An expansionary budget
OMAR Ayub Khan, minister of state of finance, presented an expansionary budget to the National Assembly on June 6. The budget aims at sustaining the high rate of growth of recent years, reducing the incidence of poverty, and tying the economy closer with the global system. Such an approach has long been overdue.
I have argued in earlier articles that Pakistan should have pursued an economic strategy that simultaneously addressed the problems of economic stagnation and poverty alleviation. That should have been done in 2000 when the administration headed by President Musharraf was settling down. However, the decision was taken to follow the line laid down by the International Monetary Fund to first focus on stabilizing the economy before addressing the issue of structural change and reviving growth. I am referring to the past not to revive an old debate but to examine whether the government now has a strategy to finally address the long-term problems faced by the economy.
There is a great deal to cheer about the performance of the economy in the last three years, a subject I covered at some length in this space last week. The question now is whether the budget for the year 2005-06 has set the stage for bringing about structural changes in the economy that would sustain the rates of growth of recent years and last year’s admittedly significant impact on the incidence of poverty. My conclusion is that the budget falls short of reaching this objective.
Before examining the budget from the perspective of economic development including poverty alleviation, I should say a word about government statistics. A former finance minister and a bitter opponent of the current administration questioned the veracity of some of the government’s claims about growth rates, budget deficit and tax collection. He suggested in a speech at the Senate that there were serious discrepancies between the official projections and various statistics in the government’s own documents. While I don’t agree with some of the discrepancies he purportedly discovered, and which to my reading don’t exist, there is undoubtedly a problem with Pakistan’s official statistics. This is a long-standing problem which needs to be rectified particularly when we are trying hard to get foreign investors interested in the economy.
It would be helpful if the government could clearly present some of the basic statistics about the economy, in particular its size in terms of both rupees and dollars. There is some confusion about this after a significant and warranted change introduced last year in the structure of national income accounts and the year — the ‘base’ year — on which they are based. Given the various proportions mentioned in the budget speech, it is hard to discern what was used as an estimate of gross national income.
Just to give one example. The expenditure on defence at Rs 223.5 billion is said to be 3.1 per cent of the GDP. This suggests the size of the economy in 2005-06 at Rs 7,210 billion. However, the budget deficit is estimated at Rs 263 billion which is said to be equivalent to 3.8 per cent of GDP. This suggests the size of the economy for the next fiscal year at Rs 6,921 billion. There is a difference of Rs 289 billion in these two estimates. Which of the two is correct?
There is also some misunderstanding about the rate of increase in the per capita income. The budget document and the Economic Survey for 2004-05 mention a “double-digit increase in per head income”. This can be the case only in nominal terms since with 8.35 per cent increase in GDP in real terms and 1.9 per cent increase in population, real income cannot increase by more than 6.4 per cent. Repeated references to double-digit per capita income increases create the impression that the government is playing a game with numbers.
The most eye-catching feature of the budget is the sharp increase in the size of the Public Sector Development Programme. The budget allows for a 37.8 per cent growth in spending for federal and 25.9 per cent for provincial development programmes. The federal and provincial PSDPs are budgeted to increase to Rs 272 billion or 3.8 per cent of the implied gross domestic product for the year. In nominal terms, this is Rs 70 billion greater than the expenditure for the current year. Much of this increase is directed at social programmes. Properly executed, these programmes should help to alleviate poverty over the long run.
Is the budget aimed at helping the poor over the short and medium term? Much of the newspaper analyses have reached the conclusion that the fiscal policy for the coming year will help the rich while keeping the poor within the poverty bracket. This is a clichi common in newspaper writings on government policy. One writer in this newspaper lamented the fact that the budget, by giving incentives to the textile sector, has set the stage for further deterioration in income distribution and will make “the rich richer and the poor poorer”.
