Book review entries
August 09, 2006
India Nest, 06.08.2006
The most attractive feature of this latest work by Sen – as with his other writings – is its extremely accessibility and lucidity. Written concisely, Sen illustrates his thesis remarkably well in this book which seeks to argue that sectarian violence often occurs with both sides being led by an illusion of what constitutes the ‘other’s’ identity. In other words, the “dreadful conflicts” that have taken place in our world, be it in Rwanda or Sudan or the Indian subcontinent, are often successors to “periods of terrible confusion” in the minds of the perpetrators of the brutalities against humanity.
Sen offers a primary explanation of such confusions. He argues that the essence of our existence as human beings is essentially shared by various aspects of humanity itself. To put it simply, we may have several identities which compete for our attention. However, the very nature of the ‘othering’ process involves the construction of “a singular and overarching system” of classifying groups of individuals in order to effectively present a target for the wrath that erupts as violence.
Sen offers two methods which are adopted– deliberately or unconsciously– to achieve this “miniaturisation” of human beings. The first he terms “identity disregard”. This has been used classically in theories concerning the economic man, and more recently in various game theories where an assumed motivation (e.g., rational self–interest) overshadows all other identities that an individual may adhere to.
Following on from this, his second classification is called “singular affiliation”, whereby only one facet of an individual’s overall identity is privileged to caricaturize his entire self. Such reductionism is most commonly found in instances of communal violence, whereby a person may just be a Hindu or a Muslim, but not an Indian, a middle class professional, or a father.
A recent example of a blatantly reductionist theory is espoused in Samuel Huntington’s now–famous The Clash of Civilizations, a work that is subjected to seething criticism by Sen in his book. In this, he carries on from where he left of in his The Argumentative Indian. The biggest problem with Huntington’s thesis is the complete ignoring of the often–marked diversities in these various civilisational blocs.
In the “Hindu civilization” ala India, there exist minorities who are either numerically substantial or culturally influential in shaping the history of the subcontinent, such as the Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, among others. There has been a lot of intercultural influences between these communities which deny Hinduism any singular identity which can be associated with today’s India. Added to that are the striking diversities within Hinduism itself. Such intra–cultural diversities can also be found in the Middle East, where the Shia–Sunni divide comes instantaneously to mind. Indeed, given the mutual suspicion that existed between the Arab world and Iran as recently as the 1980s, along with the various intra–Arab disputes, it is doubtful how far a monolithic Islamic civilization is a reality.
Sen also notes the tendency to create an arbitrary–often historically inaccurate– identity of the ‘self’ in order to differentiate it from the ‘other’. Here he criticizes the notion of the “Western mind” whereby certain ideas (e.g., democracy) are claimed to be the sole property of the Occident. Citing examples of Buddhist councils during the reign of Emperor Ashoka (3rd Century BC) and tracts on religious freedom during that of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (16th Century AD), Sen attempts to illustrate how such an identity can be readily disputed.
Neither does Western multiculturalism escape Sen’s criticism. While attempting to accommodate various interests in increasingly diverse societies, these theories invariably associate the interests of the minority individuals and/or communities based on their religion, castigating all other forms of identities to the background. Even scholars who attempt reconciliation between the West and Islam (supposing that such homogenized monoliths do in fact exist) often search for a ‘moderate Muslim’, thus giving disproportionate importance to religion in determining the ‘other’s’ identity.
Sen points out that one’s perception of their own identity may change over time. He points out that East Pakistan was formed in 1947 primarily because of a religious motivation. Yet, in 1971 this motivation was grossly inadequate in keeping it together with West Pakistan, as Bengalis asserted their language and culture as their primary form of identity vis–à–vis their religion, which they still shared with the West Pakistanis. However, Sen also notes that the primary cause for violence despite changing identities is the incapability of the victims to convince the aggressors of this shift. Perceived identity, therefore, proves stronger than actual identity.
Here post–modernism can pose a perplexing question for Sen. From the works of Michel Foucault in philosophy to some recent work in psychology, we know that perceptions can often be formed subconsciously or even unconsciously, determined by the various pressures of societal environment and the dominating discourse. How does Sen then assert that the ‘actual identity’ of an individual is any more real than the ‘perceived identity’, when the choice made by individuals itself may be automated by other, often–invisible forces? If Edward Said were alive, he would surely have a word or two to say about the ways in which Orientalism often forces ‘other’ people to assume certain identities.
