A pretence of progress


The welfare state – in Britain and all the Western world – was after 1945 an incarnation of the politics of repentance for an ideology that had reduced a continent to ruin. Racism, for centuries the animating principle of European empires, had been returned in the mid-20th century to the continent that had been pleased to call itself the cradle, not simply of one civilization, but of Civilization itself. After the time of bones and ashes, Europe needed to cleanse itself of the taint of racism, and present itself as the supreme model of humanitarian values.

Never Again: the welfare state was a pledge that the malignant fantasy that had laid waste much of Europe would be vanquished for ever; wild flowers would burst through the concrete sites of grief and desolation that scarred the continent. The living would no longer be left to make their own individual accommodation with the forces of wealth and power; they would be sheltered by universal welfare, available at the point of need, for which no justification would be required.

On the welfare state the whole structure of post-War society depended. Since economic breakdown had caused ruin in Germany, it was in the economic arena that redemption was sought; economic miracles duly appeared. Of all institutions for human salvation, it might have been thought the economic was the least promising. But there it was: ‘the economy’, euphemism for capitalism, became the arena where rehabilitation from European barbarism would occur.

First came the security of the people: defence against the economic cycle – unemployment, poverty wages and debt – and against the vicissitudes of life – sickness, ageing and loss. The 1948 National Assistance Act began: ‘The Poor Law shall cease to exist…’ – words that lifted from millions the shadow of the workhouse, humiliation, fear of destitution. It was indeed a liberation; and if sensitive ears detected a grumble of discontent that the working classes would have all their teeth pulled for the sake of free dentures, these were noises-off in the restrained jubilation of the age of true austerity.

Tolerance and greater diversity offered new experiences to a dour, monochrome, patriarchal Britain; social liberation was in the air

On this foundation the ‘affluent society’, in the words of J K Galbraith, was constructed. This brought within reach of a majority a modest prosperity and small items of undreamed-of luxury. That such a benign development might take on a life of its own and become florid consumerism did not disturb the comfort of people newly enfranchised by more than mere electoral freedoms. The marriage of welfare with prosperity appeared a permanent settlement between capital and labour. That settlements in human affairs are rarely permanent occurred to few in the euphoria of the time. Tolerance and greater diversity offered new experiences to a dour, monochrome, patriarchal Britain; social liberation was in the air.

Spreading inequality

Continuously rising income seemed, for a season, unstoppable. The 1960s marked the zenith of optimism. The great carnival of youth, the mobility, leisure and entertainment industries were accompanied by increased public expenditure on higher education, public administration, slum clearance and social work; partly to assist the laggards of progress to join a mainstream which foresaw a future of perpetual economic growth. A more socially liberal regime decriminalized homosexuality and attempted suicide, eased divorce laws, facilitated contraception and abolished capital punishment.

There were setbacks in this march of progress. In the 1970s, the rise in oil prices and assertiveness of organized labour, which culminated in the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978-79, called into question a settlement which those who disputed it believed could be undone by a good dose of unemployment or another war. With the coming of Margaret Thatcher, they got both. Her devotion to dissolving the more equal partnership between workers and employers led not only to an attack upon the trade unions but also to the demolition of the very industrial base out of which their strength had grown. Defeat of the miners in 1984 gave any ‘settlement’ its quietus. The Labour Party seemed a dwindling force, as its ghost-army of workers, redundant or retired, melted away.

But Labour, resilient and tenacious, re-invented itself. New Labour renewed – in an altered context in which even the memory of the industrial revolution had been effaced – the compact between wealth and welfare. By this time that project was between unequal partners. New Labour invested in health and education, but was extremely permissive about private wealth, which soared and demonstrated a formidable capacity to breed. Welfare was now avowedly dependent upon a wealth-creationism that had more than a whiff of mysticism. But the society which resulted from this patched-up alliance led to greater diversity and deepening tolerance, supposed to be a defining quality of the British.

Racism, which had for centuries guided our imperial relationship with the world and ‘lesser peoples’, was outlawed. Further social reform lowered the age of consent and the rights of alternative sexualities were recognized. Women, whose lives had been spent in carceral domesticity for generations, now constituted half the workforce. People with disability, formerly dependent upon organizations like the Crutch and Kindness League, were no longer passive recipients of charity. All these groups were assisted by enhanced concern with ‘equalities’ – in the plural.

New Labour invested in health and education, but was extremely permissive about private wealth, which demonstrated a formidable capacity to breed

The problem was that ‘progressives’ overlooked the great psychic wound caused by eradication of the making of useful, necessary things in the industrial division of labour of Britain. To this was added an apparent indifference to inequality – in the singular – exacerbated by the freedom of the already rich to accumulate ever greater (and concealed) wealth.

Labour’s championing of the social cause of ethnic minorities, women, people with disability and the LGBT community ensured these groups were more equitably represented among the successful in society. But the majority remained victims of worsening economic inequality.

This inequality was not amenable to government intervention, the more so since globalism had not only set the people of one country in competition with one another, but had drawn the whole world into an increasingly specialized division of labour. The limited presence of a minority that rose, socially and economically, to join the ranks of people now pejoratively described as a ‘liberal elite’ had the effect, not of reducing inequality, but of spreading social injustice more fairly.

Rage of the ‘left-behind’

The more equitable distribution of unfairness is not a slogan to win elections or to emblazon on banners of progress. It is not a slogan at all. In fact, rigorous silence was maintained over this development. The modest success of some members of disadvantaged groups only concealed the obvious. But that obvious has now become clear to the newly awakened ‘working class’ of Britain, as of the US, a group hitherto assumed sufficiently drowsy with consumerism not to have noticed what was happening behind their backs. The ‘angry white men’, the ‘rage of the left-behind’ have joined with the discreet self-interest of the very rich in an attack upon a political ‘establishment’ and its love of ‘political correctness’ in furthering the careers of the previously deprived. For this was not simply a ‘rust-belt’ revolt, either in Brexit or the Trump ascendancy. The waning of the US working classes had been so complete that it had ceased to exist in the global media. It had miraculously become ‘middle-class’, a classification designed to make them realize how lucky they were. The principal beneficiaries of their enlistment in the politics of malignant nostalgia have been the very rich, who are happy to make common cause with their admirers, people whom they serve as fantasy role-models.

The ‘liberal elite’ have become hate-figures. But they, too, have served a less noble purpose than their defence of minorities would have us believe. Their stand against racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia and all the other demonology of a now waning orthodoxy has dominated political discourse for so long that these laudable, humane views are identified, not with advocates for the downtrodden, but with the ruling classes of the world; a role these liberal elitists (if that is what they are) were eager to accept. In other words, they formed a front line, behind which corrosive social inequities flourished.

So when people who have lost their function in the creative work of society observe conspicuous wealth in which they have no part, and rise up against those they see as agents of their dispossession, they turn upon the advocates of tolerance, social liberalism, humanity and kindness – ‘the people we are’, or were supposed to be – who shun bigotry, violence and hatred.

Behind the façade of liberal elitism stand, in shadowy concealment, the truly opulent, owners of fabulous fortunes, godlike beings whose allegiance is to no country, but to the jurisdiction or haven which protects their wealth from scrutiny. This accumulation of treasures is not visible as a malignant force to the dimming eye of the unprivileged, the socially downwardly mobile, former workers of the world. Quite the opposite: as labour was degraded, deference passed to those who manipulate fortunes, the possessing classes who parade their iconography of symbols of privilege in real estate, yachts, aircraft, jewels, gold and, above all, in money-power.

While the ‘liberal elite’ were performing their rites of progress, the true wielders of power were picking away at the social fabric, undoing the work of which progressives were so proud

While the ‘liberal elite’ or the ‘metropolitan bubble’ were performing their rites of progress, the true wielders of power were picking away at the social fabric, undoing the work of which progressives were so proud. The welfare state is being dismantled; the prosperity that depended on it eroded by years of declining real income; while ethnic minorities, women, lesbians and gays, and people with disability are openly disparaged by those whose supremacy permits them to ridicule any pretence of ‘progress’, which has proved more volatile than anyone had dreamed.

Instruments of disfranchisement

It seems, in this complex tragic-comedy, that everyone has had an opaque role, undisclosed to them. Passionate commitment to humanitarian ‘values’ has veiled the immodesty of those who were most advantaged by this late and subtle capitalist restoration. People have seen livelihoods abolished, communities ruined; have watched heroin, hopelessness and hate invade familiar small towns, suburbs and inner-cities, while welfare no longer provides security against destitution. But they see the instruments of their disfranchisement, not in global celebrities, CEOs of transnational corporations, or wizards of banking and finance, but in the now-despised liberals who officially presided over the era of globalism; for this spirited away, as if by sorcery, their culture and way of life, even as their skills were floated off to remote places of industrial exploitation, the names of which are only echoes of forgotten geography lessons.

The true owners of wealth and power have returned to claim their rightful property, evicting an impotently liberal tenant whose franchise is now at an end. These wreckers of the security of the people know that social peace and internal harmony have, for three generations, been guaranteed by the welfare state; they are also aware of what sombre consequences may follow the dismantling of this fragile, elegant edifice. For behind the tottering structures, designed by progressives to banish the spectre of racism from Europe, an old ideology is rising from its shallow grave, clad once more in the garb of springtime and renewal. Those who imagined themselves midwives of a better world see re-emerging the shape of an older, worse one, and regression to the nationalisms, xenophobia and intolerance of difference which the reforms of 1945 were to have laid to rest for ever. The earlier vow ‘Never Again’ resounds through the echo-chamber of time, heard anew, bitter and mocking, as ‘Semper Idem – always the same.’

