Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Cruelest Month


Introduction: April, according to TS Elliot in his poem ‘The Wasteland’, is the cruellest month; it breeds lilacs out of the dead land, mixes memory with desire, stirs dull roots with spring rain, and other such things. What he misses is that it is also when another cohort of young graduates set off from the comfort of their campuses into the wild world, just as I did 30 years ago.

What can I tell these kids about the trials and tribulations ahead – the challenges they will face, and the hard choices they will have to make? Not much – the world has changed, and anyway they have to make their own journeys through life. At best, I would sound like that old codger in the film ‘The Graduate’ who extols the virtues of plastic to Dustin Hoffman.

Sadly, the nature of the ‘wannabe guru’ business is such that having nothing relevant to say is at best a minor factor in a decision to go forth and pontificate. I will therefore commemorate April by listing five (academic) papers that I wish I had read before beginning my own professional journey (instead of in my late 40s). I will, however, not exacerbate April’s cruelty by regurgitating the papers for you – instead, I will merely describe why I wish I had read them earlier. Here goes, in no particular order!

1.    Panopticism – Michel Foucault – 1977

This likening of power relations and social control mechanisms in modern institutions to a 19th century idea of a model prison gave me a creepy feeling at the bottom of my spine – it described my boarding school (not a pleasant place) almost exactly. The idea of power being diffused and ever present, in every person (including the so-called powerless), family and institution, and in every action, would have helped me make sense of some simple but incomprehensible things – like the space you occupy on a ‘charpoy’ at a village meeting being reflective of your status, like the serving order at a family dinner, and like the fact that people who have complete control over you (one’s spouse, the local drug lord, and the Prime Minister of India) being as pathetically prisoners of their circumstances as you are of yours.

An additional dimension to Foucault’s arguments comes from the Czech poet-politician Vaclav Havel’s 1978 essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’, in which he analyzes submission and dissent using the parable of the sign ‘Workers of the World Unite’ outside a vegetable store. He sees ideology as something that offers a person the illusion of identity, dignity and morality while making it easier to part with these virtues, and as a veil behind which humans can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to status quo. Required reading for anyone who has to exist among the vocally ideological – no shortage of this type in many professional spheres.

2.    The Use of Knowledge in Society – Frederick von Hayek – 1945

A common trait in my early professional life was that of seeing the devil in market principles and America – and fusing them into one. In those days of cold war politics and Keynesian ideas on the role of the state, Pepsi was as close to pederasty and paedophilia in perception as it would be in a dictionary (though it was acceptable to have Windows open on one’s computer). There was also a deep-seated belief in the nanny state, where everyone had right of access to food, childcare, education, public sector employment, and everything else, with little thought on who would pay. Today, such ideas would belong to Jurassic Park or to left-of-centre think tank bar discussions after a bottle or two have emptied, but they were dominant in the late 1980s.

The importance of Hayek’s paper is that he makes a logical case for market principles at a time when central planning and an overarching state were considered the way to go. He compares centralized decision making systems with anarchic markets in their ability to make efficient use of resources, and says that the beauty of the price system as a signalling device is that it has ‘economy of knowledge’ – individuals need to know very little in order to take the right action. The scarcity of one raw material, without an order being issued, and without more than a handful of people knowing the cause, results in many people using the material and its products more sparingly. He quotes Alfred Whitehead in saying that ‘it is a profoundly erroneous truism that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations we can perform without thinking about them.’

3.    Power: A Radical View – Steven Lukes – 1974

A common tool of analysis from the 1980s onwards was ‘participatory rural appraisal’ or PRA – going into villages for short durations in teams and conducting a series of exercises (village mapping, wealth ranking, chapatti diagrams, activity mapping, etc.) that resulted in a village plan. ‘This is what the village has decided for itself,’ was the common refrain after a PRA, ‘as per its own needs and priorities. This plan has a people’s mandate.’

Though a user of its techniques, I was never quite comfortable with the legitimacy that PRA ascribed to its planning outputs, and I did not know why – until I read up on Steven Luke’s concept of the three dimensions of power.

Creating spaces to speak on a level footing and providing information to participants, as PRA requires, addresses only Luke’s first dimension. It does not address the fact that there are hidden power equations in such spaces that constrain or enable the expression of particular viewpoints. The tenants’ expression of satisfaction in arrangements with local landlords may have less to do with their perceptions of fairness and justice and more with their wanting to continue to live and their interest in the continued virtue of their women – but no PRA will capture this second, hidden, dimension.

The greatest form of domination, according to Lukes, is ‘the power to prevent people from having grievances by shaping their perceptions so that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained and beneficial.’ This third dimension explains things that otherwise confound, such as – why do women participate in the killing of girl children, or think it is OK for their husbands to beat them? Or, why do Hindu ceremonies require Brahmins to be fed?

4.    The Logic of Power – Mancur Olsen – 2000

What is this beast called government, which the philosopher Thomas Hobbes likened to a twisted sea monster and a gatekeeper of hell in his book ‘Leviathan’ in 1651? How did it come about? Why do we need it? What would happen if it didn’t exist? Would life be ‘nasty, brutal and short’ in its absence? Though not among those who spent happy years of unemployment studying for civil service exams, I have always been fascinated by these questions.

The simplest, and most potent, explanation of government is from this essay by Olsen. He likens it to a stationary bandit, one who has acquired a monopoly over theft in a given area and whose interests thereby have changed dramatically. He will not bother to steal any more, and will demand a hafta from his victims instead. He will reduce the percentage of hafta so that his victims retain incentives to produce and trade, and may even spend some of his takings on public goods that benefit his victims, like education and health, and make them more productive. He will become the government, and the hafta tax. Government, therefore, arises because of the rational self-interest of those who can organize the greatest capacity for violence.

5.    Representation, Citizenship and the Public Domain in Democratic Decentralization – Jesse C. Ribot – 2007

Some common questions we in the NGO sector faced back in the 1990s were – who has given you the right to do what you are doing? And, who are you accountable to? That we had no answers did not trouble us – we were confident that we did ‘good’ work, for which donor agencies gave us money, and who was anybody to question our intentions anyway in a free country? I for one balked only when the international charity I worked for began to claim that it was speaking for India’s poor at various international development forums. How did an organization that was accountable to a board consisting of three old white men take on the responsibility of representing India’s 300 million plus poor? Certainly, nobody from the 300 million had a say in this.

My argument against such acts of delusion, and for a rational role for NGOs in the development space, would have been better for a reading of Ribot’s paper. Democracy requires strong institutions to pay dividends, as everyone tells us in this season of elections. Ribot is considerably more specific; he says that these institutions should be democratic, and for them to be democratic they have to be representative – accountable to people, and equipped with the power to make policy and to convert policy into practise. People should ‘belong’ to such institutions by virtue of residence and not ethnicity, religion, linguistic affinity or any other identity or interest-based identifiers. And these institutions should retain substantial powers in the public political space, where citizens feel able and entitled to influence authorities.

‘Good’ public institutions, therefore, are not merely those that do good work. They also strengthen democracy by being representative of society, by enabling citizenship, and by enhancing the public domain.

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