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Need for a Coherent Political Strategy

Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone by Jean Drèze, Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2017; pp x + 343, ₹795.

Jean Drèze is well known in India, but is hardly a household name elsewhere, despite having attracted two Nobel prize-winners and a British lord as co-authors. He is best known for his collaborations with Amartya Sen. He is a Belgian economist trained in England. He has lived in India since 1979, currently in Ranchi, and has been a citizen since 2002. He was a member of Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council and was involved with the National Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The essays brought together here were written since the millennium.

The book consists of a substantial introduction and 54 short chapters (most of them originally op-ed pieces for the Hindu) grouped in 10 sections—seven of them mainly concerned with the welfare of the poor (drought and hunger, poverty, school meals, healthcare, child development and elementary education, employment guarantee, food security and the public distribution system); two with politics (corporate power and technocracy; war and peace); and a final miscellany.

Drèze does not explain his title and subtitle: “sense,” “solidarity,” jholawala, “economics” and “everyone.” The meaning of the last appears in the book’s epigraph by George Orwell, “Either we all live in a decent world or nobody does.” This probably means that those who benefit from inequality cannot protect their self-esteem by distancing themselves from the plight of the rest. Equally, a better world is impossible as long as the majority or even some have less than decent lives. But, taken literally, it is a wish, not a political agenda.

“Economics” is here a folk category seen as the ideological arm of unequal society. Yet, there has been an explosion of heterodox economists since 2008: an interdisciplinary organisation, the World Economics Association, acquired 14,000 members soon after its launch in 2011. Drèze values economics, as long as economists are willing to get their feet dirty. Like Keynes’s niece, Polly Hill, the pioneer investigator of West African economies, he is a “field economist.” He wants some kind of dialogue between economists and jholawalas, loosely identified by their string bags, but characterised more brutally by my online dictionary as “hippie communists.”

The main title alludes to Jane Austen’s novel, Sense and Sensibility, but how does the relationship between “sense” and “solidarity” express what this book is about? “Sense” combines ordinary intelligence or “gumption” (its plural being “common sense”) with use of the five physical “senses,” a combination that Immanuel Kant made the core of his “aesthetic.” Here it seems to refer to reflections on one’s own experience or “empiricism” in John Locke’s terms. “Solidarity” is a mid-19th century French term and économie solidaire has lately entered English as the awkward phrase, “solidarity economy.” Solids are closed and hard to break; “solidarity” implies the unity of a group bound together by common interests and responsibilities. “Sense and solidarity” thus combines English and French conceptions of politics. There is nothing wrong with that, but readers might expect some guidance from Drèze himself, unless the publisher found the title after the book was written.

Having lived in France for two decades and worked with left-wing researchers and activists from Southern Europe and Latin America, I am now wary when the political problem is seen as needing a “social” solution. In these circles, market economies are an English invention and incurably individualistic; therefore they should be given a dose of the “social,” as in “social democracy” or more recently “solidarity.” But this formula reproduces the bourgeois opposition between individual and society as articulated in the utilitarian tradition and by the Victorian thinker, Herbert Spencer. A century ago, the school of French sociologists led by Émile Durkheim and his nephew Marcel Mauss attacked economic individualism from Smith to Spencer, insisting rather that modern market economies are profoundly social already, but their collective principles are repressed, obscured or marginalised by capitalist institutions. The political task is not to insist on restoring the social in a one-sided manner, but to find a new democratic emphasis and direction for individuals and society as a human universal (homo duplex), building on what people are already doing for themselves as two-sided human beings.

Causes of Inequality

With this in mind, let us look at the “Introduction.” This starts with an image of thin young men in rags pushing loads of smuggled coal on bikes in the darkness before the dawn. Segue into another Orwell quote from 1937: “You and I [privileged readers] all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground …” (Drèze 2017: 1). Drèze continues, with no acknowledgement to Marx, “It is not very different from slavery, except that [the koilawala today] is driven by economic necessity instead of physical coercion” (p 2). This raises the interesting question of whether the informal economy, or lumpen proletariat in Marx’s time, should be allied to the industrial proletariat or not. For Marx this was largely a question of the political potential of each as a class.

Drèze would like to explain the difference between people like him and the underclass, making the issue a subjective one. His answer is chance. If you have been lucky, it is not on personal merit, but from “aptitudes, health, inheritance, social connections, and other assets derived from contingencies (such as the accident of birth) over which we have no control” (p 2). This makes me weep for Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality among Men (1754) kicked off all modern discussions of inequality. Rousseau is not interested in natural causes of inequality which are inevitable, but rather in moral or political causes which include privileges like being richer, more powerful and exacting obedience from others. These inequalities can be remedied by social measures. Drèze muddies this distinction.

The value of hard work was central to agrarian civilisations and early industrial societies since it added a moral dimension to the intensification of labour inputs, which primarily benefited elites. As a result of inanimate energy converted by machines, however, many people now work less, live longer and spend more; but the distribution of all this extra energy around the world is obscenely unequal: Americans use 400 times the energy of Ugandans, for example. For Drèze work is the supreme virtue: “Sure, some rich people work hard, but so do koilawalas …” (p 2). A latter day social Darwinism does attribute wealth to working hard, while the poor are dismissed as lazy losers, so he has a point. But it does not help us much to understand why inequality persists, and even gets worse today, nor what to do about it.

