Wednesday, January 31, 2007

the obvious slips out, again

Kos is blogging racism (note the purge reflex as well):
Really, if we live in a just world, this will be the end of Joe Biden's political career. On Barack Obama:
    “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

"Articulate". "Mainstream". "Bright and clean".

It's clear his career has dragged on one election cycle too many.

The racist marketing sensibility rears its ugly head (perversely proud, almost, for being "honest" in spite of the "PC police"). If only the purge and punish reflex were sufficient, for 'justice' to be done.

But Kos is right. By themselves such ritual purging refexes/spectacle/sacrificial indemnifications/so on will never result in closure, nor the much-needed focus on the future. But it occurs to me they might be one important step; the problem as always is not taking them seriously enough. The oldest route to which always and forever being pantomiming repetition with self-satisfying declarations utterly beside the point.

Update: on Obama, political hobbiest dc has long had his speculations:
I believe this op-ed by Gloria Steinem reinforces my suspicion that Clinton and Obama have a deal to make him her Veep candidate. It's only the latest of several carefully worded op-eds the Times has run on the Hillary v. Barack question, but it's the closest yet to suggesting a joint ticket.

It stops short, of course. Not quite the right moment yet.

Such was politics, in 2008.

-allegory courtesy of Vitro Nasu

Monday, January 29, 2007


Issue #10, includes something by Blanchot. This by S. Weller in Kritikos also interesting. Both via wood s lot.
From the latter:
    "How could I avoid the platitude of a supposed academic metalanguage? It is very hard."

The question, isn't it. But was Derrida really "perfectly able to respond" to Blanchot? I wouldn't agree.
    "How does Beckett differ from Cixous, with whom Derrida would appear to share so much and yet on whom he was able to write so extensively? [...]an other in whom alterity threatens to reach degree zero.

...does sound a bit too grandiose, still. (And yet how could anyone answer a question positing such charged silence.)

    Adorno’s most developed theorization of literature (and of art more generally) is to be found in his unfinished and posthumously published Aesthetic Theory (1970), a work that he intended to dedicate to Beckett and in which art is consistently thought in terms of both aporia and alterity. If Beckett’s “radically darkened art” is, for Adorno, the only responsible form for the aesthetic to take in radically darkened times, then this is because Beckett’s works are, on the one hand, “realistic”—his “shabby, damaged world of images is the negative imprint of the administered world”13—while, on the other hand, they manage against all the odds to keep open that space from which an other, better future might arrive, a future characterized by Adorno as a not necessarily possible reconciliation (Versöhnung), by which he means the non-hostile coexistence of the non-identical. The apprehension of this radical other, this future that is perhaps beyond the possible, is, for Adorno, the experience of the “shudder” that is art...

choosing dolls

Someone just sent me a link to this video (currently getting a bit of press). It struck me especially in light of having just cited the old "everyone is racist/impossible not to be racist today" argument again, albeit in a nother context. (Needless to say, the argument extends beyond the mere level of psychology, social anxiety, or issues of identity formation...from enduring economic structures that inevitably inform relations, to the crystalized cultural edifices of deep memory* (whatever Benn Michaels may wish to say, economics and culture are not so easily separated**).

*I am thinking of what Pierre Nora famously once called, "Lieux de mémoire/sites of memory"

**Though in talking about immediate and practical solutions, the distinction may certainly be more helpful and direct than most.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

displacing Big Other

And what, he also wondered, if every speech act is already overdetermined? Might not the use of "literal" language in fact constitute a form of minimalist courage? Whose subjective hermeneutics of suspicion are we trusting here, in any case?

It is this citational nature of all discourse that both makes intentionality possible and limits its purity. It is also what impels Mikhail Bakhtin's understanding of the inherent dialogism of all discourse and why Bakhtin concludes that "Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others" (Dialogism 294).

If anything is clear, it is that without a bare minimal good will (a will-to-understand)–indeed, a sort of faith on the part of both members in any relation or exchange, no conversation has a future.

And yet, one has to be attracted to the idea of the Russian Formalist or Bakhtinian 'loophole', despite it's distinctly metaphysical heritage. At the very least because it seems more elegant than the Lacanian version (or more elegant, at least, than the conclusive, all-encompassing explanatory scope to which said version is often currently being stretched). By which he means, the Russians may have been more attuned to the question of 'literature' and specifically, of 'testimony' as the condition of literature/fiction (cf: Demeure).

