound government around the world. The book’s blurb runs

George Bush’s “war on terror” has inspired a forest of books about US imperialism. But what about Britain’s role in the world? The Blood Never Dried challenges the chorus of claims that British Empire was a kinder, gentler force in the world.

George Orwell once wrote that imperialism consists of the policeman and soldier holding the “native” down while the businessman goes through his pockets. But the violence of the empire has also been met by the struggle for freedom, from slaves in Jamaica to the war for independence in Kenya.

John Newsinger sets out to uncover this neglected history of repression and resistance at the heart of the British Empire. He also looks at why the declining British Empire has looked to an alliance with US imperialism. To the boast that “the sun never set on the British Empire”, the Chartist Ernest Jones replied, “And the blood never dried”. 

One of the new imperialists to whom Newsinger takes particular exception is the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson. Newsinger begins the book’s introduction by criticising Ferguson’s 2003 book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, and its successor, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Newsinger views these books as a celebration of imperialism as a duty that the powerful nations owe to their weaker brethren. One of the problem with these apologists for imperialism, he states, is their reluctance to acknowledge the extent that the empires they laud rested on the use of force and the perpetration of atrocities. Ferguson part an idyllic childhood, or part of it, in newly independent Kenya. But nowhere does he mention that the peace and security he enjoyed were created through the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau. He states that imperialism has two dimensions – one with the other, competing imperial powers, which have driven imperial expansion, two World Wars and a Cold War, and cost countless lives. And another with the peoples who are conquered and subjugated. It is this second relationship he is determined to explore. He sums up that relationship in the quote from Orwell’s Burmese Days.

Newsinger goes on to state that

It is the contention here that imperial occupation inevitably involved the use of violence and that, far from this being a glorious affair, it involved considerable brutality against people who were often virtually defenceless.

The 1964 film Zulu is a particular example of the type of imperial history that has been taught for too long. It celebrates the victory of a small group of British soldiers at Rourke’s Drift, but does not mention the mass slaughter of hundreds of Zulus afterwards. This was the reality of imperial warfare, of which Bush’s doctrine of ‘shock and awe’ is just a continuation. He makes the point that during the 19th and 20th centuries the British attacked, shelled and bombed city after city, leaving hundreds of casualties. These bombardments are no longer remembered, a fate exemplified by the Indonesian city of Surabaya, which we shelled in 1945. He contrasts this amnesia with what would have happened instead if it had been British cities attacked and destroyed.

He makes it clear that he is also concerned to celebrate and ‘glorify’ resistance to empire, from the slaves in the Caribbean, Indian rebels in the 1850s, the Irish republicans of the First World War, the Palestinian peasants fighting the British and the Zionist settlers in the 1930s, the Mau Mau in the 1950s and the Iraqi resistance today. He also describes how radicals and socialists in Britain protested in solidarity with these resistance movements. The Stop the War Coalition stands in this honourable tradition, and points to the comment, quoted in the above blurb, by the Chartist and Socialist Ernest Jones in the 1850s. Newsinger states ‘Anti-imperialists today stand in the tradition of Ernest Jones and William Morris, another socialist and fierce critic of the empire – a tradition to be proud of.’

As for the supporters of imperialism, they have to be asked how they would react if other countries had done to us what we did to them, such as Britain’s conduct during the Opium War? He writes

The British Empire, it is argued here, is indefensible, except on the premise that the conquered peoples were somehow lesser being than the British. What British people would regard as crimes if done to them, are somehow justified by supporters of the empire when done to others, indeed were actually done for their own good. This attitude is at the very best implicitly racist, and, of course, often explicitly so.

He also attacks the Labour party for its complicity in imperialism. There have been many individual anti-imperialist members of the Labour party, and although Blair dumped just about everything the Labour party stood for domestically, they were very much in the party’s tradition in their support for imperialism and the Iraq invasion. The Labour party’s supposed anti-imperialist tradition is, he states, a myth invented for the consumption of its members.

He also makes it clear that the book is also concerned with exploring Britain’s subordination to American imperialism. While he has very harsh words for Blair, describing his style as a combination of sincerity and dishonesty, the cabinet as ‘supine’ and Labour MPs as the most contemptible in the party’s history, this subordination isn’t actually his. It is institutional and systemic, and has been practised by both Tory and Labour governments despite early concerns by the British to maintain some kind of parity with the Americans. He then goes on to say that by opposing our own government, we are participating in the global fight against American imperialism. And the struggle against imperialism will go on as long as it and capitalism are with us.

This is controversial stuff. When Labour announced that they wanted to include the British empire in the school history curriculum, Sargon of Gasbag, the man who wrecked UKIP, produced a video attacking it. He claimed that Labour wanted to teach British children to hate themselves. The photo used as the book’s cover is also somewhat controversial, because it’s of a group of demonstrators surrounding the shot where Bernard McGuigan died. McGuigan was one of the 14 peaceful protesters shot dead by British soldiers in Derry/London Derry in Bloody Sunday in 1972. But no matter how controversial some might find it, it is a necessary corrective to the glorification of empire most Brits have been subjected to since childhood, and which the Tories and their corporate backers would like us to return.

The book has the following contents:

The Jamaican Rebellion and the Overthrow of Slavery, with individual sections on the sugar empire, years of revolution, overthrow of slavery, abolition and the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865.

The Irish Famine, the great hunger, evictions, John Mitchel and the famine, 1848 in Ireland, and Irish republicanism.

The Opium Wars, the trade in opium, the First Opium War, the Taiping rebellion and its suppression, the Second Opium War, and the Third Opium War.

The Great Indian Rebellion, 1857-58, the conquest of India, company rule, the rebellion, war and repression. The war at home, and the rebellion’s aftermath.

The Invasion of Egypt, 1882, Khedive Ismail and the bankers, demand for Egyptian self-rule, the Liberal response, the vast numbers of Egyptians killed, the Mahdi’s rebellion in the Sudan, and the reconquest of Egypt.

The Post-War Crisis, 1916-26, the Irish rebellion, 1919 Egyptian revolt, military rule in India, War in Iraq, and the 1925 Chinese revolution.

The Palestine Revolt, Zionism and imperialism, the British Mandate, the road to revolt, the great revolt, and the defeat and aftermath.

Quit India, India and the Labour Party, towards ‘Quit India’, the demand for the British to leave, the final judgement on British rule in India and the end of British rule.

The Suez Invasion: Losing the Middle East, Iranian oil, Egypt and the canal zone, Nasser and the road to war, collusion and invasion, aftermath, the Iraqi endgame.

Crushing the Mau Mau in Kenya, pacification, the Mau Mau revolt, war, repression, independence, the other rebellion: Southern Rhodesia.

Malaya and the Far East, the First Vietnam War, Indonesia 1945-6 – a forgotten intervention, the reoccupation of Malaya, the emergency and confrontation.

Britain and the American Empire, Labour and the American alliance, from Suez to Vietnam, British Gaullism, New Labour, and the Iraq invasion.


































