The creeping privatisation of public space


Kingstown, St Vincent - bus station transformed into bar and restaurant

Kingstown, St Vincent – bus station transformed into bar and restaurant

It now seems that in virtually every country throughout the world not only is the basic infrastructure of a country being privatised and being controlled by capitalists from who knows where but also public space is being appropriated by a growing army of small traders of every kind.

This was turned into a ‘theory’ of development by one of the arch proponents of monetarism and neo-liberalism, the Peruvian Hernando de Soto, way back in the early ’90s. His argument was that by allowing unfettered and unrestricted freedom for people to enter the market place they would provide for themselves and in the process give a push to the economic development of the country.

This is starting to appear in some of the metropolitan countries but is almost a virus in an increasing number of countries throughout the world. In the European context this is especially evident in Albania, ‘the third world in Europe’. With the destruction of the socialist economic structure the country has virtually reverted to the pre-revolutionary, pre-liberation feudal relationships to production and distribution.

What this form of economy does is use the public infrastructure for private gain and in the process both degrade that infrastructure and deny it to those of the public who might wanted to have made use of facilities created for the benefit of all.

It will come as no surprise that the same is happening in the Caribbean islands where you have some of the richest people in the world rubbing shoulders (but only metaphorically) with some of the poorest.

An example is the bus station next to the market, right beside the sea in the main town of St Vicente, Kingstown, in the Windward Islands.

At some time in the recent past the local authorities must have decide to establish a ‘proper’ bus station, making entry and exit of the buses a fluid and organised affair (rather than the organised chaos that is the norm) as well as providing safe and relatively comfortable places for passengers to wait. This included benches and shades against the searing Caribbean sun. That plan must have looked good on paper and the reality was probably quite impressive at the start. But at some time the petite bourgeoisie invaded that space and took it over.

What possibly started as providing food and drink facilities to those waiting for their bus has now developed to such a stage that the people friendly bus shade has been taken over by the traders and woe betide anyone who might want to use those facilities as if they belonged to all.

For what has happened is that the shade has been extended by all types of material, from wooden boards or corrugated sheets of iron to plastic or more substantial tarpaulins. Any number of ramshackle tables and benches have appeared and the prime area has become a mecca for local fast food or rum shacks (those places where the local ‘blow your head off’ 84% rum is decanted from large containers into smaller bottles, depending upon the budget of the customer).

Electricity is needed for these businesses and so what was designed as public lighting has been broken into and the power supply diverted to satisfy the demands of the refrigerators and lighting of these cafes and bars. Gas needed for cooking comes in bottles and they end up breaking the paving stones so carefully placed there in the first place. Rubbish accumulates and this adds to the general degradation of the area. And there is never any investment in repair of this infrastructure, not by the so-called entrepreneurs who are making their profit from them nor by the local authorities, and why should they? Just to see it degraded once more.

This exists in a situation where there is obviously some sort of official sanction of such activity. In the town of Grenville, the second city of Grenada, outside the meat market there is a sign painted on the wall, by order of the health authorities, that vending of any kind is prohibited due to potential health hazards. As you can imagine under this painted notice there was a whole string of people selling a diverse variety of products.

This was not surreptitious trading that you come across in certain places, e.g., outside the Duomo in Florence where the traders selling posters melt into the crowd at the merest hint of the police. In Grenville the meat market is a literal stone’s throw from the local police headquarters.

Now this attitude could be described as churlish, being hypercritical of those people who are merely trying to make a living. This is, indeed, the approach that de Soto takes when anyone criticises his ‘theory’.

But it goes much further than that. In other parts of the world I’ve walked past women sitting at the roadside with a small pyramid of tomatoes (not more than 6 or 7) and that’s all they are trying to sell. I have gone past them some hours later and they are still there. Rather than be a method to reduce unemployment and create wealth these practices only serve to disguise a massive problem of underemployment as well as being psychologically demoralising when hours are spent with no financial reward forthcoming.

But this idea of a ‘free market’ only exists if the powers that be consider it worth while promoting. There was a case recently of a semi-official street fruit and veg stall being given the heave-ho when they were trying to trade just across the road from a Tesco Metro store in the centre of Liverpool.

Now I’m the last person who would defend the right of these Liverpool shopkeepers to challenge the economic power of a huge world retailer but this idea of a ‘free market’ promoted so positively in many of the poorest parts of the world would find itself under attack if it were to challenge the big players.

The reason it is promoted is that, in itself, such activity only feeds dreams that the poor have of one day being rich and has no impact upon the real development of any country. Whilst they live with that dream they don’t think of collective action that might have a longer term impact upon their futures. And as a by-product they degrade what belongs to all making the argument for more investment in the public sector, as opposed to the private, all that more difficult.