Scarcity, Democracy and the Purpose of Life

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The root question of all philosophical inquiry is the big ‘why’ – why do we exist; why are we here, on earth, alive, conscious; why is there anything rather than nothing. Any answer to this why question leads to the second movement of human inquiry/ingenuity – the ‘what’ question. More exactly – now what? So, once we have established the philosophical basis of our existence we must decide what we must do with this. This how philosophy rears, feeds and forms politics. Religion, ideology, et al are all part and product of this movement from the why to the what.

Religion is, however, too limiting and ideology is too religious. It is best, considering hegel-and-marxour present stage of development, to be more or less scientific in looking for solutions to our major problems. A sort of proto-scientific answer to the why question was 19th Century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel’s idea of man’s existence – of history – as the movement/unfolding of the world spirit towards higher forms of itself with the ultimate purpose of transforming into pure and perfect rationality – the end of history. This idea of a grand historical theory appealed to the young and soon to be (in)famous Karl Marx who based his own answer to the why question on Hegel’s. The ultimate goal of humanity – decided by not the world spirit but by enlightened man himself – was to reach a state of perfection in which ‘each according to his ability’ would provide for ‘each according to his need’ and there would be peace on earth for all mankind. In this ‘heaven’ on earth there would be no need. And no need to work for your need – unless you wanted to, of course. If if you did then your need would, in fact, not be a need at all but only the full and natural expression of your human existence. Well, I haven’t made this sound too appealing! But this is the theme of Marx’s argument.

Marx has been done great injustice by Marxists. Like Christ by Christianity, I suppose, if you can pardon the disproportionality, which, mind you, is not that great in terms of ‘effect.’ Not to digress, Marx, I believe, had it spot on to find the source of human conflict in scarcity. Scarcity, of resources or rights, is by far the greatest source of conflict in all scales of not just human but all life. Therefore, all resolutions of conflict must be founded on addressing the problem of scarcity.

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The problem of scarcity is the greatest challenge of all societies but developing countries feel this more acutely and immediately than the developed world. (The recession is cruel reminder of the past to Europe and America, though.) In our times, we speak of the Chinese model of development. We do because China has done such a remarkable job of addressing this problem in such a short span of time (compared to the developed world) and this is especially astounding due to China’s size and the low developmental base the country had to rise from. However, China has done – or rather is doing – well in addressing the scarcity of resources but critics would say that it fails on many counts when it comes to access to rights. One could say that this is the second part of any developmental challenge. But it could be argued that one gets to the second part only after having dealt with the first challenge.

The question to ask then is whether the Chinese model of development is the right route to addressing the problem of scarcity? If there ever was a hot topic for students of developmental politics this is one. For the moment I can guide the reader to this excellent post. You will find a good number of detailed articles on sources like the Economist and also other sources – as you like it!

http://www.economist.com/debate/overview/179

In the next section of this essay I offer my views on the subject.

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We often get frustrated with democracy and its inability to make quick and firm decisions. Every time our political discourse is log-jammed by partisan arguments we look envyingly at China. We might have democracy but the Chinese they get things done.

These arguments against democracy, however, do not, in my view, hold. Democracies are noisy. They are inefficient, at times, well, most times, for decision-making. There are too many contrary opinions and never non-partisan single mindedness towards the national cause. Well, true, but also true is the fact that democracy has no one and single national cause except its own continuance. The national purpose of a democratic state is to, first and above all, continue as a democratic state. And what would truly be a failure towards the national purpose is any abridgment of this democratic nature.

In the long run, a democratic form of government is better placed to address the problem of scarcity for a number of reasons. Most important, however, is the accommodative nature of democratic politics. As a society develops it is bound to democracy1engender small scale conflicts over the most basic of political matters – who gets what, where, when and how. In a democracy, these conflicts can be resolved as a matter of everyday politics – if the polity remains committed to the ethic of democracy and democracy, in the words of an Indian scholar, remains the only game in town for addressing these issues. In a non-democratic regime these small conflicts add up until they require large scale, system transforming structural reform. This is always a moment of danger. Consider the Soviet Union.

Democracies, therefore, have the kind of regime stability that can see a polity last through generations, even ages. The United Kingdom was always a sort of proto-democracy with its commitment to lassez-faire and liberalism. The United States has lasted pretty long even though it remained an imperfect democracy until the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. The fundamental feature of these two polities has been their ability to manage conflict through more or less ‘normal’ politics. In other words, there hasn’t been any sort of state collapse in either. Look at Germany on the other hand. Or even France with its n-th Republic.

The contrast between the two pairs of cases is this : that while both have been able to provide an increasing access to material resources to their populations the access to rights through normal politics has been the determinant of survival or failure of the regime. This is a historical case against the Chinese model of development. The first task of the nation builder has to be a commitment to democracy. With democracy comes the fruit of justice, fairness and the answer to the problem of scarcity.

(Note: I use the two phrases ‘the problem of scarcity’ and in the end ‘the answer to… scarcity’ consciously. There can never be, in my view, a once for all and final solution to scarcity. Each development in any sphere of human existence will engender its own forms of inequality. It is the immediate answer to these problems that democracy is best equipped to provide.)

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(Images : 1 and 2 Wikicommons, 3 New Zealand Workers party, 4 UN)

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