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← Why do we blame individuals for economic crises?

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Showing Revision 7 created 09/16/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. It was a cold, sunny March day.
  2. I was walking along the street in Riga.
  3. I remember the winter was slowly
    coming to an end.
  4. There was still some snow
    around here and there,
  5. but the pavement
    was already clear and dry.
  6. If you've lived in Riga,
  7. you will know that feeling of relief
    that the first signs of spring bring,
  8. and you no longer have to trudge
    through that slushy mix
  9. of snow and mud on the streets.
  10. So there I am, enjoying my stroll,
  11. as I suddenly notice a stencil
    on the pavement in front of me,
  12. a graffiti:
  13. white letters painted
    on these dark grey bricks.
  14. It says,
  15. "Where is your responsibility?"
  16. The question stopped me in my tracks.

  17. As I'm standing there
    considering its meaning,
  18. I notice I'm standing outside the Riga
    Municipality Social Welfare Department.
  19. So it appears that the author
    of this graffiti, whoever it is,
  20. is asking this question to people
    coming to apply for social assistance.
  21. That winter,

  22. I had been doing research on the aftermath
    of the financial crisis in Latvia.
  23. When the Global Financial Crisis
    erupted in 2008, Latvia got hit hard
  24. as a small, open economy.
  25. To balance the books,
  26. the Latvian government chose
    a strategy of internal devaluation.
  27. Now, in essence, that meant drastically
    reducing public budget spending,
  28. so, slashing public sector workers' wages,
  29. shrinking civil service,
  30. cutting unemployment benefits
    and other social assistance,
  31. raising taxes.
  32. My mother had been working
    as a history teacher her whole life.

  33. The austerity for her meant
    seeing her salary cut by 30 percent
  34. all of a sudden.
  35. And there were many in a situation
    like hers or worse.
  36. The costs of the crisis were put
    on the shoulders of ordinary Latvians.
  37. As a result of the crisis
    and the austerity,

  38. the Latvian economy shrank
    by 25 percent in a two-year period.
  39. Only Greece suffered
    an economic contraction
  40. of a comparable scale.
  41. Yet, while Greeks were out
    in the streets for months
  42. staging continuous,
    often violent protests in Athens,
  43. all was quiet in Riga.
  44. Prominent economists were fighting
    in the columns of "The New York Times"
  45. about this curious extreme
    Latvian experiment
  46. of this austerity regime,
  47. and they were watching on in disbelief
  48. how the Latvian society
    was putting up with it.
  49. I was studying in London at the time,

  50. and I remember the Occupy movement there
  51. and how it was spreading
    from city to city,
  52. from Madrid to New York to London,
  53. the 99 percent against the one percent.
  54. You know the story.
  55. Yet when I arrived in Riga,
  56. there were no echoes of the Occupy here.
  57. Latvians were just putting up with it.
  58. They "swallowed the toad,"
    as the local saying goes.
  59. For my doctoral research,

  60. I wanted to study how the state-citizen
    relationship was changing in Latvia
  61. in the post-Soviet era,
  62. and I had chosen the unemployment office
  63. as my research site.
  64. And as I arrived there
    in that autumn of 2011,
  65. I realized, "I am actually
    witnessing firsthand
  66. how the effects of crises are playing out,
  67. and how those worst affected by it,
    people who have lost their jobs,
  68. are reacting to it."
  69. So I started interviewing people
    I met at the unemployment office.

  70. They were all registered as job seekers
    and hoping for some help from the state.
  71. Yet, as I was soon discovering,
    this help was of a particular kind.
  72. There was some cash benefit,
  73. but mostly state assistance came
    in the form of various social programs,
  74. and one of the biggest
    of these programs was called
  75. "Competitiveness-Raising Activities."
  76. It was, in essence, a series of seminars
  77. that all of the unemployed
    were encouraged to attend.
  78. So I started attending
    these seminars with them.
  79. And a number of paradoxes struck me.
  80. So, imagine:

