Cycling through Reading or Kazakhstan: otherness is not what it seems

Rape in India, protest in China, manufacturing conferences in Manchester - we find it hard not to think in the categories of "first" and "third" worlds. But look elsewhere for the important differences

Julian Sayarer
11 January 2013

The protests in India represent an exciting moment in world politics, one that in many ways has already happened in economic terms. The G8 became the G20, the budget surplus of historically poor countries now subsidises the deficits of the historically wealthy, demand for commodities in developing economies kept prices high where the normal drop-off would have lowered prices and helped developed economies piggy-back their way out of recessions. The world is getting less equal in as much as fewer people are controlling more wealth, however, those fewer people now represent a greater diversity of ethnicities. The strength of corporations like India’s Tata and China’s Sinopec, the world’s richest man as Mexican-Lebanese Carlos Slim, and the spending power of the Qataris are just a handful of challenges to old ideas of core and periphery. The icons of poverty are also spreading into new territories, as witnessed in the growing number of US and UK families surviving on food parcels. It remains to be seen whether cosmetic diversity among the rich will provide a stronger foundation for unjust global economies, or a breaking down of barriers that paves the way to more equitable versions. 

As significant as the feminist component of India’s women’s rights protests is the implicit statement that Indians demand a more civilised (for a moment we must strip the expression ‘civilised’ of its western, imperial assumptions) society, one where the rule of law and the rights of human beings prevails over a Hobbesian nasty, brutish, short. The demonstrations for women’s rights tap the same vein of frustration that grows impatient with governmental failings and police corruption. From another perspective, the movement also carries echoes of the UK decision to stop giving aid to the one-time prize asset in our empire. Hundreds of millions of Indians still face horrendous poverty and injustice, however, they are a country possessed of enough monetary wealth that UK taxpayers cannot be seen as the most obvious or most effective funders of aid efforts.

At the same time these developments hold exciting consequences for the UK and other ‘first world’ societies. (Henceforth I shan’t italicise ‘first world’ or any similar concepts, but assume that the questioning tone remains.) In everyday political conversation, the type that take place in pubs rather than universities, I’m always struck by the willingness with which people define the virtues of UK society through negative comparisons elsewhere. Women’s rights in the first world are championed by invoking the repression of women in Saudi Arabia, poverty in the first world is played down by invoking ideas of destitution “in Africa” (the world’s biggest country), political freedom is championed through the (incorrect) idea that Chinese people are afraid to whisper about politics when they eat an evening meal together. The (unreported) existence of sporadic anti-authority unrest in China, which since the Boxer Rebellion has had a solid place in Chinese culture, would shatter the black box in which we understand of the Chinese. The myth of an extremely docile and fearful Chinese population is of considerable service to westerners; it takes our own passive temerity and justifies it with the idea that a people elsewhere are more timorous and passive than we. As such, unrest by the Chinese is not documented in any capacity that might be relevant to western frustrations, but only in an Uyghur, Tibetan or recently an anti-Japanese sense. It’s hard to move beyond these narrow understandings of China because it’s hard to break out of either Google's filter bubble or the dominant editorial narratives of mainstream media, both of which are reliably behind most curves.

Not only do these assumptions rely on essentialised and misleading understandings of other cultures, they’re all inherently negative, they fear a worse world than our own rather than demanding a better one. The effects can work in two ways, instilling a complacent satisfaction in the ascendant culture and an apathetic inferiority complex in the subordinate. Conversations I have about politics in Turkey, my second nation, are often littered with the resigned lament that “we’re like this”. This attitude breeds tolerance for high level government corruption, police brutality, a disregard for environmental hazards and labour laws, and a whole raft of injustices that could only be meted out on populations suffering a chronic lack of self esteem. To momentarily resurrect some classic Marxism, you sense that the downtrodden of the first world accept their injustices by invoking a greater suffering in the third, while the downtrodden of the third accept their injustices through the myth that there is a world in which such things don’t happen, they just didn’t happen to be born there. What is plain from both sides is that the paradigm of a first and a third world primarily benefits a powerful class that exists and benefits the few in both types of country.