I can’t think of an industry that would help the urban poor and unemployed more than textiles. This industry is by far more labour intensive than most others; its backward and forward linkages provide more employment opportunities than many other industries; some of the associated activities such as garment-making and fashion houses help women more than any organized industry. It is careless to label incentives to the textile manufacturers as helping the rich at the expense of the poor.
That notwithstanding, I believe the budget could have done more for sustaining growth and alleviating poverty. Why do I say this? How can a budget aid the poor? There are many ways fiscal policy can be used to reduce the incidence of poverty. One way is to tax the rich and pass on the revenues to the poor through subsidies. This approach hardly ever works, particularly in countries with weak administrative systems. In fact, there is enough empirical evidence available to show that subsidies usually end up in the pockets of the politically powerful and the not-so-poor. The Indian state of Bihar, for instance, is one of the poorest in that country with one of the highest incidences of poverty and yet spends more on subsidies in terms of the proportion of state product than most other states. These subsidies are ostensibly targeted at the poor but essentially reach the rich and politically poor.
Instead of directly aiding the poor, fiscal policy can be used to direct resources into the programmes that help the poor. Some of this will get done by putting additional funds into education and health sectors. However, I would have liked to see the incorporation into the PSDP of the types of programmes that are known to work in situations similar to those that currently prevail in Pakistan.
A concerted effort is needed to educate the children of poor families, in particular girls and women from this socio-economic segment of the society. Giving financial compensation to the families willing to send their girls to school, providing lunches to children attending schools in poor areas, providing free or subsidized medicines through non-government organizations working in poor areas, improving ambulatory care in these areas are few examples of the types of interventions that are known to work. Some of these approaches are being tried in Punjab but these initiatives are not of the scale that would make a great deal of difference.
The poor would also be helped by the use of public resources to develop the sectors and industries that have the capacity to create jobs for low-income groups. This is one reason why incentives given to the textile industry helps. This is also the reason why the government should launch a large public works programme to improve irrigation by repairing and developing the large network built many decades ago. Large government investment in irrigation would have an enormous impact on rural poverty and would also bring life back to agriculture that continues to perform well below its considerable potential.
Another way of assisting the rural economy is to use the unemployed poor to improve transport infrastructure. A labour-intensive works programme of the type that was launched by the government of President Ayub Khan in the ‘sixties could be used again to build farm-to-market roads, connect villages with towns on the more developed provincial and national networks, improve the access of poor areas to the services available in towns and cities.
Some of these initiatives will require strengthening of local governments. There is considerable questioning of the system that was put in place by the administration of Pervez Musharraf a few years ago. While it made a great deal of sense to give authority to the directly elected nazims and the councils they head — as was done under the system introduced by this administration — it is not right to continue with the practice of providing development funds to the members of national and provincial assemblies. MNAs and MPAs have no business getting directly involved in development work. This is the job of local councils. It is also important that the new set of elections to local bodies are held on a party basis in order to give political organizations the opportunity to develop their roots at the village and town level. ‘Party-less’ elections may serve short-term interests of the government in power but they retard political development. The Musharraf government should resist the temptation to resort to this kind of political manoeuvring.
The budget is not the only government policy statement that can provide appropriate sets of incentives to the private sector to invest in the areas that should be given high priority to bring about the needed structural change. It needs to be supported by other initiatives. The country’s regulatory system needs to be looked at carefully in order to remove obstacles in the way of new investors while affording protection to different classes of citizens. Investors in Pakistan currently confront a regulatory system that is antiquated and creates opportunities for corruption. Of particular concern are the policies relating to land use that have prevented investment in urban areas.
While last year’s budget provided incentives for investment in construction and while these incentives contributed to the boom in real estate in most large cities, there are still problems in the use of land in the central areas of most large cities. It would help to set up a high-powered commission of respected citizens to suggest changes to the government and the parliament in various regulatory systems in force at this time.
In sum, I believe that the budget has missed the opportunity to put forward a carefully thought-out strategy for sustaining growth, alleviating poverty, modernizing the economy and improving its efficiency. With growth having resumed this was a good opportunity to soberly reflect about the future and set the stage for the country’s long-term development.
