Gramsci on the State, the Proprietorial Class, and the Sovereign Laws of Capitalism

“In the sphere of general capitalist activity, even the worker operates on the plane of free competition, is a citizen-individual. But the starting conditions of the struggle are not equal for all, at the same time: the existence of private property places the social minority in conditions of privilege, makes the struggle unequal… The laws of history were dictated by the proprietorial class organized in the state. The state has always been the protagonist of history, because in its organs it gathers the power of the proprietorial class, in the state the proprietorial class disciplines itself and forms itself in unity, above the infighting and blows of competition, to maintain intact the condition of privilege in the supreme phase of competition itself: the class struggle for power, for pre-eminence in the direction and disciplining of society.”                                                                                                                                    (Antonio Gramsci,  The Conquest of the State, 1919)

Gramsci

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B&B: RIP Lynn Stout // Inequality endures // Politics and consumer behavior // Skidelsky on Keynes // Women and Wall Street // Congratulations to Patrick Le Galès

>The Shareholder Value Myth R.I.P Lynn Stout, an internationally recognized scholar, prolific writer, passionate speaker, devoted teacher.
Her path-breaking and highly compelling book The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public (2012) became an influential intellectual alert. In recent weeks, she completed the manuscripts for two new books that will be published in the coming year. May her legacy live on through her scientific, educational, and public work and contribution.

In the past 700 years inequality only declined significantly after the Black Death and the two world wars — by Guido Alfani

When activism and advertising collide: “Politics and consumer behavior have never been so closely intertwined as in the last few years”, argues Brayden King

“Economics is not useless. It can either be very harmful, which it often is, or very Beneficial” — an interview with Robert Skidelsky on Keynes, Keynesianism, and Post-Keynesianism.

> Pioneering women stockbrokers and Wall Street, from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression — by George Robb

Racial underpinnings of global inequality: Reading today Walter Rodney’s classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa — Tianna Paschel

Congratulations to Patrick Le Galès (Sciences Po) on being awarded the prestigious Silver Medal by the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), becoming one of the few social scientists to receive this honor

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Great academic opportunities: 14 calls for papers, 9 summer schools, 6 PhD fellowships, 5 postdocs, and 2 visiting positions

Dear ES/PE community member, see below an abundant list of great call for papersacademic opportunities: 14 calls for papers for conferences and workshops (some are fully or partially funded), 9 summer schools (fully or partly funded), 6 doctoral fellowships, 5 postdoctoral positions, and 2 visiting positions — in various areas of economic sociology, political economy, and related fields, with May 15 — June 1 deadlinesShare this post with your colleagues and students. Good luck!

Calls for papers:

> CfP: “Crossing Boundaries: Economic Sociology and its Intersections“, The European Sociological Association Economic Sociology research network (RN09) Midterm Conference, Universität Konstanz (Germany), September 13-15, 2018. Five travel grants for early career researchers are available.  DL: May 15 (Extended: May 27)

> CfP: “Work, knowledge and power in contemporary capitalism”, the 4th ‘Social boundaries of work’ conference, University of Gdansk (Poland), October 2526, 2018. DL: May 15

> CfP: “The Global North – Welfare policies, mobilities, inequalities, and social movements“, Nordic Sociological Association conference,  Aalborg University (Denmark), 8-10 August, 2018. DL: May 16

> CfP: “Money, Migration, and Morality”  and “Markets and Morality” and “Political Theory and the Future of Work” workshops, The MANCEPT Workshops – an annual conference in political theory, University of Manchester (UK), 10 – 12 September, 2018. Graduate students and early-career researchers whose papers have been accepted may apply for bursaries. DL: May 18 – 31 (look at the specific CfP) 

> CfP: “Political Economy of Capitalism” conference for PhD students and junior scholars, University of Geneva (Switzerland), August 27-29, 2018. Participants will be provided with travel stipend and accommodation. The keynoters are Mary O’Sullivan and Bruno Amable. DL: May 25 

