Inequality and the dangerous radicals

As is well-known, critiquing the market can lead to dangerous radicalism, and I’ve recently come across some particularly troubling examples of such radicals.

One proposes that the state should impose on employers an increase in the income of its lowest paid staff. He claims: “It is a serious national evil that any class of subjects should receive less than a living wage.” Without such interference, he claims, “where you have no organisation, no parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad by the worst — this is not progress, but progressive degeneration.”

Another takes aim the banks, claiming “banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies. Already they have set up a monied aristocracy that has set the government at defiance. The issuing power of the banks should be taken away from them and restored to the people to whom it belongs.”

And it’s not just banks and sweatshops they are attacking, with rich-bashing reaching its heights with this attack: “The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, or to despise, or at least to neglect, the poor, is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

It may be a relief that these three are old history now – indeed you may have recognised them as, respectively, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith.

But it’s not all in the distant past. In my own lifetime I find an American President claiming “Trickle-down economics is voodoo economics” and a Pope claiming:

“There are many human needs which find no place on the market. Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great poverty. There is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.”

You’ll recognise from their quotes that the dangerously radical President and Pope cited above are, of course, George H W Bush and John Paul II. (I mean, who else could you have been thinking of?)

And now to the present moment, where such radical critiques of the primacy of the market are growing even louder.

“The current level of income inequality,” claims one, “is dampening economic growth, and the last generation’s inequality will extend into the next generation, with diminished social mobility. Rebalancing —along with spending in the areas of education, health care, and infrastructure —could help bring under control an income gap that, at its current level, threatens the stability of an economy still struggling to recover.”

That was – you’ve guessed it, Wall Street ratings agency S&P.

And this rabble rouser goes even further: “Inequality is destabilizing, inequality is responsible for our divisions, and the divisions could get wider,” says Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.

Strange that such ideas have been endorsed by such apparently establishment thinkers. It’s almost as if the ideas being expressed were perfectly mainstream and sensible! The only question left to ask is what should we do with such dangerous radicals as those cited above? One suggestion, just a suggestion, might be that we heed their warnings.

But tell us what you really think

Disproving my belief that official think tank feeds rarely say much of interest, here’s a special moment on Twitter earlier today from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (or some hapless intern therein):

…swiftly followed by another tweet offering “sincerest apologies to @Amnesty & our followers” and the news that “we’re reviewing internal policies for social media”. Really?

h/t Andrew Exum

Why the multilateral system is stumbling on conflict prevention

Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, South Sudan – not to mention Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Gaza, or Somalia. None of them is exactly a poster child for the multilateral system’s capacity to address or prevent conflict. Richard Gowan has a great piece in World Politics Review this week (£) that offers a typically pithy (and pitiless) account of why the multilateral security system seems to be stumbling so badly:

It suffers structural weaknesses at three levels. The major powers at the apex of the system are in disarray, as the U.S. tries to limit its global commitments and China and Russia assert themselves. Middle-sized powers that want to undercut the system are exploiting these top-tier tensions: While Moscow and Washington have sparred over Syria at the U.N., for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran have fought a proxy war on the ground.

At the bottom of the global ladder, a mix of predatory governments, rebel movements and terrorists have taken advantage of the troubles higher up. As I noted at the start of this year, embattled and autocratic leaders from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to South Sudan’s Salva Kiir have concluded that they can have more to gain from using force against their foes than submitting to international mediation. In the Middle East and North Africa, groups such as the Islamic State are profiting from the resulting conflicts.

Richard’s last point, on the opportunism of those at the bottom of the global ladder, certainly chimes with an experience I had a few months ago: sitting in the lobby of the hotel in Addis Ababa where the South Sudan peace negotiations have been taking place, I overheard two negotiators sitting at the next table chuckling gleefully at how the international community’s focus on Ukraine had taken the pressure right off them to reach a deal with their opponents.

All the same, as Richard concludes, it still matters that:

…a mix of international officials and observers, soldiers and governments remain willing to stand up for the vulnerable and do what they can to uphold that system. Perhaps the system hasn’t completely flopped in recent crises. A fairer if less pithy assessment might be that the system is indeed failing, but it still does enough good to be worth fighting for.

