It is a name that seems always in the shadow of the word poverty, haunting the imaginations of certainly western minds whenever issues of inequality are aired. But for what might be the world's richest continent in natural, human and historic resources, the irony of this reflexive cultural assocation is so gross it may illustrate the real truth of poverty – it is the flipside of justice. The very embodiment of injustice.
And you can watch the 2020s Unsights introduction to Poverty here:
Those comparisons that drive us mad trying to keep up with each other, reducing us with burdens of supposed failures, have us look down at those of us at the bottom of the ladder and say: “Thank God, that’s not me”. But is this basic lack of recognition a sign of the real problem?
Well, while the tracks of poverty may well lead from some psychologies at the heart of our cultural problems on 21st century Earth, they surely lead us to the nub of human suffering: The ultimate indignities of complete disempowerment. And the numbers of us living at this end of those tracks is still a yoke around all our hopes for enlightenment. Our progress seems like a bitter disallusionment in the face of still so many human stories of the very basic misery and dehumanisation of poverty.
As we conclude our look at the UN’s Global Goals for sustainability, it’s grand SDGs, is the physical ruin of rural communites as the poorest families suffer, far away from the stupendously unequal wealths of other communites around the world, while billionaires build space buses for the least environmentally sensitive tourism imagineable… is it arguably all just a symptom of what’s really wrong – our whole system of valuation. Our culture of want, in every sense. Because it appears to be killing us.
But, y’know, cheer up a bit, mate – this is the podcast about the more hopeful human tomorrow, and there’s been some progress in all this hasn’t there? And if this is the case, could we yet bring the numbers in extreme poverty down further, after years of comparative improvement? Even eradicate truly extreme poverty by 2030 as the UN hopes?
Or will achieving fairer outcomes for more of us mean striking to the heart of what got us to where we are, as globalisation cracks under its own weight of demand? Will we have to finally address what must be vying for the statistically greatest injustice of history – the wealth of Europe and America, the root of globalisation itself, built on the backs of slaves from Africa?
What might that cost, to really address? And if you think that is a price no one in power will ever entertain spending, especially in populist climates where more honest colonial histories are badged as revisionist, you may well be right. But the inescapeable question coming into focus behind it, none the less, is: How high is the cost of having never addressed it so far – and what will it concievably be for us all in the looming future of what look increasingly like inevitable consequences? Of everything.
With the largest proportion of world poor living south of the Sahara, what are the hopes for 21st century Africa – and how might this shine a light on the future of the whole global usual business of trade, wealth and growth?
Will we have to face the truth that our real human poverty is much farther reaching than economic droughts, actual famines and hopeless academic numbers – but something holding our very minds hostage, in a shared cultural custody impoverishing the wellbeing, the potential, the very hope of human life on Earth?
If our modern lifestyle illnesses, our struggling minds and bodies, our oceans clogged with disposeable consumer waste, our entire climate shifting from the chemical, biological assault of our lifestyles, if these are all different symptoms of the same story maintaining old fashioned poverties – alongside a seemingly growing dependency on charity across cultures – is it time we all began to count the cost of sparing more than a little change?
The United Nations makes it its number one Global Goal: No Poverty. And they simply byline it like this: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.”
It is the biggest human experience umbrella problem facing humanity in the 21st century, and it is arguably the bellweather for how well everything else we’re doing is going. Which means we aren’t doing very well at all, if their longer statement on the matter is true.
“Eradicating poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice and the key to unlocking an enormous human potential. Still, nearly half of the world’s population lives in poverty, and lack of food and clean water is killing thousands every single day of the year. Together, we can feed the hungry, wipe out disease and give everyone in the world a chance to prosper and live a productive and rich life.”
If we “can” then, ah: “why aren’t we?”.
Save The Children have issued a report that spells out the work still to do like this: “More than half the world’s children – 1.2 billion – live in countries affected by widespread poverty, conflict and discrimination against girls”. Half the world’s children.
14.1 million kids in the US alone “grow up in poverty” they say. In America. Which chimes with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report at the end of last year which said that a very similar number of adults and children are living in poverty in the UK today, with the decline in reducing poverty reversing for the first time in two decades.
So it doesn’t matter where you live, it’s easy to get poor – and easily impossible to get out of poverty. Developed countries, developing nations, democracies and dictatorships – the global economic system as it currently works appears to be a long way from working well. We seem to have come far enough to see the potential of really transforming human life on Earth for the healthier, but jeepers, what’s stopping us pushing it over the line?
Essentially, I’ve all but summed up this final Global Goals episode at the beginning of it – I think there’s a mindset, a habitualised shared culture, that’s effectively driving us towards destroying all kinds of human progresses, even as we’re working so hard to improve our lot and still have a squinting eye on the possibilities of the future. And the outcome of this mindset in the end is always poverty – for someone.
You can quote the Universal Charter for Human Rights all you want, but in the end we don’t universally perceive intrinsic value in anything – or anyone. Because there’s no irrefuteable higher power that can lay down the law on this. We’re left to work it out between us. Like hopeless hipsters starving on The Island. The brutal truth is that at the very bottom line of our current economic system, humans are just so much meat to each other – when they don’t know them. When they do, the emotional bollocks of market value goes out the window, mate.
But before both our Marxism Redflags toot warnings again, I think we can agree there’s work to do. And the Global Goals don’t aim low, as we know.
The UN’s bold goal is to: “eradicate extreme poverty” for: “all people everywhere” by 2030. And their measure of that is people living on less than $1.25 a day. If you want to know how many people are actually attempting to live their lives on less than one hundred and twenty five cents a day, it is, as NGO Nuru explains, some 1.6 billion people on the planet today, not just in measureable poverty but an extreme experience of it. They suggest that 85% of people having to live through this live in rural locations, and not so far short of a third of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
But, whatever the pie chart of the pie-less, you and I likely have no real feeling for what extreme poverty really means. It’s a total kind of poverty. It is a profound powerlessness. It’s not simply debilitating hunger, or the indignity of having nothing of anything materially. It is a fundamental lack of options. Of choices to improve matters. It is, I hopelessly try to imagine, a prison of degredation.
Gisela Bernardes Solymos is General Manager of the not-for-profit CREN, Centre of Nutritional Recovery and Education in Brazil, and as she says to the World Economic Forum: “Our experience has shown that being poor means to be exposed to a range of adverse conditions that go against, limit, or put obstacles to the fulfillment of the person, to their “coming-to-be” themselves. People in poverty suffer from pain. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally, eating away at one’s dignity and driving one into total despair.”
She describes the symptoms of poverty to include: “physical pain that comes with too little food and long hours of work; emotional pain stemming from the daily humiliations of dependency and lack of power; moral pain from being forced to make choices such as whether to pay to save the life of an ill family member or use the money to feed their children.”
And she gets to the human truth of it further when she adds: “While poverty is material in its origins, it has psychological effects such as distress at being unable to feed one’s children, insecurity from not knowing when the next meal will come, and shame at having to go without. All these situations have strong symbolic value. People in poverty are also more likely to develop non-specific psychopathological manifestations and become mentally ill.”
Wherever you’re dealing with it, poverty makes you dependent on others, and therefore on a sense of powerlessness. Sharing in Overcoming Poverty, twenty-eight year old Shay in New Orleans says she started with childhood ambitions: “When I was a little girl I dreamt of becoming either a police officer, a lawyer or a hair dresser. I wanted to be an independent woman and to sacrifice my life for my kids and not to depend on others. Very soon I realized that these are not going to happen, school was tough… I was in 11th grade when Katrina hit. I was displaced and separated from my family. I could not find my mother, my brothers and sisters. I missed school and ended up getting pregnant with my first born.”
She adds this: “I think I am left behind because now I live on food stamps for my kids. If I get a full time job they will cut my food stamps and I will continue struggling to raise my kids. I hope for a better place for me and other mothers to help others in need. This world is not just for all of us because everything is a struggle for us.”
Poverty is a life draining of inspiration. The spark that is the magic firelighter of confidence.
To put it academically, it is a multidimensional problem. As the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative puts it: “Multidimensional poverty is made up of several factors that constitute poor people’s experience of deprivation – such as poor health, lack of education, inadequate living standard, lack of income, disempowerment, poor quality of work and threat from violence.”
The UN, in it’s Goal, wants to: “By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance.”
And they want to: “Build resilience to environmental, economic and social disasters”, “implement social protection systems” and try to get policy frameworks into place to be more pro-poor and gender-sensitive. However that’s going to really work on the ground.
The collected point being that to simply consider poverty from the economic point of view, chime as that bell immediately does when we say the word “poverty”, is to miss a lot. As the OPHI says in simple example: “Economic growth has been strong in India in recent years. In contrast, the prevalence of child malnutrition has remained at nearly 50 per cent, which is among the highest rates worldwide”.
