Donnerstag, 4. Februar 2010

Two Worlds, Linked but Scattered

Here's another interesting NEW YORK TIMES article, written by Roger Cohen, and published in Austria's DER STANDARD on February 1. I only happened to stumble upon it today, and it reminded me - in its content as well as in its style of writing - of the wonderful book SHANTARAM (by Gregory David Roberts) which I have recently finished after 5 months and 930 pages of fascinated reading...


I was in Vietnam, but I might have been in just about any developing nation. I walked out of the air-conditioned café, a sort of ersatz Starbucks called Highlands with its lattes and club sandwiches, and found myself in the grit and grime of the laboring world.

At the roadside coffee stand, where I perched myself on a low plastic stool, chickens strutted under the plastic tables. A woman swept cigarette butts into the gutter where they joined the leftovers she'd just tossed out. Cab drivers, looking sharp in their white shirts and red ties, pulled over to grab a sweet concoction made from condensed milk mixed with strong coffee poured from plastic bottles. Great hilarity accompanied the loading of a dog onto the front of an already burdened motor scooter. The bike took off, adding its whine to Vietnam's two-wheeled cacophony, which at that moment included a biker with a great bundle of floral wreaths: well, I thought, if he goes under a truck the burial will be a fine occasion!

Aaah, I sighed, the real world. Poverty is real and it's widespread and increasingly it sits hard against the cool and glittering and brand-filled malls where the moneyed stroll and shop on avenues of hermetic fragrance. But of course these soaring atriums of opulence, indistinguishable from Shanghai to Sao Paolo, are no less "real" than the dusty mayhem from which they rise. If we call struggle and toil real, but shop-until-you-drop affluence artificial, it is perhaps because we are at a loss for words.

It has to be said that the contrast is often mindboggling: the crumbling shack beside the 5-star beach resort; the vast villa (offered by Sotheby's International Real Estate) beside the slum; the "gated community" beside the great unwashed; the brand-filled department store beside the market where raw-faced peasants offer a head of lettuce or a bunch of lemon grass. Economists call this "enclave development." But how do you connect the enclaves with their surroundings? How do you spread wealth?

This is one of the great conundrums of our times. Technology and the instant movement of capital have empowered and enriched the few. Yachts rise on globalization's rising tide, but little dinghies often don't. Rapid industrialization in the 19th century brought a reaction in the form of labor unions that, over time, proved effective in spreading benefits. But rapid globalization in the 21st century tends to escape any organized control or channeling, as the great financial meltdown of 2008 illustrated. National governments, let alone national unions, are weaker than globalized forces. Social democracy, with its tradeoffs, a triumph of the 20th century, has lost sway to individualism.

But, of course, the picture is not entirely dark. In Asia, hundreds of millions have been lifted from abject poverty by the vital injection of international capital. From China to Africa, nongovernmental organizations are working hard to grow citizens' awareness of their labor rights, their environmental rights and their rights as women. Technology, a byword for openness, has limited the ability of repressive governments to repress with 20th-century ferocity. They have to be more selective about where they draw the line. Connectivity has empowered more people to create.

Still, I am struck by how skewed the world is. The link between labor and reward has been broken. Too much money just gets made too fast through cozy deals that flourish in an uncontrollable global financial environment. President Obama may rail against greedy banks, and western politicians may vow stricter regulation, but the forces they battle seem stronger than they are. China, which in its way is a synonym for the 21st century, is a study in how the haves get sweetheart deals while the have-nots toil.

And so onward we rush, linked by technology, but scattered in enclaves, toward some day or reckoning that seems inevitable, but whose form I cannot imagine.