Terrorism signals that the world has become very dangerous. Aggrieved nations must not confuse retaliation with curing underlying problems. In these matters, middle class populations have a special responsibility and a wonderful opportunity.
On October 17, 2001, the Allied response to the September 11th terrorist attack got underway against Afghanistan’s Taliban government and ‘guest’, Osama Bin Laden. There is no doubt that the destruction of New York’s World Trade Centre and loss of more than 3000 lives gives Allied nations, and the United States in particular, jus ad bellum – the right to vigorous self defense. As these rejoinders continue, concern is growing about the need for a measured response – for jus in bella.
Images of dead and wounded Afghani civilians will slowly mitigate the horror and outrage felt over September 11th’s carnage. This, and much else, will continue until closure occurs, perhaps a decade from now.
What is less certain is whether western nations will respond to underlying issues. This is where the murmurs being heard – that the first world has been complicit in poverty, inequity and other terrorist-nurturing problems – could have useful issue.
For moral and prudential reasons, the world’s advantaged populations must demonstrate that they are prepared to engage these matters. One possibility is to ‘think outside the box’ and go beyond traditional political and economic measures. A dialogue directly between the advantaged and poor of the world could do a great deal to repair bigotries and grievances. This need not – and should not – involve official communiques, petitions or formal expressions of good will. Such talk is not only cheap, it cannot count as communication between geographically and culturally distant peoples who must repair their estimation of one another. Dramatic acts will be needed to overcome the momentum of commercial agendas, ethnocentrism and political rhetoric.
I have a few suggestions. In North America, more than 120 million pets, mostly dogs and cats, inhabit homes and apartments. In ‘A Love Story’, National Geographic (January, 2002) notes that there 68 million dogs in the USA alone, about one for every four citizens. They inhabit 40 million U.S. homes and represent billions of dollars annually for food and health care. Cats are about as numerous and costly.
These animals could be eliminated, perhaps privately, but preferably in formal ways where the reason for doing so is explained: re-allocated, the costs of maintaining these pets could improve the lives of a corresponding number of human beings.
Could any such undertaking be defended? During the summer of 2001, Britain slaughtered thousands of cattle because of the mad cow disease threat. In virtually every nation, abattoirs kill thousands of animals every day for human consumption. Cattle, goats, sheep and chickens ... often served as pets a generation ago when rural life was commonplace. In some cultures, dogs and cats have been considered delicacies. Certainly, mice and rats are exterminated whenever possible, while a few scurry about in cages for the titillation of youngsters.
The point is, we cannot claim a moral connection with animals transmogrified into pets. The pet/owner relationship is arbitrary, occurs at our convenience, and exists for our pleasure. The fact that pets grow dependant upon owners for support and affection is the result of these relationships. Meeting such needs does not demonstrate empathy or responsibility.
The way is open to make different choices.
The billions of dollars spent on pets could be channeled to marginalized human populations. This would demonstrate concern that could not be dismissed by those fomenting violence and terrorism. A commitment to subscribe 10 years of 'pet support dollars' would go a long way towards repairing the circumstances (and perceptions) spawning terrorism.
There are other reasons not keeping pets could make a difference:
pet ownership has well-known benefits for health and psychological well-being. These benefits have been papering over the ‘local consequences’ – anomie, loss of community, specialization-driven irresponsibility – flowing from the same political and economic choices implicated in the genesis of terrorism.
Removing ‘pet palliatives’ would bring these issues into focus.
Pets compensate for – and hence facilitate – vanishing family and community life.
The ‘local improvements’ we might then manage without pets could make us more sensitive to the plight of distant populations:
subscribing sums for the repair of global inequities would link us imaginatively with distant nations, fostering affiliations now invested in captive animals.
Recapturing community life – which would be more apt to occur without the analgesic of pet ownership – would nurture a sense of global community.
Such repairs would have other important benefits. Vitalizing third and fourth world nations would breathe life into moribund western economies.
If giving up Fluffy and Jake is too much to contemplate, less dramatic changes could repair terrorism-spawning perceptions and inequities. An important possibility involves changing the way business is conducted. The costs of unnecessary commercial activities amount to flagrant contempt for impoverished populations. Many commercial practices add little or nothing to the end-users’ enjoyment of goods and services. Stupendous shopping emporiums, billions of dollars for advertising and promotional gambits ... are only the most obvious examples.
The costs of these practices and facilities are considered ‘overhead expenses’ and passed along to consumers. They consume resources for no purpose and cause needless environmental damage. They represent lost opportunities for future generations and penurious wages for third and fourth world workers.
How could such matters be repaired, since they flow from businesses pursuing legitimate interests? One way would be to elect governments prepared to change the rules defining what can be charged against revenues. Advertising – and many other discretionary expenses – should be paid for out of profits rather than customers’ pockets.