> CfP: “Studying Economics and Finance differently“, The 1st symposium of the Association to Renew Research and Education in Economics and Finance,  University of Fribourg (Switzerland), 14-15 June 2018. DL: May 29

> CfP: “10 years into the crisis – What prospects for a popular political economy in Europe?“, the 24th Conference on Alternative Economic Policy in Europe,  the University of Helsinki (Finland), September 27-29, 2018. DL: May 31

> CfP: “Welfare state under attack“, the Chamber of Labour Vienna and the Society for Pluralism in Economics conference (Austria), 8-9 October, 2018. The conference is free of charge. Participants will be reimbursed for train travel cost within Austria, and may apply for accommodation subsidies.  DL: May 31

CfP: “How to Conceptualise Financialisation in Developing and Emerging Economies?“, the Cambridge Political Economy Society Workshop, University of Cambridge (UK), 13-14 December 2018. There is no registration fee; accommodation will be provided; a small financial assistance might be provided too. DL: June 1 

CfP: The Newberry Seminar in the History of Capitalism, The Newberry research library, Chicago (Illinois, USA). DL: June 1

> CfP: “Re-imagining economic security and wellbeing in an age of precarity” workshop by TASA ‘Sociology of Economic Life’ and ‘Work, Employment and Social Movements’ Thematic Groups, Melbourne (Australia), November 23, 2018. DL: June 1

> CfP: “Obstacles to Development” the 7th Annual Sociology of Development Conference, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois, USA), 19–21 October, 2018. DL: June 1

> CfP: “All things considered… Material Culture and Memory” conference, University College Cork (Ireland), November  9-10, 2018. DL: June 1

> CfP: The Newberry Seminar in Labor History, The Newberry research library, Chicago (Illinois, USA). DL: June 1

Postdoctoral positions:

> Postdoctoral positions to join “Labor Perspectives to Human Trafficking” ERC project, Tel Aviv University (Israel). DL: May 30

Postdoctoral researcher within “State-led Capitalism and New Modes of Development Finance” project, Maastricht University  (Netherlands). DL: May 30

Postdoc position in Sociology of Labour / Socio-Economic Sociology, the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium). DL: June 1

Post-doctoral fellowship to study the effects of the economic recession on the production and reproduction of gender and social class inequalities, DEMOSOC Research Group of the Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona, Spain). DL: June 1

> Postdoc post in the field of social and economic history, Centre for Contemporary and Digital History, University of Luxembourg. DL: June 1

Visiting positions:

> The Jos Berghman Welfare Studies visiting stipend for junior scholars and PhD students in social policy and social work to spend a research term in KU Leuven (Belgium). DL: June 1

> Visiting positions within “Labor Perspectives to Human Trafficking” ERC project, Tel Aviv University (Israel). DL: June 1

PhD scholarships:

Doctoral position in Transnational Labor Markets, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies and the University of Duisburg-Essen. DL: May 20

Graduate assistant (PhD student) in Social Inequality and Social Policy, University of Lausanne (Switzerland). DL: May 27

PhD scholarship in Professional and Corporate Networks, Copenhagen Business School (Denmark). DL: May 30 

> The Second Most Important Pitch: How Digital Start-Ups Must Navigate the Endorsement Economy to Scale“, PhD studentship in the area of ‘Valuation Studies’, University of Edinburgh Business School (Scotland, UK). DL: May 31

>  The Rise of the Financial Elite – Access, Integration and Spread of Power”, two PhD positions at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lausanne (Switzerland). DL: May 31 

Doctoral candidate in social and economic history, Centre for Contemporary and Digital History, University of Luxembourg. DL: June 1

Summer schools / PhD workshops:

> CfA: “Social Research on Employment and Welfare Interactions“, the 3rd PROMEBI Summer School, Department of Sociology, University of Oviedo (Asturias, Spain), September  3-7, 2018. Tuition fee, board, lodging will be covered. DL: May 15

