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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 42, October 3, 2009

Need for a New Economic System

Monday 5 October 2009, by P.B. Sawant

Amidst the whirlwind of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation, the main casualty is man. Not that he was ever at the centre-stage after the industrial revolution with capitalism in the saddle. But he had still the power to resist its inhuman onslaught through unionisation. Globalisation, which is the present incarnation of the capitalism and its end product, imperialism, has snuffed out even that little opposition with the national government obeying the dictates of the international organisations like the IMF, World Bank and the WTO dominated by the USA, dismantling the welfare state and the labour protective legislations, and patronising instead capital, both foreign and national. In the process, the nation has lost both its freedom of action and sovereignty. At present capitalism is in its usual systemic vortex, this time probably the biggest, on account of the over-shooting by the players in the game, propelled by endemic greed. The common man, who has no part to play in the game, is of course, as usual, at the receiving end and is most severely hit by it.

The need for an economic system which is human-centric, and not profit-centric for the few, has been felt for long, independently of capitalism and its disastrous vicissitudes. Any rational economic system should, as its object, have the satisfaction of at least the primary needs of every man/woman in the society such as adequate means of livelihood, shelter, decent environment to live and work in, sufficient education to enable the individual to grow according to his/her potentialities, health care, recreational facilities, and leisure to pursue one’s creative hobbies. They are the minimum basic rights which every individual must have, if he/she is to live a life of dignity. They are today known as economic human rights. The content of each of these rights may differ from society to society, and in each society from time to time depending upon the availability of resources, economic development and the development of science and technology. But, whatever the resources, they should first be applied to meet the above human rights of every member of the society, before they are used for any other purpose. The advancement of the society should lead to the enhancement of the content of these rights, and the progress and development of the society should be measured in terms of the quality of the rights available to its members. It is unrealistic to measure the growth of the society in any other term. It is needless to state that the fruits of the development of the society have to be distributed equally among all, till a desired level of the standard of living is attained, and thereafter according to the needs of the duties to be discharged by the respective members of the society.

The development of the society will, of course, involve the utilisation of the natural resources of the country such as land, air, water, the flora and fauna, and the minerals. It may also involve the exploitation of the non-renewable resources of the earth, if necessary. Man has therefore to exercise utmost restraint while exploiting the nature, for destruction and pollution of the environment is bound to have its repercussions on all life—plant or animal—as is being witnessed for decades now. Man has to live in co-operation, and not in confrontation with nature, in his own interest. Man must therefore bridle his greed, and first decide the limits of his consumption and possessions. The happiness of man does not depend upon his possessions, but on his being in peace with his innerself and with the outer surroundings. The ancient seers and sages of this country, therefore, rightly stressed the importance of simple living and high thinking to attain peace of mind which alone can ensure inner bliss and true happiness.

The message of simple living and high thinking, that is, the pursuit of higher things in life, is extremely important in another vital context. The environment which is threatened by destruction and pollution on account of consumerism deliberately propelled by capitalism and the growing population, can only be saved by keeping our needs both simple and minimal, and consuming only the minimum necessary to live a healthy life. The philosopher historian, Prof Arnold Toynbee, has recommended to the entire world the same ancient Indian way of life, precisely on account of the impending danger to the environment and human life posed by consumerism. When Karl Marx stated that man has to choose between “to be or to have”, he was thinking of nothing else. Mere possessions do not make a man happy. The happiness does not flow from things external. It is an inner feeling generated by being at peace with oneself. The pursuit of acquisition of unnecessary things itself deprives a person of his/her peace of mind, and when the things are acquired, he/she loses whatever peace he/she has while protecting and preserving them. Man also cannot be happy by destroying nature to produce things that do not add to his happiness. The possession of things may inflate his ego which is insatiable, but that itself destroys his tranquillity.

The population-sustainable capacity of the earth is not yet ascertained. But it is not necessary for man to wait till the capacity is exhausted. The quantum of consumption is already increasing with the growth of population, and that is destroying nature in its own way. The creation and consumption of the necessities have to go hand in hand, and for that purpose, the balance has at all times to be maintained between the hands that work and the mouths to be fed.

There has therefore to be a planning of population to maintain the balance. However, to determine the minimum to be produced two maxima have to be fixed. The nature of items to be consumed and their maximum number, and the maximum population which should inhabit this planet.

This exercise would certainly involve answering the question—how much consumption is enough, or how much is too much? When do you call a halt to development, and say “thus far and no further”? The capitalist economic system where the production is exclusively in private hands, and the goods and services are produced for profit; where the supply creates demand and market forces are permitted to manipulate demand and supply, is the least satisfactory apparatus qualified to answer this question. A planned economy where both population on the one hand, and production and consumption on the other are planned, alone can guide us in the matter.