Book Review: Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women’s Literary and Cinematic Fictions by Shazia Rahman

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 07/02/2020 - 11:21pm in

In Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women’s Literary and Cinematic Fictions, Shazia Rahman analyses how literary and cinematic creative works by Pakistani women draw connections between women and the environment and underscore the necessity of postcolonial ecofeminist theory to understanding Pakistani women’s contribution to the ecological field. This is a timely study, writes Sarah Hussain, showcasing fiction that amplifies the vital role of women when it comes to addressing the pressing global issue of environmental degradation. 

Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women’s Literary and Cinematic Fictions. Shazia Rahman. University of Nebraska Press. 2019.

Find this book: amazon-logo

Given the increasing ecological problems we are facing globally, Shazia Rahman’s book, Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism: Pakistani Women’s Literary and Cinematic Fictions, could not have been written at a more appropriate time. Literature is a powerful tool in helping humans understand problems by awakening an emotional response, and this is pivotal, because without emotional connection, one rarely feels the need to act. Rahman is a literary critic who has written about Environmental Humanities in a number of academic journals. However, Rahman’s latest published work gives readers an opportunity to consider the severity of today’s environmental problems, and Rahman highlights how this can happen through analysing literary and cinematic fiction. Her book shows why the exploration of postcolonial ecofeminist theory is essential in order for us to value women’s contribution in the ecological field.

Rahman’s book offers an interesting perspective on postcolonial ecofeminist works as she explores the representation of Pakistani women by analysing films – Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani (2003) and Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani (2008) – as well as novels – Sorayya Khan’s Noor (2006), Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing (2003) and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (2009). Rahman (16) states that:

through fictions, women can represent both what is and what could be, the dangerous possibilities and the ideal. Fictions allow us to imagine suffering as well as joy. They help us feel empathy for others and imagine better ways to live and seek justice.

The inclusion of Pakistani women in the ecological field is often ignored as media reports associated with the region are frequently connected with terrorism while other relevant news is often overlooked, especially in the Western media. Rahman’s book focuses on the neglected visibility of women’s roles in trying to prevent ecological degradation in the region. She argues that ‘Pakistan’s women’s attachment to their environment and their environmental concerns and issues are often ignored because patriarchal discourses about Islam and religion are dominant in multiple realms’ (4). This poses a problem as women’s knowledge regarding environmental regeneration is ignored, which is a huge detriment as their specific ecological knowledge would enable everyone to be more equipped to deal with climate change.


Rahman has chosen significant literature to draw attention to Pakistani women and their connection to the environment and place. The theme of ‘place’ largely informs her book, and through this theme she introduces us to the relationship between ecofeminist theory and postcolonial theory. As she states: ‘the postcolonial ecofeminism discussed in my book is an important answer to the dilemma of Pakistani intellectuals; instead of embracing religious nationalism or siding with U.S imperialism, this scholarship emphasises embracing our ecosystem and all the creatures in it while simultaneously resisting patriarchy’ (6). She believes that there should be more attention given to postcolonial Pakistani literary studies in order to address growing environmental problems.

The book emphasises how European colonialism has played a part in further oppressing both women and the environment. The analysis of Sumar’s film Khamosh Pani addresses the violence targeted at women and the environment as the film explores the 1947 partition of British India, in which Pakistan was created. Rahman highlights how the South Asian women portrayed in the film are exploited as is the environment due to the capitalist economic model. Rahman states:

since the empire has had a hand in oppressing the poor, sexual and gender minorities, non-white people, women, other species, and the environment, postcolonial theory, ecocriticism, and feminism are each equally important.

Rahman delves further into the ‘place’ theme as we are introduced to the problems associated with a human-made border.  By analysing the film Ramchand Pakistani, she explores the existence of the border between India and Pakistan, which is only marked by a white cemented line. Rahman explains how ‘as with the border created by colonial powers around the world, the border between Pakistan and India does not take the local people or the environment into consideration’ (61). We see how this border further impacts women as Rahman shows us through the analysis of specific characters. Her exploration of the displacement theme draws attention to the problems associated with war and nationalism. She argues that ‘nationalism and humanism oppress human and nonhuman others when we fight wars without regard for the land and all who live there’ (141). Rahman wants her readers to consider environmental problems as a global crisis by encouraging ‘throwntogetherness’. This concept requires humans to realise that the natural earth is a shared space that we occupy and it is essential for us to negotiate this space with humans and nonhumans alike.

To further highlight how women and the environment are exploited through the destruction of landscape, Rahman explores place-based postcolonial ecofeminism as she discusses the vernacular landscape of East Bengal. By examining the cultural landscape that evolved, this gives readers a chance to reflect on how it has been shaped by social attitudes. She does this by analysing Khan’s novel Noor (2006). Rahman states that ‘reading the novel through a postcolonial ecofeminist perspective, we see that the violation of the land was commensurate with the violation of people, especially women, and true healing will only come about with the acknowledgment’ (82). Through her analysis, Rahman highlights the atrocities caused in 1971 when Bangladesh gained independence and we further recognise people’s relationship with land. The story draws attention not only to East Bengal, but to the multiple partitions in the region. Rahman argues that ‘Noor implies that attention to space-time and vernacular landscape can lead to understanding and healing from the trauma of war and violence.’

When the natural land is abused, women are primarily affected as they use the land as a means of livelihood. Through Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism, we understand through Pakistani women’s creative work how women and the environment have been subjugated. Furthermore, we are able to appreciate the relationship between social and environmental justice. At a time when we must address climate change, it is essential to value the contribution of those women who have been primarily affected by ecological degradation and Rahman amplifies those voices by drawing our attention to significant literary and cinematic fictions of Pakistani women.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: Champa tying a manat to a tree next to a saint’s tomb. Screenshot from Ramchand Pakistani, directed by Mehreen Jabbar, published in Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism by Shazia Rahman and used by permission of University of Nebraska Press.


But Would You Live There?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 04/02/2020 - 6:07am in

Along with Vienna, Singapore is often mentioned as a place that has “solved” the affordable housing problem that plagues many cities around the world. 80 percent of Singaporeans live as owner-occupiers in housing built by the government. 80 percent! And 90 percent of Singaporeans own their own homes. (More on what “homeownership” means in the Singaporean context in a moment.) Not only that, there is little segregation between the three principal ethnicities that live in the island city-state. And, given the availability of low-cost housing, there is less homelessness in Singapore than in many comparable cities …something that actually saves the city a lot of money.

Compare that to what’s happening in the U.S.

From the New York Times:

The developed world’s wealthiest cities are facing housing crises so acute that not only low-income workers, but also the middle and creative classes, find them increasingly difficult places to afford. Redfin, the real estate website, recently found that there was not a single home on the market in San Francisco that would be affordable on a teacher’s salary. 

A city no one except the wealthy can afford is not really a city — which by nature thrives as fresh blood comes in — it is a gated enclave. The housing crunch in San Francisco, London, New York, Vancouver and lots of other cities where even moderately priced houses are scarce, however, is not inevitable. It’s often the result of policies and politics. The good news is that policies and politics can change. If we look beyond and examine what others have done we may find inspiration for what that change could be.