EU: more than a squabble
THE Brussels summit has highlighted the stark choice before Europe: “carry on as before” or, in the light of the French and Dutch no votes, “rethink fundamentally our priorities and policies”. Anti-Europeans, of course, want to use the present crisis to pull down Europe and turn it into some weak and ineffective free-trade area.
I believe profoundly that Europe, having solved the problem of the European civil wars of the 20th century, provides the answer to many challenges of the 21st — and unless we succeed in making the idea of Europe more attractive, progressive politics will be greatly weakened.
Nye Bevan famously said that unilateralism would mean sending him as foreign secretary “naked into the conference chamber”. Without Europe, we would walk naked into the world of globalization. Europe is a political as well as an economic project. The issue for Europe’s modernizers is to get the politics right.
Of course, I would have preferred a budget agreement. Europe’s strong image in the world has already been damaged by the fate of the constitutional treaty. Those who took this term literally wonder whether the EU will simply cease to function now that it appears to have neither a rule book nor funding. In fact, both developments will have no immediate effect on the organization’s working. This does not mean that the summit was a non-event. On the contrary, the ground shook underneath both Britain’s budget rebate and Europe’s agricultural policy.
Tony Blair signalled a radical change by stating that the previously “non-negotiable” rebate was now up for change. And a strong core of EU member states demanded that farm spending should submit to an early far-reaching review. How can it be defensible, they said, that even in 2013 the EU should be spending 40 per cent of its budget on five per cent of its population — seven times more than the allocations proposed for science, research, education and infrastructure, which represent Europe’s future in the knowledge economy?
This spells more than an unseemly squabble over money. It goes to the heart of the EU’s purpose and direction, because rethinking the budget has to be part of a much wider debate about what Europe is for and where it is going. The European project is today under sharp attack from a populism of the right that blames foreigners for every woe, and a populism of the left that feeds on fear of globalization, Anglo-Saxon “liberalism”, job losses and “delocalization”. As long as the EU is clear about its policies and direction, it will be possible to galvanize the majority in Europe against these extremes.
Europe is faced with a fundamental choice. One way we sink into economic decline, losing the means to pay for our preferred way of life. The other way, we press ahead with painful economic reforms that can make us competitive once again in world markets. This reform is for a purpose: not to Americanize Europe but to make our European model of society sustainable for generations to come. Essentially we need a new European consensus for economic reform based on social justice.
In the past we’ve tended to stress the inevitability of globalization: we’ve said there’s no alternative, as if politics cannot offer security any more. We must now make the case that we can marry globalization with social justice; that we can open markets in Europe and pursue economic reforms in a way that narrows, not widens, the gap between “winners” and “losers”.
I have always believed in a social dimension to Europe. My preoccupation has been that the “social” Europe we build should be forward-looking, rather than stuck in the past, defensive and protectionist. Its driving purpose should be to provide security by advancing opportunity rather than attempting fruitlessly to block change. The old European social model was built around protection of jobs. But today many of these arrangements offend social justice as they accentuate an insider/outsider divide that shuts the unemployed out of the labour market.
Today’s challenge is to equip every citizen, of whatever social background, nationality, colour or religion, to fulfil their individual potential in a rapidly changing global economy. This commitment to the individual in a strong society defines our Europeanness, but the institutions built in the past century to underpin it need modernization and reform.
What we need are new approaches and institutions to tackle the new social challenges of extending opportunity throughout the life cycle — tackling inherited disadvantage by investing in the social support and education of young children and their mothers.
It means providing high standards of schooling in ethnically diverse and socially fractured communities; promoting skills and lifelong learning for those who missed out at school; reaching for world-class standards of excellence in higher education and research; opening access to retraining and help for victims of economic change; helping older workers reintegrate to the labour market and adapting the traditional concept of retirement; integrating migrants and minority groups more successfully than we have so far succeeded in doing into our local communities.
