Prahlad Singh Shekhawat
The collapse of Soviet communism at the end of eighties has found an echo in the economic crisis of capitalism today. In both situations too much power was concentrated in few hands who were unaccountable and operated without transparency. Those at the helm inhabited a financial fantasy land, played with numbers wholly removed from productive economic activity. Karl Marx described commodity fetishism as the alienation of the worker from the product of his work and its social use. Similarly we can talk about finance fetishism which is disconnected from productive activity and its social use.
John Keynes the famous economist noted during the great depression of the 1930’s that the markets especially financial markets were to be blamed for their inherent inability to distinguish between “enterprise” and “speculation” and to get dominated by the activities of the speculators to a point “enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation”. This lead to the level of employment and output in the economy , and thereby the livelihoods of millions of people ,became dependent on the whims and caprices of a bunch of financial speculators, “a byproduct of the activities of a casino”. Sounds so familiar today but no lessons were learnt. Keynes though not a socialist, advocated socialization of investment or state intervention to ensure proper investment to ensure full employment. Amartya Sen has pointed out that markets may be good for demand in the economy but inadequate for social and human development.
Young people with brilliant minds who graduate from top business schools and who enjoy huge pay packets are narrowly focused on short term profits and targets and have little concern for ethical business, social responsibility and a wider horizon. The present education system is only good at producing bright minds to make the bad system work more efficiently. What they do not teach at the Harvard Business School is how to cultivate a “good business” heart and wider ethical perspectives.
We cannot go back to Soviet totalitarian socialism or even state socialism but at the same time the market fundamentalism of Reagan and Thatcher is also now confined to the dustbin of history. Without being imprisoned by dogmas and rigid ideologies we have to find a healthy mix in favour of the poor, the environment and for wellbeing and human development, perhaps akin to the Scandinavian countries. Markets and corporations have to be democratically regulated, made accountable and socially responsible. Secondly integrated globalised economies are no more the model. Globalisation needs to be selective and democratic. Multinational corporate and IMF- World Bank lead neo-liberalization has also to be made accountable to a global democratic process including all stake holders. Speculative finance and equity markets should be taxed (to be used for social development and aid to poor countries) and should not be allowed to work as casinos.
Andrew Simms of the New Economic Foundation suggests that the first shift might be a radically different approach to public spending. Now that they have seen their governments spend eye-popping sums of money to get out of a crisis, won’t voters demand similar largesse to solve other pressing problems? For decades, politicians have told constituents that there simply isn’t the cash to pay for, say, the £3bn that would be needed to halve child poverty by 2010, or the annual £8bn it would take to get 20% of our energy from renewable sources.!
Opportunities for new modes of thinking may result when old dogmas fade away. For example there can be shorter working weeks as people accept that they will earn less and consume less, work may be shared so that there is less unemployment. Less work and less income maybe compensated by more time for family, friends and leisure. Less consumption and production may mean lower economic growth but may be better substituted by improved quality of life in terms of relationships, engagement with the community and less expensive but meaningful leisure activities. Consumerism may be replaced by mindful consumption so that the environment al depletion and pollution can be halted.
Individualist hedonism and consumerist lifestyle inspired by some norms of Western culture, corporate globalization and advertising hype now widely emulated around the world is leading to the rapid depletion and pollution of the environment .At the same time the pursuit of aimless affluence causes the disease of what has been called ‘afluenza’ where a life of high stress ,instant gratifications ,breakdown of community and family and lack of meaning produces depressive modern angst. The solution of the economic and environmental crisis is deeply connected to a simpler but better quality of life and happy relationships rather than on having more quantities of products .Redefining development and progress in terms of harmonious relationship with nature as well as focusing on wellbeing and meaningful happiness rather than on GDP , economic growth and stock market index, is the key.
This is precisely what the New Economic foundation in London is doing with its advocacy of the Happy Planet Index . The Happy Planet Index which combines measures for sustainable use of natural resources with indicators for long and happy life. On the basis of its findings the foundation argues that to live happy and long life one does not have to consume natural resources extravagantly but that we can find fulfillment through non economic factors like quality relationships and community engagement. Similarly Positive Psychology proposes good personal and social relations, doing fulfilling work through excelling in what one is good at and finding meaning through larger and altruistic purpose
Some years ago the King of Bhutan suggested the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH). It represents a general aspiration towards environmental conservation, culture promotion, equitable growth, community living and emotional well-being. Recently Richard Layard professor at the London School of Economics argues in his book “Happiness: Lesson From a New Science”, that public policy should be devoted to increasing happiness rather than wealth or success. Economic standards particularly in the West in the last fifty years (and recently elsewhere) have grown enormously but no corresponding increase in happiness has taken place. This is only partly due to greater reporting of mental health problems. Most studies show after a certain comfort level further increase in economic standards has diminishing returns in terms of happiness.
According to the findings of Positive Psychology , Dalai Lama and some social scientists (whose conclusions have been summarized in the book: Why Good things happen to Good People) , altruism , helping others, compassion, is twice blessed, It helps the receiver as well as the giver who gains in happiness. Caring and sharing instead of self-centered economic status, leads to more humane and ethical wellbeing. It is no coincidence that Denmark is said to be the most equal as well as the happiest country. A more equal and a caring society also tends to have lesser social tensions and conflicts. Of course all and especially the poor have a right to raise their economic standards to a comfortable level.
The countries of Scandinavia have consistently achieved very high ranking in terms of human development and well-being. Denmark being probable being most equal and the happiest nation has already been noted. Norway is on top of the gender equity scale. Scandinavia enjoys very high level of trust and peace and environmental care in their societies. Why they score high is not only because they are homogenous societies with little history of wars and with a high standard of income but also because they have charted a third humane and caring way trying to overcome the ills of both capitalism and socialism, Where redistribution and human development is as or more important than growth.
The slogan for our times is no more globalise but globalise for what ?. The financial and economic crisis, climate crisis, dependence on fossil fuels, and crisis of agriculture and food also offer unique opportunities for redefining development and progress as a life of lower consumption but higher wellbeing and happiness. It is also an opportunity for organic agriculture to feed the world and preserve the soil. It is an opportunity to reassess the meaning of life and our purpose in living. Good life does not have to cost the earth and true happiness does not require meaningless affluence.