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Friday, April 15, 2016

Socialism calling, part two

I should clarify at the outset that I am not even trying to persuade those who will simply not listen: who, even if they agree (sometimes only inwardly) that much is wrong with the capitalist order, will never admit that there could be a possibility of improving things. This could be because they have benefitted too richly from the current system; they hope to benefit, even if the hope is very tenuous (so many engineer-drudges dreaming of becoming overnight startup-zillionaires, so many stockbrokers hoping to hit the pot of gold); they have been brainwashed into being brain dead (every ideology banks on a huge number of such people) or they are simply too frightened of any kind of serious change.

Secondly, I shall admit at the very start that much of the initial promises were very cruelly and hideously betrayed by the big and small experiments with socialism that were tried between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th, be it Robert Owen’s voluntary commune or Tolstoy’s farms or the USSR and PRC, leave alone tinpot regimes as in Vietnam, Cuba, Korea, Cambodia and so on. The reasons are too many, but I think the most important were a) the early leaders were too romantic, had too poor a grasp of basic human nature (or thought it was much more malleable than it really was), quarreled too much, and tried to change too many things too soon; b) later leaders (often the same ones as they grew older) invariably became mere despots, with little to distinguish them from dictators of the far right except in the rhetoric, whose fundamental aim was simply to hang on to power regardless of the social cost, and c) they all became straddled by slothful, apathetic, self-serving bureaucracies. It will not do to forget, either, that the entire capitalist world ganged up to ensure that they never got a chance to develop their own way in peace. I am not going to write a history lesson here, but do read up on the subject. If the US and Britain, then the dominant world powers, had helped rather than hindered (which is putting it mildly – ‘tried everything possible to destroy’ would be much closer to the truth) Lenin and Sun Yat Sen and later the young Mao, the world would have been a very different and, I dare say, much nicer place today. But of course that would be wishful thinking: how could they not do their utmost to destroy a system that was so great a challenge to their own legitimacy, so great a threat to their own survival?

Thirdly, about real world models. Yes, there are, and not a few. My vote goes to all those social-democracies which consistently rank not only among countries with the highest per capita incomes and human development index ranks, but are also among the highest achievers in terms of clean environments, low crime rates, affirmation of women’s rights, religious tolerance, comprehensive social security and attention to non-material needs. Whether it is Germany or France or Switzerland or Japan, whether it is the Scandinavian countries or Singapore or New Zealand (I should like to include Israel in this list, thanks to the legacy of the kibbutz movement), whether they formally call themselves socialist or not, they have managed to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of the US model and the Soviet model and attain the best possible standards of living as well as quality of life for the vast majority of their citizens. They are also relatively peaceful, ‘unexciting’, not-happening countries (at least they used to be until Islamic terrorism recently began to become a serious problem) – so you read much less about them than about what is happening in the US or India. Their super-rich pay very high taxes, they are not yet so crazed about the pop or techie cultures, but they also have virtually no beggars nor millions scrounging lifelong just to keep their heads above water – and their public facilities, be they sanitation or transport or libraries or child care, are way ahead of US standards, leave alone India’s. And yes, to my mind, that is as close to paradise as we have yet gotten anywhere. And they have achieved all this more or less democratically and with very little violence. They still have scope for improvement, but for the rest of us, why don’t we first get there? One thing is certain: it won’t happen by letting brazen capitalism rule. That is why I worry about India and China, which between them account for almost 40% of humanity: if they take the wrong way, as they seem to be doing, mankind is doomed.

