Off the sweat of your brow, sucker!
A personal look at the impact of neoliberal values on the way we live
“The global application of a fraudulent economic theory brought the west to its knees. Yet for those in power, it offers riches…. In 2012, the world's 100 richest people became $241 billion richer.” – George Monbiot
Yesterday I was reading George Monbiot’s scathing analysis of neoliberalism and the subterranean selfishness it harbours, the language it privileges and its virulent attack on humanity and human values. You would have to be a diehard believer in laissez-faire capitalism, an ostrich with your head in the sand and wearing stubborn blinkers to deny that something is wrong with the way we are living. It has little to do with politicians or political parties and a lot to do with a meta fabrication that we have all bought into and refuse to question despite all evidence against it. The idea that a few can enjoy privileges at the cost of others is in itself noxious, add to it the laughable notion of meritocracy when we all know that money, networks and a club membership can do a damn sight more than pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Mix this up with rampant, unsustainable, development and we have a sweet little mess on hand.
It’s not hard to unpack these ideas, they aren’t the sole domain of economists and policy makers, the latter have just obfuscated issues so cannily that the common man is distanced. In addition, the less and less we, the common man, want to think about the impact of global economic trends, the easier we make it for the 0.004 % to not merely exploit us but to say they are doing it for the greater common good.
The state, which includes elected representatives and the bureaucracy, have a duty to the people. The private sector, while not beholden to the people, have a moral responsibility that should be inviolate. If there is a certain beauty in capitalism it has to do with the idea of free enterprise; the right of every citizen to start an industry, a business, employ people and generate wealth. This is undeniably a good thing. In the past 25 odd years, India has embarked on a journey of a sort of mediated socialism, erm, neoliberalism – where the state still remains responsible for most of our services (by the thinnest thread) but the private sector is invited to profit and add to the gross national product. This is our background.
Returning to the state of everyday life in Bangalore and the dissonance one feels while not knowing where to place the blame. This, sadly, is a feature of neoliberalism, it is both insidious and invisible. When young people kill themselves for ostensibly silly reasons, when depression affects even the affluent, when Bangalore temperatures reach an all-time high and we are consumed by road rage, scratch hard enough and you’ll find the answers lies in the deceits that we have not stopped to question.
Among the biggest deceit of all is that wealth trickles down. Ha ha ha! Maybe somewhere and in some places, but my man, Narsaiah, who works on MG Road as a garbage collector for the BBMP (he paid a Rs 40,000 bribe to get a job where he gets to collect our shit off the streets for the benefits of provident fund), well Narsaiah doesn’t think so. He hasn’t seen anything trickle down in the last 20 years and is pissed off about it. But Forbes does mention that 12 new faces appear on the list of India’s Richest in 2016, so fingers shoved in our ears about Narsaiah’s woes and la la la la. Where is the citizenship here?
The second deceit would be that wealth buys happiness. Oh, one cannot be disingenuous here, of course wealth buys comfort and a standard of living. But happiness? Year after year, happiness studies reveal that freedom, community engagement, leisure, human interaction and fulfilment play a larger part in happiness than material gains. Bhutan’s well known Gross National Happiness and Gross National Well-being indices used the following four as their pillars for analyses:
1. Sustainable development
2. Preservation and promotion of cultural values
3. Conservation of the natural environment
4. Establishment of good governance.
It would appear that happiness needs a deeper fount than “money, money, money” but ask any 10 year old boy from one of the more affluent schools in Bangalore what brings you happiness and you can be dead sure he’ll say – money. Someone told him so. Wonder who?
The third deceit is that capitalism and ensuing corporatization necessarily works for the greater common good. It possibly could, if it were directed by a mighty sense of community and responsibility, else if citizens held fast to their right to know. But as we witness it unravelling in the west, we have to face up to this fact: in its current avatar, capitalism does not. It works for the self and that, in fact, is its original premise. i.e. an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.
The system that is supposed to work for people and larger communities, socialism, is now a bad word. The archaic one on our constitution, the one that America turned into an ogre and we, grinning with gratitude in 1991, agreed with hook, line and sinker. It didn’t hurt that we had a vapid and destructive Left that hammered every nail into its coffin. But let’s be clear, in a democracy where people elect representatives, the state is the one we must turn to. The state owes us, big time. The state has a duty to look after its public and its commons. Else, let’s just do away with democracy all together and return to princely states.
Look around you and examine apparently distinct phenomena and begin joining the dots.
A week ago, on a particularly warm night, I sat beneath a banyan tree and watched one of my students just crumble and weep from a despair so unfathomable I couldn’t find the words to comfort her. Everything is off in their world currently. She told me that the pressures are so many, it would be hard to pinpoint which causes the most pain. Pressure to conform, to look a certain way, to succeed, to be affluent, to have money, to be perfect. Pushing her to identify where the pressure comes from, she told me it wasn’t her family, it wasn’t her friends and it wasn’t school. Then from where the hell, I would like to ask. She was at pains to say it was just her own anxieties, all her own fault but I reject this idea and want a culprit. I want to be able to identify the source and have it tarred and feathered. The easy route would be to blame the media and advertising but it is neither, per se. It is perfectly perceivable that both the media and advertising agencies can function in humanistic ways that are not anti-people. But if they don’t, if moral responsibility is abdicated for profit or sensation, therein lies hamartia. DOT.
