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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Market societies?

There  are two kinds of people I most admire: those who have done some good to the world (even if in a very humble capacity – I don’t always think of great scientists, artists, philosophers and statesmen; a helpful neighbour fits the bill perfectly), and those who cannot perhaps boast of as much, but have lived quiet, contented lives without envying or harming anybody. I am lucky to have met a few and heard of a lot of both types: which is why I neither believe that living an utterly empty, selfish, materialistic, noisy life is necessary nor that it is a healthy moral choice, and at my age it doesn’t matter how many people believe things to the contrary, I just know that they are both wrong and foolish, as they will find out to their chagrin sooner or later.

Life has always been hard, especially for the simple, humble and good – no wonder they have always needed strong characters, and it has always helped to believe that their proper rewards wait in heaven. But, though I do not look at the past with rose-tinted glasses, it does seem to me that in some ways at least, life and living is being made harder for them of late, and one reason for it is that money is increasingly becoming the measure of all things, including pride, dignity and happiness. And I think my consternation counts for something, for unlike overly idealistic people of the religious or communist varieties, I have always held that money and the pursuit of it is – or ought to be – one of the healthy, important and necessary pursuits of life if one wants to live well (this incidentally agrees with the ancient Hindu idea of the four main aims of life, dharma, artha, kaama and moksha). It is also a fact that the pursuit of material wealth has been the primary occupation of a lot of people everywhere since the dawn of civilization, whether you look at ancient Egypt or India or China or Phoenicia or Rome. So what is new? This essay, which actually reviews a book, raises some very important issues that are truly new, and I can add a few things of my own.

First of all, the essayist says, to have a market economy (merely a useful tool) is not the same thing as to become a market society, where everything is up for sale to the highest bidder – and we are becoming increasingly too dumb to even realize that there is a vital difference. Then he goes on to offer proof that this is actually happening, and is not merely a gloomy philosopher’s apprehension any more: people are being paid, and are expecting to be paid, for literally everything – from reading books to standing in queues to renting out their wombs for babies and foreheads as billboards (indeed, for many years parents have been asking me naam lekhate koto lagbe? How much must we pay to enroll our ward’s name for your tuition?). The cynics used to say once upon a time things like ‘Every man has his price’ and ‘He’ll sell his mother if the price is right’: things like that are becoming more and more a description of contemporary reality (I have written about these things before). Next he goes on to point out that this is bound to make society more and more unfair (increasingly everyone will be assessed only by ability to pay rather than any genuine love of or talent for something – can’t we think of such things happening all around us, and not just in the USA? Think of anything you like, from admission to engineering college to buying up judges, politicians and ministers to young people ‘preferring’ to become fashion models rather than artists or scientists) as well as corrupt: no society which monetizes all human transactions can help being corrupt, because people are bound to grow used to getting everything from good marks in exams to favourable judgments in court to sleeping partners for a monetary price, and the only people who will get hurt will be those who either cannot or do not want to pay – unfortunately or otherwise, always the vast majority of the population everywhere! And that cannot be a wise formula for securing long-term social peace and stability, even in the domestic hearth. To take but one instance, men my age do not, cannot like the feeling that they only exist as ATMs for their wives and daughters, yet I have direct evidence that far too many are being forced into such a miserable condition by prevailing circumstances...

Some lines in the essay are particularly thought-provoking. Only by reintroducing ultimate questions about our purpose, nature, and fulfillment could we successfully evaluate the ethics of human enhancement…These aren’t merely economic questions; they are moral and political questions…The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little. Our politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content… we need to reason together, in public, about how to value the social goods we prize… From a political perspective, Sandel’s concern about the market intruding where it doesn’t belong is most likely to be embraced by today’s left, as today’s right has largely become unreserved market(s) enthusiasts. This is a shame, as an older – and healthier – conservatism did have a greater appreciation for the limits of markets…in the process, civil society is crowded out. Rebuilding non-market non-state institutions of civil society is the task going forward.”