On one occasion Sen himself has failed to remain neutral towards identities. On page 171 of the book he narrates the harrowing tale of a certain Kader Mia being stabbed to death by “vicious Hindu thugs” during the 1947 partition riots. Subsequently he also criticizes Muslim gangs for similar deeds. But if Kader Mia was incorrectly taken to be just a Muslim, should his murderers be represented as just Hindus, and not as criminals, revenge–seeking individuals, or misguided youth? Sen could have escaped with his description, had he clarified that the description “Hindu gangs” would probably have been used during the time to narrate the incident.
Sen spends a lot of time emphasizing the role of “choice and reasoning” behind an individual giving primacy to one among the various competing identities within him. While stating that individuals often stumble upon their identities– or “discover” them– Sen readily concedes that often individuals make conscious decisions about their identities– “Life is not mere destiny”. However, individuals can only choose from the available options in the social decision making function, which may not be optimal under practical circumstances.
To be fair to Sen, perhaps he is merely arguing for chosen identity to be given preference over given identity. But there may be less difference between the two than he has accounted for.
December 04, 2005
India Nest, 04.12.2005
In the first paperback edition of this book (originally written in 2003), the author undertakes a substantial academic challenge – to compare and contrast Indian secularism with that of the United States and Israel in their constitutional context. This “comparative trio” has developed three distinct avatars of secularism defined as assimilative, visionary and ameliorative, attributed to the US, Israel and India respectively. His essential aim is to gauge wither a defence of religious liberty can be reconciled with constitutional secularism.
When Gregory Johnson was burning the American flag in 1989, he breached the “wall of separation” that is enshrined in US polity between the Church and the State. Such delineation is impossible, as the author argues, in Israel, where the Star of David epitomizes the Zionist inspiration behind the birth of the nation itself. As such, the republican flag does not represent anything other than the “American way of life”.
In a country where “religion permeates everyday life and informs national identity” (although by no means a single religion) like India, the flag is also a symbol of its constitutional mindset. While some commentators have made the grave error of associating the saffron on the Indian tricolor with the Hindus, the green with the Muslims, and the white with the desire for peace between these communities, the author cites Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the Constitutional Assembly, arguing that the colors stood for revolution, industry, agriculture and commerce instead.
Rock Edict 12 of Emperor Ashoka (273 BC to 232 BC) states that the “essentials of dharma” necessitate “restraint in regard to speech”- that “it should be moderate” and “the other sects should be duly honored”. The chakra of Ashoka – the wheel of law – has spokes of equal length suggesting just this. The author traces this influence not only to the tricolor, but also to the Representation of the People Act (1951) enshrined in Indian jurisprudence.
The author focuses on the “Hindutva cases” of the mid-1990s in the Indian Supreme Court after the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992. The central government’s usage of Article 356 to dismiss 3 state governments was being challenged in the apex court. The court upheld the decisions of the government in Delhi based on its condemnation of the “corrupt practices” of cultural nationalism. Since this is a significant departure from the strict neutrality in such cases (for example, in defining cultural nationalism as corrupt practices rather than simply focusing on the resultant violence), it gives the judiciary’s power a different contour in India vis-à-vis the US and Israel.
Article IV, Section 4 of the Guarantee Clause in the US was evoked to deter the federal government from acting against the southern states’ insistence on continuing slavery. This can be attributed to the liberal insistence on absolute neutrality. Similarly, a long standing demand of the Hindutva supporters in India has been to establish a universal civic code, deterred thus far by India’s ameliorative conception of secularism. It is nearly 36 years since Amartya Sen built on the 1950 paradox outlined by Kenneth Arrow to suggest that welfare and liberty doomed to an irreconcilable conflict in a society with multiple choices. The dilemma over secularism in India continues to vindicate this paradox.
The author criticizes some of the Hindutva ideologues of advocating a “slavish emulation” of the Israeli polity in India. However, as jurisprudence in each country is directly impacted by both the constitutional context and “ethnography”, no one size can fit all. Contrast this with the complicated juxtaposition of innumerable religions and castes in India, and a singular vision like that of Israel becomes impossible to conceptualize.
The assimilative model of secularism in the US is also questioned by the author, when he suggests that political assimilation is increasingly being coupled with social assimilation, implying standardization. Invoking Employment Division v Smith (1990), the author argues that US jurisprudence has much to learn from the ameliorative model of India, which he considers to be apt for application in this case.
Certain arguments in the book can be readily questioned. First, Jawaharlal Nehru agreed that religion was a “restraining influence on changes in civil society”. Alexis de Tocqueville, on the other hand, was favorable to a “peaceful dominion of religion”. But do religion and civil society need to be problematically intertwined? Romila Thapar has argued- and the author agrees- that the wheel of dharma was essentially secular in its implication. However, the problem lies in the static visualization of religion, which is not the case in India, as the “ever-changing” definition of Sanatana put forth by Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan so vividly portrays.