The Singaporean way

A lot of Singapore’s housing looks like what it is: efficient, affordable and government-built. In other words, not a lot of flair:

Singapore skylinePublic housing built by the government covers vast areas of the city. Credit: YouTube

Now, admittedly, from my biased point of view, these endless towers scream dystopia — here are the human termite mounds similar to those proposed by Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects who were often said to hate cities. “Ugh, how can they live like that?” I ask myself. But Singaporeans don’t necessarily share my prejudiced opinion. For them, this housing is working. I realized I should listen to how they feel about their city and leave my snobby preconceptions behind.

For the residents, having an apartment in one of these towers is to have a stake in the place where you live, a place that is clean and well run and often includes amenities like parks, garden plots, food courts and nearby transportation. Here’s a rooftop community garden:

Singapore rooftop gardenCredit: Erik Mustonen / American Society of Landscape Architects

How did they do this?

It didn’t happen overnight. The British ruled Singapore for a long time, and they failed to provide public housing despite the city’s struggle with slums, squatters and homelessness. So, in 1960, just after the island became self-governed, its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, initiated a five-year-plan through the newly created Housing and Development Board (HDB). Tasked with solving the city’s housing crisis, the HDB built over 50,000 homes in five years. By 1965, 400,000 Singaporeans were living in HDB housing. 

Today, the city has over a million HDB units, and few Singaporeans live in apartments bought on the private market. What makes the Singapore model different from most other cities is that the vast majority of the city’s housing is owned by the government. This not only allows the city to virtually guarantee affordable housing for its residents, it fundamentally changes the nature of housing — in effect, it says that a home a place to live, not an investment to enrich an individual. 

But that doesn’t mean Singapore is an island of renters. In 1964 a law was passed allowing folks in public housing to “buy” their homes. What they actually own, however, is a 99-year lease on the property. The government is still the actual owner, which means that while residents can buy, sell and even inherit property, the price is controlled. This hybrid system also means that the government maintains, renovates and upgrades the apartments free of charge. 

Homeowners in other countries might find this setup odd. We’ve become accustomed to thinking of a home as an asset — often our most valuable one — and a way to reliably grow one’s wealth. Not being able to do this might seem too restrictive. But as we’ll see, Singaporeans view housing in an entirely different way: as a right for all, as opposed to a source of profit for some.

From the Economist:

Many analysts hanker for a Singaporean solution to Hong Kong’s problems. The city-state realised early on that widespread home-ownership was essential to social peace. Over 80% of the population lives in homes built by government agencies, sold at subsidised prices. Phang Sock-Yong of the Singapore Management University says that, as far as housing is concerned, Singapore approximates the “ideal society” envisioned by Thomas Piketty in his book, “Capital in the 21st Century.” The bottom half of households own a quarter of Singapore’s housing wealth.

Diversity in housing

In parallel with creating a system that eliminates a range of housing problems, the city also decided that integrating the population was essential to the functioning of the city-state.  

Apartment racial harmonySigns drawn by children promote interaction between different ethnicities in an integrated apartment complex. Credit: Christine McLaren

Singapore has citizens whose backgrounds are Indian, Malaysian and Chinese. With independence, it was determined to continue to be a multicultural and multiracial society, and to make it work. Laws were enacted to ensure that the highest political positions reflect the racial diversity of the city-state. English was chosen as the language used in schools so as not to privilege any one ethnic group. At the same time, a short military service became mandatory for every young male, forcing men from different cultures to work together. 

Race riots in 1964 between Chinese and Malaysians left dozens dead and hundreds injured, and in 1989, quotas determining what percentage of each ethnic group can live in a tower were implemented. The goal was to prevent the creation of new enclaves and ensure diversity. Some enclaves still exist. In Little India, for example, I once witnessed the painless piercing that is part of the Hindu Thaipusam festival. (Devotees in trance have their skin pierced by long needles. Not for the squeamish.)

Thaipusam festivalCredit: William Cho / Flickr

My biased viewpoint, again: People like me might bemoan the end of places like Chinatown, Calle Ocho and Little Italy. But Singapore has decided that these segregated enclaves are, in the long run, harmful to the overall unity and health of the city-state. While many in the West might find these restrictions antithetical to individual freedom, a city without strife can be viewed as providing another kind of freedom. It seems the folks in Singapore are willing to trade some freedoms for the quality of life they get in return. 

From the top down

The policies described above are very top-down, implemented by a central authority that exerts extraordinary control over how people live. Folks from other parts of the world and other cultures may bristle at some of the ripple effects. There are laws outlawing chewing gum, feeding pigeons ($500) and connecting to someone else’s wifi ($6,400 or 3 months jail time). These may seem wildly exotic to those who don’t live there, but Singaporeans have largely embraced this top-down dynamic.

Durian fruitCredit: Christine McLaren

The city’s housing model helps illustrate why. Singaporeans see housing as a right and diversity in housing as a given. They may even pity those who don’t enjoy the same security and privilege. Top-down policies and practices established long ago have led to enviable social norms. The citizens have come to expect these things. The norms became the building blocks.

What both Vienna and Singapore have in common is that making housing available and affordable is considered a government priority and the responsibility of the state. It has worked. These are not communist or anti-business cities. (Singapore? Anti-business?) They are hybrids that mix state assistance and regulation with private investment. The state helps manage rapacious market forces for the benefit of its citizens. 

But would you live there?

Singapore is the world’s third-richest country and has among the most millionaires per capita. A Gallup survey found that Americans are twice as likely as Singaporeans to not be able to afford food. Food! A 2015 Bloomberg survey found Singapore to be the world’s healthiest nation (the U.S. ranked 33rd) and infant mortality is about one-third what it is in the U.S. In education? Singapore is second in math, science and reading — the U.S. is 36th, 28th and 24th, respectively.

Confidence in government? Check. Entrepreneurial opportunity? Check. Lack of corruption? Check. I could go on and on.

And yet, when I mention all these positive qualities, a friend of mine inevitably asks, “But would you live there?” I think this question speaks to the tension between surrender and control every city must navigate. Singapore is a control-oriented place. There are lots of restrictions on religious rights, rights of assembly, homosexuality, the press, expression and opposition to the government. All of these are things folks in the West deem pretty essential. In the West, the rights of the individual are often prioritized, often to the detriment of the broader public. We in the West give up some quality of life and economic security, but dammit we can chew gum and even spit it out!

I do ask myself: What if? Would I accept some restrictions in exchange for a healthier, safer life among citizens who are less desperate, better educated and less crazy-angry? If not, why the hell not? Need we be absolutist? Is there a reasonable tradeoff?

This acceptance of restriction and control may be key to Singapore’s success. It’s sometimes referred to as the difference between “freedom from” versus “freedom to.” Freedom from fear, from want, from religious persecution, from discrimination, from financial insecurity (though to be sure, Singapore, too, has an underclass that struggles to survive)… I would offer that Singapoeans prioritize these while many Americans prioritize “freedoms to” — to say what you want, to criticize the government, to organize, to bear arms, to marry and have sex with others as long as no harm is done.

gum on sidewalkAmerican pavement. Credit: Hanna Miriam Larsen / Flickr

A couple of weeks ago, I asked whether we can borrow from the best aspects of what China does without endorsing the worst. In the case of Singapore, we face a similar question. Can we learn from Singapore’s successes with subsidized housing, home ownership, and cultural and racial representation, while simultaneously not feeling obliged to adopt every part of their restrictions and control? Or are they two sides of the same coin? Do those restrictions keep the good stuff running smoothly? Do Singaporeans happily accept that “freedom from” should be prioritized over “freedom to?” Should we? Would you live there?

