Job creation is not always a better solution to poverty than welfare spending.
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Earlier this month, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) released its important World Employment Social Outlook report for 2016. There was little press coverage. The title is bureaucratic and boring. How does one make news from this drabness? One of the most significant findings is that poverty rates have now declined. The ILO finds that this is because of the immense gains in China and in parts of Latin America—notably Brazil. In parts of Africa and in other regions of Asia—including India—“poverty remains stubbornly high.” Meanwhile, those who have skipped above the poverty line “continue to live on just a few dollars per day, often with limited access to essential services and social protection.” Despite the optimism from the data, the ILO remains cautious. Matters are no-where near celebration. Economic slowdown in China and the coup in Brazil are indicators that the slide backwards is possible.
Three barriers prevent—according to the ILO—any significant motion against poverty. First, most countries in the Global South continue to rely upon the export of raw materials, whose extraction and transportation increases growth rates but does little for the population as a whole. In these countries, the ILO notes, “economic growth actually seems to have exacerbated poverty.” A fitting example is Nigeria. Second, the bugbear of income inequality “has tended to dampen growth and its impact on poverty reduction.” As the rich devour the gains of production, and as they remain on tax strike, there are fewer resources to put towards poverty alleviation. The Central African Republic has one of the highest rates of inequality and is virtually at the bottom of the human development tables. Finally, widespread corruption and “limited worker rights” prevents the implementation of policies to reduce poverty. Democracy withers in the face of corruption and a disorganized population.
Data from the ILO and the World Bank shows that insecurity defines the life of the world’s peoples. Billions of people live on less than $3.01 per day – the standard used to define the poverty line. Those billions who live just above that number are also desperate and vulnerable. No salvation seems evident from government. The promises of social welfare are now made with caution – politicians know that there is simply not enough money in the coffers that they could move from military spending to social spending. They would be called treasonous if they made such a shift in the priorities of their countries. Precious resources are used to buy arms. During his trip to Vietnam, for instance, President Obama allowed that poor country to fall into its own arms race, the last thing it needs. But this was hailed as progress.
All politicians say that job creation is a better solution to poverty than welfare spending. But these are empty words. Jobs are simply not being created. Although few politicians say so directly, capitalism displaces jobs by making each worker more productive and integrating workers to machines. Why hire a teller in a bank, when an ATM can do the job? It is depressing in grocery stores to see the clerks encourage customers to use the self-checkout option. They are putting themselves out of a job.
No wonder that from Egypt to India to Turkey arrives a new phenomenon to take charge of the crisis. Egypt’s Abdel-Fateh al-Sisi, India’s Narendra Modi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are powerful examples of free market, authoritarian populism. These men are said to be able to solve all problems—to take a stagnant economy and make it purr, to take joblessness by the throat and make it cough out jobs. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, an old lady from the countryside sells me a facsimile of Sisi’s identity card. Under profession it says, “Savior of Egypt.” These men have no time for arguments. Democracy is given lip service. It is an impediment to their ambitions. They value action. They have nations to save.
Older ideas of austerity take root. It is not for economic growth alone. That would be too narrow, too closely identified with the blue suits of the bankers. The austerity of the free market, authoritarian populists is for the Nation. The people must suffer so that their Nation can thrive. Patriotism is the incentive for economic activity, not merely the animal spirits of capitalism. But this patriotism is not to be shared. Its benefits will be channeled to the large business houses, which are linked to the political parties of the strong leaders. Impediments to progress must be cast aside at any cost. The long arm of the law, short of outright military dictatorship, can smash workers’ protests, political protests and arrest critical journalists for sedition. Violence against democracy is justified as the mechanism to create jobs. Justification for military rule has made a comeback. The rhetoric of counter-terrorism and of social instability has allowed the army to leave the barracks from Egypt to Thailand – with liberal elites taking refuge in the Generals. Critics ruin the country’s brand, it is said, and they deter investment. Dissent is blamed for poverty. It must wear that cross.
Human Rights Watch has a new report out on this attack on democracy in India. It is called Stifling Dissent: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in India (May 2016). The report covers the most egregious examples of undemocratic action by the State. There is the use of colonial-era sedition laws against student activists and defamation laws against journalists, hate speech laws against artists and information technology laws against professors. The range of legal methods used by the central and state governments to muzzle dissent of any kind of striking. In 1988, the Indian Supreme Court warned that politicians who “scent danger in every hostile point of view” should not use the architecture of state violence to protect themselves. That prescient phrase – scenting danger – has now come to define politics in countries such as Egypt, India and Turkey. No journalist or student is safe from prosecution. Any gesture against the political class is met not with argument but with the gallows. What is new here is not the muzzle but its tightness. The crackdown is deeper, more threatening. It skirts at the edge of fascism.
Turkey’s celebrated author Orhan Pamuk is bewildered by how ordinary satirists, teenagers and journalists have been hustled before the courts on charges of sedition. Since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became president in 2014, almost two thousand cases have been brought for insulting him. “This has nothing to do with insulting the president,” said Pamuk. “This is only about silencing political opposition. This is about intimidating people and scaring the country so nobody would criticize the government.” Much the same explanation stands for the sensitivity of India’s Narendra Modi and Egypt’s Abdel-Fateh al-Sisi. These are men who traffic on machismo. Their jails are filled with people who criticize them. They personally are the answer to the Nation’s problems; they are therefore immune from criticism.
Human Rights Watch’s report argues that dissent is being stifled in India “because of a combination of overbroad laws, an inefficient criminal justice system and lack of judisprudential consistency.” The report says little about the character of the crackdown: it is against the Left, against the journalists, against anyone who wants to challenge the consensus that the strong leader wishes to establish. In Turkey the State has gone after those who want to raise questions about their government’s war on the Kurds or its involvement in Syria – forbidden topics in a country convulsed by the President’s tantrums. There are politics here, not merely problems in the judiciary and the police.
Such reports as come from Human Rights Watch are silent on the politics of the strong leaders (Modi, Erdoğan, Sisi), who have cultivated a political base for their free market, populist authoritarianism. These leaders have no answer to the economic trials of their countries, where decent jobs are hard to find and where poverty rates creep upwards. They will not go after corruption or sanctify unions – the two mechanisms suggested by the ILO. For them, the answer to economic troubles is their virility. Imprisonment for their rivals is not – to their mind – antithetical to democracy or economy. Their kind of democracy insists upon adulation of the leader, who can do no wrong. Even if the leader cannot solve the pressing economic and social problems, it is this leader’s very existence that is the answer to them.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and the forthcoming The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.