> CfA: “The changing structure of the economy and the role of the state: de-industrialization and financialization“, the 12th EAEPE Summer School, University Roma Tre (Rome, Italy), 2 – 6 July, 2018. There is no school fee. DL: May 15

> CfA: “Governance at the ‘edge’ of the state? Resources-Materiality-Governance” summer school, Ghent University (Belgium), 11-14 September, 2018. DL: May 15

CfA: “Selling (critical) finance: Getting your work published“, Early Career Researcher Writeshop, Warwick Critical Finance Group, University of Warwick (UK), September 3-4, 2018. Limited funding is available to support travel expenses for unfunded participants. DL: May 16

> CfA: “Fairness and the Economy: Theoretical, Ethical and Political Aspects”, The 21th Summer School on Economic Thought, Economic Philosophy and Economic History for PhD and young scholars, University of Thessaly (Greece), August 31- September 4, 2018. A modest fee covers hotel accommodation and meals. DL: May 21

> CfA: “Capitalism, Crisis and the Neoliberal State“, a Summer School at SOAS University of London, 2 –  20 July, 2018. DL: May 25

CfA: “The Role of the Future in Economic and Political Sociology: Between Stabilizing Expectations and Extending Crises”, PhD seminar, Max Planck Sciences Po Center on Coping with Instability in Market Societies (Sciences Po, Paris), September 24-26, 2018. No participation fees; travel and accommodation costs will be covered. DL: May 31. Recommended

> CfA: The European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy Young Scholars Pre-Conference, Nice (France), 5 – 6 September 2018. The EAEPE conference will be held on September 6-8. There is a fee waiver for a limited number of students and young researchers without other funding opportunities. DL: May 31

> CfA: “Contemporary strands of institutional theory and its application to management research” PhD course, NORD University (Bodø, Norway), August 27-31, 2018. The course is free of charge, including lunches and dinners; for participants from the Nordic countries the accommodation will be covered by organizers. DL: June 1

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Who is in Control of Markets: Humans or Financial Models?

by Ekaterina Svetlova*

The recent stock market correction raised again the question of who is in control of markets: humans or technology. Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman said on CNBC that „humans are definitely in charge of the decisions in the market” and that “the algorithms are written basically on the back of a human decision.” At the same time, CNBC quoted influential banking analyst Dick Bove who claimed that “the United States equity markets has been captured by out-of-control technological investment systems”. My new book Financial Models and Society: Villains or Scapegoats? broadly addresses this controversy.
Financial Models and Society Villains or ScapegoatsIt challenges the accusations made towards financial models (not just algorithms) in the recent years, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. The arguments behind these accusations are familiar: financial models are abstract and unworldly constructs so that their users are predestined to be misguided. Thus, the argument goes, as insufficient models became widespread tools for decision-making in financial markets, the vast majority of market participants were seduced by their mathematical sophistication and followed them towards alleged safety.
The book argues, however, that models cannot be condemned indiscriminately. Generally, it claims that the discussion about dangers induced by financial models is based on the principal misunderstanding of models’ roles in markets. The aforementioned accusations are rooted in a conceptualization of models as “calculative tools” which directly guide investment decisions. In other words, there is an implied assumption that models tell people what to do and that the latter blindly follow models’ advice. However, this book suggests – and demonstrates using various empirical examples – that financial models do not ultimately determine investors’ decisions and actions. The role of models is subtler: they do not dictate financial decisions but make them possible in different ways.
Financial decision-making is characterized by radical uncertainty which is not calculable. Thus, calculations provided by models are unable to grasp the ever-changing, uncertain reality of markets. In other words, there is always a gap between models and (market) reality. However, financial market participants cannot allow themselves to be detached from the markets. They are a part of the markets themselves and, thus, their decisions cannot be based on model calculations only, that is, on calculations that leave out expectations, emotions, stories, judgments and – importantly – the modelling efforts of other market participants.