The post But Would You Live There? appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Trotsky on the Failure of Capitalism

I found this quote from Trotsky on how capitalism has now outlived its usefulness as a beneficial economic system in Isaac Deutscher and George Novack, The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology (New York: Dell 1964):

Capitalism has outlived itself as a world system. It has ceased to fulfill its essential function, the raising of the level of human power and human wealth. Humanity cannot remain stagnant at the level which it has reached. Only a powerful increase in productive force and a sound, planned, that is, socialist organisation of production and distribution can assure humanity – all humanity – of a decent standard of life and at the same time give it the precious feeling of freedom with respect to its own economy. (p. 363).

I’m not a fan of Trotsky. Despite the protestations to the contrary from the movement he founded, I think he was during his time as one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution and civil war ruthless and authoritarian. The Soviet Union under his leadership may not have been as massively murderous as Stalin’s regime, but it seems to me that it would still have been responsible for mass deaths and imprisonment on a huge scale.

He was also very wrong in his expectation of the collapse of capitalism and the outbreak of revolution in the Developed World. As an orthodox Marxist, he wanted to export the Communist revolution to the rest of Europe, and believed that it would be in the most developed countries of the capitalist West, England, France, and Germany, that revolution would also break out. He also confidently expected throughout his career the imminent collapse of capitalism. This didn’t happen, partly because of the reforms and welfare states established by reformist socialist parties like Labour in Britain and the SPD in Germany, which improved workers’ lives and opportunities, which thus allowed them to stimulate the capitalist economy as consumers and gave them a stake in preserving the system.

It also seems to me that capitalism is still actively creating wealth – the rich are still becoming massively richer – and it is benefiting those countries in the Developing World, which have adopted it, like China and the east Asian ‘tiger’ economies like South Korea.

But in the west neoliberalism, unregulated capitalism, certainly has failed. It hasn’t brought public services, like electricity, railways, and water supply the investment they need, and has been repeatedly shown to be far more inefficient in the provision of healthcare. And it is pushing more and more people into grinding poverty, so denying them the ability to play a role as active citizens about to make wide choices about the jobs they can take, what leisure activities they can choose, and the goods they can buy. At the moment the Tories are able to hide its colossal failure by hiding the mounting evidence and having their hacks in the press pump out favourable propaganda. But if the situation carries on as it is, sooner or later the mass poverty they’ve created will not be so easily hidden or blithely explained away or blamed on others – immigrants, the poor themselves, or the EU. You don’t have to be a Trotskyite to believe the following:

Unfettered capitalism is destroying Britain – get rid of it, and the Tories.

Book Review: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/01/2020 - 10:56pm in


Asia, book review

In The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India CompanyWilliam Dalrymple gives a new character-driven account of the ascent to power of the East India Company following the collapse of the Mughal Empire and the resulting ‘anarchy’ that followed. Tracking the Company’s ruthless profiteering and territorial conquests, The Anarchy is not only a fine addition to Dalrymple’s studies of the emergence of British rule in India, but also prompts reflection on the dangers of corporate excess in our present, writes Thomas Gidney

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. William Dalrymple. Bloomsbury. 2019.

The rapid collapse of the mighty and opulent Mughal Empire in the early eighteenth century stands as almost an enigma of history, but perhaps what was even more improbable was its complete replacement not by a rival state, but by a European trading company a century later. In his latest work The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple charts the disintegration of India into a state of civil strife and atomisation, providing a valuable window of entry through which the British sealed their rule over the subcontinent.

Much of the research of The Anarchy is built on pre-existing studies of the East India Company and eighteenth-century India, although it is accompanied by an important assortment of manuscripts and Mughal chronicles from Indian and British archives. The Anarchy doesn’t necessarily seek to radically retell the history of the Company or push a new argument or debate; it’s about the way Darlymple recounts the story. He offers a journey through a war-torn and beleaguered eighteenth-century South Asia, focusing on the characters rather than underlying social movements. By concentrating on Mughal nobles, English merchants and Indian financiers, with all their intriguing attributes, Darlymple breathes life into figures from history who, for many of us, are simply names in historical textbooks.

Although some may dispute this character-driven version of events, the attention given to individuals supplies endless nuance and can help in understanding the importance of the social and personal ties that build history. After all, the infamous Battle of Plassey (1757) that marked the way for British dominion in India was not primarily won due to the larger historical currents such as the superiority of European military technology, but because the Nawab of Bengal was betrayed by his ambitious general, Mir Jafar. The instigators of the plot – the Jagat Seths, Marwari-Jain bankers and kingmakers in Bengali politics – reveal the significance of private actors in the rise of the Company. Indeed, the Company itself was not emblematic of a state-driven institution but one responsible to its shareholders. Nor was the East India Company devoid of influence over the British state, as its members used their great wealth to buy positions in Westminster. This emphasis on historic actors effectively breaks down the distinction between state and private agents.

The purpose of the actual ‘anarchy’, the collapse of the Mughal Empire, is largely covered in Chapter One rather than forming a study unto itself, serving to contextualise the rapid ascendency of the East India Company. Although Darlymple recounts the fall of Delhi to the Persian forces of Nader Shah in 1739 with the chagrin of Edward Gibbon’s recounting of the Fall of Rome, The Anarchy’s focus on the rise of the East India Company somewhat skates over the histories of other successor Empires. Though regularly mentioned, the Maratha Empire of the Deccan that arguably instigated the collapse of the Mughals, as well as the short-lived Durrani Empire from Afghanistan that invaded the former Mughal heartlands, are not the focus of this book. Instead they play a supporting role, as both allies and ultimately opponents of the East India Company in its rise to power.

Image Credit: ‘The Surrender of the Two Sons of Tipu Sahib, Sultan of Mysore, to Sir David Baird’, Henry Singleton, circa 1800 (Yale Center for British Art, Public Domain courtesy of ArtUK)

When it comes to examining the Mughal’s twilight years however, Dalrymple dives much deeper into the intricate court politics and the tragic figure of one of the last Emperors to make a bid for resurrecting Mughal glory, Shah Alam. A young, intelligent and empathetic leader, Alam’s position as a Mughal Prince granted him considerable gravitas and legitimacy that the Company saw as a possible basis to justify their growing rule in India. Though often little more than a pawn in the clash for supremacy in North India, he was relatively effective as pawns go, almost bringing the Mughals to the cusp of political resuscitation, before being brutally humiliated, robbed and blinded by his former hostage, Mir Quasim. Through these figures of the Mughal Court, Darlymple covers the Mughal Empire’s death throes more forensically than the rise and fall of India’s other Empires.

