Archive | September, 2018

Panic Attack:  Countering the UN’s Anxious Moments, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Sep

Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. Corrie Ten Boom

The more the panic grows, the more uplifting the image of the one who refuses to bow to the terror. Ernst Junger

Anxiety is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.  Jodi Picoult

Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.  Søren Kierkegaard

The UN’s annual high-level week is over, and it is frankly difficult to capture the energy of UN Headquarters with so many global leaders – political, economic and moral – gathering to share their visions for the world while navigating what many millions hope is a path to greater peace and understanding.

Wandering the halls this week, it was clear that few issues of global consequence have escaped the attention of this leadership.   From pandemics to migrants and from climate change to nuclear disarmament, it would be difficult to conclude that the UN and its member states are ducking key responsibilities, nor are diplomats willfully placing the well-being of future generations in jeopardy through abject incompetence or benign negligence.  The week’s opening gambit, a celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela complete with state commitments to a “political declaration” which his life inspired, was followed by other (albeit largely voluntary) commitments from national leaders, including on the reform of peacekeeping operations, the political integration and empowerment of youth, on Global Compacts for Migrants and Refugees, and (facilitated by Kazakhstan) the adoption of a Code of Conduct for the complete elimination of terrorism by the year 2045.

It would be easy to pick apart most if not all of these commitment events as more show than substance, more defending pre-existing positions than a serious exploration of their limitations, more signatures on the paper than serious commitments to up our urgency and amend our working methods.  But what could be interpreted as the limitations of this week would better be understood as a herculean struggle by states to overcome the anxiety – even panic – of these times, anxiety defined by so many policy “loose ends”, so many unfulfilled promises, threats to the global order to which some leaders have become overly complacent while many others find sleep elusive on most nights.

We did not need the High Level week to remind us of the roots of some of our current, pervasive anxiety – the climate threats that seem to have exceeded our collective capacity to respond; the weapons of more and less mass destruction that continue to flood conflict zones despite our high-minded resolutions and treaties; the equity gaps that this generation of policymakers has yet to address; the holes yet to be plugged in our 2030 Development Agenda responsibilities – anxieties that could exhaust even the most hopeful and energized of persons.

At the UN on Tuesday, It was apparently easy to join in the laughter at the outlandish claims made repeatedly by the US president.  And yet it is likely that much of that laughter was nervous more than mocking.  As the US president made the simultaneous case for the US’s own “hard sovereignty” coupled with the right to take unilateral action against the sovereign rights of others, there was a clear sense in the room of yet another dagger plunged into what remains of our “rules based order,” what remains of respect for a rule of law that even its erstwhile state guarantors in the Security Council too-often disregard with impunity.   As French president Macron noted in an address that seemed designed to counter what president Trump had been expected to say, we must do more to preserve the rules-based foundations needed to counter the struggles that lie before us.  But part of that requires self-assessment, to recognize that states and their peoples have threatened withdrawal from this “order” because it has too-often failed to fulfill its promises. We must acknowledge the self-interested application of this order’s privileges that have increased what Macron referred to as the “humiliating inequalities” we have repeatedly pledged to reduce.  As more than one speaker this week noted, in many key aspects we have brought this current situation on ourselves. Too often, we have been insufficiently vigilant and attentive stewards of the global commons entrusted to us.

Some of the rules-based anxiety this week was filtered through the various human rights events that dotted this week’s UN calendar, repeating what many have long recognized – that the commitment to human rights in many corners of the world is under serious assault.  Speaker after event speaker lamented the violence, intimidation and impunity for abuses that characterizes so much of our current landscape.  Often using terrorism and “illegal” migration as foils, states are increasingly justifying attacks on journalists, civil society organizations and others challenging the chillingly-punitive narratives emanating from more and more national capitals. Calls to “maintain our commitment to cooperation” as articulated by our current High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and to better ensure respect for the rights that are “inconsistent with human misery,” as noted by Senegal’s Foreign Minister, represent important messages that seem more and more to pass through our ears without pausing in our brains.

In fairness, the High Level event this week marking the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was brimming with insight, much of it courtesy of the Secretary-General and an extraordinary, young female advocate from Somalia. But even more wisdom came from a group of three elderly women, Louise Arbour, Mary Robinson and the aforementioned Michelle Bachelet, all of whom have occupied the High Commissioner’s seat, and all of whom were willing to speak truth about the “urgency and anger” that must energize our collective commitments to address rights-related threats – including on climate and migration – which we must get right if we are to avoid the “scorn of future generations.”

