And then there was the market
THE last years of the ’90s saw food ‘surpluses’ piling up in South Asia. It wasn’t just India with 44 million tons. Even Pakistan and Bangladesh had their moments. At one point these countries together accounted for a grain surplus of well over 50 million tons.
Remarkable since these three nations account for half the world’s hungry.
More remarkable since the paradox draws very little debate.
Even a call for discussing this amounts to demanding ‘obsolete’ practices of the interventionist state. If we hadn’t mucked around trying to get the state to play God for 50 years, none of this would have happened. If only we had got it right and let the market play God instead.
Well, we sort of did that for the last ten years. But facts count for little in the Age of Incantation.
Welcome to the world of Market Fundamentalism. To the Final Solution.
I think it was Jeremy Seabrooke who said it first. That a present generation of Indian students is having their heads filled with inanities and clichŽs about the market the way an earlier one memorised junk about Greek, Roman and British civilisations. (I certainly remember a textbook in the first school I ever went to that had a vivid story on how Horatius held the bridge for Rome.)
Flip channels on television and you can’t miss it. Gaggles of elegantly clad and very earnest young men and women speaking breathlessly about The Market (you can hear the capital letters). And of course, the need to ‘unleash’ its creative energies. It’s not only these young who hold this view, though. Several older people do, too. But perhaps they’re somewhat tainted, having romanced other gods in the past. This does not, however, induce much modesty in the line up of editor-analysts we’re condemned to hearing forever on the theme.
There is no miracle the market cannot perform. Market forces, as Swaminathan Aiyer argued long ago, are great for the environment. Markets are green. We’ve learned more since then. Time magazine’s Charles Krauthammer has laid down that while better-off workers are abandoning the less fortunate ones, the market is rescuing the ‘once colonized’. It is in fact the lifeline for ‘previously starving Third World peasants.’
Markets are also perfect for the field of public health. So perfect that hundreds of elderly American citizens get some exercise each year as a result. The incredible cost of drugs in their country compels them to drive all the way to Canada to buy medicines there. (But wait a minute, that’s a distortion of market...).
The market is not merely inseparable from democracy. It is democracy.
Thomas Frank sums up the mindset well in his book One Market Under God. ‘Markets enjoyed some mystic organic connection to the people, while governments were fundamentally illegitimate... markets expressed the popular will more articulately and more meaningfully than did mere elections... markets are where we are most fully human; markets are where we show that we have a soul.’
Hunger is a function of anti-market systems. Want more jobs? Free the market. Crisis, whether in education or agriculture, is best dealt with by not dealing with it at all. Leave it to the market. Let the market decide. Some analysts now even see an intrinsically anti-caste character in the market.
Welcome to the world of Market Fundamentalism. Reaganomics and Thatcherism fought many crusades for the new religion in the 1980s. India in 1991, along with many others, embraced that world with much enthusiasm.
It’s a world marked by the steady collapse of restraint on corporate power, in every continent. Inequality among human beings has never been greater any time after World War II. The gap between rich and poor has grown in almost every nation – rich and poor. The distance between the affluent and the dispossessed has been widening in the United States as in India.
The world’s richest 200 people, the UNDP’s Human Development Report of 1999 informs us, ‘more than doubled their net worth in the four years to 1998, to over $ 1 trillion. The assets of the top three billionaires are more than the combined GNP of all least developed countries and their 600 million people together.’
The income gap between the top 20 per cent of the world’s population and the bottom fifth had more than doubled between 1960 and 1997. In 1998, the top 20 per cent consumed 86 per cent of all goods and services. The bottom 20 per cent made do with 1.3 per cent.
The 1990s saw the inner cities of Los Angeles explode with rage in the world’s richest country. Police brutality was merely the spark that set off the fuse. The explosion itself was waiting to happen in a community where the average black male’s life expectancy makes East U.P. look progressive.
Imagine how the dispossessed in poor countries coped. In Andhra, the period saw the largest number of suicides ever amongst farmers in that state’s history. And it was reflective of the era that Chandrababu Naidu was and remains the most popular chief minister in the country for the corporate-owned media.
