A Tale of Two Tales

January 2, 2013

by Ala Saket

As usual, and in keeping with cultural clichés, the new year is a time for reflection, introspection, speculation, and overall evaluation of the meaning of life.  This holds true for individuals as much as it does for states, and I would expect that for Jordan, this process will yield diametrically opposed results for those partaking in the ritual.  The dichotomy of opinion however in this case cannot be strictly drawn between individual and state, the lines are never that clearcut.  Unlike most pundits, however, I am not resorting to the now vogue classifications of reformists and old guard, “hirakists” and loyalists, progressives and neoliberals, etc. ad infinitum.  I am resorting to a more simplistic grouping of those that believe that 2012 was a successful, although difficult year, and those that are living the withering socio-economic realities.

The first group, which I will euphemistically refer to as the optimists, tell the rosy tale of how the State was able to triumph over the adversities brought about by the regional disturbances of the “Arab Spring”, coupled with the overall recession plaguing the international economic regime.  They will preach how good governance, positive policies and the overall robust nature of the State, demonstrated by the overwhelming support of the “silent majority”, have been able to stand steadfast and continue towards a “progressive democratic state” that is underpinned by “free market and liberal ideals” that will transform the Country and its people into “a modern society” capable of reaching the moon and stars.  Needless to point out that this cohort has always believed in the current “vision and project”, and view this year’s “achievements over adversity” as another victory in the name of progress over the backward voices.

To support their version of reality, the economic side at least, they will point to highly stylized indicators such as growth rates, low inflation, a stable currency, and a steady unemployment rate.  They will bask in the glow of the praise heaped on the guardians of the State, both within and without the official State structure, by international agencies and institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, USAID, Hillary, and the President of the Maldives.  Of course the platitudes served by the optimists are more than sufficient to dismiss other inconvenient indicators, such as low labor participation, dismal average wages, egregious income inequality, and increased incidence of poverty, as part of the growing pains required in propelling the Nation forward; after all, the Phoenix did rise from ashes.  Their solemn demeanor in announcing “difficult decisions” is enough to convince the population that these are indeed the right ones, regardless of the severe socio-economic impacts and overall depression of the real economy; why confuse people with the facts anyway? The fact that these decisions were made and implemented by an unrepresentative government with no consultative process, and virtually no accountability, is another one of those trivial facts not worth haggling over, the ends in this case justify the means.

On the other hand you have what the optimists would call the pessimists, but what I would like to call the people living the consequences of the formers’ actions.  These are the people whose standard of living has been in constant decline.  Of course here there will be those arguing the nuances of the term standard of living, and might be pointing to the abundance of 4×4’s and proliferation of mobile phones as a clear indication of a blissful living.  And they would of course be right, not in their belief in the beneficence of Land Cruisers and iPhones, but in the fact that the optimists and pessimists define standard of living differently.  And it is this divergence in opinion that allows for diametrically opposed narratives on where we are as a country.

The difference in views can be attributed to several factors.  These can be socio-economic, cultural, geographical, ideological, etc.  The fact remains though that there is a distinct incongruence in the view of what is “good” and what is “bad”, and what yields these results.  The optimists see that the state should step aside in favor of “free markets”, and that growth, regardless of how it is constituted and what it costs in real terms, is the only option.  This is either because they ideologically believe in this formula, or happen to be living high off of what this regime brings.

No longer is the State, to the optimists, a vehicle that represents the overall wellbeing of all its citizens, and is just a mediator to what the market deems the right result.  If you are poor it is because you can’t properly take advantage of market forces, regardless of your access to capital.  If you are unemployed it is because the market decided you are unemployable, so you should acquire the right tools, regardless of whether there are enough jobs available for all those in need of employment of not.  If your SME cannot compete with international firms, it is because the market decided that you are not competitive enough, or have the prices wrong, regardless of the endowments and investor support international capital comes with.  And it is the new role of the State, not through its traditional bureaucracy, but through a-political quasi independent institutions, managed by highly paid, hence automatically competent managers adopting the latest business paradigms, to protect the “freedom” of the markets, while instilling the discipline required for the locals to be able to compete.  Of course the exorbitant cost of this exercise is inconsequential since it what needs to be done to move forward, and the money will be made available through the increased tax base of the sales tax (equality and distributive effects notwithstanding), and market distorting subsidies and social welfare programs will continue to be eviscerated, and replaced with meager handouts that institutionalize beggary, to pay for this audacious experiment.  And any opposition will be handled by the newly created security apparatus meant to keep the peace, and protect the freedom of the markets.

So what do we end up with?  A highly ineffective state that consumes ever more resources in order to enforce a sociopolitical and economic ideology that will only increase social inequality, entrench poverty and unemployment, reduce living standards (with all its components including health, education, sanitation, environment etc.), and increase social polarization that will increase the incidence of crime and delinquency. The optimists will maintain that these are the ashes required for the Phoenix to rise.  The pessimists will object to that fact that they are the ones being made into the ashes, and that the Phoenix will eventually be sitting on a sunny island living off of the ashes, not rising from them.  They will contend that the same amount of resources used to deconstruct Jordanian society could have been used to build a Nation based on equality, employment, productivity and ultimately participatory politics.

Which tale will persist?

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