Jeremy Seabrook’s latest book, The Song of the Shirt, (Hurst, London and Navayana, New Delhi) is out now. He is currently working on a book about orphans.

Migration and the European push-factor

Oxford Street London

London's Oxford Street: Western consumerism at its most extreme. Giulio Jiang under a Creative Commons Licence

In the wake of the multiple tragedies and horror stories arising from the flight of people seeking escape from war, persecution and poverty, European leaders now say they will work with representatives of African and Middle Eastern countries to ensure prosperity and well-being, which will make it unnecessary for people to leave their native lands.

While freely using dehumanizing terminology for home consumption, (‘invasion’. ‘marauders’, ‘influx’, ‘menace to law and order’, ‘swarms’), international pieties demand the promise to increase aid and ensure an acceleration of development in the sites of misery from which hundreds of thousands have this year sought refuge in Europe.

With the urgent rhetoric of developmentalism, the ruling classes of Europe implicitly acknowledge their own miscalculation, when they so clamorously welcomed and underwrote globalization and all its consequences. For their rhapsodies on ‘global integration’ were a victory celebration over the Western way of life; and, boastful and incontinent, they projected its supremacy everywhere with uninhibited energy. Too late, the British government is now anxious to spread the message that Britain is not ‘a land of milk and honey’, and that the streets of London are not paved with gold. This represents a dramatic reversal of imagery the West has successfully exported in recent years.

Promises of an easy tomorrow

For it was not supposed to be like this. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the ‘unity’ of practically the whole world in commitment to a single global economic model, each country was expected to develop, much as the rich Western economies had done; provide growing wealth, opportunity and hope to the poor, to former victims of imperialism and more recently, to those oppressed by militarism, dictatorship and kleptocratic dynasties.

Economic growth would lead to the emergence of a vigorous and wealth-creating middle class, which would insist on the rule of law and establish a vibrant civil society to hold governments to account. The nations of the world would follow the pattern pioneered in the West, and would emerge – eventually – into the sunny uplands of peaceable plenty.

The clamour at the gates of privilege is no arbitrary assault on the citadels of civilization: it is, at least in part, a consequence of the relentless self-promotion of ‘our’ way of life

In order to reinforce the lesson that this model was as felicitous as it was inevitable, the West relentlessly poured into the eyes and ears of the world a gaudy, insistent iconography of what might be expected at the end of their arduous journey – a life of comfort and ease, images of wealth and luxury, all the most colourful products of its publicity and advertising industries which saturated the world with promises of an easy tomorrow. In the process, the West gave the impression that, in its own heartland, poverty had been abolished, want and scarcity overcome; even sorrow and loss had been ended and life expectancy indefinitely extended. Anyone who has even the most casual familiarity with poor people in the Global South must be aware of the overwhelming success of this fable: they simply do not believe that deprivation exists in the rich countries, and cannot understand why we are less than eager to share our good fortune with them.

In many of the countries in which ‘development’ was scheduled to take place, people saw only evictions, upheaval, violence and civil war, squalor and shortages and a growing gulf between rich and poor. The rewards proved elusive and slow to materialize – as people reached out for them, like the water which tormented Tantalus, these receded from their grasp. That it took 6 or 7 generations of industrial misery, as well as centuries of exploitation and spoliation of an imperial hinterland, for the people of the West to achieve their social and economic eminence, was elided in the window-dressing for export of Western consumerism.

Exuberant and self-confident after the eclipse of socialism, it seemed that triumphalism was justified towards a world in which the word ‘developing’ now meant only one thing – becoming like us, objects of emulation and envy. What could go wrong, when most countries on earth, with only one or two eccentric exceptions, were obediently embarked on a known journey towards the prosperity and self-fulfilment which existed, not in theory, not in an afterlife, but here and now on earth?

So confident had we become that we were the custodians of the only known pathway to a life of plenty, that we were unable to perceive how our understanding of the world, our easy elevation of our own values above those of all humanity, might cause anger, resentment, and even retaliatory violence, that it came as a great shock to learn that there were those who wished us ill, and did not see our colonizing endeavour as benign.

However unwarrantable and brutal the response of certain militants (not all of them Islamic) to this project, this seemed to justify the violence of our reaction: injured innocence readily lends to vengeance a sense of righteousness and to the use of overwhelming force aggrieved self-justification.

Preparing the ground

In spite of this, nothing impaired the conviction of the West that it alone was in possession of secular truths even more potent than any other-worldly revelation; and its resurrection of ‘liberal interventionism’ seemed an appropriate response; the toppling of dictators and preparation of the ground for democracy and the free market, even in such unlikely places as Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, later Libya. And if the success of these ventures was limited, or even counter-productive, we could still point – positively, until quite recently – to a world in movement, people ‘voting with their feet’, trudging against all odds to reach the shores of peace and plenty.

The best way to rescue the desperate from ‘people traffickers’ is to accommodate them according to the capacity and wealth of each country

Too late we have realized that this vast scattering of humanity has run out of control. War, continuing poverty, repression and social violence at home are not exactly the precursors of tomorrow’s affluence and contentment. The clamour at the gates of privilege is no arbitrary assault on the citadels of civilization: it is, at least in part, a consequence of the relentless self-promotion of ‘our’ way of life, the use of all the one-way conduits of communication to broadcast to the world the ‘ultimate’ universality of our values, customs and attainments.

Europe, North America, Australia have been complicit in upheavals and uprootings for which they are, not for the first time, now anxious to repudiate responsibility.

Globalization, far from being a steady and predictable process, known through our own experience, has become a vast and socially seismic means of destabilization.

It is also irreversible; and it is clear what needs to be done, even though Western leaders are reluctant to articulate it, obsessed as they are with ‘national’ boundaries which must be porous to goods and money but impermeable to people. First of all, a rapid re-evaluation of our reaction to these developments: the best way to rescue the desperate from ‘people traffickers’ is to accommodate them according to the capacity and wealth of each country. Secondly, the pieties about overseas aid, growth and development where at present, poverty and oppression remain, require realization with greater conviction and justice than anything we have hitherto seen. This cannot mean retention of the existing model of global growth and the laborious slow-motion ascent of people out of poverty. A far more proactive and redistributive order is needed; and if this means a more modest and sedate development in the places of privilege, that will be a small price to pay in the long run, for it is the best we can hope to salvage from the arrogance and unmindfulness of our own self-celebration and desire to re-make a whole world in our image.

21st-century coffin ships

Coffin ship detail

Detail from The Irish National Famine Monument showing a Coffin Ship. Sculpture by John Behan. Tanya Hart under a Creative Commons Licence

The Mediterranean has become one of the most poignant sites on earth. There, protagonists in the drama of global inequality play out their allotted parts; fugitives from the chill and clouded north of Europe seeking sun, sand and vitamin D, share the waters with the corpses of those fleeing war, poverty and persecution in their homeland, and for whom the Mediterranean is not playground but graveyard.

If this stirs echoes in the torpid public memory of Britain, this is because we have been here before; to be precise, during the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s. In 1846 and 1847, as famine devastated Ireland, tens of thousands of refugees from hunger embarked – sometimes at the expense of landlords who had evicted them from their small patch of earth – in unseaworthy boats to Quebec. Because of the fatalities during the voyage, these earned the name of ‘coffin ships’. In some of these vessels, a third of the ‘passengers’, weakened by malnutrition and disease – especially the ‘bloody flux’, or dysentery – died. Even some of the three quarters of a million who undertook the more modest crossing of the Irish Sea were dead on arrival in Liverpool. In spite of this, in 1846, 300,000 starvelings reached Liverpool, while an equal number arrived in the first half of 1847.

The Poor Law Removal Act was the response of the Whig government to the calamity, not so much of the famine, as of the spectral presence of so many emaciated and desperate refugees on the ‘mainland’, since all were, of course, then, nominally British subjects.

Masquerade of concern

Some dark sub-conscious memory perhaps prompts contemporary responses. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s eagerness to dispatch Royal Navy flagship, HMS Bulwark, to deter and possibly destroy the vessels of ‘people-traffickers’ and to help rescue migrants to Europe, was not matched by a readiness to entitle those rescued to claim asylum in Britain. A skin-deep ‘humanitarianism’ is adopted by official Europe, a pose for the cameras of posterity after centuries of racism, imperialism and suppression of peoples all over the world.

A skin-deep ‘humanitarianism’ is adopted by official Europe, a pose for the cameras of posterity after centuries of racism, imperialism and suppression of peoples all over the world

The masquerade of concern is not to be repeated by action; and it is left to the free press of Britain, notably to a columnist in Murdoch’s Sun, to express indifference to the fate of migrants, whom she likened – in an echo which Europe might have preferred to forget – to ‘cockroaches’, a term directly borrowed from the rhetoric of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The question inevitably arises: which of these views represents the ‘real’ Europe? Is it the circumscribed benevolence of its leaders, or the words of its far-right politicians, egged on by a virulent xenophobic press?

Europe has become accustomed to the loss of life of migrants (unhappy phrase, for the euphemism suggests the carelessness of those who squandered it), that the capsizing of yet another vessel sailing from Libya on 19 April, 96 kilometres from the Libyan coast, with the death of another 700 people, reminds the continent that it had scaled down its sea-rescue operations last year, in order to ‘deter’ migrants, for whom, it was claimed by Cameron and others, the knowledge they would be rescued served as a ‘pull’ factor towards Europe. The horror stories pile themselves one upon another like the body-bags in Lampedusa, Malta, Catania. Over the past 20 years at least 25,000 people have perished on the borders of the European Union. The spectacle in Brussels of the leaders of Europe standing in reverent silence for one minute, commemorating the dead (and celebrating the 28 survivors), was yet another tableau of hypocrisy over lives which they have never ceased to value (or price) at a lower rate than those of ‘their own’ people.

