Poverty of imagination and poverty alleviation in Colombia

The face over the main square of the National University

There is currently a burst of left wing activity in Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in the world, which is quite inspiring to see. But one thing it doesn’t seem to have produced is a burst of new ideas.

I sometimes find it a bit dispiriting that the heroes of the left here are still the likes of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and now Hugo Chavez – along with a bunch of Colombian heroes, most of whom are dead. For some reason being dead really cements your reputation here, whether you’re a home-grown hero like priest-turned-guerrilla Camilo Torres Restrepo or a foreigner like Hugo Chavez, whose death almost puts him beyond criticism.

Even as the left gears up to try and take advantage of the peace process, these people from old left traditions – in which taking control of the state is the main goal – are the biggest reference points. In particular I suspect the biggest leftist organisation here, Marcha Patriotica, would love to have their own Hugo Chavez. This is actually a bit odd when you notice that Chavez completely failed to implement anything close to a socialist economy. All he did was tax the oil revenue and share it around. Which is nice, but it isn’t socialism and a lot of the socialists barely seem to notice that.

So I’ve often thought it would be nice to see a bit more original thinking here in Colombia, and a bit more rethinking of some of the old attitudes. A Colombia friend recently noted that the left would love to put a lot of the murderous army generals in prison – apparently without questioning the role or existence of prisons. So a few people try to rethink such things, but not many.

But while travelling through rural areas over the last couple of weeks, seeing the poverty and the problems people are living, I realised that perhaps people don’t want to take risks with new and untested ideas. Perhaps they just want something that will alleviate poverty a little and they want it to work. Perhaps copying Hugo Chavez just seems like the easiest and most risk-free way to do that. Perhaps better-thought-out, more democratic, more sustainable attempts to alleviate poverty just wouldn’t work – I certainly can’t promise that they would. Grabbing the state, raising extractives revenues and putting them into social programs is known to do some good at least.

I can’t say the prospect of that happening in Colombia excites me too much, but I’m not a campesino struggling to survive on the breadline. I guess from that point of view, what works is probably what matters. I’d like to see more imagination from the left here, but I guess they would rather see decent health services.


Lessons in positivity from Colombia

People in Colombia have a tendency to be positive about things. That’s a bit of a general statement of course but the tendency is strong enough that I suspect it accounts for the recent slightly odd result of Colombia being surveyed as the happiest country in the world. I say ‘odd’ because much of the country lives in terrible poverty and amidst an ongoing armed conflict.

But one form of positivity you don’t see so much of in Colombia is the bouncy, almost patronising positivity that certain NGO’s  give out in an attempt to make us feel empowered. “Poverty Over!” announces Christian Aid in their latest slogan. We can do it! Even though it didn’t work when we said “Make Poverty History”! This time it’s for real!

“Together, Avaaz members are changing the way the world works!” says Avaaz. As a statement of reality it lacks substance (Avaaz hadn’t greatly impacted on the advance of neo-liberalisation last time I checked) but perhaps that sheer optimism can make it real! Fingers crossed!

In Colombia, this country full of optimists, I have not seen much of this type of optimism, and I think I know why. In Colombia you cannot afford to be mistaken about how much power you have. You don’t have much, and if you try to get more you might end up with a bullet in your head and your relatives will discover that the police aren’t very interested in investigating.

People in the UK don’t have much power either and a lot of people know this. I think that’s why most people don’t bother to vote. I know for sure that a lot of people don’t go on protests because ‘It doesn’t work’. And I’ve lost count of the number of times  people have shrugged at me about some gross act of corruption or abuse by the government and said “But what can you do?”

So the effervescent optimism of certain NGO campaigns seems to be intended to counterbalance this. On some level they know how powerless people feel and they’re trying to jolly us out of it. However, if you (or I) suggest to such NGO campaigners that we need actual structural changes to our democracy and to our economic institutions in order to gain more power, they will happily point out to you how unrealistic that is. Negativity about the power we could have is allowed apparently, while negativity about the power we have now gets you looked down upon as a naysayer and a party pooper.

As I say, here in Colombia, negativity about the power you have now is a necessary survival tactic. Above is a video of ESMAD, the Colombian riot police in action. Actually I could just as well have posted UK riot police in action, but a lot of the super-positive NGO campaigners never meet them. The difference in Colombia is that there are potentially much worse things than being attacked by the police. Like being on the death list of a paramilitary group friendly with the police. The question is – and Colombian campaigners have had to answer this – once you experience the blunt end of power and you want to find something to be positive about, where do you look?

