2009 was witness to countless micro-stories of tragedy as individuals around the world felt the consequences of a world-wide economic slowdown. Will 2010 bring cheer to the man on the street?
As I write this article in the frosty light of Danish mid-December, the 2009th year of the Common Era in the Gregorian calendar is ending with United Nation’s Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. More than 100 jets have landed at Copenhagen’s sleek international airport, emitting 10,000 tons of CO2 and bringing the heads of many governments to attend a conference that addresses the most pressing economic problem of our times: climate change due to industrial pollution and other human causes, all of them rooted in past and present aspects of the global economy.
The news from the conference is likely to disappoint environmentalists for many reasons, largely due to the First World’s inability to be globally democratic and the US’s hobbled response to the challenge. But the year had started with hope, more hope than many had felt for years, symbolised in the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th, and the first African American, President of USA on January 20. Hope is still there in the thin winter air, but along with it has come the chill of reality.
Perhaps hope will triumph in 2010. It is difficult to say. 2009 had been designated the international year of astronomy, not of astrology. At the moment, it seems to be ending in a slight chill: other end-of-the-year events have included the Swiss ban on minarets and the on-going financial slow-down around the world. It says a lot about the world we live in that only the ‘financial slow-down’ is seen as an ‘economic crisis’ when climate change and even minor political developments like the ban against minarets are rooted in aspects of haywire, unfair or unsustainable global economic regimes going back at least three centuries.
The Swiss ban on minarets is a ghost from the past: it is an indicator of the problem that Europe is having with its Capitalist-liberal post-coloniality. For when Asia and Africa became post-colonial with independence in the 20th century, Europe too became post-colonial. The ‘post’ inevitably defines both colonisers and colonised. Post-coloniality was a vital consequence of an on-going global system, economic and political. But while disadvantaged Asia and Africa have been learning to live with their globalised post-coloniality for a century, privileged Europe is only now facing up to that reality. And hence, as economies slow down in post-colonially Capitalist Europe, European politicians scramble to find scapegoats and distractions – migrants or minarets.
The financial slow-down, the ‘event’ of 2009, though it started at least in 2007, is a complex matter too: it points both to the past and the future. The future, because the national economies of countries like India and China are still doing comparatively well. Some Western critics claim, with reference to India’s uneven infrastructure and China’s dependence on American markets (‘Chimerica’ is the term coined by one such historian), that this is deceptive. But Western critics have been wrong in the past: remember the doomsday prophecies about Indian democracy during the Emergency era? And if they are wrong this time, then there will be reason to hope in 2010.
But the financial crisis is also a legacy from our recent past of rampant consumerist Capitalism. Unfortunately, too many world leaders appeared convinced even as late as 2009 that headlong consumption is our only option, and the leftist opposition was often bogged down in its own limited concepts from the past. The victory of the Congress in the Indian general elections was an indication of this: the Congress won not only on a platform of secularism but also that of a ‘mixed economy’, which appears to have swayed the voter more than the obdurate criticism of the Left. Like Karl Marx some would say, the Indian voter appears to believe that the way forward is through (controlled) Capitalism and not by rolling it back.
The global economy presented a largely dismal picture throughout 2009, as credit tightened and international trade declined. Governments and central banks responded to problems created by the easy credit and consumption boom of the years before 2006 with unprecedented fiscal stimulus and institutional bailouts. Will all this help the average worker, laid off in Detroit or Dubai? Or is it only a confirmation of the faulty general principle that it is best to lose a few hundred millions, and be bailed out by governments, than to forfeit the mortgage on your flat, and be rendered houseless?