The real focus of the book, the Company’s ‘relentless rise’, traces the Company from its piratical origins in the Elizabethan period as the birthchild of early monopoly companies that had operated in Turkey and Russia. Despite its less-than-stable origins, the nascent East India Company ran the gauntlet of competitors from Portuguese merchants to the initially more successful Dutch East India Company, before confronting the growing menace of the French ‘Compagnie des Indes’. Only with the anarchy, the collapse of the Mughals and India’s descent into atomisation and civil strife could the East India Company begin its rapid ascent to South Asian hegemony.

The first half of the book begins with the Company’s dominance over Bengal, and its clashes with the local Nawabs for control. This is largely conducted by the figure of the brutish but cunning Robert Clive, whose combined use of subterfuge and aggression won the Company the Mughal right as the ‘Diwani’, or economic comptroller of Bengal. With Bengal, arguably one of the richest regions in the world, under the Company’s control as of 1757, the East India Company gained a dominant position in India. Company officials engaged in a systematic orgy of asset-stripping Bengal, contributing to one of Bengal’s worst famines, killing millions. Rather than organise effective tax or famine relief, as was common among Indian rulers, the Company maintained its tax harvesting to sustain a high share price.

This cold-hearted profiteering is presented as a cautionary tale of the excess of modern-day mega-corporations. However, unlike the less militarised financial institutions of today, the Company’s perfidious actions in Bengal doomed it to evolve into a quasi-governmental organisation. The pillaging of Bengal contributed to the ultimate crash in the Company’s share price, leading to one of the world’s first massive bailout packages in exchange for greater parliamentary scrutiny, which would soon position the UK Parliament and the Company at loggerheads. Edmund Burke’s famous prosecution of the Company’s Governor-General, Warren Hastings – often held up as an admission of guilt by Indian nationalist historians of Britain’s drain of wealth from India – was, Dalrymple argues, aimed at the wrong individual. An intellectual, an Indophile as well as a sharp administrator, Hastings is deemed by Darlymple to have been largely innocent of the many charges levelled against him (though he does not dispute the Company’s general behaviour in Bengal, which occurred often in spite of Hastings).

With Hastings’s removal from office, the Company become a very different organisation, and one run increasingly by military commanders rather than merchants. Backed by Bengal’s tax revenues, the Company, under the control of a redemption-seeking Lord Cornwallis after his failure against American revolutionaries, alongside the Wellesley brothers (including the future Duke of Wellington), embarked on large-scale territorial conquests exceeding those of Napoleon in Europe. Their main opponents, the fractured Marathas and the fearsome Tipu Sultan, reveal the rapidity by which Indian Princes adopted European methods of warfare. Accompanied by a panoply of European mercenaries, Indian armies rapidly closed the technological gap with the British. Yet the financial ability of the East India Company to raise funds for its wars by the end of the eighteenth century allowed it to host much larger armies, often dwarfing the number of troops the British government fielded back in Europe.

Dalrymple concludes with the fall of Delhi in 1803, when the aging and blind Shah Alam finally comes under the Company’s custody again in a full circle of events. The capture of the Ozymandian city of the Mughals sealed the Company’s hegemony over South Asia, coating their rule with the legitimacy endowed by the Emperor. The choice to finish the book in 1803 rather than with the end of the Marathas in 1818, when the last major South Asian Empire (with the exception of the Sikh Empire in Punjab) had been annexed, accentuates the transfer of power from the Mughals to the British. Although this diminishes the history of other Indian states, it stresses the significance of the retention of Mughal symbols in early British rule, a strange, unbalanced, symbiotic relationship that was simultaneously destroyed half a century later in the Indian revolt of 1857.

The Anarchy is yet another fine addition to Dalrymple’s histories of the rise of British rule in India, setting the scene for his earlier work on the British invasion of Afghanistan (Return of a King, 2012) and the Sepoy Revolt of 1857 and the (re)-capture of Delhi (The Last Mughal, 2006), as well as illustrating the dangers of corporate excess in our present.

Thomas Gidney is a PHD student at the IHEID Graduate Institute in Geneva. His research focus is on India’s historic ties to international organisations, and British India’s membership of the League of Nations.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Book Review: Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media by Sarah T. Roberts

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 26/11/2019 - 12:46am in



In Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social MediaSarah T. Roberts explores the work conditions and experiences of people employed in ‘commercial content moderation’, drawing on interviews with those tasked with detecting and removing harmful and upsetting online content. As the problems faced by CCM workers reveal the economic, social and political distortions of the digital age, this book will be of interest to social science researchers as well as anyone who is a user of social media, writes H. Guney Akgul.

Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media. Sarah T. Roberts. Yale University Press. 2019.

Find this book: amazon-logo

Today, we encounter fake news, terrorism, child exploitation, cyberbullying and racism on social media more easily and swifter than offline, although there are global workforces and algorithms that are designed to detect and remove such content as soon as possible. After reading Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media by Sarah T. Roberts, we can only imagine the path of social media if there were no such workforce or gatekeepers.

In her book, Roberts introduces a new term for this hidden workforce: ‘commercial content moderation’ (CCM). More than 100,000 people are employed as CCM workers, yet they are anonymous on social media. Roberts focuses on understanding how this work shapes their professional and private lives and tries to find answers to a number of questions over eight years of fieldwork: ‘Who were they? Where did they work and under what conditions? What was their work life like? What decisions were they being charged with?’ (23). But, according to Roberts, the most critical question was: ‘why were we not collectively talking about them, about the work they did and its impact on them and on the internet so many of us consume and where so many of us spend our lives?’ (24). Her search for answers to these questions brings a new explosive contribution to the literature.

The overall content of Behind the Screen is based on extensive fieldwork through one-on-one interviews with CCM workers who have spread around the world to places including Silicon Valley, rural Iowa, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines and India. In Chapter Two, Roberts sets out her theoretical framework and creates a ‘taxonomy of the locations and conditions that are typical for most content moderation workers’ (40). Roberts details four basic types of work situation for professional moderators: in house; boutiques; call centres; and microlabour websites, as shown in Table 1 (41-43). Each type is evaluated based on three points:

  • Worksite location (From where they can work?)
  • Employment characteristics (What is their task? What kind of company do they work for?)
  • Employment Status (Contract and salary information)

Roberts proceeds to include interviewees to represent the whole spectrum of these different types of work situation.

Behind the Screen discovers the low-wage and low-status nature of CCM work as well as its psychological pressures (71). In so doing, Roberts critiques earlier theorists’ expectations concerning post-industrial labour in the twenty-first century, Manuel Castells being an important figure among these. These theorists anticipated that workers could find jobs with greater flexibility, mobility and higher status, and would have even more leisure time in the Information Age. However, as Roberts later mentions with reference to David Harvey’s explanation of the nature of neoliberalism, these changes have been ‘of benefit almost solely to employers and corporate interests’ (196). Above all, through later interviews with CCM workers in the Philippines, the author reveals the existence of a flow reminiscent of the formal colonial form as Western companies benefit from the cheap labour market in Asia and have privileged rights. East Asian countries have created ‘special industrial zones’ or ‘special economic zones’ for Western industries, meaning that companies can now easily access ‘globalized knowledge work’, rooted in tax exemptions as well as cheap, low-status and contractual labour (60-67).