These are examples of the common challenges a modern social model should address. They are vital if the public is to regain confidence and once more see Europe’s economy of open markets and free trade as the only route to global success.
Some people will say: what has this all got to do with the EU? Aren’t these in essence national questions for each member state to solve? Well, yes, they are in the main. But there is an indispensable European dimension to national reform policies. Establishing greater consensus on how we make economic change acceptable is the key to faster economic reform, member state by member state, from which we all benefit. And addressing the needs of the “losers” in Europe is essential if Europe is to win back political consent for enlargement.
To develop a new social and economic model for Europe, we now need an open debate. It won’t work if advocates of the old “social” Europe simply continue as before, regardless of globalization. It won’t work if economic reformers appear to think that acceptance of globalization is all that matters, regardless of the social action needed to make it work for all. Economic reformers need to adopt a new language and a new set of priorities.
A new consensus can be found in Europe. You don’t have to know much about the political situation in France and Germany to realize that. The time is ripe for the British government to go out on the front foot, using the summit debacle to cathartic effect. As a result, we should gain an EU budget with priorities that all in Europe can benefit from, and a vision that inspires faith in the project rather than further depresses it. —Dawn/The Guardian News Service
The writer is the EU’s trade commissioner
Image and reality
THE Pakistani preoccupation with image and impressions has always been somewhat mystifying. Even as a child I remember concerns like “what will the foreigners think?” and greater dismay should a faux pas occur in the presence of “foreigners”. This disconnect with what is and what should be portrayed, is manifested in the cloistered drawing rooms of Pakistan. Some of this image-preoccupied mindset emanates from the servitude of colonialism, which tried to ingrain the superiority of white over brown skin. In some first generation Pakistani-Americans, it has been known to violate even deeply held religious beliefs.
From an individual and social level this preoccupation with image has rocketed to national heights. At first Pakistani government officials claimed that the decision to put Mukhtaran Mai on the Exit Control List was taken by a person low in the totem pole of the interior ministry; “more loyal to the king than the king himself”. The prime minister had intervened and gotten her name removed from it. Funny that the poor woman was still under virtual house arrest, passport seized by the government and the Pakistan embassy in the Washington still claiming that it was doing all in its power to help her travel to the United States as a guest of the Asian-American Network Against the Abuse of Women (ANAA).
This group was founded in 2002 after the rape cases of Saima and Shama and had intended for Mukhtaran Mai to address APPNA, the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America at their annual convention in Houston, Texas, in early July. The sole idea was to focus attention on the rights of women and illustrate how one so dehumanized had soared on the wings of courage. The first time that Mukhtaran Mai’s rapists had walked free Musharraf’s government had initiated Supreme Court action and now that it has happened for a second time, the Supreme Court will take up the case on June 27.
While responding to questions at the Auckland Foreign Correspondents Club, Musharraf said that Mukhtaran Mai was being taken to the United States by foreign non-government organizations “to badmouth Pakistan” over the “terrible state” of the nation’s women. He said NGOs were “westernized fringe elements” which “are as bad as the Islamic extremists”. He acknowledged that he placed the 36-year-old on the list of people banned from leaving Pakistan. “She was told not to go” he said and added, “I don’t want to project the bad image of Pakistan. I am a realist. Public relations is the most important thing in the world”. “Pakistan is a victim of poor perceptions, the reality is very different”.
As much as the right hand of the government does not know what the left is doing, it appears that the general is indulging in the desire to have his cake and eat it too. What with having agreed to play a role in America’s war on terror in one 3 am phone call from then Secretary of State Colin Powell, one thought “westernized” (read Americanized) indicated the good guys.
Mukhtaran Mai’s host organization had guaranteed that she would say nothing adverse about the government; she herself was deeply indebted to the government’s legal intervention on her behalf. On the one hand, General Musharraf talks about the “terrible state” of the nation’s women and in the same breath bemoans Pakistan as being a victim of poor perceptions.
