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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The new terrorists

Trying to do justice to the question of how the world has changed in the past decade in 1,000 words is, to put it mildly, rather challenging! I should probably assume that other contributors to this special issue of the Romanian journal Revista 22 will have covered the obvious issues – and try to make a couple of distinctive points. So what should my line be? I thought that I might go for a heading like “The New Terrorists” and suggest that the damage the neo-liberal ideologues and financial class have done to societies is so enormous that this is the term we should apply in future to them. I’m sure I’m not the first to have thought of this – but it does seem a powerful phrase which brings together several arguments – eg Chomsky’s “manufactured consensus” (media and state manipulation of our perceptions); that people (in the developed world) feel less secure not because of islamic terrorists but because the old certainties of jobs and welfare have disappeared; and public values, space and decency are declining. Richard Douthwaite’s most recent book put this well -
As individuals, we face increasing insecurity in our working lives, on our streets and even within our homes. As societies, we face a ruthlessly competitive global economy, the threat of armed conflict, and a biosphere stressed to the point of collapse. Why is the world's climate becoming ever more unstable? Why is democracy slipping away, and ethnic conflict, poverty, crime and unemployment growing day by day? The root cause of all these problems often evades even the most intelligent and well-intentioned examination
.A fundamental question, of course, is how we notice and measure “change”. Any list of the ways in which the world seems to have changed in the last decade would include -
• The scale of migrations – caused by both economic and military circumstances
• The scale of natural disasters
• Breakdown of the international financial system
• Changes in social behaviour caused by the internet
• The rise of China
• Increased disillusionment with political action (due to the continued grip of Neo-liberalism )
• Growth of inequality and insecurity

There are, however, several problems with such a listing. First this is a rather partial and ethnocentric picture. The list refers mainly to disturbances to the comfortable western (mainly European) world. The net needs to be cast wider – to recognise, for example, that many countries in South American and Africa have seen positive political and economic developments since 2001. Hundreds of millions of people have also been lifted from poverty throughout the world (although the squalid and fragile urban conditions in which most of them live might lead some to question the significance of this index). The Arab spring may have challenged the view many had of Arab and Muslim fatalism but we have become less optimistic about the onward march of democracy. It is not just that the various tulip and other revolutions of the 2000s stalled; it is also the growing disillusionment with democracy in Europe
The metaphor of the fishing net takes us to the second issue – the way we measure change. Our view of the world is determined both by the images we get from the frenetic global media and by our fixation on the familiar. The deeper the change, the less we are likely to notice it. Historian EH Carr put it this way –
facts are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what we catch will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean we choose to fish in and what tackle we chooses to use - these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish we want to catch. By and large, we will get the kind of facts we want
.We have become fixated in the last decade on indices – for example about “good governance” and, even more recently, “happiness”. But just think of the process by which statistics about such crimes as rape and “domestic assault” have developed. When I was a magistrate in a Scottish working class town the early 1970s, “wife beating” was accepted by most circles as a natural behaviour of hard-working and drinking men (particularly unemployed or on casual work). And the incidence of rape depends on social inclinations to report it – which are lower in traditional societies than in modern cities.

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