So what is the kind of socialism that I envisage and look forward to? Well, if you have been reading closely, you have a fair idea of it already. It does not deny civil liberties, but keeps strict control over anti-social abuse of such liberties. It does not try to do away with capitalism, because it accepts that capitalism generates wealth – but it sternly guides capitalist urges (‘animal spirits’ in Keynes’ unforgettable words) in the direction of greater and broader social welfare, refusing to put wealth generation permanently over and above all other priorities: ‘the public use of private interests’, to quote the title of an essay once written by a prominent American economist. It will be a system where great private wealth and great inequality will be regarded, just like poverty, as crimes. It will be a state (yes, a state: I have never had any sympathy for anarchists) where the Constitution will spell out clear goals and limitations of government, and the political class will be a class of trained professionals, respected, well-paid, stringently monitored and assessed for performance, the way we expect, say, pilots and doctors to be: opportunists, mad ideologues, narrow-minded selfseekers and plain incompetents will be barred or quickly detected and weeded out. It would be a dispensation where education and policing alike will be oriented primarily towards making reasonable, decent, civic-minded citizens, those who have gradually become convinced that caring and sharing and non-violence make for a far better world than blind, compulsive, lifelong pursuit of self-interest and hedonism. It would be a society where bureaucracy really serves the public as the best private companies do, because their careers depend on that. It would be a society where children grow up persuaded that cultivating the four cardinal principles urged by the Buddha long ago – karuna, maitri, upeksha and mudita – would help all of us far more to live better than cramming a lot of physics, chemistry, math and ‘managerial techniques’, or shopping and partying as if there would be no tomorrow simply because they have never learnt of better things to do. Above all, it will be a society which does away with the false egalitarianism of both the traditional right and left, and distinguishes between the common and the great on the basis not of wealth and muscle and looks and notoriety but in terms of mental attributes alone – remembering that being a mathematical wizard is not the same thing as being a great mind (Bertrand Russell was both, and knew the vital difference) – distinguishes not to humiliate the common, but to prevent them from trying all the time to pull the great down to their own level instead of respecting them and trying to better themselves. As to what I mean by great, look up the relevant chapter in To My Daughter.

Which brings me to a most important point: I do not regard socialism as a purely economic ideal. It must be able to give people a spiritual meaning to life – something that both traditional capitalist and socialist societies fail to do. People in the mass need gods: always done, always will do unless they mutate genetically. In the absence of a true God, they will worship baser and often sick things, such as fuehrer and nation and dialectical materialism, the free market or movie icons or football stars or beer. In this matter, I believe, most capitalist societies, being at least nominally democratic, have done better by practising secularism, meaning that they have tolerated if not encouraged all kinds of faiths, including faithlessness, as long as they do not violently quarrel with one another or otherwise break the laws seriously. But religion sits uncomfortably with a worldview that insists that money-making and self-aggrandizement, even if that calls for turning one’s eyes ruthlessly away from all kinds of suffering and cultivating contempt for all human activity that cannot be turned to commercial profit, are the only real ideals. To quote Tagore again, in most western countries (and now in all countries which have been blindly aping the west, such as ours), it has been church on Sundays, and business as usual the rest of the week. That leads to warped, confused and discontented lives. We need to do better.

