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Snapshots of Austerity: Detachment

What’s end of the line for austerity? We’ve gone through despair, desperation, and indifference. The latter feeds the first two, creating what Robert Reich calls “a tinderbox society,” as “those collecting capital gains” demand austerity, resulting in “rising frustration over the inability of most people to get ahead. That frustration, Reich notes, is fanning the flames of public anger in Europe, fueling student revolts in Chile, and could plunge China into turmoil.

Where austerity goes, violence and unrest follow. The danger lies in the unpredictable nature of public anger, once ignited. When sparks fly, there’s no telling where they catch fire or who will get burned.

It’s a combustible concoction wherever it occurs: Increasing productivity, widening inequality, and rising unemployment create tinder-box societies.

Public anger and frustration can ignite in two very different ways. One is toward reforms that more broadly share the productivity gains.

The other is toward demagogues that turn people against one another.

To borrow a line from Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 hit single, austerity means “we’re living in a powder keg, and giving off sparks.

Except there is no more “we,” anymore. As austerity-engineered scarcity makes day-to-day survival, people see their fates as divorced from one another. Solidarity gives way to detachment, an “everyone for him or herself” becomes the general , if you want to survive.


Yes, there are a few stops between desperation, despair and austerity’s final destination. Increased economic inequality is one of them, if austerity’s outcome in Portugal is any example. Social unrest is part of the equation, too. Joseph Stiglitz explained the how “The IMF Riot” fit into big picture back in 2001.

The anti-austerity protests and social unrest across Europe resemble nothing so much as “the IMF Riot.” Perhaps that’s because, as Bob Borosage and Dave Johnson have already pointed out, the austerity push that’s followed the economic crises in Europe and the U.S. is exactly the program Naomi Klein described in The Shock Doctrine. Mary Bottari pointed out, in a 2011 post, that the austerity implemented in Europe and advocated in the U.S. came straight from the playbook of the “shock doctrine” grand-daddy, Milton Friedman.

So, to get an idea of where it all leads, it’s worth taking a look at countries already more or less “shocked” into submission.


In Part Four of The Shock Doctrine, Klein covers how the “shock” was applied to several countries during the Asian financial crisis. In a chapter called “Bonfire of a Young Democracy.” “Never,” wrote Klein, “have so many lost so much in so short a time.”

A review of the book offers a pretty good summary of what happened to Russia. In 1993, after the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia’s parliament diverged from the IMF’s demands for austerity (to pay Soviet-era debts), president Boris Yeltsin abolished Parliament, dissolved all city and regional councils, and ordered the army to storm the parliament and set fire to it. Austerity won the day, and by 1996 the consequences for Russia included: 80% of Russia’s farmers bankrupt, 70,000 state factories closed, “epidemic” unemployment,” “desperate” economic conditions for 37 million Russians, and the growth of a permanent underclass.

In December of last year, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest a rigged election. Their rallying cry spoke volumes: “We exist.” Their rallying cry reminded me of two articles by Anna Nemtsova, about two strange stories that illustrated how detached many Russians have from one another as a matter of survival.

Earlier this week, I blogged about austerity’s continued catastrophic success in Europe. Even as I wrote that post, I thought of what Engelhardt wrote the demonstrations in Russia. Synapses firing away, I saw a connection between Engelhardt’s piece and a couple of Daily Beastarticles by Anna Nemtsova, about two rather strange Russian news stories.

The first was about a Nizhny Novgorod man who collected female corpses and kept in his home. Anatoly Moskvin, a 45 year-old, self-styled “necropolyst,” specializing in the history of local cemeteries. He wrote and published articles about the cemeteries he obsessively explored. He also disinterred the remains of over 20 girls and young women, snuck them into his apartment, dressed them up as dolls, and installed music boxes in some of them.

The second article was about a 23-year-old woman whose mother kept her locked up in their apartment for nine years, “To save her from heroin addicts, lesbians, and rape.” From the age of 13 Katia stayed in the one-room apartment while her mother, described as a “street sweeper” named “Mad Anna,” left every morning at 5am, after securing some six locks on two doors (one of which was an iron door). When neighborhood children smashed the windows, Anna nailed sheets of iron and metal bars over them. The electricity was turned off last year, due to unpaid bills.

