The Geography of Madness: Arne and Jeroen’s Week in Startup Country

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The Geography of Madness: Arne and Jeroen’s Week in Startup Country

Once a week Arne Lasance and Jeroen van den Oever, serial entrepreneurs and investigative geeks, review the week’s news, offering analyses about the most important developments in the world of startups, financial management and whatsoever tickles their fancy..

Arne: Hi Jeroen. What’s cooking on Lac Leman?

Jeroen: I’m busy reading this book, The Geography of Madness, by a Frank Bures. A fascinating tale of shrinking penises and other odd phenomena.

Arne: Excuse me?

Jeroen: Bures investigates all kinds of mass delusions or superstitions, which he calls ‘culture bound syndromes’. He finds that these mass hysterics have astonishing powers over the human psyche, and impact on behaviour, in all parts of the world.

Arne: Fear of shrinking body parts? You’re kidding!

Jeroen: No, I’m not. This shrinking penis syndrome, also known as Koro, is even officially listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. You’ll find this mass hysteria of genital-shrinkage anxiety everywhere, in Asia as well as elsewhere. In Singapore, in autumn 1967, hundreds of men and boys hurried to hospital emergency rooms. All were clutching their penises, convinced they were rapidly retracting into their bodies and that if they let go of them, they’d die.

Arne: Hmmm…This sudden global upsurge of populism everywhere, could that be a manifestation of  a Koro syndrome?

Jeroen: Well… in terms of  shrinking penises… there is a consensus that there is ‘fear’, at the core of much of the current populism. Call it isolationism, protectionism, nationalism, trumpism… xenophobia, fear for the uncertain future and  nostalgia for a fake past, certainly are spreading like an inkspot!

Arne: Creepy technology, AI, robots, globalisation… they most certainly affect different populations in different countries in dramatically different ways. More importantly, the impact is felt differently in different social strata.

Jeroen: Well, globalisation in general has been good for us, I would say. There is no question that innovation and global commerce have been tremendous forces for progress. The global economy is now more than five times larger than it was half a century ago. According to the World Bank, the share of the global population living in extreme poverty has fallen below 10%. That is down from over 40%, barely three decades ago.

Arne: I won’t and can’t deny those figures! But at the same time, the McKinsey Global Institute concludes that in the last 10 years, 70% of households saw their average income stagnate, or even decline. Wages in the developed world are down, and unemployment is up. We, the elite, already have coined a new term for these workers, sometimes forced to have more than 1 job to keep afloat: the precariat. This new proletariat suffers greatly from chronic precarity, an existence without predictability or security.

Jeroen: Are you shifting the discussion to the gig-economy?

Arne:  Yes and no. Well, let me explain. McKinsey sketches a, or the, current class system. At the top, the new plutocracy  – the world’s eight richest individuals now apparently have as much wealth as the combined assets of the 3.6 bn people, who make up the poorest half of the world. Way below them you find the so-called salariat – the shrinking group of professionals with secure employment and  benefits like pensions, paid holidays and medical insurance. Alongside, or slightly below and above them, you find the ‘giggers’, a growing group of self employed specialists who are paid well for their scarce talents. Next there is an ever diminishing old-style proletariat, for which the social democrats (or ‘liberals) ‘built the welfare state – now also in serious decline. At the bottom the new precariat.

Jeroen: Okay, we are back at the gig economy now. I guess I cannot stop you now…

Arne: No no, let me finish. Involuntary part-time labour, short-term contracts, zero-hours contracts, internships. The concierge economy, represented by Uber, Deliveroo and other so-called ‘platforms’. This precariat lacks any real occupational identity or narrative to give to their lives, and this leads to existential insecurity. That is, I think,  the main cause of the rise of populism. The old Middle Class, in their existential Angst, nostalgically look for closed borders, for ‘our own people first’, for Strong Leaders!

Jeroen: You feeling better now?

Arne: Yes thanks. For your patient listening!

Jeroen: Speaking of nostalgia, fear and hope… what about the new Nokia phone? Made in China, and from a distance you’d think it was the old 3310 risen from the grave.

Arne: Oh yes. They are all connected to the populist Koro. The reborn Fiat 500, the new Beetle, Jaguar e-type or classic Porsche –  they all refer to an imaginary glorious past, that never really was that good…

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