But might there not still be a sort of minimal faith–not to mention principle of charity–involved in negotiating loopholes? Granted, this is a difficult term to define, and conversations about how Bahktin's work itself constitutes a sort of loophole (namely, occupying a historical space between poststructuralism and modernity strictly speaking) seem, to him, to almost miss the point. What if the loophole is understood not as some purely metaphysical or patriarchal/pastoral transcendent 'gaze' or final judgement, but rather as the bare minimal promise of infinite deferral, as that which forces us to confront the fact of irreducible alterity–the absolute and deathly otherness, beyond any symbolic reductions–of the other. Of the other as God, if you like, as she who witnesses your death (literary as well as physical).

Why, such grandiose questions. Not at all sure (needless to say) they are well-formulated. (And without even beginning to think on 'the sublime', or 'the neuter!') Perhaps it's best go back to carpentry!


...on 'power' among other things.

-via. And relatedly (more recently), Paul Krugman on Milton Friedman.

Friday, January 26, 2007

go read

Superb post by archive: s0metim3s:
To concede that activism (and activists) exhausts politics as such is to prejudge certain activities as either a- or non-political, and to make of politics a form of pre-emption and theology. From within this perspective, activists tend to alternate between surprise at seemingly unanticipated outbreaks of revolt or mourn the ostensible lack of political activity. And, between these two instances, which express little more than formulaic presuppositions about what counts as political action, attempts to keep the work of activism going almost invariably function as a ritualisation of that which was unexpected but whose moment of surprise and experimentation is past

And, in a different vein, by adswithoutproducts, both of whom continually redeem (for me) the act of reading blogs as pleasurable (not to say, of course, completely comfortable).

the apocalypse is disappointing

Re: among other things (or, to repeat old things):
The invocation of the end is a tribute necessarily paid to infinity, as Blanchot makes clear by pointing at the end to the self-defeating paradox of Wittgenstein's famous conclusion to the Tractatus. To speak of the end is always to defer the end; no sooner is it pronounced than the finality of the apocalyptic 'come!' in fact suspends the end as a moment of perpetual (re)beginning. Apocalypse in Blanchot is therefore not an apocalypse, for it is an apocalypse without end, truth or finality. It is, as Derrida had predicted, apocalypse without apocalypse. (Hill, Maurice Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary, 208)

...Writing must "revoke" the pretension of any "end," even while it cannot help but imply such a thing the moment it begins.

Last witness, end of history, close of a period, turning point, crisis--or, end of (metaphysical) philosophy...But if (since there is no other way of putting this) a decisive historical change is announced in the phrase "the coming comes," making us come into our "most proper," or "own-most" (being), then one would have to be very naive not to think that the requirement to withdraw ceases from then on. And yet it is from then on that "withdraw" rules--more obscurely, more insistently...Why does writing--when we understand this movement as the change from one era to a different one, and when we think of it as the experience (the inexperience) of the disaster--always imply the words inscribed at the beginning of this "fragment," which, however, it revokes? It revokes them even if what they announce is announced as something new which has always already taken place, a radical change from which the present tense is excluded. (Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, 102)

Writing then refuses the present, but never in the same way as the phrase, "end of history," forecloses on the present (or to use another formulation, never in the same way twice). If writing has the power to transform eras, or more precisely if writing itself is the change between eras, there is a sense in which writing both hears and refuses its own present. Certainly it refuses its own presence as a representation of direct power over "the" future, in any simply sense.

What might be called "Blanchot's politics of writing," particularly in Leslie Hill's reading, is nothing if not a responsibility (very much in the sense Derrida gives to this word) to alterity and to the Other, as irriducibly other. Perhaps only a radical indifference to the first of Derrida's two futures––to the one that is prescribed or merely "possible" (that is, in the "weak" sense) ––can clear a space for the opening of a genuinely 'other' time. Would such a time be held ruthlessly open – correctly judged only as a ceaseless prelude, forever without over-hasty or absolute distinctions between "enemies" and "friends"?

