By Kumar David –
The debate has gone on in some format or other for five centuries from Thomas Hobbes (England, 1588–1679), John Locke’s (England, 1632–1704)) Adam Smith (Great Britain, 1723–1790), John Stuart Mill (United Kingdom, 1806–1873), David Ricardo (United Kingdom, 1772–1823). All European enlightenment thinkers from Machiavelli, Erasmus, Spinoza, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Kant have had something to say. I would be mad to imagine that I could contribute to this vast discourse which fills libraries in this little essay. My goal in this less than 2000-word piece is to touch on specific dimensions that confluences and confrontations have taken on in recent times and to restrain myself to topics that may interest my Sri Lankan readers. However, the world being as interconnected as it is, nothing in Lanka is original or uninfluenced by the outside world (think IMF, China, debt-devaluation-democracy).
In part this is because, when the world now looks at the United States, it no longer sees liberalism, that is respect for the values with which the country began. Nor does America evoke thoughts of “freedom,” “hope,” “constitutional democracy,” and the “rule of law.” Instead, one sees aggressive electronic invasions of privacy even among America’s allies, an inordinate fear of terrorism, government shutdowns and drone warfare in foreign lands. The sky once seemed the limit for an idealistic, affluent and purposive America. Now references to Washington create images of lowering the debt ceiling and profligate monetary policies that flirt with “tapering” but shrink from implementation, quantitative easing and money printing. America appears to be in the midst of a national nervous breakdown. The United States now seems less capable, less wise and less inspiring. I am only summarising thoughtful American thinkers, not parroting leftist or Chinese propaganda.
Until recently U.S. civil liberties and social mobility were the envy of the world. Enormous numbers of foreigners aspired to transform themselves and their families into Americans. There are many ethnic groups in the United States but none seek independence or are in a state of rebellion. The last serious effort to dismember America occurred a century and a half ago in the Civil War of the 1780s. By contrast, China has no allure for immigrants; it attracts no immigrants. Several of its ethnic minorities and regions seek to separate themselves, sometimes through violent means. Ever since its formation the PRC has experienced a degree of regional unrest and anarchy.
The worst example of an illiberal Neanderthal mentality in the world is extreme Islamification. These fanatics believe that God has decreed that those who do not bow down before their narrow-minded code are polluted and must be put to death, literally. Hundreds, mostly Muslims, have been slaughtered for not abiding by their (extremist’s) expressions of belief, dress code, prayer and in which direction to face when washing their faces and arses. In once liberal Turkey President Erdogan is cynically manipulating Islam and locking up political opponents to consolidate his hold on power. Journalist in Muslim countries who report or photograph women’s protest movements have been imprisoned and beaten. I reject these primitives in loyalty to my Enlightenment values. Tens of millions however bow down or shudder in fear of this primitiveness even against their instincts and even though it damages their own interests.
How far all this is from the philosophical notion of escaping from necessity to freedom! Consider first the material side. “The realm of freedom begins when labour determined by necessity and mundane needs ceases. In the very nature of things this is beyond the sphere of increasing material production alone. While rising productivity gives rise, on the one hand, to coercion and monopolisation of wealth by one portion of society at the expense of the other, on the other hand it creates the material and embryonic conditions for a higher form of society that ensures a reduction of social labour in general. The realm of freedom begins when labour determined by necessity and mundane needs ceases”. Extracts from (Das Kapital, Volume 3, Chapter 48). Adapted and rewritten by me -KD.
‘Capital’ as Marx insisted is not a thing, it is not money; it is a social relation and it has always been so in different societies as they evolved through time. It is even more true that ‘Labour’ is a social relation, not simply work. Consider slave, feudal and capitalist modes of production. This is true of even the third item of the Trinity formula, ‘Land’. The value components of ground-rent and their appropriation by landlord, church and king depend on historically evolved circumstances.
How true this is in the third decade of this century. Huge advances in technology has ensured production of material goods far in excess of mundane human needs. ‘Work-from-home’ lifestyles, refusal to work more than obligatory and pursuit of a wholly different value culture, is moving humanity in the materially advanced parts of the world from “the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom”.
However, in the short term there is no safe haven from the US$; the world is grossly over dependent on it. The financial restructuring American political and economic problems have set in motion tectonic shifts in global financial arrangements. SWIFT will be bypassed as the world is pushed by China to make alternative arrangements and other countries seek flexibility. For example, it is amazing that India reexports 1.65 million barrels per day of Russian oil (annualised March 2023) to the US and Europe compared to a mere 68,000 barrels per day in March 2022. The world seems to be standing on is head. Do not to underestimate potential global disruption as change proceeds. There is little chance that America will soon return to orderly government; it was prepared to halt payments of both interest and principal on the huge amounts it has borrowed in the past. Accumulated US debt stands at about $33 trillion compared to its current GDP of about $30 trillion. Short-term interest rates on U.S. government debt spiked as risk of default grew. The annual US budget deficit is 5.5% of GDP (revenue $8.4 trillion, expenditure $9.4 trillion). Gross external debt is $25 trillion and gross public debt $31 trillion or 125% of GDP. These are the most up to date 2023 estimates that I could arrive and, in any case, different sources – IMF, World Bank, Statistica, Wikipedia etc – give slightly different numbers. I provide them as a compact source of sufficiently reliable information for my laymen readers.
I want to smuggle in a note from my buddy Dr Gamini Kulatinga of the Open University – now retired – because it has a slanting relevance to the subject of productivity.
“Food security and sovereignty
Food security can be reached without importing all that is needed. Even oil-rich countries like the UAE grow vegetables to reach food sovereignty. The UAE has half the population of Sri Lanka but it grows more vegetables than we do. We are mired in indecision and vacillation between organic and chemical farming and confuse agricultural entrepreneurs with home gardeners. They belong to two different realms and methods of farming.
Monoculture and mixed-cropping must be selected for appropriate application. When large-scale operation is involved mono-culture is the choice; a good example is rice. In Jaffna, tobacco farming is monoculture but of recent monoculture is tea, rubber and coconut. There are several reasons but an important one is harvesting which is extremely difficult in mixed-crop farming. This is not an issue in small-scale operations and home gardening. Agro-climate dictates which crops are to be grown in an area. If mixed-crops are incompatible problems arises in water and nutrient supplies. Organic and chemical alternatives are not connected to the scale of operation. For example, tea was grown on a large scale in the past without chemical inputs”.
“The state has a role to play in ensuring food security. Availability of food will not automatically secure food for all in conditions of severe poverty conditions. Importing what cannot be grown, to supplement the food needs, is the prerogative of the government. The farmer cannot be held responsible for ensuring food availability. He is an entrepreneur and will supply what is required by the market. Individual farmers will ensure their food supplies are adequate for home consumption in a home garden. In the past chena played this role by supplementing rice cultivation. We must remember late Ray Wijewardena’s advice, not to advise on farming without being actively involved in it. The advisors with high qualifications and state patronage are the least qualified”. End quote.
[Sunday Island readers of the printed paper will find my column in the Features section of the paper. However, readers of the e-edition will be able to access a colourful electronic layout only occasionally for reasons that I don’t understand. The simultaneously uploaded Colombo Telegraph invariably is electronic with most graphs, charts and illustration reproduced in colour].