Small Government in Action

I’ve been in Paraguay for 3 weeks. Asuncion is the same as Charlotte, just in a different dialect and a different tense. Paraguay in the US of the far past, and the not-too-distant future. Being here, working here, existing, it all gives me a sense of deep deja-vu. I so rarely have the opportunity to feel as though I’m somehow living my grandmother’s life in Batista’s Cuba. And I have never so clearly felt that I am somehow inhabiting the world of my daughter’s middle age.

The public spaces are filthy and there is garbage everywhere. The roads are terrible. People throw themselves on the windshields of cars, cleaning them and demanding payment. Some of these people are children. The homeless are ubiquitous, but what constitutes homelessness is a bit unclear. Most of the homeless have shelter of some sort, and sleeping in a shack constructed in the park or on the riverbank is, as of this writing, not forbidden in practice.

The rich here are very, very rich. Giant houses with beautiful German cars and spoiled children and well-groomed women on the arms of entitled men. Nannies and maids abound. They are well-educated and deeply secure in their superiority. They float over everything, they are not really from here as much as they are just passing through.

The middle class is substantial in number and scrabbly in affect. Always on the look out for ways to improve themselves, they work hard and cut corners. But mostly, they busy themselves by looking down on the poor, whose world they live in while trying to rise above it. They are deeply concerned with making the country a better place by becoming rich and somehow making everything that is unsightly just disappear.

The poor come in two varieties: rural and urban. The countryside is poor and has always been poor. If it would just stay poor and in the country, providing cheap produce and meat to the middle class, then everything would be fine. But the rich keep growing their agro-businesses, pushing farmers off of the land. The farmers come in buses to the city to protest, but they are fighting the global free market. Which is kind of like Don Quixote and his windmill. Mostly the rural poor is becoming the urban poor, the visible poor, the restless poor. They are surplus, extra, with no clear method of economic or social integration and they are upset about it. They are here, in the city, with the middle classes and the rich. And that’s a problem for everyone who counts.

Prison populations have grown by 300% in the last 10 years. The police are doing the same job as they did under the long-lasting dictatorship: fighting subversion. Except now subversives are not thought of as political opponents, they are the poor. Criminals. Dangerous. Violent. Dirty. Inferior. As their few resources are monetized and traded by the rich, the middle class breathes a sigh of relief that these degenerates are finally being made to heel.

Important here is that the government has absolutely no intention of integrating the poor into the national community. The problems of the country are sad, of course, but there is nothing the state could do (besides the millions of options available, of course). The role of the state is to protect the wealthy and the middle class from the barbarians at the gate. Healthcare, education, housing, employment — all must be brokered through the free market. Those who cannot compete in the market are on their own, functionally stateless in a citizenship regime in which market position dictates inclusion.

We’ve been here before in the United States. For some reason, Republicans both embrace market fundamentalism and the 1950s — but the post-War US was a welfare state that excluded based on race, not class. The 1920s should be their halcyon days of greatness, a time when the government did little more than print the money and incarcerate the subversives. The vast inequality of the time saw more money going to the richest Americans, a middle class struggling to keep its place, and vast reserves of poor people trying to eek out an existence on the margins. But the crisis of this mass impoverishment led to the crisis of demand that brought us the Great Depression — poor people can’t buy things, so rich people’s companies can’t sell, and go out of business, unemploying the middle class managers and bankrupting the owners — and led us to the realization that the only sustainable prosperity is a relatively egalitarian one.

We seem to have forgotten this lesson in the US, but I’m remembering it vividly in Paraguay. Our wealthy are so very wealthy. Floating above us, seemingly in a different world. The middle class under so much pressure, lest they fall from this particular version of grace. And the stripping of basic social rights to healthcare, education, housing and a living wage, has left poor Americans increasingly marginalized, desperate and hopeless. Increasingly dangerous and criminal. So very criminal.

Asuncion is worse than Charlotte. Just generally. The statistics on global migration confirm what is plain to the eye. I wish I could say that Paraguay is safely in the past, the US of the past and the collective memory of anyone whose family came from a terribly unequal place. But that would not account for the deep dread with which I look outside at present. Because I get how this happens, and its happening to us as well. Again.