Mary and Louise, especially, are part of a quite small group of leaders in my long tenure at the UN whose respect from our office has never once wavered.   They have well-earned authority to name the present anxiety without “bowing to the terror” of these difficult times: this while also acknowledging the limitations of the system of which they have been an integral part – the doors to peace not opened, the unfair and self-serving application of our erstwhile “universal values,” our overly tepid defenses of human dignity, our increasing acquiescence (as also noted by the Republic of Korea’s Foreign Minister) to narratives that deliberately skew the truth about government intent, that allow leaders (as noted by France’s MFA) to get away with claiming they are “managing” journalists and civil society when such actors are actually being “muscled.”

These women and their podium colleagues grasp the times we are living through. In an age of high anxiety, temptations multiply to pull back, to cash in our trust in others, to micro-manage our own brand, to see threats around every corner, to preoccupy ourselves with those who are allegedly trying to “get us,” or hurt us, or “offend” us.  In an age of high anxiety, it is always someone else’s fault.  There is always someone or something trying to take advantage of us, prey on our vulnerability, or “ruin” what we have come to believe is our entitlement.  From our hyper-personal and increasingly isolated fortresses, we shine the mirror of anxiety and mistrust in every direction where it suits our psychic interests – everywhere it seems but towards ourselves.

The 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration, noted Mary Robinson, is not nearly as happy an event as it could have been.   Our “dignity deficit” remains intact, and we have allowed anxiety-driven isolation and polarization to spread like a virus, localizing trust and substituting small-screen grievances for bigger-picture human concerns.  If the UN is to make good on its recent promises, if the frenetic activity of this past week is to result in policies that benefit more than the people who crafted them, then we must all pledge to assess and refine as needed the caliber of our stewardship of the norms, rules and structures entrusted to us.  Only then can we credibly challenge the modern tendencies, as described by Mexico’s outgoing president Nieto this week, of states and people who would either “sow discord or sit on the sidelines.”

River Monsters:  The UN Seeks Higher Ground on Peace, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Sep

Higer Ground II

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. Arundhati Roy

You cannot find peace by avoiding life.  Michael Cunningham

Dad, how do soldiers killing each other solve the world’s problems?   Bill Watterson

You have peace, the old woman said, when you make it with yourself.  Mitch Albom 

Every person needs to take one day away, a day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Maya Angelou

This past Friday at the UN was the annual commemoration of the International Day of Peace.  The day was marked, as has been the case in past years, with a brief ceremony at the Peace Bell which included hopeful remarks from SG Antonio Guterres and newly-minted General Assembly President, Ecuador’s María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés.  The day was also dedicated to a system-wide memorial to honor the late Kofi Annan and an unscheduled (and mostly dismal) Security Council meeting on the still-deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen, a situation invoking (as happens too-frequently in this chamber) little truth-telling about the broken politics and massive weapons sales that now leave millions on the brink of famine and despair.

To say the least, the mood of these Friday UN events could not have been more different.   The Peace Bell ceremony happily called to mind Ms. Espinosa Garcés stirring first remarks to the General Assembly as president, remarks punctuated by commitments to ocean health, to persons discriminated against based on gender or disability, to preserving and enhancing the cultural and “knowledge” diversity of the United Nations, to expanding the role of youth in conflict prevention, to adaptation to the climate change we should have done more to prevent, and to strengthening the role of the General Assembly as “codifier of the most salient aspects of international law.”

“Life is better,” she rightly noted, “when all can live on an equal footing.”  In this, the importance of the UN – in principle if not always in practice — was directly affirmed.  Ms. Espinosa Garcés reminded delegates that, whether we wish to see it or not, “we are making history in this place” and must learn better to do so in a “responsible and caring manner.”   As such, she insisted that what goes on inside this UN bubble must become “more relevant for everyone,” more of a factor in terms of improving daily life for all whom we presume to serve in this place.

It was to our mind a helpful blueprint of sorts towards a more peaceful world; a blend of elements some of which are about our norms and policies, some of which are about ourselves — how much we actually care about the fate of others and the planet as a whole, how attentive we are to the implications of our decisions (and especially our non-decisions) on the people whose lives our decisions impact, for better and for worse.