Extreme poverty is to barely exist. But to do so knowing that others are living full lives right over the road.
And the truth is, that $1.25 line is based on the old purchasing power parity exchange rate – the PPP – of a few years ago, upgraded itself from the old dollar a day measure concocted for stats in the early 90s. Today that sensible measure of the value of what people can afford is, according to the World Bank compiling the figures, actually $1.90. Almost two dollars a day. From which graph-inducing technicalities it is enough to glean that the cost of everything has gone up, making the extremely poor even worse off. Though, once you can’t eat or work or find any way to run your own life it’s all bitterly academic, I’m sure.
Now, the numbers of us in poverty at all has come down across the last century, even as populations have in some cases ballooned. But it’s hardly fast enough is it. Not when you consider the wealth in the world today.
Nuru suggests that: “The cost of eradicating poverty is only 1% of global income.”
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it.
Especially when one of the four big audit corporations, KPMG, announced that 2017 was a record-breaker for global venture capital investment, at some $155B.
And especially especially when you consider that the six richest people in the world – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma and Elon Musk respectively, or Mr Microsoft, Mr Amazon, Mr bits of everything, Mr Facebook, Mr Alibaba and Mr magic future – are together alone worth supposedly way more than double that. Six people. And it’s not like they’re alone.
But, y’know. Before we get into wondering what they’re doing with all that cash (Elon Musk’s singlehanded retooling of the known universe aside), it might be interesting to ask a really dumb question first.
What does this world currently amount to?
How big is the hill of beans?
How much money is there in the world? Ever wondered? If we’re talking poverty, it might be interesting to throw it into the context of global wealth a little, no? And the way we do that always starts with stoopid numbers. Complicated sounding stoopid big numbers. Because we find them comfortingly bafflingly rational-sounding.
Go on. How’s your portfolio looking? Derivatives? Property? I’m sure you have it nicely in hand and the future is sewn up for you one way or another, speculating and hedging with shrewd exposures to risk. My portfolio career, on the other hand, may end me up at the other end of the economic ladder but with an excellent spread of stories on my website.
Money is funny business. What even is it these days? Jeff Desjardins may sound like a stage name but he’s obviously a bloke with an interest in numbers, and how to make sense of them, because his money markets comparision at visualcapitalist.com illustrates just what we’re currently talking about when we talk about what we value financially.
As Sue Chang puts it, going through the chart for Market Watch, the definition of money can mean a few things, so there are different ways of counting how much there is.
“For purists, who believe “money” refers only to physical “narrow money” (bank notes, coins, and money deposited in savings or checking accounts),” she says, “the total is somewhere around $36.8trillion. If you’re looking at “broad money,” which isn’t just physical money and includes any money held in easily accessible accounts, the number is about $90.4 trillion.”
Actually, those notes and coins in your pocket – actual money cash moola, physically passing between grubby mits and sometimes through washing machines – add up to just seven and a half or so trillion dollars. Just about the same as the total value of the world’s above-ground gold – some 187,200 tons of it, apparently. A lotta coin, but not really. Not compared to the assets locked up in not just bank databases but bricks and mortar and bits of paper promising this and that if such and such goes up or down in agreed value.
Jeff’s big chart puts the market capitalisation of all the world’s stock markets at $73trillion, 38% of which is just North America, with Europe following at 11%, China just behind on 10%, Japan alone at 7% and the UK the fifth largest player on 5% of the markets action.
Just to compare, real estate values are estimated at $217trillion. Which shows you were all the savings really are. And cracking towards half of that is in the US and Europe, where nowhere near half the world lives. Still, the Caff at Sandbanks still does an agreeably-priced breakfast for us non-oligarcs, surprisingly.
But the biggest number in world money is so big, no one quite knows what it is, apparently. Various boffiny methods arrive at two ends of a possible scale with the sort of clarity of method and result that really warms your worries about ever facing a financial crash again like a fluffy-covered hot water bottle. Because the derivatives market – contracts of payment agreements surfing the value of underlying assets which could be absolutely anything – is thought to be worth $544trillion. ..At the low end. At the high end guess it’s possibly $1.2quadrillion. Which is a made-up number you’d use in the playground.
Which also makes Jeffrey Sachs’ figure from his infamous book The End of Poverty sound rather slooshably loose as change goes: $195billion a year. How much it would concievably cost the world to eradicate poverty by 2030. A number that’s been kicking around the debates in handy headline simplicity since he worked it out in 2005, buoyed by years researching a high-minded belief in the power of aid. And back then, that cost worked out at just 0.7% of the world’s combined GDP – broadly where Nuru and others get the idea of how comparatively little it could cost us to sort out the problem.
Interesting to remember, however, that alongside global GDP there is global debt – and while I can tell you it’s spectacularly high, at 325% – $215trillion – two hundred and fifteen trillion dollars suddenly sounds like birdseed compared to the one-point-two quadzillionsquillionflappybirdhandsinthesky number you’ve just heard before it.
And when you consider that swapping debts and betting on secret handshakes values of abstract things was what all but collapsed the markets in 2008, and there isn’t even a practically useful way of even saying the possible value of such not-wholesale-different financial agreements today, ten years on… hey, let’s not even go on. Let’s not even spell out what disaster might be wrapped up in all that unmentionable derivatives market value the world is literally banking on more than anything. Because it would be a foolhardily meaningless thing to say when everything seems to be fine, right? Derivatives give us borrowing which gives us liquidity which gives us choices which gives us growth which gives us way too much boredom and confusion to give a damn about who’s doing or getting what.
But all this also gave us something else too, of course. Consequences. The sacrifice zones that have often had typical geographies, like many nations in Africa, but which increasingly appear today across the entire international economic world, patchworking daily life for cultures across all our territories. Including the very heartland of industrialism itself – its birthplace, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Because one of the consequences of the financial markets crash was a bit of a political strategy so directly linked to the worsening of modern poverty and the quickening of separation between rich and poor, it was all but coming clean about the way our globalised financialised capitalist system really works.
‘Nother skyscraper, anyone?
Reading Peter S Goodman’s article for the New York Times, In Britain, Austerity is changing everything, is like reading about a far-away place. A thoughtful little portrait of human life in a foreign land; an emotional curio, perhaps touching you to feel momentarily wedded to the story of those captured in its frame as if you’re an old travel writer, sincerely curious, recognising humanity, ultimately catching a comfy steamer back to the leafy home counties and your typewriter. Bit like catching a segment of Radio 4’s From our own correspondent. The apparently dispassionate perspective of an outsider, meticulously noticing the details dot-to-dotting the landscape of the picture, marking out the boundaries of people’s actual lives. Only, this particular snapshot isn’t a whistful pastoral of old England. It is a very slow dolly zoom on the places that didn’t so much see the tide of our modern economics go out, as watch the lagoon of society being drained.
It is a tale that starts in Prescott, in the North-West, and is of a list of dour closures and endings, of diminishing public amenities and of a council so increasingly strapped for cash it is turning to the sell-off of more public space, like the apparently much enjoyed Browns Field park. The potential march of developers’ private profits eradicating more shared free experiences of daily wellbeing. It is the easy to picture image of Austerity Britain, a thing as familiar to me as a Brit today as it is alien.
Conservative party leader, and eventually UK PM, David Cameron’s sort of sickeningly luke warm turn of phrase based on no actual idea, The Big Society, was originally I think just a way to try to make Conservatism sound compassionate in an age of New Labour. Maybe trying to steal their middle class conshy crown after Tony Blair sort of went mad bombing people. But it became the initial fig leaf to a grim badge for governement cuts in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, after Labour lost the following election to our first coalition government this century. In suitably Conservative vein, dominating the coaltion with the Liberal Democrats as the party obviously did, the story they told of these cuts was intended, I think, to appeal to the fairness and adult responsibility that is the hook to all good Conservative voters – few of whom I think believe it’s quite that simple really, when they’re twiddling the pencil at the ballot box, but are none the less often motivated by a genuine belief in trying to run a fair system, not an unsustainably expensive one for bloody scroungers lacking imagination. I imagine. While also doing their best to block the sudden wave of marauding Marxism apparently at the gates again. I dunno. Whatever, it purported to bring us together by tightening our belts. Like a community gastric band. Sort of round the throat.
Oh, I am a cheeky old liberal, I know, but whatever the ideologies and comparative virtues of deficit spending or of dealing with national debt, and whatever the truth of the numbers and claims thrown around by everyone during Cameron and Osborne’s helming of this economic strategy, it’s hard to deny the effect it’s had on people at the poor end of the trickle-down ladder. It’s kind of… well, I think you get the picture of what being under the golden showers of anything trickling down probably feels like. It’s also made the bottom rung slippery again. It’s been undignified for lots of people, to say the least.
