Thought For 2019: Ideology Is A Trap, Whether You’re Left, Right Or Centre

R Jagannathan

Jan 01, 2019, 06:12 PM | Updated 06:12 PM IST

World leaders at G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images) 
World leaders at G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images) 
  • Whether you think you are Left, Right or Centre on any issue, in 2019 you should learn to think beyond ideology.
  • Ideology is a trap.
  • As we close 2018, some issues are becoming clearer. Or, rather, more confusing. It is clear that some of the premises on which economic theory, political ideology, and social reality were constructed are now under attack, or at least open to doubt. ‘Truths’ we took for granted over the last few generations after the end of the Second World War are looking shaky.

    If, after the fall of communism, we saw capitalism as the victor, we were soon to be abused of any such notion. Both globalisation and free markets are in retreat – at least in the short term. Brexit and Donald Trump are indications that some people want out. But they don’t know what they want beyond what they don’t want.

    The rise of democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall has also been partially in reverse, with autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Victor Orban (of Hungary) using democratic processes to rise to the top, but then showing little commitment to open societies. Even though anti-immigrant parties have been defeated in Germany, France, Austria, Belgium and Netherlands, their ideas are far from defeated. In fact, one can speculate that their re-emergence may be only a couple of terror attacks or economic downturns away. As for China, there has never been a more nationalistic, xenophobic, autocratic or mercantilist government seen in the history of east Asia ever.

    The point of bringing these issues up now is not to suggest that some of the good things like democracy and free trade are in complete retreat, but that the old assumptions about the inevitability of their success need to be tempered with caution. Economic, social and political institutions are broken and in need of repair. Neither capitalism nor communism have won; neither democracy nor its challengers – populism, autocracy and guided democracy – are anywhere near claiming long-term success.

    It is best, therefore, to view all isms – capitalism, communism, socialism, liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, traditionalism, feminism, environmentalism, or whichever other ism you subscribe to – as subject to constant mutations in order to be relevant in fast-changing societies that face different demographic and other challenges at different points in time.

    This suggests that rather than the end of history, we will soon see an end to ideology. Not that ideology is no longer relevant. It always is, for we always need a lens with which to view the world. But we need to use it with the realisation that ideology is not an end in itself. It has serious limitations. We need to use ideology – any ideology – with a small ‘i’ and be willing to abandon it when it does not deliver better societies, better outcomes. Any ideology, when carried to its logical extreme, becomes a form of tyranny.

    Ask Jerry Taylor, who started out as a libertarian, and identified his ideology as “left-libertarianism concerned with social justice”. In a thought-provoking essay on why he abandoned his chosen ideology, Taylor has this to say: “I have abandoned that libertarian project…. because I have come to abandon ideology. This essay (read it in full here) is an invitation for you to do likewise – to walk out of the “clean and well-lit prison of one idea”. Ideology encourages dodgy reasoning due to what psychologists call “motivated cognition”, which is the act of deciding what you want to believe and using your reasoning power, with all its might, to get you there. Worse, it encourages fanaticism, disregard for social outcomes, and invites irresolvable philosophical disputes. It also threatens social pluralism – which is to say, it threatens freedom.”

    Taylor’s antidote to ideology is moderation. Do not accept an ideology that expects you to stick by it come what may, never mind the consequences. So, whether you are a plain vanilla Naxal, an Urban Naxal, a Hindu revivalist, an Islamist, a Christian evangelist, a Modi bhakt, a Gandhi family retainer or feudalist, or a Dalit activist who wants to ‘smash Brahmanical patriarchy’, you should start with this humble thought: what I believe may not necessarily be the truth, or even close to the truth.

    Truth is always complex, and the systems we choose to govern ourselves, or the economics which we think will deliver the best results for the largest number, will often not be optimal. We have to be prepared to make changes all the time so that we do better.

    Consider just a few faltering ideas, and why they are faltering.

    #1: Democracy and its new limitations: In many places round the world, democracy means nothing more than the right to elect your new rulers, who may well be captives to the system that already exists. If we rule out extremely small democracies like Luxembourg or Denmark, where the sheer homogeneity of the population and its small size make democracy a bit more robust, representative and meaningful, in most large countries it is vested interests, activist groups, cultural pressure groups, and corporate oligarchies that wield real power. (But the ‘Denmarks’ too will be challenged if a couple of million Syrian refugees emigrate there.)