Models are constantly connected with markets in action-like decision-making which implies more than calculation. This connecting involves engaging with the world by simultaneously observing, deciding and taking actions and happens in various ways and styles.
The book uses qualitative research methods to investigate and systematize distinct practices of model use in financial decision-making. This analysis and systematization is an important novelty of the book. The case studies clearly highlight that there is no separation between calculation, judgment, decision-makers and markets. Rather, there are constant shifts of attention from models to markets and back as well as the constant formation of judgments and their application, of which models and markets are a subject but also a part. It is about judgment with models and about models, with markets (what do others think?) and about markets (what is my view?).
The book empirically identifies three general modes of “bringing together” models, markets and users in the process of action-like decision-making: “qualitative overlay”, “backing out”/”implied modelling” and “models as opinion proclaimers.”
In the case of “qualitative overlay”, the model results are compared with a pre-formed judgment and serve as an anchor but not as an ultimate guide for decisions. For example, fund managers often use the DCF model as a point of departure for decision-making but frequently overlay it by their judgment call rendering the model just a supportive tool.
In the case of “backing out” and “implied modelling”, models are used to observe the markets and to figure out the mistakes in model users’ estimates in order to correct the mistakes or to identify new investment opportunities. Good examples here are reverse engineering in portfolio management and “reflexive modelling” (Beunza and Stark 2012) in the field of merger arbitrage. In the latter case, arbitrageurs “back out” the implied probability of a merger, the probability namely that is assigned to the merger’s success by the market. Then, the “implied” probability is compared to the traders’ subjective views. If there is a disagreement (“dissonance”), traders start to ask: “What am I missing?” or “What do my models not see?” Hence, merger arbitrageurs use models to determine the behaviour of other investors, to compare their own views with the views of others and to establish a position based on this socially informed calculation.
Finally, models can be applied to express market participants’ pre-formed opinions about the market or a security. The book shows how security analysts form their views about a company and then identify the numerical parameters that should be inserted into a model in order to support their pre-formed views.
Furthermore, the book makes a general distinction between frontstage use of models (decision-selling and justification) and back-stage use (decision-making). In other words, it demonstrates that there are not only different styles of financial models’ involvement in decision-making but also that models play various roles in decision-selling. They provide legitimacy for decisions, perform impression management, convince others to invest and help to reach a consensus; those secondary functions can overlay the primary goals of model use (i.e. calculation) and render models less important for immediate decision-making.
The analysis of cultures of model use in the book suggests that model users are by no means “model dopes”; they do not “blind out” model deficiencies but rather consciously make “insufficient” models work in a not uniform way. The central argument is that it is exactly because the styles of model use vary that there is no way that different users derive the same results from their models and make the same decisions.
Hence, models’ influence on markets and society is not straightforward; their power is far more fragile than widespread criticism would indicate. The general claim that financial markets have become a purely analytical and quantitative place might be exaggerated. Human influence has not disappeared; rather, it unfolds in the multifaceted interplay between users and models in the practice of markets. The book demonstrates that we find large “pockets” where human judgment and stories are as important as the complicated formulas and algorithms. Hence, the general designation of financial models as the ultimate villains is questionable because their influence on markets is clearly mediated by the practices of their use.
———————————-
Ekaterina Svetlova is Associate Professor in Accounting and Finance at the University of Leicester, School of Business. She also used to work as a portfolio manager and financial analyst at a big investment company in Frankfurt/Main, for six years. Professor Svetlova has published on themes such as economic sociology, social studies of finance, and economic philosophy.

