This article was published on Babelmed.net (http://eng.babelmed.net/cultura-e-societa/36-mediterraneo/13190-disenchantment.html)
Christmas and the end of a year is the time for being a good person, drawing lessons and staying with your closest relatives and friends. Exactly five years ago, I wrote on this magazine an article named “Disgust” to express my embarrassment at the starting of the Israeli military operation Cast Lead in Gaza, a few days before the New Year’s Eve. In those hours, while I was with my Brazilian relatives on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the level of violence in words and acts, which was stepping on international law with arrogance in the Eastern Mediterranean, among others’ cynical approvals, freaked me out. At that time, the Palestinian wretched and scorned fate was the centre of disorder in the Mediterranean.
Five years later, it is the whole region on fire, and unsettled conflicts or unchallenged sources of injustice and oppression are simultaneously burning or ready to blow up. The lack of a common emancipatory project among the peoples of the region and the decomposition of social and economic cohesion are poisoning the political climate and legitimising old and new egoisms. Disgust is probably again the appropriate name for what I have been recently feeling, but there is also growing disenchantment for the capacity of our institutions to answer with courage to the challenges posed by the current political and economic crisis.
Right before Christmas day, within a few hours, I could see the two faces of the same medal with my own eyes. At the Egyptian Office for Foreign Nationals in Alexandria hundreds of Syrian nationals who had flown their country were standing like sardines on the first floor waiting for their turn in front of overstressed employees, while a bureaucratised and corrupted administration was processing on the ground floor other nationals’ files on the basis of the money they were offered for speeding-up their case (with the result that I was not able to apply for a residence permit, despite I queued for six hours). One day later, a young Italian head of household from Brescia, a town of the “rich North” of Italy, was begging money in shabby cloths on a commuters train between Milan and Venice, after having lost his carpenter’s job six months earlier, and eventually his house for not being anymore able to pay for it. I engaged in a conversation with him: he was de-motivated and disillusioned for the lack of solidarity he was facing around himself. It was a long time he had not get a 10€ note from someone.
Now, try to read the news and feel how deep is the gap surrounding us. Starting from mid-December, the Syrian regime has been bombing Aleppo with barrel-bombs dropped by helicopters causing the death of almost 600 people, and the military campaign has not yet ended at the moment I am writing this article. Last August, following a chemical attack in the damascene suburb of Ghouta, in which casualties were differently estimated between 300 and 1,800, some Western countries threatened the Syrian regime with a military intervention. Now, there is not even time for political condemnation, and international inaction and low-profile is indirectly offering the regime the appropriate margins of manoeuvre to kill people with conventional weapons. Prof. Salam Kawakibi, political scientist and a prominent member of the Syrian secular opposition, calls the United Nations as simple as that: “United Nothing”, to indicate the vacuity of the so-called “International Community”. This is unfortunately the best framework to make room to the makers of disorder and repression, and the architects of counter-revolutions like the one taking place in Egypt right now, where behind the propaganda of the struggle against terrorism, the former corrupted establishment is selling the image that the 2011 revolution was a coup orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood (which as absolutely false, because they joined the revolution only when they were sure of its success, and nobody noticed them until the first free parliamentary elections took place). Besides trials and bans hitting the characters and the organizations of the Muslim Brothers, prominent secular characters of the 2011 revolution such as Ahmed Maher or Ahmed Douma have been recently arrested, others such as Asmaa Mahfouz investigated for espionage for foreign bodies, and respectable associations such as the Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic Rights raided (al-Masry al-Youm, 24/12/2013).
Not less outrageous are the news on the raising fortune of the few in time of crisis. Italian fat cats, for example, have seen their capital at the stock exchange market growing in 2013, while the crisis was hitting Italian families – ⅕ of them cannot meet expenses with their income – and consumption was cut by half of them (Confcommercio-Censis, 10/2013). So, you have a few rich people whose capital has increased of between 15% and 70% in one of the worst years of the Italian economy in the last decays (La Repubblica, 21/12/2013)! Maurizio Lazzarato, in his book on the making of the indebted man (La fabbrica dell’uomo indebitato, Derive Approdi, 2012) explains that in contemporary capitalism the central relationship is no longer the one between capital and labour, but between debtor and creditor. The capitalist accumulation does not occur any more through the mechanism of profit, but through the one of economic rent. The «indebted man » pays for maintaining the capitalist system three times: through fiscal drag, social spending cuts and wage reduction. In order to maintain the system in life, wealth is now being transferred from citizens to creditors through fiscal instruments. If until the 70’s, in fact, taxation was used to redistribute wealth among the workers, taxes for the wealthy people have tended to decrease, thus changing profoundly the purpose of fiscal instruments themselves. In a situation of crisis such as the current one, where there are fewer assets and less money circulating, only taxes allow to recover money. Furthermore, in addition to an effective reduction of public investment in social services, these services are also partially replaced by credit: it is the case for instance of the financialization of the housing and education rights. Finally, in the debtor-creditor relationship, the variable “wages” is not independent any more, but it depends on the economic circumstance, namely on the creditors’ rent.
“What do you think the crisis in Europe is for?” I asked Lazzarato last May at a conference in Zagreb. “It serves the purpose of privatizing what has not been privatized, making available to finance new goods and services, and accelerating the spiral of financialisation. Finance is the redemption of the capital. It does not count any more what you produce, it counts the monetary valorisation you make out of it” he answered me. All in all, it is a matter of legitimacy, of lost legitimacy of leaders in charge in a context where the identity of effective decision-makers is the more and more obscure, and global authorities regarded with increasing suspicion. Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, in Disordered World(Bloomsbury, 2011), says: “Many of our fellow human beings live in states whose rulers are not the winners in fair elections, nor inheritors of a respected dynasty, nor continuing a successful revolution, nor architects of an economic miracle, and therefore do not have any legitimacy. And they live under the control of a global power whose legitimacy people do not recognise either”.
If there is a reason to remember this end of the year it is the feeling of loneliness of many in challenging the corruption of the social contract, the dismantling of the State, its loss of legitimacy in ensuring a decent life to its citizens, and the crumbling of a coherent and morally guided International Community which can preserve stability, peace and justice in the region. So, what to do?
As someone who has been devoting part of his life to the rediscovery of a Mediterranean identity, made of multiple identities, jealous of its diverse facets, where social life, proximity, beauty and solidarity, as well as the sense of human dignity and of the sacred, have been playing a central role in shaping a unique lifestyle, I consider that there isn’tother way than building a rescue net together, joining those positive forces that the Mediterranean culture has been nurturing, and which were the yeast making the the widespread recent social protest in the region possible. Because of its history made of the superposition of multiple civilizations, because of the common values that its peoples embody (a sense of community, the importance of family ties, the taste for beautiful things, the connection with the territory and the food, spirituality, the sacredness of hospitality, creativity and industriousness, the culture of coexistence with the other), the Mediterranean has become a fulcrum of civil resistance against wild capitalism, de-democratization and cultural trivialization. But the visible and hidden forces of neoliberal naked greed and political oppression are not used to lose time in chit chat. We therefore need to build a trans-national Mediterranean network, which puts together the various experiences of resistance, protest and popular initiatives emerged in the last years in the region; a Mediterranean platform, that advocates for a new social contract, so urgent in times of profound crisis that involves peoples of Europe and the Mediterranean neighbouring countries. A social contract that rewrites the foundations of the relations between institutions and citizens, where communities can govern the development of its territory and channel economic and social resources towards meeting their citizens’ needs for a shared development, by questioning the centralization of capital and resources in the hands of a few, and by reforming the rules of participation and democratic representation. This platform must be opened to diverse groups and movements who are striving for freedom, social justice and respect, irrespective of their cultural or religious background, in a sincere effort of uniting different cultural groups and cultural sensibilities in a common front against de-democratisation, consumerism and human and environmental exploitation. We must have the courage to imagine a new space of political, social and economic integration, in the cultural diversity that characterizes its peoples, because nobody else would otherwise do it. In a period of crisis and crisis of legitimacy of governmental institutions wherever we go, in Rome as in Istanbul, Cairo or Athens, Madrid or Casablanca, it is up to an independent Mediterranean civil society to prepare for the future, addressing the socio-economic, environmental or geo-political problems in a regional perspective, beyond the national borders.
The odds at stake are too worthy: it is a matter of a better or a worst life for almost everybody in the region, and for the world as a whole. This is my wish for 2014 to all of us: Let us not be overwhelmed by disenchantment. Disgust, yes, but not disenchantment . Disgust for injustice, evanescence and falsity, because that feeds the sense of dignity and the will of resistance. There is not a better moment than a New Year’s Eve to taste what human struggle is imposed on us.