European governments – which had all agreed on the replacement of the more comprehensive Mare Nostrum programme by the cheaper Triton coastal patrols, were quick to whip themselves into a state of moral outrage, not against their own inhumanity, but against ‘traffickers’, ‘people smugglers’, dealers in human flesh on unfit vessels, for which many will have paid $2,000-$3,000 for a risky passage into the lands of plenty. Yet another ‘war’ was declared (after that on terror, poverty, drugs and other impalpable enemies) on ‘unscrupulous people traders’. This is disingenuous: not only has human trafficking, in one form or another, been at the heart of capitalist enterprise ever since the slave trade – indentured labour, the transportation of felons, the commerce in servants, the opportunistic use of migrant labour, have all been part and parcel of the rise of that prosperity, towards which today’s victims of war, poverty, misery, dictatorship, yearn.

Global exchange of peoples

The work of the West, whether by an excess of intervention, or hands-off indifference, whether by arms sales or selective support of tyrannical regimes, has been a major source of instability, violence and poverty, which impel flight from ‘countries’ which were made in the image of the destructive nationalisms of Europe. What is more, the latest incarnation of Western imperialism – globalization – is also ‘our’ responsibility: it was not initiated by the small farmers of Africa, the slum-dwellers of Dhaka or Lagos, the petty traders on the streets of Sao Paulo, the indigenous people of Guatemala, the displaced of Senegal or Ivory Coast. A whole world has been disturbed and set in movement, first by mercantilism, missionaries, colonial empires, economic ‘integration’, intensified now by globalism. Great movements of people, the mass transfer of humanity to alien places for purposes they could not foresee or fathom, have turned small-scale population shifts, as a result of natural disasters, drought, crop failure, earthquakes, local wars and the subjugation of one ethnic group by another, into a vast global exchange of peoples. There were, in 2013, 232 million migrants in the world, a process accelerated by new forms of instantaneous communication, which the West has employed to spread the gospel of its own success, its economic miracles and wonders of development. A relentless iconography of consumption now shines into every corner of the world, exhibiting to the dispossessed, the aspiring and the already well-to-do, lives of easeful happiness and unalloyed luxury.

It is easy to disavow our role in these Völkerwanderungen [periods of migration], unchosen upheavals and uprootings of humanity. The leaders of Europe harangue each other on the security of their borders, and assure their restive peoples of the ‘integrity’ of frontiers that will be guarded at all costs to all comers, except, naturally, those who will be of advantage to the economy. No such barriers against the movement of the privileged towards destinations of sea, sex and sun will be erected; unless it be the fear of encounters with the remains of the drowned on the tainted golden beaches of southern Europe.

The latest incarnation of Western imperialism – globalization – is also ‘our’ responsibility: it was not initiated by the small farmers of Africa, the indigenous people of Guatemala or the displaced of Senegal

It was not supposed to be like this: the export of ‘development’ was to have ensured that each country would accommodate its own aspirants to the better life. The turmoil in some countries, civil war, Ebola, religious intolerance, uneven development in others, the violence of breakneck growth, eviction of peoples from settled ways of life, rapid urbanization, have all contributed to the number of people who do not believe the Western model is replicable in their own country, and who therefore make for those places where, apparently, prosperity is everywhere. This is logical: they are only following to its origin the source of their own dispossession; and the physical displacement of people is everywhere accompanied by a vast psychic disturbance.

It is no use talking of fortresses, the integrity of borders, guarding frontiers: these citadels will be stormed somehow by the despairing and the ambitious alike. For as long as the proposition that the world’s poor will become less poor only if the global rich become much richer will have to be modified; so that when social hope, security and certainty of sufficiency for survival are guaranteed in places which people at the moment no longer wish to call home, the resistless tide of humanity towards the sites of good fortune (for who asked to be born in Monrovia or Freetown rather than in Monaco or Switzerland?) will, perhaps abate. Inequality is no longer ‘merely’ a domestic issue. It is indissolubly linked to migrations of hope and despair, to which no government has a half-adequate response.

The widening abyss between rich and poor

The question of ‘who we are’ is at the heart of contemporary European political discussion. In the light of the apparently unstoppable waves of migration, ‘foreign policy’ is no longer separable from its domestic equivalent. The Mediterranean is an emblem of the widening abyss between the rich and poor of the earth; and in its haunted waters, global privilege has a fateful tryst with the victims of the poverty to which it is intimately allied. In 2013, 51 million people were ‘forcibly displaced’. Of these, 16.7 million were refugees, 86 per cent of them housed in developing countries. For the first time, more than half of them were under the age of 18.

Inequality is no longer ‘merely’ a domestic issue. It is indissolubly linked to migrations of hope and despair, to which no government has a half-adequate response

It may be wondered whether the response of Europe to the crisis will exhibit any greater sympathy or humanity than the swift response of the government of Britain in 1847. Under provisions of the Poor Law Removal Act, a relieving officer had only to prove that an individual had been in receipt of relief and could then take him or her before two magistrates. If the pauper had indeed been born in Ireland, and did not have the right of settlement, that person could be taken direct to the Irish steamer and placed on board. This plan would enable the Liverpool authorities to clear the notorious cellar-dwellings of the city, in which cholera, typhoid and dysentery were widespread. It was estimated that 40,000 people were liable to removal. In the event only about 15,000 were ‘returned’ to Ireland. One consequence of the law was that many poor Irish people ceased claiming relief: in the week of the 16 July 1847, 3,411 claimed relief; the following week, when the Act came into operation, there were only 1,658 claimants.

Sir Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant appointed to oversee the British response to the famine (he visited Ireland once during the crisis), later wrote that the calamity was an answer to ‘over-population’, was ‘a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence’. Many today seek in the same alibi a justification for an insentience and inhumanity the West is supposed to have forsworn.

In a world where economic borders demand free passage of the rich to any part of the world they choose to visit, it is not possible to incarcerate the rest in entities they are expected to call their own ‘country’; and if there has, until now, been no persuasive argument to reverse the flow of wealth from poor to rich, it is time to acknowledge global redistributive justice, which alone will make people content to remain in places where chance, or fate, or even God, may have placed them.

Myths of radicalization

Media and political discussion about how young Muslims in Britain – and not only men – are ‘radicalized’ is characterized by the same shallow ineptitude that marks our engagement with Islam in the rest of the world.

‘Radicalization’ is assumed to mean ‘the making of terrorists’. It does not. There is a long ideological continuum in every totalizing belief-system, secular and religious.

Although the precise order of the stages in the process may be disputed, the many variations suggest a more complicated situation than a belief that exposure to one preacher in a mosque on a single occasion may turn otherwise ‘normal’ young men into violent antagonists of their own country.

We have been haunted by a ‘with-us-or-against-us’ mentality, by tales of ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’, ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’, ‘hard-liners’ and those we ‘can do business with’. This simplistic division obscures more subtle realities.

In any religious ideology, there are the committed, the observant, the pious, the devout, the orthodox, the ultra-orthodox, the intransigent, the extremist; none of whom can be predicted to commit outrages on the streets of Britain or to rush to Syria or Iraq to join the ghoulish legions of ISIS.

Passing between these different states of mind does not render the individual incapable of abiding by the laws of the land and leading life as a blameless citizen. Indiscriminate use of the word ‘radicalization’ is likely to produce the very effect it is supposed to inhibit.

Stillborn discussions

A deeper problem lies at the heart of stillborn discussions which insist that thousands of young Muslims are in danger of imminent estrangement from their own families, communities and country.

The story runs like this: there they are one minute, pursuing a life which – whether they are in work or not – revolves around football, sex, alcohol and perhaps petty crime; while the next, ‘radicalized’ by some charismatic preacher, they reappear in the fancy dress of martyrs, threatening to give their lives in solidarity with their kin in parts of the world with which they have none but a confessional connection.

Somewhere, in the panic over alienated Muslims, and the threat of terror posed by an unknown number of returnees from battlegrounds in Syria, Iraq or Somalia, there is also a deep fear, not only of why a destructive, but apparently beguiling, ideology may alienate them from Britain, but also of how life here might cause them to repudiate it so vehemently.

The secular paradise promoted by the West may be no more substantial than the spiritual one projected by any religion into the hereafter and may not offer a satisfactory life to young people – particularly when it is accompanied by unemployment, casual work, public odium, discrimination and stereotyping.

When someone goes on a shooting spree in a school or a mall in North America, the concerns raised are different

The young have always been animated by a restless need for improvement, a better world, an advance from the sad disappointments of what has gone before. They are now told that this is the best of all possible worlds, and it has been brought to such a state of perfection that nothing they can do will make the slightest improvement to it.

If the distorted heroics of ‘jihadis’, apparently streaming from Europe into a chimerical ‘caliphate’, are characterized by nihilism and a perverse desire for martyrdom, we should also ask questions about the nature of the values of a Europe, with its culture of perpetual escape offered as a consolation for cancelled idealism and annulled hopes for social justice and political change.

Consciousness of this void at the core of what still likes to promote itself as ‘the cradle of civilization’ is, apparently, so unbearable that relief from it must be sought constantly – in alcohol, drugs, travel, money, gambling, sex, speed and violence in film, TV and on social media. If the monstrosity of ISIS seduces anyone, this says a great deal about the state of mind produced here, at home.