I think that where Colombian NGOs are positive is that they believe in their ability to slowly, over time, create a level of collective organisation that can mount challenges to the government. They are positive about the power Colombian people could have one day, if enough effort is put into it. It’s a difficult thing to be positive about because the goals are so long term and the organising sometimes so dispiriting. But the campaigning NGOs in Colombia pull it off.

I like this, I suppose because it chimes with my own positivity. When people hear my comments on NGOs and political campaigning in the UK they often think me negative. But my own positivity is focussed on what is possible in the future, not in trying to make the present look better than it is. Right now we are powerless, we are not on the verge of changing the world, we are not about to end poverty. In the future, by organising together, we could change all that. It will take long term organisation, long term campaigning, and learning new ways of working together in a society that doesn’t do ‘together’ very well.

Positivity about our ability to organise together means being positive about some other things. I do not think that the society we have now reflects a selfish ‘human nature’, and while I don’t think we will ever have a better model of human being, I do think we can create social dynamics that encourage us to behave in different ways. British people are negative about these things where many Colombians are not.

Why is this? The reasons are no doubt complex, and clearly the countries have very different histories. But I would guess that in part it probably reflects the greater ideological penetration of the ruling system into people’s minds in Britain. People believe both their positivity about the present and their negativity about the potential for broader changes to be ‘normal’ or ‘rational’. I think those things are taught to us, often propagated by those at the top end of society.

Perhaps there are advantages to being in a country where the state has never had full control. It gives you space to be positive outside of the framework of how society and institutions function right now.

Culture clash in Colombia: journoworld and the real world

This part of the history of land ownership in the town of Tamesis didn't make it into an article

Being a journalist in Colombia has exposed an interesting culture clash that I didn’t expect. It is a clash between journalism and the rest of the world, but it becomes more obvious in a country like Colombia.

Doing journalism rarely means that you can do in-depth research into a subject and write a long and well-informed piece describing every detail of a situation. Instead it usually involves writing snippets of stories a few paragraphs long. To this the professional journalist adds quotes of no more than a couple of lines from key players in the story.

The aim is to have a simple linear narrative in your article, given a personal edge by some quotes that illustrate that narrative. So your story might be that indigenous people are protesting against a mine. You try to get a quote from a protester saying “The mining company is here to steal our land and we demand that they leave or we will block every road in the state.” Sometimes you might need a background quote saying something like “This is the third multinational that has arrived in our territory and we get nothing from them but environmental damage.”

The difference between doing this in the UK and Colombia is that every organisation in the UK has someone trained for media work who knows exactly what you want – the punchy one-line quote – and will give it to you. They’ll even put out a press release with three or four quotable lines so you can take your pick.

Here in Colombia many organisations – probably most – have not had that kind of media training. You go to interview them, needing to get perhaps three quotable lines to ‘illustrate’ your story, and find that they want to talk to you for an hour and a half, in a long and rambling way, about the history of the conflict, the history of the area, the history of the organisation, the nature of their struggle, and so on.

Or you get sent press releases, as I did yesterday, beginning: “The people of East Central Colombia have historically waged a struggle for the defense of life, land, the environment and human rights in general, in which we develop demonstrations, councils, strikes, civil, complaints, peaceful takeovers, among other accomplishments. We have opposed the looting and pillaging of our natural resources by multinationals and the state, and the social, humanitarian and environmental damage they cause.”

And you can’t use it. It’s not news. It’s not a one-line description of what is happening. It doesn’t encapsulate the snippet of the story you are trying to present. It wants to tell you the whole history of the people in that area in order to explain to you why they are so pissed off right now.

The thing is, I firmly believe that it is journalism that is wrong. The organizer of a coffee growers’ strike who tried to explain to me the historical role of coffee production in Colombia was right. I couldn’t put it in the article because barring the odd long-form piece (more common in the US than the UK), journalism isn’t interested in that. But he was right – to understand the story you should know the history.

No story can really be told in a few paragraphs, and certainly not in a one-line or two-line quote. That is simply the fragment of a story. If people are protesting there is usually a long history to their anger, and a brief explanation sometimes only leaves people baffled. I’ve experienced this myself. After demonstrations in the UK that were reported in the media friends have said to me “But I don’t understand what they want.” Since I was on that demonstration I was able to explain. But it takes 15 minutes, half an hour. The ‘explanation’  on the news took 30 seconds.

Doing journalism myself I try as hard as I can to put background into articles but in the end you only have a few paragraphs to work with. The form of news reporting often prevents you from explaining what is really happening – I imagine the reporting of Mali in the UK at the moment is suffering from this badly.

