Four stories and a question
* George Soros, a multi-billionaire philanthropist and the most successful money manager of our times, writes and campaigns passionately against ‘market-fundamentalism’.
* Over a thousand people from different corners of India meet for the third Congress of Traditional Sciences and Technologies of India at Varanasi.
* Bruce Sterling, a science fiction writer, addresses the Industrial Designers Society of America in Chicago and throws them the Viridian challenge.
* Domkhedi, a small village on the banks of the Narmada, anchors a dogged satyagraha.
These apparently unrelated events have occurred in the last one year. Each of them is rooted in the urge to make the world a better place. Here are different dimensions of coping with, and even daring to direct, juggernaut forces of change. Are there creative possibilities tucked away in the intersecting common spaces of these diverse settings?
George Soros, a Hungarian born American billionaire, has so far been known as the most successful money manager of our times. Over the last four decades, his international investment fund has amassed a fortune of over $20 billion. Soros has often been credited for triggering vast swings in the world currency markets. He is probably the only man who almost busted the Bank of England. Since the late 1980s, Soros has also been in the news for giving away millions of dollars through his Open Society Foundations.
However, last year Soros made headlines by earning ridicule for his book, Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered (Public Affairs, New York, 1998). In this book Soros argues that the global capitalist system, which has been responsible for the remarkable prosperity of the USA, is coming apart at the seams. He warns that the financial meltdown in Russia and the crises of the Asian economies are the portends of much worse still to come.
Lest he be mistaken for changing sides, Soros is quick to point out, at the very outset, that he is not trying to abolish the global capitalist system, for it is better than the tried alternatives. Instead he is campaigning for reform which will prevent the system from destroying itself. Yet, as the Wall Street Journal noted, Soros’ rhetoric recalls the treatises of Marx and Lenin more than the musings of a modern-day financial wizard. Soros writes, for example, that:
* Open society is no longer endangered by totalitarian regimes but instead by the lack of social cohesion and the absence of government.
* Financial markets resent any kind of government interference but they hold a belief deep down that if conditions get really tough the authorities will step in. This belief has now been shaken.
* There is a need to recognise that markets are inherently unstable and thus imposing market discipline means imposing instability. How much instability can society take?
* The failures of politics are much more pervasive and debilitating than the failures of the market mechanism. The disenchantment with politics has fed market fundamentalism which, in turn, has contributed to the failure of politics.
* The term ‘market fundamentalism’ refers to a mind-set which holds that all social activities and human interactions should be looked at as transactional, contract-based relationships and valued in terms of a single common denominator, money. This mind-set now poses a greater threat to open society than any totalitarian ideology.
* How society should be organised, how people ought to live their lives – these questions ought not to be answered on the basis of market values. Yet... market fundamentalists have transformed an axiomatic, value- neutral theory into an ideology which has influenced political and business behaviour in a powerful and dangerous way.
* While communism and even socialism have been discredited, the belief in laissez faire capitalism has elevated the deficiency of social values into a moral principle.
* There is a common flaw in market fundamentalism, geopolitical realism and vulgar social Darwinism: the disregard of altruism and cooperation.
* Open society can only be defended by people learning (or remembering) to distinguish between what is right and what is expedient and doing what is right even if it is not expedient. This is a tall order. It cannot be justified by a calculation of narrow self-interest.
* A global open society cannot be brought into existence by people or non-governmental organizations acting on their own. Sovereign states have to cooperate and this requires political action. Public opinion and civil society have an important role to play in this process.
These observations and conclusions do sound more like the pronouncements of a left-wing anti-globalisation activist than ‘the most successful money manager of our times.’ And that is how Soros’ pronouncements have been treated. His book was quite uniformly trashed by the mainstream media in the USA, with most of the above points being overlooked or rejected in a facile manner.
Most media attention was focused on the contradictions between Soros’ money-making methods and his social concerns. ‘When Soros the speculator forces a currency into crisis, what does Soros the philanthropist think?’ asked the headline of an article in Foreign Affairs. Most reviewers echoed the Wall Street Journal’s verdict that ‘Mr Soros’ diagnosis of global capitalism has more flaws than the system itself.’
