March 17, 2014

Beyond The Trap Of A Map

We need to recognise the prejudice of ‘Nation-Statism’ and grasp its implications. This is the first step towards a renewed internationalism – which is not just between, but beyond nation-states – that is not only necessary, but urgent.

The state of the world today is inextricably linked with the States in this world. We live in times of extreme wealth and poverty, gross privilege and inequality, enduring forms of discrimination, political and financial manipulation, and many are subjected to poverty, hunger, injustice and continued violence simply because it is profitable for a few. This status-quo is never justified (even at the level of rhetoric, even by the most regressive voices) within nation-states, yet it is de rigueur and accepted at a global level. Why? Why should all humanity and conscience weaken at the national border-control?

 Why should people learn to have concentric circles of affiliation and empathy that start from the self outwards (self, family, community, region, nation, and beyond) and become weaker as they widen? As I have argued in Imagining Economics Otherwise: encounters with identity/difference (2008: 186-216), this concentric notion of identity is neither natural not inevitable, though much ink and ideology goes into making it seem so. Global instances of solidarity, struggle and resistance can show us that it is possible to conceive of identity as translational, so that we situate our understanding of self contingently and in relation to equally worthy others who need not be related to us by genetics or geography.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has these opening words in the Preamble: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Why should every child not begin education with this document?

Most of us understand very early on how we are supposed to belong to, and behave on, this planet, throughout our lives; many of the markers that structure our life and work in time and space – such as continents, free markets, democracy – are laden with power and open to interrogation.

Critiques of meta-geography tell us how geography serves political technology: the concept of ‘territory’ as “exclusive ownership of the earth’s surface” has a specific and complex historical lineage (Stuart Elden, 2013), the conventional myth of ‘continents’ is Eurocentric as it arbitrarily gives Europe the status of a continent when it is neither geographically separate from Asia nor is Asia internally culturally coherent by comparison (Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen, 1997). Add to which, the legal spaces and practices, demarcated thus, have a ‘compounded opacity’ because they are seen as objective, timeless, and prepolitical when they really are deeply embedded with political, social and economic life (Nicholas Blomley 1994: xiii). Mapping is political. Borders demarcate, and simultaneously construct, regimes of power.

Moreover, classifying land and people into nations and continents was a historical process fraught with prejudice and power. The violent upheavals of imperialism, colonialism, and decolonisation shaped much of the geography of the modern world. People were conquered/civilised/colonised in the name of economic rationality and assumed moral superiority, they were forcibly moved around the globe to enhance profit and production, and populations were studied and structured into labels that then became self-identificational for the colonised.

The myth of the nation-state as a ‘natural’ entity continuously handed down from history and geography is problematic and detrimental. Viewing the world as a billiard ball model of comparable unitary nation-states (as results from the application of atomistic natural science models to space and society) each responsible for their own populations alone, distorts the global spatial and social relations. Nations and states do not meaningfully overlap in many cases – there are more nations than states, some examples of nation-states are empires, others are supra-national, and their polities overlap (Sylvia Walby 2003). The now-dominant Westphalian model of the nation-states is merely one specific historical way of structuring the world. And it relies upon an unholy nexus of Geography-Economics-Law that has forced truly urgent political questions into the margins. Right from the way in which these powerful disciplines construct their knowledge categories to the way in which they operate as holistic systematising schemas – they subject the individual to the dominating forces of land, capital, rule. 

When people are assigned into units called the nation-states as their primary identity, it is the latitude or longitude of their birth, which, more often than not, determines their life chances. And this nation-statist paradigm actively inculcates indifference, apathy or hostility against those who are different and Other. The contemporary regimes of border-control across the world restrict the movement of people across borders while facilitating the unrestricted movement of capital globally. While the entire basis of ‘free markets’ rests upon the theoretical premise of free (and equilibrating) movement of factors of production (labour and capital), it is capital that is free to move, not labour. If markets can be free and capital has no identity, then why can’t people be free to move and belong without restrictions? As a matter of fact, some are. The privileged few who are reasonably free to exercise their right to live anywhere on the globe, are the expatriates, in sharp contrast to the much-resented migrants. It may be appealing to think this in terms of the sweeping  free markets that have eroded the power of the nation-states, actually, it is the nation-states that have enabled the markets to expand their reach into every sector of society. 

