Monday, June 13, 2022

Social limits of growth – IV

Positional goods were once free, taken for granted and seemingly plentiful, and thus social relations were rarely mentioned by classical economists. Hirsch shows that they were implicitly assumed. Taking Adam Smith’s economic analysis in The Wealth of Nations and  his social analysis in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Hirsch summarizes his views as follows: “[Men] could safely be trusted to pursue their own self-interest without undue harm to the community not only because of the restrictions imposed by the law, but also because they were subject to built-in restraint derived from morals, religion, custom, and education.” Smith’s position is a far cry from the celebrations of the dominance of self-interest that one finds today.

In Republican Paradoxes and Liberal Anxieties, Ronald Terchek says that people rely on fragments of his work to understand Smithian metaphors or assumptions about rationality and economic markets. They omit critical parts of Smith's theory and, in the process, give us not merely an incomplete Smith but also a distorted Smith. Even though Smith believes that the pursuit of self-interests in economic markets generates social benefits, he warns that such interests are too often driven by deceits that serve our vanities and lead to our own unhappiness.

He argues that although the rise of commerce introduces freedom, it provides no guarantee of a happy, moral life. For Smith, there is nothing about freedom that assures its wise and prudential use. Rather, he sees that free societies have many temptations that, if pursued, invite unhappiness. Therefore he promotes freedom as well as the moral development of agents and sounds both a celebration and a warning about liberty. 

The prominence Smith gives to self-interest is widely known. He repeatedly argues that people have an interest in their own well-being  and that they engage in activities that they think will promote it. But in addition to self-interests, Smith credits people with carrying moral sentiments. Smith claims that we come with natural endowments that enable us to make elementary moral judgments, to rejoice with the happiness of others, and to grieve at their misfortune. Such sentiments "superintend" our passions and desires and prompt us to be attentive to others. 

Also, Smith finds that when one person or a few people hold the preponderance of power and wealth in society, they can be counted on to use these goods to serve their interests, not the interests of those dependent on them for a living and security. Smith repeatedly argues that when wealth and power are combined, the greatest social cost comes from the loss of independence of those who are excluded. Dependencies cause honesty to be routinely penalized. He holds "Nothing tends so much to corrupt and enervate and debase the mind as dependency, and nothing gives such noble and generous notions of probity and freedom as independency."

He warns of the deception of wealth which makes people believe that more personal wealth and power will bring them happiness. He sees wealth giving us the ability to make choices to do things we could not have made without it. However, he finds wealth becomes dangerous to us when we allow it to define our character. He emphasizes individuals who marginally improve and do not make quantum jumps in fortune or rank. When Smith introduces us to those who have earned vast fortunes, we encounter people who find that tranquility has eluded them. 

Usually seen as a champion of increasing national income, Smith nevertheless fears that when national wealth passes a critical point and luxury becomes widespread, the consequences are usually disastrous. He fears that during prosperous times, individuals lose a sense of their limits and refuse to do what is necessary to retain their freedom. In pressing their own immediate interests, they do not secure their long-term welfare but rather buy a little time for their current enjoyment only, in the end, to become dependent on those who care little about them. 

He worries that excessive individualism undermines itself. He holds that self-restraint remains necessary for people who wish to retain their freedom. He acknowledges that background makes the most profound difference in the chances and choices available to people and restricts the autonomy of many in commercial society. He fears that the accumulative, unsettling effects of economic growth serve to demythologize the very restraints that he thinks are necessary for a flourishing, autonomous life and for political legitimacy.

Smith warns about the deception of deference, namely the widely held notion that those who possess great wealth and honor deserve our admiration and respect. According to him, this deception is "the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments." When we are deferential, we excuse our "superiors," even when our moral sense would direct otherwise. Standing in awe of wealth and power, we not only ignore the wise and virtuous, but we also despise and "neglect persons of poor and mean condition.'  Moreover, Smith finds that deference contributes to the legitimization of a regime, its practices, and the inequalities it protects and exonerates.

His good society is characterized by more than markets, diffused power, and freedom. It is a place where politics is not instrumental, and where culture promotes a sense of limits and deference. He is also concerned about the concentration of private power and the pattern of hierarchy and subordination that evolves within civil society, knowing that people can be dependent on private concentrations of power as well as public ones. If any of these latter characteristics are weak or missing it is not at all clear that Smith would automatically approve. 