The Colombian campaigners are right to insist that the broader history matters to a story. Campaigners in the UK would be right to insist on it too, but they have felt the need to bow to the demands of journalism and present the instantly quotable quote. Really they have had little choice – if you don’t offer the soundbite you don’t get quoted at all.

But there is a big price to be paid for this: it so simplifies the terms of public debate that it becomes very hard to discuss anything in depth at all. For instance I suspect many (most?) people in the UK could not give an explanation of the term ‘neoliberalism’ even though it has been common currency in political circles for a couple of decades. So how do we have a public discussion about what is happening to the UK and the world when quite basic ideas, history and terminology are not available to people?

Many journalists and editors would presumably claim that people want their news in bitesize chunks: instant, brief, fleeting. But that is what they are habituated to, and rolling news channels rarely even try to offer more depth. They just offer more of the same, repeated over and over. Who knows what people might like if they were offered news that actually explained what was going on in the world?

The clash I have been observing while working here is not between journalism and Colombian campaigners. It is between journalism and the real world. Unfortunately the real world is losing.

The UK from Colombia: FARCing the left



Colombia noticeably lacks a left wing in parliament and barely has a left wing presence in the public sphere at all. Since I’ve already done one blog post about the similarities between the UK and Colombia I thought I’d do a second. The UK noticeably lacks a left wing in parliament and barely has a left wing presence in the public sphere at all.

If you ask a leftist in either country why this is the case many would launch into a long history of political repression of the left.  Clearly the left were repressed in Colombia, and the FARC guerrilla movement grew during a period – the National Front years, when the two major parties shared power as a way of ending the violence between them – when the country was only notionally democratic and new political parties were forbidden. The National Front era culminated in a fairly moderate leftist candidate being defrauded of the presidency, igniting even more guerrilla activity.

Meanwhile in the UK we have the bogeywoman Thatcher who deliberately set out to destroy the union movement and largely succeeded, leaving it a shadow of its former self. The working class were either beaten down or bought off with houses that left them in debt that changed their political interests, says this narrative.

Both these accounts have some truth and yet it seems to me that a movement opposed to those in power shouldn’t act surprised when those in power campaign against them. It seems almost silly to moan about it. It definitely looks weak to me as the main reason for failure: surely your strategy should have taken account of the fact those in power would fight back?

So while admitting that human rights defenders and leftist campaigners still get killed in Colombia, let’s look at two other reasons Colombia might have such a weak left. The first is the FARC: their tactics, often bloody, frequently far from communism, have delegitimised leftist discourse in the country. Every time the FARC come out and say something reasonable, such as pointing out that the rich have stolen land from the poor in Colombia and they should give it back, it makes it harder for the point to be made in public discourse. However committed to peaceful methods you may be, if you appear to repeat something the FARC have said, you appear to align yourself with a group that uses kidnappings, cocaine revenues and child soldiers.

That is reason number one. Reason number two I stumbled across the other day. I was talking to a man who runs a youth centre in the poor parts of Cartagena and he said two things a couple of minutes apart. The first was that all the kids get into drugs and drug dealing really easily because it is around them all the time. The second was in response to a question about what the poor think about the very rich in the city.

Cartagena slums

“Of course they want to have that life too, not to be rich, but to have enough to be comfortable,” came the answer, adding later on that there is never any political protest in the slums. It struck me that reacting to the rich with desire rather than anger may well be linked to the drug dealing. Because the latter offers a path out of poverty. A very, very tenuous and dangerous path, but a visible path nonetheless. Perhaps it acts as a safety valve then: it allows those in the slums to believe, in a society that presents them few opportunities, that they too can live in a shiny white tower block by the sea.

Cartagena, elsewhere

So do these two reasons for a weak left, one to do with public discourse and legitimacy, the other to do with the environment undermining grassroots activity, also hold true in the UK? I think the former does but I’m not sure about the second. It is true that the UK has a certain number of careers where a lot of money can be made fast if you have luck and the right contacts – banking springs immediately to mind. I’m told there is even a certain degree of meritocracy in the city, or at least it is not entirely dominated by the publicly educated. So those who are dissatisfied with their lot in life can take another path. But much as I like the idea of comparing drug-dealing with banking, I’m not sure the latter provides a safety valve. It’s more that we don’t need a safety valve yet because too many people are still too comfortable to want to risk trying anything new.

