Do we need to work to live well? If you look at the tiny sliver of the top 0.001 % - their families often do not do market-labor. They live off the rents they raise from their accumulated capital. A few of them may be self-made, but the larger mass of the wealthy are the inherited folks. They are the landlords. If we do not question the inherited entitlement of the rich - the Trumps for example, why do we question such a desire of the poor?
The coronavirus pandemic has taught us that some occupations are more essential than others. We need the farmers, the sanitation workers, the doctors and nurses, more that the landlords at this moment. Yet, the landlords and the rent seekers hold significantly more wealth that the essential workers who live vulnerable lives - pay check to pay check. There is something sick about such a system, where the classes that do not work preach the gospel of work to those who actually work. "The poor are lazy", they say, while they themselves live off rents.
Every now and then people have identified and stated this irony, and the response to this irony has varied. Marx advocated for communism - a proletariat revolution against the capitalist rent seekers with the goal to socialise the means of production. But he implicated the bourgeois with the rent seeking capitalists. That was a mistake, as this ultimately led to the failure his entire movement. The bourgeois i.e. the city dwelling educated middle class, are the lifeblood of the knowledge economy and the source of economic, technological and often social progress. It were the bourgeois around the world who were the initial groups most receptive to liberal economic ideas of freedom and equality. They were not the enemies of progress as Marx imagined them to be. He held the bourgeois, the city folks, the industrious, the entrepreneurs in low regard, which made him and his movement an anti-knowledge-worker, anti-entrepreneur, anti-individual exercise.
We have learnt from the past that the best response to the above irony is not communism. So then what is it? Over the last decade new ideas have emerged to tackle this problem of unfair inequality. The first idea is the idea that community-orientation is an essential pillar of social support. For example, Rajan suggests in his new book (The Third Pillar) that when market, state and community are in balance then society is on a path to progress. When the balance fails there is chaos like the one we see today. Today in his view, communities have weakened considerably especially in post-industrial societies. However, in countries like India community matters, and it matters probably too much. While a majority of Indians are unable to raise emergency funds during a crisis, among those who can raise such funds almost half of them get it from their family and friends. The problem is, poor people have poor communities too, and rich people have rich communities. Hence, while communities matter and their importance can not be undermined, yet they can help the vulnerable only in limited ways.
The second idea is the idea of universal basic income, which posits that everybody should get a monthly check from the government that is large enough for them to live just fine, whether or not they work. This idea seems to be a closer response to the question - does a person have a right to live well even if they refuse to labour? Basic income proponents says yes. Yet there remains a problem. This system creates dependency on the government. Basic income is not a right, it is only a handout. As long as the government is charitable the public will get that income. If the government and its ideas changes, the public will once again be deprived of such basic income. Basic income still does not address a fundamental problem. It is wealth, not income that leaves millions vulnerable and exposed to uncertainty. The rent seekers get a good deal, not because of their high incomes, but rather because they have wealth (inherited or not) that they can seek rent off.
Hence, a way forward - distinct from communism, community-orientation or basic income - is the path of universal basic wealth. We need to create the conditions such that nobody is compelled to work just because they have rent to pay. Such a work-so-you-can-pay-the-bills, is a form of wage slavery that we need to address today. We need to take cues from the early European settlers, who occupied unsettled lands and called it their personal property, becoming their own little sovereigns. They no longer bowed to a monarch, but as owners of substantial lands they became their own rulers. We need to universalise this idea of sovereignty, where all citizens of a country have sovereignty and ownership over some substantial property/wealth on which they can build their lives as they please.
The idea of basic wealth can rest on three social endowments that every adult can be gifted unconditionally with:
The coronavirus pandemic offers us a chance to relook how we support each other. Basic wealth in the form of three endowments - a house, some savings, and emergency funding - can help in reducing vulnerability in the lives of people, and turn them into their own little sovereigns.
It is possible that some say these ideas are costly or difficult, but when implemented on a war footing building housing to shelter all is not a radical idea. Singapore has reached close to such a case of universal housing. This can be done. Similarly, unconditional basic income to children which can be accessed when they grow up, may be more effective, better targeted and affordable than universal basic income, cash transfers or subsidies. In the same way, unconditionally insured emergency healthcare funding is a low hanging fruit that can help bring millions of lives out of fear and insecurity. None of these ideas are radical, but together these solutions can provide a new deal - a package of basic wealth that can protect people, especially the poorest, and help us all lead better, fuller lives.
