A couple of weeks ago I went to a film festival in a little town near Medellin called Santa Fe de Antioquia. In many ways it was much like a film festival in the UK. In other ways, like the really hot weather and the fact that most screens were outdoors in December, it was not much like the UK. One balmy midnight I stood chatting after a film to some people from Medellin – most of the audience were from the big city – about whether the film had been any good, the state of the Colombian film industry and so on. Our chatter was interrupted by a series of loud, rapid crunching noises. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. CRUNCH.
Next to us a family from the town was going round the square collecting all the empty beer cans, crunching them by stamping on them and collecting the squashed discs in a plastic sack. I say a family was doing it. In fact a husband and wife team did the work while their slightly chubby son, ten years old or so, sat on the edge of a raised flower bed watching them, kicking his heels against the wall in boredom. The couple wove between the dispersing festival-goers, largely ignored, picking up the litter of their wealthier fellow citizens.
When I first came to Colombia I told a Colombian guy I was interested in the politics of the country. He suggested I was politically ‘slumming it’, deliberately choosing to live in a country poorer than my own and a country with one of the worst governments masquerading under the heading of democracy. I told him that I honestly don’t have any sense of superiority about my own government, that if anything the main difference I detect between the rabidly neo-liberal Colombian government and the rabidly neo-liberal UK government is that the former practices its love of extreme violence at home while the UK government reserves its most extreme violence for countries a long way away. The latter is possibly more sensible in terms of the stability of the regime but it is difficult to establish it as a morally superior position.
The point was slightly glib but there are other similarities between the countries. If there is a thing consistent or coherent enough to call capitalism – a subject of debate on this blog – then it would be difficult to work out whether the UK or Colombia does it better. On the one hand almost the entire elite of the UK is currently committed to the system of theft and gambling instituted in the City of London, to the destruction of social benefits, and to the selling of every asset available to ensure the maximum possible disparity of wealth.
Colombia on the other hand is already blessed with one of the worst wealth divides in the world and really works it well. People tend to work stupidly long hours and the middle class have to strive to stay where they are. The un-moneyed middle class have recently gained access to credit cards and both they and the poor attempt to establish their position in society by buying expensive crap they don’t need. That is ‘normal’ enough for anywhere in the world – but the shopping centres here in Medellin are at least as fancy as a similar-sized city in the UK, and in a city where a significant percentage of the population can’t afford to buy anything in them. When they can, they often buy stuff anyway.
Meanwhile the price of property is absurd in both countries. The poor in Colombia at least can often get away with building illegally, although at the cost of security. Much of the lower middle class can’t buy at all and, too respectable to go and build something in the outer barrios, they lurk in their parents houses or pay rip-off rents. Just like the UK.
Another thing the countries have in common is an enormous number of places to gamble. As neo-liberal regimes both countries have clearly decided not to limit the number of city-centre casinos and betting shops. Taking decisions for a social good is anathema to them.
Overall of course the poverty in Colombia is worse than in the UK. At least we have a public health service to pillage right? That’s better than not having one. But if the current crusade against benefits and public services continues those differences will be eroded over time.
A lot of people in the UK still think we’ll get back to the growth levels of the last fifty years, that we will continue to ‘progress’. The man who accused me of slumming it in a poorer country probably assumed that I also believe in the inevitable march of ‘progress’ in my own country. But with the restructuring of the global economy in which our governments participated, we are getting poorer in the UK right now and I don’t think we should assume that is temporary. We may get some ‘growth’ back but for how long and who will benefit?
I don’t see Colombia as ‘backward’, or assume that with good government it will ‘progress’ to achieve the same level of wealth or wealth distribution as the UK, or that the UK will keep the wealth it currently has. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that we are amidst some progressive flow of history towards a better world. The widespread belief in that is a form of faith and I’m not much good at that. Besides, the signs in European and other rich economies at the moment seem to suggest something else entirely.
Already we are sending the poor to foodbanks or telling them to travel an hour and a half each way to do waitressing for a wage that won’t feed their family. One day soon we may see people wandering the streets after festivals picking up all the cans, breaking their backs to make a few pounds so they can feed their family. When I saw it here in Colombia I didn’t feel sorry for Colombians and think how much further our society has come. I was reminded how much lower we can sink and how much bigger and shinier our shopping centres can get if the existing elite are left to follow their current course.
CRUNCH. CRUNCH. CRUNCH.