Its 7 am and traffic is bad. Much like sitting in a traffic jam, paying attention to what traffic tells us about our society sounds mundane. Yet traffic is a social space unlike many others. It is a place where members of different social classes are thrown together in momentary, unavoidable and revealing encounters.
In the main, gated communities, office hierarchies, and private spaces are just some of the ways wealthy and poor members of society are kept apart. Yet in bumper-to-bumper traffic—impromptu public spaces not designed specifically for any one-class group—the physical proximity of cars shatter social distance, and stir awareness of class hierarchy.
A simple example is any person stuck in a traffic jam who notes the type of car someone drives, or whether the person is even travelling by private car or by taxi. This observation about economic and social status is a daily scene where society’s class hierarchy and socio-economic differences become visible to each of us.
Traffic isn’t only an encounter between economic classes; it also one between genders, and it tells us about particular problems women face. In maxi and route taxis, as first-hand accounts and news reports constantly demonstrate, women face the potential to be sexually harassed.
Thanks to owning their own cars, many women from the upper and middle classes can, to a degree, avoid the gauntlet of taxi encounters. Yet, stopped in traffic, a female driver or passenger of any class can experience forms of harassment. These range from improper gazes and verbal comments to sexist behaviour and stalking.
Due to the design and height of their vehicle from the ground, women who can afford SUVs have a slight advantage, removing themselves from some of these gazes and forms of harassment. Another example of how class advantage plays out in traffic jams.
In the creation of instant marketplaces where people can hawk goods to a slow-moving conveyer belt of potential customers, daily traffic jams also speak to our local hustler culture. And before you ask who really buys those fluffy dice—just one of many items, from food to car parts, on offer—these improvised marketplaces continue to grow.
Interacting with such vendors is another example of the cross-class encounters on our traffic-jammed highways. Walking and running after cars they might never own, highway vendors are doing what capitalism always does where previously no market existed. Making one. The brief cross-class encounter becomes an organic site of commerce.
The segregation of traffic into Priority Bus Route and those who are not allowed on it highlights privilege within our society. And within some of those vehicles which travel on the PBR are a few people in luxury cars with chauffeurs that allow them to read papers and get work done.
This is a privilege the vast majority of our society does not have. In contrast to the economic and political elites on the PBR, many low-income workers find their lives put at daily risk when foremen or friends encourage them to travel to work in a tray or in the back of trucks. While such travel is against the law, those who are vulnerable economically may have little choice in how else to travel to work, and do what they must.
And there are also those extra special people in our society, those with political power, and how they beat the traffic. At the very, very, top some are completely exempt from traffic because they have access to helicopters.
A select larger number can get a path cleared in bumper-to-bumper highway traffic or stop all traffic, which creates longer delays for the rest of us. Put most simply, when those with political power want to get somewhere—and all their journeys are not of immediate political business (they have to eat and sleep like the rest of us)—traffic avoidance is a metaphor of the inequality between political elites and general citizenry.
Traffic reflects something of who we are as a society. It is a cultural expression. At the bottom of my brief and partial anthropology of traffic on Trinidad’s highways is a simple reality—the need to improve our public transit system. We condemn our society to inertia and persistent inequality if the only attempt to improve our traffic problem is more roads, more private cars, and a few water taxis.
We need a public transit system unlike any seen in the Caribbean before. And we need it yesterday. Making travel more efficient, safe, and equitable is an investment in a fairer society.
Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine
Money laundering is the life blood of organized crime. Without it crime would simply not pay. But who does the laundering? The easy and obvious answer is criminals. But that is completely wrong and is at the root of our inability to stop it.
Criminals are the people who need money laundering. They are the clients. But they do not, themselves, know how to launder money. The only people who do know, and who are in positions to do it, are those whose day jobs are the many professional services which make up laundering: the accountants, lawyers, company registration and management agents, account managers in banks and company directors in companies that have no reason to be, other than to pass hot money through an endless spin cycle. In organized crime, criminals provide the crime but professionals provide the organization.
Of course we could get jesuitical about it and say, but those professionals who launder are criminals. Which would be fine, except that we do not treat them as criminals. Criminals break laws. Professionals do not, they have ‘failures of compliance’. One is considered an active, purposeful ‘doing’ of something, for which punishment is de rigeur. The other is excused as an unfortunate and unintentional ‘not doing’; an oversight, omisssion or failure to do, for which one and one’s employer get admonished to ‘do’ better. And as long as you promise you will, all is considered fine and finished. There may be a small fine but nothing to lose your bonus over. No one senior ever goes to gaol.
Criminals are investigated – by police. Professionals are ‘regulated’ – usually, and rather conveniently, by themselves or colleagues. People who rob banks have legal problems. People in banks, who rob people, or help others to rob them by laundering their money for them, they have regulatory issues. One is serious the other is a joke. How many bankers actually went to prison from Wachovia or Citi or HSBC?
All this might seem rather sweeping. But it is not. It is just that usually we do not get to hear about the people and businesses who do the actual laundering nor what happens to them afterwards. When money laundering is reported it is usually the lurid details of the clients of the money laundering, the drug cartels and terrorist organization, who get all the headlines. Hardly ever do we hear of the launderers themselves. And that is because, as already noted, they are never ‘guilty’ of having ‘done’ anything. But events in Cyprus have recently given us a rare opportunity to lift the sewer’s cover, peer inside and see at least some of the people who failed to act; who by omission, oversight, laziness or complicity, intentionally or otherwise, ‘helped’ to launder money.