And as far as a public relations being the most important thing in the world is concerned, nothing could have borne my premise about Pakistanis being concerned with image, better. The statement gets full marks for originality. One had heard of honesty, faith, education, money and power as being amongst some of the most important things in the world. But public relations?
This kind of thinking has done us no good and it is no wonder that almost everything is mismanaged in Pakistan. In February, it was reported, that while inaugurating Pakistan’s first National Academy of Performing Arts General Musharraf urged Pakistanis, whether in the public, private or corporate sector, to contribute towards building Pakistan’s soft image at home and abroad. One hears of event management, this is image management.
And consonant with Musharraf’s preoccupation with Pakistan’s soft image again in February 2005 according to one newspaper, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz announced the formation of an inter-ministerial committee for the promotion of culture, sports, tourism and trade with a special focus on projecting Pakistan’s soft image abroad. The prime minister would head the committee, which would be made up of various ministers and ministers of state.
All in every sector are to portray and project a good image and impression: Pakistan’s is not a totally patriarchal society with third-rate treatment of women, it is just misperception. There is no sexual harassment of women in the shopping centres and schools and workplaces in Pakistan it is all propaganda. There are no militarized madressahs in Pakistan and the Kalashnikov culture is a totally Russian thing. The army is not the richest group in Pakistan with first dibs on all kinds of contracts; it was the Bhuttos and Sharifs who really plundered Pakistan. Women don’t have only a 23 per cent literacy rate; it was probably an error in collection of statistics. Pakistan does not have a huge opiate addiction problem, it’s happening only in Afghanistan. And there’s no need to worry about obvious and serious unemployment: we claim it is 7.5 per cent even though this number is lower than that of France (10.2 per cent), Germany (11.8 per cent) and Belgium (12.3 per cent).
There was no need to manipulate Mukhtaran Mai. The facts and how much the government had helped her and how much it is alleviating the country’s downtrodden would have come out. Image concerns and ill-advised actions have caused the situation to spin out of control and ended in an unmitigated PR disaster. Besides the American media, even Washington, is upset with the Pakistani president now.
If all the effort that is expended on image management were to be spent on substantive issues one would even be saved the effort to propagandize. And again the dichotomy that General Musharraf is engaging in has one concerned. Public relations, he says, is the most important thing in the world and at the same time that he is a realist. Why worry then about the fluff and the hooey, just take a reality check.
Elections for Bolivia
FOR the second time in less than two years mobs have defeated democratic institutions in the South American nation of Bolivia. President Carlos Mesa, who tried to settle paralysing political conflicts through a referendum and accords with Congress, was forced from office earlier this month by a few thousand demonstrators. Mr Mesa served only 19 months as president; his elected predecessor was also ousted by the militants. Capitulating to their demands, Congress swore in the president of the supreme court as a caretaker, and he in turn promised new elections. A free and fair vote offers the only real hope for Bolivia; the question is whether those who seek to rule by force will allow it to occur.
Bolivia is often portrayed as a land where an indigenous majority suffers under the yoke of a white elite and its exploitative policies. It’s true that the country is riven by a divide between poor and rich that reflects ethnic lines, and that the Aymara and Quechua populations have never been adequately represented in Bolivian government. What’s questionable is whether the xenophobic left-wing populists who now claim to represent the Indian poor really do so. Their best-known leader, Evo Morales, received 21 per cent of the vote the last time he ran for president; until recently polls showed that a large majority of Bolivians supported Mr Mesa, who tried to bridge the ethnic gap. Maybe that’s why Mr. Morales has repeatedly resorted to paralysing strikes to achieve his aims.
The populists’ agenda would quickly return Bolivia to its benighted history as a backwater of state socialism, quintuple-digit inflation and endless political coups. Even worse, if that state of affairs is imposed via road blockade, it will risk civil war; Bolivia’s eastern provinces, where most of the country’s gas reserves lie, reject the militants’ agenda and are demanding autonomy. That’s why the country desperately needs the vote promised by caretaker president Eduardo Rodriguez. If Mr. Morales and his followers really represent a majority of Bolivians, let them win a free and fair election. If not, they must stand back to allow another elected leader to govern.