The question of legitimacy is more interesting. We don’t quite have an equivalent of the FARC. Well, we don’t have any armed leftist groups, yet somehow the left have managed to delegitimise themselves anyway. In the past many groups aligned themselves with authoritarian states, and even those who didn’t continued to talk about “revolution” in a form many people saw as discredited by the real world.

They also adopted tactics not acceptable to the general population. Many people see strikes as holding people to ransom for selfish reasons. There are often good reasons to go on strikes and there is certainly a role for them but the way strikes have often been used does make them appear to benefit only a few. The truth is, strikes often don’t evoke solidarity from other workers, they evoke a feeling that someone is trying to get a benefit others are unable to access.

Then there are protests. The radical left in particular loves a rowdy protest, but they look threatening to other people. They scare people off from joining a cause they may well believe in. I was amazed how few radical campaigners in the UK understood the decision of the Spanish indignados to sign up to non-violence. It was not a belief in complete non-violence that drove them to do it. They did so as a tactical decision, so that more people would want to join them.

Strikes and street protests are held sacred by many but that seems to me to be missing the point. If what you want to do is alter social relations then the point is to alter social relations, not use the same tactics over and over again that have so far not altered social relations as you might like. It’s like the FARC thinking that armed struggle will turn Colombia into a socialist paradise. The evidence is against it and their tactics mean most people are against them even trying.

You might argue that the government or those with power decide what is legitimate, and so any discussion of what is legimitate is sullied by the discourse of the powerful. That is partially true and we should bear it in mind. But it is not completely true. No matter how much people are influenced by those in power, we have to believe they have their own take on the world too.

And on that note, a final point: a lot of the working class in the UK don’t recognise themselves as the working class, and many of those who are would rather not be. Attempting to build up working class identity as the vehicle for a movement failed because that identity – and leftists really should have understood this – was something that people wanted to leave behind. Trying to force your view of the world on people is bad enough, trying to force your view of people on the people themselves is unforgivable.

The left is weak not just because they get attacked, but because they constantly screw themselves over by believing so strongly in what they do that the issue of legitimacy in the eyes of others seems irrelevant to them. We may not have the FARC in the UK but most of the UK left have the same intellectual ancestors as the FARC. I think that shows in their self-righteous insistence on forms of struggle that I suspect actually undermine any chance of changing how people relate to each other. Which should, after all, be the point.

Look to the future now, it’s only just begun: Santa Fe and Santa Fe

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.

The Future: Sante Fe, the small town

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.

The Future: Santa Fe, the mall in Medellin

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.


Travel reports: Evo’s Road

Asking people in Bolivia what they think of Evo Morales, the current president, turns out to be less interesting than I thought it would be. In the past the country was very divided on the question of the country’s first indigenous president. There is a long history of deep racism in Bolivia and many people hate Evo for who he is – a man from a poor indigenous background. The racism here turns out to not be purely about skin colour but also about culture. Many self-described ‘mestizos’ have a high percentage of indigenous blood but if they behave in an appropriately European manner they can be forgiven. Evo was a poor llama farmer and coca grower (and as a kid he sold bottles of soda to bus passengers) and to many mestizos you don’t get much less civilised than that.

Meanwhile Evo was swept to power on a tide of grass-roots – mainly indigenous – activism that twice in the last ten years brought the country entirely to a halt. He and his party MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) have implemented some important changes in Bolivia, including outlawing discrimination and changing the constitution of the country to ensure indigenous people can never again be excluded quite so totally as they were in the past. He has also defended coca farmers against the US war on drugs, and although he is not the rampant socialist many of his opponents claim, he has forced gas and oil companies to hand over much higher revenues and used the money for important improvements in education, infrastructure and other necessities.

But I read an interesting thing about MAS before arriving: that it does not have many connections with the broader social movements in Bolivia. It was designed as an implement for placing indigenous people into the formerly pale national elite, and this it has successfully done. It is a party then that depends not on grass-roots support but on wooing the electorate like any other party. And while it has worked to make structural changes to Bolivian politics, it has always worked to ensure its own place in the structure.

Now we come to why it was so boring to ask people about Evo. About a year ago, in a move seemingly from nowhere, Evo cut the government’s subsidy on fuel. Prices shot up overnight, not just on fuel but on food and every other essential item, some prices almost doubling. Overnight, Evo made the poor people who voted for him poorer. Admittedly he made the rich poorer too, and you can argue that a subsidy that helps the rich is ‘inefficient’, but the people who voted for Evo could not afford those rises. There were massive streets protests and eventually Evo backed down and reinstated subsidies. The prices however stayed where they were. For this one mistake it is now difficult to imagine Evo being re-elected. He managed to piss off everyone in the country at once and anyone you ask about Evo will give the same answer: he screwed us. He may have done some good, but then he screwed us. Or from the middle class: he was an ignorant peasant and then he screwed us.

