Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In democracies, liberty precedes equality

Mukesh’s Sacrifice from Gurcharan Das by gurcharan
Corporate Affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, created quite a stir recently when he warned companies to refrain from paying “vulgar salaries” or face the music. Mukesh Ambani took his advice and cut his salary by 65%. Flaunting wealth is distasteful; it is also imprudent when market capitalism is still trying to find a comfortable home in India.

However, the minister was profoundly wrong. The trouble with judging other people’s lifestyle is that soon you are tempted to control other things, and this is a short step to the command economy. Not to live ostentatiously is a call of dharma, not a legal duty.

The distinguished minister, who is a sensible lawyer, quickly realized his error and pulled back the next day. “Only the company’s shareholders can decide salaries…It cannot be mandated, but should be self-exercised,” he said. Yes, this is the right position—only shareholders have the right to fix salaries in a democracy, not the government. The significance of the minister’s two positions, however, goes beyond vulgar salaries and reflects an old conflict between our ideals of liberty and equality.

There is a voice in each of us which values liberty. It was alarmed at the spectre of the dreaded days prior to 1991 when our government did believe that the way to make a poor person rich is by making the rich poor. There is another voice, however, which values equality. This egalitarian voice was sympathetic to Khurshid’s advice to CEOs. Millions are hurting from the global economic recession and something is wrong when some earn Rs 40 crores while 250 million Indians survive on less than Rs 50 a day.

These two voices constitute the modern idea of a fair society. In democracies, liberty precedes equality. Socialist societies value equality more and will sacrifice freedom for more state control. The contest between these two ideals has been going on for 200 years but it ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. Liberty won, and it will win in China too one day. Absolute equality is unrealistic because the human ego will not shrink that far. So we have learned to live with the lesser goal of an “equality of opportunity”. In our desire for a just society, the political Left continues to champion equality while the Right gives precedence to liberty.

I have always believed that it is none of my business how much Mukesh Ambani earns. He creates lots of jobs, pays his taxes, produces wealth for society--and that is good enough for me. Moreover, we ought to be more concerned with reducing poverty in a poor country rather worry about inequality. Controlling CEO salaries will not lift the poor. But economic reforms will. A minister of corporate affairs can make a huge difference by making it easier for a person to start and run a business. The vast majority of Indians are self-employed entrepreneurs in the informal economy. They cannot enter the formal economy because of formidable barriers of red tape and bribery. Hence, India has the shameful distinction of being 134 in a list of 180 countries in the ease of doing business. Cut the tape, Mr Minister, and you will spawn enterprise and prosperity.

A well-ordered society, however, ought to design institutions that help to diminish inequality while preserving liberty. If the advantages of the affluent are perceived as a reward for improving the situation of the worst off, then the inequality will be perceived as more just. If the lowest worker in a company believes that his prospects will improve if his company performs well, then he will not resent an outstanding CEO earning 50 times more. This was elaborated elegantly by the American thinker, John Rawls, in his famous book, The Theory of Justice.

If you want to take the sting out inequality, Mr Minister, cut red tape but also give the poor titles to their small property so that they can get a loan against it and start a business. And persuade your UPA colleagues to implement labour reforms so that 90% of Indians in the informal economy can hope for some sort of safety net. This is the way to genuine, inclusive growth. And let’s not worry too much about vulgar salaries. [STOI-18.10.09]

Revolution Calling! from ANTIDOTE by Sauvik
I am not a journalist. I am a revolutionary. I don’t write for fun. There is a serious purpose to all this – the overthrow of the regime. The first “Antidote” column published in ET in 1998 was titled “Revolution Calling!” I remain singing the same song.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Recharge moral bearings as the followers of Mahatma Gandhi

Vulgar is as vulgar does Salman Khursheed Indian Express, Monday 12 October, 2009 The recent debate regarding unacceptably high corporate salaries has been engaging as well as somewhat surprising. It is therefore important that the context be understood...
There is one last argument that clever populists throw at politicians: physician, heal thyself! There is talk about bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi, unlimited phone calls, cars and allowances, so what if the salaries are modest.
I can only suggest please come and be our guests for a week; put up with the hundreds of petitioners for jobs and other help; answer our phone which starts to ring at 5am and does not stop till well past midnight; spend some days in our constituencies and at the same time try to keep yourself from not uttering a single word that the press can turn into a story. Finally just think that whatever we have, the good and the bad, is often for a fleeting moment (short years) and then a tough election makes the rest of the life that is left pretty ugly!
Meanwhile find the money it takes to nurse a constituency and every election, including the one clearly lost before the campaign begins. We accept democracy so why should you not even want to talk about it? Talking never did anyoneany harm and then, as Amartya Sen says, we are argumentative indeed.
Meanwhile it is important to note that the recent talk of austerity in the party is not a political sham or necessarily about a few weeks or months of “abstaining from felicity” in the words of King Lear, but an honest exercise to recharge our moral bearings as the followers of Mahatma Gandhi. Not everything we sacrifice will change the world but it will change us, most certainly. If we do change, those who question our public morality will have to stop using that as an alibi for not doing the right thing themselves. One should not resort to populism to accuse another of populism.
Meanwhile just as a few black sheep should not tarnish the entire herd; the many enlightened corporates should not allow a few myopic or less-informed colleagues to speak for the entire fellowship. Even as the industry associations ask what the country can do for you, it will be nice to know what we together can do for those of our compatriots who have no voice in the money market but do have a place in the market of ideas and dreams. Ultimately these are also the people who will add to national savings and hopefully direct them to the capital market, as corporate India and the aam aadmi collaborate. The writer is a Union minister.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Terrorism as a super-entity