We have been in the business of suggesting, proposing and prodding on peace for many years now.  And what we have come to learn is that this “peace business” is a truly breathtaking, multi-dimensional task.  It is surely, as we and others have warned over many years, in part about disengaging from our longstanding infatuation with weapons: the misery they threaten and permit, the needless diversion of funds (which we need to fix the world) to unsustainable arms production and modernization, the mindset that coercive solutions to conflict and breaches of international law should remain a default response no matter how often we proclaim allegiance to preventive diplomacy and negotiated settlement.

But peace is thankfully moving to higher ground, requiring us to lay down more than our weapons.   We are now tasked with putting aside our narrow-mindedness masquerading as “focus,” our propensity to discriminate outside our self-appointed “tribe,” our lifestyle choices that require greater and greater amounts of self-indulgence, our propensity to punish and humiliate as a substitute for reconciliation and healing, our lack of courage to face challenges rather than inundate consciousness with distraction.

These other dimensions of “laying down” represent an essential but heavy burden for those of us who have (by personal choice or professional duty) acclimated to the values that now drive so much of our social and political life.  Stay cool.  Get yours.  Keep your distance.  Live in your head, not your heart.  Focus with envy on those who have more, not with compassion on those many more who have less.  Justify and defend all decisions, regardless of their embedded absurdity.  Contextualize reliability and promise keeping.   Hide from threats to truth and safety rather than hold a compassionate, creative and determined ground.

If peace is to stay safe and dry above the murky floodwaters of our current, collective dysfunction, we need now to learn how to navigate those waters more skillfully and mindfully. We must, as my friend Marta Benavides puts it, stop our frenetic “doggie paddling” and remind ourselves how to swim.  And this reorientation of our current policy panic surely requires, as suggested by Maya Angelou, periods of reflection to ensure that we can stay above the floodplain and make the most of our peacemaking activity; to take occasional leave of those people and processes that ostensibly “can’t live without us,” so that we can “consciously separate the past from the future,” separate in such a manner that the ties that once bound our aspirations and actions are restored and energized more by what is coming than what has been.

May it then be as suggested by Arundhati Roy, that “another world is coming” despite our space weaponry and other collective foolishness; despite our self-serving “opinions” and policy-options; despite our failures of nerve when confronted with almost unimaginable inequalities of power and income, marine life “feasting” on our plastic waste, and refugees searching for safe and dry ground for their often-traumatized children.

She can sometimes hear the breathing, she claims, breathing that signals the prospect of a more peaceful and abundant life for our planet at the back end of our current madness.   We must make time to hear and share that sound as well.   And remember how to swim.

Weather Vane: Gauging Directions of Multilateral Threat, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Sep


Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.  Benjamin Franklin

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dislike in yourself what you dislike in others. Hazrat Ali Ibn Abu-Talib

When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent but it will frame all relationships as power strugglesbell hooks

This has been a tough week for many.  As storms in the Atlantic and Pacific lined up like aircraft at an international airport, two of them created a special havoc – one in the Carolinas and another in the Philippines, two of the seemingly growing number of places in the world frequented by storms that, over and over, undermine lives and livelihoods.

Though my own inconveniences are minimal, I like others have friends and family in these stormy places.  I have also done work in those places and helped others do their own.  In many of these communities, a lifetime of struggle to raise families and improve living conditions has been drowned and battered yet again by forces that humanity as a whole has done plenty to unleash but to which these residents, themselves, have contributed little.  For them, displacement might become their storm-driven outcome.

The uneven misery from these climate events was underscored by a local reporter covering what is now only the first wave of Florence’s impacts on the Carolinas.

In most disasters, the poor suffer disproportionately, and it is no different here. The neighborhoods struggling to rebuild after Matthew are the same neighborhoods most at risk to flood again. Haggins was barely getting by back then, crashing with friends. After the water receded, she tried to go collect the little she owned from her friends’ houses, but they’d all flooded and everything she had in the world was gone.

Most of us — even those of us who should know better — have a hard time grasping the concept of “everything gone,” indeed often have a hard time grasping the degree to which those bearing the brunt of horrific storms this week were barely “making it” while the sun was still shining and the breezes were gentle.  There is little justice where climate shocks are concerned, no court to hold the likes of Florence and Mangkhut accountable.  There is mostly just a bevy of folks trying to save what’s left amidst the sobering outlook of more storms revving up their deadly engines and blowing away any reasonable prospects for recovery.

