Sunday, 20 May 2018

Sickness in Indian Democracy did not start with Modi

Tavleen Singh in The Indian Express

Three words that I got sick of hearing as the Karnataka drama unfolded last week were: democracy, secularism and Constitution. Nearly everyone who spoke them meant only one thing, and this was that the Bharatiya Janata Party must be kept out of Karnataka at all costs. Perhaps, by the time you read this, the BJP juggernaut will have been stopped from finding a toehold in southern India, but it is important that we remember that whatever happens, it will have nothing to do with those three words. 

It is important also to remember that the post-election drama in Karnataka had everything to do with the Congress party’s desperation to keep its own little toe grounded in the state they have ruled for five years. Without Karnataka, our oldest political party has only Punjab and Puducherry left, and this is very bad news. How will Rahul Gandhi continue to dream of becoming prime minister in 2019? How will there be enough funds to fight the Lok Sabha elections if one of India’s richest states slips away? So even the most humiliating compromise with a party derided by Rahul Gandhi as the B-team of the BJP is better than losing power altogether. You realise what a sham ‘secularism’ has become if you remember that during the campaign the (S) in the party’s name was mocked by Congress leaders as standing for Sangh and not secular.

Now let us talk about democracy. Even as B S Yedyurappa was taking his oath of office last Thursday, the president of the Congress party tweeted this: ‘This morning, while the BJP celebrates its hollow victory, India will mourn the defeat of democracy.’ He clearly forgot that if there was one conclusive thing that came out of the election results, it was that it was a mandate against the incumbent Congress government.

On constitutional proprieties the less said the better. They were stretched and moulded last week by most politicians and political commentators to make whichever case they wished to make. What can be said for certain is that the men who wrote our Constitution never envisaged a situation in which the verdict of governors would be challenged by violent thugs on the streets. Or that newly elected legislators would need to be locked up in fine hotels to prevent them from selling their souls for filthy lucre.

It is not as if they need the money. The Karnataka Election Watch and Association for Democratic Reforms analysed the assets of 221 newly elected MLAs and found that 97 per cent were ‘crorepatis’. Of these, 16 had assets worth more than Rs 100 crore. You do not need me to tell you that the main reason why Indians fight and sometimes kill for a ticket to contest elections is because there is no easier way to become very rich very quickly.

This sickness in our democracy did not begin after Narendra Modi became prime minister. But, it is this storyline that has been sought to be disseminated by secular, leftist political commentators in order to disguise their loyalties to the Congress party. It is this ‘secular’ caboodle that uses words like democracy and secularism most often. Sadly, they see the weaknesses in our democracy through tinted lenses. So what happened in West Bengal’s panchayat elections last week has been almost ignored by liberal, leftist commentators. In these village elections, ballot boxes were torn out of polling booths and thrown in ponds, and gangs of armed thugs wandered about violently preventing people from voting. These events escaped the notice of ‘secular’ politicians and commentators who moan endlessly about how democracy has died in the past four years. Rahul went so far as to say in Chhattisgarh that India has become a dictatorship.

To support this ludicrous charge, the Congress president has exalted disgruntled judges who actively harmed the Supreme Court by going public with their disgruntlement. Disgruntled public intellectuals have also sided with the judges and the ‘secular’ media has done its best to provide a platform for their views.

Having lived through that time when there really was a Dictator ruling India, I can report that journalists, writers and poets were jailed for speaking out. It was also a time when disobedient judges got the sack. So the Supreme Court obsequiously went along with the Dictator’s diktat when she ordered them to suspend even the right to life. When the Dictator’s grandson now makes reckless charges, he needs to be reminded of that one period of Indian history when democracy nearly died.

Modi is no match for the powerful elite who lost their vast influence in the public square when he became prime minister. So now when he appears to have lost some of his magic, they have taken charge of the narrative and their message is clear: democracy is doomed if Modi remains in power.

