Book Review: First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship

Please enjoy this review of Richard Lachmann’s First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship by Emily Erikson.
First Class Passengers
Throw me a life vest, please! by Emily Erikson, Yale University 

I think we can all agree that Richard Lachmann’s latest book, First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship, is a masterful work of history and political analysis. The question I want to address is whether this book should be read as an analysis of the current situation of the United States, a work on elite conflict theory, or as a work on imperial decline? Or perhaps this question could be better phrased as whether this work’s greatest contribution is to contemporary analysis of the state of the United States, to the development of elite-conflict theory, or to theories of empire.  Lachmann has developed elite-conflict theory in, for example, earlier works like Capitalists in Spirit of Themselves, and From Manor to Market. In those books, as in this one, Lachmann mobilizes and develops elite-conflict theory to explain large-scale political outcomes. But this most recent book is not really about exploring the possible dimensions and contours of elite-conflict theory as much as it is about explaining imperial decline in general and US imperial decline in particular.  That balance between the general and particular is interesting because for a lot of readers there is going to be some implicit tension between how they feel about the current situation in the US and the idea of the end of US imperial ambitions. On the one hand, we might be ambivalent or even vaguely pleased about the end of an empire but simultaneously sad about the potentially disastrous way that era is winding down in the US.  To this end it should be noted that the book was finalized before the 2020 elections, and things surely looked much worse at that point than they do now, although Lachmann makes clear that he does not believe a change in administrations — however awful one outgoing administration may be — is going to resolve the underlying conflicts over resources propelling the decline of US power. He does, however, carefully keep the different outcomes of imperial decline and societal decline and/or stasis analytically separate.  It is mainly in the concluding chapter that the problem of rising inequality, the rise of populism, and the decline of democratic institutions are addressed. It is clear that the end of US global hegemony is going to play an important role in how these issues play out over time. But it is equally clear that other factors largely unrelated to international relations and global power also play an extremely important role — such as the presence of union organization and corporate tax rates. Just to drive this point home, only three nations have experienced global hegemony and decline, but nearly all nations have experienced changing patterns of inequality and democratization. Despite the fact that this analysis enters in at the end of the book, it is more than sufficient to advance a strong case that elite-conflict theory should also be at the heart of the analysis of these other very concerning trends — whether or not they intersect with imperial decline. In this regard, Lachmann’s analysis makes a nice companion for Thomas Piketty’s recent volumes, Capital and Capital and Ideology, which give quite a lot of information about laws, taxation, and property regimes, but less on the political configurations that give rise to these institutional outcomes and/or the configurations that might lead to the changes for which Piketty advocates.  

Social conflict on the front lines of reform: Institutional activism and girls’ education in rural India

Mangla, Akshay. 2021. “Social conflict on the front lines of reform: Institutional activism and girls’ education in rural India.Public Administration and Development. https://doi.org/10.1002/pad.1959. How do states realize social reforms for marginalized groups in settings of entrenched inequality? This article argues that reform implementation is a conflict-ridden process driven by the institutional activism of street-level bureaucrats. Through an ethnographic case study of Mahila Samakhya, a novel government program for women’s empowerment in Uttar Pradesh, India, I find that local fieldworkers committed to reform promoted girls’ education by mobilizing marginalized citizens and mediating local conflicts. Organizational processes of gender-based training and deliberation enabled fieldworkers to challenge village patriarchy and exclusion and forge programmatic ties with lower caste women. By altering rules to address the practical needs of households, fieldworkers effectively integrated disadvantaged girls into the education system. Institutional activism also engendered conflicts over rules within the bureaucracy, prompting senior officials to advocate for marginalized groups. The findings suggest that institutional commitment to activism is critical for agencies working on the front lines of reform.

Tokens of Power: Rethinking War

Hironaka, Ann. 2017. Tokens of Power: Rethinking War. Cambridge University Press.
Tokens of Power
War presents a curious paradox. Interstate war is arguably the most carefully planned endeavor by states, yet military history is filled with disasters and blunders of monumental proportions. These anomalies happen because most military history presumes that states are pursuing optimal strategies in a competitive environment. This book offers an alternative narrative in which the pillars of military planning – evaluations of power, strategy, and interests – are theorized as social constructions rather than simple material realities. States may be fighting wars primarily to gain or maintain power, yet in any given historical era such pursuits serve only to propel competition; they do not ensure military success in subsequent generations. Allowing states to embark on hapless military ventures is fraught with risks, while the rewards are few.

The Patchwork City: Class, Space, and Politics in Metro Manila

Garrido, Marco Z. 2019. The Patchwork City: Class, Space, and Politics in Metro Manila.
Patchwork City
In contemporary Manila, slums and squatter settlements are peppered throughout the city, often pushing right up against the walled enclaves of the privileged, creating the complex geopolitical pattern of Marco Z. Garrido’s “patchwork city.” Garrido documents the fragmentation of Manila into a mélange of spaces defined by class, particularly slums and upper- and middle-class enclaves. He then looks beyond urban fragmentation to delineate its effects on class relations and politics, arguing that the proliferation of these slums and enclaves and their subsequent proximity have intensified class relations. For enclave residents, the proximity of slums is a source of insecurity, compelling them to impose spatial boundaries on slum residents. For slum residents, the regular imposition of these boundaries creates a pervasive sense of discrimination. Class boundaries then sharpen along the housing divide, and the urban poor and middle class emerge not as labor and capital but as squatters and “villagers,” Manila’s name for subdivision residents. Garrido further examines the politicization of this divide with the case of the populist president Joseph Estrada, finding the two sides drawn into contention over not just the right to the city, but the nature of democracy itself. The Patchwork City illuminates how segregation, class relations, and democracy are all intensely connected.  It makes clear, ultimately, that class as a social structure is as indispensable to the study of Manila—and of many other cities of the Global South—as race is to the study of American cities.