A Sense of Alienation

After the first wave of all-embracing economic growth took place in Mauritius in the 1980s, on the back of industrial expansion, notably in textiles and garments, there was a feeling that people who had been left behind were being taken in.

Several members of the same family joined the workforce simultaneously whereas it had been the trend in the past for families to have a single principal bread earner.

This newfound prosperity created a dynamism of its own. Newer activities emerged. Jobs became more enduring. Families could contemplate buying up electronic and electrical appliances that had been reserved for the few in the past. Couples could look forward to having a house of their own. The future looked more promising. A higher economic status that had eluded the majority of people so far looked a clear possibility this time.

Governments congratulated themselves.

The limitation of this economic model surfaced up a few years later. It was founded on a relatively narrow base of diversification and was dependent on external market conditions. Once it caught up with more broad-based international competition and producers proved unable to align costs, factories started disemploying local workers. Factories started closing down or reducing scale. Successive governments had no clue what to do except going on increasing “incentives” to enterprises, depreciating the currency and letting inflation erode the public’s purchasing power.

In the process, some felt excluded from the newfound prosperity. There was talk of ‘malaise’ and a feeling gained ground that the prosperity was being shared selectively, to the exclusion of certain groups in the population. Mauritius being Mauritius, this feeling was no sooner communalised than politics reared its ugly divisive head again. This distracted attention away from the main problem that the economy was not proving itself resilient and scope-full enough.

Why did this situation arise so soon after the initial economic success? Why this feeling that the gains from prosperity were not being fairly shared? The reason was simple. The economic model on which we had built up the success was no longer asserting itself in export markets as strongly as it had done in the beginning. Those who were laid off or could not discipline themselves to the new exigencies of work arising from this situation started identifying a target on whom to put the blame for this situation.

Our industries had to overcome ever stronger international competition, which meant that export prices came under greater pressure. Equipment was not renewed as required to face this situation. Inefficiency increased. Workers bore the brunt. The effect was to gradually freeze wages or to simply narrow down the scope for further employment in the nascent industries. As it happens in such cases, the pressure came to bear increasingly on those lower down the employment ladder, including imported labour. The jobs market did not evolve as dictated by changed circumstances.

The textile and garment sector in particular resorted to cutting back on employment. Total employment in export enterprises, which had reached nearly 90,000 at the peak, soon came down to the 55,000 following a series of job cuts, a level from which these numbers are refusing to go up till today. Those who were left behind in the process had to identify why they were falling behind. It gave rise to a sense of ‘victimisation’, being left behind.

This feeling of being left out is identical to what the millions who lost their jobs in the wake of the 2007-08 international financial and economic crisis have been going through. In the period before, jobs had been aplenty. Big finance houses and global enterprise production chains – helped by the forces of globalisation — had kept inflating global demand, until there came a point when it could no longer be sustained. Countries which had seen better days beckoning them suddenly saw prospects dashed when commodity prices came crashing down. South Africa has an overall unemployment rate of nearly 27% today, Spain 20% and Greece 24%.

On the one hand, hundreds of millions of people were initially lifted out of poverty in countries such as China, by the forces of globalisation when it was sweeping across the world with full force. Soon after, as the tide turned the other way, factory workers – as it had been the case in Mauritius – lost their jobs. It proved well-nigh impossible for many of them to find an alternative decent employment after being laid off. Same story for workers. Same feeling of not being cared for by their respective governments.

The problem has been that governments did not concentrate their guns on spreading the benefits of globalisation. They built new agendas instead, such as the spread of democracy, better human rights, concerns about the environment and climate change, meritocracy, austerity, sexual equality, etc., without actually contributing to overcome the basic feeling of alienation people felt at being deprived of jobs and decent living conditions. The periphery became more important than the central concern about the general well-being of the population.

There was no one to take care of the losers in the process. Masses of migrants in quest of a better future started moving to other places looking for something better than the wretched lives they were leading while political power games gained supremacy, relegating their well-being to the lowest priority. This mass migration was not without disrupting the serenity of those populations at the receiving end.

Not surprisingly, the victims of this situation were not consoled. They doubted whether the left-right political divide that has held sway the last 150 years had answers to their problems. This feeling did not manifest itself in the less well-off countries alone. It was also felt in the world’s better off places. How could it not have been so when, despite American wages per person increasing by 14% between 2001 and 2015, the median wage (middle of the scale) increased during this period by a mere 2%; most of the increase went to the top.

As election results from Australia to Poland are showing, people are fed up with politics focussing on superficial projects much to the neglect of the lot of the worse off. Instead of improving basic human needs and social mobility – of the sort we had seen in Mauritius in the 1980s with the take-off of our industries — and helping out those mired in deprivation, politics appears to be having quite different horses to flog.

A feeling is gaining ground to the effect that media and big corporations have combined to protect specific private interests of those at the top. It is the reason perhaps for the strong popular opposition there recently has been in Europe to the ratification of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between Europe and America. Grassroots suspect that such regional trade arrangements are intended to serve the profit-earning agenda of the world’s top companies lobbying the political class, unlike the wider-reaching World Trade organisation.

The evidence is here. Large sweeps of past economic growth have not really favoured the growth of average wages across countries. The fruits of globalisation have not been shared fairly. Companies’ restrictive practices have increased to the detriment of the public, not decreased. Until and unless politics resumes prioritizing basic human needs – and not the greed of the few at the top – there is bound to be serious rebellion against the growing alienation of the majority of people at the bottom.

Politics has to become real once again, as it did when it embarked on the grand emancipation of workers, beginning with the abolition of slavery in the 1830s.

* Published in print edition on 15 July 2016

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