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writing for godot


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Sunday, 08 September 2019 22:55

Economic power, political power and poverty


The Economic and Political Discourse


-To an economist, it is greed, not love that makes the world go round. While the world’s religions condemn avarice as a deplorable vice, the world’s economists exalt it as a cardinal virtue. Unlike priests, economists know that avarice is useful in understanding some of the major issues in today’s economy. Avarice is the opposite of the weather. Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. No one talks about avarice, but everyone does a great deal about it, and that is why economists believe that greed makes the world go round.


65. It should not thus come as a surprise that economic injustice is not an accident. It springs from the very nature of capitalism. When profit governs the day-to-day decisions of business, the effect on the ordinary person will inevitably be considered secondary. Policy cannot be governed by the profit motive and by love-thy-neighbor at the same time. Under neoliberalism, the most that can be hoped for are a few compromises. These alleviate some misery, but the underfed and the underprivileged millions are still among us, suffering.


66. The egalitarian pronouncements of many a politician come handy, but only as a smokescreen to promote the interests of the privileged classes who control the levers of political power. An externally induced commitment to justice and human rights (HR), on the other hand, is shakier than a genuine one, especially if ‘frightened into it’ by the threat of political unrest.


67. For Northern nations, it is a fallacy to say that, as democracies, they have no ideology --…when economics motivates and controls practically all their policy-making. In the USA, for example, there is a very effective kind of ideological control managed by politicians, media lords, business interests and mainstream American intellectuals. This system of thought control restricts how Americans perceive themselves, the alternatives they can imagine, their understanding of the rest of the world, and most importantly, it prevents any major ideological changes from taking place within. We do not have significant socialist journalism in the USA, and it might well enliven the debate. Capitalism, albeit modified and socialized, is their way of economic life, and people are indoctrinated to it. The French have intellectual superstars, because they care passionately about new ideas, while most Americans are still trying to get comfortable with the work of Marx that underlies a good chunk of European thought.


68. This is in good part why public-policy decisions based on the results of micro-economic cost-benefit analyses are often totally ineffective. If public-policy makers have additional objectives they would like to consider in making investment decisions --such as equity and distributional considerations-- it becomes imperative to incorporate them into the analysis upfront --but the do not. Moreover, given the current economic state of the art, mathematical cost-benefit analyses are about as neutral as voter literacy tests in the Old US South. They are often ideological documents designed to prove preconceived notions.


Those Rendered Poor


69. The poorest are the same everywhere. They are poor, primarily because their needs are not central to the political priorities of governments. They are prevented from translating their needs into effective demands in the only terms that the market understands: cash.

The problem is that the institutions that create growth are not neutral as to its distribution. The concept of market demand mocks poverty or plainly ignores it as those rendered poor have very little purchasing power. A spirit of noblesse-oblige towards those rendered poor is not enough! Development must be redefined as a selective attack on the worst forms of poverty. Development must thus be measured as the level of HR fulfillment of the poorest 40%. Let us take care of our poverty and let the GNP take care of itself. A we-must-do-for-those-rendered-poor tone will only bring about guilt and defensiveness, not the real energy needed for change.


The Establishment and Us


70. The Establishment is not those people who hold and exercise power as such. It is the people who create and sustain ‘the climate of assumptions and opinions’ within which power is exercised by those who do hold it by election, appointment or usurpation. The Establishment thus is a pretty clumsy monitor of morality. In any society, the dominant groups are the ones with the most to hide about the way society works. (Was there ever any domination that did not appear natural to those who possessed it?) Sympathy with the victims of historical processes and skepticism about the rulers’ claims provide us with the essential attitude: Do not be taken in by the dominant mythology.


71. When helping to shape policy, the politically disengaged scientific community frequently answers that not enough information is yet available to make definitive assessments of the interaction of different variables. The next response is, then, …a call for more research. This argument is advanced even though absolute proof is an impossible goal. Political and economic opponents of any advocated changes are, of course, happy to espouse the scientist’s argument that proof is not yet adequate, definite or sufficiently general to dictate policy. The same scientists also somehow ignore the mechanisms of economic/military/ political power and how such power was achieved. (It takes more than a myth to conquer half the world…).


