Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Opinion | In an age of uncertainty, what will be the next big turn?

The trajectory of human progress, driven too much by narrow-minded pursuit of economic growth, must be changed

Democracy is imperiled, as 2019 rolls in, with the rise of authoritarianism, divisiveness within societies, the deterioration of public discourse (aggravated by social media), and assaults on freedom of speech in many countries, including India.

Capitalism seems to be shaking too. This newspaper has noted the number of books that have appeared in 2018 challenging the consensus on capitalism (Pankaj Mishra, Mint, 26 December 2018). Two earlier books provided a long-term view of the ideologies that have shaped economies and societies so far. They examined the systemic forces that are making the form of capitalism practised in the last 50 years no longer tenable. Their authors wisely avoided making predictions, which are not possible when many complex forces—ecological, social, political and economic—interact to shape the future. No expert in any one discipline can comprehend the interactions among all these forces. The authors of these books pose questions. Wolfgang Streeck asks, in his book, How Will Capitalism End? In their book, Immanuel Wallerstein and his four co-authors debate the question Does Capitalism Have a Future?

Liberal ideology is facing a conceptual challenge. Liberals dislike national boundaries that divide the world. The liberal view is that every individual must have freedom. It accepts that some global governance will be required to prevent chaos arising if everyone were to do their own thing. However, neoliberal globalization finds nations a troublesome interference with its liberal, global vision. The conceptual problem with this ideology is this. If individuals should have the freedom to be whatever they wish to be and determine whatever rules they want to follow, why should not a group of people have the freedom to form an association or a nation, if they wish to, and determine what rules they will follow? Some people may not like the global rules being imposed on them. This is the undercurrent within that drove Britain to Brexit and caused other rumblings within the EU. This is the reason why many Americans chaff at the bit when they have to comply with global institutions and support their president when he says, in the UN General Assembly, “globalism is bad and patriotism is good".

Liberal ideology is founded on an individualist moral code, which is the basis for liberal economic as well as liberal social ideologies. “Me" values came into prominence in the 1970s, with the hippy movements in the US and Europe. “Me" values were also endorsed by economic theories founded on notions of purely rational and self-interested human beings that came to the fore in economics around the same time. The rise of excessively liberal ideas pushed aside deep-seated, “old fashioned" yearnings for values of loyalty, authority and sanctity that people also have.

Loyalty, authority, and sanctity are sociocentric values, as Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. Sociocentric values honour the collective values of a group of people—a tribe, a religious community, and a nation. Individuals must realize that their own health depends on the health and sustainability of the society. Individuals can help a group to maintain its cohesion by honouring the values others in the group have. An excessively individualist moral code can be destructive of society. This explains the visceral reaction, even hatred, that religious people, and “nationalists" too, have towards “liberal" thinkers and anti-religious “secularists" as well as anti-religious “communists". They see liberals, secularists and communists as “amoral" people.

The world must not carry on the way it has been because progress is too unequal. It cannot carry on the way it is because we are destroying the Earth’s systems’ capacities to renew themselves. With their decay, we will destroy ourselves too. “What will be the next big turn?" is the title of the introduction to the book by Wallerstein and his co-authors mentioned before.

The time has come to apply the disciplines of systems thinking so that human progress will be more inclusive and more sustainable. The world has been broken up into fragments by narrow academic disciplines that can see only parts of the system. Economists have focused too narrowly on the economic side of human aspirations, setting aside human yearnings for belonging to social collectives and nations. Capitalist systems founded on a religion of property rights have treated nature that nurtures as an “externality" to be exploited. Nations and nature are striking back. Policymakers and the experts who advise them must become humble and pause before imposing their certainties on a complex system they do not comprehend.

An underlying “theory-in-use" driving the design of institutions for global and national governance, and even the design of large corporations, is that problems that appear everywhere require global solutions, produced by experts, to be imposed on people everywhere. Thus, governance becomes too remote from people. Whereas complex systems, in which economic, societal, political and environmental forces are intertwined, cannot be commanded to change top-down. “You think you are an expert, though you don’t understand," people say. “Who the hell are you to tell us!" This is the rumble of the rising wave of “populist" political movements, of Left and Right, that is pushing back against globalism.

The trajectory of human progress must be changed. Just now, it is driven too much by narrow-minded pursuit of economic growth measured in monetary terms. The overarching measure of the progress of a nation is its gross domestic product (GDP). Even cities are compared by how much they contribute to the GDP. This paradigm of growth is catering to peoples’ needs as consumers. It is not fulfilling their aspirations as citizens of good societies. Broader, non-monetary, measures are required to assess the well-being of citizens. Moreover, to make the world better for everyone, consumers must learn to be better citizens and to democratically govern the local systems within which they live.

Arun Maira was a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission.

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