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Free to Be Poor
The "devil's gift" at millennium's turn
At the turn of the millennium, leading architects of American policy and opinion claimed to know that one thing was clear in a complex and ever-changing world. Human beings, they told us, were freer than ever before. According to the editors of Time magazine, the last century's legacy to the new one could be summarized in two words: “freedom won.” “Free minds and free markets,” Time claimed on the last day of the last year to begin with the number 1, “prevailed over fascism and communism.” As evidence for this heartwarming thesis, Time and others pointed to the unprecedented high percentage of people living in countries with universal suffrage, competitive multi-party elections, elementary civil rights, and “free market” economies. Using these criteria, the conservative think-tank Freedom House reported that 85 of the planet's 192 nations had become “free” by the turn of the millennium. Another 59 countries were “partly free,” leaving an all-time low of just one fourth of the world's nation states as “unfree.” Two days before Time's celebratory retrospective, the Wall Street Journal cited these findings to claim, “Democracy is quite literally sweeping the world as the 20th century comes to a close.” This “long march to freedom” became the key theme in a chorus of self-adulation sung by the American political class and its intellectual cheerleaders at millennium's turn. That march, American leaders knew, owed its success primarily to the model and activism of the United States. As the “first truly benevolent” and now thankfully sole superpower, the U.S. had provided the necessary impetus and protection to bring about the globalization that is, by the conventional elite wisdom, the main force behind the spread of “freedom and democracy.”
Most of the World Lives in Shanty Towns
Beneath the chorus, those who cared to listen could discern from within the mainstream media discordant notes of deepening human suffering and shocking inequality. In a major study that received moderate media attention in the summer of 1999, the United Nations Human Development Program found that “global inequalities in income and living standards have reached grotesque proportions.” The UN reported that the income gap between the richest fifth of the world's nations and the poorest fifth (measured by average national income per head) increased from 30 to one in 1960 to 74 to one in 1997. The top fifth of nations possessed 86.1 percent of the world's gross domestic product, 68 percent of direct foreign investment, and 74 percent of the world's telephone lines. Taking into account the wide disparities between rich and poor people in all countries (rich and poor alike), it seemed likely that the richest 20 percent of the world's people received at least 150 times more income than the poorest 20 percent. In the candid words of the Boston Globe, “globalization” had “resulted in a boom for the wealthiest 20 percent of the world's population and a bust for just about everyone else.”
Such disparity would have seemed less disturbing if it hadn't been a leading cause of substantial misery among those at the bottom. While the world's 200 richest people (overwhelmingly from advanced northern states) doubled their wealth to $1 trillion from 1994 to 1998, the media reported, more than 1.3 billion people in the developing world scraped by on less than one dollar a day—the World Bank's benchmark for “abject poverty.” Correspondent RC Longworth of the Chicago Tribune marked the millennium's turn by noting that the world's “surging economy enriches a few” but “bypasses the rest.” In Longworth's view, “the 21st century, like the 20th, has began as a belle epoque for those lucky enough to enjoy it.” Those lucky people were a distinct minority for whom the new global era was “a golden age of peace, great wealth, booming markets. Easy travel. Instant communications, fabulous comfort and, with it, an innocence and confidence that this good fortune is not only deserved but permanent.” But “things are very different,” Longworth noted, for the world's “majority [who]...live in shanty towns on the outskirts of the global village.” Longworth referred to “the rest of humanity” beneath the opulent minority: “millions of unemployed nomads in China, street people in Calcutta, European workers without jobs, the 28 percent of Americans whose jobs pay poverty-level wages, semi-educated young men in Morocco begging in four languages, the hopeless poor of Africa, child laborers in Bangladesh, the pensioners of Poland, the Russians wondering what happened to their lives.”