The stresses on people trying to sit through the consolidation of different benefits into Universal Credit, compounded by technical tangles and delays and the simply stomach-pit dropping Kafkaism of Fit To Work disability allowance checks deeming lots of almost comically ridiculous cases of people suddenly lustily ‘fit for work’ – after years of having no legs or an entirely glass chest cavity or something – have been so bad, there have been horrifying figures emerging of not simply deaths but of suicide, linked to people’s fears of how they will survive in Austerity Britain.
Paraphrasing a BMJ Open report, The Independent simply quotes an academic but chilling number: 120,000 deaths due to Austerity under the Conservatives, since 2009. Despite the report stopping short of saying they were truly avoidable deaths, says the writer Alex Mathews-King, the report says essentially that mortality sharply began to rise on the other side of social care Austerity measures, where it had been falling in the UK, and the article quotes one author of the report who goes as far as accusing the government of “economic murder.”
In another article, the paper unearths deeper specifics. And it shows that the sector is already dealing with vulnerable people, of course, so people feeling even less able to deal with such, well, existential uncertainties.
“Data from NHS Digital’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2007, which surveyed around 7,000 adults in Britain, shows 21 per cent of IB claimants had tried to take their own lives, compared with 6 per cent of the general adult population. The same survey seven years later reveals that 43 per cent of ESA claimants – and as high as 47 per cent of female ESA claimants – had attempted suicide in their lifetimes, compared with 7 per cent of the general population.”
In response to the figures, they quote Dr Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist and member of the campaigning Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, who told them: “These results are staggering. It is difficult to overemphasise how large a jump in rates of attempted suicide this is. I cannot think of a greater jump in rates in any population. If the Government has any real interest in suicide prevention, benefits reform must be the immediate priority. The UN has condemmed the government’s treatment of disabled people as contrary to their human rights.”
What this feels like, the article illustrates with testimony from a typical claimant, Sarah Louise Thompson, 31, who suffers from Fibromyalgia syndrome as well as depression. “I’ve suffered with mental health for many years and have felt it more when I have to go for another assessment every two years” she said.
“I’m currently awaiting to hear back from another form I’ve had to fill out about an update of my health and how it’s still affects me. I’m terrified of what might happen as I know they are taking it away from people. Right now my anxiety and depression are really being affected. They make us feel like we are criminals. I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve tried to end my life.”
In the face of such stories, such evidence, The Spectator‘s righteous row with Goodman’s NYT article and its exact facts about the North West’s suffering sheds little light on the validity of Austerity’s intentions. As Patrick McGuire says in New Statesman, the point is the people themselves, up close. Not the punditry of political opportunists. Including me.
And we’ve not even talked about the state of the emergency services, the NHS, the fundamental lack of reliable, affordable structure to wider social care, or the crumbling state of UK prisons, the chief inspector of which, Peter Clarke, has been professionally candid about the rising state of self harm, suicides and struggling management in the whole system, markedly rising since Austerity. He stopped short of telling Jon Snow on Channel 4 News that they were “inhuman” but looked sorely tempted not to. And this in a somehow very British culture of locking people up for sooner than investing in helping people find productive ways forward. All while police numbers are cut and cut and fire crews have seen fire related deaths go up as their own teams have been diminished.
I know, this is all sounding a little dramatic and perhaps you feel one-sided. Not sure you’ll find me especially penitent here, as the inclusive future won’t be built on being blind to injustice, but gracious. If I am coming to the conclusion that the only viably sustainable future is one that acounts for all of us – includes everyone – I can’t say I believe an old Conservative philosophy is easily consistent with this. And that’s putting it graciously. Austerity in particular was bad strategy at best, and arguably disingenuous, many feel founded on myths of good husbandry in times of crisis to attempt to hollow out the wellfare state, with nothing to replace it. Like regime change. As Paul Krugman quotes John Maynard Keynes in The Guardian, who apparently wrote in 1937: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.”
If we are facing a wellfare bill only going up, leadership has to look at why. Because, yes, this isn’t a trend caused by Austerity or even the banking crisis itself – so what are the underlying economic rhythms that have been pointing us this way since the Thatcher and Regan years? Whatever your hunch, conviction, firm beliefs or resounding resignations to our econo-political story, even in my home country managing the globally fifth largest economy, if we are a generation of people heavily relying on benefits between us, we’re obviously going to need help invested in us to get viably off benefits. Escape unhealthy dependencies. Because we’re people. Worried and feeling stuck, or just not inspired with an alternative in the world we see around us.
As a Brit, I’ll admit I can, yes, in moments where I extinguish the hopey-changey lamp for a chilly moment, feel the pinprickles of hopelessness in the air. Even down here by the seaside, friends with many can-do creative people. We can all feel the frankly fractious despondency, hanging like frozen shards all around us since the B-word dropped its result like a quiet bomb, exposing all the papered-over fissures stretching back through the Austerity years to something way before that, perhaps. Symptoms of a country currently wheezing under a crippling lack of cultural leadership, shutting down any comprehension of meaningful engagement with the challenges, with the people, of now. A leadership unfit for work. Lost in its own family gossip, barely leaving the house, let alone getting out into its community to make a difference.
And, um, this is how people across many nations seem to be feeling at the moment, in their local ways.
As Paul Krugman puts it in his article trying to contextualise the idea of Austerity: “I often encounter people on both the left and the right who imagine that austerity policies were what the textbook said you should do – that those of us who protested against the turn to austerity were staking out some kind of heterodox, radical position. But the truth is that mainstream, textbook economics not only justified the initial round of post-crisis stimulus, but said that this stimulus should continue until economies had recovered. What we got instead, however, was a hard right turn in elite opinion, away from concerns about unemployment and toward a focus on slashing deficits, mainly with spending cuts.”
What played well with people in their fears at the time, he suggests, is a basic household sense of propriety with the purse strings. Which is common sense – and doesn’t equate at all with the concept of deficit spending for a national economy.
“Conservatives like to use the alleged dangers of debt and deficits as clubs with which to beat the welfare state and justify cuts in benefits; suggestions that higher spending might actually be beneficial are definitely not welcome. Meanwhile, centrist politicians and pundits often try to demonstrate how serious and statesmanlike they are by calling for hard choices and sacrifice (by other people).”
Standard policy would likely have been more Keynsian in the face of a slump. Spend to stimulate. If you cut in an economic slump when you also have no room to let things breathe because your interest rates are already basically at an unprecidented zero percent, you’ll worsen the slump. But, suggests Krugman, those eager to perhaps more ideologically pursue austerity found a poster child of fear in Greece and some economic theory that clained the opposite of normal macroeconomic thinking.
“The doctrine of “expansionary austerity” is largely associated with work by Alberto Alesina, an economist at Harvard” he says, who claimed his research had found that: “spending cuts create confidence, and the positive effects of this increase in confidence trump the direct negative effects of reduced spending.”
There was, however, one tiny flaw in the plan. It was bollocks.
The truth of various charts is that Britain’s economy only started properly recovering in 2011, after the then coalition government had quietly relaxed its Austerity measures. Its ideological aim to shrink government and welfare state alike kept the notion of Austerity alive until, well, now. And this seems a supremely British kind of conservatism. One that would rather suck up to big business than help people. Even if helping people makes better actual business sense.
“Business leaders love the idea that the health of the economy depends on confidence, which in turn – or so they argue – requires making them happy” Krugman says. “The message was clear: don’t criticise big business, or the economy will suffer. But this kind of argument loses its force if one acknowledges that job creation can be achieved through deliberate policy, that deficit spending, not buttering up business leaders, is the way to revive a depressed economy. So business interests are strongly inclined to reject standard macroeconomics and insist that boosting confidence – which is to say, keeping them happy – is the only way to go.”
How much does all this enormously consequential stuff turn on who everyone’s mates are? The influence of personalities, ambitions and associations of people in the room.
Whatever the well intentioned or badly misguided or downright nefarious intentions of national leadership in the Britain that’s helped to inspire something as desperate sounding as a podcast called Unsee The Future, it’s practices have lead to local government being gradually emasculated. Crises can be a two-edged sword, of course, with some efficiencies to be found in dramatic shake-ups – but if any ideologues think cutting benefits will make the demand for them go away, they are fresh crisis-inducingly deluded, I would suggest. The fact that over 80% of my council tax goes now towards social care – looking after the elderly, the young and the sick – is a trend. A symptom. Making the elderly, the young and the sick suffer debilitating social trauma and humiliation will do nothing to even look at the causes. They will only make the whole climate of confidence, optimism, energy – productivity – even weaker.