— The Washington Post
Through the prism of human collectivity
WILLIAM Wordsworth tells us that it is only in retrospect that one can sort out what has been most significant, most telling, in our experience. In his epic poem The Prelude he writes, “There are in our existence spots of time,/ Which with distinct preeminence retain/ A renovating virtue,” and says that it is to these “spots of time” that we return, again and again, for emotional nourishment, for a sense of what the world is and who we ourselves are within that world.
Recently, I had business which took me to New York City for a week. I attended an academic seminar which was far livelier and more engaged than most intellectual affairs. I found the time to visit two of the world’s great museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. On the weekend I saw a Broadway show.
One of the great pleasures of modern life is walking in and through large cities. When I taught for five months at Calcutta University, for instance, I often spent an hour, or two, or three, walking through the streets of Kolkata, walking and watching. More than those who only ride in cars or taxis might expect, a city lives on its streets. A great cross-section of people pass by. One has glimpses of family life, of what is for sale and what people buy, of the great diversity of class and caste and dress and gesture that comprise the populace of a contemporary urban setting. There are continuities with the past to be seen, and as well auguries of the various futures struggling to be born.
So, in New York, with the long summer days, I had wonderful opportunities to walk through that city’s streets, sometimes staying up till past midnight as I moved from one downtown district to another. I had a Wordsworthian “spot of time” in New York, and it was not in a museum or a fine restaurant. It occurred as I wandered the streets of upper Manhattan — walking leisurely towards a museum with no particular timetable in mind.
As I walked, I passed a dry cleaner’s shop. At its front, immediately behind a large plate glass window, was a man ironing a shirt. I stopped and watched. (I should mention that I like ironing my own shirts. In America, ironed shirts are an expensive luxury unless one does it oneself; and I have found that the repetitive motions of ironing, and the concentration required to assure that one irons wrinkles out and not in, is a restful activity. For me.) He ironed, and I watched. And watched. He ironed one shirt, then a second. There was a defined progression for each shirt. First, he sprayed the shirt lightly with water to dampen it. Then, as he ironed each successive portion of the shirt he sprayed on a light dose of starch to make the fabric stiffer. He proceeded to iron the collar, then carefully laid out each sleeve and ironed them, one at a time. Then he starched and ironed one half of the shirt, placed flat on his white-cotton clad ironing table. When he was done, he lightly touched the iron to the middle of the collar at the back of the neck — just a small crease so it would fold properly. He hung the shirt on a hanger, and proceeded to the next.
I, an amateur, iron quickly. He, a professional, did not. He took care, making certain that each sweep of the iron made a flat expanse of brilliant white fabric.
As I watched him, I realized I was receiving instruction in how to iron properly. The man in the window was of early middle age, seemingly of Central American background. He was totally focused on his work.
So that was it, my “spot of time,” my peak experience. A moment — 15 minutes, actually — of observing menial work in the modern city. Only the work was not menial, even though its status, and no doubt the ironer’s pay, were low. The man I watched took great care with what he did, and seemed in a quiet and unobtrusive way to be proud that he ironed shirts well. Would a customer have noticed if he ironed more quickly, and the shirt were not as perfect as he strove to make it? I doubt it. But the man who ironed worked to a different standard. If his labour was worth doing, it was worth doing well.
He seemed to understand what Wallace Stevens, the American modernist poet, meant when he began his great lyric Of Modern Poetry with the fragment, “The poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice.” For the man in the window, ironing, doing his work well, was the lynchpin on which the entire world depended. Ironing a shirt — to most observers scarcely a world-shattering event — was, nonetheless, the entire universe writ small, a synecdoche, a part standing for the whole, of the heroic stature of human existence.