Second, Jacobsohn quotes Seymour Martin Lipset and agrees that “nations can be understood only in comparative perspective”. Although it can be readily conceded that analyzing differences between polities can indeed yield fruitful answers, often to understand the essence of a nation, we need to refer to the famous phrase of the 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke – Wie es eigentlich gewesen (how it essentially was).
Third, in what is supposedly a holistic analysis of the Indian constitutional field, a marked absence is that of a critique of the extremist Maoist and Islamist movements that have sprung up and gathered momentum in the 1990s, establishing “peoples’ courts” and those following the shari’a, bypassing the laws enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The “crisis of secularism” can hardly be understood adequately with just one dimension in the author’s analysis- the Hindutva movement. While it is perhaps unorthodox to classify the far left movements under the same umbrella as a religious movement, it too threatens the constitutional balance in Indian jurisprudence by attempting to forcibly include provisions alienating the so-called upper caste communities in many far flung rural areas.
Ultimately, Jacobsohn’s analysis concludes at a rather persuasive argument. While impartial on the surface, American social and political life is impacted significantly by the role of the Church on issues of public concern such as abortion and education, the latter also being hotly debated in India. However, in India, there has been no attempt to artificially water down this impact by assimilation (which could lead to homogenization). On the contrary, the Sarva dharma sambhava principle is essentially impartial, although it involves including all religions in the jurisprudence, making matters more complicated, albeit more reflective of how society really is, but perhaps being more sensitive to the religious liberties of the individuals and communities concerned.
November 11, 2005
Asia Times, 11.11.2005
William Wilberforce, a British parliamentarian who died in 1833, once spoke of the "dark and bloody superstitions" that embody the creed that came to be termed Hinduism.
Prior to that, the mind-boggling diversity in sub-continental religious practices existed without a common definition to bind them together, and this "crystallization of the concept" is what Brian K Pennington traces in his book Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians and the Colonial Construction of Religion.
Between 1789 and 1832, the Orientalist fascination for the "cloud of fables" – according to William Jones, the 18th century Indian historian – embodied in Vedic literature was replaced by the East India Company-backed intelligentsia who were preoccupied with utilitarian criticisms of the "sinister principles" of the same, depicted nowhere more vividly than in the works of James Mill and Thomas Macaulay.
Pennington argues that the modern avatar of the somewhat homogenized ancient religion that can be loosely termed Hinduism is a direct reaction to such seething and degrading criticism from the colonial academics, some of it indeed valid (such as vilifying the sati tradition – the traditional Hindu practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre).
He argues that the elites within Hindu society entered a "dialectical space" with colonialism, thereby producing a defensive self-determined version of their faith. While celebrating colonial promotion of certain scriptures, they vehemently opposed stereotyping, as can be seen in the outcry among the Bengali educated middle classes over the label of the effeminate babu. This similar dialectic process was behind the rise of Hindu nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as behind the progress made by the Hindutva movement of the late 1990s.
Nevertheless, Pennington refuses to present the colonial state with the credit of transforming "fragmented, disparate, localized, particularistic and ever-changing mini traditions" into a world religion. Whereas "Indophoebia" and the "racist science" of the 19th century did indeed contribute substantially toward the development of a defensive definition of Hinduism, crediting the state with the invention of Hinduism as we know it is ignoring the "mess of encounters" that can better explain this development.
Whereas literary critic Edward Said accused the West of essentializing the East, the opposite argument is also true. Pennington makes a distinction between various classes of Hinduism’s "other", and argues that class, nationality, outlook and background of the actors on the ground made the encounters between, say, a missionary and a peasant much different from that between a colonial academic and a local historian.
What follows from the importance of the nature of the "other" is the fundamental significance of religious values in this discourse, discarded by many schools of historians preferring to focus solely on socio-economic trends. Pennington associates himself with Partha Chatterjee who wrote in the first volume of the Subaltern Studies about the various ways in which the downtrodden communities often express themselves in the form of their religion. This is also seen in the works of David Hardiman on Adivasis or indigenous people in western India, as well as that of Saurabh Dube on the Satnamis of central India.
Pennington uses a relatively small number of first-hand sources, but adheres closely to them. The archives of the Church Missionary Society reveal the attitudes of missionaries toward evangelizing the natives, an attitude advocated by many including Charles Grant, the Scottish politician, and Wilberforce. On the other hand, the transformation in colonial attitudes can be seen in the archives of the Asiatick Researches, which gradually gets taken over by colonial influences, sidelining the Orientalists. He also dwells on the religious newspaper Samacar Chandrika published by Bhabanicaran Bandyopadhyaya, which took on the task to refute much of the essentialism dished out by colonial literature. However, all of this does strengthen the author's point about the importance of religion, explicit or implicit, in colonial policy-making.