Mind you, when I think of a spiritually oriented life, I am neither keen nor insistent that people have to subscribe to some kind of formal organized religion at all, leave alone believe in a traditional God. I don’t myself (some of the religions I have very great respect for, like Jainism and Buddhism, either explicitly deny God or discourage any discourse on the subject among laymen, and the kind of ‘religion of Man’ that Tagore aspired to visualize and practise lifelong, inspired by the sufi and baul traditions, does not insist on any formal God beyond the jeevan devata or moner manush). By spiritual, I mean living as if I have non-material needs too – and that, beyond a certain point (getting adequate air, water, food, shelter, rest and medical care when I am ill), they are far and away the more important needs. Living a good life means having something great and good to live for, not just endlessly indulging my animal appetites to ‘have fun’ – it is a very sick world where people are constantly trying to have fun because they are empty inside, and whole industries are devoted to it. Living for love and not just for sex (without being frigid or puritanical, of course), to cite one example; studying to understand, enjoy and reflect, not just to get a job, to cite another; preferring a good quiet conversation with one or two good friends to partying with a crowd of noisy, silly, half-drunk near-strangers; doing charity with the conviction that it is good for my own soul; pursuing hobbies like art and music and rearing pets and nurturing gardens because they keep you fit in body and mind and make you feel good in relatively inexpensive, socially harmless ways; avoiding all excess in thought, word and deed because one knows it is BAD for everyone including oneself. A spiritual person will not lie or steal or gossip; he will not regard dressing up as an important daily activity; he will not fake emotions; he will not take up an essentially bad job merely because it pays well, whether that means burglary or conning people into buying things they don’t need or cooking news. A spiritual person will always try very hard not to use other human beings merely as instruments to further his personal well-being, but instead deal with everyone – however large the number he has to deal with – as if each of them individually matters, counts for something (it goes without saying that – I am thinking of teachers and doctors here, but this applies to many others – he will try to limit that number to what he can sanely deal with, day in, day out). A spiritual person must live for an ideal – and it goes without saying that something like merely building up a big business organization, however useful a pursuit in many ways, cannot be regarded as an ideal in the sense that building a monastic order could be. A spiritual person habitually tries to make a difference for the better (in non-trivial ways, not merely telling jokes, though I have great regard for good comedians) wherever he goes. He is someone who cultivates courtesy to all because it is good, not just because it helps to attract customers or helps to stay in the boss’ good books, and expects the same from all who deal with him. He is someone who cares for the future, because he cares (really cares, as few of us do) for his children and grandchildren.

What has all this got to do with socialism? Aren’t these all very personal things? Yes and no. These are all very personal attributes, true, but they flourish or wither given the kind of social ambience in which a man has to live and function, and I dream of a social order where all these personal attributes will be publicly lauded and encouraged, their opposites held up to contempt, ridicule and institutionalized discouragement. It will help a very great deal to construct such a society where most men do not feel compelled to run after money to the exclusion of everything else most of the time, where consumption beyond essential needs is no longer regarded as either necessary or admirable, and where both poverty and extreme material inequality have been done away with. In such a world a lot of people will feel more inclined to live good lives, and those who are naturally inclined that way will find it easier to live.

Do I have some hope that the world will evolve towards such a happy situation? A little, yes. Firstly because the best people I have known, in person and through books, have dreamt such a dream. Secondly because some countries have gone very far in that direction already, and many others are tentatively following in their footsteps (despite all the rhetoric against it, government expenditure as a proportion of GDP, to use just one crude measure of social control, has grown relentlessly over almost the entire postwar era even in the US, supposedly the Mecca of capitalism). Thirdly because a lot of people, even if they are not very erudite or deep thinkers, are feeling that all is not well with the world, that it needs a big change. Fourthly because I have some faith in the herd instinct: as soon as a small but influential minority of leaders (in politics, education, business, social work and art of diverse kinds) start determinedly showing the way, the rest follow, and very soon they develop new habits, and then start believing that things were always that way (few Europeans these days can imagine how unclean or how violent their ancestors were just a few generations ago; few middle class Indians today can imagine how their ancestors could live happily yet so much more frugally just forty years ago). Fifthly because things as they are can’t go on for much longer: something is bound to give, by way of war or environmental disaster or something we cannot yet imagine. And lastly because if I cannot hold on to a dream of a better world, what is the point of living any more? I have seen life as it is, and people as they are, and it has left me deeply disappointed, even disgusted. Yet I shall not commit the ultimate sin of losing faith in Man… children keep being born, and surely they cannot be deluded and misguided forever?

P.S., April 22: A newspaper as shallow and as brazenly committed to neo-capitalism as The Telegraph of Kolkata published this editorial on April 10, two days after I wrote the previous blogpost. Sheer meaningless coincidence, this bhooter mukhey raam naam?


Navin said...