But while we can’t hold these storms and their climate incubators responsible, there are mechanisms of justice  (however imperfect they might be at present) that promise some hope for persons victimized by neighbors, insurgents and governments — humans whose collective predation seems recently to have exceeded in intensity and intentionality anything that we have yet witnessed elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  Inside the UN, there has been a steady recognition that impunity for the most serious crimes represents a stain on our collective system of justice; that the failure to hold individuals and states accountable for their crimes – committed against many of the same people victimized by climate shocks – is a glaring mark against the rule of law that undermines what remains of our robust multilateral system of governance.

To its credit, the UN recognizes the danger and is doing its part to build or restore competent, impartial justice systems and create special criminal tribunals from Haiti to Central African Republic, partially in keeping with the general belief that such justice competence is essential for building a world consistent with the our 2030 Development Agenda aspiratons.   The UN has also pushed for accountability on chemical weapons use in Syria through the General Assembly; has created a “residual mechanism” to handle pending cases from the criminal tribunals established for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia; and has (largely through the Security Council) worked to ensure that the use of coercive sanctions is more carefully targeted to punish perpetrators without endangering civilians. The UN and many member states have also continued to vocally support the International Criminal Court despite challenges (including some testy moments with the ICC Prosecutor) from some permanent members of a Security Council which issues ICC referrals and (ostensibly) ensures that states cooperate with the Court’s investigations and warrants.

Unfortunately, we are now in danger of turning our current political “climate” of ethno-centrism, border defensiveness and general suspicion into an art form, leading to a host of double standards – including at the UN – regarding divergent levels of accountability for actions undertaken by powerful states relative to “lesser” countries that simply find it hard to protect themselves from large-state whims.  As evidenced by this week’s tirade by John Bolton, the US is fully committed to joining the ranks of prominent states seemingly “doubling down” on advocacy for an international “justice system” predicated less on the rule of law and more on narrow perceptions of national interest.

Efforts by the International Criminal Court to level the accountability playing field has incurred the wrath of some of the more powerful governments seeking to justify and preserve that age-old entitlement utilized in a somewhat different form by parents content to push their children into a lifetime of therapy – “we do what we want, you do what we say.”

Through dedicated efforts from states (including current and soon-to-be Council members) and civil society organizations, the ICC has in fact improved its investigative and prosecutorial procedures while expanding its focus into the realms of conflict-based sexual violence and, most recently, the crime of aggression.  It has successfully prosecuted criminals such as in the recent (albeit controversial and expensive) case of the DRC’s Bemba Gombo, and has recently accepted jurisdiction on matters related to the forced deportation of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh.  It’s Trust Fund for Victims has reinforced on the international agenda (despite current funding limitations) the need to ensure reparations and psycho-social support for those victimized by the atrocity crimes that are still much too pervasive in our world.

The ICC’s limitations and growth edges are widely known, and include the aforementioned limitations of state and Security Council cooperation and the Court’s inability to gain traction on crimes committed by the world’s major powers.  That said, it must be noted that the ICC is intended to be a “court of last resort,” to be invoked only in situations where domestic courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute war criminals and other purveyors of mass atrocities.  If John Bolton, for instance, were more interested in ensuring that the conduct of US military operations was in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law, the alleged jurisdictional threats and related “power struggles” involving the ICC would be quite less alarming.

Nevertheless, these attacks on the ICC remain dangerous at multiple levels. They undermine confidence in international law, especially on the part of victims whose avenues for redress are already far-too-limited.  They undermine confidence in international peace and security still the province of largely unaccountable state powers.  And they undermine confidence in the international system that now seeks to build commitments to action on a wide range of fronts – and specifically to address the climate threats which have this week turned fertile areas of the Carolinas and the Philippines into unusable swaths of water and mud, motivating many to consider abandoning communities that had nurtured their families for many years.

It has been a theme of this space for some time, but it bears repeating here.  We are responsible not only for what we propose, but for what our proposals enable for others, the consequences that ensue when others “take up our cues” and apply them in other contexts.   This week’s ICC-focused “cue” from Bolton is one that the causes of international justice and multilateral effectiveness on climate and other global threats could well have done without.

