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A file photo of an anti- Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Ranchi (Photo: PTI)
A file photo of an anti- Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Ranchi (Photo: PTI)

Opinion | The force of moral capital and the advance of nationalism

Leaders need to recognize the impact of their actions on the moral capital of society to succeed

American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt developed the concept of “moral capital" in his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. The book, an intellectual tour de force, should be read by anyone who is trying to understand our world, societies and cultures, and why and how we—left, right or centre—make our choices.

All of us know about financial capital (money in the bank), physical capital (an axe or a factory) and human capital (a well-trained sales team). Then there’s social capital. Think of the Nadars of Sivakasi, the Jains of Palanpur, the Dawoodi Bohras or the Marwari Banias of Rajasthan. Tales are legion about young Marwaris landing up in alien cities, with nothing but dreams and a strong work ethic, and achieving lift-off through interest-free loans and precious contacts from successful Marwari businessmen. One hopes that the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce will be a great success.

Haidt moves beyond social capital to moral capital, which involves not just the relationships among people but the complete environment in which these relationships are embedded. He defines it as “the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, norms, practices, identities, institutions and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms, and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible".

That’s a mouthful, so Haidt provides a thought experiment, based on anthropological studies of dozens of 19th century American communes. Let’s say two communes are started on the same day, both with high and equal social capital. Which one will endure better? Both have a clear list of tenets and virtues, and this list is displayed prominently all over. One commune values self-expression over conformity, and tolerance over loyalty. This might be attractive to outsiders and can be an advantage in recruiting new members, but it will have a lower moral capital over the other, which prizes conformity and loyalty. The stricter commune will be better able to suppress or regulate selfishness and will, therefore, be more likely to succeed.

Now ratchet it up from communes to the scale of a nation. The threat of moral entropy is intense at this level. That is why many nations are failures as moral communities, especially corrupt ones where dictators and a bunch of elites run them for their own benefit. On the other hand, moral capital is hardly an unalloyed good. It increases efficiency but does not guarantee fairness. It can deny equality of opportunity, and repress “others". Cults and fascist states can garner high moral capital so long as most followers or citizens accept the moral framework being presented to them. There is no doubt that Nazi Germany or the Islamic State (IS) obtained high moral capital.

Yet what also seems clear is that if one is trying to change a society, and not taking into account the effects of those changes on moral capital, one could be asking for trouble. The French Revolution, for all the romantic imagery it still evokes, was a disaster, and within a decade, Napoleon had come to power and established a new monarchy. And there is nothing new to say about the great Russian Revolution of 1917. In fact, moral capital may be a particularly blind spot for the left, who believe in revolutionary rather than evolutionary change—a reason why every communist state has ended up in despotism.

Re-reading Righteous Mind recently, I was struck by how the moral capital concept could be used to analyse global events over the last decade—especially the rise of nationalist leaders across the world, and the repeated setbacks to liberal political parties. These leaders may have tapped the moral capital of a silent majority, which saw those reserves being eroded over the years.

There is no doubt that US President Donald Trump cashed in. The recent crushing defeat of the Labour Party in the UK is also strong evidence—even its core base, the working classes, roundly rejected Labour for its apparent prioritizing of global justice and social victimhood issues, which did not bother the majority of voters, over urgent “British" issues. And I am willing to bet that unless the Democratic Party can field a presidential candidate who is less “left-progressive" than Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren—who propose free schooling and medical care for illegal immigrants, and going easy on convicts—Trump will be re-elected.

Just the other night, I was telling a young person, a regular at the anti- Citizenship (Amendment) Act barricades, that, for their protests to gain real mass support, secular liberals like her must distance themselves from Islamist protesters and slogans like “Tera mera rishta kya, la ilaha illallah (The relationship between you and me is what, that there is no god but Allah)", and desecration of symbols like “Om".

Even Shashi Tharoor, the perceptive politician that he is, has spoken about this. These attack moral capital, which resides deep inside human minds, and people hate threats to something so fundamental.

Disregarding moral capital is not a smart thing to do.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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