Katia spent her time reading the books and magazines her mother brought home, sorting through the garbage her mother “brought home in large volumes,” and tearing up pieces of cardboard for Anna to sell on the street for 4 cents each, or washing bottles for Anna to sell about about 6 cents a pop.

Nemtsova returned to her hometown, Nhizy Novgorod, where one of the stories originated. Her home coming caused her to reflect that “something must have gone seriously wrong in Russia in the past two decades.”

Nizhny Novgorod (Нижний Новгород)
Something must have seriously gone wrong in the past two decades. Russians have turned inward. Their attention hardly extends to their neighbors’ lives, much less politics. Political scientists even have a name for this social phenomenon in Russia. They call it a “divorce” between the government and the people. Turnout in last weekend’s elections was 62 percent, the lowest in years. When last September my school friend was killed by her drunken husband, I found out that her neighbors paid no attention to her screams, and as for the state, it did not offer a single shelter for domestic-violence victims to call or run to. And just last month I was struck by the ice-cold indifference of the neighbors who lived next door to a scientist fond of turning the remains of dead girls into dolls.

The most painful is the news that Katia Popova’s case is not unique for the city of Nizhny Novgorod. It was the third case of relatives isolating family members in just this neighborhood of my hometown. In March 2010, authorities discovered a 13-year-old boy, Zhenia Barsukov, who could not speak human language, ate oranges without peeling them, and walked around his apartment naked.

Last March, Viacheslav Kazistov, from the building next to Popova’s, heard somebody screaming: “Save me! Save me!” in the apartment next door. When police arrived and they broke down the door, Kazistov said, they discovered “a paralyzed skeleton” on the floor. All the man had in the room to eat was half a loaf of dry bread and two bottles of water. Yuri Baushev’s own brother kept him locked inside the apartment for almost a year, in hopes of becoming the apartment’s only owner if his brother starved. “I could never imagine that somebody was dying of hunger on the other side of my wall,” Kazistov, a 30-year-old economist, told me. “People became indifferent to each other’s fates even more after the GAZ automotive factory fired more than 3,000 people in our district; everybody is busy with their own survival,” Kazistov said. After saving his neighbor’s life, Kazistov volunteered to help the Popovas; he is one of a few friends Katia has recently made.

South Africa

Another of the countries featured in Part 4 of The Shock Doctrine, was post-apartheid South Africa. (Inspired by the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, Klein posted the South Africa chapter on her website, as a reminder of that “much can be lost in the key months and years of transition from one regime to another.

The camel’s nose entered the tent in 1993, before the new post-apartheid government had even formed, when negotiations between the outgoing National Party, resulted in the reformation of South Africa’s central bank as a autonomous entity, totally independent from the elected government (a fringe idea even in the U.S., at the time). Not only did this happen against the advice of South African economists who warned that it could make it impossible for the new government to fulfill the promises of its Freedom Charter, but the central bank would be run by the same men who ran it under apartheid, including the white finance minister who served under apartheid and whom the New York Times praised as “the country’s ranking apostle of low-spending business-friendly government.”

Diepsloot In June 2011, the New York Times published Barry Bearak’s long and harrowing “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man,” recounting how a vigilante mob in South Africa’s Diepsloot settlement murdered a man who was innocent of any crime. Bearak describes the settlement — where150,000 destitute black South Africans live in shacks made of scraps of wood and metal, with roofs held down by rocks or old tires — as a place where “crime oversteps even poverty as the most bedeviling affliction,” that even police are reluctant to enter, leaving untrained and unregulated (and sometimes corrupt) citizens’ groups conduct community policing.

Roused by a teenager’s dubious claims of having been robbed of his cell phone, the mob grew and roamed the settlement in a manner similar to the marauding “gang of thugs” Bearak described as the source of the crimes that angered the mobs so much that some participants began shouting about shootings and rapes as the mob continued to grow. Eventually, the mob settled on a Zimbabwean man who’s misfortune it was to step into its path.

In Diepsloot, Bearak writes, Zimbabweans are blamed for most crimes. The mob’s victim knew as much, and attempted to convince them he was South African. It didn’t help that the Zimbabwean man was talking on a cell phone at the time. A man in the mob grabbed the phone, saw Zimbabwean names in it’s contacts, and declared “this means you are a criminal.”