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Reading on Karl Marx’s 200th anniversary

karl marx anniversary

There’s nothing like marking Karl Marx’s bicentenary reading these “Red” newspapers!
😉

And, read “Karl Marx@200: Debating Capitalism and Perspectives for the Future of Radical Theory“, an interesting Communication, Capitalism & Critique (open-access) special issue, featuring thought- and action-provoking articles by David Harvey, Michael Hardt, Toni Negri, Erik Olin Wright, Slavoj Žižek, Silvia Federici, Ingo Schmidt, and others — edited by Christian Fuchs and Lara Monticelli. The issue ends with a full English translation of Rosa Luxemburg’s essay “Karl Marx”, originally published in March 1903.

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Folk economics, economic sociology, and Trump’s campaign

When did we beat Japan at anything? They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn’t exist, folks. They beat us all the time!” (Donald Trump, June 2015)

Most of us are aware that people’s view of how things actually work differs from the kind of knowledge that is pursued in scientific research and via analytical thinking. Common sense notions are generally partial, biased, and incorrect; this ‘folk science’ largely consists of misunderstandings and stereotypes. So the question is — how social scientists should treat widely shared ideas and perceptions of folk science: as popular ignorance which is ought to be replaced with real science? Or as special type of knowledge that has a distinct value in itself and can be helpful in understanding the social world?
Richard Swedberg, a distinguished economic sociologist and social theorist, recently published in Theory and Society a very interesting and intellectually engaging article on what he terms — Folk Economics. Swedberg starts “Folk economics and its Role in Trump’s Presidential Campaign: an Exploratory Study” (see an open-access link below) with asking: “can the idea of folk economics help us to understand better the way the economy works and how people approach economic problems and issues? Or should the term instead be reserved for people’s ignorant and erroneous conceptions of the economy?” (p. 4). Swedberg then elaborates:

Folk economics has as its task to analyze and explain how people view the economy and how it works; what categories they use in doing so; and what effect this has on the economy and society. Where do people think that unemployment comes from? What do they think that banks do? Why do men, women, and children carry out different tasks in the household?… [The article focuses] on the meanings, and especially the full sets of meaning that people use in their daily life; and on the consequences that these meanings have” (p. 1-2)

After discussing existing studies in economics and sociology that are relevant to folk economics, Swedberg presents his twofold contribution: theoretical and empirical. He suggests a theoretical framework for analyzing folk economic issues that is centered on the distinction between episteme and doxa or between scientific knowledge, on the one hand, and everyday knowledge, on the other.
This theoretical framework is applied to an enlightening exploratory case study of the role that folk economics played in Trump’s presidential campaign, Trump’s view of the way the economy works, and his economic messages. It is clearly shown that Trump the Candidate and many of his followers, who brought their views on the economy to the electoral process, thought in a parallel way on key economic issues, especially trade and job creation.
Karl Polanyi and Ralph Miliband, time after time, sprang to my mind while reading this compelling article. It seems to me that Professor Swedberg is also troubled by the broader consequences of folk economics in the era of folk politics. Therefore he concludes with Tocqueville’s assertion from Democracy in Americaif one decides to withdraw to “the small world” of family and friends and ignore what is happening in “the big world” of institutions and politics, it becomes easy for unscrupulous politicians to seize power, bringing about ‘democratic despotism’. “
The kind of political knowledge that Tocqueville thought was necessary for democratic societies to work properly was not the knowledge of academic experts or episteme, but doxa of the type that people acquire by being engaged in politics themselves. People learn about politics by doing political work, in the communities where they live. A similar argument can in my view also be made for some aspects of economic knowledge.” (Swedberg 2018: 26)

GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Gives Economic Policy Address In Detroit

Swedberg, Richard. 2018. “Folk economics and its Role in Trump’s Presidential Campaign: an Exploratory Study.” Theory and Society 47: 1-36 

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Human Being in the ATM called New York

inequality

Newsstand, 7th Ave & 28th St intersection, Manhattan, New York City, USA
(photo courtesy of Professor Darren Rosenblum)

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Income Inequality is Detrimental to Political and Civil Equality

“Money provides power and power provides freedom”, asserted C. Wright Mills in his masterpiece The Power Elite sixty years ago (1956: 162). In shadow of recent several decades of globalization and neoliberalism, University of Utah researcher Wade Cole took Mills’ argument a step further and conducted an extensive study to actually probe the relationship between political, civil, and economic inequality around the world. Because of its empirical breadth, and scholarly and publicly important findings, Cole’s sound article “Poor and powerless: Economic and political inequality in cross-national perspective, 1981–2011” is impressive and worth sharing.