Is that too strong a statement, a poeticizing of an ordinary urban sight? (I have seen men ironing in the streets of Kolkata, only without the protection of that glass window I was too self-conscious to stop and observe closely. I have seen people ironing in Paris, and in the back room of laundries in my own hometown.) The Stevens’ poem about modern poetry I cited above ends, “It must/ Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may/ Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman/ Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.” It could as well have added “a man ironing”. Stevens understood that in the gestures of modern life we create a place for ourselves in the world in which we live and thus we find ourselves.
For several months the dire situation in America — a senseless war, an assault on civil liberties, a fraying economy, a drive towards oligarchy — has been so depressing that I have not known how to address it in print. Nor do I want to do so, now. For the moment, even in the midst of bad times, I want to acknowledge simply that human labour continues, and that labour has its dignity.
The man ironing with such self-contained pride in his work makes a gesture that is appropriate for all of us. It is of course not enough, just by itself: we all have political roles to play, for society is ours and not the sole possession of a ruling class or small group of political professionals. But doing our work with attentiveness, doing it well, taking pride in whatever work we do in the human community, is the bedrock on which all human society and culture rests. Wallace Stevens wrote poems; my Central American acquaintance irons. Work, prideful work, in the world.
When he reached 50, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda decided he should write not just for the literary world, but for his neighbours. The Orissan poet Jayanta Mayapatra made a similar decision a number of years ago when he decided to write in Oriya, so his neighbours could read and understand what he wrote.
In Neruda’s case, he turned from writing poems of love — he was one of the greatest love poets of the just-concluded century — and Latin American epics, to writing odes about the simple objects that surround us in daily life: tomatoes, lemons, bicycles, socks.
The first of these new odes was The Invisible Man. In it, Neruda begins by telling us how he admires the old poets, those who write of how they love, how they feel when the walk through the streets — but that on the streets those poets write about, no one else exists. All people other than the poet and his lover are invisible.
Neruda himself walks through streets populated by people — “everyone passes by, and everyone/ tells me something,/ look at all the things they do!/ They cut wood, string electric lines,/ bake bread late into the night,/ our daily bread,/ with an iron pick/ they pierce the entrails/ of the earth” — but like each of us he is too busy to celebrate these people all around him who do their work and live their lives. “As I walk by, things/ ask me to sing them, but I haven’t time,” he laments. But then he realizes — Neruda would have no trouble, no trouble at all, understanding why I was so impressed with the man ironing in that New York City window — that he must celebrate them. “I want/ them all to live/ through my life,/ to sing through my song/ I am not important/ I have no time/ for my own affairs,/ night and day/ I must write down what’s happening,/ not forgetting anyone.”
I quote Neruda because he understands so deeply, so fully, what I saw in the man ironing: each of us has work to do and a life to live, and we are fully alive when we do our work and inhabit our lives, even if our work is ironing.
Neruda’s poem is a song to solidarity, “the song of the invisible man/ who sings with all men.” I cannot claim as much for myself. It was not solidarity I felt on the street as I watched a man ironing, but a sense of the fullness of work, how an embrace of work can fill our lives. The man I watched was as good at what he did as the finest batsman or actor or political figure, and took pride as least as great as they in doing his work well.
He exemplified for me, also, the pleasure of cities, the exciting sense of sharing, that Neruda so lyrically shapes for us. “When I get up/ the night is gone, the street has awakened before me,/ the poor girls of the neighbourhood/ are on their way to work,/ fishermen are returning/ from the sea,/ miners/ in new shoes/ are going down into the mines/ everything’s alive/ everyone’s hurrying to and fro,/ and I scarcely have time/ to get into my clothes,/ I must run:/ no one must/ pass by without my knowing/ where’s he’s going,/ what he’s doing.”
Perhaps what I felt was not just the pride of work, but a sense of solidarity as well. For we are, each of us, joined with one another in this vast enterprise called life, and the work we do — and do well — is what connects us to the human collectivity.
The writer is a professor of English at the University of Vermont, US