Back to serious writing again.
This time I am going to write at some length about some of my political and economic views.
Let me start off by saying that I am a socialist, albeit of the liberal/democratic persuasion, and I remain committed to the ideal, despite all the history of horror I have read, the failed experiments, the legions of loonies and perverts it has always attracted, and all the black comedy – ‘In capitalism, man exploits man. In socialism, it’s just the reverse’, ‘Socialism is the longest and most tortuous route from capitalism to capitalism’ and that sort of thing. I do believe that, with some essential corrections, it remains the only hope for our long-term survival and civilization. And I am glad that with barely four decades of late-capitalist triumphalism (dating from the death of Mao ze Dong, the rise of the Thatcher-Reagan consensus in the Anglo-Saxon world and the demise of the Soviet Union – it all happened within just fifteen years!), the world is already feeling it’s time to give a hearing again to voices that convey a common message of sanity, voices as diverse as Jane Goodall (see the interview in the March 2016 issue of Reader’s Digest) and Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis – voices that say, essentially, that you cannot have infinite growth in a finite world, that obsessive materialism is a serious sickness, that greed is not good and glorious, that the 95% of the human population that will never be rich matters, that ‘trickle-down’ is neither civilized nor necessarily our best bet for progress, and that only children (of all ages) and men with vested interests believe technology can solve all our problems, so we don’t need politics.
First off, there are a lot of people (especially among those below forty) who simply don’t know that socialism arose once upon a time (mid-19th century onwards) as a ‘cure’ for all the sickness that unbridled capitalism brought about, and no matter what the naysayers claim, all the nominally ‘capitalist’ countries from the US to Britain, Germany and Japan became more civilized because they were forced to make wide-ranging reforms in the face of the huge socialist threat – by way of legislation in favour of the weak and poor (right to form unions, minimum wages, humane working conditions, etc etc), income- and wealth tax on the rich, publicly supported health care and education and infrastructure building (transport, subsidized housing, water supply, sanitation and sewerage, street lighting), pensions, insurance, unemployment allowances, child care … the list is endless. This point bears repetition: the chances that without the socialist challenge to handle all these countries would have taken all such progressive steps on their own are small enough to be laughable: anyone who doubts that only needs to read about the early Poor Laws in the UK, the tragedy of the Paris Commune, the writings of Dickens, Steinbeck, Sinclair and Llewellyn or even Frederick Forsyth (The Dogs of War), John Grisham (The Street Lawyer, The Testament), or Jeffrey Archer’s priceless short story The grass is greener, the movies of Charlie Chaplin, and the kind of political resistance that FDR faced while trying to push through the New Deal to kill the demon called The Great Depression in the 1930s. Indeed, as soon as the great socialist threat retreated in the 1980s, all the above countries, dominated by rampant and unrepentant capitalists once more, have to a greater or less extent started rolling back all the privileges hard won by the not-rich over a century and a half, so that unemployment and poverty and gross inequality have started demonstrably ballooning again everywhere, and Everyman is in many ways less well off and safe than his grandfather was. If that is not a shame, what is? Ignorance is a great evil, willful blindness even worse.
Despite honourable exceptions who have made vast charitable contributions to public welfare (but that too was often done to assuage bad consciences, mind you, as with Alfred Nobel, or because otherwise death duties and inheritance taxes would take away big chunks of their fortunes anyway, as with the likes of Bill Gates – did you know that? Honestly?), your average capitalist (and I have read hundreds of biographies, seen hundreds in real life up close) is only ugly, coarse, greedy and utterly uncaring about the common weal, his credo being ‘I’ll make money by hook or by crook, stop me if you can’ – whether it be through flesh trading or drug running or organizing oil cartels or protection rackets or fixing stock markets or exploiting monopolies or bilking banks of vast sums in the name of doing business (they call them non-performing assets in India, it’s grown into a mountain – and the skunks accuse politicians of feathering their nests while using the same politicians to make and protect all that easy and dirty money!), denuding forests and decimating wildlife in order to live the high life. They do legitimate business for humble profits and for the common good only if that is the only avenue for money-making available (and that is why the need for social control arises); they much prefer Ponzi schemes if they can get away with it. What most people don’t know or forget is that the so-called father of modern apologists for laissez-faire capitalism, Adam Smith himself no less, wrote ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices’! And Jeff Bezos as a slave driver could put a lot of 19th century robber barons to shame: only the current ambience allows him to boast about it!