Those who go off to fight for a transcendent cause – no matter how vain or illusory, whether against President Assad or as soldiers in the service of some crazed other-worldly project – do so in part as a response to the alternatives offered to themselves and their peers, who are resigned to getting smashed, wasted, out of their skull and legless.

Such horrible images mirror as metaphor the ugly casualties of war, to which some have literally taken themselves in a doomed search for purpose. And that is before we even begin to look at the graphic violence of the so-called entertainment industry, from which ISIS and its propaganda machines seem to have taken considerable inspiration.

Work of crazies

It cannot be stated too strongly that it is the responsibility of government to protect its people. But it soon becomes clear that there is one rule for those who find some kind of bloody relief for their aggression, frustration – or whatever it is – in their own country, and those who follow the menacing banners of religion to whatever grisly battlefields of the imagination it may lead them.

When someone goes on a shooting spree in a school or a mall in North America, or against political opponents, like Anders Breivik; when the thousands of annual casualties of US gun crime are followed to their sad graves; when Saudi student Nahid Almanea is knifed to death in a park in Britain, the concerns raised are different.

This is the work of crazies, deranged individuals, and society has no part in creating them. There is a set of laws for criminal actions apparently inspired by Islam and another for those produced by the pathologies of ‘our’ society.

The Briton interviewed on Radio 5 Live who said he would not return to the country until ‘the black flag of Islam’ was flying over Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street is clearly living in a nebulous world of fantasists, yet is treated as a spokesperson for what Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called ‘a medieval, violent, revolting ideology’.

If the monstrosity of ISIS seduces anyone, this says a great deal about the state of mind produced here, at home. Those who go off to fight for a transcendent cause do so in part as a response to the alternatives offered

There was no such public panic after the many (mostly foiled) copycat attacks following the US Columbine high school massacre in 1999. Among those attempting to emulate Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were a neo-Nazi sympathizer in Loughborough, two students in greater Manchester, a 21-year-old in Mallorca, an Argentinean, an Australian, and scores of individuals in the US.

Of 12 ‘rampage’ shootings between 1999 and 2007, eight directly claimed ‘inspiration’ from Columbine. Not only were these people not described as ‘representing’ anything at all, but publicity was muted, for fear of provoking similar macabre mimicry.

What all this amounts to – both in the exaltations of religious violence and in secular acts of brutality – is evidence of the suggestibility of many young people. Suggestibility is a condition of mind originally created by commerce to make young people receptive to the latest must-have accessory, object or technological novelty.

Like so much else, this has run dangerously out of control, and has permitted aberrant and destructive ideas to take root in the fallow fields of consciousness, the abandoned spaces of idealism, hope and purpose.

The custodians of our safety are always asking for ‘a tightening of state monitoring power’. Richard Barrett, former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, said earlier this year: ‘Although there is no linear projection from foreign fighters to domestic terrorists, it is inevitable that a number will fall into this category.’

There is no doubt truth in these sober words; but that number is not going to be reduced by the maladroit approach of those whose task is to ‘keep us safe’. The greatest agent of what is glibly called ‘radicalization’ is not social media or exposure to wild preachings, but direct experience.

This is true of all movements that cause people to question accepted social and moral assumptions, whatever their subsequent response – whether considered political commitment or flamboyant heroics of warfare on behalf of a gruesomely seductive ideology.

To diminish the estrangement of some people from their country of birth or adoption, a more ample understanding of the mutations of faith is required, as well as more critical insights into the society in which we must all make our home. Yet these are approaches unlikely to be considered by those who speak of ‘stamping out’, ‘degrading’ and ‘destroying’ terror.

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to New Internationalist. His latest book is The Song of the Shirt, Cheap Clothes across Continents and Centuries, published by Navayana in New Delhi.

The No-Nonsense Guide to World Poverty

Globalization, climate change, terrorism, fair trade, human rights, health, poverty… The No-Nonsense Guides help make sense of these vast and complex issues, all in under 150 pages - providing a concise, ‘no-nonsense’ view that you can read anywhere. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be highlighting each No-Nonsense Guide in our series with blog posts from the authors concerning the subject of each book. Chapter 1 and the Table of Contents are available for the No-Nonsense Guide to World Poverty on our website. 

NN PovertyThe No-Nonsense Guide to World Poverty
by Jeremy Seabrook 

Relief of poverty is the new piety in a secular world. Poverty-reduction programmes, safety nets, the uplift of the poor, millennium goals – everything conspires to convince the world that everything that can be done is being done to raise people out of poverty, to eliminate it or make it history. 

If war on poverty has been declared, this is perhaps because wars on abstractions – terror, addiction or illegal migration – create an impression of purpose, when the very intangibility of the combatants dooms them to failure. 

The truth is that poverty, far from being the enemy of the global economy, is its indispensable ally. For if poverty – easily ‘curable’ given the wealth of the world – were truly to be defeated, all the arguments in favour of economic growth would disappear. And that would undermine the deepest purposes of the perpetually expanding economy.

The wonder is, not so much that enormous quantities of wealth have been created, as that poverty should persist in societies where the diseases of excess and over-consumption also disfigure the lives of so many in the richest countries the world has ever known. To have created a sense of inadequacy out of such riches is the true economic miracle of globalism.

Poverty, in the sense of a subjective sense of insufficiency, must be maintained, in order to justify the dogmas of constant growth. The fact that no one any longer is able to define the meaning of ‘enough’ means that we are all poor. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are poor – just imagine the philanthropic works they might accomplish had they a few more billions available; the Queen and the Duke of Westminster are poor; self-rewarding bankers are poor; chief executives feel their worth is never recognized; the professional classes are under-valued; carpenters and bricklayers are poor; the homeless are poor; the addicted and drug-destroyed are poor; beggars are poor; the destitute are poor. What could be more conducive to global harmony than that all classes and conditions should come together in a common desire to relieve their common affliction? 

What a happy consensus! The whole world joins in a common endeavour – the generation of wealth; or rather, that particular version of it which also engenders such powerful and irremediable feelings of impoverishment. It is hard to resist such overwhelming ideological force; and few people are foolish enough to call into question the common wisdom of all the right-thinking Right-thinking people in the world. 

The book is based on a simple proposition – that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but sufficiency. As long as the pursuit of more continues to outrun the desire for a stable security, poverty must persist. And it is to the perpetuation of poverty, in one form or another, and not to its removal, that the global system is dedicated. 

In other words, ‘remedies’ for poverty (as if it were a disease rather than a human-made condition) will not be found without dismantling the structures of injustice and growing inequality which are the foundations of the global economy. It is to the concealment of this basic truth that the endeavours of charity, philanthropy, corporate responsibility, the exaltations of celebrities, governments and all the concentrations of wealth and power in the world exhibit such resourcefulness.  

If there really is no alternative; if there are no other visions of a world than those which have been colonized and sold back to us by global capital; if we really are unable to alter systems which are, after all, only a product of human devising, then we are all poorer – much poorer – than any of the preachers of universal wealth-creation realize, since basic freedoms have been abolished. The recovery of more modest and more just resource use is vital, if we are to avoid playing out the existing farce till the crack of doom; an event which, given the way in which economic growth already strikes with such violence at the limits of what the planet can bear, is probably closer than we care to imagine.   

Housing the urban poor

Photo by: Summerly Noon under a CC Licence

I first met Kamal Uddin 20 years ago. At that time, the NGO of which he is director, ARBAN (the Association for the Realization of Basic Needs), was working on a programme of literacy and numeracy for women in the poorest areas of Dhaka. We visited 25 or 30 slum settlements, mostly self-build bamboo and wood huts around polluted ponds or on low-lying marshy ground. This was government land, occupied by the poor, but controlled by powerful individuals who took a toll, or rent, from the people. Many were paying over half their monthly income to these unofficial landlords.

This was the beginning of a scheme in which garment-workers, maidservants, rickshaw drivers, construction workers, vendors and labourers would accompany ARBAN on a journey towards its most recent venture – the building of multi-storey apartments for the working poor. In the process, the lives of the people have been transformed: they acquired new skills, their livelihoods were enhanced by co-operative working, microcredit and social education, and their savings used to acquire land, on which the first block of flats has now reached its full six storeys in Mirpur in the north of Dhaka.

If this is an inspirational venture, it has been beset by every imaginable obstacle.

KAMAL: Poor people used to build bamboo pillars on stilts around ponds; sometimes the structures reached three or four storeys. But in the past decade, sands have been dredged from river beds to fill in ponds and low-lying water-bodies for the purpose of private construction. Canals and ponds belong to the government; but builders, in league with corrupt officials, have been raising 15 or 20-storey blocks. The ponds and swamps used to be recharged by monsoon rains, providing stability to the soils in the dry season. Abuses by developers have made Dhaka more vulnerable to flooding – any building may be inundated after an hour’s rain, including the Prime Minister’s office, the Secretariat and the British High Commission.

Abuses by developers have made Dhaka more vulnerable to flooding – any building may be inundated after an hour’s rain, including the Prime Minister’s office

A hundred years ago, Dhaka, criss-crossed by 60 canals and rivers, was known as the Venice of the East. It was a living city, with tides that cleansed the waste water. The rivers allowed country boats full of vegetables and fruits to come up to the markets in the heart of Dhaka. Every middle-class homestead had its own pond for drinking, bathing and washing. Now most of these have been buried. In their place are glittering buildings and glass skyscrapers – monuments to the dead waters of Dhaka.