(Adam Smith's capitalists were all small fry - shop owners, merchants and small scale industrialists. In his time, a 'manufactory' with a dozen workers was a big concern. The market was highly fragmented and wealth and power was not concentrated in a few hands.)

PS: The Theory of Moral Sentiments was Adam Smith’s attempt to explain where morality comes from and why people can act with decency and virtue even when it conflicts with their own self-interest. The book is heavy reading and I gave up mid-way. An accessible account of the work is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Social limits of growth – III

In Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch illustrates the psychological problem created by growth using the example of Education. Education has usually been associated with external benefits, based on the assumptions that educated people make better citizens, they are more productive, and all the resulting benefits are not captured in their own higher earnings. For example, they pay more taxes and enhance the productivity of those with whom they work. But education also has a role as a signaling device in the modern economy which may negate these external benefits. 

Education's function as a screening device helps the employer sort out those who can best survive and master an educational obstacle course.  The “quality” of schooling has a relative dimension in which quality consists of the differential over the educational level attained by others. Adding layers to the level to which the competition for credentials is pushed merely absorbs educational resources without adding to the productivity of the winners in the competition.  

When education expands faster than the number of jobs requiring those educational credentials, employers  intensify the screening process. Jobs for which a high school diploma was previously sufficient will then require some college education. Individuals who decline to join the educational upgrading will suffer a devaluation of their credentials in the job market. This means, as the average level of educational qualifications in the labor force rises, a kind of penalty is imposed on those lacking such qualifications

Additional education becomes a good investment, not because it would generate additional income but because you will not be able to maintain the current level of income if others receive more education and you do not. Thus, the utility of expenditure on a given level of education as a means of access to the most sought after jobs will decline as more people attain that level of education. ‘The race gets longer for the same prize.‘

Because ever more people reach higher levels of education (due to well meant “inclusionary” state policies), but at the same time the amount of high-level jobs remains more or less stable, both sides – the employers and the potential employees – face increasing costs of screening. The former are forced to introduce additional barriers, tests and other screening efforts to find the people who fit their needs. Meanwhile, the latter are faced with an ever longer “obstacle course” (i.e., longer education + more intense screening by employers) to get the desired high-level jobs. This clearly makes both sides worse off.

The increase in capacity of the educational sector also has probably increased the attention paid to the quality of education provided. Existing institutions that have many years track record are valued more by employers than new colleges. Not only do they convey information the employers can trust but, in addition, it enables them to buy the elite contacts of the employee. Thus, establishing new colleges end up increasing the demand for an education at existing colleges.  

Even if the absolute quality of education in a particular institution is fully preserved, the previous incumbents of the superior schools would still lose their edge. This loss will force them to demonstrate their proficiency in a tougher or longer course of study. Education enjoyed in its own right is capable of indefinite extension; as an instrument for entree into top jobs, it is not. When you consider education as a screening device, the possibility of general advance is an illusion.

An “inflation” of educational credentials of this kind involves social waste in two dimensions. First, it absorbs excess real resources into the screening process by increasing the length of the obstacle course that employees require for testing for the qualities desired . Second, social waste will result from disappointed expectations of individuals and from the frustration they experience in having to settle for employment in jobs in which they cannot make full use of their acquired skills. 

Considered in isolation, the individual’s demand for education as a job entree can be taken as genuinely individual wants. But satisfaction of these individual preferences itself alters the situation that faces others seeking to satisfy similar wants. Competition among isolated individuals in the free market entails hidden costs for others and ultimately for themselves. What is possible for the single individual is not possible for all individuals. This is true for all higher levels of selection: What is possible for an individual state or an individual country is not possible for all units. Hirsch writes:

‘Once again, it is a case of everyone in the crowd standing on tiptoe and no one getting a better view. Yet at the start of the process some individuals gain a better view by standing on tiptoe, and others are forced to follow if they are to keep their position. If all do follow, whether in the sightseeing crowd or among the job-seeking students, everyone expends more resources and ends up with the same position.

Hirsh is not saying that more educational resources should not be provided. The way the system is structured at present, politicians are forced to make such promises and are under pressure to keep them. As he writes, ‘If theorists of human capital fell into this trap, why expect acquirers of human capital to avoid it?’ But the investments will be a social waste that will just force you to run faster to stay in the same place. Although individuals benefit from isolated action, the sum of benefits of all the actions taken together is zero. 