    No matter how the people vote, powerful groups and economic interests ensure that no big change is possible under any government. We have seen that not only in Britain, where Brexit is now in trouble, but also in the US, where the temporary economic boom created by Trump’s tax cuts is petering out and Trump-onomics comes under challenge.

    We have seen this in India too, where Narendra Modi has not been able to move the needle too much in terms of factor market reforms, or come up with path-breaking new ideas for economic transformation or job creation in the face of opposition from the entrenched Lutyens ecosystem, and an inflexible bureaucracy.

    The problem is not that democracy does not work, but it cannot work unless it is pushed down to the lowest level at which it makes sense. The US is too big a country to be ruled from Washington DC, and India is too big to be ruled from Delhi or even state capitals. Worldwide, successful economic experiments have come not from the Centre, but lower down in cities and small states.

    Delhi cripples the freedom of Mumbai and Bengaluru, and Mumbai and Bengaluru use their economic clout to cripple the rest of Maharashtra and Karnataka. To make political and economic democracy work, power needs to be pushed lower and lower down. Democracy can work only if it is redesigned bottom-up, and not reinvented top-down.

    # 2: State and Non-State actors: In the age of jihadi terror post-9/11, the one thing we have not been able to come to grips with is this new reality: the growing power of non-state actors. The rise of social media and the availability of high technology with non-state actors has reduced the ability of states to deal with violence and terrorism without infringing on free speech and civil liberties. 9/11 has inevitably been followed by direct or indirect curbs on privacy and freedom, with US lawmakers giving the state greater powers of surveillance over citizens and non-citizens.

    But this power is not limited to states. The rise of Silicon Valley has ensured that even small groups (or rogue countries) can use technology to pry into the private lives of citizens or influence their democracies (as the US claims Russia did with the presidential elections of 2016). Large tech companies like Google and Facebook, and state-sponsored Chinese companies that give us cheap smartphones and other gadgets, now control large amounts of personal data across borders.

    It is now difficult to say where state surveillance ends and where non-state surveillance begins, since power over data rests with both of them. If terrorists infiltrate large data systems, we are in for serious trouble. Actions of states and non-states are also merging, as states like Pakistan use non-state actors to promote covert war without formally declaring one. It is entirely conceivable that non-state actors can – at some point – end up controlling the state, as was the case with Osama bin Laden and Talibanised Afghanistan; the same could happen in Pakistan, if key elements in the army turn completely Islamist.

    This needs us to rethink the binary of state and non-state actors, and also how states in democracies need to be empowered, and also limited, by citizen scrutiny of their actions. No country has managed to find the golden mean between how much power states must have in order to protect us from non-state criminals who have the power to do enormous damage. Traditional protectors of civil liberties like the courts and media are simply too slow or too partisan to provide the balance. We need new ideas.

    Another aspect of the state-non-state actors syndrome is the emergence of very large tech companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, which now have valuations above $ 700 billion each, and could reach for $1 trillion. Only 18 countries out of more than 200 countries in the world have GDPs higher than any one of them. The bottomline: the tech world is more powerful than most of the world’s nations. If their power is not checked, democracy will be threatened by corporate power too, not just terrorists.

    #3: Immigration versus identities. It is ironic that the same countries that endlessly talk about free trade (US and EU) do not allow free movement on people, who constitute an important factor of production. If capital can move freely, if land can be bought in different countries, if technology can move across borders, and if organisations can span the globe, putting restrictions on the movement of people is anti-free trade. Free trade should mean free movement of all factors of production, and not just capital or technology. If we argue that people must not move freely, logically we should say the same about capital or other factors.

    While the US at least allows limited movement of people across borders (never mind Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border), China, Japan and Korea simply do not allow any significant amounts of immigration.

    Clearly, culture and xenophobia are as much hindrances to free trade as import duties and non-tariff barriers.

    On the other hand, if we value culture and tradition and heritage, allowing destabilising movements of people is also a problem, as India is witnessing in Assam and some other states bordering Bangladesh.

    Once again, free trade theory has gaping holes, and needs to be balanced with the need for culture and identity protection. Free trade rests on the assumption that societies only want to maximise economic gains, when in reality man does not live by bread alone. Psychic and non-economic factors also matter to societies.