And while every aspect of human life continues to be commodified, commercialised and monetised by the capitalist juggernaut, and economic violence is rampant, the proliferation of neither democracy nor technology will automatically create an internationalist conscience. The hyper-capitalist era  of our times can coexist perfectly well with nation-statism. Indeed, both economic growth and economic crises can create stronger bonds of dependency (through ties of trade and investment) between nations qua nations, but these networks of capital and governmental or business interests can possibly even enable a greater silencing on humanitarian issues that populations face within the nation-states. Also, democracy within the nation-states is the government of the people, by the people, for the people. Yet, which people? The citizens of a nation-state. The logic of democratic arithmetic would seem to require governments to typically care about the welfare of the numerical majority within their national borders. The very structure of the system militates against global concern, concern for the domestic numerical minority, or those who are disenfranchised. Similarly, take a look at technology. There is now a global colossus of knowledge and communication ranging from the CIA Factbook to the ubiquitous Facebook. But has increased knowledge and technology brought us closer together or pushed us further apart? Thanks to many recent revelations, we know that at the level of nation-states, governments have actively pursued an agenda of surveillance against their own populations and other governments. And the general trend in ordinary people’s use of technology has been to personalise their perception of reality (through personalised maps, news feed, and social networks) and limit their ability to encounter newness. 

The existing political, economic and technological systems work for, and benefit from, classifying people into nation-states in a way that systematically limits their geographical imagination and ability to empathise with distant others. 

But, what makes us human is the premise of a shared common humanity. The best human virtues and values cannot be judged within national borders alone. If we care about human freedom and the fulfilment of human potential for everyone, we cannot abandon concern for our fellow beings, wherever they actually are, and wherever they are deemed to legally belong. As a French student protester (in the recent student protests against the deportation of classmates) said: “Everybody should have a chance. Everybody should have a job, work and have a family. When children try to achieve that, France refuses, and that is not my country”. 

Moreover, the problems of humanity remain inescapably international – global production chains of commodities transfer value from the poor to the rich, the affluenza of the few is causally linked to immiserisation of many, waste and want are intertwined in the consumerist ideology that continually ensures that the haves waste and the have-nots want, and pollution, climate change, terrorism, piracy, corruption, tax evasion, trafficking do not adhere to national borders. In response, mere inter-national (between nations) solutions will not suffice, what we need is a renewed internationalism (beyond nations) that engenders a radical anti-imperial transnational cosmopolitan subjectivity. In other words, we belong to the world, the world belongs to us; humanity is our concern – the cosmopolis, our globe, our planet. I am because you are. ‘We’ should be the preferred pronoun of political debates. Recall the Gandhian Talisman: our actions should be judged by their impact on the poorest and weakest human being on this planet. 

Contra a sterile oppositional debate, a radical cosmopolitanism, the way I see it, does not contrast with communitarianism. In fact, radical cosmopolitanism enables genuinely communitarian thinking by imagining the global communitarian identity affiliations in the context of specific political issues, and not as apriori given and defined identities which pre-exist the political struggle. A cosmopolitan subjectivity is not a privilege, it is an ethical necessity. And it needs to be consciously anti-imperial, compromising both imperialism and sovereignty. Sovereignty, which implies the supreme authority of the state over embodied lives, needs to be decoupled from states; sovereignty resides in humanity. Internationalist ethics require us to consider ways in which rights need not derive only from citizenship. Nation-states have, for too long, marked bodies, stifled empathy and creativity, enforced power, dehumanised people, and normalised prejudice, to the extent that the violence inflicted by the nation-state (for example, in the twentieth century) is unparalelled in the history of the world. 

Such commitment to a renewed internationalism is reflected in proposals for a planetary parliament (Monbiot 2002). With egalitarian supra-national enfranchisement, there is likely to be much broader humanitarian concern. But, it is important to emphasise the ethical and political premise of our shared humanity as being crucial to such an internationalism. Appealing simply to the economic self-interest of certain constituencies for getting greater coordination between nations, without challenging nation-statism, is ultimately inadequate. Framing inter-nationalism simply as a self-serving co-ordinating response to the transborder challenge of global insecurity or resource scarcity is not enough. Economic arguments are notoriously slippery and ostensibly amoral. One must make the case for internationalism on more than just an economic ground. So, saying that it is the limited resources on this planet with a growing population that requires trans-national collaboration isn’t enough. It is not just about resources. The continuous technological innovation inherent in humankind/humanmind will make sure that every depletion is countered with another discovery – from fossil fuels to biofuels to fracking, from climate change to geoengineering, from earth to interplanetary colonisation. Action prompted by thinking about others only when it serves our own interests will never be truly internationalist in the long run, and it will perforce have an imperialist bias. Further, it will be hostage to changing circumstances and fluctuating economic interests. 

An international solidarity is an ethical commitment to the fundamental and inalienable rights of others to be as free as oneself. Notwithstanding their global location. A worthy  internationalism comes from thinking beyond the nation, even if from within nations; a consciousness of struggle and resistance against injustice, inequality, poverty, oppression and indignity that unites people as fellow human beings who may have been forced by history into divided lands, but who can, through force of conscience and conscious striving, always imagine otherwise.