Thus, suddenly, a financial wizard, a man at the very heart of the mainstream, seems like a rebel at the margins. It is another matter that Soros may not be welcomed by those who are used to working at the margins, having been there a life-time. The critique outlined above has been tirelessly reiterated by them for decades. Yet many of them may not pause to consider Soros’ stand seriously, for they would tend to agree with The New York Times’ verdict about Soros: ‘He’s seen the enemy. It looks like him.’
But this response eliminates any possibility of building further, both on the critique itself and the fact that Soros is articulating it. Surely there must be some people, in different corners of the global marketplace of ideas, who are willing to expand the space – or even promise of space – opened up by Soros’ stand. This would mean a willingness to dialogue and reach across both apparent divides and familiar stereotypes. This itself may be a much tougher challenge than the dangers of market fundamentalism.
For sheer contrast let us now switch to the next story from the other end of the spectrum about a very different kind of ‘worried about globalisation’ fraternity. At just about the same time that Soros’ book was rolling off the press in America, a segment of this fraternity was assembling along the banks of the Ganga, at Varanasi.
The third Congress on Traditional Sciences and Technologies of India and Soros’ world are virtually planets apart. They seem to exist in a time-space dimension almost exclusive of each other. The concrete canyons of Wall Street and the muddles of currency trading are indeed far, far away from the world of a weaver scrambling for raw materials or a bamboo craftsman seeking a toe-hold in the local market. Let us, just for the moment, overlook the claim that distances can now be dissolved by a few ‘clicks’ on the world wide web. And then, let us briefly glimpse the six-day Congress.
The traditional science congress’ are mixed gatherings of the converted. All participants share a skepticism about modern modes and are interested in the traditional know-ledge systems. But this common denominator covers a wide variety of perspectives. There are those who comprehensively denounce the modern industrial project as an unmitigated disaster and believe that a revival of traditional modes of production and resource use would set the world right. Others take a tempered view of both modern and traditional systems and aspire for a utilitarian mix. Yet others are seeking to grasp the essential wisdom of the ages and make a civilizational ‘leap’ that would elevate human society to a higher level of evolution.
The Patriotic and People oriented Science and Technology (ppst) Foundation, which initiated and coordinates the Congress’, is itself a mixed group. Its formal position is a response to the fact that modern modes of industry and development have failed to deliver even the bare minimum basics to the bulk of Indians. Thus the need to explore the contemporary relevance of ‘living’ traditional systems of knowledge, modes of production and lifestyles. The ppst aims to do this by expanding the economic and political space for traditional practitioners and perspectives.
Like the first two Congress’, held at iit Bombay and Anna University Chennai, the Varanasi event brought together traditional practitioners, modern technologists and political activists from varied spheres. There were sections on agriculture, industry, health, veterinary science, water, philosophy, social organisation, local markets, energy and lifestyles, globalisation, education and women’s knowledge.
The gathering could have excited a newcomer interested in, or even merely curious about, the promise of traditional systems in contemporary problem-solving. There was a wide array of information available in each field. Among other things you could learn about indigenous methods of rainfall prediction, organic pesticides, traditional methods of soil fertility management, the intricacies of vastu, revival of draught animal power, traditional methods of cataract surgery, the role of neem in public health care and so on.
The Congress is also a meeting point for many of the protest movements and andolans struggling against destructive ‘development’ projects or policies. Most of these movements are united by their vehement opposition to the current trend of globalisation which is concentrating power in the hands of large multinational corporations.
Many veterans of this process may have come away disappointed from the Varanasi Congress. There was an excess of repetitive ‘description’ and retelling of the problem. While in some sections participants got a sense of the debate moving forward, in others there was a depressing sense of floundering about in circles. For the veterans there was joy in a concentrated gathering of old friends and colleagues. But the high dropout rate of those who were active and vital participants at the first two Congress’ signalled a shrinkage of the forum. The host group’s efforts to mobilise traditional practitioners around Varanasi in large numbers produced fairly modest results.
Loud denouncements of globalisation took many different forms. But there was little attention given to if and how the various economic and technological ‘givens’ could be challenged. In the absence of this, much of the prescriptive interventions took the form of sad-looking wishful thinking. Perhaps it followed from this that there was a glaring lack of urgency about the need to translate the micro-knowledge of various sections into a ‘doable’ macro vision and scheme.