“Using data for up to 136 countries between 1981 and 2011, this study analyzes whether and how income inequality affects the distribution of political power for, and respect for the civil liberties of, a society’s rich and poor people. When income inequality is high, do rich people command greater political power and enjoy stronger civil liberties than poor people do? To answer these questions, the study uses both pooled regression analyses and two-stage models with instrumental variables to identify causal effects. The results are decisive: income inequality is inimical to both political and civil equality. These findings hold for developed as well as developing countries and for democratic as well as nondemocratic countries.”

political-income inequlity worldwide

 

Cole, Wade M. 2018. “Poor and powerless: Economic and political inequality in cross-national perspective.” International Sociology 33(3): 357-385.

 

 

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B&B: Thomas Piketty on Tony Atkinson // Cultural birth of Austrian Economics // Slavery made capitalism // Cold War fueled Free Market // Gendering of money // Topology of finance

This time, especially worth reading  and sharing articles:

> Thomas Piketty reflects on Tony Atkinson’s remarkable intellectual journey, his path-breaking works, and his last book Inequality: What Can Be Done?

How 1920-30s Viennese politics and culture shaped Austrian Economics and its key thinkers — by Erwin Dekker

> Slavery was not a hidebound institution that capitalism destroyed, but an integral one that made capitalism possible — Eric Herschthal on the global history of cotton, slavery and the state 

> Cold War philosophy tied Rational Choice Theory to scientific method and embedded “free-market” mindset in US society — by John McCumber

The Gendering of Finance: the surprising tale of why money in England has long had a female face — by Claudine van Hensbergen

> A big reason credit markets froze-up in 2008 was confusion about who was exposed to whom. So, can regulation applying Network Science prevent a financial crisis and decrease systemic risk? — by Bob Henderson

Car drifting in Saudi Arabia is embedded in the country’s economic inequality, urbanization and social violence — an interview with Pascal Menoret on his book Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Revolt

credit default swap market

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Commercialization and the Far Right: Consuming and Constituting Extremism