Sorry Day:  The Security Council’s Misplaced Vision, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Sep

This Way

No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.   George Eliot

You have the power today to reset your boundaries, restore your image, start fresh with renewed values and rebuild what has happened to you in the past.  Shannon Alder

And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.  Herman Melville

The question is not, are we sorry? The question is, what lesson have we learned? The question is what are we going to do now that we are sorry?  J.M. Coetzee

Like many others, this past week pulled the UN in diverse directions.  An important inter-governmental conference to protect Marine Biological Diversity and a mood-altering celebration of “staff day” was offset for us by some controversies over NGO access during a busy September and a couple of Security Council sessions which underscored divisions both political and normative.

The US has taken over the presidency of the Security Council for September and thus will be in the chair during the soon-to-open 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, a time when heads of state and their ministries fill the UN building beyond capacity.   US Ambassador Haley, who has made her reputation as someone willing to speak her mind — even when that mind at times deviates from her political superiors – as well as someone who is often dismissive (and least in formal settings) of contrary points of view, is handling the presidency deftly to date.

But deft leadership is surely not sufficient in these perilous times, not for the US delegation nor for the others who, given the Council’s “provisional” acceptance of seemingly endless, largely repetitive statements in “national capacity,” fail to address the need for a larger, more reassuring narrative on peace and security.  “Where is this going,” is a concern uttered by our interns at various points, young people who appreciate their access to the space where the Council muses over its puzzle pieces but who also wonder what the end game is, what the puzzle would look like if all the pieces were finally made to fit?

As many of you know, the current Monthly Programme for the Security Council was issued late due to a controversy over including Nicaragua on the agenda in accordance with US wishes.  The issue here was not whether images of unrest in Nicaragua warranted the attention of the international community, but whether or not such unrest has risen to the level of a threat to international peace and security, thus demanding Council attention?  On this there was serious disagreement among members, in part because there is no clear guiding definition for such a threat level, and certainly no definition that presumes to encapsulate transgressions committed by the permanent Council members themselves.   Why are Kosovo, Guinea-Bissau and Liberia still matters of recent Council attention when events in Nicaragua and Cameroon struggle for recognition and Yemen needed to be shoved on to the agenda after a long and bloody wait?   And why do Council members, especially the permanent ones, continue to soft-pedal their own violations of Charter provisions while (often selectively) holding other UN members to theirs?  Why do they (and other states of course) continue to bend the arc of justice to suit national interests and then claim that they are simply upholding some version of the “rules-based international order?”

And in areas this week where the Council rightly recognized clear implications for international peace and security – the use of banned chemical agents as weapons and the fate of the already-displaced residents of Idlib, Syria who now anxiously watch the skies to see if they are to become the next to be sacrificed in the “war on terror” – the Council has threatened much but delivered only modestly.   We still have no ironclad method for ensuring compliance regarding the use of banned weapons.   We still have no method for ensuring that counter-terror measures are conducted in accordance with human rights standards.  We still have no method for ensuring that the erstwhile “guarantors of the international order” also abide by its prescriptions and limitations.

Indeed, as many others have noted, we have no way to ensure that those tasked with maintaining Charter values on peace and security are actually demonstrating a commitment to their fulfillment. For all the talk by most Security Council members (and rightly so) about the importance of ending impunity for international law violations, impunity still persists among Council members themselves.  For all of the diplomatic skill and at times good will around the Council oval, that body remains the most political and least-accountable space in the UN system and probably well beyond.  There remains this palpable sense that the Council continues to prioritize rearranging the furniture – albeit tastefully at times — while the house continues to leak from above and rot from below.

If the Council were to hold occasional discussions focused on fulfilling the vision of the 2030 Development Agenda, surely the broadest and most hopeful vision this system now embraces, members might be compelled to examine the ways in which inaction and mis-action on peace and security jeopardize the fulfillment of that Agenda as little else.  Unless we can stem the current propensities to violence in all its forms – from economic inequalities and gross rights abuses committed against civilians to out-of-control arms production and modernization – the odds are that no amount of corporate funding, big data or ocean-cleaning technology is going to rescue us.  Council effectiveness is critical to what has become the UN’s most comprehensive and inspirational vision, whether it wishes to acknowledge that in formal session or not.

In a few hours New York time, Rosh Hashana will begin, a time of repentance for our Jewish sisters and brothers with much to teach the rest of us. A good bit of the commentary I have read early this morning points to the great difficulty we have enacting what should be a regular element of work and personal life.   It is, indeed, hard for us to admit our wrongs, to grant those we have aggrieved the acknowledgment they deserve.  But it is especially difficult to move beyond the rhetoric of repentance to the practical matters of amendment, to use our mistakes as the text for a shift in our attitudes and priorities that is more sustainable than ceremonial.

