The Occupied Times of London – Haiti: The Canary in the Mine of the Race to the Bottom.
Published in the Occupied Times of London, Issue 12, 20 March 2012
After spending over a year in post-earthquake Haiti, writing about the abysmal tent camp living conditions and the often violent evictions of internally displaced quake victims, I found myself at a planning meeting in New York for Occupy Wall Street in Tompkins Square Park the day before the 10th anniversary of 9/11. One week later I was huddled with over 500 others in Zuccotti Park that chilly night of September 17th, and a month later woke up in a tent with frozen toes and a full bladder in London’s ostentatious financial district with nowhere but Starbucks to relieve myself.
It occurred to me watching Occupy evictions throughout the US via livestream, and seeing the St Paul’s camp get cleared and sanitized that the connection between tent camp evictions in post earthquake Haiti and the Occupy protests is not as tenuous as it might seem. After all, Haiti is one of the countries in the world where the disparity between the tiny elite and the rest of the population most starkly represents the 1% versus the 99%.
True, it was a natural disaster that caused the Caribbean fault lines to rip apart one of the poorest and most densely populated cities in the world, but the devastation of the earthquake was very much the disastrous culmination of decades of reckless man-made economic policies. This has included that familiar cocktail of structural adjustment, debt peonage, liberalizing of trade protections and tariffs, slashing agricultural subsidies, and flooding the country with heavily subsidized American produce, not to mention deliberate political meddling and destabilization. This forced Haitian peasants to abandon rural agriculture in exchange for subsistence wage sweatshop jobs in assembly plants owned by the country’s tiny elite.
The mass exodus from the countryside to the over-crowded urban shanties of Port-au-Prince, meant that living in precariously built and insalubrious dwellings became the rule for the majority of Haitians in the capital, while adherence to seismically resistant building codes was very much the exception. Even before the earthquake two years ago made 1.5 million people homeless, Haitian homes in the capital’s slums were not a huge step up from the frayed tarpaulin under which half a million people still take shelter to this day.
This isn’t just true of Haiti. In fact for the first time in history the proportion of us living in cities is outnumbering the world’s rural population, and, as Mike Davis puts it in his book Planet of Slums, this “rapid urban growth in the context of structural adjustment, currency devaluation and state retrenchment has been an inevitable recipe for the mass production of slums.” At precisely the same time as rural populations migrate en masse to urban centers, governments are slashing public spending and social services, straining city infrastructure and housing for the jobless and working poor.
A landmark survey by UN-Habitat estimated that the world population inhabiting postmodern slums is over a billion and states that the “main single cause of increases in poverty and inequality during 1980s and 1990s was the retreat of the state.”
It’s high time we abandon this lie that’s been peddled which says that democracy and neoliberal capitalism can co-exist symbiotically. The latter is fundamentally antagonistic and parasitic to the former and Haiti is a kind of avant-garde testament to that: decades of neoliberal “structural adjustment” and neo-imperial intervention have bankrupted the government by atrophying state institutions and using their failure as proof of the need for fire sales to the private sector. Governance has been outsourced to the United Nations and security to its multilateral peacekeepers in order to contain “populist and anti-market economy political forces,” as wiki-leaked diplomatic cables reveal.
After overthrowing their dictator Haitians foiled the U.S. “democracy promotion” plan by voting overwhelmingly for a parish priest who promised to resist the economic agenda prescribed by Washington and the IMF. After being ousted from office for the second time in a US-backed coup d’etat, Naomi Klein asked Jean-Bertrand Aristide what was behind his falling out with Washington and he offered her three explanations: “privatization, privatization and privatization.”
Though the Occupy movement’s tents were inspired by Tahrir square more than the growing world population of those who are internally displaced, the encampment did become a political meme whose colourful shabbiness, in the midst of financial districts, symbolizes a global demand for economic justice. They are a visible reminder of what the bursting of the sub-prime mortgagebubble looks like for families across the US and elsewhere. In many occupations, the tent camps have become the natural dwellings of the first world urban homeless, and they’ve taught a generation of protesters what it’s like to be homeless, frozen, sleeping in a park and criminalized for being poor or part of a permanent protest.
The tent camp eviction, be it from capitalism’s junkyard in Port-au-Prince, or its lower frontal lobe in Wall Street and the City of London’s Square Mile, is what the end of the race to the bottom looks like: 21st century disaster-catalyzed primitive accumulation.
Yes, as the British government sets its economic policy on the autopilot of neoliberalism’s holy trinity (privatization, deregulation and cuts to social services), it might be worth looking to Haiti, a country where this was carried out to such a perfection that, as veteran political activist Patrick Elie points out, “Haiti is the most privatized country in the world” and as such we ought to listened to it as “it is the canary in the world’s mine.”
By Isabeau Doucet. Freelance journalist, tweets as @dizzyshambles.