This article was written in the contemporary American context, but to those who can see and think, it sounds uncannily like India too, both the problem and the necessary solution. Only, I fear, the culture of thinking one’s way through the big issues (and not the petty ones like whether we should buy more smartphones and build more shopping malls and drink more beer or rum) is more nearly extinct in India than it is in America, if my sources are right. And this is truly sad, because despite much going against her, India did have a reputation of being a thinking society for a long, long time. Especially so Bengal. Which is why it hurts me so much to hear from ‘educated’ Bengali youths that only your income matters, though I happen to earn much more than most fresh IIT graduates do, and the proprietors of Subhas Sweets in Benachity or Kanta Cloth Stores in Durgapur Bazaar earn 20 to 30 times more, yet they have never claimed to be human beings of a higher order…and these youths, heaven help us, are going to be the parents, teachers and leaders in the 2020s and 30s! 


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Wow... fifty odd visits even on Bijoya Dashami Day!

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you for sharing this thought-provoking essay and adding your observations on the matter. This is something which keeps bothering me on and off as I step in and out of the illusion of existing in an intellectually emancipated little microcosm. The term 'commodification' might seem like an overused and over-analyzed leftist cliche but the funny thing is that it is not even universally recognized as a legitimate term; every time I have to install Microsoft Word, this is one of the words I have to feed into the dictionary. Even now as I am typing this comment, I find the word underlined in red. Clearly, it still remains in the realm of intellectual discourse alone. In the light of the fact that the word 'commodity' has been in use in the English language since the 15th Century and the neoclassical poets had been writing against this sort of a market economy long before Marx came up with commodity fetishism, if this is not a telling comment on society, I don't know what is. The first use of the word 'commodification' can be traced back to 1982 and it is still to be incorporated into popular usage, whereas words like 'App', 'Outsourcing' 'Spamming' are clearly much better assimilated into everyday usage.

I happen to know a person who boasted to me once that she did not accept jewellery or other such expensive gifts from her boyfriends. She claimed that when her fashion designer boyfriend had gifted her a necklace of Swarovzki jewels, she refused to accept it till she was reassured that it had been hand-crafted by the said boyfriend because she would otherwise have felt bought. She never forgets to mention every time she repeats this story, however, that it constituted of Swarovzki gems (which I am guessing are outrageously expensive). I shall refrain myself from commenting. On the note of 'boyfriends' however, I have another piece of gossip to share. Recently, one of my friends came up with the disturbing revelation that his stinking rich girlfriend left him because she did not consider him good enough "boyfriend material". And by that she was referring to the occasion when he refused to pay for an expensive dinner and take her to the movies because he was still a student living away from home on his parents' money. I still have nothing to say.

Clearly, "We need to ask if there are somethings that money should not buy."

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Sunil Gangopadhyay passed away a few days ago. All civilized Bengalis are mourning him everywhere, from Dhaka to Kolkata to New York. To that generation who are literature-illiterate, and are convinced that an engineering or management degree and the paycheque that follows is the only measure of success, I only ask 'How big a failure was Sunil, then? Funny how it is such failures who are condoled by Presidents and chief ministers as losses to the nation even today, isn't it?'

Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards. This is another post which I would designate as 'essential reading for our times'. The post is very beautiful indeed-and raises some very troubling questions,Sir. This essay questions our adopted yardsticks of measurement, and points out the fact that subtle discernment is not our species' forte any more. Money is definitely a means to an end, the end being public and private welfare. But now,Sir, money seems to be an end in itself. As a result,economic malpractices are rife in organizations, and unscrupulous means are adopted by most individuals to possess this commodity- In a world like ours, where the masses are being fed on a diet of glitz,glamour,gloss and the media has managed to subliminally plant this damning message, "If you don't have this, and that,and the other; you sadly ain't worth much..". We now know the price of everything and the value of nothing. If money is the only standard of measurement, of value, then this world is looking at an impending dystopian, nihilistic future- where stock indexes are the only truths we shall live for, and ultimately,where any questions,if any,have little meaning if not economically quantifiable. This world would be a very bleak and sad place indeed.
I agree with you in totality,Sir, when you point out that the healthy pursuit of money should be one of the major concerns of an individual's life. Religion,thinking,and indeed most cerebral processes cannot be performed on an empty stomach- Money is a means to this end indeed. But, we have replaced our values, and shifted the index of worth from worthwhile pursuits to solely material commodities. I think herein lies the major problem,Sir- A moral erosion of values,being taught to prize all the wrong items,and a neural false dream propagated by the media, 'If you have everything you want, you shall be happy forever..". In this constantly changing world,that is perpetually in a state of flux, even two moments are not similar- It is our thinking that joins all these moments into one continuous frame. Thinking about the ultimate questions proffers no value to our 'market societies', so we discard them at the drop of a hat. Actually,Sir,we are just like the tipsy drinker,the businessman archetypes so beautifully depicted by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in his little gem 'The little Prince'. Indeed,Sir,we do not know why we seek the things we do seek. We do not ever ask the right questions-so how can we expect the right answers from Life?
I believe,Sir,if Viktor Frankl's novel, "Man's search for Meaning" had been made compulsory reading for our times, maybe we would start re-thinking our value-systems, and wake up to the reality of the world. If money could buy everything, it would be such a poor world indeed- A world of rich predators, and starving masses, poisoned by hope and killed off by reality.

With best wishes,

Sayan Datta said...

Dear Suvro Sir,

I am afraid I can't speak eruditely on matters concerning economics; yet I have two things to say here -

First - thanks to you I see no conflict in being socially useful, working for work's sake and making good money. That dichotomy is now resolved as far as I am concerned. It is a typical bengali sentiment as you had said and of little practical value. In a sense, not making money cleanly and healthily when opportunity presents itself to those who are good as human beings and assiduous and talented is simply, plainly wrong; if only because it sets a wrong precedent; especially so in a world where everyone is set on making money by hook or by crook adopting all means possible that are contrary to the conscience.

The second is - I can see how money is becoming the measure of everything. Soon the most talented people on this planet will be the ones having the maximum amount of money, and those who are really naturally endowed with superior abilities will slip into oblivion. The world will become barren then...when people like Sachin Tendulkar and Vijay Mallya and Anna Hazare will become more important than Satyajit Ray or Mahatma Gandhi and people will forget the essential goodness of man and fail to recognize those who do good to the world "even if in a very humble capacity"

Thank you for the post, Sir.

Rashmi Datta said...

Dear Sir,

This post is indeed an essential reading for all of us. This is a dark and disgusting age where nothing matters except money and power. I have seen people becoming sycophants of illiterate thug-turned-politicians, hailing big jewelry shop owners as ‘great’ people and treating the unlucky, poor beggar with contempt. As a rule, such people are incapable of talking about history or literature or philosophy. On learning that there are many tribal communities who get very annoyed on being filmed or photographed by tourists who visit their home land, one of my students scorned at them saying “What do they think about themselves?”. According to him, only people with smart phones and i-pads have a right to privacy and dignity. I then made a futile attempt to explain to him why he was wrong. But, he could not understand why they shouldn’t be treated like sub-humans!

Most people are so dumb and foolish these days that they do not even know who has real money. Most of them think that a private tutor earns a few thousand rupees with difficulty and that software engineers are ‘rich’. In the context of the pursuit of wealth, you stand as a role model for all of us who can think and ‘see’, Sir. In spite of earning much more than IIT-IIM pass outs can ever think of, far from showing off in public, you are so careful about spending money and so earnest about saving and giving away money in charity. You have always inspired us to do good work and aim at increasing our income at the same time- an idea which very few Indian parents are able to understand and believe to be possible.

This post also explains completely why you always insist that even the most competent technician should be allowed to call himself educated only when he has a thorough grounding in humanities. Thank you for this post, Sir.

Warm regards

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you for the kind words, Rashmi.

I should be glad to see evidence that some people have actually read the essay I had linked, and reflected upon it.

I have been hearing from quite a few 'Calibans' lately (see my blogpost titled 'A riot of Calibans'). One way they prove helpful to me is as illustrative material for my classes, when I want to discuss the stupidity and coarseness of supposedly educated people - one of my perennially favourite themes!

santanu Chatterjee said...