  81. the crisis is still ongoing,
  82. the Latvian economy is contracting,
  83. hardly anyone is hiring,
  84. and there we are,
  85. in this small, brightly lit classroom,
  86. a group of 15 people,
  87. working on lists of our personal strengths
    and weaknesses, our inner demons,
  88. that we are told are preventing us
    from being more successful
  89. in the labor market.
  90. As the largest local bank
    is being bailed out

  91. and the costs of this bailout are shifted
    onto the shoulders of the population,
  92. we are sitting in a circle
    and learning how to breathe deeply
  93. when feeling stressed.
  94. (Breathes deeply)

  95. As home mortgages are being foreclosed

  96. and thousands of people are emigrating,
  97. we are told to dream big
    and to follow our dreams.
  98. As a sociologist,

  99. I know that social policies
    are an important form of communication
  100. between the state and the citizen.
  101. The message of this program was,
  102. to put it in the words
    of one of the trainers,
  103. "Just do it."
  104. She was, of course, citing Nike.
  105. So symbolically, the state was sending
    a message to people out of work
  106. that you need to be more active,
    you need to work harder,
  107. you need to work on yourself,
    you need to overcome your inner demons,
  108. you need to be more confident --
  109. that somehow, being out of work
    was their own personal failure.
  110. The suffering of the crisis
  111. was treated as this
    individual experience of stress
  112. to be managed in one's own body
  113. through deep and mindful breathing.
  114. These types of social programs
    that emphasize individual responsibility

  115. have become increasingly common
    across the world.
  116. They are part of the rise
    of what sociologist Loïc Wacquant calls
  117. the "neoliberal Centaur state."
  118. Now, the centaur, as you might recall,
  119. is this mythical creature
    in ancient Greek culture,
  120. half human, half beast.
  121. It has this upper part of a human
    and the lower part of a horse.
  122. So the Centaur state is a state
  123. that turns its human face
    to those at the top of the social ladder
  124. while those at the bottom
    are being trampled over,
  125. stampeded.
  126. So top income earners and large businesses
  127. can enjoy tax cuts
    and other supportive policies,
  128. while the unemployed, the poor
  129. are made to prove themselves worthy
    for the state's help,
  130. are morally disciplined,
  131. are stigmatized as irresponsible
    or passive or lazy
  132. or often criminalized.
  133. In Latvia, we've had
    such a Centaur state model

  134. firmly in place since the '90s.
  135. Take, for example, the flat income tax
    that we had in place up until this year
  136. that has been benefiting
    the highest earners,
  137. while one quarter of the population
    keeps living in poverty.
  138. And the crisis and the austerity has made
    these kinds of social inequalities worse.
  139. So while the capital of the banks
    and the wealthy has been protected,
  140. those who lost the most
  141. were taught lessons
    in individual responsibility.
  142. Now, as I was talking to people
    who I met at these seminars,

  143. I was expecting them to be angry.
  144. I was expecting them
  145. to be resisting these lessons
    in individual responsibility.
  146. After all, the crisis was not their fault,
    yet they were bearing the brunt of it.
  147. But as people were sharing
    their stories with me,
  148. I was struck again and again
  149. by the power of the idea
    of responsibility.
  150. One of the people I met was Žanete.

  151. She had been working for 23 years
  152. teaching sewing and other crafts
    at the vocational school in Riga.
  153. And now the crisis hits,
  154. and the school is closed
    as part of the austerity measures.
  155. The educational system restructuring
    was part of a way of saving public money.
  156. And 10,000 teachers
    across the country lose their jobs,
  157. and Žanete is one of them.
  158. And I know from what she's been telling me
  159. that losing her job has put her
    in a desperate situation;
  160. she's divorced, she has two teenage
    children that she's the sole provider for.
  161. And yet, as we are talking,
  162. she says to me that the crisis
    is really an opportunity.
  163. She says, "I turn 50 this year.
  164. I guess life has really given me
    this chance to look around, to stop,
  165. because all these years
    I've been working nonstop,
  166. had no time to pause.
  167. And now I have stopped,
  168. and I've been given an opportunity
    to look at everything and to decide
  169. what it is that I want
  170. and what it is that I don't want.
  171. All this time, sewing, sewing,
    some kind of exhaustion."
  172. So Žanete is made redundant
    after 23 years.

