The fracturing post-World War II equations showed through the plaster in 2011. The 63-year period from 1945 to 2008 will be remembered as the time when two dominant ideas about people and money, and how we choose to organize ourselves around these ideologies, died. One version delinked people from money; the other put money before people. The first collapse was in 1991 when the dominant interpretation of collectivism shattered the Soviet Union into 15 shards. The classless, moneyless, stateless, egalitarian society, which took from each according to his ability and gave to each according to his need, crumbled under the weight of authority and effort that was needed to impose something so state-centric and unnatural in place. Progress does get measured by money, and the severe scarcities and the dysfunctional economies of the Soviet bloc hastened the collapse—the delinking of people and money did not hold true.
But handing over the keys to the market caused another collapse, and 2008 was when the interpretation of individualism in the form of predatory capitalism began its death dirge when the US’ financial sector demonstrated what unregulated greed can do. This version of capitalism (which was not what Adam Smith envisaged) delinked risk from reward, made a section of labour behave like capital, and made governments subordinate to the transnational corporation. That version of capitalism, emboldened by the breakdown of communism, pushed for and got what were called “free” markets and “less” government. But markets, as was later found out, were not really free—but compromised by the 1% who held the levers of control to move the system. And move it they did, towards appropriating more and more for themselves.
Photo: Mohammed Hossam/AFP
If the last 63 years were played out like a film and we were Martians, the story must look like a giant laboratory where different shreds of ideology are picked up and experimented upon by groups of people. The Martians are now watching the chaos as the experimenters search for a new solution since the ones tried earlier did not work. The post-2008 years, as we watch, are years of confusion. The cacophony of ideas, opinions and solutions is matched by arguments in favour of or against these ideas, opinions and solutions. Some African countries wonder if a form of central command and control is not better than the dysfunctional democracies of the world—the examples of China, Singapore and Malaysia are used to argue this point. But the counter-argument comes from citizens living in dictatorships that spilled over into streets and squares in what is now called the Arab Spring. Even citizens in democracies were sufficiently unhappy to protest en masse. Corruption in India became the issue, as it did in Brazil. Inequality in the US occupied space both in the mind and on ground. Russians are right now protesting the Vladimir Putin regime. The 140-character message from across the world reads: We want less corruption. We want better distribution of wealth. We want more democracy. We want more freedom. We want to hold our heads high.
One country that is conspicuous by its absence in the list of vocal protest is China. This worries both China and the West. China—where spending on domestic security (police) rivalled the defence budget (armed forces) for the first time in 2010—is worried about a citizen’s revolution against central command and control—a Chinese Spring. The West worries that if Europe and the US were to go into a deep stagnation with their dysfunctional politics, will the Chinese model be the dominant one in the century to come. Both worries may just remain wrinkles. The Chinese authorities invited an Arab Spring expert to China to answer one question: can it happen here? An Arab Spring kind of a movement that ends in government overthrow and a change of regime needs three conditions today. One, is there free access to the Internet and are mobile telephones widely in use? Two, do citizens feel proud to be a citizen? Three, can a person who works hard have a reasonable chance of doing well? The Arab Spring happened because the first answer was “yes” and the second and third were “no”. The rallying cry in Egypt was not about money, but about dignity: “Raise your head up high, you’re Egyptian.” China, from this perspective, does have access to the technology, people are proud to be Chinese, and for a large mass of people, there is the chance to do better than before. On the other side, the pie has too much meat left on it for the powers in the West to allow it to crumble away. We may have a roller-coaster ride ahead, but the solution will be found.
Monika Halan, Editor, Mint Money
But the question of the moment is exactly that: what is the solution and how do we redefine the world in a new post-World War II reality? The new reality is that of a larger table with China, India, Brazil being the new large entities with an opinion and a stake. How do we want to organize ourselves, our people and our money? What is going to be the dominant ideology of the next 100 years? It is unlikely that mature democracies will allow themselves to regress into a central regime. It is unlikely that the extreme form of capitalism we saw play out in the last 30 years will last for very long. It is unlikely that Maoist communism will survive Twitter and smartphones. As citizens, we can hope that the model that emerges from this manthan (churning) is one that allows markets to work but in a framework created by the government with a long-term vision for the country, its people and the world based on the second part of the French credo of “liberty, equality, fraternity”. That countries have to be free of foreign rule is no longer in question. But we still struggle with the second part of the credo—equality. The world needs to figure out what kinds of equality we want and how do we want to go about institutionalizing it. And fraternity remains a goal for the future.