The mob descends and the Zimbabwean man is beaten to death. The event was captured on video by Bearak’s friend Golden Mitka, who supplies photographs and crime stories to newspapers and journalists like Bearak — whose description of the video I won’t quote here, but is best summed up by Mitka himself: “They killed him like he was a snake.

Aside from the vivid description of the murder, one of the most striking parts of Bearak’s story is the vast difference between Diepsloot and the gated community where he lives.

I live in much different circumstances, renting a house in the Dainfern Golf and Residential Estate, one of dozens of gated communities built in a city overwrought about crime. The perimeter is fortified with high walls topped by electrified wire; guards patrol the landscaped roadways and roundabouts. Houses are large, and many front entranceways are ornamented with waterfalls and fish ponds. Though safe, Dainfern is rather claustrophobic, and its location is so far north that it seems inconvenient to everything but my son’s private school and Diepsloot. South Africa is thought by some economists to be the most unequal society in the world, and in just 10 minutes I can drive from one end of the great disparity to the other. In the mornings, the maids and gardeners of Diepsloot walk to their jobs in Dainfern. I often go the opposite way.

This echoes Bearak’s 2009 New York Times article about Diepsloot, “Constant Fear and Mob Rule in South Africa Slum.”

Crime in South Africa is commonly portrayed as an onslaught against the wealthy, but it is the poor who are most vulnerable: poor people conveniently accessible to poor criminals. Diepsloot, an impoverished settlement on the northern edge of Johannesburg, has an estimated population of 150,000, and the closest police station is 10 miles away.

To spend time in Diepsloot over three weeks is to observe the unrelenting fear so common among the urban poor. Experts point to the particularly brutal nature of crime in this country: the unusually high number of rapes, hijackings and armed robberies. The murder rate, while declining, is about eight times higher than in the United States.

Among the wealthy, private security is the substitute for police protection. The open veldt surrounding Johannesburg is filling in with one barricaded development after another, fortified with electrified fencing, cameras and armed patrols.

But the poor have no money for such defenses.

Nearly as disturbing as the murder itself is the indifference and lack of remorse Bearak encounters in two those who are eventually arrested for the murder. One simply shrugged upon hearing that the murdered was likely innocent of any crime. Another, whose accusations ignited the mob violence, was still boastful of his participation weeks later, and noted that it was the second time he’d been involved in such a killing. Both were far more concerned with their own desperate circumstances and their own immediate fates.

American Style

Stories like those above seem as far from American realty as Nizhny Novgorod, Russia and Diepsloot, South Africa are from, say, Des Moines, Iowa. It’s comforting and easy to convince ourselves that those things don’t happen here. Sure, poverty and privation may have stifled basic decency and humanity in those other places, but not here. It can’t happen here.

But it’s already happening here. As I wrote in the aftermath of the Tucson, AZ, shooting in which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was severely injured and six others killed, the necessary conditions — increasing poverty, stagnant wages, expanding inequality, concentrated wealth among fewer people — have long existed in the U.S., and have only gotten worse.

In the aftermath of the tragic Tucson, AZ, shooting that left six dead, and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D, AZ-8) hospitalized, much has been said and written about the degree to which incendiary rhetoric motivated the shooter. However, caustic rhetoric isn’t the real danger.

Like Molotov cocktails, inflammatory rhetoric is intended to spark fires. But a spark that falls on bare ground quickly burns out. To start a fire, a spark needs fuel. It needs kindling — material that burns quickly and easily — to start and spread a fire. The conditions created by the economic crisis have surrounded us with kindling, awaiting a spark to ignite a conflagration.

USA - CA - City of Stockton Police
The poverty and lawlessness of Diepsloot isn’t that far from cities like Stockton, CA, where “de facto austerity” has led to police department cuts. The city of 300,00 has been hit hard by the recession. Stockton became an epicenter foreclosure when the housing bubble burst. The average income of its residents is two thirds below the average for the state.