  173. But she's not thinking about protesting.
  174. She's not talking about the 99 percent
    against the one percent.
  175. She is analyzing herself.
  176. And she was thinking pragmatically
    of starting a small business
  177. out of her bedroom
  178. making these little souvenir dolls
    to sell to tourists.
  179. I also met Aivars
    at the unemployment office.

  180. Aivars was in his late 40s,
  181. he had lost a job at the government agency
    overseeing road construction.
  182. To one of our meetings,
    Aivars brings a book he's been reading.
  183. It's called "Vaccination against Stress,
    or Psycho-energetic Aikido."
  184. Now, some of you might know
    that aikido is a form of martial art,
  185. so, psycho-energetic aikido.
  186. And Aivars tells me
    that after several months
  187. of reading and thinking and reflecting
    while being out of work,
  188. he has understood that his current
    difficulties are really his own doing.
  189. He says to me,
  190. "I created it myself.
  191. I was in a psychological state
    that was not good for me.
  192. If a person is afraid to lose
    their money, to lose their job,
  193. they start getting more stressed,
    more unsettled, more fearful.
  194. That's what they get."
  195. As I ask him to explain,

  196. he compares his thoughts poetically
    to wild horses running in all directions,
  197. and he says, "You need to be
    a shepherd of your thoughts.
  198. To get things in order
    in the material world,
  199. you need to be a shepherd
    of your thoughts,
  200. because it's through your thoughts
    that everything else gets orderly."
  201. "Lately," he says,
    "I have clearly understood
  202. that the world around me,
    what happens to me,
  203. people that enter in my life ...
    it all depends directly on myself."
  204. So as Latvia is going through
    this extreme economic experiment,
  205. Aivars says it's his way of thinking
    that has to change.
  206. He's blaming himself for what
    he's going through at the moment.
  207. So taking responsibility
    is, of course, a good thing, right?

  208. It is especially meaningful
  209. and morally charged
    in a post-Soviet society,
  210. where reliance on the state
    is seen as this unfortunate heritage
  211. of the Soviet past.
  212. But when I listen to Žanete
    and Aivars and to others,
  213. I also thought
    how cruel this question is --
  214. "Where is your responsibility?" --
  215. how punishing.
  216. Because, it was working as a way
    of blaming and pacifying people
  217. who were hit worst by the crisis.
  218. So while Greeks were out in the streets,
    Latvians swallowed the toad,
  219. and many tens of thousands emigrated,
  220. which is another way
    of taking responsibility.
  221. So the language, the language
    of individual responsibility,

  222. has become a form of collective denial.
  223. As long as we have social policies
    that treat unemployment
  224. as individual failure
  225. but we don't have enough funding
    for programs that give people real skills
  226. or create workplaces,
  227. we are blind of the
    policymakers' responsibility.
  228. As long as we stigmatize the poor
    as somehow passive or lazy
  229. but don't give people real means
    to get out of poverty
  230. other than emigrating,
  231. we are in denial of
    the true causes of poverty.
  232. And in the meantime,
  233. we all suffer,
  234. because social scientists have shown
    with detailed statistical data
  235. that there are more people with both
    mental and physical health problems
  236. in societies with higher levels
    of economic inequality.
  237. So social inequality is apparently bad
    for not only those with least resources
  238. but for all of us,
  239. because living in a society
    with high inequality
  240. means living in a society
    with low social trust and high anxiety.
  241. So there we are.

  242. We're all reading self-help books,
  243. we try to hack our habits,
  244. we try to rewire our brains,
  245. we meditate.
  246. And it helps, of course, in a way.
  247. Self-help books help us feel more upbeat.
  248. Meditation can help us feel
    more connected to others spiritually.
  249. What I think we need
  250. is as much awareness of what connects
    us to one another socially,
  251. because social inequality hurts us all.
  252. So we need more
    compassionate social policies
  253. that are aimed less at moral education
  254. and more at promotion
    of social justice and equality.
  255. Thank you.

  256. (Applause)