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  • It was a cold, sunny March day.

  • I was walking along the street in Riga.

  • I remember the winter was slowly coming to an end.

  • There was still some snow around here and there,

  • but the pavement was already clear and dry.

  • If you've lived in Riga,

  • you will know that feeling of relief that the first signs of spring bring,

  • and you no longer have to trudge through that slushy mix

  • of snow and mud on the streets.

  • So there I am, enjoying my stroll,

  • as I suddenly notice a stencil on the pavement in front of me,

  • a graffiti:

  • white letters painted on these dark grey bricks.

  • It says,

  • "Where is your responsibility?"

  • The question stopped me in my tracks.

  • As I'm standing there considering its meaning,

  • I notice I'm standing outside the Riga Municipality Social Welfare Department.

  • So it appears that the author of this graffiti, whoever it is,

  • is asking this question to people coming to apply for social assistance.

  • That winter,

  • I had been doing research on the aftermath of the financial crisis in Latvia.

  • When the Global Financial Crisis erupted in 2008, Latvia got hit hard

  • as a small, open economy.

  • To balance the books,

  • the Latvian government chose a strategy of internal devaluation.

  • Now, in essence, that meant drastically reducing public budget spending,

  • so, slashing public sector workers' wages,

  • shrinking civil service,

  • cutting unemployment benefits and other social assistance,

  • raising taxes.

  • My mother had been working as a history teacher her whole life.

  • The austerity for her meant seeing her salary cut by 30 percent

  • all of a sudden.

  • And there were many in a situation like hers or worse.

  • The costs of the crisis were put on the shoulders of ordinary Latvians.

  • As a result of the crisis and the austerity,

  • the Latvian economy shrank by 25 percent in a two-year period.

  • Only Greece suffered an economic contraction

  • of a comparable scale.

  • Yet, while Greeks were out in the streets for months

  • staging continuous, often violent protests in Athens,

  • all was quiet in Riga.

  • Prominent economists were fighting in the columns of "The New York Times"

  • about this curious extreme Latvian experiment

  • of this austerity regime,

  • and they were watching on in disbelief

  • how the Latvian society was putting up with it.

  • I was studying in London at the time,

  • and I remember the Occupy movement there

  • and how it was spreading from city to city,

  • from Madrid to New York to London,

  • the 99 percent against the one percent.

  • You know the story.

  • Yet when I arrived in Riga,

  • there were no echoes of the Occupy here.

  • Latvians were just putting up with it.

  • They "swallowed the toad," as the local saying goes.

  • For my doctoral research,

  • I wanted to study how the state-citizen relationship was changing in Latvia

  • in the post-Soviet era,

  • and I had chosen the unemployment office

  • as my research site.

  • And as I arrived there in that autumn of 2011,

  • I realized, "I am actually witnessing firsthand

  • how the effects of crises are playing out,

  • and how those worst affected by it, people who have lost their jobs,

  • are reacting to it."

  • So I started interviewing people I met at the unemployment office.

  • They were all registered as job seekers and hoping for some help from the state.

  • Yet, as I was soon discovering, this help was of a particular kind.

  • There was some cash benefit,

  • but mostly state assistance came in the form of various social programs,

  • and one of the biggest of these programs was called

  • "Competitiveness-Raising Activities."

  • It was, in essence, a series of seminars

  • that all of the unemployed were encouraged to attend.

  • So I started attending these seminars with them.

  • And a number of paradoxes struck me.

  • So, imagine:

  • the crisis is still ongoing,

  • the Latvian economy is contracting,

  • hardly anyone is hiring,

  • and there we are,

  • in this small, brightly lit classroom,

  • a group of 15 people,

  • working on lists of our personal strengths and weaknesses, our inner demons,

  • that we are told are preventing us from being more successful

  • in the labor market.

  • As the largest local bank is being bailed out

  • and the costs of this bailout are shifted onto the shoulders of the population,

  • we are sitting in a circle and learning how to breathe deeply

  • when feeling stressed.

  • (Breathes deeply)

  • As home mortgages are being foreclosed

  • and thousands of people are emigrating,

  • we are told to dream big and to follow our dreams.

  • As a sociologist,

  • I know that social policies are an important form of communication

  • between the state and the citizen.

  • The message of this program was,

  • to put it in the words of one of the trainers,

  • "Just do it."

  • She was, of course, citing Nike.

  • So symbolically, the state was sending a message to people out of work

  • that you need to be more active, you need to work harder,

  • you need to work on yourself, you need to overcome your inner demons,

  • you need to be more confident --

  • that somehow, being out of work was their own personal failure.

  • The suffering of the crisis

  • was treated as this individual experience of stress

  • to be managed in one's own body

  • through deep and mindful breathing.

  • These types of social programs that emphasize individual responsibility

  • have become increasingly common across the world.

  • They are part of the rise of what sociologist Loïc Wacquant calls

  • the "neoliberal Centaur state."

  • Now, the centaur, as you might recall,

  • is this mythical creature in ancient Greek culture,

  • half human, half beast.

  • It has this upper part of a human and the lower part of a horse.

  • So the Centaur state is a state

  • that turns its human face to those at the top of the social ladder

  • while those at the bottom are being trampled over,

  • stampeded.

  • So top income earners and large businesses

  • can enjoy tax cuts and other supportive policies,

  • while the unemployed, the poor

  • are made to prove themselves worthy for the state's help,

  • are morally disciplined,

  • are stigmatized as irresponsible or passive or lazy

  • or often criminalized.

  • In Latvia, we've had such a Centaur state model

  • firmly in place since the '90s.

  • Take, for example, the flat income tax that we had in place up until this year

  • that has been benefiting the highest earners,

  • while one quarter of the population keeps living in poverty.

  • And the crisis and the austerity has made these kinds of social inequalities worse.

  • So while the capital of the banks and the wealthy has been protected,

  • those who lost the most

  • were taught lessons in individual responsibility.

  • Now, as I was talking to people who I met at these seminars,

  • I was expecting them to be angry.

  • I was expecting them

  • to be resisting these lessons in individual responsibility.

  • After all, the crisis was not their fault, yet they were bearing the brunt of it.

  • But as people were sharing their stories with me,

  • I was struck again and again

  • by the power of the idea of responsibility.

  • One of the people I met was Žanete.

  • She had been working for 23 years

  • teaching sewing and other crafts at the vocational school in Riga.

  • And now the crisis hits,

  • and the school is closed as part of the austerity measures.

  • The educational system restructuring was part of a way of saving public money.

  • And 10,000 teachers across the country lose their jobs,

  • and Žanete is one of them.

  • And I know from what she's been telling me

  • that losing her job has put her in a desperate situation;

  • she's divorced, she has two teenage children that she's the sole provider for.

  • And yet, as we are talking,

  • she says to me that the crisis is really an opportunity.

  • She says, "I turn 50 this year.

  • I guess life has really given me this chance to look around, to stop,

  • because all these years I've been working nonstop,

  • had no time to pause.

  • And now I have stopped,

  • and I've been given an opportunity to look at everything and to decide

  • what it is that I want

  • and what it is that I don't want.

  • All this time, sewing, sewing, some kind of exhaustion."

  • So Žanete is made redundant after 23 years.

  • But she's not thinking about protesting.

  • She's not talking about the 99 percent against the one percent.

  • She is analyzing herself.

  • And she was thinking pragmatically of starting a small business

  • out of her bedroom

  • making these little souvenir dolls to sell to tourists.

  • I also met Aivars at the unemployment office.

  • Aivars was in his late 40s,

  • he had lost a job at the government agency overseeing road construction.

  • To one of our meetings, Aivars brings a book he's been reading.

  • It's called "Vaccination against Stress, or Psycho-energetic Aikido."

  • Now, some of you might know that aikido is a form of martial art,

  • so, psycho-energetic aikido.

  • And Aivars tells me that after several months

  • of reading and thinking and reflecting while being out of work,

  • he has understood that his current difficulties are really his own doing.

  • He says to me,

  • "I created it myself.

  • I was in a psychological state that was not good for me.

  • If a person is afraid to lose their money, to lose their job,

  • they start getting more stressed, more unsettled, more fearful.

  • That's what they get."

  • As I ask him to explain,

  • he compares his thoughts poetically to wild horses running in all directions,

  • and he says, "You need to be a shepherd of your thoughts.

  • To get things in order in the material world,

  • you need to be a shepherd of your thoughts,

  • because it's through your thoughts that everything else gets orderly."

  • "Lately," he says, "I have clearly understood

  • that the world around me, what happens to me,

  • people that enter in my life ... it all depends directly on myself."

  • So as Latvia is going through this extreme economic experiment,

  • Aivars says it's his way of thinking that has to change.

  • He's blaming himself for what he's going through at the moment.

  • So taking responsibility is, of course, a good thing, right?

  • It is especially meaningful

  • and morally charged in a post-Soviet society,

  • where reliance on the state is seen as this unfortunate heritage

  • of the Soviet past.

  • But when I listen to Žanete and Aivars and to others,

  • I also thought how cruel this question is --

  • "Where is your responsibility?" --

  • how punishing.

  • Because, it was working as a way of blaming and pacifying people

  • who were hit worst by the crisis.

  • So while Greeks were out in the streets, Latvians swallowed the toad,

  • and many tens of thousands emigrated,

  • which is another way of taking responsibility.

  • So the language, the language of individual responsibility,

  • has become a form of collective denial.

  • As long as we have social policies that treat unemployment

  • as individual failure

  • but we don't have enough funding for programs that give people real skills

  • or create workplaces,

  • we are blind of the policymakers' responsibility.

  • As long as we stigmatize the poor as somehow passive or lazy

  • but don't give people real means to get out of poverty

  • other than emigrating,

  • we are in denial of the true causes of poverty.

  • And in the meantime,

  • we all suffer,

  • because social scientists have shown with detailed statistical data

  • that there are more people with both mental and physical health problems

  • in societies with higher levels of economic inequality.

  • So social inequality is apparently bad for not only those with least resources

  • but for all of us,

  • because living in a society with high inequality

  • means living in a society with low social trust and high anxiety.

  • So there we are.

  • We're all reading self-help books,

  • we try to hack our habits,

  • we try to rewire our brains,

  • we meditate.