Since first paying far too much for a taxi ride in Bucharest, the inquiry into ‘stealing’ has been occupying my mind at various times. My experience of ‘stealing’ on this trip ranges from the personal to the international, and the blatant to the institutionalised. While I have been vague with some of the details of cases below, I hope the overall question and thoughts still make sense.
The most memorable rip-off from this trip, and catalyst for this inquiry, was by a Taxi driver in Bucharest who basically threatened me with violence if I did not pay the exorbitant amount he demanded. I still handed over the money while in a sort of shocked haze, and within seconds of him leaving felt like an idiot. There was this sense of being stuck in this game or situation where I too stupid or scared to challenge the rules and prevent the rip-off. I always had a choice to not pay, but still it felt like the money was stolen. Afterwards I felt shameful, stupid, weak, depressed, angry, vengeful, suspicious of all Romanians…all sorts of negative things. While I have gotten over it now, I can still recall those feelings, and feel them again every time I don’t check the price of something and end up paying ‘too much’.
But what has really got me thinking is to what degree those feelings may not just be personal, but may be experienced by a whole community, nation, or group of nations. By this I mean, communities who have their taxes diverted into corrupt politicians pockets, or ‘developing’ regions and nations whose natural resources have been exploited without full consent and made profits they have never seen, or the way in which disgustingly immoral and greedy financial institutions have made money, then at the prospect of losing money, been bailed out with the hard-earned taxes of decent citizens.
The example of corruption has been a recurring theme in Pakistan and India, and I think there are ways in which the whole culture is affected by the same sort of emotions that I felt after the expensive taxi ride. The corruption is so systemic, and individuals feel so disempowered to do anything about it. Local people have expressed those same feelings of shame, weakness and stuck-ness when telling me of their efforts to create better communities through provision of basic services, and how those efforts have been self-funded because international aid and taxes are diverted into individual’s pockets.
At another scale altogether, I wonder about the history of ‘stealing’ from nations and regions. This trip I have been reading more about history, and seeing places whose recent history has been heavily influenced by successions of invasions and more recent colonial acquisition and exploitation of their natural resources. When travelling through Iran, Pakistan and India and talking with other people about situations in Australia and Africa, I have begun to understand in a deeper way how stealing of natural resources, human resources and artefacts has left whole cultural groups (e.g. the Balochs, whose gas is making great profits for others in India and China) or nations (e.g. Nigerian Oil) feeling anger, shame and disempowerment.
At the same scale, but more institutionalised (and perhaps even more problematic) are the unfair loans (e.g. IMF, World Bank) and subsidies, tarrifs and trade restrictions (e.g. for agriculture) that ensure the net flow of money in the global economy is from developing nations to the already-wealthy nations, and often in a way that can only really be interpreted as stealing. Based on what I have come to understand, I feel like a Kevin Rudd-style apology is required from the developed to the developing countries to start to make amends for the grossly unfair systems and institutions that are preventing them from having any hope of sustainably developing as nations and realising the full potential of their people.
And, in the final case, I imagine many people would feel some sense of anger, shame, and stupidity as they understand what has transpired with the recent financial crisis. While I don’t have the figures to hand, I understand that the total bail-out of the financial institutions in the last year is the equivalent to hundreds of pounds for every human being on the planet. Average citizens are paying for the bailout of institutions whose sole motive has been greed, and as recently as last year were making enormous profits. I certainly feel ripped off by a financial system that continues to allow banks and other organisations to make obscene profits in ways that make a net negative contribution to ecological and social development e.g. through a monetary system that allows banks to earn interest on huge amounts of debt-burdened money (or numbers on a computer screen) based on minimal real reserves, through excessive and illegal charges on overdrafts, or through loans and credit cards issued to those who they know can not reasonably repay the debt.
But what have these examples got to do with me feeling like I had been ‘stolen’ from? When thinking about how things could have been different in my own case, I was actually probably quite able to to change the dynamics that lead to me cooperating in a kind of theft. What may have helped is stopping, taking a breath, and thinking for a moment. To try and create the head-space for me to and consider alternative ways in which I could relate to the person / entity who is about to take my money. Or, to take a moment before I engage, and consider different scenarios and how to influence which is most likely (e.g. by asking the full price and details beforehand). This has worked in more recent transactions, and shown there are always many options than just cooperating in creating an unfair outcome.**
I wonder if this is also relevant at a societal level. With the financial system, let alone the ecological systems, clearly not in a healthy state, we seriously need to more time to question whether the systems and relationships we have in place are really working. There is never a better moment than ‘right now’ to question what is unfolding with the hope of ensuring the next moment / next transaction / next year / next century is fairer for everyone. Perhaps we all need to take a moment to consider what would really be a fair outcome, what are the scenarios for how this might unfold in the long-term, and how can we can act with right intent to ensure the right scenarios are the most likely ones.
** Although, I keep thinking that every time I get ripped off by a Rickshaw driver they may be in some way taking back some of the money that I am sure has come into my hands through the functioning of the unfair global economic system that I mostly benefit from.