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!