Dear Sir,
This is a great post as usual. I completely agree with the ideals you espouse for. However, don't you think that the social democracies you mention about in your post are a result of an extremely tumultuous past where there was a cumulative gain of conciousness that chasing after rabid materialism is unnecessary and it is only in the lap of socialism that capitalism is fun. I think the shortest way to a socialist system is to accelerate the pains of capitalism, or as you rightly point out, some great calamity to take place, either social or environmental. I would not have believed even 2 years back that a candidate like Bernie Sanders is a serious threat to Clinton. I guess America is slowly waking up to the perils of unbridled capitalism. Can the government in India do something either by legislation or by outreach to stem the tide in india towards aping the west?
With Regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for commenting so promptly, Navin. Evidently you had been waiting :)

Nice coinage, too: 'it is only in the lap of socialism that capitalism is fun'. I shall remember it.

About your question, I don't really know. Did the Scandinavian countries or Switzerland or New Zealand have a tumultuous and painful past from which they learnt good and lasting lessons? But yes, I do think that traumatic experiences are needed for most people to learn good lessons: I myself have written that 'some people need Auschwitz and Hiroshima to sober up'.

As for how much Bernie Sanders has made a difference, it is still too early to say. But without doubt he has pulled the political discourse much farther to the left than it would have been thought possible twenty years ago - and I definitely regard that as a good sign.

Re. your last question, I very much doubt it. The government in India, dominated by the urban middle class (ironically, much of it fattened on the benefits of Nehruvian socialism via public sector employment, whose children have turned out to be its most strident critics!), has too few good role models. We shall learn things, if at all, through major crises...


Shilpi said...

Thank you for both your posts on Socialism, Suvro da. I was re-collecting a few of my most embarrassing moments (although there have been many) of defending individualism/capitalism and Ayn Rand and a few of my best moments (one of them being getting letters on socialism and capitalism, ‘My Master’s Word’, among other writings, and running off to read them on the Purdue lawns – some 14 years ago although it doesn’t feel that far back). You pointed and painted out the real picture to me and I’ve never gone back to wearing blinders.

Your concluding lines remind me of Tagore’s sentiment about faith in Man and about the birth of children (you mentioned it in one of your 2012 blogposts). I’ve also got to thank you for answering one of my questions from three and a half years ago. I’d been wanting to know for a lot longer – and here you’ve answered it in part: “what does being ‘spiritual’ mean to you?” I think in part it's spread out across To My Daughter and your other writings. I don’t think that people even in the Scandinavian countries and the other ones have consciously considered these non-tangible aspects.

I can’t help but think from the way you’ve outlined your vision of socialism that it goes against the way many others have visualized it and put it into practice. This is what I’d said 14 years ago. My biggest grouch against it from twenty years ago had been that the ideology seemed to not only believe that all men are equal or can be equal but that they can even be considered to be equal by others. It used to bother me not because I fancied that I was somebody great but I didn’t see any reason to imagine that great men could be compared to morons or even to nice but not great people but then capitalism as a system hasn't been any better really at labelling who is great. Next, is where you say that a person can earn ten or twenty times more (when all people make a decent livelihood within a nation) but not thousands or ten thousand times more. I remember what you said that Proudhon had said, ‘all property is theft’ and I know it’s true that most of the middle-class and upper middle-class (exceptions aside) continues to be the middle-class, the upper-middle or very rich simply because of the policy of protection and privilege and I remember one of your lines which goes to the effect of “…and what did they do apart from ‘choosing’ their parents carefully?” A couple of the original values of the capitalist ethic drawn from Calvin (as far as I remember): to be frugal and not to waste have gone to waste for the most part. Folks could also do a google check and find out how closely the big corporations are connected to one another and look at the list of the Board of Directors and Chairmen and so on. It’s public information. It rings connected bells about wealth control, the size of the pie they control and the horrible inequalities because of the capitalist system itself.

Shilpi said...