At the outset, I suppose I should confess that I have an almost visceral suspicion of philosophical and political discourses that make normativity their central focus. On the one hand, I associate this sort of focus with neoliberal and conservative discourses that obfuscate social issues by portraying them as issues of “values” and rights. There seems to be a way in which the moment we begin talking about values and normativity, discussion and politics gets detached from the structure of concrete situations, rendering all of that invisible. This has even been enshrined in the whole distinction between the “is” and the “ought”. Insofar as the “is” is completely separated from the “ought”, normative discourses see themselves as entitled to ignore the “is” altogether.

As a Marxist and a historical materialist, I simply think this is the wrong way to go. Moreover, contrary to those who seem to believe that neoliberalism is a discourse where self-interest is the only deciding factor and that Marxism is an axiological discourse independent of self-interest, I can’t help but see that Marx’s arguments are based on interests. What Marx shows is that our self-interest lies with the collectivity. This is why, for example, we join unions, pay taxes, form institutions to protect ourselves, and so on. A Further Note on Normativity, Politics, and OOO from Larval Subjects

Here at Larval Subjects I have often railed against forms of political discourse that target “capitalism” or “neoliberalism”. This is not because I am pro-capitalism or pro-neoliberalism, but because I believe these sorts of discourses turn capitalism and neoliberalism into “super-entities” against which it is impossible to struggle because they are everywhere and nowhere. Just as you cannot eat fruit as such, but only grapes, apples, oranges, etc., you can’t fight capitalism or neoliberalism as such.

The point is simple, you can only act on a global system through local elements within a network. The problem with discourses centered around capitalism and neoliberalism is that they’re just too baggy and they render these local networks invisible, denying us any route of action. We fall into theoretical pessimism.

In this respect, the struggle against capitalism resembles the struggle against terrorism under the last administration. By turning “terrorism” into a super-entity or an entity in its own right, we turned it into something that is everywhere and nowhere. Yet all we can act on with respect to terrorism is local networks. However, acting on these local networks can have profound effects on the larger network. Materialism, Privilege, Revolution from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

Seminar Discussions Are Not Political Demonstrations
Let us be clear about the kind of “political intervention” cultural studies was supposed to represent. It was first an expansion of teachable materials to include popular culture and other kinds of marginalized productions. It was also heir to efforts by the Frankfurt School to produce new, more complex, less reductive kinds of Marxist cultural criticism. At bottom, the link between these two different goals had to do with the ways that Marxist ideals would justify the inclusion of “lower” forms of culture, either because popular culture represented the ideas and contributions of the masses, or else because it demonstrated forms of ideological control over the masses. The odd result was that hostile readings of Dickens became part of the “culture wars,” and so did appreciative readings of Madonna. Berube describes this as a lamentable conflation that happened to “cultural studies” when it was annexed by “cultural criticism,” but it was really a natural result of writers like Theodor Adorno being willing to include essays on jazz and film as long as he was allowed to denounce them unequivocally. Eventually somebody else started writing essays on jazz and film who begged to differ with Adorno about their value — and so on all the way to modern essays about American Idol. [...]

There should be classes on political rhetoric, which would do well to analyze people like Glenn Beck, and there should be classes on aesthetic categories, including pieces of popular culture where appropriate. Departmental divisions and differences should remain within the over-arching umbrella of the “humanities,” rather than collapsing into one uber-class on hegemony. It is a sorry testament to the way modern academic understandings of “the political” have inhibited political work that academic outsiders like Greil Marcus have produced some of the best and most enduring works of “cultural studies” — books like Lipstick Traces that are much better than the canons of founding fathers such as Stuart Hall, and have no difficulty remaining in print. I agree with Andrew Seal that merely “complicating” existing pictures of neoliberalism and the political economy, as Berube proposes, is not doing enough. That sounds like embroidering a fundamental resignation with colorful, distracting dissent. But there isn’t another, better word out there, because the study of culture cannot begin with a set of political demands. It has to begin with intellectual curiosity and a sensitive ear for what individuals and institutions are trying to express, letting that access of understanding speak to issues of immediate political concern how it will. Don’t Know Much About Politics: Tough Questions About the UC Walkout and the Cultural Studies Debate from The Kugelmass Episodes by Joseph Kugelmass (x-posted to The Valve)

Home Opinion & Ideas The Chronicle Review September 14, 2009 What's the Matter With Cultural Studies? The popular discipline has lost its bearings
By Michael Bérubé

But I still have hope that the history of cultural studies might matter to the university—and to the world beyond it. My hopes aren't quite as ambitious as they were 20 years ago. I no longer expect cultural studies to transform the disciplines. But I do think cultural studies can do a better job of complicating the political-economy model in media theory, a better job of complicating our accounts of neoliberalism, and a better job of convincing people inside and outside the university that cultural studies' understanding of hegemony is a form of understanding with great explanatory power—that is to say, a form of understanding that actually works. Michael Bérubé is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. His next book, "The Left at War," will be published by New York University Press in November.