Tempted and slightly puzzled by Mishra

Pankaj Mishra's recent column in the Guardian is a curious piece which claims that globalization should not be credited for the recent economic rise of India and China. It is a sort of teaser for his book Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond. I am tempted alright, but also somewhat puzzled by his viewpoint.

He opines that, in view of the recent failure to impose globalization and democracy on Asia, the West should understand that their idea of globalization cannot succeed as is in India and China. This is true, but it is not a new thing and has been pointed out by many critics of globalization, Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy being eloquent examples. But, Mishra's claim that India made her best progress between 1951 and 1980, – and by implication, has gone downhill since – is a strange one.

Certainly, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened since then. Indigenous farmers have been driven to suicide at an alarming rate because they are unable to pay their debts, while multinational seed and fertilizer companies flourish. These must be acknowledged as failures of the globalization effort. Likewise, the growth of the software industry and the burgeoning of the middle class and the creation of a more confident go-getting generation of young Indians should be acknowledged as partial successes of the enterprise. I am puzzled not just because Mishra refuses to acknowledge the benefits accrued from globalization, but also because he suggests that India and China were better off when the former was more overtly socialistic and the latter was less overtly capitalistic.

I take the rather obvious-seeming position that globalization reform ought to be customized to the country in which it is attempted. In this, the recent governments of India have failed: in implementing a strategy that includes her poor and in divining the ulterior motives of multinationals and funding organizations. Everyone picks on Enron today, but not many were paying attention when the company oiled its way to the politicians' hearts and wrecked the electricity infrastructure of the state of Maharashtra. But to take this failure as a basis for rejecting the free market would be too extreme – a case of replacing one faulty ideology by another faulty ideology. I am not sure whether Mishra is advocating the closed markets of the 1960s and 70s or if he favors a more controlled opening of the markets. I guess I will have to read his book to find out, which must have been his idea all along!

To his credit, Mishra is dead on target about the threat of the energy crisis that will be caused when India and China join the US and Europe as major consumers of the world's resources. His ending excerpt is worth much more than – and seems slightly orthogonal to – his earlier arguments:

In any case, the hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth – that billions of customers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans – is an absurd and dangerous fantasy. It condemns the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots.

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9 thoughts on “Tempted and slightly puzzled by Mishra”

  1. Wow. I hadn’t heard about the Doosri Radha episode at all. I read through your interesting review of Avijit Pathak’s book, which also mentions Vandan Shiva among other people.

    I was interested in Shiva because I keep having doubts about the divisions she suggests, while simultaneously being blown away by her incisiveness. On one side is Thomas Friedman, optimistic but slightly clueless, proponent of globalization and on the other is Shiva with her cutting wit and tirades against globalization. The aspect of degree is lost, be it in the articles that I read, or the speeches that I download or the discussions I have with my friends.

  2. My own humble opinion: Freidman is too shallow, frankly not worth spending time on. Rather read the more acerbic Paul Krugman.

    Not very fashionable nowadays, but it is good to fall back on Marx and Lenin 🙂

    Lenin’s criticism of Narodism in “What the friends of People Are” is devastatingly contemporary.

    Vandana Shiva is quite right on many of the issues, but it is her overall direction that is questionable. In other words, the diagnosis is correct, it is the prescription that is doubtful.

  3. Shantanu,

    Pankaj Mishra is basically nostalgic about Nehruvian India. By definition, he can only remember the good things from those days and not the bad things. It simply does not matter to him that economic inequality is better (and even desirable if the number of people living in absolute poverty can be reduced through rapid growth) that an economically equal society where everyone lives in poverty.

    This fanatical quest for economic equality is what separates him from the saner elements on the left. Normal people don’t grudge someone else’s success (but seek to emulate it), only those on the far left do.

  4. In addition, I deeply disagree with Pankaj that rapid growth in India and China will kill environment. The World isn’t going to run on fossil fuels for ever, infact, not even into the mid-century.

    The beauty of capitalism is that it will throw up some other energy source that’ll replace petroleum, as it already is doing. In any case, Capitalism has powered Civilization since time-immemorial. Everytime it faced a crisis, it has emerged stronger.

    Of course, Pankaj can believe whatever he wants to.

  5. Pavan: I think he was adopting a cautionary tone about the impending fight for fossile fuels, and in that repect, I agree with him. Just the other day I mentioned to a friend that hybrid powered cars are not coming up as fast as one would expect – to which he replied that we don’t really need them yet. Europe just attempts to use cleaner diesel, and apart from the Prius, the US has not taken to hybrids as much as we would have liked.

    I am not sure that alternate energy sources are being ushered in by the “beauty of capitalism” alone. Besides, the argument, as I see it, ought not to be whether capitalism is good or bad – that would be missing the point. The argument should be about “To what extent should an economy adopt capitalism?”. People will differ on this but, at least, when the question is posed in this way, they can be brought to the same table.

  6. Mishra is rather less insistent on the economics in his book, and focuses more on history and reportage.

    I’ve just reviewed the book at my blog, linked above.

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