New Internationalist

Insecure lives

Issue 376

For some, security is a healthy stock portfolio and life in a gate-guarded community. For others, it is a source of clean water and enough to eat. Jeremy Seabrook measures the distance and traces the connection.

The belief that intensifying the mechanisms of surveillance at home and delivering engines of annihilation abroad will increase security is a cruel delusion. Such a narrow idea of ‘security’ is likely to produce an effect the reverse of that intended. Insecurity is written into the whole way of life throughout the industrialized world. It shapes the fate of all. Insecurity attends the very idea of a globalized world economy. It has become a matter of high principle that no-one on earth should be secure in their livelihood, social function or income. They say ‘the world doesn’t owe us a living’. We have to find our own place in the global economy. In pursuit of wealth, the world’s people have been stirred in epic uprootings and migrations, from farm, field and village to town and city, from country to country and continent to continent. The migrant is the characteristic figure of our time, evicted from self-reliance, and impelled by insecurity to leave their home-place and wander in search of a private accommodation with global forces which they can barely comprehend. In the US alone, according to the 2001 census, more than 30 million people – over 11 per cent of the total population – were not born there.

In all countries transnational entities set up their operations one day only to flee the next in the face of rising costs, labour unrest or falling sales. Governments offer the labour of their people in an auction at rates frequently below subsistence. Even in the most privileged of places, people can arrive at work one fine morning to find their name removed from the office door, their desk cleared and, if they are lucky, perhaps a compensatory cheque. Whole industries fall into ruin: rust belts are abandoned; textile factories are turned into luxury flats; warehouses become studios and offices. Inner-cities decay, and people are moved on, a perpetual caravan of refugees, evictees, oustees of development. Even the advantaged discover we are all economic migrants, treading uncertain paths to unknown destinations.

Dissatisfaction guaranteed

Economic insecurity is something for which the vast deployment of an expanding security industry has no remedy. Nor does it seek one. Insecurity is an indispensable part of the ideology of wealth-creation. Only the goad of uncertainty, it is believed, will prevent people from falling into a lazy contentment. Only insecurity will keep them on their toes, and forestall the appalling possibility that they might declare their needs satisfied. We depend on an economy which delivers ever more subtle variants of precariousness.

The truth is, basic needs are easily answerable. The resources to eliminate hunger, to provide safe drinking water, adequate nutrition, shelter and health are readily within reach. The hungry Adivasi in Chattisgarh, the uprooted peasant of Chiapas, the disemployed factory worker in São Paulo and the landless of Minas Gerais; the evicted slum dweller of Dhaka, the stricken indigene of Kalimantan, the refugee in Gaza, the indebted employee in Detroit and the addict in Glasgow: all of these people want the same thing. They want a simple, secure sufficiency, a moment of peace and safety in which to bring up their children.

But this they cannot have, for it interferes with the sacred mysteries of wealth-creation. We are in the presence of strange cults, of as bizarre a savagery as any devised by human society. ‘Give me neither riches nor poverty,’ sang the prophet, ‘but enough for my sustenance.’ But enough is blasphemy against the compulsions of more. This dynamic creates the monstrous insecurities of both excess and inadequacy – the root of much contemporary violence.

The gilded insecurity of the rich is inextricable from the raw, emaciated unsafety of the poor. Such things are indivisible. The intensification of existing global relationships as a way out for either is an endeavour of despair, increasing the chances of a recurrence of events like 9/11. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes place in one of the few places in the world where a first world lifestyle is in direct competition with third-world poverty – dramatizing the differential importance attached to human lives, social injustice and above all, mutual insecurity.

The gilded insecurity of the rich is inextricable from the raw, emaciated unsafety of the poor

The rich must defend their unstable advantage while the poor struggle for a hazardous survival. One’s identity as an American, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, obscures perceptions of the material inequalities which grow and divide us more each day. Although cultural and religious antagonisms are not going to be eliminated by greater fairness, they will certainly be exacerbated by the unstoppable growth of inequality and social injustice.

Innner security

Security means people competent to define and answer their own needs, in the locations where they live, free from exploitation, violence and persecution. Security comes from within – from within countries and from within individuals. The kind of ‘security’ invoked by the leaders of the US and its coalition is as illusory as that of India or Bangladesh, both of which claim to have achieved ‘food security’, even though millions of individual people experience daily uncertainty as to whether they will satisfy the nutritional requirements of their bodies.

At a deeper level, of course, we all long for a security that is impossible: ageing, sickness, loss and death confront our desire for permanence and predictability. It is usually the function of human cultures to assuage this contradiction, to offer consolation and comfort for our dereliction in a universe in which time will defeat us all in the end. No longer. Insecurity, existential as well as social, is now somebody else’s business opportunity. No society on earth can remedy existential wrongs, but societies may exist which seek to make these unalterable afflictions more bearable, instead of treating them as a source of profit for the clever and enterprising.

It is late in the night in Mumbai. On a footpath, three children are sleeping. A little boy lies facing his sister, their feet entwined, their heads touching, dark flowers on the pavement. In the space between them a child of about two is sleeping, utterly secure in the fragile chamber formed by their tiny defenceless bodies.

Jeremy Seabrook is a frequent contributor to the New Internationalist. His most recent book is Consuming Cultures: Globalization and Local Lives (available from NI Shop)

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