So why did he cut the fuel subsidy? Evo’s claim that he didn’t want to subsidise fuel smuggling sounded a bit weak. Was it because, as in Nigeria, IMF economists decided it was an ‘inefficient’ subsidy? But it seems it wasn’t even outside pressure that did it, or not directly. Allegedly the reason Evo cut subsidies was because of falling private investment in the state oil and gas company. That is, he did it to please international finance.

The MAS project has been a success, but what type of success is this? In the short term you can get some changes by putting new people into the elite. Reportedly this government works till 8pm at night where previous governments worked until 4pm. They are serious about changing things. But in the long run, as many people in the United States have discovered, it doesn’t much matter what colour your president is. He’s still the president. It is his role that is the problem, target as it is for everyone who already has money and power. It seems a shame that the architects of MAS didn’t think about flattening the elite rather than entering it, that they didn’t try to move power from the government to the grass-roots movements who supported them. Perhaps some of the people within MAS itself may begin to regret it too if they lose the next election.

In the satirical Bolivian film ‘Who Killed The Little White Llama?’, the narrator talks about Evo Morales only once, while standing in the middle of a typical unpaved Bolivian road. “Evo Morales is a first class president,” he says. “While we travel on these roads, he flies first class.”

Travel Reports: On whose square a square is

Plaza Murillo

A few days ago I was in Plaza Murillo, the main square of La Paz. It attracts a lot of tourists both from abroad and within Boliva. It is the Bolivian equivalent of Trafalgar Square in London, but it had one big difference from Trafalgar Square. Plaza Murillo was interesting and Trafalgar Square is boring. Families sat around in the Plaza and a small horde of street vendors sold snacks, ice cream, children’s toys and souvenirs. Most interesting of all, people fed the pigeons.

I remember feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square when I was a child. It is, in fact, pretty much the only thing I remember about that family trip to London. Watching the children in Plaza Murillo reminded me that if you are four or five years old, throwing out grain to attract pigeons then chasing the pigeons away, then waiting for them to come back, then chasing them again, is about as much fun as it is possible to have. You can buy pure joy for the cost of a cup of grain.

As many readers will know, some years back the authorities determined that pigeon-feeding in Trafalgar Square would henceforth be forbidden. The reason given for this was that pigeons are unhygienic – a fact that I cannot dispute and that no-one could dispute. Yet I wonder exactly how many people fell ill or died due to that pigeon-feeding death trap through the years. It struck me as just another of those petty, undemocratic acts of control that characterise much of the professional classes in Britain. No doubt some bureaucrat or Councillor got a real kick from effecting change on the streets of London. Perhaps they lie awake at night hugging themselves with joy at the improvement they made to the capital. At last we are free from the menace of pigeon poo!

Meanwhile there is nothing to do in Trafalgar Square, particularly for a child. It is a blank space with a tall pole and some fountains. It is a poorer place in my eyes, but it is no doubt cleaner. The full meaning of cleanliness in public spaces is interesting however, as is the presence of street vendors in Plaza Murillo, and the absence of them in Trafalgar Square. A year or so before I got to Nairobi the authorities there had determined that street selling in a large area of central Nairobi was to be forbidden. Their reason, not hidden behind the obfuscations we are so used to in Britain, was that street vendors made Nairobi look poor. Now of course most of Nairobi is poor (and the former street vendors now even poorer) but now the streets of Nairobi don’t look so poor, which is what mattered to the rich of Nairobi.

Street vendors used to be much more common in Britain, presumably in Trafalgar Square but also beyond that. The main streets of New Cross are also very empty, except for the traffic. I would even call them sterile but for the general air of grubbiness that the Council doesn’t care enough to do anything about. A couple of years ago I met in the Amersham Arms an old man who had emigrated from the Caribbean to London some fifty years ago. He told me how when he arrived in New Cross not only were there many factories between there and the river, but the streets of New Cross were thronged with street vendors.