The Politics to which Blanchot's writing gives an eschatology--eschatology beyond eschatology--which addresses the future not as power but as judgement, not as imminent presence but as infinite promise. The hope is not for more, or better representation, but rather for the destruction of the present as such and thus for a revolution that would open time itself to the otherness that presence always excludes (Hill, 209).

a good name for a blog


I haven't been following the debate on "academic blogs" very much. Gary has an interesting post. Though, what Gerald Howard says on the much-alleged "crisis" of reading and 'literature' might just as well apply...(the Frankfurt school basically got it right, etc.) Obviously writing itself cannot be contained, or any more than more or less usefully categorized, by the petty, increasingly unjust politics of any institution. As always the most presciently political writing seeks to take account of this, and of itself, somehow. When it comes to the sort of writing that takes place on blogs, some humility and lightness is certainly in order; that should be obvious enough. However this lightness is also something of their vulnerability, hence the vituperative and always oddly personal register for which blogs are likewise renowned. But how difficult it becomes to read anonymously (to read truly) once again, after the thin wall barring the faux-intimacy of everyday exchanges has been breached. Somehow we find these faux-intimacies harder to forget than anything, though they matter least. To regain that fragile discretion (depending of course on what sort of audience one seeks), is sometimes the challenge. No amount of institutional status or banally competitive posturing - especially masked by seeming-perfunctory declarations of/or wills to authority - can ever hope to compensate for it. Blogs do have a unique material, quasi-independent status in today's messaging system (quasi because they often "survive" only as parasites on the same rush to ever-lower economies of interest). But the stakes of writing itself do not change, nor the fact that the medium may be conducive to both another pace and quality of "self"-expression.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

copy-editing is fun

I'd like to offer my services as a copy-editor/proofreader to anyone out there. Of course, if yours is a subject I know anything about (or even if not), then the critique (if so desired) is included free of charge! However the point of this exercise is getting paid, for which, given my current financial straights, I will read almost anything.

Donations are of course welcome too (email for an address, or there's a paypal button on the side if you like paying petty fees to large corporations). As for references, these guys seem to think I do an excellent job, as did Lars Spurious. I have also been known to translate a little bit, from French and Spanish, and to help people with their business "personal statements." In between jobs this first month of the new year with extortionate vet bills for adopted dogs to pay and (still) no car, this legitimately humble blog is just 'bout broke. In light of which, truly any spare change one feels like spontaneously tipping would be, well, deeply appreciated. Thanks so much.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

the despair of politics

"It is not news that capitalism and democracy are incompatible," notes IMproPRieTies. The effects of a resultant despair at the heart of politics is certainly evident enough among political writers and journalists...those who at some point slipped (perhaps upon being recognized, or at least deluded into thinking they were recognized) into the happy parasitic realm of formulaic take-down, prescriptive dogma (often in the contorted name of political courage), etc. and never left. On the literary side are those who wisely (or perhaps with natural indifference) saved themselves from delusions of political efficacy (in any simple sense) and went down another path.

Another example of indirectly political writing (of a different sort) appears toward the end of Rory Stewart's The Places in Between. Bookended by his personal testimony of walking through Afghanistan only two weeks after the new (US puppet) "government" had been established, this passing indictment of the window-dressing/McEnlightenment model (of international intervention) casts a far longer, darker shadow than it would have otherwise.
...Their objective was (to quote the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) "the creation of a centralized, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law." They worked twelve- or fourteen-hour days drafting documents for heavily funded initiatives on "democratization," "enhancing capacity," "gender," "sustainable development," "skills training," or "protection issues," They were mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, with at least two degrees–often in international law, economics, or development. They came from middle-class backgrounds in Western countries, and in the evenings, they dined with each other and swapped anecdotes about curruption in the government and the incompetence of the United Nations. They rarely drove their SUVs outside Kabul because their security advisers forbade it

...Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women's rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people "who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government."

But what did they understand of the thought process of Seyyed Kerbalahi's wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon in the way they carried briefcases? The villagers I had met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world. Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics, and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of twenty-five years of war differed from region to region. The people of Kamenj understood political power in terms of their feudal lord Haji Mohsin Khan. Ismail Khan in Herat wanted a social order based on Iranian political Islam. Hazara such as Ali hated the idea of centralized government because they associated it with subjugation by other ethnic groups and suffering under the Taliban. Even within a week's walk I had encountered areas where the local Begs had been toppled by Iranian-funded social revolution and others where feudal structures were still in place; areas where the violence had been inflicted by the Taliban and areas where the villagers had inflicted it on one another. These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome.