Photo by: Naquib Hossain under a CC Licence

People who had come from rural areas created degraded villages around the ponds. Their lives were insecure, subject to rape, extortion, land-grabbing. In Bangladesh rich families whisper to their babies at birth: ‘Have land, get land, grab land by any means you can.’ About 80 per cent of land is held by less than 20 per cent of the people. The other 80 per cent live on what is left. The people of Dhaka are all provisional tenants – the driver is tenant of the car he drives for someone else; those who make garments do not wear them; those who cook the choicest dishes do not taste them; the maid on the veranda depends for her sleeping-mat on her employers.

The most obvious fact in Dhaka, and all cities of South Asia, is that the poor are being compressed: compelled to live on less and less land. The construction of skyscrapers, malls, garment factories, hospitals and universities (there are 54 private universities in Dhaka) creates the impression of a ‘world-class city’, and poor people ‘disappear’, swallowed up in windowless concrete rooms, on rooftops, cellars and remote tin sheds, out of sight. They are also removed further from their place of work, so that bus fares or exhausting journeys on foot add to an already lengthy working day. The two million garment workers of Dhaka are also the lowest-paid in the world.

KAMAL: In the late nineties, several thousand people began saving towards the purchase of a plot on which flats would be constructed to provide them with a safe shelter of their own. We bought a small piece of land in Mirpur. Over time, the dream became tarnished for many people who, tired of long years of waiting, dropped out of the scheme. Their money was returned to them. It has been 13 years since the project was started; and the first block of 45 flats is now almost complete. We have also acquired some land cheaply from the family of well-known Muslim mystic in Rampura; and there, we hope to build 250 flats.

'The biggest obstacle to the realization of the project has been our absence of corruption'

The site of the first building is cramped – it is only about a metre away from adjacent buildings; light and air are at a premium. Although brick and concrete debris still litter the staircases, each two-room apartment is taking shape, and the internal walls are complete. ARBAN plans to erect a shelter on the roof to provide accommodation for garment workers in nearby factories.

KAMAL: Work on construction was slow, since funds which had been promised did not materialize. The people have provided one-fourth of the cost, and ARBAN has invested an equal amount from its own profitable social businesses. The remaining half – about $200,000 – was promised to ARBAN in 2009 by UN Habitat, in an agreement signed in Nairobi. So far, however, not one cent has been received.*

Permission had to be sought from the Bureau of Non-Government Organizations. It could not be allowed, because it was a loan, not a grant. The request went to the External Resources Division of the Ministry of Finance. There were no rules for individuals or businesses to take loans from outside the country. No such transaction was possible.

The lives of the people have been transformed: they acquired new skills, their livelihoods were enhanced by co-operative working, microcredit and social education, and their savings used to acquire land

Mohammad Kamal Uddin had been at university with a Deputy Governor of the bank, and after some months, the loan was sanctioned under ‘special consideration’, and the required No-Objection certificate was obtained. But by that time, leadership of UN Habitat had changed. The new chief economist insisted the documentation should all be re-submitted, and questions were asked about ARBAN’s procurement plans.

KAMAL: We were not using middle-men. We were employing masons, bricklayers and carpenters from among our own beneficiaries. We supplied all the information they asked for. The delay in Bangladesh was because we had not factored into our costs bribes and kickbacks for those expected to facilitate the loan. Responsible persons convey to me the assumption that I’ll use 70 per cent of the money and give the rest to those whose job it is to expedite the transaction. Even the Housing Ministry, which has a relationship with Habitat, let it be known that 5-10 per cent would be acceptable.

Still Habitat has raised objections. They questioned the ability of our people to pay. They calculated it would require a monthly payment of 4,100 taka ($60) to ARBAN, and they said this is far beyond the ability of slum families. We have shown that they can pay it. The monthly income of our families is between 8,000 and 15,000 ($115-$215) a month. Habitat said studies show this is an inflated sum, above the average for Dhaka. That is quite true. Our people are a self-selecting group: they have undergone training, education; they have acquired a competence unavailable to most poor people in Dhaka. Eventually, Habitat accepted the affordability of the scheme, but then they raised the objection that the building was not insured. So we took out insurance, even though most buildings in Dhaka are not insured.

The biggest obstacle to the realization of the project has been our absence of corruption. By refusing to give bribes, we have been our own worst enemy.

There is something both noble and quixotic in the integrity of ARBAN. Kamal points out that he is not asking for aid or a grant: the money will be paid back by the people.

'Elites regard poor people as lesser human beings; ancient ghosts of caste and status still haunt this country'

KAMAL: If workers have independence and security, this will also provide economic benefits to the employers. They will have more energy for their labour if they do not have to stand in line to use the toilet or get water or take illegal electricity connections. The urban poor are workers. They are not beggars. They can pay. The Constitution says that government land should be given to the poor. The Deputy Commissioner’s Office is the source of greatest corruption, because it is there that false documents are made, rivers buried and sealed, land given to those who already own vast tracts of the city and country. The principal activity of the Deputy Commissioner’s office and the Land Ministry is to show that land does not belong to government. This is done by a stroke of the pen that can change the character of land – marsh becomes cropland, rivers become the ancestral possession of influential people. Government machinery is used to rob the poor and give to the rich, to enhance their already substantial fortunes.

The biggest land-grabbers have their boards all over the city, advertising new apartments: Eastern Housing Society, Basundhera Group, Jamuna Group. It is estimated that 5,000 acres of land have been alienated in this way. But in the whole of Dhaka, and the surrounding areas of Gazipur and Narayanganj, there must be 10,000 acres still nominally in government ownership. It is that land which should go to the poor, not at artificial prices dictated by political, bureaucratic and business collusion, but given, so that the four million people in the city who want decent shelter shall be provided for, among whom are most of the ill-housed garment workers: the government receives 75 per cent of its foreign exchange from the garments industry, but the people who actually earn it are still subject to a minimum wage of 1662 taka ($24), while the costs of rent and food have doubled in the past two years.

Dhaka, says Mohmmad Kamal Uddin, is an ‘occupied city’. You can see what he means. The monsoon sky sits heavily upon pastel-coloured apartments, malls of glass, private offices and institutions; while at street level, the inextricable tangle of cycle-rickshaws, the procession of young women that fill the city with colour in the early morning, before being absorbed into the factories, the construction workers whose washing dances in the concrete of the unfinished block, increasing density of a humanity confined into declining space; sad and menacing prospect in this, one of the most congested cities in the world.

KAMAL: The working poor will pay the market price to live vertically in secure buildings with basic amenities. All they want is a dignified life. If they are relieved of the anxiety of living, they will perform their economic tasks better. The truth is, élites regard poor people as lesser human beings; ancient ghosts of caste and status still haunt this country whose freedom has yet to reach the majority of its people.

*Editor's note: The money promised by UN Habitat in 2009 was abruptly cancelled in 2010, shortly after this interview took place.

A soldier’s story

Gopal Mitra

Major Gopal Mitra had realized that India’s militarization of Kashmir was no long-term solution before he was blown up in Kupwara in 2000. An informer had guided his unit to a booby-trapped militant hide-out. During the ensuing gun-battle, 17 kilos of RDX explosive went up. Airlifted to hospital in Srinagar, Gopal needed 150 stitches to his face and body. He lost his eyes and had to undergo facial reconstruction.

In and out of hospital for two years, he had time to reflect, both on his injuries and what he was doing in Kashmir. Now in his late thirties, he is without rancour or bitterness. He works for an international disability charity, and says the loss of his eyes has been compensated by the insights gained.

‘As a soldier, you have to believe that terrorism is bad for your country. But when you see it close up, you realize there is a reason for resistance – usually a result of some earlier failing by the State. When violence starts – in the North East or in Kashmir – it begins as a way of redressing grievances. But over time, the just objective is overtaken, and conflict soon generates its own reasons for continuing. When public opinion is met by oppression, there is bound to be violence. In Kashmir, when the State installs puppet governments with no mandate to act on behalf of the people, how can they accept it?

‘Kashmir is seen as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, a cause for international concern. This doesn’t address the issue of how conflict is sustained on the ground. The whole society is drawn into prolonging war. The search for justice is overwhelmed by other priorities, including the self-interest of those who gain some advantage from it. There are four parties to the conflict – militants, civil administration, army and local population. All operate and live in the area. The best houses in any village, although far beyond their legitimate means, are always occupied by Government officials. Social structures, accountability, civil administration have all broken down. Transparency International says that after Bihar, Kashmir is the most corrupt state in India. It receives huge funds from central government.

‘The whole economy is distorted because basic social norms have collapsed. Most stolen cars in India are traded in Kashmir.

Life in the hot zone

‘Many militants believe passionately in their cause and take up arms. This also creates commercial pressures: arms-suppliers who have an interest in continuing conflict. After the snowmelt in April-May till November, militants cross the passes. They get high rates and bonuses for killing members of the security forces. The security forces have all the militants’ radio-intercepts: it is known they inflate the numbers killed when reporting to their bosses, because this increases their bonuses.

‘There is no adequate rehabilitation package for militants. There is no thought-out strategy to absorb them back into society.

‘It is in the nature of prolonged armed operations to alienate people, no matter how disciplined the army. You search houses, knock on doors in the middle of the night; people are under siege. Some find serving as informers to the army a viable way of making a living. This is how the neutrality of civilians is compromised, both by the army and the militants. It polarizes people. The army has an incentive to perpetuate the crisis, because this vindicates its reason for existence and ensures resources are allocated to the area.

‘I love my country, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it can become a better place’

‘The initial objectives take second place to conflict for its own sake. The idea that an Indo-Pak solution is the only answer places it in a different sphere from the violence on the ground. Simple one-dimensional solutions don’t work. Societies, easy to divide, are harder to re-unite. In Kashmir, if I had a grievance against you, I’d have fought it out with you. But now I’ll get two militants to attack you. Personal vendettas feed into the wider conflict; private animosities get involved, the whole community is distorted.