August 5, 2010

Sachs, GNH, and Bhutan

Sachs, GNH, and Bhutan

Jeffrey Sachs ( is a well known economist with decades of work behind him. Hearing him speak at the Royal Institute of Management (RIM) in Bhutan this week, I wondered why when I was doing my first degree way back in the mid 90s (economics honours with a fabulously in-depth undergraduate program), some of my best professors frowned at the mention of Sachs. Now here was this perfectly pleasing economist talking about development and happiness in Bhutan in a sane equable manner. Why was he reviled by the campus progressives in the 90s? Some clues to this can be found in the article ‘The long, strange career of Jeffrey Sachs’ ( Yes, there was, of course, the intoxicating rush in the west following on from the end of the cold war, and economists (like Sachs) were part of the resuscitation corps with their shock therapy approach to transition that ultimately failed in the long run (having travelled through parts of Russia, east europe and the baltic states recently, I don’t feel queasy about using the word ‘failed’; plus the social statistics talk for themselves). Whatever contribution he may (not) have made to the 90s fiasco in Russia and parts of Europe, the mature Sachs whom I encountered in Bhutan this week made a lot of sense. Artists have phases, why shouldn’t economists?

He spoke about GNH (Gross National Happiness) as a global challenge by addressing some specific issues – challenges and risks that Bhutan faces, and made some comparison with how poorly the US is doing. As an economist and philosopher (setting aside for a moment the novelist, traveller, poet) with experience of and expertise on Bhutan, here is my verdict on, and engagement with, his prescriptions for Bhutan:

First the points of agreement. I agree with him that Bhutan is a low income country and a certain amount of material advance is necessary for its links to health and education. We do need technological understanding and governance that taps deep values. Bhutan is, as I have also argued in my work repeatedly (see weblinks on the CV page at, an oasis of peaceful economic development in a complicated geopolitical neighbourhood. Sachs sees the need for a rural development policy and agricultural development policy, especially in the face of the poverty incidence figures (urban poverty is about 2% and rural nearly 30%).

It is for this reason that I’m a great fan of the 10th five year plan of Bhutan with its focus on poverty reduction. Rural povery can be a crushing blight and a source of constant misery in the form of unending rural-urban migration and associated impact on city infrastructure and social friction.

Sachs recommended that the hydropower sector (which he said is environmentally a benign sector) should be kept publicly owned and as a national industry, it can provide significant earnings from export that can be reinvested in health, education, poverty mitigation, infrastructure, and connectivity. He was clear that hydropower ought to be developed expeditiously and the bargaining terms for its export (primarily to India) ought to be scrutinised very carefully and supplemented by adjusting contracts terms for future inflation. A grant isn’t necessarily a good deal, he said.

Absolutely. Especially since grants aren’t what they used to be anyway. The old ratio in hydropower projects with India of 60:40 (60% grant, 40% loan) is now 70:30 (70% loan and 30% grant). I mentioned this to Sachs in my comment – hydropower development is necessary and it should not be privatised, but there are also crucial considerations in general about investment sources and environmental issues for hydropower. I gave the rather shocking example of Kárahnjúkar dam in Iceland where Europe’s largest hydropower project is located; it is detrimental and environmentally problematic (see the previous article ‘April is the cruellest month/I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ on this blog ‘Propaganda of the Reed’ where I probe beneath the Icelandic volcano). Further, I feel only partically able to agree on his recommendation that some of the earnings from hydropower could be used to gradually introduce a kind of old-age benefit system. Bhutan as a society is emotive about family ties and somehow I feel that something fundamental changes when care for the old passes away from the family to the state.

I think many of us dream of having a big canvas and an ability to move things around on it so that the best outcome results. Focus on connectivity, Sachs stressed, use of science and technology can improve lives. Make more roads, get more phones, more internet, more infrastructure, more connectivity.

Yes, connectivity is good. I agree. But, as I said to him, we must not miss out on the essential counterpart to connectivity, which is relationality.  Connectivity connects objects. Relationality connects people. We live, I feel, in an inalienably enchanted world (in Bhutan, we largely do, inspite of the disenchanting effects in the west of the european enlightenment that robbed the universe of its breath). We can live in a world where everything is accessible but that does not necessarily mean that we will be able to relate to the various aspects of our connectedness. There is Mechanism. And then there is Meaning. It is, I would argue, far more important to relate than to connect. Infrastructure may give us a phone or a road, but the real task is how we would speak or travel. It is not inconceivable that the more people are connected (such as in the most prosperous and infrastructurally enabled economies), the more they are alienated.

Another point where I would disagree with him is his focus on intensive agriculture. He stressed repeatedly, go for intensive agriculture – the yields in Bhutan are low, you can produce more. Give farmers subsidies. Use chemicals and fertilisers. Get high yield seed varieties. Grow more. The plant doesn’t care where it gets its Nitrogen from. The world can’t feed itself on organic farming. And so on.