Of course, charity is a problematic entity in the middle of our poverties. And, as we’ve touched on elsewhere, dishing out aid is no great solution. Even just in principle, never mind in corrupted and oversighted practice.
Jeffrey Sachs’ ambitious plan to eradicate poverty was met with scepticism even when published, thirteen-odd years ago. Because it still relied on a bit of an older world view of benign globalising states deining to help poorer ones. Not at all the tone that Sachs brought to this, but the effective one his ideas met other ears with. Because it hardly helps the globalising family if the biggest engines of such economic growth are driven with corporate influence and interests that are at direct odds with their local economies.
As John Vidal reviewed it at the time: “What he believes could change the world in 20 years, and eradicate all extreme poverty at a cost that everyone could bear, is simple: far more aid, far more debt forgiveness, far better trade terms and far more access to good technology. Sounds familiar? All this is now economic orthodoxy – what everyone from the anti-globalisers, to the very poor of Brazil, charities such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, and even politicians from Gordon Brown to the Tory party have been arguing for some time.”
But he sites the Africa Commission reporting back at about the same time and agreeing, yes, they wanted those aims met, but: “they recognise that other major problems such as conflict, the rape of resources, environmental degradation, privatisation, multinational companies, population increases and urban slums must be considered too.”
It is not really about money. Poverty. As Rob Weir says on an interesting thread on Quora: “How many aspirins does it take to cure brain cancer?
“The error to avoid is thinking that poverty is about lack of money rather than lack of productivity. Productivity is a complex thing, involving education, infrastructure, regulations, culture, rule of law, and many other things. There may be cases where investment is needed. But in other cases outside investment is actually harmful, to the extent it “crowds-out” local investment.”
And he sites the Haiti hurricane disaster as an example: “Western aid flowed in, funneled through friends of the Clintons, whose companies made a tidy profit. Ditto for the elites in Haiti. The wealthy made out very well. But this dumping of goods and services destroyed the ability of small local businessmen to grow their business, businesses that would have created jobs.”
Whatever the factchecked details there, the principle makes sense and, ah… money. See? It seems to cause more problems than it helps. It may be true in our current state of affairs that “money is good because it gives you options”, as a dear and qualified friend of mine puts it, but he puts it in a personal context that has perspective on what’s really humanly valuable. And the context of all our human values right now is a current state of affairs looking precarious for everyone. A context needing the seeds of dramatic evolutionary change sewing fast, in all our imaginations.
Imagination. We find the whole world in there. The whole world of who we are. And sitting right along side each other on the bus, in a traffic jam, passing each other on the high street, there are between us billions of different views of the world. Different stories of who we are. And one of the key aspects of telling a story is something that can change the whole outlook of it. Or of us.
Which bits of us do we tell, and which bits would we rather not?
Founder of Nuru, Jake Harriman spoke at a TEDx meeting a few years back. In his talk, he explained the motivation for him wanting to found a humanitarian organisation when he left the military – one with the headline goal of eradicating extreme poverty.
He descibed a scene from his memory, serving in Iraq with the US Marine Corps, that left him feeling deeply frustrated. A local farmer, coerced into fighting the coalition, was making a break for it to enemy lines with his family. Desperate for help, it seemed he wanted to escape his whole country’s desperation under a dictatorship now at war, and was waving his arms for help after pulling up at Harriman’s lines and running from his car towards them. Not yet having any idea what was happening as this lone vehicle had sped nearer, Harriman said he knew he would have to make a decision any second as this solitary figure had flung open his door and made a break straight for them. He shouted for the man to stand down. The man kept running forward, shouting. Harriman ordered his men to hold ready.
Behind the running man, a military truck from the Iraqi forces pulled up and soldiers jumped out. They ran towards the man’s car and simply opened fire into it. The man stopped in his tracks, turned and raced back towards the bullets.
“In a second,” says Harriman, “that man lost everything he had.”
The man’s wife, baby and young daughter were suddenly dead, there where he’d left them, moments before, in his car. And his desperate bid for escape, for help, had failed in the worse way anyone might have feared. Harriman said he felt lost for a moment, as he approached the scene, Iraqi soldiers themselves now dead around the vehicles with the man’s family, after exchanges of fire. Then, he found himself holding his rifle limply at his side and weeping with the distraught man.
Then he said, it hit him. He felt angry.
“It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that the GPS co-ordinates of this man’s birthplace dicated what choices he had in this world.”
In the middle of politics, sometimes defended with armed force, there are ordinary people just wanting to protect their families. And the injustices of conflict only compound everyone’s poverty, it seems. And, yes, in the most meaningful, pertinent sense of all our crisis-defining human poverty today, when I say this, I include those made privately financially wealthy by war.
If flashpoints in history, of conflict, are always unfair to those involved, either serving or just caught in the crossfire, then how much deeper do the roots of injustice go when our economics are founded on the long-term suffering of many? How stable a foundation is this from which to defend the more hopeful human future?
If you’ve never thought of the idea of actual reparational payments to black Americans, Europeans, Carribeans for their history of exploitation by their historically European nations, I’m going to take a punt and say that’s quite possibly because you’re white. Might not have ever have entered your head. Nor mine. Not even heard of it before a few years ago. When you’re growing up, even the decade before you were born seems like irrelevant palaeontology – stone-dead fossil stuff. Flares gave me the creeps by the time I was eleven and I even have pictures of me wearing them aged five or something. So don’t ask me about William Wilberforce, he may as well have been mates with Jesus. And don’t ask me why flares came back in the 90s, either. I was old enough to just about eschew them at college.
But, the older one gets, the more one realises how stupidly fast time flies and how many mini epochs modern lives can have covered, in such rapidly redecorating cultural times as the 20th century. Martin Luther King and Malcom X were rallying for the very basics of legal dignity for black lives in America mere moments before I was born. Which means the gramps and granmas of plenty of white folk still alive in the US today could have been immediate family members condoning lynching in the deep south. Don’t wince, it’s just maths. This stuff is fresh, not ancient history.
But the nature of our history is something quietly speaking to all this, if any of us notice it. Because if I mentioned Ottobah Cugoano and The Sons of Africa, you may well assume I’m referencing some incalcuably hip 70s Afrobeat group you’re know knucklebiting wishing you knew. That this was an African abolitionist group of educated black former slaves championing the stories of those suffering under British economic rule to the newspapers and society groups of 18th century London may be as much news to you as it was to me before I Googled it. Because who of us got taught that in school, here in the UK? No one when I was there, in resolutely tight drainpipe jeans.
As Doctor Alan Rice says in his useful outline of the slave trade’s economic history, mark-up on Africans bought from slavers on one side of the Atlantic could be six hundred percent on the other side of it, when the idea began to boom in the late 17th century – and all Europeans were piling in, having all piled into the Americas with plenty of plundered land now to put to good use and nowhere near enough hands to use it. By the time we get to the time of great British hero Horatio Nelson, such individual profits were down, but the trade was massive – and driven by such a modern sounding problem: Consumer tastes. Namely of that intoxicating demon still holding us all hostage, sugar.
“Although average profits on successful slave voyages from Britain in the late eighteenth century were less – at around 10% – this was still a big profit. The love of sugar that developed in Britain and other European populations meant the demand for sugar could only be met by the expansion of the slave trade to keep the plantations busy.”
But… it tastes so delicious. And, I’m getting weirdly shaky again.
Interesting that today, nearly two centuries after Britain finally abolished slavery across all its colonies (if you don’t count the a little place called India for a while after that) in the 1807 Slave Trade Act, it turns out we still find it so difficult in my country to freely talk about the real historic effects of the British Empire. Its clever achievements, and its costs. Why are we not taught, for example, that Admiral Nelson’s column-inducing job was not simply defending the financial interests of Britain at a time when perhaps 80% of the country’s blooming economy just was the triangle of the African labour trade, but that he heatedly opposed Wilberforce’s momentum to outlaw slavery? Where is that in the national curriculum?
And why do plenty of UK folk today get pretty heated themselves when it’s brought up? Afua Hirsh’s Channel 4 doc, The battle for Britain’s heroes, was essentially undramatic in its looking at Nelson and Churhill and Rhodes, laying out with simple good point that there are bits of their characters that are a bit racisty and it’s funny how such things are still not much talked about in classrooms or pubs. But it didn’t stop her getting a boringly predictable blizzard of abuse on Twitter, and of almost bored indifference to the actual racism from the nice academics she interviewed.
As Matt Baylis put it in Daily Express, it doesn’t matter that the programme was simply asking us why we don’t talk about this stuff: “Rather than pulling down statues and rewriting textbooks, Afua was arguing for a balanced view. Let’s make sure our heroes, Nelson, Churchill, whoever, are presented warts and all. You couldn’t really argue with it, except to say that’s not really what having heroes, national or otherwise, is all about.”