‘When you see daily violence, you ask yourself: “Is this what we are fighting for?” Before I was injured, I knew armed operations would not lead to a solution. But the support system in the army is very robust. It helps you not to feel troubled, to concentrate on your duty. The camaraderie is strong, and the common danger a consolidating force.

‘North Kashmir was known as a ‘hot zone’. We were involved in search and destroy missions. Militants from Pakistan were servicing bases in the forest, stocks of ammunition and guns in camps hidden underground. We flushed out and captured arms and personnel. I was leading my company when I was injured. I remember only floating in and out of consciousness. The speed of evacuation saved my life.

‘Initially I felt anger and uncertainty. The doctor said: “Look, Gopal, I’ll have to take out your eye – if I don’t your brain may become infected.” My destiny, which I thought I had taken into my hands, took another turn. In hospital I met my wife. Her father had also been in the army, and he, too, had been blinded. She was doing a Social Work MA and it was through her I came to development work. We were married in 2003.

‘I never hated Kashmir, and afterwards had nothing against the militant who deprived me of sight. He was also doing his job. My wife and I took our honeymoon in Kashmir. We went as civilians on a houseboat. The people we met had no idea I was ex-army. We talked to them. They all hated violence. I wanted to remember the beauty of Kashmir. Personally, I do not care whether Kashmir is part of India or Pakistan. The referendum on Kashmir which never took place after Independence [in 1947] can only happen when people are in a position to make reasoned choices. Kashmir has been so tainted that such a choice is not possible. People need a period of normal life. A generation of children have been traumatized; growing in the shadow of violence, their childhood play is a mimicry of adult wars.

Window of opportunity

‘For any solution, the grievances that hardened into incentives to persist in conflict need to be unravelled. After the loss of 80,000 lives, the Government says: “We have shed blood in Kashmir, and therefore nothing can change.” I say: “I lost my blood, but I don’t care that much.” Public opinion is manipulated by political parties. I can speak with a certain authority, because I actually fought, unlike intransigent armchair politicians. If I say India should take a less hard line, this is because I have seen the damage hard lines can do.

‘I love my country, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it can become a better place. If they don’t do things right, thousands more will die. Kashmir remains one of the most militarized places on earth. It is often said that ethnicity creates violence; but I think violence creates ethnicity – people who have lived in amity for centuries are moved by injustice, and the divisiveness of that injustice focuses on ethnicity or religion.

‘If violence has declined at present, this is not because India is doing the right thing. The militants turned their attention to Kashmir in 1989, when the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan. Today, the militants have more urgent priorities, again in Afghanistan and the Pakistan border. Because the Indian state failed to grant autonomy to Kashmir, the social contract between people and State was breached. It is easy to explain why the conflict started, but that doesn’t account for the way it assumed a life of its own, and its prolongation over so many years.

‘There is no overnight solution. But there is a window of opportunity, now the pressure has lessened on Kashmir by the removal of militants to other parts of Asia. There is a chance for everyday life to be restored, where people will not have their door hammered in at two in the morning, or stopped at four roadblocks on the way to the market. Indian soldiers will not have instructions during elections to coerce 70 per cent of people to vote, just to ‘prove’ they support the democratic process.

‘It is painful to say this as a Hindu army officer and an Indian patriot, but truth is truth. I see an opportunity in Kashmir right now, especially since Pakistan is troubled by its own internal conflict. If we don’t seize it, India will be the loser.’

A business climate

The only way in which global warming can be ‘sold’ to the people of the West is as a business opportunity. Green technologies, by means of which we shall all become richer, will at the same time save the planet. Who could possibly demur from this ‘win-win situation’? No other appeal carries equal conviction. Hence all discussion about altering our ‘way of life’ must be subordinated to the revolutionary potential of futuristic technologies, which will, miraculously, save us from the effects of the earlier miracles of technology that have brought us to this pass.

The natural world was long ago usurped by the technosphere, as a language of imperial conquest suggests: the business climate, economic environment, the atmosphere for investment, financial tsunamis, economic storms, doldrums and depressions – all eclipse the elements that sustain life. It is inevitable we should look to business for salvation. And at the moment, the proponents of universal business have some unlikely allies: the criers of apocalypse are all suddenly at one with entrepreneurial mystics, who know the art of buying our way out of ruin.

We are living with the consequences of that distant occurrence, which for two centuries has celebrated the triumph of the market over society

Our best hope would be disengagement from the melancholy rules of the market, rather than deepening dependency upon the mechanism which created the spectre of a planet, desiccated in some places, drowned in others. That this is no longer possible is a bleak comment on the limits to a freedom, diminished by the apparently unnoticed exchange of wealth for liberty, especially the liberty to do things differently, to alter iron economic laws, to imagine other ways of living, more austere maybe, but perhaps also more joyful, less destructive of the only habitat have, at least until the planets have been colonized as formerly remote continents were.

Idealists and utopians have often been chided for their apparent leave-taking of the ‘real world’. But what could be more utopian than the idea of a self-regulating market, an autonomous entity set free from society 200 years ago, under the baleful deterministic sign of which all humanity must now find its fortune? We are living with the consequences of that distant occurrence, which for two centuries has celebrated the triumph of the market over society.

Tensions in the air

The history of industrial society has been one of the tension between believers in the autonomous market and those who have sought – with varying degrees of success – to protect society from its destructive effects. The early 19th century imagined it had discovered underlying natural laws, of which the free market was both expression and embodiment – laws as savage as any evolved by societies supposedly more primitive, which sacrificed human beings to the mysterious powers that governed their fate. This was the nightmare world of Malthus, who declared that at nature’s banquet no place had been set for the poor, and of his disciples who discovered that starvation was the most powerful stimulus to labour, even at below-subsistence rewards.

The achievement of industrial society was to reduce humanity, with its passions, idiosyncrasies and yearnings, into labour; and nature, despite its vast diversity and beauty, to raw materials

The achievement of industrial society was to reduce humanity, with its passions, idiosyncrasies and yearnings, into labour; and nature, despite its vast diversity and beauty, to raw materials. This is perhaps the most catastrophic of all the metamorphoses with which humanity has tried to subdue the earth to its will. Of course, heroic efforts have been made to reclaim for society what had been enclosed and sold as commodity; this was, indeed, the purpose of the labour movement. This had nothing to do with destiny, History, or other abstractions subsequently devised by ideologists. What had begun as a reclamation of human values from the convulsions of the Industrial Revolution, became, under the influence of Marx, an occult project of redemptive determinism, rivalled only by the mirror-belief of the fanatics of the free market.

Of course ‘scientific socialism’ was a fiction, but then, so was the re-shaping by political economy of human life and nature into commodities. With the death of communism, we have at least been able to see more clearly the bare bones of a system no longer hidden by the lumbering menace of Marxism, and which re-emerged with the Washington consensus – the second coming of laissez-faire.

The existing paradigm

The reason for the hysteria surrounding global warming is that the uninhibited expansion of the (non)self-regulating market after the decay of communism has forced the world to confront, not only its recent moment of unfettered exuberance, but also the effects of two and a half centuries of industrial capitalism. The recent financial crisis required a vast investment of public funds into the private banks which had brought the global system to the brink of ruin. It would seem, on the face of it, that only concerted government action can prevent runaway climate change. But an epic government bailout on two fronts – global finance and global warming – would deal a double blow at the mysteries of political economy. This cannot be contemplated.

Global warming is being promoted as an epic business opportunity, rather than as a call to reduce our predations on the earth. The planet must fit into the business model. Industrial society cannot accept global limitations

This is why global warming is being promoted as an epic business opportunity, rather than as a call to reduce our predations on the earth. The planet must fit into the business model. Industrial society cannot accept global limitations. This reversal of reality comes from an inability to escape the ideological model which accompanied the Industrial Revolution. It also suggests why reduction in emissions of CO2 is looked to as the sole source of salvation: this is the only aspect of industrial society susceptible to the technical fix, and therefore containable within the existing paradigm.

On the day the climate change meeting opened in Copenhagen, the BBC carried a report that the Penan people in Sarawak were suffering from an assault by loggers on the forests that have sustained them for millennia. The Penan complained their extinction will follow the felling of forests on which they depend. This is not a curious example of backward peoples compelled into the benefits of the 21st century: it foreshadows the fate of the planet.

One might have thought that the ruinous effects of the self-regulating market would, before now, have been sufficient to discredit its morose wisdom. Yet despite the damage it has inflicted upon planet and people over two centuries, it constantly re-asserts itself

The dominant global ideology has taken two severe blows: the self-regulating market could not deter bankers from the creation of fanciful value-added, worth-subtracted ‘products’, neither can it do anything to prevent unacceptable climate-change. Yet the way out must be cast in terms that do not stray from the sacred precinct of market relationships.

It may be that such an approach is impossible. But it demonstrates the tenacity of faith – and belief in market forces has attained something of the status of cult, if not actual religion. It also shows how faith is not weakened, but rather reinforced, by disconfirming evidence. What we are seeing amid the exaltations of the congregation of bien-pensants in Copenhagen, is the hardening of yet another fundamentalism in a world that has already seen too many of them. If ‘climate-change deniers’ are scorned, this is because they make explicit that ideology which is actually being conserved beneath the revolutionary rhetoric at Copenhagen. Climate-change sceptics are being dealt with ferociously, since they reveal that which ought to be hidden: that the objective is a resumption of business-as-usual of universal capitalism under the benign mantle of green energy. Sceptics attain the status of heretics and spoilers because they let the economic cat out of the ecological bag.