Presumably Stewart if anyone would know, as each night he depended on the next village leader's hospitality to house and feed him. But it gets better (if even more familiar):
Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though the villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.

In a seminar in Kabul, I heard Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, say, "Afghans have been fighting for their human rights for twenty-five years. We don't need to tell them what their rights are." Then the head of a major food agency added privately, "Villagers are not interested in human rights. They are like poor people all over the world. All they think about is where their next meal is coming from." To which the head of an Afghan NGO providing counseling responded, "The only thing to know about these people is that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder."

However, the footnote on page 247 is really the most damning of all (and a good lesson in how terms always demand precise updating). Which recalls, of course the obvious problem with rampant "neo" or "post"-prefixes – even and especially when their use is actually earned and not just functioning as some polemic hammer extracted from the tomb – which remains how to articulate their instability and finitude. These terms grant the lazy, superficial satisfaction of newness, as if they were their own self-contained perpetual updates. Surely it would be best simply to create new terms to begin with! How quickly one forgets that words should decay, over time, that we need to forcefully confront them with this possibility. (Furthermore that they have always been decaying. That otherwise there is no future.)

One last time, forgive the lengthy quote:
Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They requited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geography societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn't their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

Postcolonial experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could by judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgement they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression.

Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan

One could question the dynamics of a market-culture in which such "heroic" tales find so many eager ears and willing hearts, but nothing changes. That the story becomes first of all indissociable from its teller, so it is no longer the story that speaks but the hero who is praised (or what amounts to the same thing, called "crazy" in jealous, timid or skeptical tones, etc). A simple theory of coercion, "liberal guilt" or "liberal tourism/escapism" would probably suffice, combined with an analysis of imbalance in real (democratic) power. But the conglomeration of the message forces is vulgar and simple, and ultimately not very interesting. Which is why we should appreciate testimonies like this – they do speak, as the phrase goes, with "rare honesty," however iconographically-inclined – but not place any more faith in them than in the next guy with a writing implement.

We should resist making them into icons, citing them merely at dinner parties. It is the testimony itself that counts. To recall what such writers as Josipovici or Derrida/Blanchot have shown us about testimony; that its condition of possibility belongs to literature itself.

IMproPRieTies again:
The point is not that we should trust mavericks...more, but rather that we should trust the intimately familiarized reporters and anchors of standard media less. The presence of institutional canons of credibility should be a red flag.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Musical Weekend (updated)

Mr. Theoria of questionable taste has started such a series. Though in search of its One True Spirit, undivided origin one need only glimpse around a little to become definitively lost.

Call it the simple compulsion to share, to carve a bit of space of potential relation outside the bland barrage of 24/7 redundancy (rerun-dancy, redunce-dancing, re:dunce-canting) anticipated by Adorno and Debord back before it was written on the walls for all to see – here are some songs:

* The Coup, "Cars and Shoes": The blog Unemployed Negativity calls them "America's greatest Marxist hip hop group," which sounds about right. Don't believe they get the name from Derrida. A song that resonates with anyone – the current author certainly included – not born with a silver fucking spoon implanted up their ass. Or, say, never having spent more than $800 on a car. Or hell, even going strong without reliable transport for a couple of years now.

Rather tragically, just recently, The Coup greeted the new year by losing everything in a near-fatal tour bus accident. In light of which, it is probably not too late to contribute something to them, if you can.

A more serious track: "Underdogs".

* Greg Brown, "Sadness": For those of us who flirt with seasonal affects.

* The Talking Heads Live, "Animals": Because we've been talking about "the animal question" on pas au-delà for longer than we can remember, though not–we hear–as long as David Bryne.

* Tom Waits, "Tell it to Me"/Louise: Seeming, wisely, to have adopted the Ramblin' Jack Elliot rendition, to great effect.

* Steve Earl [Happy Birthday!], "F the FCC".

• Bob Dylan, Working Man Blues". "There's an evening haze setting over town/starlight by the edge of the green//The buying power of the proletariat's gone down/money's getting shallow and weak//Well the place I love best is a sweet memory/it's a new path that we trod//they say low wages are a reality/if we want to pay them all." Interpret as you will, Ellis Sharp. As you know, I tend to think he's aging well; his songs are modest and work great as songs. This new album right up there with Infidels and Oh Mercy.