Here’s what I think. One, the problem at a global level in relation to hunger is not a technical issue of production, it is an ethical issue about unfair trade practices and skewed terms of trade for countries that are producers of primary commodities. Two, even aside from cost burden, subsidies for intensive farming are not a good idea. The European example of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) suggests that it creates perverse incentives and farming lobbies and leads to overproduction which is then destroyed or dumped into other countries, thus ruining their domestic production. Three, while rapid advancement in yield production by using fertilisers, high yield crops and technology sounds good in theory, studies even from the well-known ‘Green Revolution’ show that (speaking in economese) the application of technology is not neutral to scale. In other words, the large producers benefit more, and this may lead to a trend towards large scale intensive farming for greater profits. This would certainly not help inequality in a small society like Bhutan. Four, intensive agriculture is generally bad for the environment; any detrimental effects would be worsened in a complex Himalayan ecology such as that of Bhutan. Five, the question is not one of productivity challenge to improve yield, but of whether there exist in Bhutan adequate facilities to test and monitor instances of ‘biomagnification’ from pesticide residue. Six, there is the fundamental question – why increase productivity? If the answer is not simply a mechanistic efficiency one that would like to see a better relation between inputs and outputs, then the answer must be – because we want to raise the standard of rural farmers and value agriculture better. Well, in this case, the focus must be on increasing the value of agricultural products and changing people’s attitudes and preferences towards agriculture (typically education means people don’t want to go back to farming). Organic farming, which can be a privileged preserve of big landowners in the English countryside (doesn’t have to be, but often is), is then a valuable alternative for the Bhutanese case. Thus, in general terms, instead of Sach’s grow big, grow more, I’d say go niche, grow better.

Do not privatise health and education, he said. For the Bhutanese context, I agree. However, in view of ongoing developments, I think both he and I might be disregarded. There are new systems of paid specialist medical consultations, and new institutions of learning. On the education scenario, I am inclined to think that privatisation of tertiary education is acceptable, but the privatisation of primary and early education is not a good sign. Learning resources get directed to where the monetary incentives are, and affluent children from the earliest ages are immersed in the advantageous environment created by price discrimination.

As far as the USA is concerned, it has lost its way – he said. Not just that, I feel, looking at the political scenario in large parts of the world, the entire world is losing its way alongwith it. The economic recession is just a tip of the iceberg, I maintain that the real crisis of value is a crisis of values. ‘Economic violence’ (my definition of this and views on it are best summarised in ‘economics of turning people into things’,, increases by the day. Krugman’s latest article ‘Defining prosperity down’ ( paints a depressing picture. I see that we accept more and more of what we should never have accepted in the first place. Worldwide, inequality continues to worsen and so does exploitation and repression.

The hypocritical moral veneer of ‘free society’ rhetoric is spread further and gets thinner. The latest (July 2010 end) issue of the Economist magazine focuses the huge problem of imprisoning people in the US. At the same time as domestically more and more people in America are locked up and their rights are trampled on, the American political leaders lecture overseas about free expression and tolerance of dissent. They praise specific countries (examples from central Asia come to mind) for their progress on economic reforms and urge them to be politically more tolerant – refusing to see the links between the two. Presidential type governments in central asian republics which create the economic consensus favoured by the West cannot then allow dissent in the political realm while maintaining the monopoly of thought on economic issues. If people question and express freely, they might also question the reasons for certain economic policies, contracts or incentives. The very reasons they are praised for their economics are also the same reasons they cannot be more liberal politically.

But, this is a digression. To return to Sachs on the USA – americans watch too much TV, there is too much noise in their lives, they are bombarded by propaganda day and night. Politics is ruled by corporate interests, campaign finance is problematic. I agree (see survey about american politics and societies quoted in my paper ‘democracy in the non-west: facts, fictions, and frictions’, e.g., on page 3, Politics is ruled by corporate interests, most of the people are lulled by mass entertainment, and the remaining few grow ever more cynical. In the vanishing space between stimuli and action, thought is constantly erased.

In his summing up, Sachs said that a ‘mindful economy’ would include (in this order): self, children, others, knowledge, nature, future, enemies and humanity. Realising this mindfulness is a real challenge in everyday life.  But one might ask how is this different from, say, Sayer’s concept of the ‘moral economy’ (I discuss some of these issues in my book Imagining Economics Otherwise, see for 2010 edition). And why just restrict this mindfulness to the ‘economy’ (that esoteric and often ill-understood construct)? Ultimately, however, my question to Sachs is: must the mindful economy also (like conventional patterns of thought) begin from the ‘self’ as his does?

I’d argue that the real challenge for mindful existence is to begin from the others and work towards the self.

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