Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Dignity deficit

Dignity is not just a feeling; it is a social equation governments ignore at their peril, else the scourge of revolution rears its head

When the “Arab Spring” events, as they were called in the West, erupted in Egypt in 2011, the chant that resounded from Tahrir Square called for “Bread, freedom and human dignity.” “Dignity” was a relatively new addition to the realm of “revolutionary” chants. It epitomised, on the one hand, the protest against police behaviour towards the people and consequent human degradation and, on the other, the protest against the deteriorating standards of living of the Egyptian people. Subsequently, “social justice” was added to the chant to signify the call for economic rights. In all events, the question of dignity in both its psychological and tangible senses became a major issue that political scientists and sociologists could not ignore when contemplating the events that have unfolded in the Arab region during the past few years, the wounds and scars of which are likely to remain with us for quite a while, whether in countries destroyed by the revolutionary scourge or in those that survived it.

It has sometimes seemed as though the question of “dignity” pertained to Arab countries or developing countries in general. Yet, surprisingly, the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (March/April 2017) features an article by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, titled: Dignity Deficit: Reclaiming Americans’ Sense of Purpose. The article addresses how Americans have dealt with the question of human dignity, not in terms of the psychological harm caused by officers of the law but from the perspective of the material and economic dimensions of poverty as the main source of human degradation. Brooks takes as his starting point president Lyndon Johnson’s visit to Inez, Kentucky, on 24 April 1964. That small town symbolised the economic decay and dire poverty that struck the towns and cities located in the American coal belt at the time. It was from there that Johnson announced, “I have called for a national war on poverty. Our objective: Total victory.”

The American war on poverty was not cheap. In fact, it cost more than the war in Vietnam, for example. Over the course of the five decades that followed Johnson’s announcement, the US federal government spent $20 trillion, according to Brooks, in order to realise his dream by means of social welfare programmes such as Medicaid, food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. But in the end, although poverty had become materially less gruelling it had not become less widespread and the ranks of unemployed had not significantly shrunk. In fact, in Martin County where Inez is located, there are more people on welfare than in the labour force and where you once found caloric deficits you now find rampant obesity. At the time when Johnson declared the all out war against poverty in 1966, the overall poverty rate across the US stood at 14.7 per cent. Five decades later, in 2014, it stood at 14.8 per cent. This can only be described as a form of poverty management that failed to reduce poverty at a very high cost to society, both its rich and its poor.

Brooks, who heads the American Enterprise Institute, belongs to the American right-wing. However, this does not mean that we should ignore the important issue he raises concerning dignity as the cornerstone for development. If “human dignity” means to be a person who merits respect, then the American “War on Poverty” failed to produce that desired result. Not only have the ranks of welfare recipients swelled, the percentage of people who were either out of work and/or not looking for work has more than tripled since 1965, rising from 3.3 per cent to 11.6 per cent of the available labour force. Men without a high school diploma are twice as likely to be members of this “un-working” class and two-thirds of them are unmarried. In addition, these men are not likely to spend time volunteering, participating in religious activities, or caring for family members. The greater likelihood is that they live in a state of isolation and idleness and are prone to drug abuse and suicide.

Brooks cites a study that found that, in contrast to a general rise in life expectancy rates in developed countries, the mortality rate among middle-aged white Americans without any college education has actually risen since 1999. The main reason for this was a 46 per cent increase in fatalities due to chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, a 78 per cent increase in fatalities from suicide and a 323 per cent increase in fatalities due to drug and alcohol poisoning.

Brooks raises a couple of important practical points. One concerns how to define unemployment. The common definition is people of working age who are out of work. In the US the unemployment rate currently stands at about 4.7 per cent. However, this does not take into account the number of working age adults who are not only out of work but are not even looking for work, meaning that they have withdrawn from the labour market. When this category is taken into account, we find that the ratio of Americans that are not participating in the labour force has risen from 33 per cent in 2002 to 37 per cent in 2017.

The second point is that work that enables people to feel worthy ultimately realises the aim of human dignity and restores people to society. Not only does this avoid negative economic consequences and dangerous social phenomena, it can have major political effects. It was no coincidence that Trump achieved superiority over Hillary Clinton because of the backing he received from the classes of unemployed in those areas where there are high rates of drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.

The Arthur Brooks article sheds light on other matters related to the “dignity deficit” and, despite of its distinct American conservative flavour, it is of no small use to Arab countries. A “dignity deficit” was part of what triggered the chaos that has swept the Arab world. In addition, the problems of unemployment and loss of respect are not just prevalent among the unemployed and those who are not looking for work, but also among those who are not doing any real work. I refer to the armies of unproductive employees in government bureaucracies, often labelled metaphorically as “masked unemployment.” This type of unemployment may not produce the same social pathologies that are common in the US, but it does produce other social ills such as high divorce rates, religious fanaticism, a gullibility for superstitions and myths, and sometimes a disposition towards extremist trends. The “dignity deficit” in our country, as created by the lack of productive work, merits closer study and extensive research.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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