The Indian protests are also proving helpful in that they cannot be raised without discussing this mentality of our world and theirs, and the attendant ideas of rich and poor countries. In working as a writer I have travelled almost exclusively by bicycle, riding through political cultures ranging from the American deep south to central Asia and China. As well as providing insight into how to lead a simple and emotionally fulfilled life, these experiences have instilled in me a mentality that tends to strip away the social connotations attached to the material. When you travel by bicycle, life becomes little more than a process of transport, feeding and shelter. Cycling through Reading this Autumn I stayed with a family who gave me a bed for the night and packed me off with food for the road. Cycling through the Kazakh steppe in 2009 I stayed with a family who gave me a bed for the night and packed me off with food for the road. The house in the Home Counties was larger, but apart from that the greatest difference, and certainly the main difference in its monetary value was that the Reading property is integrated into the world’s monetary economy in a way that the Kazakh house was not. The resultant monetary wealth of the Reading homeowners is greater than that of the Kazakh homeowners, and yet this is rendered irrelevant by the fact that the Reading family want and need their home more than the financial number attached to it. Their interest in the monetary economy stems no further than its ability to provide them with that home. Similarly both families led lives that, although remarkably different in detail, were almost identical in basic aims and functions.

This leads to the completely accepted and yet overwhelmingly under documented fact that wealth and poverty is relative; the spectre of the world economy that provides their (in terms of global averages) high financial number has impoverished the Reading household to a greater extent than the Kazakh household have been impoverished by a low number in a system that doesn’t concern them. Although their number is far higher than their Kazakh counterparts, the system to which that financial value belongs has left the Britons feeling poor rather than rich. Most journalists, even those warning us valiantly against a holier-than-thou handling of the Indian rape affair, are still unable to err from the basic precept that we are a rich country and India a poor one, implicit recognition of the aforementioned monetary economy. “No Money – No Crisis” was a popular T-shirt slogan in 2009 Kazakhstan, and genuinely shaking off western a priori presumptions of rank by monetary wealth is a prerequisite of understanding world affairs as they actually occur. The need for more anthropology in our politics is heartbreakingly obvious.

To look at the material circumstances of poor countries I have experienced, the fundamental differences - and certainly the physical differences - have little to do with financial wealth at all. The most noticeable superiorities of a western society are generally cleaner streets, better cultures of road safety (roads themselves defy many popular assumptions, and rich countries often have roads far inferior to many poor ones, compare tarmac on Californian and Chinese highways and the Chinese would win every time), higher penalties against pollution and a higher regard for environmental health, and a greater incidence of public space and public arts. There would, of course, also be a greater culture of workers rights, holiday and sick pay. The idea that the first world is a world that is rich by virtue of material or monetary standing is skewed, on the contrary, the things that define and represent quality in a first world country are all essentially non-monetary and humanist in nature, and were created not by material wealth but by the labours of that decidedly non-monetary institution - civil society.

This presents an odd but not entirely unsurprising paradox; that wealth is best expressed as a disregard for monetary considerations and an assumption of more meaningful priorities. The NHS costs UK households around £4000 each year and yet, judging by overwhelming support, seems to have left UK citizens feeling richer as a society, highly tolerant of even the inefficiencies within the NHS. It is a pernicious feature of the austerity debate that we now seek a monetary wealth that disregards all other forms of wealth, the other forms being far more useful to human existence. Ironically enough, the mantra of financialisation destroys the only forms of wealth on which a distinction of first and third world could be premised, a money-can't-buy-you-happiness idea of affluenza only scratches the surface of how deep this thinking has permeated our collective conscience.

Finally, the notion of a two-tier world reminded me of a recent discussion about textile industries returning from China to Manchester. At one level the reaction was positive, a celebration of UK manufacturing showing that our nation of makers will one day be resurgent. On the other hand, a more sceptical interpretation was that of the UK as a market for low-skilled labour, a place still mired in the nineteenth-century inequalities that led Marx to write about surplus value using the experience of spinners in Manchester. It would be rash to dismiss either position wholesale, however, I’m inclined to agree moreso with the former. First off, and if only from time-saving and environmental perspectives, a productive society should seek to minimise the inefficiencies of transporting goods half way across the world. Secondly, there is arguably more meaning to be had from producing a tangible product in a manufacturing context than in a service-sector job asking five hundred customers a day if they want to buy a half price kit-kat with their copy of The Times

Last of all, to disapprove of basic manufacturing taking place in the UK presents the same snobbery that has arisen in the debate of rape in India, the false idea of a first world that has moved beyond the abuses and ignominies of history, and a third world where such things were always destined to happen. Rape is not an inevitable part of any culture, and westerners can learn from widespread Indian outrage against it. Similarly, the Chinese do not come out of the womb with either talent or predisposition for spinning yarn on behalf of western consumers. Dehumanising work in a Chinese factory should be no more tolerable than dehumanising work in a British one, it’s a warped form of leftism that would reason otherwise. The protests in India will hopefully provide part of a turning point for that country, but also help inform the slow change in our broader self-perception, our understanding of what it means to be citizens of different nations on the same earth.

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