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Social limits of growth – II

For his analysis in Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch divided goods into two primary types. The first type was material goods: These are, in a sense, goods as commonly defined in economics. Their consumption generates utility because of the intrinsic characteristics of the good in question. These will generally be called FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods like soaps, shoes, refrigerators etc.). The supply of material goods could be, and was, increased in response to the public’s rising demand for them. 

The second category was called positional goods. There were certain amenities whose supply cannot be increased. Economic growth increases their utilization which increases their relative scarcity. The ozone layer, clean air, drinkable water, natural beauty, land for infrastructure (e.g. roads, sewers) and growing food, antiques etc. are examples. (‘Buy land. They are not making it anymore.’ – Mark Twain). Positional goods have no equivalent in standard economic theory. The focus of Hirch’s analysis was on the interplay between these two divisions of the economy. 

Within the realm of material  goods, all the   accomplishments economists attribute to the invisible hand of the competitive market economy holds true. Economic growth understood as a continuous increase in affluence means that ever more people have their needs in the material sector satisfied – and turn ever more attention to the positional sector. What happens when the material pie grows while the positional economy remains confined to a fixed size? 

Classical economists focused their attention narrowly on mankind’s bodily needs and thereby managed drastically to simplify the economic problem. That made demand and increases in demand always into a good thing, it showed competition to be a beneficent force that diminished monopoly profits and caused market prices to reflect costs and preferences; and it made quantification possible by rendering GDP estimates a simple measure of the economy’s contribution to welfare.

But when positional goods enter the picture, the situation is muddied. So long as material privation is widespread, conquest of material scarcity is the dominant concern. As demand for material goods are increasingly satisfied, demand for goods and facilities with a public (social) character become increasingly active. The limited demand for things with augmentable supply  (material goods) and the unlimited demand for those whose supply is limited (positional goods), have created a great number of peculiarities and problems in our society.

The consumption of positional goods is valued at least partly by comparison with the consumption of these goods by others – e.g., having a manager’s job makes me better off not only because of its intrinsic characteristic (salary, power, freedom etc.), but also because others are not managers. In a further sense, positional goods define our position within the society and are thus socially scarce.

Social scarcity can have differing visible effects. One is physical congestion: the more people acquire the material good “car”, the more frequent are traffic jams. The other is social congestion: this is the case in the area of jobs, where there is limited scope for “leaders”, “bosses” and the like. Furthermore, some positional goods are socially scarce because they generate utility by being physically scarce – for instance, there is limited amount of “picturesque” natural landscapes. Another area where such “direct” social scarcity prevails is in arts: a Picasso is seen as valuable mainly because there is only one of its kind.

The scarcity of a positional good renders different people’s enjoyment of it interdependent, so that one person’s increased consumption  or use of it reduces its availability for other people’s enjoyment. This causes numerous problems. Smog, traffic jams, the deterioration of cities, the spoiling of much natural beauty by overcrowding and too many tourists, the poisoning of the soil and ground water by the burying of toxic waste products are a few examples. 

While the economy as a whole keeps growing, the positional sector gets ever smaller (i.e more scarce) in relation to the rest. This makes positional goods relatively more expensive and/or their quality deteriorates (e.g., due to congestion effects). Also, while any individual has the possibility to attain positional goods, it is impossible for everyone to attain them making an increasing fraction of the population frustrated. Therefore, economic growth is continuously aggravating the problems arising from social scarcity. 

Demands for positional goods tend to grow as general standards rise, a demand that can be satisfied for some only by frustrating demand by others. For most people,  they become objects of desire that the most intensive effort cannot reach.  This creates situations in which individually rational behaviour leads to socially irrational outcomes. Positional competition that is promoted by growth leads to ever more frustration within the allegedly ever better off society.


Friday, May 6, 2022

Social limits of growth – I

It has long been believed, especially in Western societies (contrary to ancient wisdom), that the pursuit of economic advantage is actually a civilizing, moderating influence in society. Many people accept the view that people are motivated to pursue their narrow economic and material self-interests, assume that people support policies consistent with their vested interests, and regard behavior that is not self-interested with suspicion. The assumption that selfishness is the fundamental human motivation rests on the view that selfishness is beneficial, whereas otherishness is costly; people are selfish because they benefit from selfishness. 

