Wednesday, 15 August 2012

What is the Global South?

The other day I was having lunch with an old friend who teaches the sociology of the family. She has noticed that lately her students have been using the term “global south” a lot, and she asked me what I thought of it. This gives me the chance to expound on one of my pet peeves. My students use the term “global South” to contrast the world’s rich with the world’s poor and to show their sympathies with the South.  But when I ask them where the global south is, they are stymied.
It’s not a geographical term. Some countries south of the equator are rich, such as Australia and New Zealand. Others are or are becoming middle-income countries, such as Chile. And in the North, there are many poor countries; one of the poorest, Haiti, is in both the North and the West. Another area that is very poor is the Arab Middle East, in the northern half of the world.
Nor is global south an economic term, meant to embrace all “underdeveloped” countries as “southern” regardless of their actual geographical location. Some formerly underdeveloped countries, both in the north and the south, are becoming much wealthier than they used to be when academic concern with underdevelopment first became widespread in the 1970s. About three billion people live in a group of six growing economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and Mexico, some in the north and some in the south. China has been growing in leaps and bounds since it embraced authoritarian capitalism in 1979.  India has been growing since 1991, when it relinquished economic protectionism. China is now an exploiter of Africa, where it grabs up oil and minerals without a concern for internal development or democracy and human rights; it certainly doesn’t belong in the same “south” as the Africa it cheerfully pillages for resources.
Finally, the global south is not a good political term. China is now a major player on the world scene and in the United Nations Security Council, and many commentators think that this century will be the “Asian century” with China in the lead. The emerging economies also have more political clout, especially through the formation of regional political and economic blocs, such as the Organization of American States and the African Union.
When students use the term global south, they often mean to imply that the south is poor because the north is rich; that is, the north has been exploiting the south.  Yet we know that many causes of poverty are internal to the countries that experience it, not external. A few years ago the Arab Development Report, written by Arab scholars, mentioned the lack of democracy as one of the chief causes of underdevelopment in the Arab Middle East. In China there are still gross inequalities between rural and urban areas, and migrants to the cities are treated particularly badly: this is a result of domestic policy, not “northern” exploitation, past or present. In India, much poverty is a result not of relations with the north but of the caste system and severe gender discrimination. In Africa, a chief cause of underdevelopment is government corruption: witness Nigeria, whose hundreds of billions in oil revenues are ripped off by the governing elites and their cronies.
So what it comes down to, as far as I can see, is that the global south is Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that is in the geographical south, is very poor, and still has very little global political influence. It’s not a good idea, then, to use the term global south. The so-called south is divided by geography, economic prosperity, and political influence. The world is too complex to be divided into two categories, especially when such categories conflate the present with the past.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Irresponsible Intellectuals

Karl Marx, 1875
Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
This past week I read an old book by Paul Johnson, Intellectuals. It’s about twelve prominent intellectuals, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Lillian Hellman (the only woman).  Johnson’s thesis is that to be able to evaluate intellectuals’ theories, you should also understand their private lives. What we learn from this book is that almost all the intellectuals he discusses treated their women in their lives terribly, no great surprise. Also, most of the ones who claimed that they spoke for “the workers” had nothing at all to do with workers, except perhaps their servants and the mothers of their illegitimate children. An example is Karl Marx, who had a son with his household servant but never helped care for him or recognized him as his child.

