Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Some Thoughts: Travel and Privilege

I'm not a world traveller. The list of countries I've visited is, by comparison to most you encounter abroad, minimal. Still, I've been places. Some international, some not. I consider myself exceptionally well-travelled within Canada. Particularly within my home provinces of Ontario and Québec. I've been to diverse regions of the United States, I've seen four countries in Europe (Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia), and I recently returned from South America, where I spent two weeks in Chile.

This post is the third in a short series about my adventure to Chile. In my first post I detailed my personal experience with seeing South America. In the second, I talked about the socio-economic realities of modern Chile. This post is the one I was looking forward most to writing: I'll be discussion the dynamics of travel in the globalised capitalist world.

The logical starting point seems to be to talk about the evolution of travel. It is characterised by many as a modern phenomenon, but I don't believe that's a good fit. Here's why. In a Western context, travel has always existed, though those who could travel were almost exclusively society's elite. It was a function of wealth, since those with little resources could not afford to pick up and leave. It was similarly a function of social status, where only those who were particularly well-known would be able to cross borders without much trouble. As a result, travel was privilege. The only experience that most people would have with travel would be moving, which was an uprooting experience felt by many who were rich and poor. Some were forced, such as Palestinian Resettlement, the Acadian Expulsion, the Trail of Tears, or the Boers interned in South Africa. Others made more voluntary moves: In the eighteenth century German farmers would relocate to urban areas, in nineteenth century America settlers would move west, and in twentieth century Britain, tens of thousands would leave by ocean liner.

Notions of travel changed with the so-called creation of the middle class. In the 1920s most western societies became stratified based on income and a middle class emerged with access to resources and, more importantly, free time. Travel at this point consisted of being able to go from town to town, something which became all the more common with the Great Depression. Riding the rails became a means not only of finding work, but also of experiencing a world larger than that of your farm or neighbourhood. This was a generation finding itself through easy-to-access travel. In the post-war period, the car became the way to experience travel. Most developed countries established networks of highways, like France's Autoroutes and the United States Interstate System. People could travel further and faster, and with more flexibility, but now it required more privilege: access to a car. In the 1980s it was all the hype for North Americans to go to Europe to "find themselves". Backpacking around Europe became a rite of passage to adulthood, one awarded to predominately white, middle class, North Americans. Several decades later, it's now Thailand, Vietnam, or Korea. Again, it's a reflection of privilege. You have to be able to afford flying.

Having just flown down to South America, I can safely say that airfare is a significant financial obstacle. A round-trip flight to Santiago was over one thousand dollars. I had to absorb this large cost, something which my privilege afforded me, allowing me access to South America, where my currency has strong buying power. This allowed me to travel very cheaply. Taking intercity bus rides for about five dollars, having dinners that cost less than ten dollars, and staying in hostels for fifteen dollars per night.

I was aware of my privilege in travelling - that historical forces had created an uneven world that allowed those with the advantage to experience the world. However, I felt as though this didn't strike my fellow travellers. We all made more impacts on the societies we visited than we might realise. From jet fuel, to supporting black markets, to reprioritising how resources are allocated, travelling damages the planet and society at the local and international levels.

All this to say, I'm aware that our generation is one raised in a travel culture. The message to relatively affluent North Americans is that the world is there to be discovered. Look on your Facebook news feed and see how far you can go without seeing someone's pictures for a recent trip, someone talking about travelling, or an ad on the side telling you about hotels or flights. It's difficult, but it's a representation of the value that's placed on travel in our society, something that is instilled into us in order to support a massive international industry.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Modern South America

This is the second of three entries about my recent trip to Chile. My first post looked at my personal reflections on visiting South America for the first time. I intend to discuss here my perceptions of Chile's socio-economic realities. I'll argue that South America is widely misunderstood by the West, and that it straddles the traditional North-South divide, making it in incredible place to visit as a reflection and distortion of the modern neoliberal archetype.

Chile's history is fascinating, and it's truly a shame that so few people know anything about the nation's past. A significant part of this is our longstanding Eurocentric worldview, which dictates that what happens in the "West" is more important. The people, places, and events in Western society are thought to be the only relevant parts of our global consciousness and trajectory, and thus the exclusive focus on North America and Europe was standard practice until a few decades ago. The rise of India, China, and societies in the Middle East and Africa has informed new ways of teaching and learning history. When I was an undergraduate these fields were relatively new, and historians studying these regions were teaching introductory courses and honours seminars on topics as diverse as the Chinese Cultural Revolution and Decolonisation in Africa. These collections of narratives and points of analysis are now part of a larger whole, the study of history.