We keep hearing material abundance would make it possible for everybody to have enough to be perfectly happy. Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly remarked that if he could put one American book in the hands of every Russian, it would be the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. A person with such a mindset views anything that history, literature, philosophy, or long-standing traditions might have to suggest about the prudence one ought to employ in the shaping of new institutions as romantic babble which can be ignored. Harvey Cox writes in an article The Market as God

Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of déjà vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and Saint Augustine's City of God. 

Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption. 

But here they were again, and in only thin disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the seductive temptations of statism, captivity to faceless economic cycles, and, ultimately, salvation through the advent of free markets, with a small dose of ascetic belt tightening along the way, especially for the East Asian economies.

The last couple of centuries witnessed an impressive array of scientific discoveries, technical inventions, and industrial innovations which seemed to make the mastery of nature an accomplished fact rather than an idle dream. Many took this as a sign that all ancient wisdom had simply been rendered obsolete. As one chronicler of the new technology wrote in Scientific American: "The speculative philosophy of the past is but a too empty consolation for short-lived, busy man, and, seeing with the eye of science the possibilities of matter, he has touched it with the divine breath of thought and made a new world. " 

The assumption of self-interest pervades the social sciences, particularly economics and psychology. Empirical research suggests that this assumption is wrong or at least overstated. After a lot of searching the economist Joseph Henrich found that the Homo Economicus of economists' dreams does exist but, it is not a human, but a chimpanzee. ‘The canonical predictions of the Homo economicus model have proved remarkably successful in predicting chimpanzee behavior in simple experiments,’ Henrich noted dryly. ‘So, all theoretical work was not wasted, it was just applied to the wrong species.’ As Langdon Winner says in The Whale and the Reactor:

‘To argue a moral position convincingly these days requires that one speak to (and not depart from) people's love of material well-being, their fascination with efficiency, or their fear of death. The moral sentiments that hold force can be arrayed on a spectrum ranging from Adam Smith to Frederick W. Taylor to Thomas Hobbes. I do not wish to deny the validity of these sentiments, only to point out that they represent an extremely narrow mindset.’

Of course, all of economics is not about Homo Economicus. There are models which try to incorporate the complexities of human behavior. There are many results from experimental studies showing that people don’t behave according to the Homo Economicus model of human nature. We are far more cooperative and willing to trust than is predicted by the theory, and we retaliate vehemently when others behave selfishly. But most people who study economics don't go beyond the undergraduate level where such complexities are not discussed.

In Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science, Dani Rodrik says that many economists may have the predisposition of being knee-jerk market fundamentalists but it is certainly not what economics teaches. The correct answer to almost any question in economics is: It depends. Different models, each equally respectable, provide different answers. All the valuable lessons that economics teaches are contextual. They are if-then statements in which the “if” matters as much as the “then.”’

Economists don’t regard physical limits as a major problem because of the potential scope for substitution as a result of technological advance. Thus economic theory focused on explaining how conflicting selfish interests of market participants balance out in a way that results in the production of goods and services according to consumers’ preferences and an efficient allocation of resources to their production. What is not discussed are the ways in which growth creates its own frustrating limits.

The common argument is that even though the masses today could never get close to what the well-to-do have today, they can get most of the way there with patience in a not too distant tomorrow, through the magic of compound growth. If the fruits of aggregate advance appear inadequate or disappointing,  it merely reflects inadequate economic effort or excessive demands by individuals, or poor organization or inadequate capital equipment currently available to them. Too much has been expected too soon. Conventional wisdom thinks in terms of “excessive expectations.” The populace wants it now. It cannot have it now. It is too impatient. 

But in Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch argued that the promise of economic growth which has dominated society for so long has limits that were essentially social rather than physical which made their analysis flawed. The distributional struggle is heightened rather than relieved by the process of growth. He shows why the affluent compete among themselves and how they create social scarcity. Affluence, by creating a kind of congestion, limits the welfare attainable by society as a whole.  

The affluent society is the frustrated society, seemingly incapable of improving the quality of life through greater material quantity. Generalized growth then increases the crush. It is an exact reversal of what economists and present-day politicians have come to expect growth to deliver. ‘To see total economic advance as individual advance writ large is to set up expectations that cannot be fulfilled, ever’.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Bullshit jobs - II

 What about jobs that are just partly bullshit? There are very few jobs that don’t involve at least a few pointless or idiotic elements. To some degree, this is probably just the inevitable side effect of the workings of any complex organization. The problem is getting worse and Graeber calls this trend 'the bullshitization of society' - 'I don’t think I know anyone who has had the same job for thirty years or more who doesn’t feel that the bullshit quotient has increased over the time he or she has been doing it.'