Some of these part of the forthcoming "Enough to Get Us All Locked Up" compilation (neglected but not forgotten).

Thursday, January 11, 2007

lunatic President

Juan Cole
To listen to Bush's speech on Wednesday, you would imagine that al-Qaeda has occupied large swathes of Iraq with the help of Syria and Iran and is brandishing missiles at the US mainland. That the president of the United States can come out after nearly four years of such lies and try to put this fantasy over on the American people is shameful...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Mad Melancholic

...poses an interesting question about feminism:
I am supposed to put together 4 anthologies on the French feminist theorists. The interesting 3 of the 4 (Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Helen Cixous) denounce Feminism and are not at all considered crucial players in the women's movement in France...I was intoxicated by the work of Luce Irigaray in graduate school, but as one grows older, one's tastes change...Worse, when I read the scholarship on these three French theorists, I feel so far removed from that tiny corner of Continental Philosophy that talks about the (im)possibility of a woman speaker and the inevitableness of the symbolic order. So, I have to swallow my doubts and dutifully produce a massive work that will perpetuate the illusion that these thinkers are to be reckoned with Internationally. I am, perhaps, participating in the cultural construction of 'French feminism." How to get through it?

well said

Différance Engine:
Perhaps it is early for a Christmas message, but here is one caught between hope and despair, and arrived at without the intention to do so, in that way that blogging can. For Blogging is one of those commitments like book groups. The profligacy in turning up without external compulsion comes from a barely explicable and restless need to carry on.

Perhaps, it's still too early.

Friday, January 05, 2007

catching up on lost emails

Dear Mr. Christie,

This past June, I published Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Now I'm beginning work on the first authorized biography‹ the first biography at all, actually‹ of Kurt Vonnegut. I'd like to hear from any of your readers about their experiences with Vonnegut, either personally or with his novels. Thanks!

Charles J. Shields
Cjs1994 [at] earthlink [dot] net

I'm not much help, afraid, but hope someone out there is interested.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Globalization Dies

Walden Bellow weighs in with many words, including these:
...Fourth, there has been too much dissonance between the promise of globalization and free trade and the actual results of neoliberal policies, which have been more poverty, inequality, and stagnation. One of the very few places where poverty diminished over the last 15 years is China. But interventionist state policies that managed market forces, not neoliberal prescriptions, were responsible for lifting 120 million Chinese out of poverty. Moreover, the advocates of eliminating capital controls have had to face the actual collapse of the economies that took this policy to heart. The globalization of finance proceeded much faster than the globalization of production. But it proved to be the cutting edge not of prosperity but of chaos. The Asian financial crisis and the collapse of the economy of Argentina, which had been among the most doctrinaire practitioners of capital account liberalization, were two decisive moments in reality’s revolt against theory.

Another factor unraveling the globalist project is its obsession with economic growth. Indeed, unending growth is the centerpiece of globalization, the mainspring of its legitimacy. While a recent World Bank report continues to extol rapid growth as the key to expanding the global middle class, global warming, peak oil, and other environmental events are making it clear to people that the rates and patterns of growth that come with globalization are a surefire prescription for ecological Armageddon.

The final factor, not to be underestimated, has been popular resistance to globalization. The battles of Seattle in 1999, Prague in 2000, and Genoa in 2001; the massive global anti-war march on February 15, 2003, when the anti-globalization movement morphed into the global anti-war movement; the collapse of the WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun in 2003 and its near collapse in Hong Kong in 2005; the French and Dutch peoples’ rejection of the neoliberal, pro-globalization European Constitution in 2005 -- these were all critical junctures in a decade-long global struggle that has rolled back the neoliberal project. But these high-profile events were merely the tip of the iceberg, the summation of thousands of anti-neoliberal, anti-globalization struggles in thousands of communities throughout the world involving millions of peasants, workers, students, indigenous people, and many sectors of the middle class...