by Cynthia Miller-Idriss*

Advertisers and marketers have long known that brands and commercial products are deeply intertwined with individuals’ identities. But with few exceptions, mainstream social scientists have been slow to acknowledge that economic objects can have constitutive power for identities. The connection between material culture and extremist identity is even less explored. In The Extreme Gone Mainstream (Princeton University Press, 2018), I examine how far right ideology has been commercialized in Germany through the creation of high-end brands which sell clothing and products laced with far right iconography and messages. This commercialization is part of a radical transformation that has taken place in the style and aesthetics of German far right subculture—and indeed, among far right youth globally, including in the U.S. In this book, I argue that style and aesthetic representation serve as one gateway into extremist scenes and subcultures by helping to strengthen racist and nationalist identification and by acting as conduits of resistance to mainstream society.
Extreme Gone Mainstream Commercialization and Far Right Youth CultureThe book draws on a multi-phase research project studying these brands, their messages, and how youth in and around far right scenes understand them. In the first phase, I analyzed thousands of images gathered from the archives of professional photographers who track the far right in German public settings like protest marches, music festivals, and demonstrations, along with hundreds of screenshots and additional images and photographs of symbols, logos and brands I gathered from historical and museum archives in the U.S. and Germany and in everyday places. Following the image analysis, I launched a second phase of field research to conduct 62 interviews with young people and their teachers in two German vocational schools with histories of far right extremist youth presence. The interview data aimed to explore whether and how youth in and around far right scenes understand the symbols, what they think they mean, and what the messages in the clothing can teach us about the appeal of far right extremism more generally.
The new branding phenomenon emerged shortly after the turn of the 21st century, when the brand Thor Steinar launched a slick mail-order catalog selling high-quality, well-made clothing coded with historical, colonial, and mythological references related to the far right. Other brands quickly entered the fray, sharing a reliance on mainstream-style, expensive clothing and the use of coded symbols that evoke, connote, or directly reference far right ideological viewpoints or mythic ideals appealing to the subculture. Over a dozen brands in Germany alone now sell mainstream-style, expensive clothing with embedded far right symbols and messages.
My interviewees clearly explained that clothing choices are centrally important to peer groups, identity, and self-understanding. In this sense, it’s important to understand the ways that the commercialized, coded references and symbols can desensitize and socialize consumers. The products often use humor or aggressive coded references to historical atrocities against Jews, Muslims and others deemed not to belong, denigrating victims and celebrating violence. In this way, the clothing can help strengthen racist and nationalist identification. But the clothing also matters because it can act as a gateway to broader activities in the far right. In Germany, far right clothing brands help youth signal membership and ideological views to other insiders, and facilitate connections in new settings, such as underground concerts.
It’s important to note that the brands’ popularity mirrored the rise of populist and far right rhetoric and party success across Europe and in the U.S. Some of the appeal of the brands’ messages, in other words, reflect broader social and political contexts that help drive the appeal of far right messaging in the brands and clothing. For example, one t-shirt references the refugee and migration crisis with iconography of an anchor and the words “Raise the borders, batten down the hatches” (Grenzen Hoch und Schotten Dicht). Nothing else on the shirt indicates what exactly that message might mean, but text on the website next to the t-shirt for sale directly references the recent influx of refugees.
For most sociologists, economic goods are seen primarily for their role in the production and reproduction of inequality. While consumer goods are an essential part of this process, they are usually described merely as the end product in a larger exploitative set of labor and production processes. Even the increasing scholarship on consumption focuses heavily on how consumer goods play a role in status systems and hierarchies of social inequality. Bourdieu’s Distinction and a generation of studies that followed, for example, examined how consumption patterns and the purchase and display of particular kinds of objects and goods work to build and convey cultural and social capital.
What I suggest is that our focus on the role that economic objects play in the production and reproduction of inequality has distracted many social scientists from the potential for these objects to hold symbolic meaning and play a significant role in other aspects of social life. My contention, on the contrary—following scholars of visual culture, like Jeff Alexander and his co-editors of a book on iconic and material culture—is that commodities and economic objects are also cultural objects that carry emotion, convey meaning, and constitute identities.
My analysis of commercial, coded symbols conveying extremist ideology shows they play a key role as conduits of youth’s emotional desires to belong and rebel, acting as gateways to the broader far right scene while simultaneously helping to mainstream extremist ideas. This means that the production and consumption of economic objects are not only exploitative acts but also constitutive ones. Consumer goods and products not only add meaning to individuals’ and groups’ lives but also can inform consumers’ life choices, actions, behaviors, beliefs, and identities.
Mainstream sociologists ought to take economic objects more seriously not only for their exploitative power, but also for their constitutive possibilities. Style and aesthetic representation act as a ‘gateway’ into extremist scenes and subcultures, as young people’s consumption of “lifestyle” elements like tattoos, clothing, styles, or music may gradually lead to further involvement with extremist ideologies. In the German case, the commercialized, coded references and symbols desensitize and socialize consumers and their peers and dehumanize victims. In this way, economic objects have the potential to constitute identity and shape engagement in social movements or extremist groups in ways that deserve our close attention.
——————
* Cynthia Miller-Idriss is Associate Professor of Education and Sociology at American University in Washington, D.C. Her book, The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far Right Youth Culture in Germany, was published in February 2018 by Princeton University Press. (Open access to the introduction)

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