Straws in the Windby Max TeichmannNews Weekly
, September 23, 2000
The Yogi and the Computer
In a recent London Spectator (August 5), the Indian writer, Ved Mehta, reflected upon how technology has liberated us but materialism may enslave us. (May?)
Having left India 50 years ago, he looks back upon the India of his childhood and how it stands now.
He does this as part of a more general account of the effects upon our world, of the advance of technology, and the Spirit of the Age — Materialism.
India’s population has more than trebled over that time, but the standard of living has soared and “there is more of everything for people who can afford it”(my italics).
More cars, mobile phones, televisions etc, television channels and cars. Indeed Delhi has so many cars as to qualify as one of the three most polluted cities in the world. Progress.
On the other hand, when Mehta was a boy, there wasn’t, as he remembers, one town or village, except Calcutta, where you couldn’t turn on the tap and drink the water. Now he doubts if there is any place in india where one doesn’t have to boil or filter it. Beware Bombay Belly ... and much else besides.
And only 15 per cent of the people have lavatories: the rest must use streets, rivers, fields, railway tracks. “Women with modesty must wait” till darkness descends.
Yet Bombay has a major stock exchange and an enormous film industry — least said of that the better, for I suspect it has the same ethos as the Indian Cricket Board — Bangalore is another Silicon Valley and India makes atomic bombs and missile systems.
But is all this increasing the sum of Indian happiness?
I once owned a Left Book Club volume, written by an Anglo-Indian communist, R. Palme Dutt, the chief ideologist of the British Communist Party — a book about India, and the mess the British had made of that country. Like so many emigres in the Old Dart, he spent a comfortable life planning how to blow up the British Empire (you have to hand it to the Brits — they’re cool).
The Marxism he used to dole out to the comrades was straight Vulgar Marxism — which is perhaps why I donated the book to some lost cause who’d appreciate it. But some of Dutt’s remarks are interestingly evocative.
The Brits destroyed the Indian economy by Free Trade — Lancashire cotton ravaged the village industries, their cheap English manufactured goods finished the job. The delicately balanced economies of village India — where most Indians lived, and still do — this balance between agriculture and cottage industries which underpinned self-containment, was shattered. Masses of Indians were economically dispossessed, so started to move to the cities for non-existent work. India was forced into the world economy — then British controlled. India’s population of 100 million in 1800 (Dutt estimated) raced to 300 million by the 1930s. He blames this on the collapse of natural population control previously achieved by functioning village societies. Now, there are of course one billion Indians.
I would guess that British roads and railways, thereby cutting down regional famines; modern British medicine and cleaner water, plus less corruption might take a lot of credit for Dutt’s 300 million; but never mind.
Anyway, Palme Dutt, being a Marxist, didn’t believe turning back was possible or desirable. India was fated to proceed through the various developmental stages; through urbanisation, capitalism, a secular mass society and the Revolution. Like his beloved Russia.
Well before this, Gandhi was advocating a very different kind of India. I’ll call it, somewhat misleadingly, traditional India. And it is to Gandhi that Mehta returns — albeit wistfully.
How to achieve economic development and a non-violent revolution in a poor country. A formula which could serve for the poor people of the world — food, clothing and useful occupation, so that “instead of being a burden on society, they could live modestly but with dignity and decency”. In the virtually self-contained, democratic, small communities which these three Indian thinkers in their own very different ways, greatly appreciated.
But Gandhi was murdered, and India took the capitalist road; China picked out the worst features of Russian communism and mixed them with some of their own. And Russia — that heroic people and remarkable culture, neither of which the Nazis or Communists could quite destroy, is now being finished off by piratical rulers and free range Western capitalism.
Mehta can’t see India retracing its steps, nor the West renouncing its selfish and alienated ways. He includes himself: “Whatever our politics, we settled into the life of privilege and raised children as consumers with unlimited appetites. Along the way, we lost our ideals ... ” The new Heroes are Faust, and Mammon.
Arthur Koestler once wrote a book called The Yogi and the Commissar. Perhaps it should have been the Huckster and the Commissar.
And now the Huckster wants to be a Commissar and the Commissar has become a Huckster.
Under the New World Order being announced in places like Melbourne’s Crown Casino, we here are to be a grateful part of a new Cosmopolis — the global market — replete with its own legal system; de facto or de jure, it doesn’t really matter much. We will be cosmopolitan provincials; and, if we take in all the economic refugees from all the societies imploding under globalism whom some say we should, then we can become a society — if that is the word — of multicultural provincials. Genuflecting first to New York, then to Hollywood.