Dec 012020

In a phone conversation with a talkative friend the other day, my counterpart’s initial volubility subsided, so that in the end, I was the only one still talking. Afterwards, wondering why his cheeriness had morphed into discouragement, I reached the conclusion that it was my fault.

Over the decades, I have been considered a lefty, and he has been the slightly patronising advocate of what he believes is “the middle ground”. Had I asked him, or for that matter almost anybody else, what is “the middle ground”, he would have given the glib reply “neither right nor left” and I might insolently have retorted, “neither right nor wrong?”

Yes, over the decades, he has patiently countered my impatient allegations about systemic racism, perpetuated social inequality, injustice etc., etc. with kindly smiles, and “sensible” arguments. More often than not, I for my part tended to have forgotten the statistical details informing my views and chaffed at the bit of my own ignorance, unable to prove my point.

The other day, though, the tables had turned. I didn’t remember the details about the tipping point, but I did have a pretty clear understanding of the concept “exponential”.

Likewise, I didn’t remember the details of Piketty’s statistics about rising wealth and income inequality, but since I follow international news pretty closely, the word “exponential” lurked at the corners of my mouth.

As another acquaintance predicted a few days ago: “Before long, we won’t be picking them up out of the Mediterranean, we’ll be shooting them.” He was referring to the not so distant future when most of the African continent will be uninhabitable and when Europe … no, I won’t go into that just now.

I won’t, because that was what I did during the said phone conversation with my friend the other day. I did not have Piketty’s figures at hand, but I certainly was able to outline approximately where Europe is heading, and it’s not somewhere nice. That is unless…. But before I could finish my lecture, my friend had wilted like a plane falling out of the sky. I had halted the trajectory of an optimistic man full of confidence in himself, his country and the future of humankind. I had brought him down. Now that was certainly not my intention.

Mind you, he knew that what I had said about the future of Europe, “unless…”, was correct. So why was he not willing to discuss the terms of the “unless” clause?

As for the tipping point, no reasonably sane, informed person can possibly doubt its reality, yet we just sit around doing exactly what we have been doing since we were born, with regard to the tipping point, that is: NOTHING.

Well, strictly speaking, that is not correct. Somebody is doing something, but that somebody is not me. It probably isn’t you either. I am very very sorry to say that it is not a government in any country, nor any powerful multinational company or mainstream media outlet. Extinction Rebellion is courageous, passionate and truly called for, but – alas – not my style; I’m no better than the rest of us law-abiding, spineless citizens, the gutless “we” I keep referring to.

We have been tranquillised and rendered non-combatant by a lullaby of promises about “climate neutrality by 2050”. Read that again: 2050. Thirty years hence, the planet will be unrecognisable.

Why? Why do we allow doctors to medicate us with tranquillisers and false hopes?

My theory is that we are sincerely frightened. And now that we are social distancing or in quarantine, we’re also not happy. If your day has been miserable, what do you do? Well, I don’t know about you, but most of us put on a brave face and tell ourselves and each other that tomorrow will be better. Yes, tomorrow must always be better, otherwise, we would not endure being alive. If baseless optimism hadn’t been part of our genetic makeup from the start, our species would not have survived locust swarms, bubonic plagues, famines, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Apartheid, etc., and even Trump.

I put to you that optimism is not a crime. Stupidity, however, is. I assume that mankind will survive the next thirty years, in some form or another. I hope that having learnt from the mistakes we are making now, future civilisations’ penal codes will deem stupidity on the part of “whomsoever has been endowed with normal intelligence and adequate social/economic conditions” a criminal offence.

Today is 1 December. According to the calendar, winter has come to the Northern hemisphere. But according to the trees, spring has come and the buds are opening. Maybe by Christmas the lilacs will bloom and the birds will be singing. Maybe in January, we can go swimming in the sea again. That would be so nice.

Oct 302020

There is absolutely nothing I can do about the shoot-out between Trump and Biden, other than to commiserate with US citizens in both camps who have had to watch their American dream go down the drain.

Had I been a US citizen, I would have voted, sure, but as I am not, I do not intend to sit up all night, every night of this last week, waiting for the election results, so please have me excused. Nor do I intend to incur headaches, hypertension, muscular pains, insomnia, or psychosis by following the news byte by byte. It is nearly all about Trump and Covid, even in my country. You could almost envy the people in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, who have issues that take their mind off Covid-Trump.

