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Winners Take All

Winners Take All

Concentration of Power: Philosophy of Exclusion, Show of Strength

It sounds ironic that Trump calls the barrier he wants to erect on the Mexican border a “beautiful wall!” In what sense beautiful? Today, a ‘philosophy of exclusion’ has become beautiful in the eyes of the beneficiaries. Trump is ready to assume special powers to realize his dream. Modi began his election campaign with anti-Pakistan jingoistic postures: surgical strike, Balakot. He considers his ‘show of strength’ as his greatest achievement during his five-year term in office. As the Arch-Chowkidar of Indian security, he takes a pose of having unlimited power. His personal pretentions are alarming. There are flatterers to encourage him too. In fact, Adityanath Yogi has referred to the Indian Army as Modiji’s Sena to the shock of the nation. But concentration of political power is on the way.

With the weakening of the Chinese economy and shrinking of job opportunities, Xi Jinping plans to adopt Mao’s strong handed ways of which he himself was a victim when he was 15 years old.  The Core Leader wants to thrust millions of youths from over-crowded cities back to the villages, including college graduates and vocational school students. The urban population in China has increased to 810 million by last year. Aging population is an additional anxiety. Xi’s proposal is presented in attractive language, “Young talent must flow back to the country.”  Meantime Xi, President for life, asks the army to be in combat readiness, and hikes the defence budget to $177 billion, marking an increase of 7.5%.    With concentration of power already achieved, ‘show of strength’ is the natural consequence.

Maithripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka, visiting the Philippines, greatly admired Duterte’s strong policy against drug criminals: shoot them, eliminate them. Like-minded people understand each other instantly, like Trump and Kim, Modi and Xi.  Sirisena said he would introduce the Filipino policy on drugs in his own country as well: death penalty for drug dealers. Concentration of power leads to its misuse.  “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Lord Acton had said.

The world as a whole seems to be moving in the same direction: a philosophy of exclusion, show of strength, concentration of power. The various phases are similar: from democracy to anarchy, from anarchy to dictatorship. It is no more thoughts that guide action. Emotions have taken over. Emotions drive politics, shape attitudes, develop a world vision, and formulate a philosophy of life.  William Davies in his book “Nervous States: How Feeling Took over the World,” admits frankly that faith in democracy is badly shaken worldwide.

For example, with the Brexit discussions going awry, journalists say, Britain has become just a ‘warring tribe,’ with no shared vision. Is it rushing headlong from democracy to anarchy? What comes next, they ask? Others have moved ahead already: Erdogan, Putin, Orban.  There is deep anxiety in intellectual circles on these issues. It is with concern that they look upon this philosophy of exclusion, concentration of power, and show of strength. But Daniel Drezner in his “The Ideas Industry” feels certain that ‘public intellectuals’ are on the way out; that critics, sceptics, and foes of power have become an unwanted species today (Ibid 91).

Concentration of Wealth

In his latest book ‘Winners Take All,’ Anand Giridharadas (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018, pg.4) shows how the income of the top 10% Americans has doubled since 1980, of the top 1% more than tripled;  and of the very top 0.001% has risen sevenfold!  For the rest of their countrymen, numbering 117 million in all, fortunes have remained the same. There is very little hope for others to rise. The share of young people who own business has fallen by two-thirds since the 1980s (Ibid 3). Money is accumulating in the hands of a few. A handful controls the wealth of the nation.

In India too, the privileged ones are rising rapidly. Political leaders, for example,  have raced ahead. They act as though they have a birthright to be millionaires.  Of the outgoing MPs, 83% are crorepatis... 430 in all. While India is expected to grow 7.3% next year, the crorepatis have grown at the rate of 60%. Rahul has pointed out, how 15 Indians can go in private planes, while millions starve. He has accused Modi of undertaking foreign trips only to promote private companies. Compare that with the conditions of those who are left behind; for example, the unhappy condition of 12,742 manual scavengers. According to Safai Karmachari Andolan, their real number is 770,000;  of whom 1800 died in  sewers in recent years. There is no money to attend to their security and wellbeing. Compare that with what the BJP spent on advertisement during the very first stage of the elections: 1.04 crore.  Compare that again with the 113 million people in the world who suffer acute hunger, Africa worst-hit.

The contrasts are shocking. No wonder why people feel, “Winners take all.”  Firms like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook taken together, own most of the world. Even other corporations feel threatened; the Big Guns can stifle innovation in other companies or individuals, deter investment, and drive up inequality. They are already doing so. And again, the ‘winners’ at the national level can rob the country and its poor and take flight, as Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi have done.

If the political world is moving in the direction of concentration of ‘political power’ in the hands of a single leader, the economic world is moving in the direction of concentration of ‘economic power’ in the hands of a few. Unregulated capitalism is having its way. Everyone knows, its tacitly accepted philosophy is about stimulating greed: unleashing bad motives for good results, for creating abundance.

