Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Contradictions of Modern Lives

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.


  1. Western imperalist countries give more aid to developing countries than any other economic system in the world.

    Capitalism has allowed for greater research and development and innovative processes than any other political system in the world. This has allowed for greater production and distribution of medical aid to Africa.

    There are flaws in the system but you are not providing any solutions. Middle Eastern economies, dating back to the silk trade, exhibited the earliest forms of hyper-capitalism. The Ottoman empire survived on mercantiles. How can you say that Arabs or people in the Middle East do not want western systems when they promoted it in the first place and are now calling for the same values of democracy that the west enjoys?

  2. also this entire article misses the point of purchasing power parity. Drivers earn 1000 lira per passenger but also to eat only costs 3000 lira for a meal. So its not like they are starving to death whilst they drive people around.

  3. Thanks for your anonymous critique. Is that a value of Western democracy? Unaccountability? I do appreciate your comments though.

    In response to your third point, I think that you are misunderstanding the article. Of course I am not offering a solution as we are a collective and we will need to work together (across East and West) to build alternatives. What I am trying to say is that before we do we need to reclaim our critical consciousness and recognize the contradictions of our modern capitalist system. It may look beautiful to you but there is just as much ugliness out there if you choose to really look. And many Middle Easterners see the capitalist injustice everywhere. Many experience it themselves.

    I think the Egyptian military's move post Muburak to increase subsidies illustrates my point. That is the opposite of what the West calls "reform" but to me it is a step in the right direction.

    Trade is not capitalism. And mercantilism is not capitalism. Liberal capitalism is the rational, instrumental side of Adam Smith (he had a moral side too but the economists have subsequently chosen to ignore that) and neoliberal capitalism is the basis of economics. It is what the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the central bank of the United States embraces. Free markets, the protection of private property, limiting collective bargaining rights etc.

    It is not fair to speak about aid without describing what it means. Glenn Kessler recently corrected Sarah Palin's misunderstanding of the situation in Egypt as follows: "Under the terms of the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, the United States gives about $2 billion in direct aid to Egypt every year, making it one of the largest foreign aid recipients. But most of this aid — about $1.3 billion a year — is financing to buy U.S. military hardware and services. Egypt, for instance, has used the U.S.-supplied funds to replace aging Soviet-supplied equipment with at least 220 F-16 aircraft, 880 M1A1 tanks and 36 Apache helicopters. So Egypt ends up with weapons — but the money actually goes to U.S. firms and helps create U.S. jobs. "

    In other words, aid is tied. Usually it needs to be used to purchase American or European food, supplies or equipment. I am not sure that buying billions of dollars of weapons helps Egyptians very much, especially when those weapons were often being used against them. And since you mention purchasing power parity (PPP) it really ought to be relevant here. Egyptian workers earn a lot less than American or European workers and so can produce at a lower cost. Thus the aid is badly spent. The Egyptians receive a lot less for their dollar. Especially as the food, supplies and equipment needs to be shipped which is very costly. I know this because I used to work in international publishing.

    It would make a lot more sense for the Americans and Europeans to teach Egyptians how to make the stuff instead, but American and European businesses do not want the competition. There are also intellectual property rights restrictions. So aid is usually a lot more helpful to Western imperialist powers than to those it purports to help.

  4. And back to PPP. Are you kidding? 3000 lira or $2 does not buy you a meal in Beirut unless you eat a manaeesh or at Bar Bar. The driver also needs to feed his family. With petrol at more than $5 a gallon he is very lucky to make a profit of $20 a day, and probably earns even less. Rent in Hamra for a one bedroom apartment is at least $700 a month and in Dahiyeh $300. If he has a family that has to be doubled. So if he makes $100 a week he cannot house his family ($600) without another wage earner, let alone feed them, clothe them and send them to school. Electricity runs only half the day in Dahiyeh so he will also need access to a generator. The price of bathing water alone is $500 a year. You have to spend even more if you want water to drink. And if anybody in the driver's family gets sick he or she probably will not be able to see a doctor, because the cost is usually his daily wage.

    So while you demonstrate your expertise of economics by mentioning PPP it does not make you knowledgeable of the facts on the ground. Life is very difficult for the majority of people around the world. The majority can no longer afford to live dignified lives. This is a broken system and we need to work together to change it.