Column : Crisis and the average Jane

Written by Sreeram Chaulia | Updated: Jan 31 2009, 05:34am hrs
In 2008, when an avalanche of mass protests erupted simultaneously in the developing world amidst food shortages and inflation of essential commodity prices, economist Jeffrey Sachs called it the worlds big story. At that time, recessions had not yet been declared in richer Western economies and the disturbances appeared to be confined to countries like Haiti, Egypt, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Come early 2009, we have an even bigger story that is fast catching on like influenza at a global scaleordinary women and men who are fired up and agitating on the streets against economic deprivation, sudden layoffs and ineffective state responses to the hardships accompanying the recession. Criminalised in state discourse as riots, these expressions of desperation and frustration are growing in volume and spreading.

Europe is presently the worst affectedFrance just witnessed a massive strike and protestwith mobs taking to violent outbursts against the uncaring system, whose contradictions are unravelling through a procession of corporate collapses, heists and foreclosures. Popular confrontations with authorities have brought down a government in Iceland and sent political elites in Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Greece, Spain and Hungary into a state of deep worry. The sight of streets and neighbourhoods in so many of these countries going up in smoke has shaken Western confidence that such scenes of chaos are characteristic of the Global South.

In 2009, as more companies go bankrupt and pink slips proliferate, the burden on state exchequers to provide unemployment insurance and doles is getting heavier with no financier in sight. When one of the pillars of liberal capitalism, the United Kingdom, has reached a stage where its currency is crumbling and its creditworthiness in world markets has hit a nadir not seen since 1976, mass rebelliousness and tumult are only to be expected to swell into a flood tide.

Even China may not be spared from civil unrest. Approximately 15 million migrant workers are on the road in China, returning jobless to the countryside as urban factories adjust to the lost global demand for Chinese exports. The Guardian has captured the spirit of the anger of ordinary Chinese workers who went on the rampage in the Pearl River Delta in late 2008: People were yelling Its good to smash. Countless more such revolts are occurring in the worlds (still) fastest growing, but rapidly slowing economy.

Some economists are asserting that advanced capitalist economies have already entered or are about to enter a deflationary spiral, where people hold off buying goods and commodities because they expect prices to continue dropping, setting off a self-fulfilling prophecy. The problem with this prognosis is that food and basic items prices have not fallen ever since they skyrocketed in early 2007. Because subprime mortgages were the epicentre of the financial collapse in Europe and the US, myopic analysts are predicting deflation by citing declining asset values in the housing market. But for the hungry and the homeless who are sometimes battling riot police on high streets and by-lanes, dips in real estate are hardly reasons to rejoice or mellow down, since their unsustainable costs of living have shown no real decline.

The mass rage that is spilling over like a contagion demands that we stop calculating the casualties of the recession solely from the point-of-view of investors. Let us not paper over what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls the forgotten crisis of strugglers scrounging to put food on the table. Policymakers who fail to redirect stimulus packages to the issues troubling the average Jane and Zhou will face their wrath.

The author is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse, New York