A second possibility involves consumers organizing into bargaining groups and negotiating design, quality and distribution issues with corporations and governments.
There is a related area where organized consumer activism could make a difference. Corporations take decisions about the quality and longevity of products. No reasonable person doubts that modern techniques and materials could often accomplish more durable and long-lived products. Decisions vis-a-vis style changes and product quality are made with one eye on re-purchasing cycles.
Such calculations mean that the number of people enjoying ‘the good life’ is smaller than need be. Only the wealthy are able to buy a dozen or more cars over a lifetime.
Microeconomic calculations satisfying shareholders and maximizing profit preclude John Stuart Mills’ utilitarian criterion – the greatest good for the greatest number. With the collapse of socialist/communist alternatives, capitalist economies have become laissez-faire machinations, unabashedly delivering the greatest good to the smallest number. Adam Smith’s doctrine of the unfettered ‘invisible hand’ spontaneously maximizing the productivity and efficiency of economies assumed something about the relevance of general populations to wealth production. Then and only then is it advantageous to have individuals and investment equity disciplined by market forces so their usefulness is maximized. There is nothing, it turns out, preventing this dynamic from dismissing entire sectors of workers – and whatever portion of the market they constituted. Adam Smith’s neo-conservative progeny do not seem troubled by the technologically and politically-abetted capacity of first world nations to decimate their own economies and then seize upon the results to argue for more bloodletting.
This is one of many reasons corporations must not be allowed complete control over the way the world operates. Yet the evolution of large corporations and global trade agreements constitutes just such a transfer of hegemony. At first glance, the recent round of trade agreements might seem surprising ... since the FTA, NAFTA, GATT ... are the spawn of mature democratic nations. Unfortunately, democratic proceedings have become a pawn for the wealthy and a sop to the insecurities of ‘remaindered’ populations. First world populations have the dubious distinction of being the first to insist upon prostituting themselves to commercial interests, apparently persuaded that prosperity, or at least security, requires this obeisance.
This faith is misplaced. The ‘accomplishments’ of globalization and multi-national corporations already include the perceptible diminution of western economies. For third and fourth world countries, the statistics are conclusive:
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) has published compelling data comparing growth rates from 1980 to 2000 (during the period of ascending IMF/World Bank power, when countries throughout the developing world adhered to the IMF/Bank structural adjustment policy package of slashing government spending, privatizating government-owned enterprises, liberalizing trade, orienting economies to exports and opening up countries to exploitative foreign investment) with the previous 20 year period (when many poor countries focused more on developing their own productive capacity and meeting local needs).The results: "89 countries -- 77 percent, or more than three-fourths -- saw their per capita rate of growth fall by at least five percentage points from the period (1960-1980) to the period (1980-2000). Only 14 countries -- 13 percent -- saw their per capita rate of growth rise by that much from (1960-1980) to (1980-2000).
CEPR found that the growth slowdown has been so severe that 18 countries --including several in Africa -- would have more than twice as much income per person as they have today, if they had maintained the rate of growth in the last two decades that they had in the previous two decades. The average Mexican would have nearly twice as much income today, and the average
Brazilian much more than twice as much, if not for the slowdown of economic growth over the last two decades.
A follow-up CEPR study ... found that progress in reducing infant mortality, reducing child mortality, increasing literacy and increasing access to education ... all slowed during the period of corporate globalization, especially in developing countries.1
Such outcomes constitute a fertile resource for Hitlers, Bin Ladens and Husseins. Western consumers have excellent reasons to do whatever it takes to demand durable, excellent products. Longer-lived products would be less expensive – even if more costly per unit – and the market proportionately larger.
The environmental and resource-depletion consequences of the way Western nations do their business are no less important. Prodigious amounts of energy and material are consumed promoting products and services whose characteristics are well understood. Foodstuffs, clothing, furniture ... do not need further glowing descriptions in mailboxes, newspapers or on television. If product were more durable, consumers would require fewer over a lifetime. Businesses’ struggle to survive would abate as more people entered the market as consumers and not just as exploited workers.
At the end of the day, product excellence and word of mouth could again become the sine qua non of success. The sounds of the sale diminished, billions of dollars saved, economies stabilized and the world a safer place – what a bargain!
Since September 11, concern has been growing that responses to terrorism will compromise freedom and economic well-being. Canadians have already told pollsters that they are prepared to trade freedom for security. In the meantime, we have become far more suspicious of one another, especially when 'others' have an ethnic caste.
More than the death of infidels, such consequences measure terrorisms’ seductiveness for the hopeless – and for those who take advantage of them. There is no way to prevent such factions - especially those with suicidal young men as assets - from exploiting underbellies and unguarded moments.