Repentance in its best and most sustainable sense is partially about shifting our vision, but even more about shifting our course, about resetting our boundaries and priorities.  The person who seeks forgiveness but fails to adjust direction toward a more accountable and hopeful horizon, who fails to plot a viable “escape” from the lazy and hostile habits of the past, is more likely to find rejection than relief.  This is true of our institutions as much as our families and communities of faith.

Repentance, in the end, requires a larger vision of who we are, what we are capable of, and what we can become.   The 2030 Development Agenda – an agenda not imposed on states but painstakingly negotiated by them — provides evidence that the UN system understands both the momentousness of the times and our still-potent capacity to adjust our ways.   The Council simply must find a way to bring its sometimes petrified mandates and politicized policymaking into conformity with that vision, at least to understand their own pivotal role in making that vision achievable.

We don’t need sack cloth and ashes.   We don’t need wailing and gnashing of teeth.  What we need (as noted by the SG and others) is a clear, consistent and actionable understanding of the ways in which the impediments and inconsistencies in our peace and security architecture compromise larger commitments to a healthy and prosperous planet.   What is arguably still the single most important room in the world would do well to incorporate (not seek to control) the larger vision of the 2030 Development Agenda and the conflict prevention and resolution strategies that will give humanity the best chance of saving us from ourselves.


Chain Gang:  Tightening the Screws on our Global Labor Force, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Sep

The economics of industrialized countries would collapse if women didn’t do the work they do for free. Naomi Wolf

What you’ve got is a huge number of idle hands, a vast amount of work that ought to be done, and an economic system that is incapable of putting those two things together.  Noam Chomsky

Labor history was pornography of a sort in those days, and even more so in these days. In public schools and in the homes of nice people it was and remains pretty much taboo to tell tales of labor’s sufferings. Kurt Vonnegut

When capital has more freedom than people, serious democratic deficits are guaranteed.  Patrick Iber

This is Labor Day weekend in the US, a time when we “celebrate” workers by giving those who punch a clock for a living or provide “services” within our dangerously unbalanced economy a few hours of relief from their relative monotony and powerlessness.  For the UN community in New York, this might be another occasion to contemplate the many challenges that affect global labor, including new threats to remittances, the “unwelcome mats” laid out for more and more economic migrants, the physical and emotional abuses faced by domestic workers, and the employment crunch that could gravely impact this current, largest-ever generation of young people.

We have only begun to wake up to these and related challenges. Indeed, we are living through a time of vast and logistically-complex consumer options coupled with limited consumer regard for the sometimes cruel and unjust origins of the products we use, the toll inflicted on so many of the people who have little options other than to fuel our lifestyles.  Too many of us in the “developed” world have sanctified the relationship between our wallets and the objects of our desire.  Too many of us have given in to the notion that we are consumers first and foremost;  and we un-apologetically employ the tools of our privilege, including elite connections and educational institutions, to enhance our “competitive advantage” in the marketplace — thereby ensuring that the growing inequalities that marginalize many millions of working people worldwide won’t take a bite out of our own pre- and post-retirement options.

Like many others of my advancing age, I grew up in a family where people made a living by performing tasks such as climbing telephone poles and selling ball bearings once their military service had concluded. Our neighbors didn’t necessarily want to do those jobs themselves, but they wanted their phone lines to survive wind storms and they wanted the products they used around their homes to be functionally effective and dependable.   And, for better or worse, they knew at a personal level many of the people who were making those contributions.  They knew more than we generally know now about the skills and values of their neighbors, the ones they liked and the ones they didn’t.  Folks knew who to call when the milk deliveries were late or the sink was clogged.  There might have been a minimum of consumer “bling” in those times, but economic activity maintained a decidedly human face.

One of the reasons why the labor of my more immediate forebears maintained dimensions of dignity is the scale at which such labor was offered.   As most politics is local, to cite the cliché, most economics was “municipal.”   Even as large (and sometimes exploitative) corporate entities were consolidating and streamlining their authority, people could still work out their “service” problems and interests face to face.   Moreover, people could still bargain to maintain and even enhance their collective interests.  Most folks who I grew up with still found their corporate employers dependable and fair enough, partners more than “masters.” This was due in part to the ability of government at that time to facilitate discussions that often resulted in reasonable levels of both corporate profit and labor loyalty.  Such loyalty might not result in affluence, but it generally guaranteed that children could be clothed, fed and educated and maybe, just maybe, able to find a different destiny.  It wasn’t always pleasant, of course, but neither was it the relentless dead-end that characterizes so many of our modern employment options at many points on the production and consumption chain.