Two questions beg to be answered by Pennington. First, he says nothing about the crude distinction made by the colonial state between "martial" and "non-martial" races in the subcontinent, and the various categories of castes it defined. Such essentialization went a long way toward complicating the already juxtaposed threads of Hinduism, and much of that legacy exists to this day.
Moreover, whereas the colonial state may not have explicitly defined Hinduism, its criticisms of the same nevertheless led to Hindu nationalism adopting a very homogenous and essentially narrow view of Hinduism. As Amartya Sen has argued in his recent work The Argumentative Indian, Hinduism is simply too diverse to speak of in one single breath. Therefore, the prevalent definition of Hinduism (as in the stereotype used in the public domain today) may well have been invented during the high noon of colonialism.
Second, Pennington argues that there is increasingly a "need of structuring the relationship of religion and the nation state". This contemporary universal "need" can be readily questioned if one looks at secular Europe and India. Debates about race relations in Britain and France, and that of minority reservations in India are more to do with social exclusion and opportunities rather than any concerns about delineating the contours of state and religion. A more relevant discussion is the Middle East, where Islam and the nation state remain problematically juxtaposed.
However, Pennington is in need of recognizing the "essence" of Hindu philosophical writings during times much before his book covers, but which can indeed be a useful apparatus to determine the role of the state vis-a-vis religion. The image of the Brahmin holding the sveta-chattra (white umbrella) over the king was never involved in the analytical modus operandi of the colonial state while defining Hinduism.
On the larger question of whether contemporary Hinduism was invented, Pennington seems to adopt a persuasive argument. Whether there exists an alternative and distinct definition is a question that he leaves unexplored.
Aruni Mukherjee is based at the University of Warwick, England.
January 18, 2005
Originally reviewed for India Nest
Neo-liberalism, the dominant thought in the international realm today, owes to no other theorist its intellectual foundation than Friedrich von Hayek. Together with the ‘monetarists’ under Milton Friedman, these two individuals identified the tools with which to demolish that brainchild of democratic socialism- social democracy, which had been the prevalent mode of organising civil society after the Second World War. We need to remember that during the time of this book, Hayek was striving to turn the current of the societal stream. His ideas were very much against the prevalent consensus, and returned only in the late 1970s with the advent of Thatcherism and Reaganomics.
Hayek’s core focus in The Road to Serfdom is identifying the relation between socialism and totalitarianism. He argues that the ‘road’ to totalitarianism gets clearer, as socialist influence in policy making gets deeper. Although he elaborated his famous thesis on the price mechanism in his The Use of Knowledge in Society (1945), he does make the fundamental argument in this book. He identifies that the fluctuation of the prices in the market as mere responses by individuals to what they think is the correct value of a particular commodity. He argues that such a cumulative effect of local knowledge is bound to be the nearest to perfect accuracy, because it is within the vicinity of both the consumer’s perceptions towards price, as well as the producer’s view of it. Therefore, he launches a vehement attack on centrally controlled price mechanisms, as practised in many socialist economies like the USSR during that time, because according to him, that distorted the actual value of the commodity up for sale, and was indirectly harming both the producers of that commodity as well as the consumers of another commodity. For example, by keeping the price of Commodity A too high, it is lowering the disposable income of the consumers of A, which consequently can quell demand, ultimately harming producers of A as well. Moreover, depressed incomes mean less demand for Commodities B and C, thus harming the producers of the same at the same time. Hayek contests the claim that a government agency can have such arbitrary powers at its disposal, for he directly links this with the loss of freedom for the market. Since for Hayek, the market represents the cumulative liberties of the individuals under its jurisdiction, he goes on to claim that such government restriction on the price mechanism is detrimental to liberty in general.
The more elaborated work by Hayek propounding his views on liberty in more detail was his The Constitution of Liberty. Margaret Thatcher in particular drew great inspiration from it. In The Road to Serfdom, however, Hayek’s target audience is not the academic, but the cadres of the numerous socialist, pseudo-Marxist parties that dominated the political scene in the 1940s. He constantly lauds the intentions of many idealist socialists, but persuasively contends that socialist thought, in whatever form, would ultimately lead to a compromise of liberty and set the society on ‘the road to serfdom’. In that sense, Nazism and Communism mean the same thing to Hayek- both forms of totalitarianism being a derivative of socialism.