The bigger stories – such as the collapse of the Borders book chain in UK – got to the front pages in 2009, but it was the smaller stories that proliferated between the lines. ‘Iyer’ in Bangalore, who supported his family by supplying lunch packets to office workers: he saw his business evaporate as the employees, themselves pressed by the crisis, started packing their own lunches. The ‘Hansens’ in Copenhagen, who had bought a nice suburban house together: their marriage broke up, but the property market is so low that they have to continue to share the house. Amy somewhere in USA who, a webpage informs us, lost her job as a mortgage broker and cannot get employment in other fields because, she says, some job postings explicitly state that “mortgage brokers need not apply.” It is these small stories that reveal the slow fraying of humanity in the wake of the financial crisis. But perhaps humanity was always under assault by the kind of rampant fundamentalist Capitalism that led to the ‘financial slow-down’, and the crisis has simply made it visible to more of us?
The global economy has long been a minefield, left undetonated only because brokers, bankers and ministers were floating on the magic carpet of easy credit. Now that carpet is no longer airborne, and no amount of stale hot air – at least not the kind expelled by the Danish banker who recently suggested that the only thing we need to do to overcome the crisis is to start consuming more! – is going to help.
The past was also a minefield in places like Afghanistan in 2009. It might be that more troops, now being sent to that ravaged region, are necessary. At least it is better to stay and clear up the mess that has been made (or made worse) than to run. But are Western powers willing to spend twenty times as much on constructing Afghanistan as they spend on destroying it? Because that, finally, is what it will take: calculate the cost of your bullet, multiply it by twenty and spend it on creating jobs and civil society in Afghanistan. Or any of the other ‘trouble spots’ of the world.
One can argue that the Western military-industrial complex needs managed wars to keep grinding on, and thus sustaining many Western economies, but can the world any longer afford to spend more to kill than to create?
That there is a crisis might also have been underlined by the ‘swine flu’ scare. Modern flu epidemics seem to coincide with global crises – the World Wars and the Vietnam War in the past, for instance. While such scares – like this one – are always exaggerated by the media, perhaps they also suggest a warped perception that something is seriously wrong with the world. The terror of flu deaths in 2009, very few compared to media hyper-ventilation, might have been a reflection of our growing inability to face up to the deadly nature of our ‘wars’ and ‘crises’ in other fields. Or, again, of aspects of our economy: a research paper in a prestigious British medical journal suggested that a medicine which has been sold in the millions to combat this mutant flu is probably worthless and ineffective.
The year had its quota of actual deaths, of which the most visible was that of Michael Jackson. That it came in a year of global financial crisis was appropriate: for Jackson’s life and death were a tragic commentary on the free-floating world of global capitalism, this time from the side of success and not that of the unemployed, the deprived and the recently fired. To be talented, rich and successful and to end like that: not just dead, but lonely, bewildered and empty!
Jackson’s death was also an indicator of another tragedy, not unconnected to the economic structures of the world. This is the tragedy being played out in Ethiopia, Iraq, Columbia and other countries, and in the impoverished villages or urban slums of India. The number of early deaths in such invisible spaces – from starvation, illness, government policies, economic upheavals, bullets and bombs – ran into millions in 2009. Except that, unlike Jackson’s demise, these deaths did not count, at least for the international media. The year 2009 illustrated, again and again, in India and abroad, the chilling truth of Judith Butler’s critique of our times: “If violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated. But they have a strange way of remaining animated and must be negated again (and again).”
So, yes, if there was hope, there was also despair.
In India, the year 2009 marked the 25th ‘anniversary’ of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the Bhopal gas leak. The latter was an early and ghastly reminder to all Indians of the nature of the system that has led to the current ‘financial slow-down’. Have we, as a people, faced up to these tragedies and crimes? What is the nature of the current economic crisis: is it just a matter of credit and shares, to be treated like a normal flu patient with the pill of governmental incentives? Or does its roots stretch further – from tragedies like the Bhopal gas leak to the military-industrial complex of the First World, from invisible deaths in Iraq and Ethiopia to the highly visible death of Michael Jackson, from the sale of ineffective medicines to combat a partly media-created scare to climate change?
That might be the question to ask in 2010.