Secondly – this is the best kept secret – capitalists and their ‘ism’ cannot even survive without socialism of a certain degree. Everywhere the police and the lawcourts exist primarily for their protection. Governments, even in nominally ‘free-enterprise’ countries, fund the kind of education and research and infrastructure that allows capitalist enterprise to flourish (the roads are always built and maintained by governments, while private businessmen make the cars!), yet social control (bureaucracy by another name) gets unrelentingly bad press. Most tellingly, businessmen are gung-ho about ‘free’ enterprise only when the going is good – when bad times come, they are the first to scurry for governmental protection and revival measures, though, they claim, it is always only in the interest of the larger common weal. Between 1929 and 2008, the pattern hasn’t changed. Just wait for the next recession/depression to loom on the horizon…
Thirdly, capitalism, while all the time claiming to encourage creativity and competition, egalitarianism and efficiency, actually runs counter to all the above claims in a lot of different ways: always done. For one thing, it fosters a global outlook of ‘every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost’. That is not competition, it's called dogfighting. Not good for the prospects for civilization, given that honesty, moderation, genuine cooperation (not just to make some money!), fellow feeling and altruism are things that civilization can’t do for long without. For another, it cultivates an obsession with buying things – masses of often trivial or even completely useless things (gold wc-s, diamond studded watches, hundreds of pairs of shoes that often never get worn, surgery to ‘improve your smile’, birthday bashes for kids in luxury resorts, motorbikes fitted with car engines) – just buying them and accumulating them and flaunting them, not even enjoying the use of them (changing phones once every few months) – and with working like maniacs and/or stealing/cheating right and left to make money to the exclusion of all other possible goals in life (love, justice, art, literature, music, charity, real sport for the fun of it, caring for animals, science for the purpose of knowing rather than just manipulating for profit, philosophizing, without which we are just highly sophisticated beasts) so that one can keep on buying things, the whole thing being justified by the insane argument ‘how else will the economy keep running?’ (as though humans must live and die so the economy can keep running, instead of the other way round. Tagore used to say religion must exist for mankind, not the reverse. How true that has become for the capitalistic system!).
It rapes nature to extract every possible resource she can provide for our ‘development’. At one time – for a very long time – that might really have been good for us, all mankind living so close to destitution most of the time. Now that a billion people are seriously obese, and the land and air and water so polluted, and we already produce so much that if things were shared out a little more fairly nobody would have to know grinding poverty at all (again, did you know that?), and we know that it hurts and ruins so many lives, do we have to carry on forever instead of looking for something better?
Next, think of the inequality I keep talking about. First, let us accept that in capitalism it is inevitable – we might debate whether the poor get poorer or not, but there’s no doubt at all that the rich keep getting richer. That is because the system is rigged in favour of the rich – firstly, because the employers and top management are allowed vastly higher earnings than the average employee, secondly because they pay proportionately much less in taxes (I have this on the authority of Warren Buffett), thirdly because they are allowed to leave huge fortunes to their progeny, and worst of all, because the mega-rich acquire power to manipulate the entire machinery of lawmaking and governance in their own (increasingly anti-social) interest. Now I am no subscriber to ideas of absolute equality: in fact I strongly support a dispensation where one man may earn ten or twenty times another (provided the other gets at least a living wage) – a surgeon compared to a ward boy, for instance, a general manager compared to a clerk, a senior lawyer compared to a trainee – but thousands, even tens of thousands of times? If that is not obscene, what is? You really believe that Lionel Messi is so much more ‘valuable’ than, say, Einstein or Florence Nightingale, Mukesh Ambani than any of his engineers? How well does the much vaunted ideal of egalitarianism sit with this state of affairs, either? Who but a fool argues that a tycoon and his chauffeur have become ‘more equal’ because they both have smartphones?