 For example, take the case of teachers in higher education. They spend increasing amounts of time filling out administrative paperwork rather than teaching. According to a survey, the amount of time American office workers say they devoted to their actual duties declined from 46 percent in 2015 to 39 percent in 2016, owing to a proportionate rise in time dealing with emails (up from 12 percent to 16 percent), “wasteful” meetings (8 percent to 10 percent), and administrative tasks (9 percent to 11 percent). It shows that (1) more than half of working hours in American offices are spent on bullshit, and (2) the problem is getting worse.

This increasing 'bullshitization' accompanied by technological changes has resulted in creation of jobs up with fancy titles with imagined roles. In an essay in the Guardian on corporate rubbish, André Spicer writes, “A century of management fads has created workplaces that are full of empty words and equally empty rituals… Consider a meeting I recently attended. During the course of an hour, I recorded 64 different nuggets of corporate claptrap. They included familiar favourites such as ‘doing a deep dive’, ‘reaching out’, and ‘thought leadership’. There were also some new ones I hadn’t heard before: people with ‘protected characteristics’ (anyone who wasn’t a white straight guy), ‘the aha effect’ (realizing something), ‘getting our friends in the tent’ (getting support from others).”

Fancy designations are just an extension of this phenomenon. Thus you have ’Chief Geek Officers’, ‘Dream catchers’, ‘Gold Miners’, ’Heads of Fire Fighting’, ’Omni-Maestro of Integrated Commerce’, ‘Curator of next-generation digital experiences’ and ‘Preserver of Experience’. You also have ‘Chief Tweeting Officer’, ’Chief Jolly Officer’ and ‘Chief Geeky Officer’. Apparently, a service technician at Apple is called “genius”. More impressive designations that I have seen:

  • Chief Delight Officer (HR) - responsible for connecting people, building teams, reducing stress and promoting a happy work culture.
  • ‘Social Birds’ - look after social media and connect people through various campaigns 
  • ‘Community Data Guerrilla’ - looks after data analytics.
  • 'Chief of Customer Success’ - formerly known as Chief Operations Officer 
  • Crayon Evangelist - oversees all of the company's graphic-design needs  
  • Catalyst - executive assistant/office manager 
  • Creator of opportunities - SVP of business development 
  • Ambassador of buzz - corporate communications associate
  • Digital prophet - attempts to predict trends
  • Chief curator - chooses which items to be featured on homepage 
  • Head of global trends and futuring – progressive strategist 
  • Chief Amazement Officer - founder 
  • President and TeaEO - CEO of a tea company
  • Director of First Impressions - receptionist 
  • Security Executive - A watchman  
  • Chief Hygiene Officer - a cleaner 
  • Chief Talent Acquisition Officer - An HR executive 
  • Vice President of Miscellaneous Stuff - in charge of everything nobody else is in charge of. 
  • Chief Cheerleader - ensures the morale of employees gets a regular boost

PS: — Bill Hicks comedy routine:

Boss: How come you’re not working? 

Worker: There’s nothing to do.

Boss: Well, you’re supposed to pretend like you’re working.

Worker: Hey, I got a better idea. Why don’t you pretend like I’m working?  You get paid more than me.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Bullshit jobs - I

In 2013, the late anthropologist, David Graeber published an article, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (which he later expanded into a book called Bullshit jobs). Huge swathes of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? Yet virtually no one talks about it. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. 

The essay went viral almost immediately. Within weeks, it had been translated into German, Norwegian, Swedish, French, Czech, Romanian, Russian, Turkish, Latvian, Polish, Greek, Estonian, Catalan, and Korean, and was reprinted in newspapers from Switzerland to Australia. Blogs sprouted. Comments sections filled up with confessions from white-collar professionals. People wrote to him asking for guidance or to tell him that he had inspired them to quit their jobs to find something more meaningful. 

Graeber defines a bullshit job as a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence. He distinguishes between jobs that are pointless (bullshit jobs) and jobs that are merely bad (shit jobs). The two are often confused but might almost be considered opposites. If you mention the notion of bullshit jobs to someone who hasn’t heard the term before, that person may assume you’re really talking about shit jobs.

