This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Monday, 26 November 2012

Why Indians don't stand in queues: an essay on feudalism, patronage and the like

I got this essay forwarded to me by e-mail; I suggest you read this first. For those of you who aren’t Indians, it might be a bit hard going, so don’t hesitate to ask for explanations...Bill.

Why Indians don’t give back to society
By  Aakar Patel, Mint, July 4, 2009
Some characteristics unite Indians.The most visible is our opportunism
Why don’t we worship Brahma? We know he’s part of the Hindu trinity as the creator, but we worship Vishnu, manager of the cosmos, and Shiva, its eventual destroyer. The answer lies not in religion, but in culture. But in what way does our religion shape our culture?
Weber explained the success of capitalism in the US, Germany and Britain as coming from their populations’ Protestant faith. This ethic, or culture, was missing from the Catholic populations of South America, Italy and Spain. Protestants, Weber said, extended Christianity’s message of doing good deeds, to doing work well. Industry and enterprise had an ultimate motive: public good. That explains the philanthropists of the US, from John D. Rockefeller to Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates.
What explains the behaviour of Indians? What explains the anarchy of our cities? To find out, we must ask how our behaviour is different.
Some characteristics unite Indians. The most visible is our opportunism. One good way to judge a society is to see it in motion. On the road, we observe the opportunism in the behaviour of the Indian driver. Where traffic halts on one side of the road in India, motorists will encroach the oncoming side because there is space available there. If that leads to both sides being blocked, that is fine, as long as we maintain our advantage over people behind us or next to us. This is because the other man cannot be trusted to stay in his place.
The Indian’s instinct is to jump the traffic light if he is convinced that the signal is not policed. If he gets flagged down by the police, his instinct is to bolt. In an accident, his instinct is to flee. Fatal motoring cases in India are a grim record of how the driver ran over people and drove away.
We show the pattern of what is called a Hobbesian society: one in which there is low trust between people. This instinct of me-versus-the- world leads to irrational behaviour, demonstrated when Indians board flights. We form a mob at the entrance, and as the flight is announced, scramble for the plane even though all tickets are numbered. Airlines modify their boarding announcements for Indians taking international flights.
Our opportunism necessarily means that we do not understand collective good. Indians will litter if they are not policed. Someone else will always pick up the rubbish we throw. Thailand’s toilets are used by as many people as India’s toilets are, but they are likely to be not just clean but spotless. This is because that’s how the users leave them, not the cleaners.
The Indian’s reluctance to embrace collective good hurts his state. A study of income-tax compliance between 1965 and 1993 in India (Elsevier Science/Das- Gupta, Lahiri and Mookherjee) concluded that “declining assessment intensity had a significant negative effect” on compliance, while “traditional enforcement tools (searches, penalties and prosecution activity) had only a limited effect” on Indians. The authors puzzled over the fact that “India’s income tax performance (was) below the average of countries with similar GDP per capita”.
We do not think stealing from the state is a bad thing, and our ambiguity extends to corruption, which also we do not view in absolute terms. Political parties in India understand this and corruption is not an issue in Indian politics. Politicians who are demonstrably corrupt, recorded on camera taking a bribe or saying appalling things, or convicted by a court, can hold legitimate hope of a comeback—unthinkable in the West.
The opportunist is necessarily good at adapting, and that explains the success of Indians abroad. We can follow someone else’s rules well, even if we can’t enforce them at home ourselves. The Indian in the US is peerless at the Spelling Bee because the formula of committing things to memory, which in India passes for knowledge, comes naturally to him. But this talent for adapting and memorizing is not the same as a talent for creation.
The question is: Why are we opportunists?
In his great work Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti observed that the rewards religions promised their faithful were all far off, in the afterlife. This is because a short goal would demand demonstration from god and create sceptics instead of believers. There is an exception to this in Hinduism. Hinduism is not about the other world. There is no afterlife in Hinduism and rebirth is always on earth. The goal is to be released entirely and our death rites and beliefs -- funeral in Kashi -- seek freedom from rebirth. 
Christianity and Islam are about how to enter heaven; Hinduism is about how not to return to earth, because it’s a rotten place. Naipaul opens his finest novel with the words “The world is what it is”, and Wittgenstein ( “The world is all that is the case”) opens his Tractatus similarly.
Hinduism recognizes that the world is irredeemable: It is what it is. Perhaps this is where the Hindu gets his world view -- which is zero-sum -- from. We might say that he takes the pessimistic view of society and of his fellow man. But why?
The Hindu devotee’s relationship with god is transactional: I give you this, you give me that. God must be petitioned and placated to swing the universe’s blessings towards you. God gives you something not through the miracle, and this is what makes Hinduism different, but by swinging that something away from someone else. This is the primary lesson of the Vedic fire sacrifice. There is no benefit to one without loss to another. Religion is about bending god’s influence towards you through pleas, and appeasement, through offerings.
Society has no role in your advancement and there is no reason to give back to it (in any way, including leaving the toilets clean behind you) because it hasn’t given you anything in the first place. That is why Indian industrialists are not philanthropists. Rockefeller always gave a tenth of his earnings to the Church, and then donated hundreds of millions, fighting hookworm and educating black women. Bill Gates gave $25 billion (around Rs1.2 trillion), and his cause is fighting malaria, which does not even affect Americans. Warren Buffett gave away $30 billion, almost his entire fortune. Andrew Carnegie built 2,500 libraries. Dhirubhai Ambani International School has annual fees starting at Rs47,500 (with a Rs 24,000 admission fee) and Mukesh Ambani’s daughter was made head girl.
An interesting thing to know is this: Has our culture shaped our faith or has our faith shaped our culture? I cannot say. 
To return to the question we started with: Why is Brahma not worshipped? The answer is obvious: He has nothing to offer us. What he could do for us, create the universe, he already has. There is no gain in petitioning him now.