Why the 'Right to Believe' Is Not a Right to Believe Whatever You Want

Daniel De Nicola in The Wire.In
Why the 'Right to Believe' Is Not a Right to Believe Whatever You Want

Do we have the right to believe whatever we want to believe? This supposed right is often claimed as the last resort of the wilfully ignorant, the person who is cornered by evidence and mounting opinion: ‘I believe climate change is a hoax whatever anyone else says, and I have a right to believe it!’ But is there such a right?

We do recognise the right to know certain things. I have a right to know the conditions of my employment, the physician’s diagnosis of my ailments, the grades I achieved at school, the name of my accuser and the nature of the charges, and so on. But belief is not knowledge.
Beliefs are factive: to believe is to take to be true. It would be absurd, as the analytic philosopher G.E. Moore observed in the 1940s, to say: ‘It is raining, but I don’t believe that it is raining.’ Beliefs aspire to truth – but they do not entail it. Beliefs can be false, unwarranted by evidence or reasoned consideration. They can also be morally repugnant. Among likely candidates: beliefs that are sexist, racist or homophobic; the belief that proper upbringing of a child requires ‘breaking the will’ and severe corporal punishment; the belief that the elderly should routinely be euthanised; the belief that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a political solution, and so on. If we find these morally wrong, we condemn not only the potential acts that spring from such beliefs, but the content of the belief itself, the act of believing it, and thus the believer.

Such judgments can imply that believing is a voluntary act. But beliefs are often more like states of mind or attitudes than decisive actions. Some beliefs, such as personal values, are not deliberately chosen; they are ‘inherited’ from parents and ‘acquired’ from peers, acquired inadvertently, inculcated by institutions and authorities, or assumed from hearsay. For this reason, I think, it is not always the coming-to-hold-this-belief that is problematic; it is rather the sustaining of such beliefs, the refusal to disbelieve or discard them that can be voluntary and ethically wrong.

If the content of a belief is judged morally wrong, it is also thought to be false. The belief that one race is less than fully human is not only a morally repugnant, racist tenet; it is also thought to be a false claim – though not by the believer. The falsity of a belief is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a belief to be morally wrong; neither is the ugliness of the content sufficient for a belief to be morally wrong. Alas, there are indeed morally repugnant truths, but it is not the believing that makes them so. Their moral ugliness is embedded in the world, not in one’s belief about the world.

‘Who are you to tell me what to believe?’ replies the zealot. It is a misguided challenge: it implies that certifying one’s beliefs is a matter of someone’s authority. It ignores the role of reality. Believing has what philosophers call a ‘mind-to-world direction of fit’. Our beliefs are intended to reflect the real world – and it is on this point that beliefs can go haywire. There are irresponsible beliefs; more precisely, there are beliefs that are acquired and retained in an irresponsible way. One might disregard evidence; accept gossip, rumour, or testimony from dubious sources; ignore incoherence with one’s other beliefs; embrace wishful thinking; or display a predilection for conspiracy theories.

I do not mean to revert to the stern evidentialism of the 19th-century mathematical philosopher William K Clifford, who claimed: ‘It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’ Clifford was trying to prevent irresponsible ‘overbelief’, in which wishful thinking, blind faith or sentiment (rather than evidence) stimulate or justify belief. This is too restrictive. In any complex society, one has to rely on the testimony of reliable sources, expert judgment and the best available evidence. Moreover, as the psychologist William James responded in 1896, some of our most important beliefs about the world and the human prospect must be formed without the possibility of sufficient evidence. In such circumstances (which are sometimes defined narrowly, sometimes more broadly in James’s writings), one’s ‘will to believe’ entitles us to choose to believe the alternative that projects a better life.

In exploring the varieties of religious experience, James would remind us that the ‘right to believe’ can establish a climate of religious tolerance. Those religions that define themselves by required beliefs (creeds) have engaged in repression, torture and countless wars against non-believers that can cease only with recognition of a mutual ‘right to believe’. Yet, even in this context, extremely intolerant beliefs cannot be tolerated. Rights have limits and carry responsibilities.