I had a polite discussion with a chap on Twitter after it. And he didn’t get in any way abusive but did swiftly tell me this was all part of a Lefty revisionist plan to undermine the whole fabric of society.
Is this an age in which we can’t talk about history – can’t understand any complexity in people, cultures, consequences? Can’t challenge anything?
As a Guardian Secret Teacher article puts it, the bits of race history that are taught in school tend to be fragmented, not joined up. Leaving black Britons today still feeling awkward about how to express their feelings on it. The usual sins of ommission speak volumes when you essentially relate to those being omitted.
“There are schools that choose to talk about Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican businesswoman who helped British soldiers in the Crimean war. But students should also learn about Una Marson, a black feminist fighting racism in Britain in the 1940s. There’s Cherry Groce, who was shot and paralysed by police in the Brixton riots in 1985. There’s William Cuffay, who fought for universal suffrage until he was deported to Tasmania by Queen Victoria. And there’s Olive Morris, a key figure of Brixton’s Black Panther movement and prominent civil rights activist.”
And the article’s author says the point is this: “It’s not enough to discuss these issues in Black History Month in October and ignore the reality of racism that minorities have to endure all year round.”
Edifice of British identity, Nelson was a genius commander, and his efforts changed the fortunes of Britain, not least of which in successfully repulsing the vast threat of France’s (not actually so) diminutive Emperor Napoleon. In ultimately defeating the Corsican Fiend, Hardy’s daddy crush is owed all the Empire’s ultimate wealths from sea to shining sea by our great institutions, him and the august confidences of the Royal Navy and England’s very establishment hierarchy of the time which saw Nelson, in his own words: “bred in the good old school”. But how are you supposed to feel about this history if you’re British and black, or even consider yourself a smooth caramel blend of rich British love? Part of the modern state of the UK as much as anyone – because this apparently still needs saying in some conversations – but part of your identity arriving in the North Atlantic via the West Indies from West Africa.
If, as a white boy from Bournemouth, I am technically half Welsh and half English with a name dating back to Norman times, then I partly arrived here via invading French Viking, partly by migrant German hired thug, partly by galant defending Briton and partly by conquering Italian technocrat. At no point was any of my biological heritage transported here via slave cargo hold. How differently do you and I feel about what it means to be British? Because there’s no escaping the reality of both those personal perceptions. They’re both real parts of our shared country today. The story of how we all got here and ended up in each other’s lives.
What, really? Actual… payback to everyone descended from the slave trade? What, ah, what would that cost? And how would that work? And ah, don’t be so what now?
Yes, it is a considered thing. And whilst you might scoffingly say that the flat Earth is also an apparently truly considered thing making the news persistently these days, as another little bellweather of the galloping lunacy of our times perhaps, this other bit of supposed “craziness” doesn’t tend to make the news. But if you hadn’t heard of it before, you should find it interesting to know that reparations for slavery exist in concept as a serious attempt to heal many world divisions.
There are a few bodies exploring it, like Caricom, based in the Caribbean. And they see this role as, of course, an uphill task – but an obligation to justice. A peacemaking responsibility.
“The CRC is committed to the process of national international reconciliation. Victims and their descendants have a duty to call for reparatory justice. Their call for justice is the basis of the closure they seek to the terrible tragedies that engulfed humanity during modernity. The CRC comes into being some two generations after the national independence process, and finds European colonial rule as a persistent part of Caribbean life.”
You might be unsurprised to hear that they claim to have “persistent objection from European governments” to its, as they see it, mandate. But they see it as “a necessary path to progress.” The echoes of the past are not quaint period drama stories but, for millions of people, a resonance through their Now. And speaking especially for the people of the Caribbean, the CRC says it: “sees the persistent racial victimization of the descendants of slavery and genocide as the root cause of their suffering today.”
But what is the plan for this? How would any governments deliver such a grand scheme?
Well, here’s the interesting first point. The CRC lay out a ten-point plan to deliver suitable reparations, as they see it, and their number one step would cost nothing to any tax payers directly: Full formal apology. It would be an obvious start, right?
“The healing process for victims and the descendants of the enslaved and enslavers requires as a precondition the offer of a sincere formal apology by the governments of Europe.” Their point being that the statements of “regret” some governments have offered in the past have deliberately sidestepped culpability. Much like then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s impassioned statement ahead of the bicentenary of abolition twelve years ago.
As The Telegraph reported at the time: “Personally I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was — how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition” he said, “but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today.”
It was dismissed by many different groups as worthless words, because it was backed up with no justice. No action. The point many black lives would make there being: Better times? Um, doesn’t feel as different as you think, Tone’. Which is a perspective that will undoubtedly seem as ridiculous to some as it does bloody obvious to others; perspectives possibly influenced a leeetle by your skin colour, I’m going to guess coyly.
All ridiculously simply put by me here, but fundamentally out there in our wrangling around geopolitics and the justice of our economics. Development, aid, corruptions, influences, interests, hopes – all the things swirling around the honeypots of resources across the globe on all sides, it’s a chapter in history that so shapes the modern world, nothing of today’s wealth and opportunity is isolated from its implications. Britain’s industrialisation itself, the world leader in modernisation, drew massive funding from the economy of its day. An economy banking on human cargo. How do you think some of the great traditional edifices of the UK – such as the Bank of England building, first built in Threadneedle Street in the late 18th century where it still stands, or even the Palace of Westminster, the seat of sovereign parliamentary democracy, mate, rebuilt at a time when last slaves were still not free from loaded tax-paying landowners – were essentially afforded by this particular wealthy business nation?
If you’re possibly smarting imperceptibly at the idea of anything from $5–$15trillion in payback being a conceptual possibility for the collected nations of Europe and America to find, as the price-tag for supposed justice, you might like to know. Reparations funds were found before. Reparations paid to disenfranchised slave traders at the time of the emancipation act, to pay them off and make it work. The British government allocated the equivalent of billions in today’s money all on its own, a giant wallop of its GDP at the time, to compensate the rich so heavily involved in the business. At about the same time they were throwing up the new houses of parliament, so it’s obvious the sun was still only rising on Victoria’s global economy.
Reparations to slave traders? Not… slaves? Yeah. And here’s the extra rub: According to the Treasury, the last of it was only actually paid off in 2015.
Think about that.
As The Independent reported in 2013 when a study of the reparations documentational history was published by UCL, a list of prominent people in today’s Britain were revealed as descended from families who benefited from the pay-offs. Including former Conservative PM David Cameron. A rather smaller society than advertised, you might say. Naming names of people with dodgy-sounding family is sort-of pointless dog-whistle stuff, of course, because name me anyone without dodgy ancestors in there – who are we to hold each other accountable to them? But the relevance of these revelations is simply this – look at who is related to who and still in postitions of influence over Britain today. Today. People and institutions, like banks. How far away is history to us?
It wasn’t Abolition that triggered this reparations plan. It was another act of parliament, more than a quarter of a century after it, that not only finally forced the emancipation of people already enslaved – far too late for thousands of them – but also triggered the huge pay-outs for their suddenly former owners. Legislation that, as Sanchez Manning’s article puts it: “made provision for the staggering levels of compensation for slave-owners, but gave the former slaves not a penny in reparation.”
Manning quotes Dr Nick Draper, who headed up the study, as saying: “There was a feeding frenzy around the compensation.”
A large proportion of the Victorian elite were entitled to pay-outs and many had the equivalent of millions given to them. And yet freedom still didn’t come for thousands of slaves even at this point, with the concept of “apprenticeship” demanding “former” slaves work out an unpaid contract with their same masters, while they were trained, as it were, to be able to cope on their own. What this turned into was sometimes worse conditions than before, with special magistrates dispatched to Caribbean plantations to help the recently hansomely compensated plantation owners enforce justice from any unwilling supposedly former bondsmen.
And there’s an interesting detail that will also resonnate from this precise period of economic history. The treadmill. Ever felt you’re on it in your dead-end job? You should know, it doesn’t mean a boring running machine. It means a punishment device. And not your normal self-inflicted one. A splintery drum of boards that used prisoner power to turn mills or pumps but which were, under Apprenticeship, used as an even more deliberate torture.
As Kris Manjapra explains: “Apprentices accused of laziness – what slave owners called the “negro disease” – were hung by their hands from a plank and forced to “dance” the treadmill barefoot, often for hours. If they fell or lost their step, they would be battered on their chest, feet and shins by the wooden planks. The punishment was often combined with whippings.
And you couldn’t even nip out behind the bins for a forlorn fag in the car park.
How far away is all this from us today? As we stand next to each other with British passports, that are about to turn resolutely supposedly traditional blue again, and have very different feelings and personal connections to our shared British identity. This quintessential modern, digital, nation.
