Sunday, May 29, 2011

Letters from Portugal: The Natural Order of Things

On the fifth of June Portugal will go to the polls to elect a new national government. This election, precipitated by the economic crisis in the country, comes well before the term of the Parliament was to end. Indeed, I had just moved to Lisbon in September 2009 when José Socrates assumed office at the conclusion of the last election.

As an enthusiastic anthropologist I was looking forward to every possibility to experience facets of the Portuguese life. So when my landlady and her friend excitedly decided that they could not bear to watch the results being announced on TV, but would proceed to the ‘street’, I joined them.

I had no clue as yet though, that the street they had in mind was the street in front of the Hotel Altis, where the Socialist Party was camping while awaiting news of the results. Some time after we arrived at the hotel my landlady’s companion announced that she was going to go up to the thirteenth floor where the big shots were following the announcement of the results. And so, the three of us walked into the lobby of the hotel, to the elevator, and then up to the thirteenth floor. In a matter of minutes, I found myself introduced to the Mayor of Lisbon, the minister of this and the minister of that, and cocktailed my way to the announcements of the Socialist Party’s victory.

What was striking about this whole experience was how easy it had been for us to get up there. It occurred to me, that such a prospect would have been close to impossible in India. First, the hotel would have been bounded by a wall, with guards at the entrance to the compound. Subsequently there would have been security at the entrance to the lobby, then at the entrance to the lift, and finally on the thirteenth floor. There would have been no way in which a shabbily dressed non-entity would have made it all the way, quite literally, to the top.

This experience seems to allow a counter-intuitive reading of both Indian and Portuguese society. India may be a polity marked by a severely stratified society, but it is one in which those who are at the bottom of the pile are not willing to be remain there. They actively challenge the system, transgress boundaries and assert their right to enter spaces they are barred from. The guards are present not because India is marked by a naturally hierarchical society, but because it is not. The guards are there to violently assert the hierarchy of the political and social order.

By the same logic, it appears that the absence of guards at the Hotel Altis is evidence of a 'natural' order of things in Portuguese society. Armed with the knowledge that Portuguese society is in fact severely hierarchical, one could hazard a reading that for the most part, the hierarchies of the system are not challenged sufficiently. The people know their place in the social order and stick there, reducing the need for the excessive policing that one sees in the subcontinent. One also imagines that the economic well-being produced through joining the EU was incentive enough to not challenge social boundaries. What happens to this social compact however, now that the good times are over? Could poverty within a democratic framework in fact prove to be a blessing in disguise?

(A version of the post was first published in the Herald 29 May 2011)

1 comment:

Rahul Banerjee said...

Is the May 15th movement which is waxing in full strength just across the border in spain having no impact on portugal given that the economic situation there is worse than in spain?