Three Cheers for the Cheerfully Deluded!

30.11.2019 - Santiago de Chile - Redacción Chile

Three Cheers for the Cheerfully Deluded!
(Image by Juan Carlos Marín)

By Howard Richards

A compassionate realist acknowledges the positive social functions of delusions, of which there are many in CWP [Community Work Programme] at Orange Farm [a suburb of Johannesburg]: Delusions about how many jobs there are (Many people are excited about the new mall. People are thinking about job opportunities.”) Delusions about public employment being a temporary stopgap until participants find work and exit (We do not want to see a participant remaining a CWP participant – we want them to exit the programme and open space for other needy people to benefit from it.”) Delusions about the power of education and training to guarantee employment (“Most of them are saying why you don’t take us to school to learn things like welding and plumbing.? If I could do such a thing and get a certificate I would be fine”.) And so on.

But delusions often have positive social functions. People whose self-esteem is so high that they overestimate the probability of their success are likely to become optimists. Complete optimists are people who, when in a single day they fail an examination, are dismissed from their employment, and dumped by their lover, hit the books to study for the next exam that very same night. The next day, they are pounding the sidewalks with a CV in their hand, a smile on their face, and their shoes nicely shined. The next evening, they are flirting on Facebook.1

People whose self-esteem is so low that their estimate of the probability of their getting a good job is close to the truth are bad news. They drain the emotional energy of their friends. They swell the ranks of the whiners, of the depressed, of the alcoholics, of the addicts, and of the delinquents. Pessimists may have truth on their side, but there is little else to be said in their favour.

CWP in Orange Farm is different things for different people. It relates to illusions and to truth in more than one way. For young eager-beavers CWP is perceived as a pathway to a career. For many rejected by the labour market CWP means dignity at last. Remember that unlike many other public employment programmes, CWP provides support for participants for as long as they need it. CWP is a way of life for participants who find joy in service. But for many men CWP is not an attractive option, because it pays less than they need to get by. Men sometimes join, participate for a while, and then drop out.

Given a world in which, year by year, there is a larger precariat2 whose members even when they are well educated and have technical skills, never achieve steady employment, and where even among people who do have steady employment3 most are poorly paid, the observations on CWP at Orange Farm highlight two crying needs: (1) to create soft landings for the large fraction of the young eager beavers who will inevitably be disappointed, and (2) to raise wages. To raise wages means to raise wages in public employment programmes, and to raise the wages of the poorly paid in general. The two are connected. As we saw in the chapters on India and Sweden, public employment guarantees build a floor under private sector wages.

This chapter’s encounters with the realities of life on the south side of Johannesburg tell a story that could be told with variations about many other places. Similar stories could be told about the south side of Chicago, the south side of Mexico City, the south side of Paris, the south side of Cairo, the south side of Mumbai, and so on; and about their north, east, and west sides too.

In the Spring of 1972, Michel Foucault participated in a panel discussion on life in the public housing projects in the banlieues of Paris, where he described the global trend as one where the plebeians increasingly outnumber the proletariat.4 The proletariat are the workers with steady jobs. The plebeians are the excluded. Foucault’s distinction appears to be widely applicable. Many other cities can sing of Joburg what The Beatles sang of the Nowhere Man: “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

Intelligent policy makers will not waste time imagining a future when private for-profit employers offer good jobs to every person who needs one. They will accept the reality that in the present there are, and in the future there will be, dispossessed millions living on transfer payments or, worse, somehow subsisting without them.

But there is another reality too, and it is also part of the world as it is. There are millions of optimists who believe that they can get a good job or successfully run a business of their own. They want that. Their good attitudes are a big plus for society. If, in the coming years, they are regularly frustrated, then many will defect to the pessimists. Then there will be even more people with bad attitudes than the many we already have.

There are creative outside-the-box solutions that combine social support with private enterprise. One of them is the city of Joburg’s urban agriculture programme. Discrete subsidies make it possible for mini-entrepreneurs to enjoy the dignity of earning their own living. The City of Rosario in Argentina has gone further than Joburg in the same direction.5 In Rosario every Child Development Centre6 has an agricultural adviser. A Child Development Centre is a combination kindergarten, community centre, and drop-in study hall for older children. The families with children in the Centre are advised on what food they can produce, even if it is only rabbits kept in a small space and fed on kitchen scraps. Private and public entities lend land for free. Private and public entities give free courses on everything from how to comply with sanitation laws, to how to cultivate worms in compost. Free advertising touts the health benefits of the urban farmers’ organic products. They get free stalls in the municipal marketplaces. It is their business but community support makes it possible.

So, let’s hear three cheers for the cheerfully deluded! Instead of telling them that their dreams are very likely to be disappointed, let’s change the world to make it possible for more of their dreams to come true. Urban agriculture both in Johannesburg and Rosario represents a principle that can be widely amplified: the belief of the optimists that they can make it on their own can be gently brought into synch with economic reality through discrete subsidies. What is not possible in pure markets is possible in impure markets. Public policies and public sympathy can rescue not only the bodies of the poor, but also the dignity of the poor.

1This literary image of the optimist is suggested by the cheerfulness of the young people at Orange Farm who treat CWP as an opportunity to start on the path of success. Empirical studies tend to show that optimism rewards the optimist only when it is moderate. See for example Puri, M., & Robinson, D. T. (2007). ‘Optimism and economic choice’. Journal of Financial Economics, 86 (1), 71-99.

2 Guy Standing, The Precariat. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011. (op cit)

3 Guy Standing, ‘Economic Insecurity and Global Casualisation Social Indicators Research. Vol. 88 (2008) pp. 15-30.

4 Michel Foucault et al, Table Ronde in Esprit for April-May 1972. Pp. 678-703. Reprinted in Michel Foucault, Dits et Écrits. Paris: Gallimard, 1994. Pages 316-339.

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