In order to address a budget deficit, the city reduced the size of its police force, reduced pay and benefits for remaining officers, dismantled its narcotics force, and scaled back community policing. Police Chief Eric Jones put it bluntly: “We’ve cut everything in the department down to the absolute bone. The result has been fewer arrests. Despite more reported crimes in 2011, arrests fell by 26% in 2011. Murders, which fellow to the lowest in 2008, have nearly doubled since then.

The impact of the Stockton’s police department cuts have hit home, but almost exclusively in homes of those hardest his by the recession. Funeral director Pablo Cano spoke of families too poor to even pay for the funerals of their murdered loved ones. Some have turned to friends and neighbors to help out. Cano offers steep discounts to that he doesn’t have to turn families away. Still, he says some have resorted to “tamale sales” and car washes to pay for burial.

Stockton isn’t the only place city where the consequences of America’s “de facto” austerity hit the poorest neighborhoods the hardest.

Despite clear success reining in crime nationally in recent decades, pockets of extremely high crime rates can still be found in almost every American city. These areas, virtually without exception, are populated by people at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

“You’re not going to find a lot of homicide in high-income or even middle-income neighborhoods,” says Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University. “The bulk of the action is in these poor neighborhoods.”

…Since the beginning of the recession, layoffs have claimed the jobs of roughly 12,000 officers and deputies across the country, while retirement and other losses through attrition contributed to a total of about 60,000 vacancies, according to an October 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice. The decline represents the first national drop in law enforcement positions in nearly 25 years, the report found.

“I know of very few places that have not been hit by layoffs,” says Bernard Melekian, director of the Justice Department’s COPS Office, a federal program that provides hiring grants to needy police departments. “There’s no question that some cities are being devastated.”

The streets of Stockton are not the same as the dark, narrow passages of Diepsloot, but both are home to the same “unrelenting fear so common among the urban poor” that Bearak describes in Diepsloot. That unrelenting fear is only likely to grow in streets police forces have retreated, and the protection their presence provided is as “de facto” austerity forces more and more cities to make drastic cuts.

In “post-shock” South Africa, Bearak writes that “private security is the substitute for police protection.” In the U.S., high-income and middle-income neighborhoods, still enjoy police protection. But only for a moment. Unabated, austerity will probably require further budget cuts that leave even middle-income neighborhoods without police protection.

The murder of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, as he returned to his father’s home in a gated community in Sanford, FL, catalyzed debate about everything from racial profiling to the state’s peculiar “Stand Your Ground” law. But author Rich Benjamin saw the story as further evidence of a growing “gated community mentality,” reflected by a 53% increase of homes in gated communities between 2001 and 2009.

No matter the label, the product is the same: self-contained, conservative and overzealous in its demands for “safety.” Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders. These bunker communities remind me of those Matryoshka wooden dolls. A similar-object-within-a-similar-object serves as shelter; from community to subdivision to house, each unit relies on staggered forms of security and comfort, including town authorities, zoning practices, private security systems and personal firearms.

Residents’ palpable satisfaction with their communities’ virtue and their evident readiness to trumpet alarm at any given “threat” create a peculiar atmosphere — an unholy alliance of smugness and insecurity. In this us-versus-them mental landscape, them refers to new immigrants, blacks, young people, renters, non-property-owners and people perceived to be poor.

Mr. Zimmerman’s gated community, a 260-unit housing complex, sits in a racially mixed suburb of Orlando, Fla. Mr. Martin’s “suspicious” profile amounted to more than his black skin. He was profiled as young, loitering, non-property-owning and poor. Based on their actions, police officers clearly assumed Mr. Zimmerman was the private property owner and Mr. Martin the dangerous interloper. After all, why did the police treat Mr. Martin like a criminal, instead of Mr. Zimmerman, his assailant? Why was the black corpse tested for drugs and alcohol, but the living perpetrator wasn’t?

Trickle-Down Indifference

The next election may decide whether America trades “de facto” austerity for the brand of austerity afflicting Europe, or abandons it and chooses the path to shared prosperity. For 99% of us, all that lies down the road to austerity is despair and desperation. The only thing that “trickles down” is the indifference of austerity advocates to its consequences for the vast majority of the population.

After that, there’s only one stop left — austerity’s final destination for for 99% of us.

One Comment

  1. Do communities ever escape Austerity? Are there examples of countries that have had the destructive results of Austerity and somehow recovered from it?