Hayek mentions regrettably that liberalism in its 19th century form has come under vicious and often unjustified criticism from both the left as well as the right. He points out that the Victorian age of laissez faire brought unprecedented prosperity to western Europe. All that the early 20th century’s pseudo liberals/socialists managed to achieve was economic stagnation, protective tariffs on the erstwhile lucrative trading network, hostilities and ultimately, war and devastation of civil society. He calls out for a recognition for the achievements of the Victorian Englishman (he categorically hails the British version of liberalism as the superior one to its continental counterpart), and remodelling the contemporary public policy more in accordance with its liberal roots.
The ultimate blame for this debacle must lie on the socialist fetish for ‘planning’. Hayek argues that planning only works well in the short run, such as rationing during wartime. Without the pressures of conflict, it is bound to lead to a loss of liberty on one hand, ultimately resulting in totalitarianism, and poor economic performance on the other. His analysis points out that when the central governmental agency is engrossed in planning, invariably it has to play up a certain sectional interest and downplay others to adhere to the ‘collective goal’. Hayek maintains through out his book that no public agency can have such powers to determine individual lives. Inevitably, the colossal scale of planning would naturally entail less discussion and decision making by parliament, and more delegating of jobs to non-elected entities. Thus, the seeds of totalitarian government are sown. As the public institutions become more and more dependent on such delegated bodies, vested interests creep into the whole planning mechanism. Monopolies arise because of state led economic growth, and not due to free market competition. A much more effective alternative to planning is leaving the task to the cumulative effect of the spontaneous actions of the individuals in a market. The only planning Hayek concedes the state must do is ‘to plan not to plan’. Albeit jesting on that particular point, Hayek does mention the need for state action in areas where the private sector cannot deliver profitably. In essence he draws upon the concept of ‘publick goods’ and ‘publick works’ originally used by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations.
Nothing can compromise liberty for Hayek. This is not ideological fixation, but his ardent belief that it is through liberty that the potential of every individual can be optimally utilised. Like Adam Smith, Hayek believes that the cumulative individual good is indeed the public good. All the talk about re-organising society on the basis of a plan is sure to lead us down the ‘road’, and eventually prepare us for slavery under a Hitler or Stalin.
January 08, 2005
Originally reviewed for India Nest
Three years since Chang portrayed a doomsday for the People’s Republic of China, perhaps it is the right time to reflect upon the predictions made in this lucidly written book, naturally banned in China.
Himself the son of a Chinese who left the country in search for a better future, and found it in the land of opportunity, home of the free world, the United States, it is natural that Chang does not look favorably on the dictatorship that rules China with an iron fist. He blames Mao for his disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution that ripped the heart out of rural China and killed millions of innocent, he blames Deng Xiaoping for Tiananmen Square and not carrying forward with the economic and political reforms and he looks at Jiang Zemin with uttermost disdain as a worthless and orthodox leader, more interested in securing his own political position rather than the welfare of the billion people he subjugates. Yet, quite ironically Chang does seem to have a certain respect for various qualities in Mao and Deng, the former being credited with being a leader with a vision and the latter as one with a dose of pragmatism and both endowed with tremendous charisma and personality and widely respected. His wrath befalls Zemin and his to be successors, Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and the like, who he argues to be callous and not worthy of leading China.
Not surprisingly, Chang’s argument is rooted in economics, or in China’s case, politics of economics. As an American, Chang sees the ideal model to be one with least government interference and ultimate say in the ‘invisible hands’ of the market, coupled with free trade and movement of capital and finally, a civil and equitable society with solid democratic traditions and institutions. Chang is prepared to forgive Mao for organizing China initially into communes because China at that time was a nascent nation, facing crisis at all fronts with little entrepreneurial zeal. But he deals a mortal blow to leaders after Mao, even Deng Xiaoping for not furthering the reforms fast enough, resulting in continuous slowing of economic development. Chang dismisses the shiny skyscrapers of Shanghai as a symbol of over capacity, gigantic nationalized companies as ‘white elephants’ living off subsidies and bad loans from the banks and highlights the crushing inequality and poverty that rages and has actually worsened due to the fluctuation in the speed of reforms. His wicked sense of humor and sarcasm rips apart Communist policies. He mentions an incidence when a private company was strangled on the grounds that it was ‘too innovative’.
Perhaps, he was overtly fatalist. China has managed to stabilize its collapsing banking system since the time the book was written and credit to state owned enterprises (SOEs) have been squeezed to encourage restructuring and efficiency. It is also managing to ‘cool down’ its economy quite efficiently, thus not letting the over capacity problem become precarious. China’s ‘Go West’ campaign also seems an acknowledgement from the Politburo about the inequality problem.