 

With Glasgow Govan’s gentle hard men

In Govan, one of Glasgow’s toughest post-industrial neighbourhoods, a big burly man with a tattoo, a history of drug abuse, huge arms and a large hammer, stops a posh English chap, dressed in a suit and just out of a board meeting. “I remember when I was being chased with a hammer,” he tells me, “and now here I am using a hammer to make this beautiful wooden boat.” He hands me some wood shavings: “Smell that, it’s Douglas Fir, doesn’t it smell gorgeous? They use it in Potpourri.”

Glasgow Govan is a place with a difficult present, but also a proud history. “Govan,” another of the men tells me, “was the great home of shipbuilding and production. Some say the name comes from a Viking word for the God of the Blacksmiths.” The people of Govan have links to the history of Scotland’s islands and to Gaelic and Norse mythology – all of which the participants of the GalGael project draw upon as inspiration for the artifacts they produce and as a way to understand their own personal histories and the next chapters of their lives.

The collapse of industry and the onset of mass unemployment tore into the heart of Govan and wrecked many lives. GalGael is a grassroots attempt to heal the wound and to demonstrate a living alternative.

“I’m so happy to have something to do,” I am told repeatedly by the participants. Politicians critical of civil society sometimes claim that they don’t give enough value to work – but enabling people to work is in fact central to the model of locally-driven projects like this, precisely because it is so core to people’s identity and broader health. “Hard graft beats therapy any day,” says one.

The work being carried out here is tough and physical, but is also individual and beautiful. Men who have been told that they are nothing find work here that is “much more than wage labour – I’ve made some things that make me feel proud. I feel talented. I’ve seen that I’m capable.”

There is no division here between the helpers and the helped. Many of the trainers are people who arrived as participants – and those involved see the most crucial support as from their peers. “We’ve all been through the same things.”

“I’m so thankful,” says another gentle giant.

“What are you most thankful for?” I ask. I expect him to say for the people who run GalGael, but what he says is an even greater tribute. “That all of us here have each other.”

Wishful Thinking and Great Power Politics

Today, President Petro Poroshenko signed the EU Association Agreement and Russia has warned of grave consequences. Of course, it was the refusal of Poroshenko’s predeccesor Victor Yanukovich to sign this Agreement last November that triggered the protests that led to his overthrow and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in February.

Since then, the veering from angry stand-off to telephone diplomacy and back again between the West and Russia over the future of Ukraine resembles a dialogue of the deaf.

This was underlined this week at an on-the-record debate on the Ukraine dispute at the foreign affairs think tank, Chatham House, in London.

The Russian strategic analyst and former Red Army Colonel, Dmitri Trenin – with more than a hint of irony – bemoaned a surfeit of ideology in western foreign policy. He made this observation in relation to a discussion over whether Russia would ‘allow’ Ukraine to join the EU and/or NATO.

The Canadian Liberal MP, Chrystia Feeland, had argued that Ukraine is in the throes of a democratic revolution and the Ukrainian people have the right to decide if they want to join either of the western clubs. The American Realist international relations professor, John Mearsheimer, insisted, bluntly, rights don’t come into it – Russia is the great power in the region and will wreck Ukraine rather than allow it to make that choice.

The former US Ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, the other participant in the debate, and Ms Freeland were visibly bemused by this argument which was indicative of what I think Trenin was getting at.

Western foreign policy makers seem to be prone to wishful thinking – that the rest of the international community shares their worldview and that values should outweigh core national interests.

This means, for instance, that what Washington sees as its ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot’ to Asia, which, it asserts, will benefit Asia and the US economically and help ensure peace and stability in the region, is seen very differently in Beijing. It is clear that China is suspicious of the ‘pivot’ and many there regard it as an attempt to contain them and stifle growing Chinese power and influence in its own backyard. American policymakers insist this is not the case and express surprise their Chinese counterparts could possibly think such a thing.

