Permanent States of Crisis, or Who Sent This Recession?!

“I was speechless. Her situation is very bad, her husband is sick, she has 5 children, she stays in a rented house, she has to spend on the treatment of her husband and she is the sole earner in the family, how can she meet her ends? When she goes to collect scrap she takes along her little daughter, while her husband sits at home and makes wooden ice-cream spoons, from which he can earn not more than 10 rupees a day.”

This excerpt describes the life of Ranjanben Ashokbhai Parmar, a member of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of Ahmedabad, a city in western India where “incomes have declined, days of work decreased, prices have fallen and livelihoods disappeared” in the wake of the global economic recession. In an interview with a SEWA activist, Parmar is said to have cried: “Who sent this recession! Why did they send it?”

Scant attention has focused on how the current global economic crisis has affected the more than one billion slum dwellers around the world, most of whom reside in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In a recent article published in the New Left Review, the Dutch anthropologist Jan Breman begins to broach this question. Breman makes several broad, provocative arguments about the effect of the crisis on so-called informal land and labor markets. Here are three particular statements which caught my attention and warrant further research, conversation and debate:

“If one considers income distribution, and not just macro-calculations of gdp, the global downturn has taken a disproportionately higher toll on the most vulnerable sectors: the huge armies of the poorly paid, under-educated, resourceless workers that constitute the overcrowded lower depths of the world economy.”

“From the perspective of the world’s underclasses, what looks like a conjunctural crisis is actually a structural one, the absence of regular and decent employment. The massive army of reserve labour at the bottom of the informal economy is entrapped in a permanent state of crisis which will not be lifted when the Dow Jones Index goes up again.”

“The global crisis is being tackled by a massive transfer of wealth from poor to rich. The logic suggests a return to nineteenth-century beliefs in the principle and practice of natural inequality.”

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