If capitalism has been successful at wealth generation – it has been utterly hopeless at wealth distribution and that is where you’ve especially hit a raw nerve. Capitalist supporters would much rather mumble about that or talk about how a poor child can now use a particular brand of toothpaste and feel happy about it (there really was a person who said that at a conference) or something equally inane. Even basic crops, vegetables and prepared food are wasted and thrown away in the wealthiest countries of the world and in India either to keep the prices in place or because of purported lack of adequate distribution methods. We can send astronauts to outer space in rockets but of course we must believe that we don’t have adequate food distribution methods on Earth to feed starving people or the very poor: and if we really don’t (which I cannot believe), shouldn’t we ask ‘why not?’ I used to show a documentary to students on wanton food wastage in the US and in a few countries on Europe but I couldn’t locate it on youtube.

The supporters of capitalism apart from seething for reasons you’ve mentioned in your first paragraph still think or like to imagine that the poor are poor because they don’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps or because they genuinely think somewhere inside that Vivekananda is just as worthy or probably less than any hack who comes up with a new app or some toy (why would people hail Steve Jobs as a ‘great’ man for Christ’s sake!). I don’t think they want to understand why terrible inequality is morally wrong or even that terrible inequality is not to be measured by whether my maid and I use a similar phone (which we did till a couple of months ago…): it would make sense to see whether she receives a decent wage, whether she and her family have adequate health-care, decent shelter, education facilities, and whether she gets work leave and so on. Even in the US, hired help for housework is very expensive or at least was until they had legal and illegal immigrants working at very low wages and sometimes below minimum wage. Also, maybe it would help the capitalist supporters to know a bit of basic Marx in how deeply the economic foundation of a society affects the collective values of a society. Capitalism depends on producing more and more goods and so consumerism gets to be just one of the manifest values which is imbibed by the masses. I had argued, disagreed and claimed that values shape a society including its political and economic base but in reality the picture is there for all to see.

You mentioned this in TMD and it’s something that I made myself unpopular with many years ago when I’d talk about population control. The matter of population control doesn’t go well with socialists. They see it as some sort of an imperialist Eurocentric imposition. I like to hope still that maybe a cataclysm can be avoided. The way you’ve painted the socialist world and with the spiritual tenet – it would solve the value and price issue you raised in one of your blogposts, wouldn’t it? I’ll end my terribly long comment here. Thank you very much for writing.

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

First, thank you for writing such a brilliant essay. In a world that we currently live, socialism has become an evil word and is oft maligned. I completely agree with you that socialism is not and should not be about pure Economics only, it is much beyond that.

Briefly, I will share some of my observations about New Zealand. New Zealand is a very small country and hence despite having a centre/right Government for last eight years, socialism is very much in practice here (whether people accept it or not!). In economic front, there are areas that receive Government support (not necessarily control!), but more importantly there is tremendous recognition by the people to ensure that society functions in a civil manner. To give you an example, in New Zealand, Department of Conservation (a Government body) are a very “busy” government agency charged with conserving New Zealand’s natural and historic heritage. However, since the country’s residents also consider it is their responsibility to ensure that the natural habitats are taken care of a significant amount of the work undertaken by DOC is done by volunteers. This includes planting trees, cleaning parks, beaches and much more. I have never seen so many people (as I have met here) who actually work for their country rather than “show-off” their patriotism on Facebook!

My son spent his early child-hood in a Playcentre (http://www.freemansbayplaycentre.org.nz/) from the time he was just about one. Playcentre is entirely run by mothers/ fathers/ grandfathers (volunteers) with Government support and limited contributions from families. Beyond the monetary contributions, families contribute their time to run the institute. Running means literally everything! Not only did they run the institutes, but they did trainings (undertaken by experts) in the evening to understand how to deal with pre-schoolers. It was quite a hectic job believe me but to do that without any monetary benefits is to me “socialism” in practice.

I can give many such examples out here.

Does that mean, there are no poor people here? That is not the case unfortunately. Among OECD countries, NZ’s poverty rate is quite high and there is a reason for that. As you have noted, there is abuse of privileges going on here as well, where some people choose not to get into work-stream and rely solely on doles. That is a major issue here. There are also burglaries and crime. It is not perfect at all, but still there are avenues where socialism can be seen in practice.