As the philosopher Edmund Burke famously noted, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.
- A 3.4 million-year-old fossil foot suggests a second lineage of hominins (creatures more closely related to us than to our closest living relatives, chimpanzees) may have lived alongside Lucy’s kind and spent more time in the trees than on the ground.
- Fossils from Kenyadating to between 1.87 million and 1.95 million years ago rekindle debate over whether our own genus, Homo, split into multiple lineages early on.
- Analysis of tartar, molar wear and tooth chemistry in the nearly two-million-year-old hominin known as Australopithecus sediba shows that it had an unexpected diet, including tree bark.
- A shift in the technology and diet of early Homo around two million years ago may have doomed large carnivores
- Tiny bits of burned plants and bone from a South African cave show that humans had tamed fire by 1 million years ago–some 600,000 year earlier than had previously been documented.
- Our ancestors began making multicomponent tools in the form of deadly stone-tipped spears 500,000 years ago—200,000 years earlier than previously thought.
- Cave paintings in Spain are the oldest in the world and are sufficiently ancient to be the creations of Neandertals.
- Neandertals hunted birds for their fashionable feathersfor thousands of years and may have exploited certain plants for their medicinal properties–compelling evidence that our hominin cousins were cognitively sophisticated.
- Reconstructed genome of the Denisovans–an enigmatic group of archaic hominins—confirms that early Homo sapiens interbred with them and reveals new details of their genetic legacy.
- Whole-genome sequencing of modern hunter-gatherers from Africa turns up loads of previously unknown genetic variants and indicates that early Homo sapiens interbred with another hominin species long ago in Africa.
- Paleoanthropology’s hobbit, a tiny hominin species called Homo floresiensis, gets a new face thanks to forensic reconstruction–and the result is startlingly familiar.
- Stone tools and preserved poop from Oregon add to mounting evidence that the early human colonization of the Americas was more complex than scholars once envisioned.
- Study finds that mom’s metabolism—not the size of the pelvis—limits gestation length to nine months, providing a new explanation for why humans give birth to helpless babies.
Whether we are talking the invasion of Grenada in 1983, our war-torn colonial history, various armies on the ground in Haiti, or US military bases like Guantanamo, the Caribbean’s story is marked by a history of militarism.
In her book Bases of Empire, anthropologist Catherine Lutz notes that as of 2007, there were 77 US military bases of varying sizes, from massive to small, found across the Caribbean.
Today, the war on drugs is an example of regional militarisation, with Britain and the US conducting operations all over the Caribbean using high-tech military equipment in operations with catchy names like Operation Weed Eater.
This war is not only about eradicating drugs but it is also about something anthropologists call the “permanent war economy.” This economy is wide and has many facets. One in particular that affects small island nations is the economic aid that accompanies continued acceptance and participation in the war.
This aid comes in the form of military equipment, intelligence expansion, new surveillance and security technologies, and propaganda systems. It also provides a constant drive for some of the richer countries like T&T to purchase more and more military hardware, connecting their oil and gas capital straight to the war economy.
It is quite normal for our Minister of National Security to speak—without anyone questioning his logic—that it’s sensible to embrace the US-led war on drugs and purchase six naval vessels from the Colombian Government. Just like the previous Government was happy to spend billions on OPVs. Someone might want to take note that the largest consumer market for these drugs is the US and perhaps joining a war driven by the lifestyle of another nation is silly in the first place.
The sadness is that it’s as if the western world is only moving in one direction: increased militarisation. Hopes of a move toward demilitarisation as Seymour Melman—the US economist who wrote about the damaging social costs of military spending—once discussed, seem less and less likely.
In cultural terms, this overt military footing seeps into everyday life. It becomes embedded in everyday language and symbols. We describe gangs as militarist organisations. Young people demand to play the latest computer war games from Black Ops to Medal of Honour. Media—TV, film, music, sport and all the rest—are saturated with military themes. And insecurity becomes something only to be tackled through increases in military personnel and equipment.
Think about law enforcement in T&T. During the SoE it was the army conducting a lot of police operations. And recently the Minister of National Security asked citizens to apply to the Defence Force in order to protect national security. There’s also the Multi Agency Maritime Task Force, comprising coast guard, police, army, and customs officers, again blurring the boundaries between policing and military operations.
By the end of the next year we are promised the entire country will be under CCTV surveillance, as if that’s indisputably a good thing.
Yet, as the State becomes more militarised, so too does the whole of society, including those the State deems criminals. That AK-47s are a more regular weapon in our poorest areas is an example of a militarised drug industry. That our private security industries also take on the semblance of military organisations with CCTV systems, guard dogs, high-tech security systems and military-style outfits is another example of militarism.
In a presentation a few years ago, Prof Rhoda Reddock pointed out this new culture of insecurity leads to armies being seen as saviours and opens the risk for a reduction in our human rights. Normal, peaceful communities become bloodthirsty, seeking revenge and punishment. Meanwhile, the demands for security extend distance between the rich and poor, as only some can afford to protect themselves through private security firms.
Where does this militarised society lead? On the one hand it’s clear some sort of army for defence is legitimate and can be useful in economic terms. Yet on the other side, what is too much? Have we not passed that mark? Can we go back? Are there really no other ways to organise our society than to curtail freedoms and become more militarised? And what sort of future is that?
• Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine