new war on the poor

The New War on the Poor shows how neoliberal security regimes produce insecurity, and worse, for poor citizens, while protecting rich interests, finds Ellen Graubart

John Gledhill, The New War on the Poor: The Production of Insecurity in Latin America (Zed Books 2015), viii, 248pp.

John Gledhill’s exhaustive ethnographic study of the new war on the poor explains what states do to people when they define them as a threat to the security of the rest of society. It reveals why states so often not only fail to resolve the problems that the people themselves see as threats to their security, but actually make them worse.

He has followed the Marxist tradition in:

‘treating capitalism as a system of social relationships that is inevitably contradictory in its workings, but whose logic needs to be unpacked by delving analytically beneath the surface of things and the kinds of understandings of the world that come to seem “natural” to most social actors’ (pp. 9-10).

Gledhill has focused his study of the new war on the poor mainly on the two countries with the largest economies in Latin America, Brazil and Mexico. He examines the contradictions of public-security policy in the two countries in the context of ‘wars’ and pacification, concentrating on metropolitan cities in Brazil, and in Mexico, mainly on rural areas.

The problems these two countries have with security have multiple causes, being both varied and extremely complicated. They arise not only from national and regional conditions and histories, but are also due to transnational and global processes, both geopolitical and economic in nature. These factors complicate further the issue of thinking about politically feasible ways of making improvements on the current situation.

Both Brazil and Mexico suffer from serious problems of violence, a confusing mixture of which is carried out by states and other political actors competing for power, and other ‘private’ groups, such as drug trafficking gangs, criminals and paramilitaries.

In either country, state police or militias (armed guardians of order authorised by the state) may be part of the problem in that they attempt to achieve personal security, rather than being a party to finding a solution to the problems. For instance, in the case of the privatisation of security services, state agents can be influenced by private interests. Better-off citizens and companies that can afford these services can escape state regulation and, with impunity, violate the rights of the less fortunate, especially ‘when the persons whose rights have been converted into “threats” by the process of securitization’ (p.201).

Mafia-like militias and criminal gangs (often formed and acting with the tacit consent of government) also pose a serious threat to personal security. These operate within communities, predominantly in and around poor areas, where citizens often find themselves caught up in crossfire between rival gangs. A wide class divide between the rich and the poor has resulted in gated communities for the rich and the creation of shanty towns, or favelas, as peasants driven off the land by mining operations and agribusiness have moved to cities to find work.

The two countries differ in that Brazil has in recent years gone for an economic strategy that has allowed real wages to rise. It has become a major force on the world diplomatic stage as an independent state which has exercised control over the terms on which foreign companies operate. It has also put a strong emphasis on poverty reduction, job creation and promoting social mobility through improvements in real wages.

Mexico, led by right-wing governments, has done the opposite. It has allowed American companies to profit from its oil and opened the door to new investment with ‘reforms’ to labour laws detrimental to workers’ rights. Governments have also allowed mining companies to operate freely. These have devastated landscapes, leaving them useless for agriculture, and polluted water sources, leading to joblessness and poverty. As a result, large numbers of people migrate to cities where they suffer further hardship in trying to find work and housing.

The United States bears a heavy historical responsibility for the growth of organized crime and violence in Mexico, and for the continuing deficiencies of its democratic institutions (p.208). The operations against criminals in the ‘war against drugs’ in Latin America have become entangled in political and geopolitical projects, with the result that it is possible for different agencies of the US government or national governments actually to work at cross purposes. In addition to the above, the actions of US-based corporations, and an international judicial apparatus regulating commercial relations that favours US interests, exacerbates the human-security problems of the population, further undermining local sovereignty.

In its 1994 Human Development Report the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) launched a new proposal for the development of countries of the global South, based on the concept of human security. This proposed a shift of focus from states and their interests to people and their interests, on the grounds that security is not only threatened by civil conflicts and violence, but also by environmental degradation, racial and gender discrimination, unemployment or precarious employment, and poverty and hunger (pp.10-11).

It was also acknowledged that the state might be part of the problem people face in trying to achieve personal security, for example when it fails to establish the rule of law, or perverts it, or restricts freedom of expression and the legitimate expression of political opinion (pp.10-11). In other words, a holistic approach to the problems of security is necessary. It is argued that people can only fulfil their potential as human beings if they are free from fear and want.

Unfortunately what was finally agreed upon by the leaders of 189 countries at an UN-sponsored meeting in 2000 (during the formulation of the eight Millennium Development Goals) was considerably watered down. As a consequence the neo-liberal agenda is still in operation.

The author fully articulates the suffering and the predicament of the less fortunate citizens of the two countries, giving many examples, writing without sentimentality but with compassion. He has produced an extremely useful text book for anyone who is interested in an in-depth analysis of the dynamics at play in these two countries.

John Gledhill’s conclusions are clear and understandable: the neoliberal experiment has been disastrous, and is obviously geared to advantage the few – the powerful and the rich – at the expense of the poor. Securitization has been conducted as a war to keep the poor down, however cleverly it has been dressed up.

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart was born in India of American parents and came to London from Virginia as a teenager to study art. She lives and works as an artist in Hackney. She is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War and Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign.