Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Urlasation" -- the path of the future in Latvia?

A method both used and sometimes disparaged in sociology and economics is that of "street level impressions", or what one sees, day-to-day, not using any particular methodology or quantification. It is, to be sure, subjective, but not always useless information.
My street level impression living here in Riga is that society is undergoing visible signs of demographic shift and behavioral degeneration. The number of sullen, boorish, possibly (often probably) abusively intoxicated or just plain disturbingly weird individuals seems (at least proportionately) on the rise. Just yesterday I passed a pasty-faced, glassy-eyed young man who decided to scream incoherently just as we passed each other on the sidewalk. His gait was not that of a typical drunk, more likely the user of an individual combination of recreational chemistry. And this at around 11:30 in the morning. Which is not to say that  9 am, shit-faced drunks aren't a common sight.
The "street" is also getting disturbingly older. I am not simply talking about old people -- I am talking about worn out, haggard, empty-eyed, decrepit looking desperate old folks along side the drug and alcohol addled, white-trashy looking young. The bright and ambitious 20-somethings can still be seen, but I suspect most of them are gone. Many of the teenagers and young loitering on the streets in hoodies and jogging pants are locally called "urlas", a kind of Slavic slang for what I would call lumpenproletarian white trash. Urlas are generally seen as Russian, but there are plenty of ethnic Latvians fitting the category as well.
My view of things is, of course, colored by the fact that I work near the Riga central station, and central railway stations around Europe have a way of attracting the weird, the strange and the underclass.  I think no one can outdo some of the drunken derelicts I have seen near the Helsinki train station nor the junkies that used to hang around near the Frankfurt Bahnhof when my office was next to it.
The begging around the Riga train station is taking on some Third World aspects -- the public display, even flaunting of amputations and other disabilities is commonplace. There is a young man (otherwise able bodied for a desk, service, or sit-down factory job) who stands on crutches displaying his below knee amputation and soliciting alms. Nearby on the steps leading down to a pedestrian tunnel is a woman shaking from some neurological disease and others whose main affliction is alcoholism.
While there is little or nothing that could be done for most of the beggars. one wonders why the young man simply doesn't emigrate. It is also surprising to be approached by young alms-seekers who start the conversation in good English. So emigrate! You have the basic skills.
The depressing thing about these observations is that they point to a clear and almost irreversible social degeneration -- the "urlasation" of the remaining young (or rather, the emigration of most but the urlas) and the pauperization and visible psychological misery of the old and very old. One rarely seems even mildly happy faces among the older population, but quite a few haggard, thousand-yard stares.
Many, maybe even most of the individuals and categories of individuals I have described cannot be strictly "blamed" for being what they are. They are the victims of a collective political and societal failure, after 20 years of independence, to produce conditions where there is reasonably efficient governance and where education has produced productive individuals who can locally be paid at least roughly in line with their productivity. What we have instead is a downward spiraling or, at best, stagnating, demoralized, ill-educated, poorly productive society that has little hope of pulling itself out of its self-made misery in the foreseeable future.