Friends in India who work with rural women say that lentils are no longer affordable
Monday, 14 April 2008
Suddenly you notice the costs have really shot up. For me the wake-up call came with the last few supermarket bills, which were already too high because we now need so many more fancy foods. The hairdresser costs a third more than this time last year, petrol too, and on Saturday the Chinese restaurant in the West End charged punitive prices, perhaps to pay for the Olympics back home. So, there will have to be longer gaps between getting the roots done, more trips to Shepherd's Bush market for fruit, meat and veg, and obviously less dining out.
The man of the house is fretting about the bigger things – the value of our ISAs and the mortgage. So, yes, we are, like most middle-class people, feeling less flush. Hardly what you could call privation, a necessary adjustment perhaps to a life of too much already (16 pairs of shoes, for example, when I last counted mine, some though 10 years old, is still excessive).
We have been content enough to stay put in the same property for 30 years and so are spared the current credit-crunch panic. For many others, by contrast, the present and future feel unnaturally bleak and the thought of cutting back is an affront. After years of growth, people feel entitled to more and more. Owning two or three homes was almost a norm for the successful until now, when such expectations are having to shrivel. Thrift feels to them like shame and induces self-pity that should be put on stage by Mike Leigh.
It is time to remind the blubbing and snivelling middle classes to be thankful and grateful for what they have, that babies are perishing in the poorest countries of the world, partly because we are so greedy and needy. These innocents and their families are not suffering the effects of the Northern Rock fiasco, having precious homes repossessed, losing jobs and enduring tumbling share prices. They walk about in the lands of no hope, through the valleys of death, try to keep their own alive for a little while longer.
I recently overheard two mums with humongous cars, chatting outside my daughter's old primary school, moaning as if there was no tomorrow. They had to cut down the skiing to only five days, said one, and her hubby was really upset about that sacrifice. Another confessed that they had reluctantly decided to stay put in their five-bedroom house and extend it, rather than move. Then the clincher: "Really nobody cares about people like us do they? How much more do they think we can take? Who do you vote for?"
Perhaps when next in the Maldives, they can ask the hotel staff about families and incomes, about powerlessness and sacrifices and how much more can they take. Britons travel to more "unspoilt" places than ever before and are only more indifferent to the people in those destinations. And now, suddenly, inequality threatens universal commotion, rebels against the established order.
The spreading unrest disturbs three cold, resolute masters of the universe. Our Chancellor, Alistair Darling, warns that international ethanol programmes to meet growing demands for biofuel are creating catastrophic food shortages and provoking riots the world over – in Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, parts of India.
These will spread as the poor no longer have anything to lose. The price of wheat has risen by 130 per cent this year and rice by 74 per cent. Friends in India who work to improve the lives of rural women say that dhal lentils are no longer affordable. Grain for food production has been slashed. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, fears that "hundreds of thousands of people will be starving.
Children will be suffering from malnutrition with consequences for all their lives". Sensitive to sub-prime US and UK gloom, M Strauss-Kahn tailors his message, saying "it is not only a humanitarian question" but one of western self-interest. Trade imbalances could affect economic advantage. Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, this weekend described the situation for the poor as "catastrophic".
If you want to understand why illegal migration is growing so out of control, here is one reason – a reason which anti-immigration campaigners do not examine or acknowledge. It is our fault that so many desperate people come to our doors. Well, wouldn't you do the same? The poorest cannot travel but the next social layer up fears it will be them next, once savings are gone, and so they flee to places of plenty.
So is globalisation then, just a re-branding of exploitative, naked capitalism? Not really. Market liberalisation has brought about some, possibly considerable, generation of wealth. There are more stupendously rich people in developing countries than ever before. The middle classes are growing in number. Quickly and inevitably these winners turn into sinners, unconcerned about the poor in their midst.
The system also, says Arundhati Roy, "allows the unrestricted entry and exit of massive amounts of speculative, capital-hot money – into and out of Third World countries and then dictates their economic policy. Using the threat of capital flight as a lever, international capital insinuates itself deeper and deeper into those economies".
Britain is held to this ransom too – remember the threats by non-doms when they were asked to pay a pitifully small amount of extra tax?
But in poor countries, the might of the capitalists and institutions like the IMF and World Bank is deadly. Says Roy: "With a combination of arrogance and ruthlessness, they take their sledgehammers to fragile, interdependent, historically complex societies and devastate them." To the point of death through starvation, as now.
International development agencies have discouraged agricultural sectors in the Third World, pushed cash-crop production and multinational industrialisation. And, meanwhile, there is the demented search for alternatives to oil to free the West from dependency on the Middle East. Biofuel was our salvation, even though we knew what the abominable price would be.
Mr Zoellick brings up the uncomfortable truth, saying: "While many in the US and Europe worry about filling their [vehicle] tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs. And it is getting more and more difficult everyday."
Things must be very bad indeed for the G7, the IMF and World Bank to speak out more ominously than aid agencies, which frequently have to use apocalyptic tones to arouse concern for disaster victims. In 1968, the children of the rich nations protested against the established order. Maybe 2008 will be the year the poor finally had enough. Perhaps the powerful are smelling revolution in the air and are scared.