Unfortunately, many people today seem to take great licence with the right to believe, flouting their responsibility. The wilful ignorance and false knowledge that are commonly defended by the assertion ‘I have a right to my belief’ do not meet James’s requirements. Consider those who believe that the lunar landings or the Sandy Hook school shooting were unreal, government-created dramas; that Barack Obama is Muslim; that the Earth is flat; or that climate change is a hoax. In such cases, the right to believe is proclaimed as a negative right; that is, its intent is to foreclose dialogue, to deflect all challenges; to enjoin others from interfering with one’s belief-commitment. The mind is closed, not open for learning. They might be ‘true believers’, but they are not believers in the truth.

Believing, like willing, seems fundamental to autonomy, the ultimate ground of one’s freedom. But, as Clifford also remarked: ‘No one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone.’ Beliefs shape attitudes and motives, guide choices and actions. Believing and knowing are formed within an epistemic community, which also bears their effects. There is an ethic of believing, of acquiring, sustaining, and relinquishing beliefs – and that ethic both generates and limits our right to believe. If some beliefs are false, or morally repugnant, or irresponsible, some beliefs are also dangerous. And to those, we have no right.

To Save Western Capitalism - Look East

The East could have something to offer the mighty West, where we are seeing glimpses into capitalism's true nature. Antara Haldar (The Independent) on the rise and fall of civilisation as we know it

Photos Getty

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a place where peace and prosperity reigned. Let’s call this place the West. These lands had once been ravaged by bloody wars but its rulers had, since, solved the puzzle of perpetual progress and discovered a kind of political and economic elixir of life. Big Problems were relegated to either Somewhere Else (the East) or Another Time (History). The Westerners dutifully sent emissaries far and wide to spread the word that the secret of eternal bliss had been found –and were, themselves, to live happily ever after.

So ran, until very recently, the story of how the West was won.

The formula that had been discovered was simple: the recipe for a bright, shiny new brand of global capitalism based on liberal democracy and something called neoclassical economics. But it was different from previous eras – cleansed of Dickensian grime. The period after the two world wars was in many a Golden Age: the moment of Bretton Woods (that established the international monetary and financial order) and the Beveridge report (the blueprint for the welfare state), feminism and free love.

It was post-colonial, post-racial, post-gendered. It felt like you could have it all, material abundance and the moral revolutions; a world infinitely vulnerable to invention – but all without picking sides, all based on institutional equality of access. That’s how clever the scheme was – truly a brave new world. Fascism and class, slavery and genocide – no one doubted that, in the main, it had been left behind (or at least that we could all agree on its evils); that the wheels of history had permanently been set in motion to propel us towards a better future. The end of history, Francis Fukuyama called it – the zenith of human civilisation. 

Austerity in Athens: the eurozone crisis hit Greece not once but twice (Getty)

While liberal democracy was the part of the programme that got slapped on to the brochure, it was a streamlined paradigm of neoclassical economics that provided the brains behind the enterprise. Neoclassical economics, scarred by war-era ideological acrimony, scrubbed the subject of all the messy stuff: politics, values – all the fluff. To do so it used a new secret weapon: quantitative precision unprecedented in the social sciences.

It didn’t rest on whimsical things like enlightened leadership or invested citizenship or compassionate communities. No, siree. It was pure science: a reliable, universally-applicable maximising equation for society (largely stripped of any contextual or, until recently, even cognitive considerations). Its particular magic trick was to be able to do good without requiring anyone to be good.

And, it was limitless in its capacity to turn boundless individual rationality into endless material wellbeing, to cull out of infinite resources (on a global scale) indefinite global growth. It presumed to definitively replace faltering human touch with the infallible “invisible hand” and, so, discourses of exploitation with those of merit.

When I started as a graduate student in the early 2000s, this model was at the peak of its powers: organised into an intellectual and policy assembly line that more or less ran the world. At the heart of this enterprise, in the unipolar post-Cold War order, was what was known as the Chicago school of law and economics. The Chicago school boiled the message of neoclassical economics down to a simpler formula still: the American Dream available for export – just add private property and enforceable contracts. Anointed with a record number of Nobel prizes, its message went straight to the heart of Washington DC, and from there – via its apostles, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank radiated out to the rest of the globe. 