Image Credit: (Photo by Philipp Katzenberger on Unsplash)

As a result of Roberts’s interviews, it is clear that no one has consciously been trained to work on commercial content moderation: they chose this kind of work because they did not know about the content of the job and had no better offers. Interviews with workers in Silicon Valley, who were working for ‘MegaTech’ (the pseudonym for a major multinational internet giant), reveal that they are generally well-educated, new graduates. They were still vague on the details of CCM work, even after job interviews (77). Since ‘MegaTech is a major global distribution platform for people attempting to draw attention to all sorts of causes, including political crisis, conflicts, and war crimes’ (98), CCM workers encounter countless upsetting material as they watch videos to ensure they do not contain violence, porn, harassment or hate speech. Max Breen, who was working for Megatech, shares his experience in the book. During the Arab Spring, he had to work with extensive violent content; decisions about whether or not this can be displayed are usually related to current US foreign policy (99). The relationship between this and Silicon Valley, long discussed in the media, is revealed in this section of the book.

Paradoxically, although companies look for well-educated employees for CCM, the job itself is mainly based on ‘a click’, hence it has become routinised. Josh Santos, who works for MegaTech, mentions that ‘it is factory work, almost. It is doing the same thing over and over.’ With this routine, workers not only feel insignificant in society but also disconnected from other people. As Santos puts it: ‘you kind of feel like you spent eight hours just in this hole of filth that you don’t really want to talk about it’ (118). Even relationships with their partners were negatively affected. Breen claims: ‘Horror movies are ineffective at this point. I have seen all that stuff in real life’ (122). Their private and social lives become damaged; they do not have fully subsidised health insurance to protect their mental health; and they are working under low salaries and short contract periods.

The book makes a convincing proposition as to why social media companies like Google, Facebook and ‘MegaTech’ create bad working conditions for CCM workers: this is an inherited problem under neoliberalism that cannot be separated from historical dynamics of capital and labour relations. The other problem that Roberts considers is why people are creating this kind of content, and why we need such gatekeepers. As we know from events such as the Arab Spring, social media has been accepted as constituting a new public sphere, especially focused on revealing and organising social movements. But the levels of fake news circulating in social media have also played an important role in the ‘unexpected political triumph of [Donald] Trump’ and the ‘Brexit campaign’ (204), raising doubts about the democratic status of social media.

Roberts talks to Melinda Graham about her CCM experience at YouNews between 2007 and 2008 (156). She confirms that one can’t really win discussions on social media. If you warn users not to make insulting comments, it is very easy to get extremely threatening messages in return. Another problematic aspect: upper management  warned her that ‘we don’t want people to think we are censoring them’ (159). With this kind of policy, the domination of people who make such comments on social media is expanding day by day. As a result, CCM workers cannot share their identities on social media. As Graham states:

I am queer, I am femme, I am an atheist, I’m pretty much a working-class identified woman, I am married [to another woman], I am pretty much what these people hate. That’s my identity and […] that was not necessarily a prudent identity to make public when you are trying to do a moderation job (162).

Yet, algorithms or filters cannot stop such users. They easily find a way to work around them. The book reveals the problematic structure of social media through these experiences.

In Chapter Five, Roberts reflects on the effects of former colonial relations on today’s digital labour, including historical legacies of ‘military, economic and cultural dominance’ (183). Metro Manila is one of the metropolitan areas and special economic zones of the Philippines and contains seventeen cities or municipalities. These kinds of special ‘ecozones’ have been urbanised partly based on the needs of global companies, ‘such as uninterrupted electricity, the capacity for large scale bandwidth for data transfer, and so on’ (183). Metro Manila has countless ‘business process outsourcing’ centres or call centres (172). Eastwood City, where  Roberts interviews five CCM workers, is one such centre. Besides answering calls, these workers are responsible for combining profiles for a dating app that has millions of users all over the world. Drake Pineda, one of these young workers, reveals how they compete over time: ‘we have a quota, it’s like 150 [tickets] per hour’ (178). Another worker, Sofia de Lenon, states that it was previously 100. In the interviews, one of the reasons for this increase is seen as a cheaper service in India. They used to work with 105 colleagues before; now there are only 24 people. In their words, social media platforms are establishing their own colonies of exploitation in such ecozones where workers’ rights cannot develop.

Behind the Screen, the result of Roberts’s years of research, gives us insight into a period when social media is no longer novel. Roberts provides a thorough study of those employed in CCM, highlighting the dark sides of social media, and clearly demonstrating the economic, social and political distortions of the digital age through the problems faced by CCM workers. This book will be of interest to social science researchers as well as anyone who is a social media user.

H. Guney Akgul is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at the University of Wroclaw and engaged in research on the public sphere and political communication.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Book Review: The Archive of Loss: Lively Ruination in Mill Land Mumbai by Maura Finkelstein

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/10/2019 - 9:59pm in


Asia, book review

In The Archive of Loss: Lively Ruination in Mill Land MumbaiMaura Finkelstein confronts the assumption that the city’s textile industry is a relic of the past, instead showing how the ‘lively ruins’ of the mills are experienced by those who live and work in them. This gripping book will be enriching reading for all those interested in the processes and experiences of deindustrialisation in the Global South, writes Sinead D’Silva.

The Archive of Loss: Lively Ruination in Mill Land Mumbai. Maura Finkelstein. Duke University Press. 2019.

Find this book: amazon-logo

During my childhood, a joke that played on puns using the names of various companies amused many. It went something like this:

A: Why Crompton Greaves?

B: Because Bombay Dyeing.

A: Why is Bombay dying?

B: Because Raymond Suiting. [shooting]

When I was an undergraduate student in Bombay (Mumbai), this seemed to take on a different meaning for me, hinting at the (de)industrial history of the city. Maura Finkelstein’s The Archive of Loss: Lively Ruination in Mill Land Mumbai is an enquiry into the (relatively recent) status of the mills in Mumbai. As the common narrative sits, the city had been through deindustrialisation and is now post-industrial. The mills were a key site through which this process was evident – or considered so anyway. Following the Great Textile Strike of 1982-83 and mysterious ‘accidental’ fires since 1965 until 2006, claiming every mill in the city (most were later redeveloped into residential complexes or malls), the textile industry was pronounced dead.

Finkelstein’s book calls into question – even confronts – this assumption presented through representations of the decline of the textile mill industry in Bombay, or present-day Mumbai. A distinct contrast appears as the author compares (re)presentations of the mills (through movies, museum exhibitions by civil society groups, political presentations and mill-owners) that create mythologies of the industry with the stories of the lived experiences of those working in a functional textile mill. Finkelstein demonstrates that the mills as sites of production are not all dead, even if they are in the process of decay. Herein lies a contradiction of the city and the people within it.