Huffing and puffing

One might have thought that the ruinous effects of the self-regulating market would, before now, have been sufficient to discredit its morose wisdom. Yet despite the damage it has inflicted upon planet and people over two centuries, it constantly re-asserts itself through the reforms, improvements and radical revisions it is supposed to have undergone. Was it not enough, the ravages of early industrialism, clearances of human beings from land for more profitable commodities, imperial incursions that laid waste continents, the pathological co-existence of excess and want, upheavals and migrations of people torn from belonging for the sake of a single aspect of their being, labour? Apparently not. Only when degradation also threatens the fortified habitat of the rich and powerful does it become a matter of importance. Even so, that same menace is to be cast as another opportunity to create more wealth.

After all the huffing and puffing, we can see the economy prevails over planetary integrity. If there were no gain to be got out of preserving the human habitat, it would no doubt, like any other piece of industrial debris, have to take its chances. The market has ceased merely to dominate society, and now pervades the cosmos. With tourist flights into space already planned, how long before paradise itself is staked out and sold off as gilded plots of real estate?

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to New Internationalist.

Rescuing socialism

The Left is so demoralized that even in the worst recession in 70 years, it poses no threat to capitalism. Most who ‘like to think of themselves as on the Left’ (that refuge of fantasy), ritually deplore the loss of popular support, bleakly placing faith in ‘the swing of the pendulum’ or telling each other that ‘the world has changed’ and we must make the best of it.

Why socialism capitulated after so faint a struggle continues to mystify socialists. In Britain, the 1984 miners’ strike was seen as an heroic last stand; but the ideological battle had long been conceded. Socialism perished long before the Thatcher years; the roots of the labour movement were never deep enough to prevent it from being assimilated into the system it came into existence to oppose.

Socialists conceded defeat by accepting the capitalist evaluation of wealth. Instead of resisting the melting down of all the riches of the world to money, socialism yielded early to the reductive calculus of its enemy. In doing so, the nobility and beauty of its vision of alternatives were forfeited. The baleful ghost of Marx hovers over this process: his admiration for a world convulsed by the dynamic upheaval of capitalism doomed his socialism, which became a short-lived heretical aberration. And a kind of indelible afterglow of Marx continues to stain what is now no alternative to capitalist growth and expansion.

Yet throughout the industrial era there have been many more thoughtful and humane definitions of wealth. Leaving aside the magnificent ambiguities of scriptural admonitions (‘Remove from me vanity and lies; give me neither poverty nor riches’), denunciation of capitalist accumulation has always been widespread, although it has been drowned out in recent years by the triumphal march of the universal market.

Oliver Goldsmith, as early as 1770, described the effects of this limited understanding of wealth. In The Deserted Village, he deplored ‘ten thousand baneful arts combined to pamper luxury and thin mankind’. He spoke of the labourer’s ‘best riches’ as ‘ignorance of wealth’ and railed against the ‘rage of gain’. His long, sad poem was prompted by agricultural ‘improvements’, which enclosed the commons and evicted labourers. It speaks today to the uprooted of Africa and Asia; and reminds us how an earlier critique of wealth was buried beneath the obsessive productivism of industrialism – a critique later dismissed as Utopian by a more ‘manly’ Marxism.

Not all alternative accounts of wealth were formulated by socialists. In Signs of the Times, Thomas Carlyle in 1829 protested against the materialism of a mechanistic society: ‘All our systems and theories are but so many froth-eddies or sandbanks, which from time to time [Nature] casts up, and washes away. When we can drain the Ocean into mill-ponds, and bottle up the Force of Gravity, to be sold by retail, in gas jars; then may we hope to comprehend the infinitudes of man’s soul under formulas of Profit and Loss.’

A covetous machine

John Ruskin spoke in 1862 of the ‘delusion’ of political economy, which sees the human being as merely a ‘covetous machine’. He declared: ‘All wealth is intrinsic, and is not constituted by the judgment of men. This is easily seen in the case of things affecting the body; we know that no force of fantasy will make stones nourishing, or poison innocent.’ Although he reckoned without the advertising industries of the 20th century, which were largely dedicated to disproving this conviction.

Socialism perished long before the Thatcher years; the roots of the labour movement were never deep enough to prevent it from being assimilated into the system it came into existence to oppose

William Morris in 1883 made the distinction between wealth and riches. ‘It is not wealth which our civilization has created, but riches, with its necessary companion, poverty; for riches cannot exist without poverty, or in other words, slavery. All rich men must have someone to do their dirty work, from the collecting of their unjust rents to the sifting of their ash heaps. Under the dominion of riches we are masters and slaves.’ William Morris saw humanity wasted, in one way or another, by poverty or excess.

Voices have always argued for another understanding of wealth – the Romantic poets, 19th century novelists, political radicals and revolutionaries. In 1854 Thoreau wrote in Walden, ‘most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind’. Half a century later, Thorsten Veblen, in his Theory of the Leisure Class, conceived the idea of ‘conspicuous consumption’: the function of the rich was to flaunt their ornamental inutility before the toilers of industry.

In the 1920s, some of these ideas were taken up in India by Gandhi, who said he could not draw a sharp, or indeed any, distinction between economics and ethics. In Young India, in 1928, he wrote: ‘According to me the economic constitution of India and, for the matter of that, the world, should be such that no-one should suffer from want of food and clothing. In other words, everybody should be able to get sufficient work to enable him to make both ends meet.

Denunciation of capitalist accumulation has always been widespread, although it has been drowned out in recent years by the triumphal march of the universal market

‘And this ideal can universally be realized only if the means of production of the elementary necessaries of life remain in the control of the masses. These should be freely available to all as God’s air and water are, or ought to be; they should not be made vehicles of traffic for the exploitation of others. This monopolization by any country, nation or group of persons would be unjust. The neglect of this simple principle is the cause of destitution that we witness today not only in this unhappy land but in other parts of the world.’

In the contemporary period, Ivan Illich was the most articulate critic of faith in industrialized wealth. His vision transcended the mere ‘externalities’ of industrial production, and he wrote of the ‘counterproductivity’ within each commodity, ‘a new kind of disappointment which arises “within” the very use of the good purchased’, which drives the desire for more. ‘Economists, who are increasingly competent to put price-tags on externalities, are unable to deal with negative internalities and cannot measure the inherent frustration of captive clients, which is something other than a cost.’ Illich saw the industrial institutionalization of human abilities to do things for themselves and each other as a measureless impoverishment.

Utopian socialism

Andre Gorz recognizes that the limited nature of human needs constitutes an obstacle to economic ‘rationality’, and traces how this rationality transformed the desire for sufficiency into a compulsion for more. Enough, the enemy of growth, must be expunged from the economic dictionary, which depends upon a concept of perpetual scarcity in a world of unparalleled abundance.

It is sometimes cautiously conceded that some human activities may be off-limits to the economic calculus – love, friendship, joy, the life of the spirit. On the other hand, the sinister economists of happiness are at work even in these sombre times, seeking to make economic entities out of human experiences hitherto resistant to such violence.

The present financial crisis has tentatively opened up some uneasy discussion of other ways of looking at the world. But this will pass. When governments have rescued banks, pumped money into mighty corporations too big to fail, business as usual will be restored. The work of the hour is all about mending a broken system, a repair job, patching up the crumbling masonry of financial architecture. It is not about alternatives.

Which brings us back to the crisis of socialism. While socialism remained a shadow cast by the blinding light of capitalism, it had no independent existence; and was eclipsed by the successes of capitalist consumerism. The dominant paradigm always parasitically inhabited the shell of its opponent. While revolutionaries may have glumly awaited the dictatorship of the proletariat, and socialists worked for equality for a downtrodden working class, liberal hopes resided in helping the left-behind, protecting the poor by safety nets, as though these were a troupe of travelling acrobats.

But there is a strange and wonderful convergence between the rhetoric of older critics of industrialism and the contemporary Greens. The Greens are not a newfangled idea conceived in the head of the maladjusted of modernity. They make heard once more suppressed or forgotten voices clamouring at the doors of despair, which remain nevertheless barred against their messages of liberation. Of course the Greens, too, are riven by an archaic dualism of Right and Left. There are those who would preserve the planet and let the people perish; but the implications of the scarcity of material, and the abundance of human, resources implies a far more radical and just global partition of the good and necessary things of life.

Enough, the enemy of growth, must be expunged from the economic dictionary, which depends upon a concept of perpetual scarcity in a world of unparalleled abundance

To ‘save the world’, it is not capitalism that needs to be rescued but socialism; and if the Greens articulate once more what had been drowned out in the noisy triumphalism of capital, it does not matter what they are called. ‘Utopian socialism’ no longer consists of castles in the air, for what could have been more Utopian than the spoiled proletarian paradise of Marx?

Perhaps earlier testimonies were ineffective against what looked like progress. But how different it appears today, in the light of climate change, resource depletion, the onslaught against the biosphere, the extinction of ancient ways of life which, whatever their failings, respected a nature they had not laid siege to.

Thus it is that all mainstream political parties now advocate an alternative agenda. The trouble is, they try to implement it by means of wealth-creationism, the dogma that has brought the world to this pass. Anything, rather than recognize the existence of a socialism which, no longer dependent upon its capitalist progenitor, possesses an emancipatory power still untried in a world of waste and want. More radical than Marxism or the miserable contortions of an exhausted Labourism, it bases itself on wealth defined by the limitless forms of free exchange, gifts, services voluntarily performed by people out of compassion and fellow-feeling, all the mercy, pity and tenderness unenclosed by an invasive market, qualities which are, and always have been, the source of true riches.