Bullshit jobs often pay quite well and tend to offer excellent working conditions. They’re just pointless. Shit jobs are usually not at all bullshit; they typically involve work that needs to be done and is clearly of benefit to society; it’s just that the workers who do them are paid and treated badly. In shit jobs, people are generally treated with arbitrariness and disrespect. Shit jobs tend to be blue collar and pay by the hour, whereas bullshit jobs tend to be white collar and salaried. 

Those who work shit jobs tend to be the object of indignities; they not only work hard but also are held in low esteem for that very reason. Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers — as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do. Hardly anyone would trade in a pointless middle-management position for a job as a ditchdigger, even if they knew that the ditches really did need to be dug. 

Graeber had thought that the percentage of bullshit jobs was probably around 20 percent but it turned out to be much higher. A poll of Britons was conducted using language taken directly from the essay: for example, Does your job “make a meaningful contribution to the world”? Astonishingly, more than a third — 37 percent — said they believed that it did not (whereas 50 percent said it did, and 13 percent were uncertain). (But only 33 percent of workers found it unfulfilling which meant that at least 4 percent of the working population feel their jobs are pointless but enjoy them anyway.) A poll in Holland came up with almost exactly the same results: in fact, a little higher, as 40 percent of Dutch workers reported that their jobs had no good reason to exist. Graeber writes:

How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment? Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, . . . to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. 

For instance: in our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: What would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? 

Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science-fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. 

It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might improve markedly.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralyzing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyze London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. 

It’s even clearer in the United States, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against schoolteachers and autoworkers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry executives who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. 

It’s as if they are being told “But you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that, you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 12b

 Oscar Wilde said, “Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer.” Attempts have always been made to consign Gandhi to the dustbin of history. While everybody likes the idea of nonviolence, few believe it can be an effective policy in statecraft today. I read that the department of education in Odisha published a booklet reportedly stating that “Gandhi died because of an accidental sequence of events.” Apparently in a school in Gujarat 15-year-old children were asked how “Gandhi committed suicide” as part of an exam. 

Every so often someone comes along purporting to unmask the “real” Gandhi, the Gandhi that “no one knows,” the Gandhi who was patriarchal, bourgeois, casteist, a sexual puritan, contemptuous of Africans, an enemy of progress and development, even a “friend of Hitler’. (Gandhi authored two short letters to Hitler, urging him to renounce violence, neither of which the war-time British censors permitted to reach the intended recipient.) Yet Gandhi refuses to disappear. He is everywhere, a spectral presence who is likely to haunt even more. 

Few of Gandhi’s ideals survive today in India, and thus we cannot but declare him a failure. But he tried, he believed, and he lived by what he preached (by and large). This makes him a success, for, as the Gita says, you should do your duty without seeking a reward. Indian movie directors keep alive the ghost of Gandhi. (I know of Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi films.) When some unethical act takes place - politicians planning a riot, prisoner beaten by policemen, officials accepting bribes etc., there will be a  photo of Gandhi hanging on the wall behind. 

In The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, Makarand Paranjape writes that killing the Father “is not the same as eliminating his influence or presence”. However much India’s elites and middle classes have attempted to relegate Gandhi to the margins, engaging in campaigns of slander, obfuscation, and trivialization, Gandhi continues to surface in the most unexpected ways. He is the (sometimes hidden) face of most of India’s most significant ecological movements, from the Chipko agitation to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, just as he is the face of intellectual dissent, little insurrections, and social upheaval. 

When the Polish workers rose against their authoritarian regime in the late 1980s, they talked of Lech Walesa as their Gandhi, a curious description of the Vodka-guzzling trade-union leader. When Benito Aquino of Philippines was assassinated, the same chant was raised by the crowd,  `Benito, our Gandhi'. Protesting crowds often hold posters of Gandhi and Che Guevara together, two leaders whose world-views were diametrically opposite to each other. The crowd would not even know who these people are.  As Ashis Nandy writes in an article Gandhi after Gandhi, 'For above all, this Gandhi is a symbol of those struggling against injustice, while trying to retain their humanity even when faced with unqualified inhumanity.'