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork undertaken as part of the author’s PhD research during the period of 2006 to 2009 – with a focus on the last two years – the book presents the experience of workers employed in a mill in the heart of the industrial area of Mumbai: Central Mumbai. Finkelstein is motivated by an objective to expose the issue of ‘misrecognition of Central Mumbai’s textile industry […] of presence for absence’ (16) and thus re-present the story of the mills as it is known and lived. The impact of this contrasting narrative of death/lively ruination of the mills is presented through five key sets of ‘archives’ (of knowledge): namely the Archive of the Mill; the Archive of the Worker; the Archive of the Chawl; the Archive of the Strike; and the Archive of the Fire. In so doing, Finkelstein embarks on a monumental task. Through each archive, we are reminded that the mills are alive and kicking – even if only just. These archives are not just of the mill and other associated sites, but rather of the city.

Image Credit: Abandoned machinery at Madhusudan Mills, Mumbai (anarchytecture CC BY 2.0)

As the book progresses through its ‘Archives’, Finkelstein makes a very clear case for a toppling over of the current way in which the mills are understood, propounding a shift in the narrative of the deindustrialisation of Mumbai towards viewing it as alive. I begin to wonder if this can perhaps be done beyond just the mills. The book offers a real challenge to the way in which deindustrialisation in this megacity through the mill workers is framed not only in scholarship but also in the public imagination through civil society groups, media and so on.

Rather than go through each of the chapters of the book, which are very succinctly presented in the Introduction, I wish to highlight two aspects through the Chapter-Archives that are compelling about this book: this goes beyond the novelty of presenting millworkers with considerably more agency than is often afforded to them. The first key concept that can be relevant beyond anthropological thinking is the notion of ‘queer chawl time’, or rather the anachronism that exists within the housing spaces built specifically to house migrant labourers for the textile industry. Although the rest of the city is presented as globalised and modern, the chawl acts as a space where the notion of progress is challenged through a different experience of time. Here, destruction, rebuilding, materiality, memory, communal living, the idea of home and domestic space are but a few aspects that influence how time is experienced within chawls.

Of all the chapters, the fourth appeared to me as being the most striking (excuse the pun), though the argument and content are built up through the preceding chapters. In Chapter Four, Finkelstein confronts truths and untruths about the strike and how it was experienced by mill workers. Here, the unifying identity of the mill worker is challenged as disparities between migrants from different parts of the country are revealed in all of their complexity. The God-like imagery surrounding the charismatic leadership of the Great Textile Strike of 1982-83 and the Strike itself are seen very differently by Maharashtrian and North Indian workers. This communal and regional tension is rather unsurprising, but the way in which Finkelstein uses this to make sense of the wider failure of the Strike is where this chapter presents an important way of thinking. Both Maharashtrian and North Indian participants are revealed as exaggerating their stories – the former about the success of the Strike and the latter about vulnerability and victimisation as a result of it. Finkelstein reflects: ‘I have grown to see how this form of storytelling is generative, even if it is also understood as factually inaccurate’ (114). Instead, thinking of behaviour through the lens of affect renders the stories as capable of patching together a better understanding of the sentiments associated with the Strike, keeping with the idea of this being an ‘archive’.

In many ways, Finkelstein’s work is very refreshing. It is not at all simplistic nor does it focus on ‘one issue’ to tell the story. The data involved is rich, and the theoretical framings and arguments very persuasive, though sometimes it verges on over-indulgence in patching together a number of sources in a somewhat bric-a-brac nature (though this could possibly be the style of anthropological writing). Here, the footnotes are essential to understanding the underlying intention of what could appear as mere claims, and sometimes it may feel tedious to have to flick to the back of the book to know more. The book itself, however, is narrated through a gripping form of storytelling: in many ways it is reminiscent of a thriller novel as the various layers of the story are revealed. For me, some topics were not confronted as well as they could have been, such as caste – all the participants, though workers in the class sense, were high-caste/savarna. On reflection, Finkelstein defends this presentation as respecting the interlocutors who themselves tell her not to ask about it (131). Instead, the manifestation of caste is presented in subtle ways throughout the book.

The Archive of Loss side-steps some of the confrontational questions surrounding development and deindustrialisation, such as assertions of the inequalities and differential impact of such changes on people, often in an absolute sense. Instead, it asks questions about the obvious: the lived reality of those who are revealed as having been ignored or rendered invisible by the aforementioned claims. The book is enriching for anyone interested in deindustrialisation in the Global South. It presents the complexity of the context exceptionally well as it incorporates various themes that may seem bewilderingly unfamiliar to others who have not experienced it, for which Finkelstein rightly makes no apology.

Sinead D’Silva is a social researcher (Sociology and Geography) interested in work in society. She recently completed her PhD on youth transitions from a STEM degree at University of Leeds and will begin a European Fellowship on young people employed in tourism in Goa and Lisbon at Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Book Review: Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point by Gyan Prakash

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 03/10/2019 - 9:02pm in


Asia, Democracy, India

In Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning PointGyan Prakash challenges historiography that presents the Emergency of 1975-77 as an anomalous period in India’s recent history, instead showing how it grew out of existing political traditions, the legacies of which can still be felt in the present. This valuable analysis not only shows how Indian socioeconomic structures have moulded its politics, but also suggests a way to understand the wider challenges facing contemporary politics in many parts of the world, writes Ben Margulies

Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point. Gyan Prakash. Princeton University Press. 2019.

Find this book: amazon-logo

It is common in the age of Donald Trump to warn about ‘norm erosion’ – the process where an authoritarian or populist leader defies or undermines the rule of law. Trump’s personalised attacks on opponents are cast as norm erosion as they denigrate the idea of loyal opposition; ditto his threats to, say, re-introduce torture.

Corey Robin, a political scientist at Brooklyn College, often points out on his blog and elsewhere that Trump’s predecessors were not, in fact, great defenders of liberal norms. The George W. Bush administration authorised interrogation techniques that amounted to torture, and one of Bush’s legal advisers became a tenured professor at the University of California at Berkeley; the US military commitment in Afghanistan began two presidents ago. Robin describes ‘the slow delegitimation of American national institutions since the end of the Cold War’, starting with the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991:

It continued with the gratuitous impeachment of Bill Clinton, the elevation of George W. Bush to the White House by a Supreme Court deploying the most specious reasoning, a war in Iraq built on flagrant lies, the normalization of the filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and now the ascension of Trump. ….

Robin’s arguments came to mind quite a bit as I read about the very different context of India in the 1970s, the subject of Gyan Prakash’s excellent Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point. Prakash says that, in most Indian historiography, the Emergency is a sort of blip, when democracy blinked out of existence before its fortuitous restoration. But Prakash uncovers how the Emergency grew organically out of Indian political traditions, and how those traditions continue today. Prakash’s analysis of this political culture, and the way Indian socioeconomic structures mould its politics, suggest a way to understand the wider problems of unruly contemporary politics in many parts of the world.

Indira Gandhi exemplified the Nehru-Gandhi era in Indian politics, when this family dominated the ruling Indian National Congress and a succession of majority governments. Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977, and again from 1980 to 1984, she led a developmental state, committed to the industrialisation and uplift of ‘a population of multiple tongues, regions, religions and cultures’ that ‘had to be fused into a nation’ and made modern (51-52). In the period between 1973 and 1975 Gandhi faced an economic downturn, a mass campaign for her removal led by Gandhian activist Jayaprakash Narayan and a court case that threatened to strip her of office. Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency on 25 June 1975. For the next 21 months, she would jail her opponents, muzzle the press, deflect judicial review and wield nearly unchecked executive power, often in tandem with her eldest son, Sanjay.