72. Here, we need to be reminded that morality changes with each change of social order. The ruling class imposes its morality and puts it into practice in accord with its historical class interests. Politics, science, morality, art and religion are all forms of ideology, and there are only two ideologies: bourgeois and socialist: for now, humanity has not elaborated a ‘third’ ideology (Lenin).


73. In our analyses, the ‘bourgeoisie’ is too often left undefined, but its characteristics are clear. Its ideology is based entirely upon commerce. Qualitative values are postponed in favor of the quantitative. Its rationality negates all that is different from itself. Everything in everyday life, from our films to our cooking, is dependent upon the notions the bourgeoisie makes us have. The bourgeoisie succeeds in its conquest by infiltrating our everyday life with consolatory myths. Modern myths justify and enforce the power of the bourgeoisie by presenting it as a natural force. But such myths based on false universals are insidious and only dull the pain; they may appear innocent, but in fact, have a stronghold upon our life.


Attitudes Towards Poverty


74. No government can do everything. To govern is to choose. But poverty will persist and grow if the choice too often favors the peripheral extravagance over the critical need. Even in those countries rendered poor that have enjoyed rapid growth, the poorest income groups have not shared in it equitably; their incomes have risen (at best) only one third as fast as the national average. No government wants to perpetuate poverty. But not all governments are doing something about it!


75. If we consistently fail to address, in an explicit way, the core question of power, we miss what is wrong with the gross inequalities we face every day. We cannot probe into the moral core of our societies’ ills unless we make clear that wealth conveys power over others --including political power-- and that is the essence of the contemporary moral problem. Therefore, the crucial test of ethics is who defines who is functioning as a true social change agent. Intellectuals have little to offer in this process of identifying change agents. Many people believe that the intellectuals’ psychic energy is so powerful it can transform all around it. The question is: How can this gathered energy confront the Pentagon, Exxon, Coca Cola, Bayer/Monsanto or any other political or economic institution? What is missing, then, is an urgent political strategy for committed intellectuals.


76. Our acceptance of the established ways has an important consequence. It leads to a belief that those with wealth and power --even if inherited-- deserve their good fortune. If the rules are fair --and we seldom question that they are-- those who make their way must deserve what they have amassed. But a corollary of the acceptance of good fortunes is the acceptance of bad fortune.*

*: A wo/man who is poor deserves to be poor --s/he must not have tried hard enough; perhaps if s/he had worked harder, s/he might have inherited something. Abroad, we doubt that nations rendered poor really deserve our assistance. They must not have tried hard enough or, had they looked harder, they might have found oil. This attitude towards the permanently poor is confused with our attitude towards the temporarily afflicted those faced with sudden disaster. No nations are more generous than the USA and the European nations. Yet, this generosity is only a natural extension of this same vision. Victims of disaster cannot be held responsible for their plight. This being so, any nation rendered poor should not only be grateful, but permanently beholden to the donors for any aid, because it should be recognized that the receiving nation really does not deserve the money.


77. Northern donor nations are at their best in foreign scientific and technological programs when they treat foreigners like colleagues and not like protégés. The ‘Ugly American’, for instance, has too often been a patronizing US expert. Therefore, a new relationship between the developed countries and the underdeveloped countries is needed; not one of self-sacrifice and charity, but one of solidarity that leads to harmonize Northern countries changing needs with the aspirations of their partners rendered poor in the world. Charity cannot do the work of justice.**

**: Charities will send money to a distant organization, like Mother Theresa’s, but ignore those rendered poor and scorned only a few blocks away. We can look with anger and contempt on the selfishness of those rendered rich in Calcutta who let those rendered poor starve, but how about our own responsibilities for conditions in the ghettos of our own cities? Are we ourselves perhaps guilty? This is an unpleasant question. Better to think of those rendered poor in Calcutta. The big difficulty arises from the traditional attitudes of the Northern people; they are afraid of radical change. How to reduce their/our fear --cowardice/passivity-- is a mystery that no one has figured out.


A critical look at our professions and ourselves: Our Limitations

Everything is important. But what is fundamental?


-Is it fair to say that we keep diagnosing the obvious and giving prognosis of a tragedy? Why do we keep emphasizing sectoral solutions that deal with what is important and not with what is fundamental?

-Important is the help given to some needy groups, but fundamental is the promotion of HR through more permanent structural changes.