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to New Internationalist.

Why children work

It isn’t really a factory. The ‘finishing unit’, where garments are stacked in boxes ready for shipment to Britain and America, is in the lower story of an extensive private house enclosed by a high stone wall in the Mirpur district of Dhaka. The stairs are piled with cardboard containers, so it is almost impossible to reach the upstairs apartment.

Here, the last touches are put to ready-made apparel for export. The workshop is a plain, windowless room, about 12 or 15 metres square. There are 45 workers, a majority girls, about half of them under 14. A boy is at a machine sewing buttons. Girls stand at a table, trimming loose threads and checking that the buttons are firm and the zip-fasteners work smoothly. Others stand at old-fashioned domestic ironing boards, from which steam rises in little mushroom-clouds. At a trestle, each garment is carefully folded and then passed to a line of young women who seal it in transparent polythene. Other girls stack them in cardboard cartons. They handle each piece as though it were a tray of eggs. From here, all the material will go to shipping containers for delivery to GAP and Primark in Britain, to Wal-Mart and K-Mart in North America.

The youngest children are perhaps 10. A smiling boy of about 11, Asgar from Noakhali, staggers beneath a pile of children’s clothing. The river eroded his family’s land and his father, who once grew vegetables, now sells them on the streets of Mirpur. Asgar earns 1600 taka a month ($23) for a 12-hour day. He is with Shohal, a boy of 16 from Barisal, whose family also lost their land to the Meghna River. Shohal left school at eight and if he ever knew how to read and write, he has now forgotten. His father sells flowers, but his income is irregular. Shohal’s money – 1800 taka a month ($27) – pays the rent on their one room.

Most garment workers are girls, young women, the most precious import of Dhaka, with their sweet country submissiveness, plucked by unknown ‘aunties’ who appear from no-one knows where, promising them lives of prosperity. They are set to work, stitching, bent in long rows over Japanese Juki or Brother machines, turning out plaid quilting for Russian or Canadian winters, shirts for the clothing stores of Europe, jeans decorated with sequins for Japanese teenagers.

Lima is a slender 15 year old. The youngest of six sisters, her father died when she was five. Lima was brought to Dhaka two years ago and lives with the owner’s family, working partly as a domestic and partly in the factory. Her 12-hour day starts at eight in the morning. She earns 2000 taka a month ($30), and sends three-quarters of it to her mother. Lima can read, but her mother is unable to write to her. She has one day’s leave each week, but never goes out. She has seen nothing of Dhaka but the bare walls of the house and the workshop. She hopes one day to become ‘self-reliant’ – to buy land in the village. The cost is 8000 taka ($120) for one tenth of an acre. To be self-reliant would require six acres. It would take 13 years to buy one acre. Her hopes are poignant, her endurance of exile heroic, the likelihood of realizing her dreams remote. Still she goes about her work, meek and obedient; her trust absolute, both in the future and in the grace of a God who will not fail her.

They are set to work, stitching, bent in long rows over Japanese Juki or Brother machines, turning out plaid quilting for Russian or Canadian winters...

The garments which the children in the workshop trim and pack so tenderly create a strange impression: not only are the children a living embodiment of the ‘scandal’ of child labour, but the clothing they pack evokes the children in Britain and the US who will wear them. It is highly gender-specific – short layered skirts in a floral pattern with a low-cut top for little girls; combat fatigues in khaki and olive, and small denim jackets and jeans for boys. These items are for the lower end of the European and North American markets. The children of the poor in Bangladesh are making clothes for the children of the poor in the West. This makes explicit the relationship between poor people in the West and their impoverished peers in Bangladesh.

In the evening, when the factories close, for a brief moment a male-dominated Dhaka becomes a city of women – a procession of exhausted labour, some in bright saris or salwar kamiz, a few in full black burka. Lights blaze in the seven-story factories in the shadow of which they live. Beneath, the faint gleam of dim bulbs, kerosene stoves and cooking fires fed by pieces of waste fabric faintly illuminates the slum; an aerial city of tin constructed on bamboo poles driven into the wastewater of a polluted pond. If the rivers have eaten the land of Bangladesh, the city is consuming its people.

The owner of the Mirpur workshop is from Barisal, from where he recruited all his workers. They regard their employment, not as exploitation, but as good fortune. To find out why, I retraced the path taken by thousands of young migrants.

Buses and trucks share the roads with carts, cycles and pedestrians, women scarcely visible beneath a swaying burden of fodder and fuel. I pass an overturned truck, its cab crushed, wheels still spinning in the air; bodies are laid out on the green verge. There is a long wait at the crossing of the Padma River from Aricha to Dauladtia, a staging post from British times, a town now almost totally devoted to prostitution. The buses are packed with people carrying away the produce of the countryside – jute sacks of green coconuts, bamboo, betel, sugarcane, aubergines, tomatoes, metal cages of chickens and ducks; taking not only the riches of the land, but also their own youth and energy to be sold – always at a loss. Ragged men with rough hands and feet hardened by paddy fields sit on the roof of the bus, faces bronzed by the setting sun, a tableau of rural servitude. The girls sit inside with cardboard suitcases; their two or three years’ schooling has given them the ability to scratch their signature, tongue between their teeth, 14- and 15-year old child brides of industry, to be claimed by raw factories on sites that were until yesterday agricultural land.

Barisal, an old provincial town, is overwhelmed by refugees from ruined rural livelihood. It’s a chaotic settlement of stagnant ponds, choked with the coarse weeds, houses of tin and wood, ramshackle booths, concrete buildings reflected in the green water, single-story dwellings close to the crumbling architecture of the Raj. All over the city are stacks of tree trunks, savage harvest of the devastating cyclone Sidr of October 2007, which felled ancient raintrees, betel, palms and mango-orchards.

Barisal is a temporary halt on the road to Chittagong or Dhaka for people who have lost land, their only possession – land seized by the powerful, deeds of ownership falsified by corrupt officials, land subdivided into uneconomic parcels by inheritance. But the most fierce land dispute of all is the constant struggle between land and water. It isn’t only land that is wasted by restless rivers and tides; ways of life, culture and traditions are also washed away. Even the people appear eroded, thin and poorly nourished, emblems of a poverty which is the subject of numberless reports and inquiries stored away in monsoon-stained files and eaten by white ants. Development schemes have come and gone, but the poor remain, bony rickshaw-drivers, emaciated maidservants, children breaking bricks in desolate yards.

Seventy per cent of Bangladeshis have little or no land. Land is not only livelihood, but also life itself. People in the slums of Barisal tell of watching as whole villages were submerged by one of the 17 rivers that cross Barisal or by the insatiable mouths of the Ganges. The poor recount their sparse biography, a tale of bare tenements and hollow stomachs, unwilling departures into slums without security or stability; paddy-land eaten by the river, the homestead taken, the hut built on government land in town, eviction, rebuilding, the renewed removal by police. ‘There is only one greater thief than the river,’ they say, ‘and that is man.’

Early in 2009, the urban poor of Barisal were spending three-quarters of their income on food. Even official figures of the municipality estimate that 43 per cent of the people live ‘below subsistence’, while more than a quarter of adults consume less than 1850 calories a day. The ubiquitous smile of the poor should not be taken at face value: it conceals inexhaustible grief.

The ubiquitous smile of the poor should not be taken at face value: it conceals inexhaustible grief

Yet Barisal is where the fragrant balam rice was produced, which gave its name to ‘Golden Bengal’, the ripeness of the grain shimmering in the mellow harvest season; wiped out by high-yielding varieties that dispossessed small farmers who could not keep up with the appetite of miracle seeds for fertilizer and who have themselves been devoured by the food they cultivated. Many rivers, teeming with fish that provided cheap protein for the poor, have been poisoned by run-off from pesticides. This is where an eclectic mix of Sufism, Hinduism and Bengali folk culture joined in common celebration of the beauty and brevity of life; where scarlet hibiscus and spiky boughs of bougainvillea were offered to ancient deities whose serene presence remained undisturbed by the coming of an Allah, apparently more merciful then than now. Here, too, the handloom weavers worked their marvels of sheer fabric, the import of which was banned by Britain in the 18th century because it was superior to anything produced at the imperial centre. In the green shady canals freedom fighters came and went during the Liberation War of 1971; Pakistani soldiers perished as they pursued them through labyrinths of emerald water.

When you see where working children come from, the child labour of Dhaka appears in a different light. The abolitionists should be asked how families are to survive (including the children themselves) without their contribution to an income sufficient to nourish them. It is one thing for moralists to swoop upon ‘ruthless employers’, but unless they know what has driven children into factories, their outrage strikes ineffectually against reality. Who will guarantee a living wage to adults, to permit them to bring up their children in security, particularly where the only ‘competitive advantage’ of Bangladesh is its ill-paid and expendable workers? The Government of Bangladesh is currently offering subsidised rice to workers in the garment sector, so employers will not have to raise wages to subsistence levels.

Barisal drives its children away, ghost-farmers trapped between a perishing tradition and an unsustainable modernity. The hope of its inhabitants lies on the river steamer or the road to a more prosperous elsewhere. Barisal is an entrepôt where poverties are traded; a frontier, where the ability of human beings to procure food and shelter by their own labour on their own land, is finally lost. The tragedy is that this is perceived, not as a measureless privation, but as a chance to grow rich.

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to New Internationalist. Research for this piece was assisted by a small grant from Race and Class and support from the Network for Social Change.


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