However, in summary, I believe it is respect for fellow humans, animals, and nature is what society requires. NZ is a very slow-moving country that is why, since these things require lot of sensitivities. The salary rates are not that high here, there are lot of difficulty to find an appropriate job owing to a small sized market but then if you want to do something for the society or nature there is always something for you to do. Choice is on the individual.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Good that you wrote, Shilpi: it reminded me of a lot of things I have been trying to teach for a very long time. Yes, one very big complaint against capitalism right from the beginning was how much it wastes, on how enormous a scale. Another was that it was based on private property, and while I have always agreed that traditional socialists made a very big mistake by imagining that the desire for some was not deeply ingrained in the human psyche, I also vehemently believe that all large properties grow out of plain theft or fraud or force or just plain luck, so there is nothing either good or sacrosanct about enormous private properties - it is one thing to say every man should own at least a humble house, quite another to say that every man has a 'natural right' to oil wells, or patents that rake in billions a year. That is allowed only by a social contract, which is forged by historical circumstances, and therefore can and ought to be changed. And I am glad that you brought up Calvin and the original Protestant ethic that fuelled much of early capitalism: how history has been forgotten, how horrified those who feature on 'Lifestyles of the rich and famous' would be to learn where they came from! As for values and what Marx said, that millions of people who have never read biographies regard Steve Jobs as a 'great' man and Shahrukh Khan as God is telling proof how the capitalist infrastructure overwhelmingly determine the value superstructure for most people if not all, isn't it?

Tanmoy, thank you for the comment. You will be pleased to know that it is essentially because of the inputs I received from you over the years that I included New Zealand in my list of near-ideal states. And thanks for the latest tips: I think you have realized exactly what I mean by saying a good socialist state should encourage people to be more spiritual. Not performing rituals and ringing bells and killing people of other religions, but caring and sharing much more (explicitly not in the sick nyakaa sense in which the typical Bengali mother so mocked by Tagore cares for and permanently cripples her son), and bothering much less about looks and shopping and partying because we have been taught of far better things to care about.

Aakash said...

Dear Sir,

It took a while for both the posts on socialism to settle in. It packs in a lot and, I dare say, reads like the work of a seasoned political philosopher!
To begin with, capitalism and the present. I think it is fairly well established now that there are no free economies. Why would governments bail out banks after the great crash, otherwise. It is through movements like Occupy that 'elected' democratic governments are forced to consider the voice of the 99% who take the trouble to vote for them. A relative from the US mentioned how Sanders has been sidelined by the mainstream media in the country. In the light of this I feel that both Trump and Hilary have to accommodate voices from the socialist camps.
It was interesting to note that you brought up the role of ‘techies’—the technologists and the ‘managers’. It has been an undercurrent in your writing on other issues as well. A recurring problem with this group is that they don’t seem to be questioning the work they are doing. Nor do they seem to be aware about the larger ends of their labour. It is all fine to say that you are being a ‘good worker’, contributing to the organisation’s growth, and so on. However, they never seem to attach any value judgements to their own work, while moralizing about the politicians and the society they live in. I think your idea of spiritualism is indeed a necessity. We as a people have to realize that the larger aims of society is also beyond material things.
To drift from the topic a little, I recently came across the work of David Runciman, who calls democracy 'the science of muddling through'. He mentions that about 120 countries in the world have adopted, or have been made to adopt, democracy. In theory, it promises a lot, but on the ground it is a series of negotiations between interest groups. I feel that such negotiations hold the key to ensuring a more social character of democracy. Socialism or socialist ideas do play a key role in making governments more accountable, in preventing them from being just police states, or power monopolists.
I don’t think that socialism was ever ‘defeated’ with the fall of the USSR, as most capitalists claim. A free and fair society can never be an antithesis to the idea of the commonwealth, and, as you have rightly mentioned, in different forms even today.
Thank you for making the classroom come alive again!