78. We keep projecting trends of all that we do not want to be continued. Trends are not destiny. The destiny is in our hands. When dealing with food and nutrition problems, to go back to our initial example, it is important to act on the causes, as well as on the effects. It is useless to take care of the malnourished while the causes of hunger and malnutrition are not solved. We can propose steps to avoid those causes to act, or we can help solve the already existing problems that are actually consequences. The greatest waste in this latter task is time. Time is wasted on diagnoses for checking easily verifiable trends; time wasted on excess methodology. Decisions are thus delayed by a system without any synchronization with the speed of happenings. We often fail to strike the right balance between theory and practice, academicism and activism.


79. On the other end of the spectrum, and in matters of science that have implication for public policy, the politicians and policy-makers often form their opinion based on what they hear from those who do not know anything about the subject and are viewing it from the outside, as well as on what they hear from those who do know a great deal about the subject and are viewing it biasedly from the inside.


80. What ultimately bothers me is that all the elements needed to study malnutrition and maldevelopment in their wider economic and political context are there (i.e., unequal distribution between the various sectors of society, the role of state and private interests and the conflicts between them) but, in spite of this, our colleagues continue to discuss matters within a framework of cultural habits and ignorance. Their implicit social model (ideology) does not enable them to handle the (not really so) complex social and economic phenomena they themselves witness. A classless approach in sociological studies, for the most part, focuses its analysis on those rendered poor, not on the economic system that produces poverty --and nobody is studying those rendered rich and why… Problems are thus ‘solved’ in an isolated and totally a-political way, because there is still a lack of understanding of what determinants are really important and how they need to be approached. In our system, HR-conscious colleagues pointing out valid discrepancies between ideology and reality are actually disciplined by the guardians of the paradigm rather than being rewarded; they have a hard time getting published.


81. Projects dreamed up in a social vacuum must play themselves out in the real world of injustice and conflict. Too often their objective consequences may turn out to be different from the original subjective intent. We need HR-conscious nutrition experts who are strong and flexible enough to ask the right questions rather than sell the wrong answers.***

***: In this context, intervention strategies can, therefore, be classified in three categories according to the principles that govern them: comprehensive strategies that are multidisciplinary in nature and call for multi-sectoral cooperation assuming that this meeting of minds will solve all problems; improvement strategies that ‘put the needed spare-parts to the system’ by assuming that only some things can be changed now; and transformation strategies that call for radical changes of the environment and/or the social system. The idea is that only those strategies that somehow (and at some point in time) include the latter optic have any long-term potential.


Our Role and Our Responsibilities


82. The key questions:

  • What then is the appropriate role of colleagues in fostering true people’s, HR-based development in situations where exploitation and oppression are acute?
  • Can claim holders be easily mobilized for exclusive political action for structural changes if ‘experts’ are using the narrow space for economic improvement within the existing structure?
  • Should progressive forces stand aloof from such space and leave them to be filled by mere reformists thereby distracting mass attention from the need for fundamental social change?
  • Should a combination of economic and political mobilization be pursued?

83. The answers to these questions are surely not easy. Mind you, public indignation is difficult to sustain; it can be dissipated by token, merely symbolic ‘expert’ responses that seldom (if ever) transcends conventional ideological or political limits.


84. We just need to confront the fact that there are two kinds of problems: reducible and irreducible. The difference between them is simple: reducible problems have clearly definable solutions while irreducible ones do not. You know when you have got the answer to a reducible problem --it fits like the right piece in a puzzle. But problems such as inequality, disparity, injustice and HR violations galore appear irreducible, because their solutions are not ‘fixable’; this kind of problem mostly generates only vague, complex and temporary solutions. The problem with development is that too often we are trying to find reducible solutions to irreducible problems. Technological advances are the favorite answer to reducible problems; many hoped they would solve the irreducible problems as well, but…


85. When the world is messy, one falls back either on ideology or technology. Good young people respond to the seduction of technology. It is more independent of experience and you do not have to know much. But technology is not the origin of change; it merely is the means whereby society changes itself. Technology comprises not just tools and machines, but also skills and motivation. The wrong technologies have for too long been destroying genuine community life and mobilization.


