Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Taking a broader view of our predicament (3)

This is the first post explicitly reflecting on Peter Selby's lecture (extracts already posted here and here).

The 'sovereign' who has the say over 'bare life' as Peter discusses in his first extract takes many forms. Historically there is the the individual tyrant who threw people into jail, tortured them, had them clandestinely murdered, or said publicly 'off with his/her head'. But of course the tyrants never worked alone, didn't do their own dirty work. They had an army of spies, enforcers, hit-men, lackeys and fixers who did their bidding, either their explicit bidding, or their implied bidding - think of: 'will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?'

In a modern democracy it is supposedly the apparatus of the state that exercises the rights over 'bare life' - the state run police, the criminal justice system, the prisons and other forms of legal punishment. But there are questions about this arising in our twenty-first century experience. Many people feel that turning over aspects of policing or imprisonment to private companies seeking to profit from these activities is, in some ill-defined way, 'wrong'. The prerogative of the sovereign (or the state) to exercise control over 'bare life' should not, it is felt by many, be exercised by other than the state, and should not make profits for shareholders. Of course in the times of Henry VIII, say, this prerogative of the sovereign made profits for the king, as lands, estates and wealth were confiscated by the crown when someone was executed.

But there are less direct ways of impacting on 'bare life' and in this respect the state has limited power, is more like King John at the mercy of his barons - in this case the barons are the faceless markets who pull the strings of governments. Open western democracies who live by the market will also, it seems, die by the market. In The Guardian of 19 June, Simon Jenkins likens the single European currency to Colditz - a jail from which people cannot escape. We see in Greece that a quarter of the population is now in poverty; people are dying from lack of common medicines and medical equipment; elderly people are scavenging in dustbins for food; parents are handing their children over to state childcare because they can no longer afford to feed them.

And it's not just Greece. The Guardian has a series of articles about poverty in Britain, and in particular about school breakfast clubs for children. Children are arriving at school in the morning having eaten nothing since their free school lunch the previous day. Teachers speak of  'mid-week hunger' as the money runs out by Wednesday and the children arrive at school unfed [for the full series of articles, search for 'Breadline Britain' on]. My father used to speak of his childhood in the 1920s when there was nothing but bread and dripping to eat on Thursdays until the wages came in on Friday. At least the money lasted until Thursday!

The poverty we are seeing in Britain now is often in working households. Low wages, high rents, high food costs, and government cuts to benefits are all contributing. It is impossible to disentangle government ideology (the desire for a small state) from compliance with the faceless markets who will punish Britain if we don't reduce the deficit. And remember, the cuts have barely begun, the cutbacks in the NHS have barely begun . . . we ain't seen nothing yet.

Many aspects of our globalised life now impact on 'bare life'. Globalised extraction industries impact on the health, and sometimes very lives, of local people - think about uranium mining, mining for Rare Earths, tar sands oil extraction, oil drilling in the Niger Delta, to name but a few. Globalised markets sentence whole populations to poverty. Climate change - for which we all share responsibility - brings drought and starvation to societies that are already the poorest. The control over 'bare life' is now so widespread, so pervasive, that it's historical basis in 'the sovereign' is now almost irrelevant.

How we got into this mess is a long and complex story, but I believe it involves at root a serious disconnect from reality in western market capitalist societies. We are removed from direct contact with the bare necessities of life, we have lost touch with our utter dependence on the material world of the planet we live on, and furthermore, we have lost an understanding of what money is - we have been behaving as if it's magic, as if we can just wave a conjurer's wand. We have behaved as if debt can be ignored, both financial debt and planetary debt - this latter links to last week's post about Global Footprint Network being given the Kenneth Boulding Award.

I'll explore the money+environment issue next time. In the meantime, I'll just recall that more than 150 years ago (1858, in Theses on Feuerbach) Karl Marx wrote:
For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility . . . whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.
And he also, of course, famously predicted that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. I recommend Terry Eagleton's most recent book, Why Marx was Right - much food for thought in our present situation.

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