John Maynard Keynes, in his ‘Essays in Persuasion’ wrote: “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that ‘fair is foul and foul is fair;’ for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.” Robert and Edward Skidelsky elaborate further on this thesis in their book “How Much is Enough?” The 100 years that Keynes is asking for lengthen out as long as that philosophy holds the world in its grip.

The Market World Wants to Take Charge of Everything

Giridharadas admits that today’s elite are more socially concerned than those in earlier times (at least in vocabulary), but he finds no way of denying that that they are also far more “predatory” since their range of influence is far wider. What they are offering to the less fortunate are “symbolic scraps” (Ibid 7). But they have a persuasive tongue. Think of  Modiji’s “mann-ki-baat.” People keep whispering ‘Modi, Modi’ like an all-healing mantra. 

Plutocrats and business magnates organize conferences and ‘idea festivals,’ and encourage “thought leaders.”  They speak of “enlightened self-interest.” They claim they want to “give back to society,” while refusing to admit that they are the cause of the social imbalance that is troubling society today (Ibid 6). Many things that they say seem convincing; but all they do is to curb opposition, open out new areas to be tapped, and take control of more spaces of social life into their hands.

Business magnates want to push themselves into every sphere of public activity:  charity, academia, media, government; they organize think tanks, thought leaders; they shape the vocabulary; they take over space. They create today’s language, they shape categories of thought, they control the rhythms of social emotion. “Economistic reasoning dominates our age” (Ibid 259).  Their primary dogma is that all forms of social betterment can be worked out only through free market, not by law or a reform of the system. “Want to change the world? Start a business.” That is their unfailing answer (Ibid 35). The irony is that Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich can Save the World,’ was published in 2008 when the economies of the world were collapsing (Ibid 46). That was the epic meltdown that cost millions of people their homes, jobs, and health insurance (Ibid 83). ).

Everyone knows that nothing changes, as long as the status-quo guardians remain the change-makers (Ibid 30). The more they juggle with changes, the more the bad situation aggravates.  The ultimate result is the emergence of Donald Trump, says Giridharadas, the “embodiment of elite-led social change.”  He personalizes the elite’s dramatization of change. Once in power, Trump’s “America First” changes to “My interests first.” Those who suffer are the marginalized and the vulnerable (Ibid 9). He incarnates the very “fraud” that fuelled his rise and that he exploited. His is an evident case of the rich claiming to protect the poor, says Giridharadas; having control over money and power, they also take charge of plans for their re-distribution (Ibid 10). 

Attractive Public Face, Hidden Realities

The elite’s philosophy of life seems to bring optimism into public life. In Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” the 4th ‘win-win habit’ sees life as a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. Everything contributes to everybody’s benefit (Ibid 37). Right. So, for example, there is a new way of looking at the Syrian refugee problem. The corporate suggestion is, ‘let us put them to work.’ That was Pharoah’s formula for Israelites. Does it not turn out to be “a win-win proposal,”  they ask,  for the host countries and the refugees? But Giridharadas is sceptical of marketing compassion (Ibid 38). The corporates can draw benefit even from a tragedy. “Winners Take All,” indeed. Andrew Carnegie would have a defence in such cases: organization and management talents are rare among men, so allow them to take initiatives, both for making profits and sharing benefits (Ibid 161). What is not said is that Carnegie used to cut on wages and make unreasonable profits (Ibid 163). “Generosity is not a substitute for justice,” points out Giridharadas (Ibid 182).

No doubt, the corporate pedagogy has many stimulating dimensions. A pamphlet of theirs gives the following tips: change the world, improve lives, invent something new, solve a complex problem, extend your talents, build enduring relationships (Ibid 24). The Market philosophy encourages “innovative ideas” (Ibid 20), leadership in thought, saving a bad situation.  The messages they have for the young are stimulating: learn something new each day; build up the good rather than attack the bad as the previous generation did, e.g. opposing Vietnam War or growing enthusiastic about Mao’s writings (Ibid 17).

The business network firmly stands for a “Declaration of Interdependence” recognizing “business as a force for good” and fostering the change we want to see (Ibid 25). Funds can be placed at the disposal of good works, they contend, only if funds are raised. Some of the points they raise seem to be convincing. They convince. The trouble with them, however, is that they turn thoughts into commodities (Ibid 105): “when the Market-World likes you, it wants you as a product” (Ibid 107).

Take again another example. They want to make people feel good about America, about themselves...then exploit them in the way planned. They want to build a dependent collective psychology, create a feeble mentality, that leaves unthinking people vulnerable (Ibid 189-90). Stimulate anger that leads to populism, ethno-nationalism, and xenophobia... and take advantage of these emotions (Ibid 184). 