If we can name names of people still in the establishment, if black British citizens had their taxes still paying off some body or other benefitting from slave trade pay-offs until the middle of this decade, and if the cultural habit of our day is still such that our history doesn’t teach us all this joined up – you knew all this and I didn’t – then is this history at all, in a sense? Is it in fact, still part of our business as usual?
So much, in fact, that the full circle of our look at the Global Goals brings us back to where we started: Climate. Because Britain lead the industrial revolution. It’s culture of innovation, confidence, audacity, intelligence, science, even storytelling, transformed the world. Funded vastly, fundamentally, by the slave trade. And the biggest single result in the end is the crisis of an entire planet’s shifting relationship with humankind. The climate crisis. The thing that every other crisis is happening within.
On the surface, the world is vastly different for us. Wealth like the world has never known. An explosion simply of colour – in every concievable way. And of sound, music, story. Of possibilities for ordinary people. We have lassood the very moon, and billions of ordinary schmos like me and you live like little Greek gods, even bored and neurotic in our wealth, the like of which ancient world leaders couldn’t sufficiently dream of. And amidst it all, we can be friends. We can cross divides that were unthinkable mere seconds ago in history. So many daily interactions and opportunities are a multi-cultural melt of wonderful possibilities, compared with what looks like another age entirely now, when the slave trade finally foundered, perhaps especially in modern Britain. Itself a country I’m used to thinking of as full of creative possibilities, triumphant in daily acts of humour, charity, generosity, creativity. So many glimpses of a future that’s… so cheerily human. I owe the land of my birth so much of me.
But under the surface, many argue it is essentially the same system is still working. For all the dramatic changes in psychological economic software now running the modern world, since the financialisation of it, the attitudal hardware is still the foundations of the same world machine other-age men built. And millions of us know it, and millions of us don’t.
As Kehinde Andrews tells D And C: “We must understand that slavery and colonialism are what western prosperity and the current world were built on. Slavery brutalised all societies involved. Atrocious racism survives; both in severe structural inequality and in blatant racial prejudice.”
But, is the lid unscrewing slowly off the world machine? In our Now of fearsome realities? And is it so fearsome because, yes, if this is turning out to be like Wells’ Martian capsules blasting through the gently twerpling evening summer trees of cosy Horsell Common in Sussex, with that ominous giant clang of the lids falling right off precipitating unspeakable monsters of alien form rising up to enslave us with giant stalking genocide machines, then… no wonder we’re all psychologically running for the ships.
Is the possibility of facing what’s inside too awful to contemplate? So much so that we never will, adequately? Not least because we all have things we’d rather not discover in there.
In looking at the long-awated publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, Afua Hirsch shares some bitter facts woven into this story written in the 1930s by the legendary Harlem Renaissance writer. Because, in the book itself, as Neale-Hurston interviews in detail “the last survivor of the last known slave ship to sail from the African continent to America with a human cargo”, spending fascinating time with this man then in his late 80s, she admits to feeling torn about the reality of his story. That he wasn’t kidnapped by white traders, he was sold by fellow Africans.
Cudjo Lewis; a man born Oluale Kossola in the Yoruba kingdom of Takkoi, was living history to Zora Neale Hurston, but today she is more legendary than he is, among black scholars, as a kind of civil rights anthropologist. And picturing the two of them together, there in a vivid intimate scene in imagination, somewhere around the time of the great depression, Afua Hirsch today implies Zora’s nuance in storytelling is missing in much of today’s.
“Hurston herself remarked that in writing Kossola’s harrowing account of how the king of Dahomey profited from raiding and selling members of neighbouring kingdoms, she was deeply affected by the question of African complicity in the slave trade,” says Hirsch. “The inescapable fact that stuck in my craw,” Hurston wrote, “was my people had sold me and the white people had bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on – that white people had gone to Africa, waved a red handkerchief at the Africans and lured them aboard ship and sailed away.”
And yet, says Hirsch, this lost book, Barracoon, that couldn’t find a publisher until almost sixty years after its author’s death, also helps deepen the understanding of the context in which slavery took place. She quotes Deborah Plant, a Hurston scholar who edited the book: “This idea of ‘African complicity’ is more myth than a reality. Because at that point in history, there was no such thing as an ‘African’. People on the African continent did not self identify as Africans; instead there was a self identity in relation to specific ethnic groups and specific kingdoms, religions or language. So many of us don’t know, because we don’t have these nuances about our history.”
All our identities are a construct of imagination, aren’t they? Are we in a time of multiple indentities feeling like they are cracking, leaving us lost? There are, in the modern world it seems, so many ways to feel lost. Yet, it feels like the lid is coming off this collective time capsual, full of ghosts and terrors and heartbreaks, whether we like it or not. It seems to be unscrewing itself, as it might inevitably always have done, you might say sanguinely.
But, if anybody’s quaint Horsell Common of tradition is to be overturned with invading drama, remember: That war of the worlds wasn’t the end of the story. Because something saved us from the death rays and red weed. The tiny truth of the nature of life on Earth. The bacterial reality that makes us, and binds us together.
Can the value of the freedom and the choices and the funded education that I was just handed ever be paid back to sides of your family still combating habitual ticks of prejudice in our culture? No. Is the obvious answer. Not by me. I will forever owe. And even across the ten steps Caricom lays out for African reparations – the debt cancellation, the psychological rehabilitations, the cultural reinstitutionalising, the health crises investments, the repatriations, the investments, the raw humility diplomatically demanded – even then, its known there’s no making straight handouts to individuals, or even to indiginous governments, so often effectively encouraged by corporate interests to be complicit in their people’s suffering. It will take whole new trust organisations to administer the paybacks and invest them well. And we don’t have a great track record of that happening yet.
Debt is owed in multiple ways by everyone, at all levels. Many families down at ordinary us level have been drowning in it, trying to stay afloat. As the cost of doing everything has gone up, driven as much by our system’s addiction to private property values as anything, ordinary people’s ability to afford a healthy place in public life is diminishing all the time in many places, right in the heartland of the traditional wealth centres of the world. And as this begins to affect infrastructure investment for ordinary people by public bodies and the governments they supposedly voted in, it leads in turn to a growing infrastructure deficit in the whole public realm. And infrastructure deficit leads directly to social deficit. A threadbaring of the fabrics supposedly richly woven for the good of the nation, to bind it together, from the old cotton mills. Supplied by the old cotton fields of Alabama.
In the mean time, there is you and me. Trying to patch up our cheaply-made jeans. Trying to get on. And, yknow. What can we do?
From the world’s current stooping shuffle, I think there’s one thing we can do. I think we can look up.
Do you dream of being rich? Of what it might be like to be a billionaire? I find myself wondering this again, as I wrap up the cost of doing daft hopey-changey art and start going looking for the next thing I can actually bill someone for. But if we dream occasionally of being them, what do they dream of? Once you supposedly have it all, what comes next?
Interesting that all of the top six richest world individuals we mentioned earlier are described in their Wikipedia profiles as ‘philanthropists’ alongside their day jobs. What audience are they playing to there, I wonder? Once you’re a billionaire, who do you care sees you publically as a human being as much as a businessperson?
And what does it say about them that so many of them are investing in conspicuously futurey things? Are they finally losing the plot in planning to leave the planet, or is something so far removed from the pressures of poverty it seems the epitome of gauchely wealthy disconnection, actually something that might hold a symbolic key to our ambitions to make the human race truly wealthy?
In trying to invest in getting more of us out of the gutter, should we even be spending a single penny on trying to get more of us into the stars?
Or does the penny finally drop when the penny floats?
The Designer of SpaceShip One, Burt Rutan, the aerospace engineer who’s team won the SpaceX prize with the craft, was philosophical as Dr Brian Cox interview him for a BBC documentary, The 21st century race for space. He said: “Why do we as the human race want to fly into space, push and push and push”: “I think it goes back to why we’re different from the animals. The animals live to survive. Humans live to explore. To find out what’s over that mountain.”
On December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, Brian Binnie was at the controls for the first powered test flight of SpaceShip One, taking the craft to a top speed of Mach 1.2 – and he went on to break the record for the highest winged flight in it. And he too, formal naval pilot and practical Princeton graduate, was philosophical as Cox interviewed him about the human experience of flying into space. In fact, he was dreamily thoughtful, as he spoke about the memory of what happened after the incredible adrenalin rush of the rocket motor firing, propelling the craft to its 112kmm altitude from its parentship launch, and the motor was then shut down. It was, he said, for all the excitement that got him to that moment, by far the best part.