However, there are actually enjoyable pieces of news out there, would you believe it? True, my country’s national broadcasting company did not see fit to inform us about the outcome of the 25 October plebiscite in Chile, but we still have internet. (By the way, did you know that in Kashmir they don’t, thanks to “Democratic” India’s rabid PM Narendra Modi’s having slapped a one-year-long internet blackout on Kashmir.) So I watched a Chilean TV channel for – yes, for a whole night.

General Pinochet, whose US-assisted dictatorship had engaged in a particularly sadistic effort to exterminate the regime’s political opponents, stepped down in 1990 following a plebiscite he had allowed, believing that it would grant his dictatorship legitimacy. To everybody’s surprise, it didn’t. See the film No! directed by Pablo Larrain (trailer).

However, Chile was not rid of Pinochet. He left his mark in a Constitution (adopted back in 1980, when people were too terrified to oppose it), a constitution that seemed a hymn to Milton Friedman’s market fundamentalism.

Subsequent legislative efforts to protect the population from the effects of that constitution have been a seemingly hopeless uphill battle.

Milton Friedman often proudly referred to “the miracle of Chile”. Moreover, the father of Neoliberalism (albeit Neoliberal economists indignantly declare there is no such thing as Neoliberalism) Friedrich Hayek, visited Pinochet. If you are an economist, and if you still adhere to the “classical” economic precepts of Hayek, I suggest you take a look at Wikiquotes and search “Chile”.

Chile’s economy has been a model of stability, the darling of the IMF, with steady and uninterrupted growth in terms of GNP. But let me declare loudly, let me stand on a chair, let me shout, let me scream, as the Chilean protesters have been screaming: GNP does not reflect the welfare of the vast majority of a country’s inhabitants.

True, the number of people defined as living in extreme poverty has declined markedly from year to year. However, how do you define poverty? I put to you, that the majority of Chile’s population is living in what I consider poverty. I am sure you would agree if you were put to the test.

I quote from the think tank

Fifty percent of the economically active population earns less than 550 dollars per month, with the minimum wage equivalent to 414 dollars. Overwhelmed by the narrow strip that separates it from poverty, an important part of the population lives in fear of seeing their income fall. In Chile, downward social mobility is greater than upward social mobility, and downward mobility is more highly correlated to political protest than poverty itself.

The biggest factor that exacerbates inequality is probably the nation’s pension system, in force since 1982. Designed during the military government, the pension mechanism has not met Chileans’ expectations. According to the group No + AFP (No More Pension Fund Managers), which in 2016 organized a march of 600,000 people, these are “undercover banks of the richest entrepreneurs in our country who use the pension funds to expand their investments and further concentrate capital in a few hands”. The average pension for retirees is $286 per month, and 80% receive pensions below the minimum wage. The amount of pensions is on average close to 40% of people’s income at the time of retirement.

Education is the second major source of inequality. In 2006 and 2011, students organized massive demonstrations calling for profound reforms in the education system. Chilean education is characterized by the huge gap between public and private education. The withdrawal of the State from its functions as generator, regulator and supervisor of the education sector led to the gap as part of neoliberal reforms beginning in the 1980s.

The above quote is far too polite, in my mind. (The NY Times does a better job of it.) Then again, I suspect that working and living conditions for more than half the population in the USA is not very much better than for the majority of the population in Chile.

Now back to the night when the votes were being counted. The below link will take you to the infamous Stadium in Santiago during the last minutes before voting ends. Then you will see how counting starts at various polling stations, how amazed silence follows the first signs of what seems to be happening,

If you go on watching, you will see that dazed spectators surrounding the polling stations (las mesas) start to understand that they may actually have won. Eventually, they will find themselves in the streets, deliriously celebrating, and although there is a curfew, neither the police nor the army intervenes.

What emerges when all the votes have been counted is that only 5 of the 346 electoral districts were opposed to the trashing of Pinochet’s constitution. Two of them are so small they are statistically insignificant. Three of them, however, constitute the part of Santiago that houses the top of the social pyramid, the epicentre of political and economic power: Vitacura, las Condes and Lo Barnochea. In an interesting article, BBC explains that Santiago consists of two distinct universes. What is clear is that from the top of a pyramid, you don’t see the ants swarming down below.

President Piñera deserves praise for at least not having declared a civil war on the night when it became clear that 78.2 % of the population of Chile, had declared the country’s constitution worthless.

Look to Chile, my friends. Change is indeed possible.