Consider some other social ramifications of this order of things. For one thing, if you remember that beyond basic needs all material wants are largely social constructs (you want them because they are being constantly advertized, and your neighbours have got them already), it creates an atmosphere where most people are always unhappy, not because they are starving, but merely because they are not making enough money as compared to people they know (and nothing is ever enough – I have heard that in contemporary Silicon Valley the man who makes a mere million dollars a year and has a Merc in the garage of his four bedroom fully airconditioned house complete with swimming pool, which puts him among the richest 0.001% of the human population, feels miserably poor because so many of his neighbours make more than a hundred million). It makes for a world where people are mostly motivated by three of the lowest human instincts – jealousy, fear and greed. It talks about people being ‘appropriately rewarded’ for their talents, guts and dogged hard work, but funnily enough, apparently it’s only businessmen who ‘need’ to be rewarded on such a bloated, monstrous scale: so many other people, from soldiers to teachers to zoo keepers, seem to be able to do very good work without! And who will ever explain to me how the spouses and children of successful entrepreneurs, very often the most despicable and useless specimens of humanity, ‘deserve’ such wealth, glamour and power? Besides, in this atmosphere most children from the lower and middle classes grow up into adults convinced beyond repair that there cannot be any goal in life other than making money, no way of measuring success other than by the money one makes – who cares how it is made? And what is sillier and more hypocritical in this social atmosphere than beating our collective breasts every now and then over why so many people are turning to crime and corruption to make money?
Imagine what that is doing to the social need for judges and policemen, teachers and writers and environmentalists, nurses and every other kind of care giver! See what it is doing to education, when people have become increasingly convinced that it has no purpose other to train youngsters in ways of making money, and to the book publishing trade and universities and hospitals, now that they are being increasingly run by ‘managers’ with specializations in sales and finance, who don’t give a damn what the ‘product’ is, shaving blades or hotels, condoms or music. And what it is doing to social tastes, when the only kind of ‘artist’ who ‘succeeds’ is one who performs like a demented monkey on stage in sartorial states far more vulgar than mere nudity (think everything from Madonna’s ‘style’ to SRK doing the lungi dance), given that humans in the large have the greatest appetite for piggery, and that is what capitalism under a democratic-consumerist dispensation most encourages and provides for, simply because it is most profitable, and there cannot be a higher god than Profit!
Finally, look at what this ‘false consciousness’, to use Marx’s once-famous phrase, is doing to culture and manners. Everything has now become commodified and put on sale, from pleasure to marital relationships to the human body itself (I won’t even waste time talking about how feminism, and the great real need for it, has been derailed by the virus of consumerism: I know a lost cause when I see one). And I have to deal day in, day out with creatures who, because they have learnt to chew gum, wear jeans, speak pidgin English and own cars, imagine they have the ‘right’ to talk to me as an equal, though they have brains the size of peas, and slightly less ‘talent’ than some pet dogs I have seen. In the absence of social restrictions of the sort ours was the last generation to be taught (it used to be called civility) only the fear of my tongue keeps them in their places. My favourite old boys will know exactly what I am talking about.
Any sane reader – by which I mean anyone who feels we are not living in the best of all possible worlds – will of course be entitled to ask questions. I can anticipate several: is there really an alternative? Can socialism work? Hasn’t it proved to be a big disappointment, sometimes in horrifying ways? Are there real-world models I can recommend? I believe I can answer every one of them reasonably and with some hope. About that, in the next post. This one is already getting too long and dense for the average reader reared on comic books and twitter…