When statesmen speak like salesmen, when economists expound like evangelists, and business tycoons think like traders, it is time for lesser mortals to meditate. For all these are indicators that the markets have colonised the mind.
No wonder then, the President of the world’s most powerful democracy proudly talks about creating some 50,000 jobs, and the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy about not being in the business of stealing jobs. What ought to have been the language of corporate honchos is mouthed by heads of nations. These comments signify the rise to dominance of market fundamentalism.
Also Read Haseeb A Drabu’s earlier columns
Globalization has altered the intellectual landscape the world over. In India, since economic liberalization, it has steadily redefined and reprioritized the relationship between intellectuals and the society. With the market mindset beginning to structure the intellectual public sphere, there is a sharp, complex and often paradoxical change in the discourse on economic, political and social issues.
Market fundamentalism can be as damaging as political and religious fundamentalism. For it shapes more than just the economy; it also produces ideas, values, power and morality. More importantly, it has given birth to a new breed of intellectuals, who stride the political and social arena as well.
The market intellectual is educated, but not erudite; knowledgeable, but not enlightened; he thinks, but is not thoughtful; self-conscious but, not self-reflective. In terms of approach, he doesn’t create, but caters to the impulses in society. For him, critique is always laced with anger; difference of opinion is followed by antagonism. He doesn’t debate, he dissents. He isn’t inquisitive; he is judgemental.
With the emergence of the market intellectual, is it surprising that the daily movement of the Sensex occupies more of the national mental space than the decadal record of green field capacity creation in the economy? That weekly inflation numbers are more life threatening than the declining offtake at the public distribution system? That the quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) numbers hold more significance than the annual gross domestic capital formation figures?
A case in point is the current economic situation. Even as everyone is busy celebrating the highest ever peak of the Sensex, few notice the medium-term danger signals emanating from the debt markets. With virtually no credit off-take, liquidity is so skewed that bond yields have climbed to well over 8%. What the yields will be in six months and how that will impact growth don’t seem to bother anyone. Not even the banks that are gloating over the September quarter numbers generated by lower costs of deposits rather than business growth. With focus on the immediate, it is not surprising that a recovery is announced one week based on a quarterly GDP number, only to be replaced by the spectre of a double-dip recession the next week based on a blip in the fortnightly Index of Industrial Production (IIP).
This market mindset is becoming pervasive and is resulting in short-termism: Investors are living by the day, fund managers are churning by the month, companies are living by quarterly profits, and policymakers don’t look beyond half-yearly forecasts. What this translates into is long-term investments being replaced by short-term deployments; capacity utilization being preferred over capacity creation; debt restructuring replacing debt-raising, and so on.
It is interesting to see how the larger intellectual sphere is developing and social democracy and globalisation are being confronted at the thought leadership level. In the post-liberalisation period, the traditionally dichotomous categories of the dissident intellectual and the establishment intellectual have become irrelevant. Of late, there has been a restructuring of links between the state and the intellectuals: The latter are now open and willing to be part of the establishment. Be it the eminent Leftist economist Prabhat Patnaik, or the liberal thinker-entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani or the radical social activist Mihir Shah or right-wing economist Kaushik Basu, all have been absorbed in the government.
This seems to be leading to a situation wherein intellectuals engaged with contemporary India are sans ideology or supra ideology. This also gets reflected in the emergence and development of social activism as a substitute for political activism. Interestingly, social activism functions exactly half-way between the state and the market.
What makes all this of concern is neither metaphysical nor pedagogical; it is very practical. This kind of an intellectual vacuum existing and being produced at different levels limits economic choices, legitimates political illiteracy and rationalises social disempowerment. If market colonization extends from the individuals to the institutions, be these academic or policymaking ones, it will create a claustrophobic environment in which creative and critical thinking will be impossible. Left unaddressed, market fundamentalism is bound to change public values and the critical mindset of the argumentative Indian. It will impair the goal of inclusive development which presupposes enlightened civic responsibilities.
Haseeb A. Drabu is former chairman and chief executive of Jammu and Kashmir Bank. He writes on monetary and macroeconomic matters from the perspective of policy and practice. Comment at email@example.com