Freedom Without Opportunity
Particularly striking were mainstream reports from Russia, a celebrated new “democracy” in the post-Cold War era. The Russian peoples' enthusiasm for U.S.-led globalization and the related “march of freedom” was dampened by the fact that since the collapse of Soviet socialism and the opening of their country to global market forces they were living through the longest and worst depression ever experienced by an industrialized society. As John Lloyd, former Moscow Bureau chief for Financial Times, reported in the summer of 1999, in a New York Times article titled “Russian Devolution,” post-Cold War “Russians, free to get rich, are poorer.” Further: “The wealth of the nation has shrunk—at least that portion of the wealth enjoyed by the people. The top 10 percent is reckoned to possess 50 percent of the state's wealth; the bottom 40 percent, less than 20. Somewhere between 30 and 40 million [Russians] live below the poverty line—defined as around $300 a month. The gross domestic product has shrunk every year of Russia's freedom, except perhaps one—1997—when it grew, at best, by less than 1 percent. Unemployment, officially nonexistent in Soviet times, is now officially 12 percent and may really be 25 percent. Men die, on average, in their late 50s; diseases like tuberculosis and diphtheria have reappeared; servicemen suffer malnutrition; the population shrinks rapidly.”
“So great has been Russia's economic and thus social catastrophe,” noted Russian expert Stephen F. Cohen in the left-liberal Nation, “that we must now speak of [an]...unprecedented development: the literal de-modernization of a twentieth-century country.”
Along with the tens of millions of others on the wrong end of globalization, the victims of this “de-modernization” would have understood well the plaintive cry of Lula de Silva, the charismatic leader of Brazil's Workers' Party. “Do we have democracy,” asked Lula, “only to have the right to cry out in hunger?” Noam Chomsky said much the same thing. “Freedom without opportunity,” wrote Chomsky, “is a devil's gift.”
“Freedom” Begins At Home
Chomsky's warning was relevant within the supposed headquarters and homeland of global freedom, where the top tenth of the population owned 72.3 percent of total private wealth at millennium's turn. In an important study that received moderate media attention in the next-to-last year of the 20th century, Fordham University researchers Marc and Marque-Luisa Mirongoff reported that the social health of the U.S. in the 1990s was far below past levels. Especially disturbing were the Miringoffs' finding that three indicators reached their lowest level since 1970: health insurance, food stamp coverage, and the gap between rich and poor (the difference between the percent distribution of aggregate income received by the top fifth and the bottom fifth of families). “It used to be that a rising tide lifted all boats,” they concluded “but at a certain point during the 1970s, per capita income and social health split apart.” Thanks largely to persistent poverty and related deepening inequality, the Miringoffs concluded that Americans were experiencing a hidden “social recession” beneath the long economic boom of the 1990s.
It might seem paradoxical that mainstream media announced two such conflicting themes—one full of light and hope (the march of freedom and democracy) and the other of darkness and suffering (the persistence and even deepening of poverty and inequality)—at one and the same time. Poverty is the enemy of freedom in the most basic material sense. Moreover, western political theory has recognized that core democratic ideals—“one person, one vote” and an equal distribution of policy-making influence—cannot flourish side by side with significant wealth inequality and poverty. Wealthy minorities possess resources to distort the political and policy processes in ways that subvert democracy. On the other side of the inequality pendulum, people who must spend the bulk of their time trying to maintain their basic material existence lack the time and energy to participate to any great extent in the political and policy-making processes. These standard disparities in political power and their dark implications for democracy are deeply exacerbated by the corporate and financial globalization that current top-down ideology places at the taproot of expanding global freedom. Largely by design, globalization removes basic socioeconomic decision making power from state-specific public policy, insulating private power further from the dangerous influence of the nonwealthy majority.
The paradox dissolves, however, when five basic things are taken into account. First, the “march of freedom” and not the tragic persistence of mass poverty and inequality was by far and away the dominant story line of the respectable media at millennium's turn. The former theme was found on page one of the front section of leading newspapers and in their editorials; the latter theme was buried deeper in pages and sections reserved for the more dedicated truth-seekers. Second, then as now, certain parts of mainstream coverage were often quite substantially correct and candid because the mostly affluent and therefore ideologically safe consumers of mainstream media required accurate information if they are to effectively carry out their social-systemic tasks of supervision, indoctrination, and “strategic planning.” Third, the dominant ideological framework of American policy- and opinion-makers at millennium's turn held that equality of opportunity was the only legitimate goal of a free society. Operating on the false and self-serving assumption that such equality had been substantially achieved, American authority figures at millennium's turn were quite certain that the evident savage inequalities in results reflected the internal flaws and failures of the nonwealthy to seize readily available opportunities.