“It’s as though you step across the line into an entirely new dimension, and this instant karma of weightlessness,” he said. “And it happens just like that, and you realise…” he continues with a slightly lost for words pause, “you’re in space. And it’s as though somebody’s pulled back a stage curtain for the benefit of your eyes only. And you look up and there it is – this black void that is space.”
And he pauses again, thoughtfully. “It’s mystery. And menace. But you can also sense its majesty.”
It is, I can picture being for anyone, a humbling, profound, indescribable moment. A moment of such perspective. The first time you see Earth from space, and see space as it really is. So black. So vast.
Carl Sagan’s masterful highjacking of the Voyager camera, against sensible orders from the mission command who wanted only science gathered from their delicately precarious impossibly distant seeming craft’s instruments, is an image that changed the world – the pale blue dot. Something that took the image of Apollo 8’s iconic Earthrise photo and raised the frightening perspective of our one home planet to the ultimate truth: All we know of us isn’t just hideable with a thumb, it can look like a spec of dust to be wiped off a photograph.
These are the science- and engineering- and yes, politics-driven moments that mark humanity’s very very first steps into getting true perspective on itself. And tell me, what price that?
It’s no wonder many of our billionaires think there’s a lot of cash to be unlocked in space tourism.
Or in building an escape plan to Mars.
We can’t afford to lift all humans out of poverty, or global justice-redefining reparations, but we can afford to go to Mars? Rich people can burn rocket fuel into the atmosphere to have a briefly stratospherically expensive poetic moment? What planet are we living on?
On the face of it, you’re right. And the drivers of the space race were blatantly politico-economic – a race to flex the idea of supremacy between the US and the USSR. But, regardless of what the disconnected rich splurge cash on instead of human equity, it brings me to the experience we collectively have of progress – it doesn’t happen uniformly, does it. And I think there is a very basic principle we have to bear in mind if any fight for justice or struggle to build in sustainable new systems of wealth are going to work. We are not dealing with economic units. We’re not trying to find news ways of accounting for human life like counting beans. That’s the good old school’s kind of engineering. We’re dealing with people. And if people are born to do anything, they are born to explore.
Take away inspiration, and we take away progress’s ability to ever take. And, like it or not, our inspiration is outgrowing this one planet’s horizon. The nacent story of humans taking to space, spreading their cosmic wings for the first time, inspires millions to look beyond the Now. It’s the resurgence in the scientific understanding of our celestial neighbourhood afforded by space technology that is giving many people hope. It simply has to be some small but noticeable part of the story of us right now – because it just speaks to us. To our instincts to grow way beyond the treadmills of globalisation. And here’s the truth, like all travel, the more we get out there, the more we learn about home.
Like a personal anxiety coping technique, being able to pause the business of building our Now and pull out mentally to low Earth orbit and see our context? It is as amazing to us, as calming, as inspiring, as hope-filling as any image of progress can be. It shows us just how tied our bloodlines are. Seeing the Earth from space is when hardened test pilots and engineers – the frontier heroes of our modern times – really first get it. A kind of reverence for life.
As Colonel Bob Springer, astronaut who flew with the space shuttle Discovery twice, said to me once: “Everyone who goes into space comes back an environmentalist. Everyone.”
I think simply, such perspective might give us some practical help down here, right down at ground level. Some psychological tools to take forward.
Firstly the fruit of such reverence might be a little attitude change, deploying a very humble word into our thinking. Because I think a first definitely possible way forward we can any of us engage, as we work out what must be done, is I believe a key aspect of the whole shared future – helping to develop a story of grace.
I don’t simply mean picturing William Wilberforce singing Amazing Grace flintily as the eventual posterchap for abolition, though it’s easy to imagine him doing so. I mean the grim idea that after everything, the historically marginalised and oppressed nations of Africa, the Americas, the people of India… I wonder if a keystone to helping us build bridges between identities may be to include a conscious degree of grace in expressing all our heritage into future identities – forgiving the past.
But what will truly build the future is more and more of us becoming conscious that we need grace. And so need to give it. Grace is at its most potent in partnership. That’s when we can get truly productive.
Secondly, it’s the Goals. They are high-minded, and they don’t mention reparations. But they do one vital thing that I’ve come to realise as I’ve spent so much time with them – they help ordinary schmos like me and you put it all together. The great circle of everything we have to do. The complete story of us – the full picture of the consequences of how we’ve been living, lost in the world machine. Putting it together in our lowly minds is… empowering. Sobering, very weightilly sobering. But oddly inspiring. Giving us a much higher level of that vital mental component we’re collectively missing: awareness.
When we understand more of our context, nothing we do is in a vacuum any more. And gazing into space can give you that.
Which means, you might find yourself acting differently. Seeing differently. Knowing what you are doing is part of a bigger story. And while this will rob you of some hope to begin with, if you’re really facing the facts for the first time together, it is likely to oddly percolate. Bubble through your mind and filter your thinking. Suddenly, all you do in your daily life will have new resonnance. You may begin to feel that your life is oddly less lost in the machine. Because your living, your very life, will begin to feel like it’s part of that bigger story. And this might get you off your bloody arse at last.
You think you can’t do anything? As Chris Manjapra points out in a grimly frank history of the slave trade: “Over the past few decades, scholars have stressed the ways in which the antislavery movement depended on expanding democratic participation in civic debate, with British women and the working classes playing a crucial role in the abolitionist ranks. British parliamentarians were inundated with thousands of petitions from ordinary people pressing them to pass laws that eventually brought slavery to an end.”
So much of 18th century Britain is unnervingly like today’s. The hierarchy, the gossip, the papers, the society trends, the consumer fancies, the bawdy entertainments, the worthy hopes, the blind ignorances, the sincere intentions, the arrogant abuses of power, the satirical wits, the inequalites, the prejudices lurking. But while it looks like the shame machine under the different lace cosies, look closer and you’ll see something has changed. The machine is infected with nanites.
It was the enslaved themselves who rattled the cages. Forced uprisings that destablised the system. Sang the songs. Built the cultures. Held on to their identity and pushed it up through the earth into the sunlight, evolving and growing, knowing they were every bit as civilised as their savagely dehumanising oppressors. They knew. And they didn’t ever become the under-species they were forced to be. And in the end they got noticed by other humans prepared to surrender a little to empathy.
Today, we are so swamped with channels of information it has overloaded our attentions. How can we ever muster sufficient focuses of public attention we can skew the system and force change? Yet, connected like this, our collective empathy has not so much been empowered as fundamentally upgraded. For the digital networked human, you and me now, is a whole new level of us. You are the ghost in the machine, connecting a living new machine in the lungs of the old one. And every new connection you make reshapes it.
What shape do you want it to be today?
The truth is, when you pull out, this enormous theme running under our modern economics – slavery – goes beyond Africans or native nations of any kind being bought, sold and abused by old empires. It’s no conshy student poetry to say there is a kind of slavery net ensnaring all of us. An entrapment of thinking in how we live that, I would say keeps us docile. Kind of asleep. Asleep to the human potential. And to the things we can collectively do to address injustices.
The question many are asking is this: Is the Now of fearsome realities beginning to wake up more of us?
Umair Haque, writing for Medium, says he thinks we’re simply in the age of collapse. That our culture’s inability to question the fundamentals has perpetuated it way beyond its ability to stand up. That the kind of ‘super-people’ that corporations effectively are, omipresent and multi-connected to more than human powers, makes them the overlords of our time. But the reality of any hope to defeat these killer automatons stalking the Earth subjugating us, is in the fact that the world machine they’re part of is a system beginning to fail simply too many people in what people are. Human.
“This global system is not benefitting the average person in any real way — financially, socially, culturally, relationally, politically, economically. It might give him cheaper TVs and drugs to numb the pain with — but soothing the pain away isn’t happiness”. And while you might say this really is getting a bit student conshy poetry club, it’s hard to deny the sense of disallusionment driving populist times. So much a consequence I’d say again of our expectations not matching reality. Which means now is the time to help change those expectations – of the very things we consider of value to us.
“If your life was stagnating, and I asked you — “free trade, or a decent life?”, you’d laugh at me, wouldn’t you? Are people human beings — or are they just mindless workers, insatiable consumers, and heartless competitors?” Says Haque. And he makes the link all the way from the slave trade in America to kids working out their disalusionment in infamy-chasing classroom carnage.
But even in this failing system, he says, there are examples of not being so enslaved to it, suggesting it’s the good old Nordic nations that show better how it’s done.
“They are not protectionist nations. They trade away happily. But they also do something that the rest of the world does not so much — they reinvest the gains from trade in robust, universals, strong social contracts. Things like parental leave, healthcare, protection, insurance, incomes, are all guaranteed. So there is not the tension there — so much — at least of trade versus livability.”
