Wednesday, 2 February 2011

the right to starve in freedom

There is a very simple explanation for the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. People don't like living under dictatorships and they want political freedom. What they want are liberal democracies on the European model, where they have basic civil liberties like freedom of association, free elections, free speech and freedom of the press.

Except that's a crap explanation, isn't it? People tolerate dictatorships all the time. They spend years and years making totally logical decisions that show they aren't actually that bothered by political freedom, in fact. Not just that they can't mount the force to overthrow the guy in charge, but also that they stay in the country, they get on with their lives. Imagine yourself as a middle class person in a prosperous dictatorship. You go to work, you earn money, you can buy things and you go home and enjoy those things. Like a lot of people all over the world, you're not especially interested in politics, so you get on with your life and keep your nose clean. So, you just get on with your life. In fact, you do what most people in the developed world do when their civil liberties are threatened, which is, essentially ignore it, unless you form part of a the political motivated activist minority. It's this principle that's kept the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali in power all these years; that 99% of the time the best thing to do personally under a dictatorship is to ignore it.

So, a lack of political freedom is a terrible thing, but if you have to live with it, you live with it. On the other hand, something you absolutely can't live with, is lacking the ability to make a living. That directly affects your ability to get by, to exist, to live in the day to day. It's no coincidence that this is happening during an economic recession. Unemployment rises, prices rise, the value of wages falls, state assistance decreases. People see other people in the same situations, and the see the people running the country continuing to prosper (because they're always prospering!). The lack of freedom, the lack of right to get angry at these bastards starts to pick at you that much more. It overcomes your impulse to keep quiet, to keep your head down, to get on with your life. Then all it takes is the realisation that we have the power to change all this.

So, their might be some people, comfortably off, who are just liberal-minded, who want a democratically elected government that will keep them prosperous. But for the majority, want they want is a change. Now a change in this sense doesn't mean that you leave the country as it is but dismantle the police state. It means that the new government needs to improve the people's lives in a material way, not just give them civil liberties.

People like this guy will tell you that political liberalisation brings economic liberalisation and prosperity for all:

"The street protests in Tunisia and elsewhere in the region are momentous not just for the Arab world but have the potential to foreshadow a brighter economic future for the globe. The protesters' basic message is not to stifle the economic aspirations of the younger gener"ation, especially one as well-educated as Tunisia's. Shackle them at your own peril.

While Arab governments correctly interpret this cry for change as predominantly driven by economic hardship, their responses are unfortunately misdirected. Kuwait is giving its citizens free food rations and a grant of $4,000. Other governments have announced that they, too, plan to allocate millions of dollars to the poor; and Arab leaders are rushing to set up a $2 billion fund to support their economies. These measures won't save them."

So this neoliberal sees Tunisia's revolution as enabling the country to better manage capitalism and create more jobs. It sees the dictatorship as "stifling the economic aspirations of the younger generation".

He goes on to recommend:

"Establish a mechanism to get uncollateralized credit for those small-business owners who, by skill or by luck, have created the most productive job opportunities. That would fuel economic growth and undermine the corrupt old boys' comfortable monopolies. And it would make room for a new generation of entrepreneurs in areas such as food distribution, machining, construction, equipment and parts fabrication, retailing, power distribution, transportation, communications—and, yes, media."

This, obviously, is a fantasy land that offers nothing to the vast majority of people overthrowing governments in developing countries. What this guy is arguing is basically that countries where a very substantial proportion of the population live in abject poverty should retain the economic system that put them there, and strengthen the neo-liberal tendency that leads to widening inequality, that is the tendency that is pushing down wages and living standards in developed countries as we speak. He's asking them to patiently accept their poverty for the time being, promising that economic liberalisation might lead them to prosperity in decades or even generations time. That is, assuming that the corruption among the dominant classes can even be dealt with, without dispossessing the existing capitalist class that enriched itself under Ben Ali. Finally, it merits fairly serious attention that no one from the IMF/World Bank/the US Treasury or the European Commission was going around telling these governments that their economic policies were a problem (the exact opposite in fact), it seems convenient that these countries are apparently too economically illiberal as soon as their government falls over.

If the hopes of liberals come to fruition the peoples of these regions day-to-day problems they will have to live with. The problems that they actually want solved above all else will have to let go, and they will have to accept that the end of the police state is all that democrats should aspire to. It is not a forecast that holds much promise. Developing world countries that have liberated themselves from oppression seldom find themselves joining the rich world as a consequence. As in South Africa, Brazil and in many other countries all over the world, populations find that they can't eat liberal civil society. That they continue to be exploited, to be impoverished, to starve and to die for the same reasons as before.

South Africa in particular serves as a model for what "peaceful transition" means in reality. Before apartheid fell there was a quite strong fear that years of racist oppression and exploitation would result in a fierce backlash by the African community toward the white population. What in fact was negotiated, by ANC political leaders desperate to end years of political repression, was a "peaceful transition" that not only guaranteed the basic civil rights and physical safety of white South Africans, but also that existing property relations would remain essentially untouched, maintaining the economic basis of apartheid.

Sure enough the result was that post-apartheid South Africa retained its social divisions, to the detriment of community relations and any attempt to heal ethnic tension. In fact, as the global economy was now opened up to South African companies, and the government ushered in an era of neo-liberalism, social inequality and poverty actually got worse in post-apartheid South Africa something that should (but doesn't particularly) shame the ANC. As far as the political mainstream is concerned this is the limits of freedom, the right to be poor under an elected government.

Any survey of economic development and poverty over the past 30 years wouldn't particularly illustrate that liberal political institutions are any more conducive to alleviating actual social problems than authoritarian ones (in fact a look at the post-soviet block would actually show you the opposite was true). The reality is that for the working classes, overthrowing a dictator often seems to offer only the right to complain about starving, rather than an end to the starvation itself. You have to wonder if that really is what people in Egypt and Tunisia have given their lives for.

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