Summary of a talk by Indian economist Shakti Maira:
“There are many reasons to be excited about India at the moment, but its extension of the ’same old resource intensive and consumption addicted’ model of growth is not one of them. India remains wedded to the Washington Consensus and the aspirations Galbraith identified in The Affluent Society (1958) ‘more elegant cars, more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment’. That’s where India is headed.
For the last decade the Indian government has been led by ‘dyed in the wool’ devotees of GDP growth: new figures seem to be published almost weekly. Yet inequality is growing at an alarming level. Absolute numbers of those living in abject poverty have risen. In Africa poverty is a tragedy, in India it is a scandal.
As a result Shakti explained that he has become increasingly irritated by ‘modern economics, shoddy governance, atrociously poor implementation of public spending and endemic corruption’ in his homeland. What has become of the integrative impulses that once marked Indian philosophy and cultural practices?
Shakti identified what he saw as an aesthetic crisis – which led him to write his book Towards Ananda about the ‘great contrast between India’s profound and embedded beauty and an increasing and intrusive ugliness’.
He explained that in his view, beauty is less a property of objects and more an experience and a state of being. In Indian classical philosophy people need to balance four pursuits: pleasure, ethical relationality, wealth and economics, and liberation spirituality. A good life is simply not possible through the accumulation of individual wealth and assets.
We would not know that from the present obsession with GDP. It measures economic activity, good or bad, not development. It is as if a gardener makes no distinction between the flowers and the weeds. Amartya Sen says that comparing GDP growth rates ‘is surely a silly focus’ when the lives that people are able to lead, what ultimately interests people most, are only indirectly influenced at most by the rate of overall economic growth.
Our financial and economic narratives are partial and distorted. We are all trapped in the same worldview or policy bubble, in which the primacy of finance and economics, money and capital, inordinately shape our cultures, and where corrupt and morally malnourished business practices are flourishing. This is a worldwide problem.
We are still voting the same politicians back into power who assure us that, in Bill Clinton’s words, ‘It’s the economy stupid’. Shakti’s position is the opposite: ‘Stupid: it’s not the economy’. It seems right to ask in the home of Adam Smith, is it a rational system that takes our best young minds and puts them to work creating derivatives? Is it philosophically and ethically reasonable that the most dominant force for shaping policy and behaviour today is the rate of return on capital?
How can we make things better? The short answer is ‘beauty’. A mindset rich in aesthetic relationalities. ‘It’s the relationality, stupid’. Think about how nature secures growth through relationality: through the qualities of balance, harmony, proportion and rhythm. All the classical traditions of aesthetics extol these virtues. They are all relational qualities. Beauty is relational excellence and relational wellness.
This is just as true in social systems. We need to build new theories and practices in the social sciences, in economics, in governance, in business management that use the qualitative relational principles of aesthetics. We can have ‘beautiful economics’.
How might this play out in India? Shakti offered a number of suggestions: rebalance local governance; remove disproportion in the undervaluation of natural resources; harmonise power – eg through ombudsman, right to information; produce lower prices for the goods the poor consume and higher prices for those they produce; end state monopolies and crony capitalism; design sustainable solutions for transport, energy, health, housing, water; improve education and healthcare; more transparency, e-government.
But above all, create a vision for a civilisational society, that aspires to be a beautiful society rather than a GDP growth society. Focus on increasing GNH (gross national happiness) by maximising GNB (gross national beauty).
In India and elsewhere, Shakti concluded, we need a change of mindset away from the economic and financial to something wiser – the marriage of wisdom and method. We must end this addiction to GDP and recognise the global epidemic we have of BDD – Beauty Deficit Disorder.”
* there are no externalities with beauty. The word implies that there is an inside and an outside. But that it not so. ‘Pricing externalities in’ keeps them outside. We need more of a shift – to recognise as intrinsic some of the things we now place outside our models;
* inequalities are indeed growing around the developing world, even as growth increases (see Milanovic’s work on ‘Haves and Have Nots’). So where is the hope? Latin America, eg Brazil, is challenging the Washington Consensus. The financial crisis should have dented our faith in the existing system. But it didn’t. In the end perhaps the only way to get out from under the ‘debt overhang’ is to write it off. Social collapse?
* we need also to have the good and the true in order to create the beautiful (Plato’s triptych). Do we need to be good first? Should morality lead? We need new ways that include and transcend the old ways. On the other hand, the virtues of beauty will themselves allow the good to emerge and be highlighted. It is a bit chicken and egg. But the relational is the key – that is the truth to orient around.
* the Edinburgh child psychologist Colwyn Trevarthen studied the ‘arabesque’ communication between mother and new born around the world. It was universal. He called it ‘motherese’ and saw it as the fundamental basis for aesthetic sense, instilled in us from the moment we are born.
* can we have beautiful policy and beautiful politics? What are the political tactics for bringing this to pass? This discourse lands better in Scotland than in India – so how might we capitalise on that, say in the Scottish Parliament? We need to bring the wants of people and the instruments of power together. Using health as an aspiration rather than wealth might help: it offers a much broader conception of what we want. The key question is ‘how do we shape the needs of people and their aspirations in a different vocabulary?’
* health and wellbeing vs wealth and hellbeing!”