In India as a whole, some 70 million people went below the official poverty line – itself something of a joke – to join the over 300 million already there. Even the World Bank feels compelled to make noises of regret – mainly to cover its own tracks – over the ‘slowing down’ of ‘poverty reduction’ in India. (That hasn’t deterred its acolytes in India who are far more radical in these matters. They see these noises as wimpish. Muscular markets will sort out the mess. Let them do their thing.)
Are those piled up food stocks in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh really ‘surpluses’? Or are they merely unsold excess stock? What if India’s record-breaking 200 plus million ton harvest was divided on a basis of minimum calorie requirements among its one billion people? Simply: the huge surplus would vanish. So why do the unsold stocks pile up? Because of a big erosion in the purchasing power of the poor. India’s ‘surplus’ is based on sending hundreds of millions of human beings hungry to bed every single night of their lives.
We have a surplus of hunger, not of food. A hungry surplus.
India’s entry into the fundamentalist fold was the more devastating thanks to already existing structures. Land relations, in all but three or four states, hold down and bind the poor. Enforced social backwardness helps freeze that picture. The new prescriptions of the ‘market’ sit atop these highly unequal structures, strengthening the most regressive forces in their war on the poor.
When I first used the term market fundamentalists in a column in 1991, the editor I worked for then said he thought it a great phrase, but couldn’t I find something shorter? We were, after all, a tabloid. He did find something, too. He called its theorists ‘Market Morons’. If he could survey all that’s happened since then, he’d probably feel vindicated.
Market fundamentalism destroys more human lives than any other simply because it cuts across all national, cultural, geographic, religious and other boundaries. It’s as much at home in Moscow as in Mumbai or Minnesota. A South Africa – whose advances in the early 1990s thrilled the world – moved swiftly from apartheid to neo-liberalism. It sits as easily in Hindu, Islamic or Christian societies. And it contributes angry, despairing recruits to the armies of all religious fundamentalisms.
Based on the premise that the market is the solution to all the problems of the human race, it is, too, a very religious fundamentalism. It has its own Gospel: The Gospel of St. Growth, of St. Choice...
Never mind that growth for growth’s sake, as Edward Abbey put it, has proved to be the ideology of the cancer cell. (Years of jobless growth in many societies have shown us that.) Never mind that choice is a dubious candidate for sainthood. If the 1.2 billion very hungry people on the planet had a choice, I suspect they would choose to eat. That they do not suggests that the market gives you a choice only if you have money. The more money you have the greater the choice you enjoy.
But mere facts do not challenge a great faith. (Ask Advani. In his own sphere, he’s been peddling that line for years.)
Like every great faith it has its Popes and its Pundits. Its Vatican and its theologies. Its higher and lower clergy. Its cults and its crazies (like those who make documentaries titled ‘Greed is Good’). It even has its would-be Protestant faction – the World Bank has lately been ticking off the IMF for being heartless. (Though that’s probably a TV-inspired Good Cop-Bad Cop routine. Incidentally, market fundamentalism has more televangelists than any other religion in the planet. You can see them every night on every channel in just about every country in the world.)
It has its Revealed Word and its prophets. Remember George Gilder, futurist-thinker-guru of the Reagan era? He laid it out way back then: ‘It is the entrepreneurs who know the rules of the world and the laws of God.’
It has its temples of learning and its sects. Like The Marie Antoinette School of Economics (or the ‘Let them-eat-cake’ crowd) in which India is emerging a world leader. Its sacred triad of privatisation, globalisation and hi-tech-fixes-all, doctrines.
Gigantic blow-ups like the South East Asian breakdown are merely an expression of the Wrath of God. Not that Man has disobeyed the message of the Market. But that he has not observed it zealously enough.
It too, pursues a Holy Grail. Some call it the invisible hand of the market.
There will always be doubters and kafirs. Those who question the unbridled power of big business and corporations. But as Thomas Frank points out, in the eyes of the fundamentalists, ‘Those who criticize business are motivated by a hostility to markets roughly akin to racism.’
It’s a flat world fraying at the edges but its prophets remain firm. For now. Seattle was in fact a small beginning to the kind of larger unrest to follow. The kind of stuff that could make the LA riots look like clean, healthy fun. Yet, meanwhile, there’s a lot of money to be made. Apocalypse is not right Now.