Western media insists on appearing innocently confused in this report about the return of big dam projects in Africa. In fact, there is a determined intellectual block in mainstream journalism that prevents them from speaking out against modernist development theories, and their terrible divisive, debilitating and unjust consequences for the majority of a nation’s populace. We have seen this repeatedly in many a good-intentioned work on economic inequality, global poverty and human deprivation. As the Nobel Prize winning economic Joseph Steiglitz pointed out:
American inequality began its upswing 30 years ago, along with tax decreases for the rich and the easing of regulations on the financial sector. That’s no coincidence. It has worsened as we have under-invested in our infrastructure, education and health care systems, and social safety nets. Rising inequality reinforces itself by corroding our political system and our democratic governance….
Asymmetric globalization has also exerted its toll around the globe. Mobile capital has demanded that workers make wage concessions and governments make tax concessions. The result is a race to the bottom. Wages and working conditions are being threatened. Pioneering firms like Apple, whose work relies on enormous advances in science and technology, many of them financed by government, have also shown great dexterity in avoiding taxes. They are willing to take, but not to give back.
One of the most recent example of a media organization trying to do good work on the questions of economic inequality and growing poverty, and yet assiduously avoiding accepting the fact that neo-liberalism, so-called ‘free market’ capitalism, IMF-sponsored ‘structural adjustment programs’ that demand a massive cut backs in welfare and social services, state pension plans, investments in fundamental human capital projects like education, health care, social security benefits, was by Global Post and their special project called The Great Divide. Reading it – parsing through its many articles and photo-essays, you would be hard pressed to see an honest acknowledgement of the policies and practices of neo-liberalism, privatization, union busting, consolidation, free-capital movement, divestment in agriculture, prioritization of labor exports that actually underpin the growing inequality around the world. If there are any questions raised to challenge or confront the fact that our ‘free market’ believes – beliefs underpinned by the economic theology and fundamentalism of people like Thomas Friedman and other lunatics – are the very reason for growing inequality not just around the globe, but in the USA. What is also striking is how the report avoids traveling to nations where we could have learned something about how to fight economic inequality, and the polices and programs that ensure that citizens are not cut adrift – Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Argentina, Indonesia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, and a number of other nations that have worked against the practices of neo-liberalism, are carefully avoided. No lessons can be learned from others. In the end, despite all the good intentions and documentation, what is left and never said, is a clear argument for a change in policies and a prioritization of the public sphere. And this silence comes from a fear, perhaps even a fear of the self, that we would end up sounding like…oh goodness….socialists!
Tony Judt’s final words to the USA were precisely this, and they sounded very socialist for which he was derided even after his death.
And yet we seem unable to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new. Until quite recently, public life in liberal societies was conducted in the shadow of a debate between defenders of “capitalism” and its critics: usually identified with one or another form of “socialism.” By the 1970s this debate had lost much of its meaning for both sides; all the same, the “left–right” distinction served a useful purpose. It provided a peg on which to hang critical commentary about contemporary affairs.
On the left, Marxism was attractive to generations of young people if only because it offered a way to take one’s distance from the status quo. Much the same was true of classical conservatism: a well-grounded distaste for over-hasty change gave a home to those reluctant to abandon long-established routines. Today, neither left nor right can find their footing.
Ending with a plea that:
…the practical need for strong states and interventionist governments is beyond dispute. But no one is “re-thinking” the state. There remains a marked reluctance to defend the public sector on grounds of collective interest or principle.
A critique of our modern predicament requires a return to the idea of the public, of a prioritization of our shared interests as a society, over individualism, a privatization. It is a return to a rhetoric that frankly scares these media mavens more than any amount of economic inequality does. Today they rather simply document the reality, and speak of popular unrest, civic agitation and protests as ‘anti-state’ actions, security and problems of law and order. It’s just easier than being mistaken for a socialist.
The same blind ideological silence underpins this piece about big dams in Africa. The rural poor are not the people these dams are being built for – who gives a damn about the rural poor. soon, under other economic development plans, these rural poor will be divested of their agricultural lands, shifted as slum dwellers to the main cities, and asked to be the cheap labor for the many ‘modernist development’ sweatshops that will dot and beautify the landscape of Kinshasa.
It all makes total sense, and is all very logical given that ‘modernity’ assumes the creation of an industrial economy which require cheap labor in urban centers, plentiful slums, and of course, plentiful electricity to power the sweatshops and factories. dams are part of a persistent, ideological vision of ‘economic development’ that persists despite protests to the contrary by the very organizations that are funding it. They are an intrinsic part of an ideology that understands ‘modernity’ to be merely a replication of European industrial development with all its associated consumerist and market appendages in every other society around the world. This myopic, and frankly crippling unimaginative world view is discussed very well in John C. Scott’s book Seeing Like A State. I am still in the midst of reading this work as I prepare for a new Rwanda project, but Scott’s argument basically states that centrally planned, utopian schemes to achieve a ‘modernist’ development in the rest of the world are deeply flawed because of the tremendous violence they inflict on the society, and the many social, cultural, economic and political inter-dependencies they can never quite comprehend and manage.
In the end, despite the collapse of the world ‘capitalist’ economies – almost all of which now have financial and industrial corporations that have been saved by their governments i.e by relying on the old, tried-and-true government intervention model, it is a poverty of the imagination that has led to ‘developing’ nations and ‘development’ experts not knowing how else to ‘develop’. If we look in the mirror and the mirror tells us we are the most beautiful thing, who would not want to be us?
Oh, and ignore that today we of the industrialized elite are standing on crutches, for at least our hair looks great.