From today’s vantage point, globalization appears to have been not a new, higher phase in the development of capitalism but a response to the underlying structural crisis of this system of production. Fifteen years since it was trumpeted as the wave of the future, globalization seems to have been less a “brave new phase” of the capitalist adventure than a desperate effort by global capital to escape the stagnation and disequilibria overtaking the global economy in the 1970s and 1980s. The collapse of the centralized socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe deflected people’s attention from this reality in the early 1990s.

Many in progressive circles still think that the task at hand is to “humanize” globalization. Globalization, however, is a spent force. Today’s multiplying economic and political conflicts resemble, if anything, the period following the end of what historians refer to as the first era of globalization, which extended from 1815 to the eruption of World War I in 1914. The urgent task is not to steer corporate-driven globalization in a “social democratic” direction but to manage its retreat so that it does not bring about the same chaos and runaway conflicts that marked its demise in that earlier era.

Update: Interesting more on China here.

World Beat

This year why not support the better of progressive think tanks:
Deeply Unequal World

Sam Pizzigati | December 20, 2006

Editor: Emily Schwartz Greco, IPS

Foreign Policy In Focus

Some people, at year's end, like to spread holiday cheer. The world might do better, suggests a landmark new report from the United Nations University in Helsinki, to start spreading wealth.

The new study--the first ever to tally, for the entire world, all the major elements of household wealth, everything from financial assets and debts to land, homes, and other tangible property--finds some $125.3 trillion worth of wealth about in the world, as of the year 2000.

If that wealth were divided in perfectly equal shares among all the world’s 3.7 billion adults, every adult on Earth would hold a net worth of just under $34,000 in U.S. dollars, according to The World Distribution of Household Wealth report.

In real life, says this new report, released by the United Nations University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research, half the world’s adults hold under one-tenth that modest sum, less than $2,161. The vast bulk of the world’s wealth, the study observes, sits “highly concentrated” in the pockets of a relative few.

How concentrated? The richest 5 percent of the world’s adults--minimum net worth, $150,145--hold 70.6 percent of the world’s wealth. The richest 1 percent--minimum wealth, $514,512--hold 39.9 percent of the world's wealth all by themselves, 13,000 times more than the entire bottom 10 percent.

The scholars behind the new UN University study base their calculations on a growing body of wealth data that nearly all the world’s developed nations--as well as developing giants like India and China--are now collecting. This research has helped heap onto the statistical table “an impressive amount of information on wealth holdings,” enough to finally “estimate the world distribution of household wealth.”

The study’s four co-authors--Canadian economist James Davies, Finnish researcher Susanna Sandstrom, New York University economist Edward Wolff, and British economist Anthony Shorrocks--accumulated data for the new UN University study from countries that represent 56 percent of the world’s population. They then analyzed these numbers for trends and patterns that allowed to impute wealth distributions for the rest of the world.

The researchers sliced and diced this collection of statistics by all sorts of yardsticks. They looked at the world’s wealth by households, by adults, and by all persons. They used both currency exchange rates and purchasing power equivalents to compare the wealth that sits in different nations. These different calculations resulted in somewhat different numbers. But all the numbers painted the same basic picture, a global portrait of a deeply unequal world. Their new study expresses this inequality in terms both highly technical and readily understandable.

The report, for instance, translates the global distribution of wealth into a common statistical measure called a Gini coefficient, where “0” represents a situation where wealth is divided in total equality and “1” the opposite, a situation where one person owns everything. The higher the fraction in between, the more severe the inequality.

The UN University study computes the year 2000 global wealth Gini at 0.892, a level higher than the inequality rate within any individual country. What does this abstract number mean in actual people terms? If you reduced the world’s population to 10 people, the study points out, this 0.892 Gini would correspond to a situation where the richest of the 10 people held $1,000 in wealth and the remaining nine a single $1 each.

But this stark global inequality, the study’s authors take pains to note, does not translate into stark inequality within every nation. Inequality within nations, “even for countries at a similar stage of development,” varies enormously across the world.
Japan v. U.S.

Two similarly “wealthy” nations--the United States and Japan--provide what may be the most dramatic contrast. At first glance, the two seem equally “rich.” Americans average, in purchasing power equivalence, a net worth of $143,727. The Japanese average: $124,858. The two countries, together, account for almost two-thirds of the richest 1 percent of adults on the globe, with 37.4 percent of these affluent souls living in the United States and another 26.8 percent in Japan.