86. There are, therefore, two kinds of revolution - technological and political. It is technology that is flattening differences around the world --cultures that took centuries to build and sustain have been transformed by ‘development’ in a few decades. Technology dilutes and dissolves ideology. While political revolutions are almost always successful in response to a felt needs --more liberty, a different racial division, or simply more bread-- technology invents needs and exports problem. Political revolutions always have motives --a why-- such as grievances, and the need for redress. These are, as Thomas Jefferson told us, neither light nor transient, but involve a long train of abuses and usurpations. Technological changes, on the other hand, do not have a why. Unlike politics, they are irreversible. We may be able to develop a new strain of wheat and so address starvation somewhere. But it may not be in our power to cure injustice anywhere, even in our own country, much less in distant places.


87. The obvious question, then, is: Why not changing our order of thinking rather than trying to conquer hunger and malnutrition by the use of technology? Technology is basically improvisational. It treats the symptoms; it provides no lasting cures. Moreover, technology is part of the problem. New policies will thus require a patient and possibly painful reeducation of us all. A technocratic utopia simply is the most banal of all.




88. Technical pragmatism by wo/men of good will can inspire national, regional and global strategies with no political sensitivity, appealing to all reasonable wo/men and capable of being implemented. Technocrats shore up fragments wrenched from ‘incomplete’ alternatives, often resulting in a pastiche and not a real synthesis. If this is the best that the best applied thinkers of the international development establishment can produce, then indeed development thinking is a burnt-out case wandering in a desert.


89. Nevertheless, faith in technocratic platonic warriors developing the world, remains unshaken. This leads an outsider to see a picture of general harmony of interests. It also leads to incoherences and to Northern development aid not with a human face, but with bleary eyes and a nagging headache. We need to drop the fallacy of this universal harmony of interests so that areas of real parallel interests, negotiable compromises and true partnerships can be identified and promoted.


The future challenge


90. The real challenge in our present world is not to maximize happiness (in practice interpreted as maximizing economic growth, GNP, or the quantity of goods), but to organize our society to minimize suffering. Human happiness is un-definable; human suffering is concrete; it manifests itself as hunger, sickness, unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and ignorance. The Western civilization (if there is such) will, therefore, not be judged so much on its vast accumulation of scientific knowledge, as on its trusteeship (planetary and other) of that knowledge and its efficient application to the betterment of living and the minimization of that suffering. [I ask you: Would a program of consciousness raising directed at the scientific community be worth undertaking as one initiative to apply science and technology to another, HR-based development in the sense described above? Why is it that I think this is ancillary and not central…?].


91. Science can be critical in raising mass consciousness. It can generate an attitude of inquiry among claim holders so that they can move from fatalistic outlooks to a realization of their own power to change reality in their favor. But will many of our esteemed social scientists (remember economists are considered social scientists…) more consistently bring systematic knowledge of the wider social and political structure and its workings to strategies for structural change? Will they popularize knowledge of initiatives to change society taken elsewhere, so that claim holders can learn from those experiences? The power of the ideas in the HR framework needs to be mobilized through the communications revolution that is upon us. New forms of learning, education, awareness creation and conscientization need to be pushed in this endeavor.


92. We do have a responsibility to abolish absolute poverty wherever it exists. Relative poverty (dissatisfaction with one’s relative position in the income pyramid) is important, but not morally important as a priority. We cannot continue increasing our affluence while most have not even gotten their essentials. The affluent +/- 640 million people in the world must pay for the minimum income reforms needed. This will require a new ethos, a discouragement of consumerism and experience shows that this cannot be done without a substantial change in power relations.


93. Conflict is common where there are competing interests. Therefore, avoiding it --as we often do-- is no solution. Conflict is not necessarily violence. Conflict is a necessary means to attain true dialogue with people in authority. Those rendered poor do not achieve the confidence to launch such dialogues until they have shown they are no longer servile and afraid. Claim holders need to move from the culture of silence to a position of dignified persons. Where do you and I stand when it comes to promote this transition and to provide rallying points for mobilization in this direction?


94. Development means liberation. Any action that gives the people more control over their own affairs is an action for development, even if it does not offer them better health or more bread. But this development needs to be built from the bottom up. If this does not take place, one has social Darwinism where the ones who survive are the richest, the most powerful, the whitest and the malest.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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