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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.

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.

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