But a closer look reveals striking differences. Japan’s wealth spreads throughout Japanese society. The 90 percent of Japanese at the bottom of their nation’s wealth distribution own 60.7 percent of their nation’s wealth. In the United States, by contrast, the distribution of wealth runs strikingly top-heavy. The bottom 90 percent of Americans own just 30.2 percent of U.S. household wealth, less than half the share the bottom 90 percent hold in Japan.

Measured globally, the contrast between the United States and Japan appears just as striking. Over a quarter of American adults, 28 percent, hold net worths that place them down in the bottom 90 percent of the world’s wealth-holders. Only 6.8 percent of adults in Japan live among the world’s poorest 90 percent.
Super-Rich Not Counted

How accurately do all these global numbers reflect the actual distribution of the world’s household wealth? If anything, notes the UN University study authors, their report understates just how unequal the world’s wealth distribution has become. Their base survey data, they explain, “do not reflect the holdings of the super-rich.”

Their primary official data source for the United States, for instance, “explicitly omits the ‘Forbes 400’ wealthiest U.S. families.” Elsewhere in the world, the authors add, nations only rarely capture the holdings of the super-rich in their official data.

How much of a difference would adding the super-rich into the mix make? In 2000, Forbes magazine reports, the world’s 492 billionaires held a combined $2.16 trillion in wealth, a sum that amounts to 1.7 percent of the $125.3 trillion in world household wealth identified in the UN University study, or more than the wealth of the world’s poorest 1.5 billion people.

So does all this matter? Should the world’s peoples worry about how concentrated the ownership of the world’s wealth has become?

Until recently, mainstream global economic analysts downplayed, even dismissed, inequality as a problem. These analysts put their faith in economic growth. If economies were growing, they believed, wealth--and social well-being--would eventually percolate all throughout society and eventually improve everyone’s standard of living.

But two blockbuster reports last fall, one from the United Nations and the other from the World Bank, directly challenged this mainstream indifference to inequality.

A year ago last September, the UN Human Development 2005 Report predicted a “human development disaster” if the world’s nations continue to ignore how they distribute, within their own borders, the wealth their economies create.

“Redistributing 1.6 percent of the income of the richest 10 percent of the global population,” the report noted, “would provide the $300 billion needed to lift the 1 billion people living on less than a dollar a day out of extreme poverty, at least temporarily.”

And that shift would soon evolve into a permanent state of affairs, the report added, because “improved distributional equity” would both increase “the size of the economic pie” and enable the poor “to capture a bigger slice of that pie.”

Just weeks later, a team of economists and social scientists from the World Bank pounded home the same message. The World Bank’s top analysts acknowledged for the first-time ever, as a BBC news analysis noted at the time, “that redistribution--as well as economic growth--is needed to end world poverty.”

Nations can’t offer equity of opportunity, stressed Francisco Ferreira, a co-author of the World Bank Equity and Development report, without first achieving a healthy measure of equity in distribution. That's because, Ferreira explained, “societies with extreme inequality in wealth generate also extreme inequality in power.”
Governing for the Elite

Governments that reflect these extreme inequalities in power, the World Bank economist added, tend to govern not in the public interest, but in the interest of wealthy elites.

Other economic and social analysts, meanwhile, have been pointing out that deep economic inequality can have as socially destructive an impact on rich nations as on poor. Affluent and poor people alike in relatively equal “rich” nations, for instance, live longer than affluent and poor people in “rich” nations that tolerate greater inequality.

Japan, the nation with the world’s most equal distribution of income and wealth, currently sports the world’s longest life expectancy, at 82.2 years, reports the recently released 2006 UN Human Development Report. The developed world’s most unequal nation, the United States, now ranks No. 30 on the global life expectancy list, at 77.5 years, despite spending considerably more on health care than any other nation in the world. In 1970, a much more equal United States was in twelfth place on that list.

The authors of the UN University wealth study end their report with a plea for better data. More countries, the authors note, need to be regularly collecting statistics on just who owns what. Without that data, they contend, tracking progress toward a more equal world will be essentially “impossible.”

But more data may not what the global struggle against inequality needs most. Data, thanks to this sweeping new study, now abound. The global political will to act on these data, that’s another story.

Sam Pizzigati, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality and the Common Good, edits Too Much, an online weekly on excess and equity. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.