Johnson’s bias in this book is obvious. He calls the leftist intellectuals with whose ideas he disagrees “intellectuals,” while he reserves the term “men of letters” for more moderate or conservative thinkers. One of his intellectuals is Jean-Paul Sartre, famous for his apologetics for the Soviet Union. When asked about the gulag (the system of Soviet prison camps), he replied, “As we were not members of the Party… it was not our duty to write about Soviet labour camps; we were free to remain aloof from the quarrels over the nature of this system, provided no events of sociological significance occurred.” He also admitted lying after visiting the Soviet Union, partly because “it is not polite to denigrate your hosts.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, 1950
Retried from Wikimedia Commons
While conducting research on the historical backgrounds of the state-induced famines I am currently researching, I found a number of other examples of irresponsible intellectuals. Approximately 3.3 million Ukrainians (and many others) died in the state-induced famine of 1932-33 in the Soviet Union. Yet British observers such as the socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb travelled through Ukraine at the height of the famine and brought back glowing reports of the harvest. George Bernard Shaw in 1931 “discovered that Stalin was a fine fellow and that everyone in Russia had plenty to eat.” Walter Duranty, a reporter for the New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his reporting on the Soviet Union. He claimed in November 1932 that there was “neither famine nor hunger,” yet he was aware of the famine’s extent, privately telling both American diplomats and fellow journalists that as many as ten million people might have died of hunger. He finally admitted in the press in 1933 that there were food shortages in the Soviet Union, but famously defended Soviet policies by stating that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
As in Ukraine, Western journalists were either duped or closed their eyes to what was happening during the Great Leap Forward in China, 1958-62. When asked by editors at Look magazine to investigate reports of famine, the American journalist Edgar Snow blamed the reports on Cold War propaganda, and in his later memoirs wrote “I diligently searched, without success, for starving people or beggars to photograph.” The leftist French politician—and later President of France--François Mitterand, visited Mao during the Great Leap Forward and later reported uncritically Mao’s contention that there was no famine, only “a period of scarcity.”
Leftist intellectuals also disregarded the plight of the Cambodians during Khmer Rouge rule, 1975-79. In their single-minded mission to expose the United States’, but not other states’, violations of human rights, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman referred in 1979 to a “propaganda campaign” that they maintained ignored “interpretations of developments in Cambodia that departed from the theme of systematic genocide.”
Slavoj Žižek, 2009
Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
And now we have to ask about the Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Žižek. According to an article in the July 12, 2012 New York Review of Books by John Gray, Žižek thinks neither Mao nor the Khmer Rouge went far enough in their attempts to create new, revolutionary societies. Gray quotes Žižek referring to revolutionary violence as “divine” and “redemptive.” If Žižek really celebrates violence as Gray suggests, does it matter? Is he merely an obscure intellectual whose influence is limited to those who actually ready the International Journal of Žižek Studies, but whose thinking doesn’t influence anyone in the real world of policy-making? Liberals, and those who value human rights, are proponents of freedom of speech, while university scholars like me also try to protect academic freedom at all costs.  But do we have a responsibility not to glorify violence and not to ignore evil? I think we do.

Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988, quotesfrom Sartre on pp. 243 and 244.
John Gray, “The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek,” New York Review of Books, vol. 59, no. 12, July 12, 2012, pp.22-24.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Torture in American Prisons

August 2, 2012
Unnamed California State Prison where inmates are incarcerated in a gym,
retrieved from
Anyone reading the title of this blog would immediately think that I am referring to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners in the “war on terror” were and are kept, but I am not. I am referring to a law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
Michael Mushlin is a law professor at Pace University who works on prison reform.  I happened to meet him a few years ago while on vacation in Ontario’s Algonquin Park, and later I invited him to Wilfrid Laurier University, where I work, to present a talk on US penal conditions. While I knew that the US has a horrifically high rate of incarceration, especially of black men, the pictures Michael showed us really drove the point home. Prisoners in California were stacked on narrow bunk beds as if they were in clean concentration camps. No one could live in such complete lack of privacy without getting into fights or going crazy.
Now I have learned from an article Michael wrote (reference below) that prisoners can’t sue for damages in the US, no matter how cruel, inhuman or degrading the conditions they live in, unless they can show that they actually suffered physical injury. Here are the cases Michael Mushlin describes. Steven Jarriett spent thirteen hours in a two and a half square foot cage in which he could not even sit, but even though he had a bad leg and was in pain, the court ruled he had not suffered any physical injury. Tyron Alexander and Kevin Carrol were stripped naked and confined together in a urine and feces ridden cell: they had to eat their food with their bare hands in that infected box, but the court ruled they were not eligible for compensation because they weren’t physically injured. And Essam Mohammed Jameel Najeed Adnan (note the Muslim name) spent three months in solitary confinement, with shackled legs and arms and only three hours a week out of his cell, as a result of which he suffered from depression; again, the court ruled he had not suffered any physical injury.
Michael Mushlin argues that these horrible cases violate the Eight Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. They also violate the Convention against Torture, one of the few international human rights instruments the US has actually signed. Michael estimates about 75,000 to 100,000 prisoners in the US are kept in solitary confinement, yet as long as they are not physically injured, it doesn’t matter how mentally ill they become or how disgusting and degrading the conditions, they cannot seek relief from the courts.
So what this means, in my view, is that torture is widespread within US prisons. Maybe it’s time to try some Americans at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity—but wait a minute, we can’t, because the US hasn’t signed on to the ICC.
Michael Mushlin, “Unlocking the Courthouse Door: removing the Barrier of the PLRA’s Physical Injusty Requirement to Permit meaningful Judicial Oversight of Abuses in Supermax prisons and Isolation Units” Federal Sentencing Reporter, vol. 24, no. 4, April 2012,  pp. 268-75.