This past week the European Union, International Labour Organization and the Committee for Employment of Palestinian Refugees sponsored a conference to discuss "Social Security as a Human Right: What Options for Palestinian Refugees Living in Lebanon." The gathering addressed the dire situation for Palestinian Refugees living in Lebanon who are not entitled to to benefit from the Lebanese social security system. However this is only one aspect of a multidimensional problem. Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon are largely restricted from working at all, so only a small minority are able to acquire jobs that even require them to pay into the national system. Without addressing the fundamental right to work, any proposed solution for social security is hardly going to make a difference in the quality of life for the vast majority of Palestinians Refugees living in Lebanon.
Participants also repeatedly questioned how to go about financing a system of social security. And the refrain immediately started making me ill. The fact that this question was raised at all is extremely problematic and demonstrates that even successful revolutionaries throughout the Middle East will continue to face a struggle for social justice. Arab governments and elites fail to distribute resources, both within countries and across them. The commissioner-gernal of UNRWA, which currently faces a budget shortfall, yesterday criticized Arab governments for not contributing to the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared camp in Northern Lebanon. And yet the same day that I attended the conference on social security for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, where people seemed to think that finding capital to finance the system was going to be difficult, I went running on the Corniche and saw the largest private yacht I have ever seen in my life, and with a helicopter to boot. Capital is obviously not the problem. Access to it is.
But the real dilemma is global and in my opinion the imperialist powers shoulder much of the blame for promoting unsustainable social systems. Western powers are responsible for having created a capitalist world where injustice is rife, domestically and globally. We like to think that modernity has ushered an era where life is beautifully diverse, richly complex and technologically advanced. But while humans now have opportunities our grandparents never even imagined, it is no longer possible to have a comfortable life without access to electricity, phones, internet, education, health care and transportation. All of these services are extremely costly endeavors. And yet in most societies many of these necessities are privatized, and thus only for a privileged few.
The individualization of the worker and the institutionalization of private property rights have created a global middle and upper class who are able to rationalize greed. And we no longer offer any alternatives. Voters in the West increasingly want a reduction in taxes and as a result those few countries that formerly maintained generous social welfare systems are now finding them dismantled. Not that Westerners today have systems that are open, not unsurprising considering their colonial legacies. The New York Times recently reported on the disgraceful situation for thousands of African migrant workers who live under deplorable conditions inside tent cities in southern Spain. The United States has precluded this scenario by building a wall on its southern border. Right wing fascist parties are gaining traction throughout Europe to promote similar kinds of exclusionary policies.
Today the world is a mess. Oxfam recently released a report blasting the world's food system, concluding that "One in seven people on the planet go hungry every day despite the fact that the world is capable of feeding everyone." We need to recognize that this disastrous predicament is also modernity. Indeed our modern lives are contradictions, some thrive and others suffer, which most Westerners and newly emerging elites refuse to recognize. This is not a march to progress, but a spiral of have and have nots. The more some take, the less others have access to. And violence is always ever present. As Terry Eagleton (2009) wisely comments in Reason, Faith and Revolution, "Some people think it Eurocentric to point out that Europe was the historical home of modernity, forgetful that this also means that it was also the home of the Holocaust." I find this quotation to be especially appropriate considering the inspiration for this blog entry: Palestinians who are being punished for a history not of their own making.
And the problem of scarcity is not something that just happens "over there" in African countries or other non-industrialized regions, as poverty rates in the West are also embarrassingly high, especially in America. We are just increasingly adept at avoiding our neighbors who suffer, through building walls, redistricting communities or moving to the suburbs. In our inglorious capitalist world system the wealthy are increasingly unaware of their responsibilities to society. Unlike the rest of us, and thank God.
The morning after the conference I took a bus to my Arabic class, Beirut's only system of public transportation. I collapsed into a deflated seat on a typically shabby bus—really a van—that is the property of the driver who navigates terrible traffic for many hours a day on a meager wage. The fare is a mere 1000 Lebanese Lira, less than one American dollar, to travel several kilometers. Two young boys entered the bus shortly after I did and when they tried to pay the driver he refused to take their money. Petrol is so expensive in this country, almost twice as expensive as in the United States even though salaries here are a fraction of what they are in America, and yet the struggling driver refused payment because he was sharing responsibility for these young boys. Just like every Arab protesting in the streets is taking responsibility for each other and for the rest of their societies.
So when President Obama talks about listening to the Arab people on the streets, by fiercely promoting a liberalization of the markets throughout the Middle East he demonstrates that he only speaks the language of elites. How are neoliberalizing markets and trade reform going to help the poor throughout the region when these policies have not helped Americans? The Arab people are educated and probably know more about inequality in the United States than many of us. They do not want our social system. So while President Obama says he wants to try to listen, his presidential language shows us that he will never be able to hear. At least not while he is in office. And that, alas, is a contradiction of our American democracy.