However, here again Chang’s far sightedness is astounding. As he predicts, the booming sectors of the Chinese economy are indeed because of multinationals or government monopolies. With China’s accession to the WTO, the latter will have to be opened up to competition, which Chang argues is impossible for them to sustain and will result in their collapse. Also, most of the fuel for China’s economic engine comes from the government coffers. There will be a time when China runs out of money to pump in the system. Chang points at that day when China’s economic meltdown begins.
We must make two minor points here on which Chang can be taken to task. Firstly, his constant emphasis on the erstwhile splendor of the Middle Kingdom, unmatched by any in the world is frankly not acceptable. Even leaving aside the flourishing civilizations of Egypt, Sumer and later, Greece and Rome, he forgets to look across China’s southern border over the Himalayas, where India sustained itself as a much more diverse and cosmopolitan civilization for an equal, if not more, time. Secondly, he indulges in far too many speculations regarding private entrepreneurs in China. It is possibly premature to predict the rise of a Chinese entrepreneurial class, because the economic model in China is based on SOEs and MNCs. Even with a much longer socialist baggage, or perhaps because of it, India has developed a world class private sector which can compete successfully in a post WTO world in 2005 and beyond and thus commands the reins of India’s economic development in its own hands, unlike China.
Lest we take credit away from Chang, it must be reinstated that this witticism clad book about the future and eminent collapse of China as we know it is a must read to display the rot in its institutions and the forces at work to end the Communist parties’ monopoly on power. Chang argues persuasively that the Chinese people are tired of their overtly regulated lives, dictated by a microscopic minority and enforced by crude coercion.
A day will come when the Chinese will eventually have had enough of the sermons of Beijing. That day the tanks of Tiananmen will not be enough to stop them, nor will the bags of cash from the banks. It is that day that one sixth of humanity will decide to take their destiny into their own hands and their erstwhile dictators will tremble with fear. It is that day Chang has foreseen.
The Communists had a chance to reverse this by allowing for more freedom. They couldn’t let go. Now it is too late. They have run out of time, they cannot turn away from the imminent future. The collapse is near.
Originally reviewed for India Nest
We certainly do not need another descriptive review of this masterpiece which developed out of an initial article in the Foreign Affairs journal that created such a stir among academic circles and that dealt such a hammer blow to Edward Said’s notion of a multi-polar, multi-cultural harmonious world. Comparable in its stature to On Political Economy by David Ricardo and Parson Malthus in the 19th century that tore apart the wonderful world of Adam Smith to depict the terrible and inevitable doom that lay ahead of mankind, this book will make you sit up. To avoid the descriptive pitfall, let me summaries the entire argument of the book in one line- In the future, the world will be divided on the lines of civilization, with each such regime revolving around one core state (for instance, China for Sinic civilizations, India for Hindus), with conflict imminent. What I intend to do in this review is criticize thoroughly three strands of Huntington’s arguments in which he puts forward generalizations that are meant to be ‘one size fits all’, but don’t really fulfill that category when applied to India.
Firstly, he argues that if a civilization adopts a Kamelist approach, ultimately it will result in a backlash from the core of that civilization, resulting in it returning to its roots (his most detailed example is that of Turkey). He goes on to say that people who tend to proclaim their superiority to the west- ideologically or culturally, unwittingly resort to following paths shown by the west itself (obvious example is USSR and its ideology), again resulting in a backlash from the elites to return to its roots. However, we can take this further by arguing that civilizations that resort to a more moderate form of copying the west (while maintaining the air of superiority about their indigenous norms) ultimately end up diluting their culture and ending up identity less. The most striking example is that of Mainland China, where western institutions, values, norms are speedily attaining a level of automatic assumed undisputed superiority, unquestionable and above all indigenous counterparts. Lastly, countries which aim to co-exist peacefully with others and do not proclaim the superiority of indigenous cultures end up sticking closest to their roots, at the same time developing economically and socially (India).