The almost deliberated lack of urgency seems to have broadly two justifications. One, that we need more time to evolve sufficiently solid alternatives with which to confront the ‘mainstream’. That is, we are as yet not ready for the macro-challenge. The second view is that in any case the present hi-tech, greed and speed-driven model of development will eventually exhaust itself and the various alternative visions will then flower in the space thus vacated.
Let us now contrast this with a dramatically different voice from the other end of the world – the voice of a futurist. Here is a passionate rejection of the ‘anything-goes, eclectic, postmodern’ approach. It opposes any attempt to ‘cut-and-paste from the debris of past trends’ and is ‘forward-looking and hi-tech’. Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer and a self-professed futurist guru. Apart from having written several books – including Involution Ocean, The Artificial Kid, Schismatrix and Holy Fire, he is also editor of Mirrorshades, an Inter-net publication which claims to be the definitive document of the cyberpunk movement. Sterling is working the web to call for a high-tech 21st century cyber-Green movement called ‘Viridian Green’.
His ideas recently surfaced within the activist fraternity in India through the email circuit. In an exhortation like speech before the Industrial Designers Society of America in July this year, Sterling described global eco-destruction as a design problem. The greenhouse effect, he argued, is a life threatening monster that we must battle now, not by trying to recreate some better past but by creating anew – by constantly, imaginatively extending the realm of the possible.
In response, Sterling proposes a movement about ‘creative people taking a moral stance and determined to make the 20th century obsolete across the board. Not by returning to an Amish life of the 17th century. I have no problem with the Amish – if you want to live like the Amish, that should be your privilege – but you can’t make other people live that way without gulags, barbed wire and bayonets. That’s not a productive design approach.’
The answer is: ‘A new movement that knows what time it is, understands the great stakes at risk, and completely obliterates the crap techniques, crap approaches, crap methods, crap industries and crap consumer goods of the 20th century.’
This can be ensured by following certain Viridian principles. Among other things this means recognising that ‘The Biological Isn’t Logical – the living world grows irrationally through non-systemic, genetic exploration of niche possibilities, pruned back by natural selection and occasional natural disasters.’
The Viridian approach also aims to maximise the ways in which information technology can revolutionize our relationship with the physical world by replacing physical resources with information wherever possible. Thus with ‘silicon micro-mechanical systems, you can etch whole 20th century iron-bending factories into chips: gears, pistons, cogwheels, levers, screws, all computer controlled, and fully functional, and physically productive, and too small to see.’
Just what is ‘Viridian’? The concept, Sterling confesses, is ‘most imaginary, mostly vaporware.’ The one certainty attached to this concept is that it is not a movement to create a utopia. ‘Anyone who tells you they want a utopia wants to put chains on the souls of your children. They want to deny history and strangle any unforeseen possibility....We Viridians don’t want to last forever...Our aim is to get co-opted as soon as possible and have our principles vanish into the everyday world of the 21st century’s anonymous truisms.’
Therefore the Viridian concept ‘doesn’t pretend to discover eternal truths, or to last forever. Its a fully disposable ideology. Its heyday lasts maybe ten years. Then it becomes history, gracefully. Viridianism doesn’t have to be torn apart, because it spontaneously decays and recycles itself. After its over, the culture has an entire new set of problems.… We have achieved the fabulous designer luxury of getting to the next serious problem. Because we didn’t fry of heart stroke and end up in intensive care. We kicked the carbon habit and therefore we have a genuine future.’
But excess carbon is not the only thing that threatens futures.
The satyagraha at Domkhedi, on the banks of the Narmada, is an even more dire struggle to secure the future. And it is not just the future of the displaced that is at stake on the banks of the Narmada. The struggle of ‘The Valley’, of the ‘River that Refuses to Die’, now literally and metaphorically embodies the choices that will shape tomorrow for all of us. Of course, this is not a very popular view.