I don’t think the street vendors evaporated by themselves any more than the pigeon-feeding did. I suspect they were gradually illegalised across the country, except for in certain authorised and lucrative (for the local authorities) locations. No one remarks on it now. We just assume that streets should be empty spaces for walking through. They are minimal public spaces, used only for connecting bits of the city together, and the squares too have gradually been sterilised. They are kept public on the condition that the public do not do anything in them.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Trafalgar Square, where local byelaws prevent all unauthorised public gatherings, over and above the measures in the Criminal Justice Act and Serious Organised Crime and Policing Act that can already turn political demonstrations into criminal acts at the drop of a hat on the wrong side of a barrier. At a recent demonstration the police finally took the control of Trafalgar Square to its logical conclusion, erecting a great steel barrier designed for crowd control in major national crises around the Square to prevent demonstrators entering it. They confiscated banners from people entering the sterile zone so as to convert them from demonstrators into respectable citizens once more.

What many people have forgotten in Britain, perhaps because many people have been comfortable in their private spaces for so long, is that public spaces are public spaces not because the authorities determine they are public, but because the public determine they are public. They are made public spaces by the public taking control of them. The current Occupy movement is a great example of people making space public whether it was considered to be so or not. This is a particularly important lesson to re-learn in the face of actual privatisation of public space – something that has been creeping across the UK for some years now.

In Peru someone told me about another example of a battle over public space, and I think this one can be an example to us all. A few years ago an idiot Mayor of Cuzco decided that he wanted to get rid of the three-hundred-year-old trees in the main plaza of Cuzco. His reason was that they were blocking tourists’ shots of the famous cathedrals around the plaza. No matter that Cuzco was already probably the biggest tourist city in South America, he was going to make it better. The only problem was that the people of Cuzco loved their trees and didn’t want them cut down. So the Mayor sent in tractors in the middle of the night when no one was around and they pulled down every one of the great old trees in the plaza. The people of Cuzco, who were convinced that it was their plaza, spontaneously gathered and stormed around the city in such a rage that the Mayor was forced to escape the city in secret and fly off to Lima. He didn’t return to the city for three months and was never re-elected.

Now I’m not saying we should form an angry mob every time some bureaucrat or politician acts as though the public space is their space but…wait, no, I think I am saying that. I want pigeon-feeding back in Trafalgar Square, and street vendors making our streets look poor and messy again (if we have poor people then we shouldn’t hide them, and anyway the streets are theirs too) so if someone wants to get a mob going I’ll definitely join in. We might even get the right to protest back while we’re at it.

Travel report: on cake and the idiocy of economists

The cafe of free exchange during a rainstorm the next day

As regular readers may or may not know I am currently on the road in South American. Normal service shall therefore be replaced with brief travel reports.

In a small town in a poor part of the Peruvian Andes I was sitting in a cafe eating cake (not, by most standards, particularly good cake – the significance of this will be revealed in a moment). An old Quechua woman, a campesina, came to the entrance of the cafe and sat on the step waiting to be served. The waitress ignored her for a good long time but eventually came over to her and took from her a bag of freshly dug potatoes. In return the old woman received a single slice of cake.

A whole bag of potatoes, probably dug by her own hands, carried on her bent old back, for a single slice of cake! It’s true the cost of the two would be similar back home, but there the potatoes would have been harvested in 2 seconds by a machine. Of course, even if prices were consistent across countries, ‘the market’ is not interested in how the potatoes were grown, harvested or transported.

An economist would say that what I witnessed was free exchange. And the woman had, at a particular point in time, chosen to exchange potatoes for cake. No-one held a gun to her head while she did it. But if you look at the history of Peruvian campesinos and the history of cake, the story looks a little bit different.

Cake is a nice thing and in the form sold in that cafe has spread across the world carried by rich people and the people who cook for rich people. It is something that people want to eat and those with cake-making capital have a certain power over those who cannot afford the ingredients for cake, or the oven in which to make cake.

The history of Peruvian campesinos meanwhile is the history of perhaps the most consistently oppressed people on earth. First the Incas, then the Spanish conquistadors, then global capitalism. The latter, while less obviously (it depends how much attention you’re paying) or constantly violent than the slave labour imposed under the previous two systems, prefers wi-fi in central Lima parks to installing water to campesinos houses.

The old woman presumably offered a bag of potatoes for cake because that was what she had to offer. That was what she had to offer because of various systems of violence imposed upon her and her ancestors since the beginning of recorded history. Can this – just because the woman wanted cake enough to offer something – really be described as ‘free exchange’? Surely the only people who could make free exchange would be those with a free history, if such a thing existed.

Economics – or the cultish form of it that dominates politics and academia – is full of facile notions like free exchange that take no account of power or history or, for that matter, reality. Economists are idiots. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly that they have always had easy access to cake.