Secondly, I shed doubts on his arguments on 'language of wider communication' (LWC). I feel that if English is used as a third language (common as second language to both the involved parties), then his argument about LWC stands. Thus, it is also valid to point out the south Indians using English and not Hindi as their preferred means of communication. However, when an Indian speaks English to a British or an American, then his argument loses ground because rare is the case when the latter speaks Hindi. Thus, aren't people of other civilizations (non-English) losing the integrity of their culture when they are speaking English to an English speaking person? Thus, the case against his argument that English is not becoming a world language stands firmly
Lastly, Huntington makes one gross generalization. He constantly labels India as the core of the 'Hindu' civilization and mention that there is a distinct 'Islamic' civilization in India. This is inaccurate given that the civilization of the sub-continent is generally tremendously heterogeneous and can only be termed 'Indian' and not branded according to religion. The Hindus and Muslims in India can be better labeled according to language, caste, class or region, but not religion. Even in Pakistan, which was a nation based on the false notion of Islamic brotherhood, the Punjabis, Sindhis, Afghanis, Pathans, Mohajirs are very much divided on the above categories and not bound together at all by the common religion. The only entity that binds the whole sub-continent is the inherent 'Indianness' of the culture that has developed over 5,000 years and whose primary characteristic is 'unity amidst diversity'. Any religious labeling of this land is bigotry. Thus, in my view India will not emerge just as a core for the Hindu world, but for all those who have similar civilization traits, namely South East Asia, certain parts of Africa besides South Asia.
Overall, however, Huntington can be forgiven. Unlike many of his western counterparts, he does admit his lack of proficiency in the issues revolving round India, some of which as illustrated above, certainly appear markedly different from the universal generalizations. To me, the best part of his book remains where he mentions the possibility that China and the US might stumble into a bitter and mutually destructive conflict in the future and thereafter the world being left wide open for India to shape it as it pleases. All I have to say to that is ‘Amen’.
Originally reviewed for India Nest
It has become the norm for us to expect vehement criticisms of economic globalization from the left wing circles of the world, especially in the developing countries. That has been the most common breeding grounds for some of the harshest critics of this phenomenon viz. the Marxists, the environmentalists, the nationalists and even domestic entrepreneurs striving for subsidies and protection. This book comes from the heart of the developed world, the USA and from an individual who has not only had a brilliant academic career, but has also served in the highest strata of the bureaucracy of the developed world, and the international organization shaped by the ideas most preached by the same. Joseph Stiglitz has served in the Council of Economic Advisors to President Clinton, and has also served as the Chief Economist at the World Bank. Therefore, he has witnessed first hand events that shape much of the activities of the global economy and his account of the same is thus so very influential.
This book is also different because of its rooted belief in democracy, social equity, justice and most importantly, a freely functioning market economy. Often critiques have offered a wholesale alternative model viz. either the one with collective ownership of the means of production, or the one with protection and subsidies. Stiglitz does not offer a different model: he simply believes that the neo liberal policies of the Washington Consensus that dominate the international organizations such as the World Bank and more importantly, the IMF, are detrimental to achieving a functioning market economy. Ideologically speaking, he sides with Keynes rather than Hayek, emphasizing demand more than supply.
Stiglitz’s main achievement is to highlight in detail the inequities of the global order. He argues persuasively that the international organizations have promised much, but have failed miserably to keep up to most of them. He identifies the reason for the same as vested interests that dominate the international agencies. For example, the US being the largest contributor and the only member with an effective veto at the IMF often results in overt influence of the Treasury on the Fund, which pursues the interests of the finance lobbies of Wall Street rather than poor farmers in Botswana or Ethiopia, or that of the middle classes of the countries of the erstwhile USSR in transition from a command to a market economy. He blames the disparity in regulations relating to openness to foreign trade and subsidies as another example where international agencies have failed to implement global laws to developed countries, when all too often they forcibly apply these rules to the developing countries.
The IMF, according to Stiglitz, has not only been plagued with vested interests of a narrow elite in the western world, but it has also blinded itself with the spectacles of ideology. The IMF’s belief in the infallibility of markets is clearly misplaced. Markets when left on their own manage to distort their own functioning. Stiglitz points to the over capacity generated by the market in the construction industry of Thailand as one of the numerous examples of markets behaving badly. He associates such wastage of resources to the causes of the East Asian crisis in the late 90s, precipitated further by the callous policies of the IMF. He believes that market institutions must be in place before liberalization can be successfully pursued. He cites the disastrous case of Russia to show how lack of mechanisms, regulations and institutions led the market to severely distort itself, resulting in capital flight from the country, massive corruption during privatization and widespread unemployment and impoverishment.
