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Zygmunt Baumann, "Whatever Happened To Compassion?"

"Whatever Happened To Compassion?"

Zygmunt Baumann

In the USA ten years ago the income of company directors was 42 times
higher than that of the blue-collar workers; it is
now 419 times higher. Ninety-five per cent of the surplus of 1,100 billion
dollars generated between 1979 and 1999 has
been appropriated and consumed by 5 per cent of Americans.

What happens inside every single society occurs as well in the global
sphere — though on a much magnified scale. While the
worldwide consumption of goods and services was in 1997 twice as large as in
1975 and has multiplied since 1950 by a
factor of six — 1 billion people, according to a recent UN report, 'cannot
satisfy even their elementary needs'.Among 4.5 billion residents of 'developing' countries, three in every five
are deprived of access to basic infrastructure: a third have no access to
drinkable water, a quarter have no accommodation worthy of its name, one
fifth have no use of sanitary and medical services. One in five children
spends less than five years in any form of schooling: a similar proportion
is permanently

In 70-80 of the 100 or so 'developing' countries the average income per head
of the population is today lower than ten or even 30 years ago. At the same
time, three of the richest men in the world have private assets greater than
the combined national product of the 48 poorest countries; the fortune of
the fifteen richest people exceeds the total product of the whole of the
sub-Saharan Africa. According to the UN Development Agency's calculation,
less than 4 per cent of the personal wealth of the 225 richest people would
have sufficed to offer all the poor of the world access to elementary
medical and educational amenities as well as adequate nutrition.

Even such a relatively minor redistribution of basic necessities is unlikely
to occur; not in the foreseeable future at any
rate. Governments of rich countries offer financial assistance to the poor
beyond their frontiers reluctantly. Sharing the
nation's wealth with the poor of the earth doesn't win elections. Virtually
nowhere in the rich world does expendi-
ture on overseas aid and development rise above 1 per cent of tax returns.
The USA, by far the world's richest country, scores at the very bottom. Cuts
in foreign aid are seldom met with an explosion of popular anger and hardly
ever hit the headlines. Governments across the globe seem adept at recasting
individual altruism into collective selfishness.

(....) When the fragile economy of 'developing countries' succumbs to global
pressures and finally falls apart,
the 'world community' is at hand, but only to protect the creditors, not the
debtors. Bailing out local businesses in
trouble is strictly out of order (during the recent collapse of the
Indonesian economy, 75 per cent of small and medium local
businesses went bankrupt; after similar economic catastrophe in Thailand,
sharp rises in child prostitution and AIDS-related
deaths were the social costs of the creditor-orientated remedies).

It has been rumoured that recent resignations among top managers of the
World Bank were in protest at US pressure
against including in the decennial report on poverty the results of a survey
conducted among 10,000 of the poor around
the world. The poor are asked what aspect of their plights they find most
demeaning and painful.

We live in a 'multicultural' world, and so expectedly there was an
impressive variety of wordings the poor used to convey their misery. Two
themes, however, kept cropping up in all the replies with amazing
regularity — insecurity and powerlessness, not always the aims spoken out
loud but invariably the principal side-effects of the conditions deemed by
the global financial and trade powers to be the prime pillars of a 'healthy
economy': a flexible labour market, competitiveness and profitability. No
wonder that the most ardent advocates of that policy did not fancy the
public exposure of its true effects.

Somehow the translation of moral impulse into universal, globally binding
standards of honesty, fairness, justice and
responsibility has gone astray. (...) Any serious defence of the intrinsic
value of the variety of cultural choice needs to start from securing the
degree of human self-esteem and self-confidence that makes such choices
possible. This simple truth seldom surfaces in current 'multiculturalist'
discourse, a circumstance which opens that discourse to the charge of
reflecting concerns and preoccupations of the most affluent while refusing
to the others the intellectual aid they need most: an insight into the
causes of their misery and the mechanisms of its perpetuation.

Richard Rorty accuses the 'cultural Left' in the US of preferring 'not to
talk about money' and selecting as its 'principal enemy' 'a mind-set rather
than a set of economic arrangements'. To repair the blunder, Rorty suggests,
the Left 'would have to talk much more about money, even at the cost of
talking less about stigma', and 'put a moratorium on theory' . . . (...) The
awesome task of raising morality to the level of new, global challenges may
well start from heeding the simple advice Rorty offers: ' We should raise
our children to find it intolerable that we who sit behind desks and punch
keyboards are paid ten times as much as the people who get their hands dirty
cleaning our toilets, and a hundred times as much as
those who fabricate our keyboards in the Third World.'

Excerpt from Zygmunt Baumann, "Whatever Happened to Compassion?" In Tom
Bentley, et al., The Moral Universe.