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The primary economic needs of man are ascertainable. The nature of goods and services required by the members of the society and their quantum can be estimated. The mode by which they may be produced at the lowest cost in terms of the resources and the human labour, may not be difficult to be devised even if by trial and error. The development of technology has to be in the direction of the lesser and lesser expenditure of the natural resources and saving them for the future generations. There is no need to save or substitute human labour, except where the tasks are hazardous, unhygienic, unbearable and insufferable, formidable, challenging and beyond the capacity of human beings. Every member of the society must have work to perform, whether manual or intellectual, for it is in work that man finds his ultimate fulfilment and salvation. On the other hand, an idle man is a nuisance and menace to society. The surplus time, energy and means available with men and women, if not occupied in a creative and fruitful endeavour, are bound to turn to the destructive, unhealthy, anti-social, unethical and perverse activities. Peace, stability and the smooth functioning of the society will always be in danger. This is what is noticed in every society today where most of those with surplus resources, whether of time, energy, or money or of all, have been disrupting and perverting the society according to their capacity and inclination to do so. There are only a few who use their surplus resources creatively and beneficially for the society. This is also our historical experience. Empires have risen and fallen on account of the sloth, vices, depravities and licentiousness on the part of the affluent classes and their detrimental effect on the rest of the society.

The capitalist system is bound to promote development in the direction of more and more efficient technology, and to reduce the cost of human labour in production and distribution of the goods and services, since its aim is to increase the profit margin. It has not evolved to serve the society, but to serve the few capitalists to become more and more rich. In its attempt to enrich the few, however, it has to face its periodic nemesis, namely, the recession and depression on account of the production overrunning the demand. The advancement of technology by reducing the labour contracts the market and sets in a vicious downward trade cycle. The economy, and therefore the society, itself collapses. It takes a long time to revive the economy, the duration depending upon the severity of the depression. But, the so-called revival is called upon to meet the same fate of depression again after sometime by the inevitable consequences of the endemic phenomenon of over-supply and under-demand.

The evils of the capitalist economy are not confined to the recurrence of the trade cycles. To ensure and expand the market, it has necessarily to encourage consumerism and produce unnecessary goods and services destroying precious natural resources, and polluting the environment. Consumerism has thus its harmful effects on the individual and the society. Conspicuous consumption, greed, covetousness, the false sense of pride of possessions, the chase for the so-called riches and competitive luxuries—all follow as its natural consequences, keeping the individual constantly on the toes and making him restless. The society is corrupted by struggles between the individuals to outsmart the other to be ‘richer’ than others by hook or by crook. No holds are barred and no means are unfair to win the race. The aim is to reach the top of the pyramid of material ‘prosperity’ by any means. The entire ethical system is turned topsy turvy. The usual values stand replaced by new norms based on considerations of profit and loss. Everything is measured in terms of money, and its material utility. The higher values, the fine arts, the elegance and aestheticism are all relegated to the background and their place is taken by cheap, vulgar, shallow, showy, superficial, and pompous nothings. The society soon becomes a cesspool of vices, and of unethical, unlawful and openly defiant criminal conduct, and roguery and lawlessness become the order of the day. All sections of the society are affected by the falling standards set in motion by the dominant classes, and their pattern of behaviour becomes the fashion of the day. These consequences are inevitable in an acquisitive society.

The new economic system is necessary not only for this country, but also for the entire mankind. It may appear to be an attempt to swim against the tide. But that is what it is. If humanity is to be saved from the ineluctable catastrophe of the present system, we have no alternative. The present system is neither the only available mode of managing our economic affairs, nor the most beneficial one. We must not forget that the earth is a home not only for this generation of human and all other life, but also for generations to come. Nature has bestowed man with superior intelligence to contrive to live a happy life and not to drive this planet and the life on it to their extinction. Intelligence does not necessarily endow a being with rationality and wisdom. The present generation of human beings is not the most intelligent or the most wise. That man is far from being rational is proved by his history so far, and is being emphasised by what is happening everyday. Were it not for his lack of wisdom, we would not have had a stockpile of mass destructive weapons, global warming, acid rains, green-house effects and the pollution of air, water and soil, and what is worse, the economic system which generates them. An alternative system is therefore a must. The least that is expected from the man of the present generation is that he endeavours to create the alternative life-protecting and promoting system.

The author is a retired judge of the Supreme Court and a former Chairman, Press Council of India.

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