Perceptive persons can see many similarities to the Indian context: boasts about India’s military performance, economic successes, Hindutva interpretation of history; anger about alien humiliation of India, enemy-creation, horror about ‘others;’ lynch-fervour, cultural zeal,  Bajrang Dal formation, unthinking surrender to sadhus, sadhvis, godmen, RSS, VHP stalwarts...to the Strongman. Shift from ‘India first’ to ‘Modi first.’

Giridharadas asks us to recognise the limitations of plutocratic philanthropy, whether it be that of Bill Gates, George Soros or Bill Clinton. If giving in charity in millions is impressive, robbing in billions is totally unfair, especially when it leads affected people to disaster (Ibid 183). If intervening helpfully in poor African countries is praiseworthy, destabilizing prices there to profit from their weak economy is criminal (Ibid 37). Where is ‘win-win-ism’ here, when one side is clearing losing?  In America itself, it is noticed, that the worker has become 72% more productive between 1973-2014; but his pay rose by a mere 9% (Ibid 40). Lamentable as this is, it is perfectly in keeping with the dogma of “profit maximisation,” which frees you from an obligation to offer a fair deal with regard to paying adequate wages, overtime, emergencies, or pensions.

Milton Friedman wrote in New York Times in the 1970s “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits” (Ibid 149). As clear as that. No wonder that upstart millionaires earlier times earned the name ‘robber barons.’ Theodore Roosevelt had no hesitation in considering Rockefeller’s millions ill-gotten, through oil monopoly and ban on labour unions (Ibid 158). A sense of responsibility once meant ‘moral duty,’ says Yascha Mounk, but now it means ‘obligation to be self-sufficient’ (Ibid 18-19). Commitment to self-reliance is the height of virtue! Selfishness is canonised.

Scant Respect for Government Institutions

If we allow self-interest to rise to Himalayan heights, we would have no society to fall back on, no government to appeal to,  no institutions to rely on. Margaret Thatcher was very sure, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women” (Ibid 19). Where capitalism dominates, governments have already become dysfunctional (Ibid 10).  “The era of big government is over,” proudly claimed Bill Clinton (Ibid 19). When the private sector occupies the commanding heights of the economy, the public sector goes on the defensive and runs out of steam (Ibid 228). You shouldn’t be surprised then that the elites are trusted less and less today (Ibid 210), as their self-interest leaves no space for others. Tatas, Birlas and Ambanis may be doing great things; but if ordinary people feel marginalized, despised, and let down, then gradually ‘pain and road rage’ build up (Ibid 213).

In India, matters have become more complicated, where there is the additional worry that sadhus and godmen have to be appeased, RSS and their ‘invisible hand’ have to be respected, misguided devotees and their fervour need to be placated. The government has become mere observers (and secretly promoters), e.g. during Padmavati protests or cow-lynchings. They have become helpless before emotional outbursts that they themselves have aroused to defend archaic traditions (Sabarimala) or inhuman practices (Sati, child marriage). It is no more the legislature, the judiciary and the executive that are functioning, but crowd-pulling religious fanatics, vote-buying politicians, and irresponsible economy-manipulators. During elections, it is reported that money was carried in helicopters, ambulances and black-boxes.

The misuses of power and disrespect for values during elections have been truly shocking. Modiji, making a public display of humility as the chowkidar of the nation, flaunted his military achievements: surgical strikes and Balakot killings. We cannot remember Indira Gandhi boasting about her Bangladesh victory. While Yogi made a show of eating with dalits, he holds the biggest number of dalits in jail. Amit Shah was unembarassed about his aggressive Hindutva nationalism. On the general front, candidates calling each other names distracted you from the quality of debates. Competitors put no limit to ‘demeaning politics.’ How low can you descend before being disqualified, this was the only question.

Values Win Respect Yet in Unexpected Spaces

Winners want to take all. Money may increase with effort, but glory, honour and fame will slip from your hands the moment you set out hunting after it. Popularity eludes popularity-hunters. And even about money, Aristotle says, “Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else” (Ibid 14). What we are looking for is human wellbeing. Very surprisingly, increasing number of Millennials in the US, says Giridharadas, “want a job with meaning,” not mere good income (Ibid 42). Indian youths are not far different. Meaning is in sharing good things with all, to everyone’s joy. People value togetherness even when individuals want to excel.  Excelling brings joy when it is for the benefit of all.  Sharp inequality damages the atmosphere.

We have people amidst us still who have been reflecting on such issues. While Amartya Sen’s services were terminated in Nalanda University with scant courtesy, a chair has been instituted after his name in the London School of Economics in recognition of his contribution to an “understanding of inequality.” This happens in the face of Mounting Inequality. There are times when we look to the Heavens for assistance. Our sense of helplessness has grown more severe after the news about Christchurch, Colombo and Notre Dame. Even Modiji offered help to Colombo.

As we await the results of the elections, we pray that the winners may not “take all,” be vengeful, organize raids, bring down statues, ransack party-offices; but offer to join hands with all who are committed to the cause of the nation and the welfare of the world.

(Published on 29th April 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 17 & 18)