Well, this post is really more spine chilling than thought provoking. Not much thought provoking because i can see, feel and realise it everywhere and every moment. But to know that it is not only deeply rooted but so systemic that it has even got a new term "market society" is what send shivers down ones' spine. The vulgar display of wealth, the shameless non payment of credit card by 99% of card holders and vanishing and boasting about it, the reason behind the anger on politicians(simply because they do not have the brains to indulge in that volume of fraud) all can be explained by this notorious theory. But what is the reason behind it?
Are people behaving in this manner because everyone wants to be part of the mob where one's own good sense is simply booted down or have they been brought up like this from their childhood or both?
But i think it will be a gross generalisation to include all and everyone in this culture. I have observed this behaviour is more obvious in certain segments of society and certain regions. And they have always been self defeating. I do not want to sound regionalist but notice that in our country the economically most developed regions are the ones that have not been caught into the grip of "market society". Here let me tell you I do not know for how long this will be true, as this market society is a very contagious disease and is spreading like epidemic as i have observed in the city where i have been staying for past 14 years. In the same breath, may i add that the people who are actually making money have also not fallen in the same trap. For the simple reason they know, that to although everything can be commodified, market(or more appropriately bazaar) itself cannot be bought or created using money.

aranibanerjee said...

I have read this post after a while and my apologies for it.
This is a point so subtle that it impresses with its economy. The subtlety of significant thought lies in its drawing the limits of influence and then delving deep and well beyond the surface of the circle of influence.
This post is not about the evils of money making but of the limits that money making should have. A restaurant ought to charge you for the food it serves you and not for safe drinking water. Walk into any star-studded restaurant and the waiter will ask you to choose between bottled and regular water. Does he insist that his hotel serves infected water to those who cannot afford an over priced bottle of water? No. He is trying to sell water by scaring you. This continues in every sphere of life. There is a term for it, an over-used term that one-time commies like me used 'fetishism'. I am sure all of us know about it.
This is an age of selling whether or not people want to buy. The other day my mother went to a jeweler's shop sporting a jute bag on which she had stitched designs. I could not believe for my life that this was not FabIndia or something. We are so used to buying anything that looks good that we are unwilling to get them otherwise. Even water.
There was a time when people like my mother made things because they liked doing as much. My mother's aunt, the mother of a now-famous politician, was great at making 'balaposh'--a wrap made of used clothes. When I first met her at her tiny flat in Palm Avenue, she gave it to my mother so that I did not catch cold. I still have it--it replicated a Naga design. A look-alike made haphazardly costs a bomb at a local urban-village in Delhi. We will continue to pay for everything and anything--right from phulkaris to safe drinking water, from used books to ill-made tea because we have destroyed our homes and families. We have dumped our shared lives and resources, each one of us as a Robinson Crusoe with the credit card as our man Friday.
A market floods into our lives the moment we cease to spend time for each other. We no longer have the time to cook a simple meal after a hard day's work. We don't have the time or the eagerness to house guests. My maternal grandfather would always have people come over from Bangladesh--people who weren't even relations. They went on to become great teachers, physicians or scientists.
How many of us would ever donate books to make a library? Dwarakanath Tagore was one of the earliest proprietors of a library called the Calcutta Public Library. It went on to become the National Library. One can go and read books over there for 'free.' It is one of the most delightful places to be in when one is in Calcutta. We are to eagerly to await the day when we monetize even this bit of glory.
The role of politics should be to check that people with lots of money do not have commensurate social power. This is something that a Marxist government or party claims to do at the cost of civil liberties and the right to dissent.
A healthy democratic society is one where limiting the influence of money over human values is not achieved by bigotry-- religious or Maoist. Instead, it is achieved by increased public spending on education, the pursuit of the arts and the sciences. And, it is done with honesty and without the intent of controlling thought and action that is not criminal. The right kind of politics is the politics of empowerment, allowing every kind of person to sustain a certain quality of life without becoming broke.
With warm regards,