It is much easier to represent the Narmada imbroglio as a simple contest between good guys and bad guys, with the roles being interchangeable depending on one’s vantage point. For those who live in Gujarat, coping with a daily trickle of water, the anti-dam activists are villains while the entire parched state of Gujarat is the victim. For those whose homes and lands are being swept into the expanding reservoir of the dam, it is self-evident that anyone who supports further construction of the dam is an unqualified villain.
The campaign and multi dimensional struggle against the big dams on the Narmada is now over a decade old. Yet this massive effort has not succeeded in convincing enough people in Gujarat that the entire scheme is a fraud against them as much as it is an offense against the displaced. How is it a fraud against the beneficiaries? One, there may have been other ways of securing water from the sky, the ground and even from distant sources which would have cost far less money, time and created less displacement. And, two, the dam builders have themselves willfully broken the law at every stage, both with regard to environmental safeguards and rehabilitation of displaced people.
Thanks to the timely and laser-sharp intervention by Arundhati Roy, debate on these issues has now been revived after a dull lull of almost three years. Veteran activist and academic Gail Omvedt has enlivened the middle ground with a flurry of correspondence and articles in The Hindu. She has provided a brief history of the politics of water and argued that in most places exogenous water is essential. But Gail has also accused the Narmada Bachao Andolan of being ‘eco-romanticists’.
This one charge offers at least a key-hole view to the real battle of ideas that underlies the Narmada struggle. Irrigation and dams are merely its foreground props. Those who stand accused as eco-romanticists have two options. They can either rail against this as an unjust denouncement. For romantics are generally disregarded as impractical, even irresponsible, dreamers. Or they could wear the badge with honour and pride. After all, civilizations are shaped by those who dare to challenge prevailing notions of the ‘practical’ and thus expand the frontiers of the possible. By questioning the nature and modes of ‘development’ this is just what the nba is doing. Naturally, the concept of a decentralised industrial economy which empowers local communities, seems unrealistic in a world where more and more power rests with large global corporations. Then it does seem ridiculous to challenge the Wall Street version of the ancient mechanism of ‘markets’.
But unless you question these apparent ‘givens’, the Narmada struggle can indeed be mistaken for a squ-abble over a few hundred square miles of land and water.
And that is the intersecting common ground between these stories. In their own radically different ways, all these people are refusing to accept what is generally treated as an incontestable ‘given’. Let us assume an inherent authenticity and sincerity in each case. Let the efficacy of the challenge posed by each remain an open-ended question. And let us also agree that there is always merit in having the simplicity and courage to shout out loud that ‘the king has no clothes on’.
Still, there is little to be gained by putting these stories in one place for a facile celebration of their daring. They are far more instructive for showing us how, for the most part, we tend to live and work in tight compartments. The ‘we’ here refers to all of us who are engaged in struggles to challenge certain dominant modes of thought. ‘We’ are also those who are long accustomed to lamenting the marginalisation of humanitarian and egalitarian ideas.
It is easy, too easy, for us to dismiss Soros as ‘the face of the enemy’ and Sterling as an irrelevant cyber-punk. We may have to work much harder to appreciate that here are other people who are posing a challenge from within to whatever is treated as ‘given’ at the close of the 20th century. Perhaps they are even doing it more effectively than us.
It would be comfortable to reiterate our vision of the ideal and then argue that neither Soros nor Sterling actually pose a challenge at all. They are only fighting for the survival of the sordid system which ‘we’ are trying to overturn, or at least transform. For there is considerable discomfort in actually working out how the cherished, pure ideals can be translated into reality.
These stories also tell us something about the fluid dynamic between the ‘mainstream’ and the ‘margins’. Witness Soros’ experience. He remains at the core of the global capitalist mainstream as the head of a multi billion-dollar enterprise. However, his social and economic assessment and prescription cause him to be relegated to the margins.
The issues and concerns articulated at the Varanasi Congress reflect the reality of millions of Indians. Yet even to the practitioners of traditional skills, the worldview projected by the Congress seems marginal, if not actually subservient, to the forces shaping their present and future.
And yet this equation between the margins and the power core does keep changing. It is often difficult to quantify just when, and how ‘marginal’ ideas spread and move closer into the core or mainstream. But there is no denying the reality of this historical process. The question is: are we willing to look for resonance, if not actual allies, in the most unlikely of places? Are we willing to look for possibilities anywhere?