    #4: Globalisation, automation, etc. Economists would like us to believe that more trade and free markets and new technology will always improve things for us. The problem with the idea – rather ideology – is that all this looks at the human situation in the aggregate. Sure, trade improves overall growth and incomes in the aggregate, but it glosses over the specific losses suffered by the big losers. The same logic applies to automation. There are winners and losers. So even if we believe that there are more winners and losers, embracing mindless globalisation and automation is fraught with social risk.

    Clearly, the hole in free trade theory will be wide if we cannot come up with ways of compensating losers. At the very least, we need to constantly monitor data on who is winning and who is losing, so that states and civil society can intervene and help.

    Philosophically, too, total or greater interdependence – which is what globalisation implies – runs counter to the idea of diversity. Globalisation tends to make things standard and uniform, for that is the demand of the global consumer market. Consider how much damage globalisation would have done to skills and crafts and ancestral knowledge systems in the process. If survival needs diversity, global efficiency may be preparing us for greater disasters by reducing diversity, which impacts the ability of our species to survive by remaining diverse.

    #5: Financialisation and its downsides. It is true that an efficient economy needs efficient financial markets. Large traded volumes in the financial markets enable traders to offer finer spreads between buy and sell rates. As more and more people become part of the financial system, more financial products can be created for various needs. But financialisation also multiplies the risks it claims to mitigate.

    Just consider one number: annual trade in goods and services is about $ 22.6 trillion (WTO Statistical Review, 2018), but the currency markets trade $5.1-5.4 trillion every day on an average. That’s a total annual currency trade turnover of more than $1,971 trillion at the upper end of the range. The financial markets – just in currencies – do over 87 times the underlying trade in real economic goods and services. What this implies is that more than real goods and services, it is money that is being traded, and if the money markets catch a cold – as they did in 2008 – the world economy could contract pneumonia. Is that healthy? We need a better balance between the financial markets and the real economy.

    #6: Equity and economic growth: Few societies have ever been truly equal, except, maybe, hunter-gatherer ones. In the modern era, though, extreme inequalities have given rise to ideas such as Marxism and Socialism which believe that economic gains cannot be concentrated in a few hands. But communism and Marxism led to extreme concentrations of power in a few hands and led to more social disasters and genocides than almost any man-made calamities that capitalism could create.

    Clearly, the world does not have a binary choice between capitalism and communism today. It is the many shades between them that need exploration. Each country or society must thus find its own optimum mix between free markets and redistribution of the wealth created. One cap will not fit all.

    #7: Gender wars, et al: With the rise of multiple sexualities and gender identities, the world needs to move away from yet another binary, that of patriarchy versus feminism. If we were to look at how nature creates men and women, the X and Y chromosomes decide the sex of the child, but each child has varying degrees of male and female physical and psychological characteristics, based on the levels of testosterone the embryo is subjected to.

    Thus, there are men with significant feminine characteristics and women with male characteristics. The male-female paradigm is a continuity with many shades of grey in-between the extreme macho male and the extreme feminine female. The Hindu idea of Ardhanarishwar is closer to reality, though the male-female mix in each individual is not exactly 50:50, as the term suggests.

    In this context, it is debatable if we need to think of ourselves as feminists or humanists. While there is little doubt that patriarchy has to be dethroned and women empowered, the future is neither masculine nor feminine. It is human. Extreme feminism is not going to bring in nirvana just as patriarchy did not. The world needs to think gender differently, as a continuum rather than a binary.

    #8: Unity versus diversity. In India, we extol the virtues of unity in diversity, but never bother to discuss how much unity is too little, and how much diversity is too much. At what point does unity become stifling, and at what point does diversity become dysfunctional? Once again, we have to look for a better balance than what we have so far achieved. The slogan of unity in diversity has no meaning if we do not define the upper and lower limits of both unity and diversity.

    All the above thoughts underline the unimportance of ideology and accepted values beyond a point. We need to bury the thought that one idea works for all, whether it is the Idea of India, or the Idea of Capitalism, or Equality, or Globalisation, or Automation, or anything. We need to think in clearer shades of grey.

    So, whether you think you are Left, Right or Centre on any issue, in 2019 you should learn to think beyond ideology. Ideology is a trap.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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