The implications of global discontent

Wednesday, 4. February 2009     0 comment(s)
Watching the people get lairy
Is not very pretty I tell thee”
Kaiser Chiefs – “I predict a riot”, 2004.

The global recession is biting and – as a product of globalisation – biting everywhere. At the Davos summit last week the gathered dignitaries had very few answers for the economic malaise, and could do little more than warn of impending unrest and against protectionism. Despite Finland having been lauded elsewhere for its competent management of the crisis, if one keeps an eye on the STT news wire that sends Finland’s news out to the rest of world, all too often the stories of job cuts and layoffs are piled on top of each other with little space for other news.

Finland is a country that still, despite the doomsayers, has much social capital binding the people to each other and the people to the state. It is for the same reason that Iceland, perhaps the country that has been most damaged so far by the banking crisis, has managed to avoid social upheaval beyond a change of government and protests that have only recently touched on violence. But in other countries around the world the relationship between the people and the state is more typified by suspicion or disdain than trust. The Greek farmers blockading the roads into their country might be good humoured and welcoming to the media, but they claim that the policies of their government mean that their ‘way of life’ can no longer provide them or their families with the necessities of life. At the close of last year the young people of Greece demonstrated violently, showing that many of them see their state and its agents – the police – not only as failing to secure their interests but actively contravening them.

Latvia has seen riots as its economy has crashed and its internationalised banks have wobbled. In Russia where street protests have in recent years been a tool used by the state to further their interests, a wave of demonstrations against economic hardship – some of which descended into violence – rippled across the country from Vladivostok to Moscow. Bulgaria and Lithuania have also seen clashes between protestors and police in January. In China over the last couple of years riots and other violent protests have sometimes seemed like one of the great under-reported stories, often because of the restrictions put on journalists by the government. Yet at other times considering the sheer scale of the Chinese population and the depth of the change the country is going through, the fact that there has been as much social stability as there has seems remarkable. Last year closed with serious riots in Dongguan that were directly linked to the economic downturn. In 2009, the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, as the recession creates more unemployment and movement amongst migrant workers, social stability in China will be an even greater priority of the Chinese government than normal.

When frustration and fear caused by economic insecurity builds, governments are not the only target of people’s anger. Nationalism tends to build and foreigners are blamed. In the UK a wave of wildcat strikes, out of control of the unions, have spread across the country. They were sparked by a building firm bringing in workers, perfectly legally, from elsewhere in the EU rather than employing locals. In the US some are telling the defeated Republican party that the path back to electoral success is that of harsher policies against immigration into the US, and a crack down on the tens of millions of illegal immigrants already in the US. A series of racist attacks in one county of Long Island against Hispanic immigrants culminated in the murder of a young Ecuadorian last year and shows the dangers of this rhetoric getting out of hand. Across Europe, there are fears that this June’s European Parliament elections the far-right will capitalise on similar fears over the economic downturn and migration. In the UK, a group trying to stop the British National Party from getting a Euro MP has gone as far as to hire the team behind the Obama web campaign to help them. Even Finland is not immune from this sad phenomenon. The website of the church campaign for helping immigrant jobseekers has been deluged with racist comments.

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