Image Credit: Indira Gandhi, 1977 (Nationaal Archief, CC0)

Prakash recounts the Emergency, and Indian political history more broadly, through a series of topical chapters which often sweep down to focus on a particular human drama to illustrate a specific topic. The story of student activist Prabir Prakayastha takes us through the world of preventive detention; the trials of Old Delhi’s walled city serve to illustrate the violent slum clearance and sterilisation campaigns (India saw more than 8 million sterilisation operations in 1976-77 (284)). These are often compelling, though Prakash spends perhaps a bit too much of the book on Sanjay Gandhi and his Maruti project, a failed bid to build a small passenger car in India’s closed market.

Prakash writes that the Emergency’s declaration ‘is […] seen as a sudden irruption of authoritarian darkness and gloom’, and ‘an abrupt disavowal of the liberal-democratic spirit that animated Jawaharlal Nehru [Indira Gandhi’s father] and other nationalist leaders’ (8). One of the key arguments of his book is that this conventional view is wrong: Indian political order always contained ‘authoritarian darkness and gloom’. The Indian National Congress and the Constituent Assembly met in an India mired in ‘backwardness’, new to democracy and riven by an exceptionally bloody Partition. ‘Violence and upheaval were on the minds of the lawmakers’ (56).

Consequently, India’s ruling elites embedded sweeping emergency provisions in the Indian constitution (adopted in 1950), while working to strengthen the central government and limit restrictions on its executive power. For example, the Indian constitution does not require the government to uphold ‘due process of law’ in detaining (or indeed, killing) someone, but merely ‘procedure established by law’ (62-63). India passed its first Preventive Detention Act in 1950 (66-68). Prakash argues therefore that the Emergency was not a departure from Indian norms, but rather an intensification of authoritarian practices New Delhi had employed from independence.

Why were India’s elites, in founding the world’s largest democracy, so illiberal in their habits? Partly it was because they thought it necessary for national development; Indira Gandhi often cited economic development and the fight against poverty as justifications for emergency rule. B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit scholar often considered a father of Indian constitutionalism, argued that a strong centre and a developmental state were necessary for democracy to function at all, because the state would abolish caste discrimination and level out economic injustice – ‘without equality and fraternity, liberty would be meaningless’ (70).

Prakash’s other great contribution in this volume is to draw on Ambedkar to link the Emergency to a particular sort of elite-society relations. Prior to Independence, India had never enjoyed universal suffrage, so Indian governments were not used to mass politics aside from the civil disobedience and strikes associated with Mahatma Gandhi (who was not related to Indira Gandhi). For mass politics to work, India’s Congress governments would have to create a more prosperous and equal society.

By the late 1960s, it was clear that wealth and equality were not in India’s immediate future. ‘The consequences of this failure are profound,’ Prakash writes (126). Without equality, ‘empowering the disadvantaged can only mean climbing the power ladder rather than kicking out the ladder altogether’, meaning that Indian democracy devolved into a competition between various clienteles and interest groups playing ‘a game of power’, rather than working as ‘an instrument of social transformation to make equality the norm’ (127).

The result is an Indian politics steeped in authoritarianism. Gandhi, unable to relate to the masses through a Western-style mass democratic party, could only handle mass politics through a combination of repression and a cult of personality, trying to create a single pyramid of power and devotion focused on her and her son. On the ground, the opposition developed into a fractious set of warring parties, often based on specific castes or regional bases. These parties managed to unite as the Janata Party to defeat Indira Gandhi when she belatedly – and overconfidently – called an election in 1977, but they soon fell apart (as Prakash details in a chapter towards the end of the book), allowing Gandhi to return to office in 1980.

This leaves secular, democratic India defenceless against its main ideological competitors – Maoist Communism (in the form of the Naxalite revolt) and the Hindu nationalists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliated parties. The RSS offers a mass politics, but one based on a majoritarian, illiberal and often violent Hindu chauvinism. The Hindu nationalist political camp has long been one of India’s most potent social forces – Prakash details how Narayan’s opposition and Janata depended on Hindu nationalists. Fittingly, Prakash mentions Narendra Modi in his opening and closing chapters.

Perhaps the only unmet ambition in Emergency Chronicles is Prakash’s wish to situate the Emergency and its associated turmoil in the wider history of the post-1968 period. The author hints at this theme a few times, but does not really develop it in depth. This is unfortunate, because many developing polities faced similar stresses during the 1970s, and responded with emergency rule. Prakash alludes here to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rise and fall in Pakistan, a theme he could have developed more, especially given Pakistan’s own clientelistic, top-down politics. (Anatol Lieven compares India and Pakistan in his book on the latter country.)

That aside, Prakash has written a valuable work, which embodies important lessons and certainly speaks to contemporary issues. Emergency Chronicles reminds us that the horrors of our histories do not emerge from the clear blue sky, but from long traditions of (mis)rule. The book also warns us that democracy is a game played by equals – or else a rigged game, where someone is always threatening to take the ball and go home.

Ben Margulies is a lecturer in political science at the University of Brighton. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Warwick. He specialises in European, comparative and party politics.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Squeezing a Balloon

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/09/2019 - 8:50pm in


trade, USA, Asia, China

Via the Financial Times I have read the Asian Development Bank Asian Development Outlook 2019 Update. The outlook has an interesting section on the impact of the US-China trade war on the region. Let me simply quote the relevant paragraph: “Recent trade data also provide evidence of trade redirection. In the first 6 months of 2019, US imports from the PRC fell by 12% from the same period in 2018. At the same time, US imports from the rest of developing Asia rose by about 10%, with notably large increases of 33% for Vietnam; 20% for Taipei,China; and 13% for Bangladesh” (page 14). I also copied and pasted the figure in the following page:

This was to be expected. Of course trade diversion is not automatic, nor costless. Supply chains need to be reorganized, bottlenecks may appear. But it is obvious that as long as US demand for the goods produced abroad remains strong, if the price of these increases in China, the demand will look elsewhere. Now, the US has been recording substantial negative net lending (the sign of an excess of domestic demand over supply) since at least the early 1990s:

The source of this excess demand has not always been the same. Sometimes corporations, rarely households (most notably in the run-up to the crisis), and most of the times the government.

In particular, in recent years households have experienced excess savings, initially joined by corporations which then gradually went to equilibrium. The government is keeping demand high, and as a consequence the trade deficit alive.

The tariffs on China, in this context, are just like squeezing a balloon. As long as US domestic demand remains strong, compressing Chinese imports simply pops imports from Vietnam, or Bangladesh, or who knows what other country next. As long as American excess demand will persist, somebody elsewhere will provide the supply for it. Reducing bilateral trade deficit with China is not a solution to persistent excess domestic demand.

Of course, the US could impose barriers to imports from all countries. This would solve the problem and reduce the trade deficit. Higher import prices and competition between households, firms and the government, would reduce purchasing power and, together with excess domestic demand, the welfare of American voters. Mr. Trump should try this before November 3rd, 2020.