It was like the social equivalent of the Genome project. Sure the model required the odd tweak, the ironing out of the occasional glitch but, for the most part, the code had been cracked. So, like the ladies who lunch, scholarly attention in the West turned increasingly to good works and the fates of “the other” – spatially and temporally.

One strain led to a thriving industry in development: these were the glory days of tough love, and loan conditionalities. The message was clear: if you want Western-style growth, get with the programme. The polite term for it was structural adjustment and good governance: a strict regime of purging what Max Weber had called mysticism and magic, and swapping it for muscular modernisation. Titles like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty and Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else jostled for space on shelves of bookstores and best-seller lists.

Another led to esoteric islands of scholarship devoted to atonement for past sins. On the US side of the Atlantic, post-colonial scholarship gained a foothold, even if somewhat limp. In America, slavery has been, for a while now, the issue a la mode. A group of Harvard scholars has been taking a keen interest in the “history of capitalism”.

Playing intellectual archaeologists, they’ve excavated the road that led to today’s age of plenty – leaving in its tracks a blood-drenched path of genocide, conquest, and slavery. The interest that this has garnered, for instance Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, is heartening, but it has been limited to history (or worse still, “area studies”) departments rather than economics, and focused on the past not the present. 

As far back as the fifties ... the economy was driving the society, when it should have been the other way around (Getty)

Indeed, from the perspective of Western scholarship, the epistemic approach to the amalgam of these instances has been singularly inspired by Indiana Jones – dismissed either as curious empirical aberrations or distanced by the buffer of history. By no means the stuff of mainstream economic theory.

Some of us weakly cleared our throats and tried to politely intercede that there were, all around us, petri dishes of living, breathing data on not just development – but capitalism itself. Maybe, just maybe – could it be? – that if the template failed to work in a large majority of cases around the globe that there may be a slight design error. 

My longtime co-author, Nobel Prize winner in Economics and outspoken critic, Joseph Stiglitz, in his 1990 classic Globalisation and Its Discontents chronicled any number of cases of leaching-like brutality of structural adjustment. The best-selling author and my colleague at Cambridge, Ha-Joon Chang, in Kicking Away the Ladder, pointed out that it was a possibility that the West was misremembering the trajectory of its own ascent to power – that perhaps it was just a smidgen more fraught than it remembered, that maybe the State had had a somewhat more active part to play before it retired from the stage.

But a bright red line separated the “us” from the “them” enforcing a system of strict epistemic apartheid. Indeed, as economics retreated further and further into its silo of smugness, economics departments largely stopped teaching economic history or sociology and development economics clung on by operating firmly within the discipline-approved methodology.

So far, so good – a bit like the last night of merriment on the Titanic. Then the iceberg hit.

Suddenly the narratives that were comfortably to do with the there and then became for the Western world a matter of the here and now.

In the last 10 years, what economic historian Robert Skidelsky recently referred to as the “lost decade” for the advanced industrial West, problems that were considered the exclusive preserve of development theory – declining growth, rampant inequality, failing institutions, a fractured political consensus, corruption, mass protests and poverty – started to be experienced on home turf.

The Great Recession starting 2008 should really have been the first hint: foreclosures and evictions, bankruptcies and bailouts, crashed stock markets. Then came the eurozone crisis starting in 2009 (first Greece; then Ireland; then Portugal; then Spain; then Cyprus; oh, and then Greece, again). But after an initial scare, it was largely business as usual – written off as an inevitable blip in the boom-bust logic of capitalist cycles. It was 2016, the year the world went mad, that made the writing on the wall impossible to turn away from – starting with the shock Brexit vote, and then the Trump election. Not everyone understands what a CDO (collateralised debt obligation) is, but the vulgarity of a leader of the free world who governs by tweet and “grabs pussy” is hard to miss.

So how did it happen, this unexpected epilogue to the end of history?

I hate to say I told you so, but some of us had seen this coming – the twist in the tale, foreshadowed by an eerie background score lurking behind the clinking of champagne glasses. Even at the height of the glory days. In the summer before the fall of Lehman Brothers, a group of us “heterodox economists” had gathered at a summer school in the North of England. We felt like the audience at a horror movie – knowing that the gory climax was moments away while the victim remained blissfully impervious.