However, Stiglitz’s most severe attack on the IMF comes because of the interventions the Fund has made in various economies, in times of crisis or not, that have managed to worsen the situation many times over. He cites the severe contractionary monetary policies imposed on the already severely indebted economies of East Asia, resulting in a bankruptcy spree and the economy sinking into further depression and unemployment and poverty soaring. He also condemns the various bailout plans arranged by the IMF, which have often served the interest of the rich in the country, at the expense of the middle classes and the poor. For instance, it was IMF which forced prices to be ‘market set’ in Russia as soon as it opened up, resulting in hyper inflation wiping off people’s savings. Then, realizing its folly, it induced a huge bailout package to support the currency which only managed to help the oligarchs from exporting their money to unknown Swiss accounts while common people found it harder to borrow, firms found it harder to export and imports flooded the domestic market at the expense of Russian products. Thus, Stiglitz manages to unclothe the IMF’s sermons regarding economic crisis and points out the mishaps in the Fund’s policies.
A staunch believer in gradual reform, Stiglitz demolishes the edifice of invincibility that ‘market fundamentalism’ has built for itself. He argues that markets are inherently embedded in the society, essentially echoing what Karl Polanyi wrote half a century ago, and if markets are not overseen by the society, they can be easily manipulated. The Nobel laureate economist cries out for global action, especially on behalf of the developed world, to restore faith in the international agencies by making them more accessible, fair and free from their ideological shackles. He calls for more flexibility and transparency in the global bureaucracies that determine the fate of billions behind closed doors.
All in all, a very entertaining read and a sizzling critique, not of the world market economy in the globalised era, but of the distorting elements in the same.
Originally reviewed for India Nest
The celebrated economist that wrote this book needs hardly an introduction. Perhaps the name awarded to him by left wing sympathizers through out the world ought to summarize it all. He’s been called ‘the world’s foremost free trader’ for many years now. Undoubtedly one of the strongest candidates to be knocking on the Nobel Prize’s door for decades now, Bhagwati summarizes his perspective on globalization, a much talked about phenomenon especially in recent decades. Bhagwati deals a mortal blow to the arguments of celebrated economists like Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, rendering much of them paralyzed. Perhaps it’s the title of Stiglitz’s book (Globalisation and its Discontents) that prompted Bhagwati to title his book like he has. Bhagwati writes persuasively and has facts, common sense and historical evidence to back his points. Coupled with that is his uncanny witticism clad sarcasm that reduces his opposing arguments to the stature of rodents.
The core of Bhagwati’s argument revolves around the debate over the economic implication of globalization, especially in the developing world. Too much has been written about how bad is economic integration, how it has led to ruination in poor countries and how organizations like the WTO and IMF are really satanic in fervor. For Bhagwati, the question whether globalization is good or bad is fruitless. He devotes his time to arguing that not only globalization is good, but has a potential to do far more. This distinguished Columbia economist shows through empirical analysis and evidence that poor public policy outlook in regions such as East Asia and Latin America are the main causes of their financial meltdown and not free trade itself. Bhagwati consistently shows the fruits of open trade have brought to countries across the world, poor or rich, and how it could be pursued further. In essence, globalization does not need a ‘human face’- it already has one- more so than the opposers of free trade. Bhagwati identifies the evils often associated with globalization to poor governance, hegemonic tendencies of developed countries, hypocritical double standards in international organizations and pure ignorance. Thus he relieves free trade from these erstwhile shackles, arguing that it is the single most important phenomenon to material well being of the nations of the world. In all, the book moves forward at blistering pace, demolishing every pseudo edifice of mercantilism on the way, providing sizzling entertainment to the reader.
However, reservations could be made about two arguments in the book. Firstly, his argument, the classical liberal one put forward by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, of ‘comparative advantage’ is not convincing enough. It is true that most countries will indeed find their niche in the world market to develop their unique selling points, but at least in two circumstances this could not be the case- 1) the country concerned having no resources to base exports on and 2) a country’s companies being wiped out at their infant stage by giant MNCs and thus it being dependent on MNCs for employment and imports for consumption which potentially has national security implications for that country. To resolve this, surely we need to return to the Smith and List’s notion of ‘infant industry protection’, whereby a potentially competitive industry needs some breathing space to realize its full competitiveness before being exposed to the cutthroat competition in the international market. Perhaps Bhagwati means so, but his argument is not always clear on this issue.
Secondly, his arguments on multiculturalism being facilitated through globalization are rather idealistic. Indeed, certain aspects of Oriental cultures have made a great impact on the Occident, but surely the control of the channels through which these interactions can occur by the ‘west’ undermines this whole process. As a result, in countries in India, the youth have increasingly failed to distinguish anything native and western merely as ‘different’ but have invariably placed them in a ladder of superiority-inferiority, with the Indian counterpart always occupying the latter rung. This ultimately deals a blow to the pride and confidence of the nation concerned.
These reservations aside, a work that is no doubt nothing short of a masterpiece from a scholar from who we have now gotten used to receiving classics.