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. 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.

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.

Q&A with Kiyoteru Tsutsui

Co-Winner of the 2019 Political Sociology Book Award Rights Makes Might: Global Human Rights and Minority Social Movements in Japan (Oxford University Press, 2018)
Rights Make Might
How did you start working on the book and how did the project evolve over time? The book project started as a follow-up to a series of articles that I’d worked on since my dissertation, which examined how ideas and institutions around universal human rights emerged and evolved since around the 1940s. These articles featured cross-national quantitative analyses that identified some interesting global-local dynamics in human rights politics: many states make discursive commitments to human rights without actually changing their practices, and only when civil society actors leverage those commitments do actual practices improve. Other researchers also confirmed this pattern, and I had some anecdotal evidence to underscore the argument, but I wanted to have a deeper understanding about how these processes unfold. So I set out to do a comparative case study, and the three cases in Japan offered an excellent setting for this process-tracing study. One of the core arguments in my research up to that point was that once global human rights enter national politics, ideas and institutions around human rights galvanize local populations and lead them to greater activism and eventually greater success. To demonstrate this process, it was advantageous to have multiple groups with different political and historical backgrounds in the same country, so that country-level characteristics are controlled for and the impact of global human rights can be examined more precisely. The three groups in Japan were perfect for this purpose. Ainu, an inactive indigenous people, Koreans, an active but unsuccessful non-citizen group, and Burakumin, a former ‘outcaste’ group that had been politically active and already seen some successes, were at different stages of political mobilization but they all expanded their activism since the 1970s, when global human rights entered Japanese politics in earnest. So I set out to do a number of interviews, collect archival data, and put together a narrative that weaves these data into a book on how these three groups have been influenced by human rights ideas, utilized international human rights instruments, and also contributed to reinforcement and expansion of global human rights norms. As I examined empirical materials in greater detail, I came to a realization that one of the most consequential impacts of global human rights is its capacity to empower subjugated populations. I capture this in a concept, transformation of movement actorhood. For any underprivileged groups to start mobilization for more rights, it is critical that they understand that they deserve those rights. This realization can propel them to collective political action, and at that point, international human rights institutions can provide instrumental support, offering forums to criticize the government and to form alliances with other groups that are similarly disadvantaged. Done effectively, the growing activism can lead to improvement in their rights situations and can also result in a redirection of their movement in a more global and altruistic direction.

Book Forum: Leftism Reinvented by Stephanie Mudge

In the spotlight is Leftism Reinvented Western Parties from Socialism to Neoliberalism by Stephanie Mudge. Keep reading for three insightful reviews on her 2018 book by Thomas Janoski, Gabriel Chouhy Algorta, and Jeff Stilley. Leftism Reinvented

Is it the Left or the Right that We Should be Focused On or Both? Review of Stephanie Mudge’s Leftism Reinvented

by Thomas Janoski, University of Kentucky


Two major books and a third have come out in the area of comparative political sociology in the last two years. Stephanie Mudge’s Leftism Reinvented: Western Political Parties from Socialism to Neoliberalism (2018, Harvard University Press) and Daniel Ziblatt’s Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (2017, Cambridge University Press) followed by Sten Levity and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018, Crown Publishing of Penguin).[1] Mudge follows social democratic, labor and democratic (US) parties in three periods: socialism (1900 to 1929 but centered on 1920), Keynesian revolution (1930 to 1974 but centered on 1960), and ‘left’ neoliberalism (1975 to 2005 centered around 1995).

She examines these three periods, focusing on economic policy shifts in four countries: the US, the UK, Germany, and Sweden. She focuses on party experts and how they have become economized in the middle period, and then share power with professional campaign experts in the third period. Her main conclusion is that we should pay attention to party experts because they articulate policy downward upon the rest of the party and the public in general. But the sub-text to the book is that left parties are the key to greater democracy and reducing endemic inequality in a capitalist economy. And a sub-sub-text is that Bill and Hillary Clinton sold out the left to neoliberalism.

Daniel Ziblatt examines the role of conservative parties in two of the same countries: the UK and Germany. Conservative parties have a major problem in that they represent rich people who are few, and in a mass party system how in the world are they going to keep their massive amounts of money when the non-rich and poor seemingly have little or no reason to vote for their candidates? Using the method of difference, he shows that conservative parties in the UK were able to extend their reach into the middle and working classes by building institutions that interested these two classes, and then pushed their message on non-income related issues like the empire and the Irish question. One of the main vehicles for doing this was the Primrose Society that operated a combination of fairs and political indoctrination in the Victorian period. German conservative parties mainly represented by the Deutschenationale Volkspartie (DNVP) stayed focused on elites and carried a very small constituency. Ziblatt’s major point is that moderate conservative parties are entirely necessary to protect democracy from the far right like the Nazi Party in Germany. Levity and Ziblatt follow this with How Democracies Die, which is a more popular book implementing their principles and also applying them to Donald Trump. One criticism of Ziblatt’s thesis would be why he did not focus on the Center Party during Weimar which was a larger conservative (or maybe center) party during the Weimar Republic.