However, non-Western history may be flourishing at the post-secondary level, though it's not actively part of the curricula in North American public institutions. When it does make an appearance, it is an insertion to describe the development of other, presumably more important, societies like Canada. Chile, like the rest of South America, seems not to have enjoyed the interest of the academy and popular history. It's fascinating to me, particularly since I just read the 1972 watershed piece, Open Veins of Latin America, by Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano. While there is no clear answer why South America remains the "forgotten continent" there is, unsurprisingly, much silence about the rich and terrifying history of South America. Even when substantial events occur, like the death of Hugo Chávez, media attention is remarkably scant. This is, in my opinion, partly because the death of Venezuela's leader was viewed as irrelevant, and partly because the radical new socialism was so unbelievably threatening that it was best left unmentioned.

I like to come at history from the position as an insider (as an historian) and an outsider (as a political economist). My training from all disciplines has led to me to be an active seeker of information. I can never get enough of reading, listening to radio debates, or watching documentaries. My knowledge of the world is small, but it's a functional patchwork of facts and analyses, one that's always in flux. The historian in me is interested in the way in which we talk about the past. The questions I most ask myself is, "whom do we find to be credible and why?". As a political economist, I like to examine this question through the lens of the relationship between the economy and society.

South America is generally considered part of the of the Global South. Like most definitions that are set up to place the world into categories, it's jargon. Perhaps the most immediate way to realise this is to note that in some instances, Chile is considered to be part of the Global North, and in some instances, the Global South. The lines are blurred, as they should be, but in the West we make inferences and assumptions about countries based on the categories they belong to. We're therefore taught to believe that Pakistan is full of terrorists, while Germany is full of wealth. These labels may be helpful in starting conversations or framing comparisons, they are not absolutes and become exceedingly dangerous when projected that way.

The North-South divide has a massive historical context that could itself be a series of posts. I'll be brief. Westerners, long before they gave themselves that label, have categorised the world throughout history. The terminology has changed: Europe as an idea, then Christendom, then the West, then the First World, then the Developed World, and now the Global North. This discourse will change as patterns of political, military, and economic hegemony evolves. Suffice to say, it's complicated, but it always serves to develop a binary when no such thing truly exists.

Each of these changes above can be described by changing realities on a global scale such as the spread of Christianity, the Industrial Revolution, and the Cold War. In recent decades, the primary for changing the fabric of societies has been globalisation. Again, this is a tricky word, and I'll steer away from defining by pointing out that there are numerous congruent and contradictory perspectives. What's important is what has transpired since the 1980s in a global sense, and that has been the deregulation of national economies, the adoption of free trade, and the increased prevalence of private property. Together, these strands form neoliberal economics, and are the primary way in which the world is organised - though not ubiquitously.

A large part of this comes down to the question of "can we quantify development?". The answer is, to a certain degree. And that's, finally, where Chile comes in. As mentioned above, there seems to be minimal consensus about where Chile fits on the spectrum of development. This is an impression that I first noticed when I arrived in Chile, and then became all the more confusing as I went along. My first footstep in Chile was into a multi-billion dollar aeroport, followed by a bus ride through some very sketchy neighbourhoods. Once in downtown, I was affronted by beautiful skyscrapers and clean public spaces located in close proximity to dilapidated buildings and a repulsive canal. Underneath Santiago was a state-of-the-art metro system. Above was a cloud of smog.

In other words, what I encountered in Santiago was a copy of what you might see in any North American city. Inequality was everywhere. Likewise, urban areas were substantially more developed than the rest of the country, something that would be noted visiting Canada. Environmental degradation existed everywhere, caused by industry, infrastructure, and travel, much like you'd experience in the West.

The longer I stayed in Chile, the more I realised that I was experiencing a culture that reflected my own more than it did produce alternatives. I was pleased to see a greater saturation of co-operatives, a lesser dependence on cars, and a greater sense of community. However, the reality is that Chile is governed by politicians who guard economic growth as sacred. There's litter on the street, homelessness is a serious concern, and inequality is steadily increasing.

Chile also felt very safe and appeared not to have any more corruption than other Western societies. People were engaged with work and seemed entrepreneurial, though they simultaneously made sure to not let work dictate their lives to them. Nothing operated on a clear schedule, which was madly frustrating to me at first, but then became an acceptable norm. The constraints of rigid times were not entirely disregarded, but there was never a push to respect them in the interests of efficiency. As a result, Chileans seemed content and much less likely to be stressed.