The plot wasn’t just predictable, it was in the script for anyone to see. You just had to look closely at the fine print.

In particular, you needed to have read your Karl Polanyi, the economic sociologist, who predicted this crisis over 50 years ago. As far back as 1954, The Great Transformation diagnosed the central perversion of the capitalist system, the inversion that makes the person less important than the thing – the economy driving society, rather than the other way around.

Polanyi’s point was simple: if you turned all the things that people hold sacred into grist to the mill of a large impersonal economic machinery (he called this disembedding) there would be a backlash. That the fate of a world where monopoly money reigns supreme and human players are reduced to chessmen at its mercy is doomed. The sociologist Fred Block compares this to the stretching of a giant elastic band – either it reverts to a more rooted position, or it snaps.

It is this tail-wagging-the-dog quality that is driving the current crisis of capitalism. It’s a matter of existential alienation. This problem of artificial abstraction runs through the majority of upheavals of our age – from the financial crisis to Facebook. So cold were the nights in this era of enforced neutrality that the torrid affair between liberal democracy and neoclassical economics resulted in the most surprising love child – populism.

The simple fact is that after decades on promises not delivered on, the system had written just one too many cheques that couldn’t be cashed. And people had had just about enough.


The Brexit vote in 2016 followed by the election of Trump ... and the world had finally gone mad (Getty)

The old fault lines of global capitalism, the East versus West dynamics of the World Trade Organisation’s Doha Round, turned out to be red herrings. The axis that counts is the system versus the little people. Indeed, the anatomies of annihilation look remarkably similar across the globe – whether it’s the loss of character of a Vanishing New York or Disappearing London, or threatened communities of farmers in India and fishermen in Greece.

Trump voters in the US, Brexiteers in Britain and Modi supporters in India seek identity – any identity, even a made-up call to arms to “return” to mythical past greatness in the face of the hollowing out of meaning of the past 70 years. The rise of populism is, in many ways, the death cry of populations on the verge of extinction – yearning for something to believe in when their gods have died young. It’s a problem of the 1 per cent – poised to control two-thirds of the world economy by 2030 – versus the 99 per cent. But far more pernicious is the Frankenstein’s monster that is the idea of an economic system that is an end in itself.

Not to be too much of a conspiracy theorist about it, but the current system doesn’t work because it wasn’t meant to – it was rigged from the start. Wealth was never actually going to “trickle down”. Thomas Piketty did the maths.

Suddenly, the alarmist calls of the developmentalists objecting to the systemic skews in the process of globalisation don’t seem quite so paranoid.

But this is more than “poco” (what the cool kids call postcolonialism) schadenfreude. My point is a serious one; although I would scarcely have dared articulate it before now. Could Kipling have been wrong, and might the East have something to offer the mighty West? Could the experiences of exotic lands point the way back to the future? Could it be, could it just, that it may even be a source of epistemic wisdom?

Behind the scaffolding of Xi Jinping’s China or Narendra Modi’s India, sites of capitalism under construction, we are offered a glimpse into the system’s true nature. It is not God-given, but the product of highly political choices. Just like Jane Jacobs protesting to save Washington Square Park or Beatrix Potter devoting the bulk of her royalty earnings to conserving the Lake District were choices. But these cases also show that trust and community are important. The incredible resilience of India’s jugaad economy, or the critical role of quanxi in the creation of the structures in what has been for the past decade the world’s fastest-growing nation, China. A little mysticism and magic may be just the thing.

The narrative that we need is less that of Frankenstein’s man-loses-control of monster, and more that of Pinocchio’s toy-becomes-real-boy-by-acquiring-conscience; less technology, and more teleology. The real limit may be our imaginations. Perhaps the challenge is to do for scholarship, what Black Panther has done for Hollywood. You never know. Might be a blockbuster.

Behind BJP's Election-Winning Machinery

Analysis of the Modi government's four years in office