Wealth and power often build on corruption, exploitation and crime … We cannot prove that the privileged owe something to the rest; any more than we can prove that theft is wrong. But both can be thought of as sensible principles of a good society. (p 2)

Theft is a crime, not a moral failing and its suppression is highly variable. All corporations are criminal to some degree, but their wealth usually comes from developing better cell phones or search algorithms than their competitors. What should be the relationship between companies like Infosys and India’s rural poor? Which political regime would be best suited to bring it about? Drèze’s retrograde moralising offers no answers to these questions.

The book addresses “India’s social development in the broadest sense” (p 3). According to Drèze, the abolition of caste, patriarchy, violence (or at least armed conflict) and other systems of arbitrary power would promote social development more directly than compiling indicators of social issues, although he is not averse to the latter. He hopes to illuminate the goals of social development and the kind of society we should be aiming for. Yet he stresses the destructive power of modern technology and the need for ethical development to catch up with technological progress, which makes him sound like a Luddite.

The book’s core methodology is “research for action … based on democratic means and institutions” (pp 4–5). Its findings should be presented “in a clear and reader-friendly manner” (p 5). Government policy is not the prime mover of development and the impositions of funding agencies should be avoided where possible. Research-based knowledge should therefore be collective and voluntary (such as students …). Participation in field surveys is a rich source of personal experience. Wage labour is akin to slavery; the profit motive is crude and its benefits exaggerated in economics. “Some sections of the economy and society (including academia) have already moved away from them in substantial measure” (p 10). There are many out there who never got close enough to either to move away from them.

Literature and Fiction

In the social sciences, the pursuit of “rigorous evidence” usually means number-crunching, but Drèze finds the researcher’s personal experience and openness to what people have to say for themselves just as valuable. He decries the refusal of academic journals to publish personal accounts and adds that “literature and fiction can help” (p 17). This is basically about the turf war between the social sciences and the humanities, in which a swing away from pseudo-scientism is long overdue. Indian anthropologists might have something to say about all this, were they not consigned to a “tribal” ghetto where they can be safely ignored. “Public policy in India is best seen as an outcome of democratic practice” (p 15). This apparently is a wish contradicted by reality. If “evidence-based policy” is the norm, we should “bear in mind that evidence is more than randomised controlled trials (RCTs), knowledge more than evidence, policy more than knowledge and action more than policy” (p 16).

Reaching the Excluded

It is heartening to learn that some parts of India’s universities have not become the hamster wheels driven by corporate finance now found everywhere in the West. But how does making unpaid students work hard in the field address the problem faced by higher education worldwide? Drèze tells us that he was temporarily discouraged by reading that “publishing a collection of one’s op-eds in a book was the ultimate vanity” (p 20). He bounced back, however, since his subject matter is “sadly, alive and well” (p 20) and it provides a retrospective on recent Indian social policy. But who is likely to read this book? Its intended audience seems to be economists, policy wonks, Congress-leaning intellectuals, university students and readers of the Hindu. Who else would or could buy a copy? Finally, if democracy really is the goal, how might this book’s message reach the excluded masses and their voices be heard in response? Without such a move, this is just another conversation between some elements of the class that has ruled India for 70 years.

It is impossible to summarise the 33 chapters dealing concretely with welfare issues. These address an Indian audience with a lot more background knowledge than the reviewer. They are well-written and worthy. The book as a whole lacks a perspective of international comparison, although there are a few references to Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the United States. This is a pity, for the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are all, each in its own way, seeking to provide social protection for populations drawn into the market economy by the boom years of high commodity prices. In doing so, they repeat the trajectory of developmental states after 1945. This is one aspect of the Aadhaar experiment; others include Brazil’s bolsa familia and South Africa’s high expenditure on social grants. In this respect, India’s low rate of urbanisation is crucial: in Brazil in 2017 it was 86%, Russia 74%, South Africa 66%, China 58% and India 33%. No doubt the op-ed format does not favour macroanalysis of this kind; but its absence does expose the limitations of Drèze’s approach.

There is no more pressing issue today than what to do about the corporations. Whatever the ostensible reasons for it, I have no doubt that Narendra Modi’s demonetisation initiative benefited the corporations who routinely move money around the world electronically and will suffer less irritating competition from the informal economy as a result. It is no surprise that Drèze has some harsh things to say about both corporations and technocracy; he also expresses no ambivalence about “the Aadhaar coup” (pp 219–23). The corporations show open disdain for the old political model: they characterise this as corrupt nation states, irrelevant laws and disaffected citizens which they propose to replace with “corporate social responsibility” without states, law or citizenship to impede their inevitable rise to world government. It is good to read our author taking them on, but given the size of the problem, it is mere sniping to feed moral outrage at the breakfast table.

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Updated On : 9th Apr, 2018
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