The municipal model had its limitations, many of which became apparent as people embraced consumerist identities that privileged standardization and predictability of the consumer experience.   Such “expectations” went hand in hand with an increasing number of top-down corporate regulations that communicated to workers that their only job is to enact company policy, not enrich or critique it.   And while enacting policy about which the “experiences” of workers were of less and less practical relevance, the stability and organizing power of labor was completely undercut. There was little protection to be found at local level once this assault was fully under way.

Indeed, as capital flees its corporate homelands in greater and greater amounts for new and often unregulated adventures, the ability of governments of all sizes to regulate flows and impacts, even in the largest economies, has long been compromised.  And in an age when corporate money fuels so much political opportunity, there seems to be less and less state interest – all rhetoric to the contrary  — in controlling and then balancing fiscal excesses.

And so we have this Labor Day which, in the US at least, takes on the character of a Columbus Day or even Memorial Day – ceremonies that few attend, reflection in short supply, a time that some can use to their advantage – for errands or leisure – largely on the backs of workers for whom even this holiday is often denied to them.  We who do so little for ourselves that doesn’t involve credit cards or phone apps, we are free to dismiss and ignore the many people who must work on this day so that we have to “endure” only a minimum of material inconvenience.  In cities like New York, as in much of the rest of the world, every day now is a day for labor, even if some of us have found a way to exempt ourselves from those demands.

This is no rant in support of “socialism,” a term that has lost its flavor as it has been reduced to one piece of a largely vapid argument about whether corporate board rooms or government agencies are most likely to operate in our collective best interest. Nor is this an advocacy piece for a return to a municipal economic framework that is unmindful of some of its own limitations, especially its oft-tepid embrace of cultural, religious or gendered diversity.   Moreover, given how distracted and even obsessed most of us are by our personal technology and enveloping video streams, it isn’t clear any longer that we are paying that much more attention to each other in smaller communities than in mega-cities.

But what is clear is that the burdens of our recent economic inheritance are rendering more and more of us ill-equipped either to care for the  material needs of our families or to participate in the large issues and decisions that affect family futures – the climate sickness that isn’t responding to our prescriptions; the out-of-control weapons production seemingly focused on the next school or hospital to bomb; the employment “opportunities” offered to most of this largest-generation-in-history that ask too little of our minds and souls, and pay even less; the rank competitiveness of the “educated classes” that seem to think that they have enough “earned” privilege to weather a gathering storm to which they mostly give furtive but uncommitted glances.

We have said this on many occasions and will say it on many more: that the growing inequalities which characterize New York and other centers of insufficiently restrained capital mobility are fueling anger and frustration, political cynicism and an increasing susceptibility to suspicion even of those in the next apartment or work cubicle.  As owners continue to own more, our reaction is more fealty than fight, hoping to grab enough of the crumbs dropping from the table that we can keep our own automobiles serviced and our cable bills paid – and that if we are fortunate enough to have such.

Here is news that shouldn’t be news at all: Even if we find the money and work out the data needed for our sustainable development (SDG) commitments, we will not fulfill our promises without the skills, participation and encouragement of many millions of people at local level.  Thus, we must find ways to involve more of the people whose hands are temporarily “idle” but also those who now tend our farms and green spaces, educate our children, provide our municipal services, drive our trucks and vans, and maintain our roads and bridges.  These are the workers – once at least locally respected and now just mostly taken for granted – who make the lives of the rest of us possible. If the SDGs are to succeed, we must focus more than normal of our practical and policy attention on those who haul away our trash, bag our groceries or make our daily cappuccinos.

Through the UN and especially the International Labor Organization, we have made some progress on labor-related issues such as the ethics of supply chains; on codifying and ensuring the rights of economic migrants; on identifying and addressing child labor, forced labor and other “chain gang”-like abuses; and on eliminating gender imbalances in pay and appointments.   But we have miles yet to travel, and the road seems to get rockier at every turn.

On this Labor Day weekend, let us please take at least a few moments to reflect on our unmet personal and policy responsibilities to the workers on whom we depend and whose plight in our overly scripted, technologically-dense, top-heavy economies is becoming more and more perilous.