In the case of Russia, the Americans and Europeans insist Russia has nothing to fear from a Ukraine that chooses to be in the western camp and that it can be a win-win for all, and this is sometimes expressed as incredulity that Moscow can’t see this.

Cynics may argue that this attitude is feigned given the Americans know they would not accept a country like Mexico allying itself with another great power, but in many cases it isn’t – reflecting what appears to be an assumption in US circles, perhaps resulting from the post-Cold War period of American global dominance, that what is in its national interests is in everyone else’s too.

If you add to this that Washington is also having to adjust to the shift in the global balance of power, which has seen the return of what commentators like Professor Mearsheimer see as great power politics,  when countries like Russia and China assert their interests, it often meets with incomprehension in the US.

As for the Europeans who have spent the last sixty years trying to shed the great power mindset that fuelled two world wars which killed tens of millions, and have concentrated on enlarging the EU by acquiring new members by using the attraction of its economic and democratic values, they are also finding it difficult to adapt to the return to a world of competing powers.

On the Russian side, Moscow doesn’t see the current situation in Ukraine as a potential win-win; in the eyes of the Kremlin it is a zero-sum game. For Russia, a neighbouring Ukraine in the western camp would be a threat, hence its destabilisation of the country since the overthrow of the pro-Russian President Yanukovich.

Given all this, as long as the two sides remain unable and apparently unwilling to see the world from each other’s perspective, whatever resolution is reached in Ukraine, further confrontation between the West and Russia is almost inevitable.

The Unquiet: Challenging Inequality in Pakistan

They were brought up to be quiet. But they insist upon raising their voice. At a gathering in Lahore of women grassroots activists from different parts of rural and small town Pakistan, they meet to discuss what they have been doing to challenge the worst inequalities and hold government to account in their communities. To learn from each other they take it in turns to share their stories.

“I am a school teacher, and my school didn’t have a boundary wall, or a toilet. So I met with the local government official and said that it needed to be fixed. He said there were no funds. I said that I would find that out using the Right to Information Act. He organised for the wall and the toilet.”

“When a man murdered some young girls the police did nothing to arrest him. So I went to see the police to complain. The murderer’s family went to visit my brother to put pressure on me to stop pushing. But my brother supported me. I stood firm. Then six days later the police arrested the killer.”

“I organised for the women in my village to get ID cards – we could not get them because our marriages were not being recognised as Hindus. It can be difficult to be a Hindu, even harder to be low caste Hindu. We are called untouchable. But I don’t care what they say. I am not afraid.”

“That’s right. If the authorities think we are weak and innocent they ignore us. But if they see that we know our rights, that we are strong, then they act.”

“In my village there is a piece of land on which some very poor families have been farming for many years. But the government wanted to sell the land from under them. We organised a protest and the local media came. The families were weeping. I went inside to meet the official and urged him to stop the land sale. He asked why. I told him he was a public servant and his salary was paid for by these families’ taxes. He laughed and said they pay no taxes, they are too poor. I said every time they buy something they are paying taxes. Even when they buy a match box they must pay tax on it. He told me that even if he wanted to stop the sale he could not. But I knew the rules and I told him he could postpone the sale and write to the higher ups recommending that the families be allowed to stay. We went outside together and he announced to the media that the sale had been postponed. The families still live on that land.”

So much is being written about what is wrong in Pakistan. And much more could be written. From feudal land ownership, to underinvestment in health and education, to tax dodging by the rich, to endemic violence against women. And now a war. But that is not the only story.

“These small-small things we are changing,” explains one of the women. They are an unlikely grouping: they speak different languages, have different religions, come from different backgrounds. “You see this lady,” says one of her friend as she holds her hand, “she is a landlord’s daughter, not like the rest of us who are poor, but she is one of us now.” Her friend smiles: “And we are getting stronger, because we have learnt. And because we have each other.”

The great 18th century British anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was once asked why he kept on fighting for what seemed to so many to be an unwinnable cause. “We are too young to realize that certain things are impossible,” he replied, “so we will do them anyway.”

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