Monday, 28 January 2013

Pragmatism Grows At Night

In "India Grows at Night" the writer and commentator Gurcharan Das shares his insights into how India's growing, pragmatic middle class can achieve the country's necessary political and economic reforms. While inspired by Das's presence in Tahrir Square two years ago, these insights also resonate with the plight of Western democracies whose growth is inhibited by extractive private and public sector institutions.

The title of the book comes from Das's belief that India's knowledge economy powered her economic growth because: 
"Bureaucrats did not know how to regulate it and could not choke it with red tape, in the way they stifled India's industrial revolution through licences, permits and inspectors... India's knowledge economy literally grew at night while the government slept."
But India's problems are not over. Das explains that the "puzzle is... how can a vibrant democracy with a rising economy and an energetic civil society have allowed the state and governance to decay"?  He then describes the evolution of the Indian state from before British rule until today, tracing the tensions between social and official structures, and the shortcomings of the political system and key market failures.

Despite different starting points, this 'decay' also awaits Western democracies who have not been alert to the need for ongoing political and economic reforms. There's an ominous familiarity, for instance, in the complaint that the Indian state is preoccupied with the quantity of schools and other public services rather than their quality - "which is what really drives shared prosperity." The problems in our financial system are well rehearsed.

Das's description of the reasons for India's institutional decay is also echoed in Phillip Blond's explanation of the 'political bankruptcy' in Western countries. I understand them both to be saying that right wing policies allow the concentration of wealth amongst relatively few extractive institutions and their management and investors, rather than creating an environment in which widespread entrepreneurship can flourish. Meanwhile, left wing policies that are designed to 'redistribute' income through taxation and public spending are grossly inefficient by comparison to markets. The self-interest of partisan politics has gone too far, and legislators have no real commitment to the common good. Electoral battles fought along social and cultural lines distract everyone from critical long term issues, as well as being dangerously divisive. As a result, we lack appropriate regulatory frameworks and incentives to address market problems that stifle innovation and competition. Not only does institutional decay reflect the bankruptcy of dogma-ridden political parties, but as that decay constrains growth the economy itself drifts into liquidation.

Das argues that successful reforms will only be achieved through more active political participation by the members of the rising middle class, since they are the most conscious of the problems and the most impatient for the necessary reforms. He argues that the intransigence of existing Indian political parties creates the need for an entirely new, 'bottom-up', liberal political party. Das explains that this is a 'classical' rather than a 'social' liberalism - tolerant on social and cultural matters, yet wary of state intervention where the private sector and the market can be more effective.

This also seems to reflect the "renewed political idealism" and "participative democracy" for which Phillip Blond argues

In UK terms, this would seems to place Das's vision for a 'liberal party' somewhere between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. And it seems quite telling that UK voters have forced those two political parties into coalition.

However, I disagree that the formation of a new political party or even a new political idealism is a necessary pre-condition for achieving political and economic reform.

As discussed in Lipstick On a Pig, the bottom-up approach that Das refers to has already been unleashed, largely enabled by the Internet's 'architecture of participation'. The 'Arab Spring' and developments in sub-Saharan Africa emphasise both the global nature of this phenomenon and its effective political impact. This process of 'democratisation' requires no more structure than the social media and a city square, and its power lies in the fact that it isn't confined to politics or economics. Greater transparency, knowledge and reform in one area creates the desire for change elsewhere. The result is both seismic and chaotic, yet significant reform is bound to be 'messy', not orderly and neat. As a result, I've suggested we're seeing the evolution of a "personal state" in which we're acting pragmatically as individuals in a highly collaborative fashion through the services of facilitators, rather than passively relying on our institutions to set the pace of reform.

New political parties and ideals might well emerge in this environment, but they will be a symptom of reforms achieved by each of us acting personally, not the cause.   

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