Friday, August 12, 2011

Straight Outta Tottenham: Anger, Dignity and Austerity

"To be wholly overlooked and to know it are intolerable” ~John Adams

A clear thread is woven through the fabric of the many different, and often differently expressed, social upheavals that we have been experiencing throughout the year, and that thread is the challenge of global neoliberalism to dignity. Perhaps indeed some late 21st century Barbara Tuchman will tell the story of how 2011 was 1848 or 1937. What’s important now is that we understand how our systems—social, cultural, economic and political—are failing us on a large scale and what needs to be done to begin transforming them.

• London (unemployed youth riots)

•Ohio (union bargaining rights)

• Chile (student demonstrations over access to education)

• Wisconsin (union bargaining rights)

• The U.S. Tea Party (shrinking the welfare state)

• Israel (affordable housing—or as my colleague Aziz Abu Sarah memorably put it, “In Israel, the Rent Is Too Damn High”)

• The Arab Spring/Revolutions

But this goes even further back. Remember those uprisings in Paris a few years ago? Or the spate of anti-immigrant violence in Australia? How about pre-revolution food-price riots in Cairo? What about even the “Battle in Seattle” when the WTO was in town?

Why do I suggest that such different protests as the above all share a common impulse? Without ignoring local specifics, I see current the unrest as an extension of a larger trend that may have been developing throughout the 21st century so far as economic globalization and democracy expand and contract in response to what I believe are tectonic shifts of the global socio-political landscape. A root-bottom driver of the above is the relationship between entrenched neo-liberalism worldwide—which has accelerated to austerity as after-shocks of the Great Recession continue—and social dignity.

Dignity is what allows people to have faith in the social contract. So even if someone else has more materially, a young man or woman can still feel that

1. Others perceive him or her to be a part of society

2. Her role in society has some sort of meaning for her

3. She can have some sort of control over her future, especially as it relates to being able to provide for basic survival

Some excellent research has been done about the socio-political negotiation of social contracts and a community or nation’s security (see for example Beverly Crawford’s work on the “myth of ethnic conflict”). Essentially this is the agreement, sometimes spoken or written, sometimes not, that underlies how a society’s resources are divided up and what will constitute the CONSTRUCTED concept of legitimacy in a society—who gets to hold power, how and why. What we’re seeing in each of the cases above, I would argue, is a demand for renegotiating the social contract.

To my mind this implies the need for a global social contract. What rights can indeed a citizen demand? To what is he entitled? What does a citizen of Country X “look like” and/or believe? These are fundamental underlying questions being struggled over. The more interconnected our economies become, and the more migration continues throughout the 21st century, the truer this will be.

As I’ve written in my book on indigenous communities and austerity in Paraguay (Land and Dignity in Paraguay), when you take away someone’s ability to control their future, you take away their dignity. More than a set of mere economic policy prescriptions, neoliberalism is also a set of social norms and assumptions about human nature. This is where austerity, and Ha Joon Chang’s concept of “kicking away the ladder”, comes into play. The idea is that as one group climbs up the socio-economic ladder, benefitting from public spending on infrastructure, health, education, research/development and so on, they then begin to call for those supports to be chipped away.

I don’t think high rates of unemployment alone would have resulted in the riots we’re seeing in the UK. As a number of interviews with some of the rioters and protestors have shown, the ideas of power and economic injustices have been resonant. As part of austerity, youth services in Tottenham were cut by 75%! Don’t forget that historic Tunisian man who immolated himself in front of a municipal building after the confiscation of his vendor’s cart. It’s not just being unemployed—it’s being invisible!

An under-appreciated movie, “Dirty Pretty Things”, has a scene which captures the importance of “mere” visibility as a first step towards dignity. Several immigrants from various places encounter one another in some of London’s seedier sections. A few grisly scenes suggest that they have gotten caught up in the black market of organ smuggling. Having discovered it, they are soon blackmailed and threatened with deportation. Toward the end of the movie, a security man asks the Nigerian immigrant, “How come I haven’t seen you?” The immigrant replies, “We are the people you don’t see”. In all of the above cases, whatever distinct and valid differences they might also have from one another, the protestors are demanding to be accounted for—to be seen!—in the social contract.

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