'My father, do not rest. Do not allow us to rest', said Sarojini Naidu in her broadcast on All India Radio on February 1, 1948, after Gandhi's assassination. "I am not going to keep quiet even after I die”, Gandhi had once declared. The character of Gandhi in the Hindi film Lage Raho Munnabhai says, ‘I was shot down many years ago but my ideas will not die by three bullets, my thoughts will create a chemical imbalance in some mind or the other. Either you put me inside a frame and hang me up on your wall or think over my thoughts.’ After the assassination of Martin Luther King, a cartoon appeared in an American newspaper where Gandhi says to King in heaven:

 


Gandhi strived to live a life in politics which promoted moral values that transcended self-interest and political arrogance. He had come to the conclusion that democracy, like any other aspect of social and political life, would not function in the framework of a meaningless civilization with no sense of ethics and spirituality. His view was that a satyagrahi should wrestle with ’the coil of the snake’ of politics without being bitten by the lust for power. In Gandhi's Theory of Society and Our Times, A. K. Saran says:

. . . if Gandhi was not just a colonial leader who happened to achieve some kind of world fame, but, on the contrary, is a universal figure with relentless and steadfast concern with the destiny of man, then the central question raised by Gandhi, his thought, life and work, is the question of its relevance to our times and this is nothing else or no less than this: Has the voice of sanity any chance at all against the dark, demonic powers of our times?

Gandhi’s critical attitude toward modern civilization is an effort in asking the right questions at the right time about the whole inherited ideas on thought and action. He recognized that the advance of modernity coincides with the banishment of the small man to the sidelines. His ideas are a challenge both to Marxism and laissez-faire economics, which both count on pure economic forces for harmony or justice to prevail. All subtle ideas can be trivialized by portrayal in uncompromising and absolute terms. Don’t underestimate the power of steady misrepresentation.

Gandhi's challenging and fundamental questions discomfit many which makes him inspirational as well as annoying to different sections. The latter group is much larger especially in India and it is even more so because his ideas demand more attention, not less, since his death. He set a bar for ethical action in politics which is unlikely to be ever met in the future and certainly is well beyond the comprehension of the present breed of Indian politicians. They have managed to create a society in which someone like Gandhi would be at a huge disadvantage. That is the tragedy of our times. 

While information and knowledge lies ahead of us and is made more easily accessible by technology, all wisdom seems to be already behind us. As Antonio Gramsci succinctly puts it, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born -- now is the time of monsters.” Gandhi’s message of religious tolerance and non-violence is much more relevant today amidst the religious turmoil and political divisiveness around the world. The quality of his thought has sometimes been lost because of the other images Gandhi has - a shrewd politician and a deeply spiritual figure.  

A group of scholars, thinkers and writers gathered at the Sabarmati Ashram to once again reflect on Gandhi's death as absence and memory. Speaking of Gandhi’s Death brings together these reflections. In it, Ashis Nandy is quoted as saying:

Today, there is an all-round attempt to make Gandhi respectable. I see a lot of young faces in front of me. I hope you will avoid the temptation of seeing Gandhi as someone respectable, as somebody that your parents would like you to be like. 

I would rather want you to see Gandhi as disreputable, unpredictable, at the margins of sanity, and at the margins of everyday life; someone who dares to ask you to look even at your everyday life and your public life, and ask, is it possible for us to envision, to re-visualize or imagine a different kind of public or private life? Is it possible to live everyday life and yet look beyond its everydayness, and is it possible to contaminate your everyday life or the life of the people around you with that vision?”

PS: One of the best tennis quotes of all time was made by Vitas Gerulaitis. He lost 16 matches in a row to Bjorn Borg. He finally won his 17th match and growled at the press conference held later, 'Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.' After reading 37 posts in a row about Gandhi (I had planned over 50 posts!), I can imagine at least one of the two of you still reading these posts,  muttering darkly, 'Nobody makes me read 38 posts in a row about Gandhi.' Have no fear. I have decided to end this series with this post. 

PPS: Some have generously observed over the years that I am intellectually reasonably competent. After reading about my admiration for Gandhi, you may be convinced that such observations are grossly exaggerated. Daniel Kahneman has some words for you In Thinking, Fast and Slow that will make you exclaim, 'I told you so.' 

If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. My Princeton colleague Danny Oppenheimer refuted a myth prevalent among collage undergraduates about the vocabulary that professors find most impressive. In an article titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” he showed that couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.