(This article appeared on IIMB’s faculty blog on 19th May 2020.)
Probably, some people find my optimism for Indian government’s pandemic response to be irrational. After all, I have consistently said in the past that the economic mismanagement and a systematic effort to harm the social solidarity of this country will be an unforgivable legacy of this government unless we course correct. I do not trust leaders and governments. But, I trust India.
I guess I see this country differently from most people. For “scholars”, a country is a group of individuals bounded together by a social contract. In that view, India is just another country, yet another mass of people - and a poor, low human development index one. But that’s not how I see India. I see it as a Kumbh, the biggest and the most exceptional Kumbh that exists on the planet. It has a spiritual core that binds the most diverse, heretic and opposing people, in one single strand. No other country has such tremendous capacity for diversity. You won’t find communists winning elections in the USA or UK. The population of religious minorities has not reached even double digits and Europeans are already voting for far right groups. India is different. People have tried to plunder this land for centuries and yet it remains. The Vedas remain. The Buddha remains. The Sufis remain. They need no protection, and hence whatever comes to this country is transformed by their insight, in very subtle ways. Even the plunderer becomes a part of the giant stream. The river moves on, cleansing, assimilating through her grace unconditionally. It is a strange country in that way, because few other cultures can understand how Rama can pray to Ravana after the end of the war. How could Rama request Lakshma to learn the great wisdom of the Lanka King, as Ravana dies. It is strange when you think about it. Ravana is reverred in India not only by heretics, but by Rama himself. That’s why India is a Kumbh. Heresy isn‘t just tolerated, it is welcomed, and it is being welcomed for thousands of years.
The fact that India is more like a Kumbh than a country - as scholars define it - is critical for understanding India’s epidemic response. The Kumbh has no leader. It is a motley, a fair, a circus. It has both fairness and unfairness, it is raw, like an anarchy. Same is true for India. India does not rely on leaders, it never has and probably that is why India is the only true and living example of an anarchic society. It is an interesting fact that Mahatma Gandhi was an anarchist himself, he believed in Swaraj - rule of the self - and was skeptical of government. He thought “Kingdom of God is within you” inspired by Tolstoy. That is also the stance of Indian tradition. It is anarchic in nature. No final authority. It is also diametrically opposite to the modern communist Chinese way of top-down control. Yet India being an anarchy, also has a sense of the crowd. The crowd comes together when it needs to. The government is helpless if the crowd doesn’t want it. Indians rebel not once in a century but everyday. They can not be preached. Heresy is the way of this country, and we need more of it.
India is a mission based, not a system based society. When Indians have a mission, they get things done. When we had the mission of independence, we came together and boycotted the British in one call of Gandhi in 1942. That day, the British rulers had known already that the Empire was gone, because Indians, while fighting valorously for the British in the WW2, had already gained their freedom in their mind and in their actions. Indians had gratitude for the British too, we learnt a lot of things from them, and the river assimilated our plunderers and moved on. When India emerged as a democracy, many wondered if this was temporary. Indira Gandhi’s emergency should have been the death knell on it. Yet Indians got a mission, turned into street marching heretics the next day, and she was kicked out. Democracy was restored. Today, as we fight the coronavirus epidemic, once againt Indians have a mission. Other countries, (except China which locked down draconially), are having a tough time imposing the lockdown. Yet, India with one of the weakest systems of policing and crowd control, is doing it better, because once again Indians have a common mission. Probably the lack of system helps, because Indians know that if we fail in our mission, what we face is doomsday. It keeps us alert, mission oriented. And what is beautiful about this sense of mission of Indians is that it takes everyone along. It is not discriminatory. This land is for all who live here, and who are born here. There is no authority that can provide a precedence on who can call India her home. On that note, those who believe that a piece of citizenship law written in 1986 or 2003 has the power take the jus soli birthright of Indian citizenship, may you wake up soon. This country does not heed to pieces of paper, or proclaimations of leaders and priests. India is a Kumbh, an anarchy, bounded by a collective sense of responsibility, a natural respect for nature. The law that holds this land is deeper than any law proclaimed by man, or group of men.