A week prior, I read the heartrending story of another young women, Sevanthi Murugaiyyan, from St.Joseph’s Arts and Science College, my alma mater, who killed herself. I read her writing compiled by her English professor, Arul Mani. It was so bright, honest and somehow, filled me with hope. While the end was predetermined, I hoped against hope that she would survive. Live. And show us a better way forward. A way in which a young girl, daughter of a security guard and a domestic worker from an OBC community in Tamil Nadu could breeze through college, make friends and find her place in this world with something of joy, something of ease, some quantum of dignity. But it ain’t happening, is it?
The story doesn’t end there. I referred back to Arul Mani’s piece on Sevanthi in Wire.in and was interested to see there was comment on it that went like so:
- She has not been rejected by the system in any way, as far as I can see.
- Please make a better case next time for Reservation outside merit, please???
Really? You can’t see how difficult it might be for a child of a security guard and a domestic worker, with imagination and ambition, but thrown up against class and income to manage in a Bangalore of today? You don’t think the odds are stacked against her? Really? You think she had any chance at all without Reservations?
Simultaneously, there is a fracas in Bangalore about the adoption of the public commons, Venkatappa Art Gallery, by a private foundation. There is a group of artists on the one hand and well-wishers of the private foundation on the other. Each have a point of view and this is fair enough. What has been interesting is the virulent language with which the artists and their movement have been referred to. There is a consistent lack of respect for their opinions based on this: a) they are artists and b) they are rejecting the idea of a cultural commons being given to a private foundation when they ought to know better. After all the private foundation will make the museum new and shiny and this has just GOT to be the way to go. Why? Isn’t the point of a cultural commons that it remain with the people? Why is there so much we are being forced to assume and who are those that force feed these ideas to us? The question is not rhetorical, it is a serious request to get engaged.
Implicit in the language used against the artists and at last count I have seen – fakes, fraudulent artists, liars, Vagabugaboos (sic), artificial intellectuals, fakeroos (sic) – is the understanding that they are not “eminent citizens” for into this unimpeachable bracket fall only leaders of the corporate sector. Every time one reads the phrases “eminent citizens” or “impeccable reputations” it is used to describe a corporate big wig. Never mind that the same might be embroiled in environmental scandals, labour scandals, corruption scandals and so on. These are swept under the rug in a breathless display of sycophancy that further perpetuates the idea that the rich, by mere dint of being so, become both eminent as well as beyond the diktats of democracy. It is not so much the fracas that is interesting as the manner in which it is conducted. In the public domain, the idea is now forwarded, even amongst so called liberals, that if one has to get anything done, one must genuflect before those with “power and influence” and this phrase has come to mean money, never mind how the money was come by. Out the window go culture, knowledge, history, experience and yes, moral responsibility. We live in a time of no tomorrows, so it’s every dog for himself. The ultimate irony though, is that, in our neoliberal, market driven world, artists are considered disposable trash, but not objects of art. DOT.
Marc Chesney June 2015 - "A financial aristocracy has taken hold of power. It is draped in clothes of liberalism, but its daily practice often contradicts the basic principles. This aristocracy manages to impose its policy and interests. These caused the crisis and undermine prospects for improvement. If the damage caused by the crisis are of a different nature than those of the Great War, they are nonetheless devastating"
Keep joining the dots.
My parents live in one of the many gated communities in Bangalore. It is comfortable and makes life easy for them. When they first bought it, they looked forward to a retirement spent in leisure after years of slogging. Not an unreasonable idea by any stretch. Soon after moving in, my mother who loves to garden, was told that she couldn’t plant a honge maraa (indigenous to Karnataka and soil enriching) because of the leaf fall. They would plant imported California palms instead. When she refused a lawn because of water consumption, she was told it was mandatory for the ‘look’ of the community. Her lovingly grown avocado and champa trees are cut at will, again, for the look of the community. What the community didn’t reckon with is that the villages from which they bought the original land at cheap prices, still have the right to walk through. I mean, there is concentration camp type barbed wire rolls on top of the 15 foot high compound walls, but you can’t stop “lower income people” from walking through the otherwise very California style gated community. Over the years more and more Indian have moved out and it is now largely populated by European and American workers for multinational companies. Are my parents happy there? They say they are and I believe them. It becomes exhausting, computing the nanoscopic shifts in happiness that happen during the trade-off between comfort and autonomy. So, we accept life as it is. DOT.
Let me end with two ideas that are inspirational and I believe, deeply connected to citizenship. Aristotle’s thesis on Moral Responsibility is something my daughter shared with me. In Aristotelian philosophy, the study of Ethics is concerned with “What is the best way for people to live?” and “What actions are right and wrong in particular circumstances?” While every religious and spiritual system have edicts that emphasize responsibility to others, Moral Responsibility is an inner thing, a governing web of accountability that guides our every action, big or small. It goes far beyond legal responsibility.
The second is the Hindu idea of Sakshi or Eternal Witness. That beyond the ego or the individual, is the Witness that merely is. As Sankara explains, the Witness simply illumines.
Would that we are guided by these two ideas, Moral Responsibility and that we are each a Witness to our own actions, no escaping it.