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The relatively young woman had managed to construct a reasonably comfortable living arrangement through the frugal use of cardboard, plastic sheeting and some old mattresses and blankets.
And at 5pm on a warm-enough September day she looked quite relaxed as she lay back reading her book tucked into the doorway of a shop that hadn’t made it through the UK recession. Nobody paid her any attention; she was one of the many homeless people to be found on the streets of Brighton, a sea-side town on the south-east coast of England.
Early the next morning as I walked along a deserted beach front I bumped into Ed Miliband who was out with his wife and two young children on a meet-and-great ahead of the Labour Party conference that was kicking off in Brighton later in the day. I wanted to tell him there seemed to be more people sleeping on the streets of Brighton than on the streets of Cape Town and that the entire UK establishment should be ashamed of itself. But as ever, the minders of top politicians are well trained to protect them from random members of the public.
That day’s UK newspapers carried more stories about Google billionaire Larry Page’s ongoing struggle to find a house in London within his £30 million (R490m) budget. Just another one of the many stories that highlight the growing divide between the top layer of executives in the corporate and political world and the rest of the population.
During the conference Miliband did acknowledge that: “Somewhere along the way that vital link between the growing wealth of the country and your family finances was broken.”
While it may not be entirely accurate, at least in South Africa we can use the excuse that we are a society in transition and that we do have a long-term plan to protect people from life on the streets. That buys us some time. But how do you explain the UK and a number of other European countries, as well as the US. The experience of the past 20 years indicates that economic growth in a democracy does not bring with it the declining level of inequality that was so long promised. The US and the UK are rapidly returning to levels of inequality not seen since the early 20th century.
The really disturbing part of this trend is that there is no sign of anger among the citizens. How can it be that people who have enjoyed the benefits of economic growth in a democratic environment for decades aren’t enormously angry at what has happened in the last 10 or so years?
Are they perhaps too sophisticated to take to the streets and demand more? Could it be that in the US the general populace is swayed by that hoary old tale about wealth being within everyone’s grasp; according to this tale there are no flaws in the democratic system, you’ve just got to try a little harder. Perhaps in the UK it is all about “keeping a stiff upper lip”?
As it happened, that weekend the Financial Times included a magazine on China dealing with many of the issues surrounding its dramatic growth over the past 20 years. It dealt with the new consumer culture and attendant opportunities, threats to the environment, changing attitudes and the question always asked by Western commentators: “How long can the Communist Party survive in China?”
The decelerating Chinese economy combined with an increasing intolerance of, as the Financial Times stated, “an authoritarian system that squashes free speech and seems unable to provide clean air, clean water, clean food or clean government”, are perceived as major threats to the continued dominance of the Communist Party.
It is difficult as a foreigner visiting China not to wonder why the country’s citizens remain so tolerant of their government’s authoritarian stance. But two factors stand out: one is the increased absolute wealth and consumption being enjoyed by the majority of the population. The second is that for generations, authoritarianism has been a part of life.
Neither of these factors applies to the West, which is why it is becoming more difficult as a visitor to Europe and the US not to wonder why their citizens remain so tolerant of their governments. And why are Western commentators not asking similar questions about their own countries? How long can the current form of Western democracy survive given the growing levels of inequality?