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 People are strange when you’re a stranger

Do you feel left out? Perhaps it’s because you refuse to succumb to the competition, envy and fear neoliberalism breeds. To be at peace with a troubled world: this is not a reasonable aim. It can be achieved only through a disavowal of what surrounds you. To be at peace with yourself within a troubled world: that, by contrast, is an honourable aspiration. This column is for those who feel at odds with life. It calls on you not to be ashamed. I was prompted to write it by a remarkable book, just published in English, by a Belgian professor of psychoanalysis, Paul Verhaeghe(1). What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society is one of those books that, by making connections between apparently distinct phenomena, permits sudden new insights into what is happening to us and why. We are social animals, Verhaeghe argues, and our identity is shaped by the norms and values we absorb from other people. Every society defines and shapes its own normality – and its own abnormality – according to dominant narratives, and seeks either to make people comply or to exclude them if they don’t.

 Poverty versus inequality

We all think we know what we're talking about when we discuss poverty. We have a clear mental image for the poverty of the developing nations. One of the targets for the millennium development goals, announced by the UN in 2000, was to halve the global proportion of absolutely poor people by 2015. At the time the target was announced, the definition of an absolutely poor person was anyone living on an income of less than $1 a day. That criterion has been nudged upwards, in response to new data about prices and purchasing power, to $1.25. There has and continues to be astonishing progress towards and beyond this target, which was achieved in 2010, five years ahead of its deadline – a fact that went eerily uncelebrated. It is true that 1.2 billion people still live below the $1.25 threshold, but the proportion of humanity in that desperate condition is lower than it was. In 1980, more than half the world's population was living below this line; now, the number living below it is just over a fifth. This achievement is all the greater because it is relatively simple for small populations to improve their standard of living quickly; it is easier to move something small than it is to move something big.

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