Vishnu Meets Jesus
A recent article in The New York Times discusses the effects of market liberalization on the caste system in India. The article revolves around a fellow by the name of Chandra Bhan Prasad, a decedent of the Dalits–considered untouchables in India’s caste system– and an English language reporter–a new breed of Dalits, no doubt. The article discusses Mr. Prasad’s grassroots efforts to educate his fellow Dalits to spend the little money they have on educating their children, turning away from convention untouchable customs (such as animal butchery), and move to the city if possible. The underlying premises behind Mr. Prsad’s efforts are that the emergence of market liberalization and the proliferation of western-style capitalism is slowly dissolving the roles of castes and setting into motion a subtle but noticeable move towards a more equal society. Mr. Prasad points to the involvement of lower caste citizens in government and the relative rise in the social status of certain untouchables. In addition to his grassroots efforts, Mr. Prasad is also currently conducting a general statistical survey in his home region of Uttar Pradesh to find a link between economic liberalization and caste stigma mitigation. Despite a criticism that there is no link between the two, Mr. Prasad continues his studies in hope of finding a reason to back the forces of market liberalization.
For me this article brings to light a critical debate: is the spread of Western culture and ideas, particularly the principle of market liberalization vis-à-vis command economy markets, generally a beneficial or damaging phenomenon? For the better part of its history, India’s political and economic structure was undergirded by Socialist policies. Towards the end of the 20th century, India made an about-face in favor of more democratic policies–including a neoclassical market approach. Fareed Zakaria (a native Indian) in his latest book, A Post American World, identifies this switch in policy as the primary reason for the recent economic and democratic growth in India. It seems as if the adaptation of Western-style culture and ideas manifested in market liberalization and democratic proliferation has resulted in both economic growth and a rise in social equality. Can the spread of Western culture and ideas be all that beneficial? Who doesn’t like the concepts of egalitarianism and wealth accumulation? This question is sort of the harbinger to the question current: is globalization really good?
It’s a hard question to answer, and I’m certainly not going to answer it in any definitive way here. To look at this question I want to reference a recent book I read, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.Roy’s novel tells the story of an Indian family’s journey through the tumultuous life of India in the 1960s. Roy illuminates, in impressive fashion, the issues that confront Indian society, one of which is the influence of Western culture. Roy, contrary to Zakaria, portrays the infiltration of Western culture, in this case made manifest in the form of consumerism and T.V., as a culturally destruction force. In the novel, the influences of telecommunication and buying power are portrayed as destruction to unique Indian cultures, customs, and tradition. To Roy, the influence of Western culture forces itself upon individuals by overloading the senses with flashy images, enticing coupons, and the lure of money. For Roy, globalization is an affront to the pristine and culturally relative customs of India. Roy, like Zakaria, is a native Indian–but with an entirely different view of globalization.
I sympathize with Roy’s view, I really do. However, in Roy’s novel, none of the positive aspects of globalization are mentioned, like a rise in the standard of living or the subtle pressures to subvert or mitigate caste system norms. In fact, one of the great tragedies of the story (arguably the greatest tragedy of the story), has to do with the relationship between a Pravada (an untouchable) and certain characters in the story. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not naive. I know that globalization and market liberalization, especially when ushered in rapidly without control or oversight, can have potentially devastating effects (viz. neoliberal reforms in Latin America). Also, globalization and market liberalization doesn’t mean that the cultures adopting these changes have to make across-the-board concessions to their own cultural ways. Cultures adopting Western norms can integrate and mix their own cultural norms. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. This is something that Zakaria points out. India, to him, is adopting its own special Western-Indian cultural dyad.
So, in my (humble) opinion, I say that globalization, done right, is generally a good thing. However, I am anything but certain on such a bold assertion.