A soundbite for the poor

How should civil society convey the countless loopholes, miseries and quiet victories of development in this digital era of time-compressed argument and ideological insinuation?
Ivan Briscoe
12 October 2010

The resurrection of John Maynard Keynes did not save him from being entombed once again. Dedicating his first term to the cause of social welfare has not prevented the Spanish prime minister from kindling a bonfire of his reforms. Sooner than anyone could have predicted, more rudely than in Hamelin, the state that rode back in 2008 has been shown the road out of town.

How the battle to reverse the Keynesian drift was played and won is central to this story. One quote chosen from the Washington Monthly by Mike Edwards, in his speech to the recent Hivos conference in the Hague, underlined the scale of the enterprise: “The new game in town is to dominate the entire intellectual environment in which decisions are made.”

Intellectual is perhaps an ambitious word to describe a process thrust along by the cable news cycle, panic selling, Greece and the Tea Party. But the issue of how to respond is where Edwards and his audience of grassroots NGOs and activists showed signs of differing. Since the latter’s cherished values are those of dignity, inclusion and equality, spanning rich and poor nations, is the best method to promote them that of the opponents or through dialogue? Must they campaign by soundbite and the “fog of ideology”, as Edwards put it, or should they rely on softer ways to convey the complexity of social experience and possibilities of mutual understanding?.

The call is a hard one to make, and Edwards is right to dwell upon it, and ask civil society to meditate on how best to press its case. For you do not need look far anymore to find the intrusions of market dogma. The outgoing Brazilian president, bestriding his country, wishes to hand over to a loyal ally to proceed with a process of national development watched over by a strong and capable state.

Forgive the hyperbole. But is it less objective that the following, pulled from an article published in The New York Times after Dilma Rousseff’s first round victory on October 3rd? “Some analysts and foreign investors have expressed concern that Ms. Rousseff’s leftist background could cause her to steer the country left and give the state more control over the economy."

Most readers would glide through the sentence without a thought. But it is hard to know where to begin in dissecting the remark’s sediments of assumed co-belief with the reader, its knowing selection of unnamed “analysts”, and above all, the disapproval of an imminent left-wing death-ride. None of this would perturb Brazil, of course, nor its Latin American allies, even those rightists steering towards the very same statist reefs (take Colombia, for instance). China and India do not seem about to burn their bureaucracies. The African miracles, like Rwanda, also seem to like a command structure overseeing the drive to growth, and are appreciated for it by some analysts and foreign investors.

Yet just as the state reassumes a sound managerial reputation in the developing world, it faces an avalanche of disdain in the North. It is much more than deficit-cutting. Its roots are more than full-spectrum media manipulation. When Britain’s new centre-right government announced new income limits on child benefit, it insisted that it acted on the grounds of fairness. The longer horizon, however, would suggest that the move will serve to underline a deeper trend, in which the state and its welfare is destined primarily for the poor and the migrants; not the overworked, mortgaged, rattled and insecure middle class, who could come to see their taxes more and more as robbery.

The vices of complexity

Not all civil society may care that much whether the state prospers anyway. To judge from the work in the developing world carried out by Hivos' NGO partners, the states in Iran or Nicaragua manipulate language and stir divisiveness with the same cunning as the free market fog. “In Nicaragua today there are posters and billboards of President Daniel Ortega all over the country declaring ‘Forward Progress with the poor of the world!’ when ironically he is marginalizing the poorest and most vulnerable parts of society: Nicaraguan women.” The statement, in a report on the abortion law of 2006 by Katherine Kruk, resonates across numerous other lands.

Perhaps it is best for civil society to bide its time. The surge in social networking media could be taken as a sign that the grassroots organizations are staking out new powers under the radar of the state and soundbite media. Joseph S. Nye, inventor of the concept of “soft power”, interprets these new technologies as the start of a “networked world of citizen diplomacy”, an extraordinary source of authentic exchanges across the globe. If Nye is right, it could be that the power of market ideology and the new right is a last flash of the dying television age. As the G-20 wilts, Facebook takes over.

But the complex issue of how these global exchanges are navigated and filtered remains a central problem. Everyone who is digitally connected knows the mental fatigue of information overload. For civil society, intent on conveying the countless loopholes, miseries and quiet victories of development – the peasants in global markets, the dialogue between sworn ethnic enemies, or the doldrums of a giant Southern metropolis – any simplification is incredibly hard to achieve.

And why should it even be aimed for? Economic growth remains a poor marker of human satisfaction. Polls of perceptions of happiness appear skewed. The conference was told how a nation’s moves up the Human Development Index, a vastly superior marker of real progress, also go hand-in-hand with grave ecological damage (the exception is Cuba). A perfect balance between multiple desirables would seem almost impossible.

Even bothering to develop or merely civilize seemed to the philosopher Theodor Adorno a questionable move: “No science has yet explored the inferno in which were forged the deformations that later emerge to daylight as cheerfulness, openness, sociability, successful adaptation to the inevitable, an equable, practical frame of mind."

If this is the deep psycho-history of development, then to inhabit the world of lived experience and incremental progress, where differences are to be sorted out by talking and reconciling, remains a noble endeavour – and an underpaid one. But the emphatic nature of the current ideological crusade cannot be ignored. This is an era of time-compressed argument and ideological insinuation, where a US President trying to becalm the world and his own people is attacked for being “cerebral”. For thinking.

The work of Paul Krugman, or Ha-Joon Chang in his penetrating recent book on capitalism, show the route to taking on some of the half-truths of capitalism. It might not be possible to capture so succinctly the complexities of living and dying in the developing world. But as the axe falls on welfare and aid, or the gates close on immigrants, a few sharp ideas and rebuttals will be essential.

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