While the world may be a sprawling expanse, it is becoming more homogeneous through numerous forces like increased communication, easier travel, and free trade. My short trip to Chile certainly helped me think extensively on the subject of development, allowing me to write this rather longwinded post. I hope you found it interesting. Next week I'll be writing about travelling and privilege with further reflections from my trip to Chile.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

An Adventure in Chile

I just arrived back in Canada from two weeks of travel in Chile. On the numerous flights back from South America I thought that it would be a great idea to blog about my experiences there. I realised that what I needed to say could not really be expressed in one blog; instead, I'd need to cover it in a short series. There were three major threads to my trip, and I'll address each of them in the next week or so in separate blogs. The first will be my impressions about seeing Chile and South America. The second will be about the socio-economic realities of Chile and my insight as a westerner. The final post will talk about privilege and travel.

I hope you'll take the time to read some of my material whether or not you've travelled or know anything about South America. As I mentioned, this post will look at my individual experience with Chile. It'll be the most informal of all the posts as I'll be effectively reflecting on two weeks of soaking in a beautiful and misunderstood country.

I stepped out of the aeroport in Santiago into the warm air. It was sunny, and I was surrounded by green. While flying down, I peered out of the tiny porthole beside me to notice that Santiago was a beautiful island enclosed by towering green and white mountains. The city appeared to perched on a desert, brown and sandy. When I was on the ground it was a grassy paradise. We took a shuttle into downtown, along the way passing shantytowns and parks. Once at the terminal, we shunted ourselves into the Santiago Metro, which is an amazing public transit system. It was clean and busy, at no matter what hour. I noticed that people sat with their smart phones and were listening to English pop music. Once I emerged from the metro station I was standing in a beautiful plaza with statues and trees. Cars navigated the roundabout and I stared up at towering apartments and offices. I felt as though I was in Venice and Vancouver.

I only managed to convince Kelly that we stay in Santiago for one night. I was enamoured and intrigued by the bustling city of nearly six million. It was the first time I was in a place that people might consider non-western or developing, and I wanted to see what the city had to offer. The most vivid memory I have is of standing at the gate to the national stadium. Used by Pinochet in the mid-1970s as a site to torture dissidents, the stadium is unassuming. There is no plaque, no statue. No commemoration and, sadly, no mention of its terrifying past. I stared at the field, locked behind red bars, and I thought about the tens of thousands who disappeared, many of whom had been held here. It was shocking to me to see the degree to which the suffering was erased, disavowed. In the aeroport two weeks later I watched Universidad de Chile play there while the crowds cheered in delight some four decades after the arena was host to crimes against humanity.

The next day we trekked by bus to Valparaìso and Viña del Mar, two beautiful cities along the Pacific coast. They hug the shoreline, bounded to the sea by the sprawling mountains. Valparaìso is an industrial port city, and it has all the grime despite being adorned in the most beautiful reds and oranges and yellows, all set against the green and blue its surroundings. It is a city rich in character and culture - a site for immigration and the entry point to Chile for most of its existence. Only twenty kilometres away is Viña del Mar, which is a flourishing resort community full of flashy cars and European tourists. The feel is completely different than that of its neighbour, though it's something to appreciate for its uniqueness. It's commercial, unlike anything else I saw in Chile, including the capital. Wealth is displayed virtually everywhere, in the architecture, in the public gardens, in the people. It was truly fascinating to see these two cities, stuck side-by-side.

For the rest of the trip Kelly and I were in the southern reaches of Chile, in Patagonia. We visited Punta Arenas before taking the bus north to Puerto Natales. After spending some time in the small community, we headed to Torres del Paine, one of South America's most famous natural wonders. The park is a massive sanctuary, but it's full of hikers from the global north, myself included. I felt a sense of freedom being away from civilisation, though I never escaped thinking about the degree to which tourism was damaging this fragile natural environment. Nevertheless, the trekking and camping was unforgettable. I saw my first iceberg, marvelled at the wildlife, and was surrounded by towering mountains and pristine glacial lakes.

Sadly, visiting those six locales took up my two weeks, and I headed back home to Canada. Chile was a place I'll always remember fondly, and I already look forward to going back there sometime. The flight home was bittersweet as I longed to remain in my new habitat, but I found myself ready to come back to my real life. In the dying hours of my trip, I made a commitment to myself to write a short series of blogs about my experience. I hope you enjoyed this one, and stay tuned my next post which will examine the socio-economic condition of Chile.