Yanis Varoufakis, Greek showbiz economist, suggests we won’t make any practical difference to the crises of now by looking backwards to the achievements of our system. Even if they’re as world-shaping as the collective epochs of capitalism have been.
He recalls: “Back in 1991, a left-wing friend expressed his frustration that “really existing socialism” was crumbling, with exaltations of how it had propelled the Soviet Union from the plough to Sputnik in a decade. I remember replying, under his pained and disapproving gaze: “So, what? No unsustainable system can be, ultimately, sustained.” Now that globalization is also proving unsustainable, and is in retreat, its liberal cheerleaders resemble my friend when they proffer similarly correct, yet irrelevant, exaltations of how it lifted billions from poverty.”
He makes the point that we have a lot of money kicking around, but we’re not investing it where it’s actually needed.
“Humanity’s accumulated savings per capita are at the highest level in history. However, our investment levels (especially in the things humanity needs, such as green energy) are particularly low.”
He describes the real story of us globalising as going right back to the first migrants – all of us.
“Humanity has been globalizing since our ancestors left Africa, the earliest economic migrants on record. Moreover, capitalism has been operating for two centuries like “heavy artillery,” in Marx and Engels’ words, using the “cheap prices of commodities” to batter “down all Chinese walls,” “constantly expanding market for its products” and replacing “the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency” with “intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.”
“It wasn’t until the 1990s, when we noticed the unleashing of momentous forces, that we required a new term to describe the emancipation of capital from all fetters, which led to a global economy whose growth and equilibrium relied on increasingly unbalanced trade and money movements. It is this relatively recent phenomenon – globalization, we called it – that is now in crisis and in retreat.”
So then, what does this mean for us? Left here at ground level to deal with it every day, psychologically, practically.
What is history and what is heritage? How do we define the difference in our minds? Because, let’s face it, it was none of us us, that did those specific historic things – we were none of us alive in that context. It is, in so many ways, history. But we all of us get to choose our conscious identity today, or preception of heritage, piecing together the fragments of ourselves into the collage we believe in. And if we can feel empathy with the bloodlines we learn to be connected with in our imaginations, as we experience what others percieve this to mean in the way they treat us, can we yet delve deeper into our minds and feel a glimmer of empathy for the blood running through everyone’s veins? It’s as hopey-changey hippy peace song as it gets, but it’s also the bottom bloody line of all our economics.
Influenced as enormously as we are by our education, our family, our cultural atmosphere, it is possible that those things themselves can change when we resolve to influence them back. And in new partnerships, who knows what realities we can make?
Howard Zinn, activist and historian, describes it to perfection, in a quote reminded to me by the lovely first lady of Momo while reading Noam Chomsky’s Occupy. Presumably while furthering her bid to overtun her gift to be a naturally profoundly balanced person to become loony barking Marxist, presumably.
It could be the quote on the inside sleave of Unsee The Future, the coffee table edition.
“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives” he says. Hear that? Do you hear that? “If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives is the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending theis spinning top of a world in a different direction.
What’s emerging really is a truly globalising world. One where we can no longer hide our sacrifice zones. Because they have phones.
The business as usual of this chapter of human life on Earth seems the most likely and possible one, doesn’t it? Glimmers of hope, but the reality of overwhelming selfishness baked into the systems of the world machine, just grinding on. But, whatever the pain you and I might be labouring under today, defining our ability to think about anything, the statistical, pragmatic truth surrounding all our contexts is that the consequences of collective human living are converging to overwhelm everything. Our selfish business as usual is not sustainable. So things will never go back to the way they were when things suited you better than now, if they did. Or to some pre-injustice age. Or to Eden. Our job is to help see what life is like after we’ve tattooed the indelible scars on us and the planet. How to live with the semi colon.
Farhad Mirza, a human rights activist I met once during a travel glitch that had us spend an unexpected rainy night talking the world in a bar in Berlin, posted this on Twitter: “No one leaves home until home is a damp voice in your ear saying leave, run now, I don’t know what I’ve become.
#Home – by Warsan Shire.”
We are all the migrants. The immigrant lost. We can continue to try to just shut eachother out, push each other away, but we are only storing up bigger and bigger problems for us and our children. For the planet we all have to live on. Can we reach a tipping point moment where our work to face the crises – educate and empower and enfranchise the refugees, emancipate the enslaved homeless looking for refuge in a storm – starts to shape a new Earth? Even new ideas of heavens possible in it?
The symptoms of our living tell us what’s wrong. Injustice presents everywhere, as the daughters and sons of former slaves struggle to live lives as ordinary as and equal to the sons and daughters of former slave owners. So many daily blindsides from friends and co-citizens. A system built by dominating men, leaving men and women across all cultures struggling to know how to relate as equals. And mental health the world over imprisoning us in habits of comfort and desperation for purpose that is squandering the incredible medical advances prolonging the lives we have to feel broken and lost in. All while the complete song of nature is ringing in our ears a low building hum, a chorus of animal voices calling us to do one thing: Wake up. Wake up to who we really are. For we are part of the great circle of the Earth, and it is our purpose to sing for her. For all life.
The world machine is broken. The plan for fixing it is imperfect. But we ourselves are the wonky componentry – every one. Vulnerable, fat-headed, ignorant of some things, understanding the value of others. Impoverished in so many ways we are too poor to even see. Struggling to know ourselves. Lost and disempowered. Humiliated and degraded.
But we ourselves are the answer. We ourselves are the hopey changey bit.
Exploring the multiverse of examples of this happening all around us now, this will be Unsee The Future‘s ongoing mission, I think.
From rebel banks printing money to buy back household debts in England, to communities coming together to regreen the drylands of Ethiopia’s desperate Tigray region, to the rise of veganism across the West, linking better health with less damage to our resources… with a more humane psychology of consumption. From the explosion of projects building an economy of sharing, wanting to work for good instead of paycheques alone, wanting more time with loved ones and a much stronger sense of open community. The increasing seriousness of the universal basic income. The volunteering principle emerging naturally, not just around BS 9–5s, but in the way we value business projects themselves. To the flowering of truth budding in our sexual cultures – the admission that we are not stiff cut-outs of identity, but wobbly shaped individuals linked by our collective need of each other. And our collective suffering. Desires. Hopes.
It is our role now, surely, to put everything together in our minds and actively work against the fullest sense of human poverty – our disconnection from life on Earth. To recognise ourselves in the whole beautiful, rare, astonishing, diminishing web of it, as we learn to change the way we see it. And it will not be something we can fix with a switch flick.
We are in transition. Generation Now. From slaves to freefolk. From stereotypes to people. From separate consumers to flocking, reforming, sharing, shaping, encouraging global community. Is it any wonder more of us are being heard in our experiences of embodying the personal experience of transition? And do the trans of us have a profoundly simple testimony to us all in their hard-won identities, explored a whole generation ago in Ursula LeGuin’s prophetic, ice-cracking The left hand of darkness – we won’t lose our humanity in leaving the freezer-mould forms of us; in daring to realise who we are, we’ll find it.
It is us, in our outlook, that will encourage the more hopeful human tomorrow. By letting our vision of it percolate everything we say and do. By letting it charge a greater, zoomed-out sense of purpose. Like other worlders with perspective suddenly on what is truly wonderously preciously valuable about life on Earth. Without having to stump up millions taking a rocket trip.
As Howard Zinn put it, with words I could never better as we conclude this chapter of Unsee The Future:
“And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human being should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
And there we conclude our first series of Unsee The Future. We’ve mapped the whole plan for the human planet tomorrow… and where next?
I’ll be back with a new series after a bit of a break, pulling together so much of the creative ideas and… what? Oh. You mean the whole saving the planet thing. Because, this isn’t really the end, is it. This unrealistically triumphant Hopey Changey conclusion.
Well, if you’re asking how we bring it all alive, after this much time dialing around the UN’s Global Goals, I think I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that I think the UN is missing one. A Goal. And, in fact, they are missing the most important one. The one that is the only way to make the whole plan actually work.
The good news is I think I know what it is.
UNSEE THE FUTURE WILL RETURN LATER IN THE SUMMER WITH A ONE-OFF SPECIAL.
Their primary aim is ending poverty
Read The Guardian story of where art meets direct action in Walthamstow
Everything Voluntary’s Skyler Collins considers what the word can mean.
Read Julia Craven’s view on the idea for the Huffington Post.
Read Kehinde Andrews’ view on turning the world ‘radically fairer’
Discover the Caribbean organisation’s aims
Discover the UN’s new plans to encourage more sustainable development
Paul Krugman dissects the economic strategy Britain has wedded itself to
Peter S Goodman analyses the foreign landscape of the modern UK
Read May Bulman reporting for The Independent
Peruse Jeff Desjardins’ infographic