DAMMIT, IT ALL comes down to wealth, the sheer abundance of it. Or the lack of it. It is what makes the best of headlines today, catering to our basest curiosity about the rich and infamous. It is what makes the presidential candidate of America’s Grand Old Party boast about grabbing women by their genitals. It is what makes him the choice of more than 40 per cent of Americans. It is his billions that make Donald Trump the anti-candidate of America’s presidential history. A global brand of inflated negativism. This is reality television of a lifetime, and he is a master of the genre, and it is what money could buy for him, and it is perhaps all that he wants. Funny, it is wealth that makes his opponent, who is on her way to become America’s least trusted—and loved—candidate to be elected president, evasive whenever questions are raised about the Clinton Foundation or her Wall Street speeches. Questions about ethics, responsibility and decency swirl around the wealth debate, and it is quite apt that the world’s wealthiest nation should provide the backdrop.
The irony can’t be missed. It’s the wealthiest guy in the race—“I can run a country because I run a successful business”—who taps the anger and frustration of those who are left behind, the White, wretched class of Middle America. It is a class that cannot be wished away as “deplorables”; they will form the most glaring fault lines for the next president, presenting the real dangers of a Broken America. The future wars, as the political news from affluent societies tells us, will be social. The class war is back in vogue. In a brilliant article in the current issue of the New Yorker, analysing the White working class base that sustains the Trump phenomenon, George Packer writes, ‘In [Trump’s] hands, nationalism is a loaded gun, aimed not just at foreigners but also at Americans who don’t make the cut. But people are not wrong to want to live in cohesive communities, to ask new arrivals to become part of the melting pot, and to crave a degree of stability in a moral order based on values other than just diversity and efficiency. A world of heirloom tomatoes and self-driving cars isn’t the true and only Heaven.’ These Americans have been made into a ‘self-conscious identity group’ by Trump, who ‘represents the whole country’s failure’. It is a failure accentuated by an unequal distribution of wealth, most visible in the ghettos of globalisation.
The new grievance societies are not a repudiation of globalisation; they represent how traditional forms of politics have failed to acknowledge, or tackle, the human cost of the movement of ideas and wealth
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Is it the return of Marx to banish Adam Smith? I have argued in these pages previously that the politics of resentment has already crossed the ideological divides of left and right. The new grievance societies are not a repudiation of globalisation; they represent how traditional forms of politics have failed to acknowledge, or tackle, the human cost of the movement of ideas and wealth. Inequality, as has been reported repeatedly, is getting starker in Western democracies, in capitalism’s highest temples. This crisis may feed the schadenfreude of leftist romantics who will any day prefer the glorious wretched to the degenerate rich. It is not that the socialist model is inevitable as the wealth of nations creates more social and political tensions. It is about capitalism without a human narrative; it is about our refusal to add the adjective ‘compassionate’ to the most liberating idea about wealth. It is not for no reason that the world is rereading not Hayek or Friedman, but Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz. It says something about the times that a left-leaning conomist has become the biggest intellectual export from the land of Sartre and Camus. The new philosopher deals with a different kind of existential angst, one that is aggravated by the marketplace. Today, there are any number of thought leaders out there to cheer for the welfare state, no matter at what cost it is kept alive. When capitalism is in crisis, even its ardent believers are tempted to become socialists.
I think we are getting comfortable with a convenient malady. The problem is not capitalism but the inadequacies of politics-as- usual to creatively engage with capital. It is not globalisation that adds to the inequalities, and cobwebbed ideologies are no salvation either. The disenchanted who languish on the other side of the marketplace cannot be dismissed as a ‘basket of deplorables’ just for their desperate political affinities. The world will be a better place, and a happier one, if there is a balance between the market and morality. Don’t listen to the Cassandras of capitalism or the cheerleaders of socialism redux, we just need to be more responsive to the nobler instincts of freedom. The freedom to be rich, and the freedom to make space for all—even the ‘deplorables’—to play out their dreams. Equality is opportunity, which is increasingly true in today’s India. We don’t resent the rich as much as we yearn to be rich. It is an amazing thing to happen in a country which was one of the socialist model’s worst victims among democracies.
One of the most engaging parts in Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow is about what he calls ‘the data religion’. He writes: ‘A critical examination of the Dataist dogma is likely to be not only the greatest scientific challenge of the twenty-first century, but also the most urgent political and economic project. Scholars in life sciences and social sciences should ask themselves whether we miss anything when we understand life as data processing and decision-making. Is there perhaps something in the universe that cannot be reduced data?’ In the antechambers of power, numbers and flowcharts determine destinies, abdicating conscience. The wealth of nations is secure when politics is not an ideological pursuit but a humanising conversation.
The Wealth Issue 2016: For the full list of Essays and portraits of the Smart-up Generation, click here