Fourth, the dominant U.S. definition of democracy at millennium's turn bore little resemblance to the classical definition. It required only that all citizens enjoy minimal basic civil rights and that they be procedurally free to vote in periodic competitive elections that select at least some significant portion of the country's policy makers from a privileged circle of elites. These representatives remained free to pursue their agenda without direct accountability to the people between elections. As the conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter put it in 1947, “democracy means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing to accept the men who are to rule them.”
The dominant definition restricted acceptable democracy to the political sector and its “division of labor” between the political and socioeconomic spheres. Democracy was limited by definition to the former and essentially unconcerned with the latter. This was consistent with the long history of capitalist ideology. Under capitalism, as Ellen Meiksens-Wood has noted: “a great deal can happen in politics and community organization at every level without fundamentally affecting the exploitative powers of capital or fundamentally changing the decisive balance of social power. Struggles in these arenas remain vitally important, but they have to be organized and conducted in the full recognition that capitalism has a remarkable capacity to distance democratic politics from the decisive centers of social power and to insulate the power of appropriation and exploitation from democratic accountability...Capitalism has made possible a far wider distribution of extra-economic goods, and specifically the goods associated with citizenship, than was ever possible before. But it has overcome scarcity by devaluing the currency.”
As Chomsky noted in the middle of the last millennium's last decade, the “doctrinal meaning of democracy” in the hands of U.S. intellectual and policy elites “refers to a system in which decisions are made by sectors of the business community and related elites...the public are to be only ‘spectators of action,' not ‘participants'.… They are permitted to ratify the decisions of their betters and to lend their support to one or another of them, but not to interfere with matters—like public policy—that are none of their business. If segments of the public depart from their apathy and begin to organize and enter the public arena, that's not democracy. Rather it's a crisis of democracy in proper technical usage, a threat that has to be overcome in one or another way: in El Salvador, by death squads —at home by more subtle and indirect means.”
By the dominant U.S. criteria at millennium's turn, then, there was no contradiction in asserting that a society with massive disparities in wealth, privilege, and even political influence was a democracy. There was no contradiction in claiming that the world was becoming more democratic at the same time that it was becoming increasingly poor and divided by wealth and income. “By limiting the focus to political contestation among elites through procedurally free elections,” sociologist William I. Robinson pointed out in an important study, U.S. elites made “the question of who controls the material and cultural resources of society” essentially “extraneous to the discussion of democracy [emphasis added].” It was an absurd position but it was held nonetheless in the corridors of American economic, political, and intellectual power.
The End of History, Interrupted
The fifth and final reason that mainstream media could report such seemingly contradictory evidence on the state of human freedom and democracy was the American political class's judgment that no significant forces existed to call them on their contradictions. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, the demise of Third World resistance, the roll-back of labor movements and social democracy, and the global triumph of “neoliberal” market forces, the American and global ruling classes concluded that serious social-systemic division and related moral-ideological debate had drawn to a fateful close. History, understood as a series of struggles over the nature and purpose of political economy, had, in their satisfied opinion, ended. It had dissolved, they felt, into a welcome consensus on “free market” (really state) capitalism as the best of all possible worlds.
Fortunately for all but the world's opulent few, however, this conclusion proved to be an illusion. Its falsity was revealed in Fall 1999, when tens of thousands of protestors filled the streets of Seattle to crash the party of global capital at the annual meetings of the WTO. Subsequent mass demonstrations against capitalist globalization and the dominant world financial and regulatory institutions in Washington DC, Prague, Quebec City, and elsewhere combined with the holding of a World Social Forum in Port Allegre, Brazil, and other developments to announce the emergence of a new social movement challenging the persistent and deepening authoritarianism, destructiveness, and injustice of the new world capitalism. Composed of numerous and sometimes conflicting impulses and tendencies—eco- decentralists, anarchists, social-democrats, anti-globalists, left-globalists, indigenous rights advocates, feminists, Marxists, labor, etc.—the new movement was united by commitment to the inseparably linked values of social justice and democracy classically conceived and by its determination to confront capital on a global scale. The basic human instinct for genuine freedom, one that takes people beyond the “devil's gift,” was not extinguished. History, it turns out, has not ended after all. Z
Paul Street is research director at the Chicago Urban League. His articles have appeared in Z Magazine, Monthly Review, and the Jounral of American Ethnic History.