Although not immediately obvious, the principal task facing Western nations is to maintain their quality of life. The generation of a substantial population of neither rich nor poor people is the most important accomplishment of the Industrial Revolution. Fully occupied eking out an existence, the poor have little time for others, or even themselves. The wealthy – until recently the only other possibility – have tended to regard themselves as a species apart.
For such reasons, the events circa September 11, 2001 are a wake-up call. Middle-class populations are under attack, but their most important threat by far involves the political and economic machinations of wealthy interest groups. In North America, these encroachments are being explained as necessary for “economic well-being”. This is either deception or delusion. Globalization and automation – coupled with the increasing proportion of wealth vested with 10 percent – mean the middle-class is destined to share the fate of plough horses fifty years ago, and for the same set of reasons.
The need to "bring terrorists to justice or bring justice to them" must not distract us from recognizing that global inequities have to be repaired. Along with a great deal more, this certainly means eliminating the frivolous and arbitrary in our lives and commercial proceedings; identifying, saving and sharing what is worthwhile.
If the middle class does not do this, and if the aggrieved do not discover ways to deliver fatal harms, the wealthy will prevail.
Two hundred years ago, nations contained just rich and poor people. Clear demarcations separated them and everyone believed that life was proceeding as it should. Since then, hundreds of millions worked, invented, invested and saved ... creating a new class of people and a new moral possibility. Along the way, this middle class played a critical role in industrialization, the development of information technologies and the generation of enormous wealth.
Most of this wealth was pumped upstairs; and most technologies were designed to be owned by corporations. However, enough remained within the middle – and even 'trickled down' to the lower – to make industrialization appear intelligible. The middle-class also dispelled the ‘quiet desperation’ Henry David Thoreau had observed among the poor. In earlier times, the poor could not imagine becoming wealthy. The middle-class exemplified a possibility anyone could grasp: People still might not dream of wealth, but they could imagine not being poor.
The trap lurked in the expensive forms wealth-producing technologies were taking, and in the educations and investments opted for by industrializing populations. The stock market, in particular, persuaded millions to invest in corporations rather than personal production equipment or local businesses. These choices have been spinning off machineries and political arrangements of increasing sophistication and embodied intelligence, undermining the relevance of working-class skills – the raison d’etre of the middle-class.
While this was going on, a thoroughly modern Pandora escaped. The world has seen two centuries of amazing economic growth. For the last fifty years, communication technologies have been spreading life style messages around the globe. This – more than free-trade proponents and World Bankers – triggered the migration of third and fourth world populations to urban centers, providing the ambitious and unscrupulous with hundreds of millions of conveniently located, discontented people. Political, corporate and military adventurers capitalized upon this resource, but the middle-class set the stage for them. They did so by consenting to and financing technologies requiring enormous capitalization, and by educating themselves to become elements of the resulting infrastructure. The resulting myopia and dependency herded people (who might otherwise have known better) into globalization, automation and economic imperialism.
In spite of these results, the middle-class is the most auspicious accomplishment of the Industrial Revolution. For the first time, the world boasts a substantial population of neither rich nor poor people. Unhappily, these people have not yet seized their wonderful opportunity. They are instead infected with irrational ambition. Almost two hundred years ago, Srren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) described the hedonistic individual as one doomed to misery. No level of comfort or indulgence is capable of satisfying. Each becomes the basis from which more is sought.
Why are middle-class populations discontented? Along with Kierkegardian habituation, billions of dollars are spent indefatigably promoting the ‘next best thing’. In addition, middle-class individuals are often well educated with significant sums of money. It seems that it ought to be possible to leverage these advantages into true wealth. After all, the money gradient is continuous. One readily envisages moving up the ladder.
The problem is, the more energetic the middle-class becomes, the more equity produced and ‘pumped upstairs’. This moves the benchmark – what it means to be wealthy – further and further out of reach!
Donkeys chasing carrots have a more manageable challenge.
The events of September 11th emphasized the need to repair the way the world works. The exploitation of third and fourth world populations by home-grown dictators, local wealthy factions and western consortiums is a matter of record. What middle class individuals might ask is whether these incursions have not intensified since the end of the cold war. The middle class may now be perceived as only remaining threat to great wealth and the hierarchical status quo.
After all, the revolution to end all revolutions could begin tomorrow! What if millions decided that enough was enough and turned to more wholesome enterprises?
The most wholesome project conceivable would be the harnessing of first world economies and ingenuity to the generation of middle-class well-being everywhere.
Along with setting the stage for a global economic renaissance, such initiatives would immediately undermine terrorism’s rationale. If western nations have been guilty of imperialism in the past, promoting community-centered, small-scale technologies and rationalized economies would go a long ways towards repairing mistakes. The world will always harbor megalomaniacs, charlatans and brutal leaders. Hope depends upon improving circumstances so that people become less interested in manipulation, rhetoric and vitriol.
Everything depends upon the middle class embracing the poor.
The wealthy must be abandoned to fend for themselves.