In response, I wrote the following. The latter portion of it would probably be adequate as a stand-alone blog post on its own...Bill.

Generalisations from particulars always have serious flaws. In the current instance, the author of this article claims that the road behaviour of Indians (execrable as it undoubtedly is) stems from the religious orientation of Hindu society, and expatiates on it at some length.

If the author’s contentions were correct, however, logically, Islamic nations in the neighbourhood, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, not to speak of Arab nations, would have had superbly disciplined road behaviour, as would Catholic nations (since those also have a heaven-oriented religion) and largely Buddhist nations like Sri Lanka, China, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand (the last specifically mentioned with approval by the author) would have (since Buddhism is even more freedom-from-rebirth oriented than Hinduism) at least as bad as India if not worse. The author therefore raises questions he fails to follow through himself, whether inadvertently or deliberately it is impossible to say.

Even within Indian society, large parts of North East India are predominantly Christian (Protestants being the majority in Mizoram and Nagaland) and therefore those societies should be models of European societies in miniature, with disciplined traffic, no corruption, and rich people ploughing back their earnings into society. Obviously, that’s so far from the case that these states would rank as basket cases ruled by kleptocracies by any objective judgement. The same goes for Buddhist Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh and Muslim/Buddhist Kashmir (including Ladakh).

A far more likely reading of the situation is in terms of the average Indian’s inherent feudalism, where everything is a result of a patron-supplicant relationship. Despite their many very significant differences, if there’s anything that runs as a common thread through all Indian societies, it is this: that they are patron-client oriented and feudalistic. As the caste system so eloquently demonstrates, egalitarianism is completely absent in Indian societies; even the “classless” Christians, Sikhs and Muslims have developed strongly-rooted caste differences. A system that devalues egalitarianism promotes feudalism. But more than that, South Asian societies have always been deeply and historically founded on the basis of the patron-client relationship, with kings handing out landholdings (the equivalent of European feudal baronetcies) to favourites, who further sublet them to agents and ultimately down to the individual farmers; and, collaterally, favouring artisans and court musicians and so on.

Therefore, individual merit and achievements rarely played a part in South Asian societies; what did was catching the eye of the reigning feudal lord, who was the source of all good things. In this, one will notice, one’s peers have no role whatever to play except as possible competitors; therefore there’s absolutely no reason to develop co-operation or social responsibility. This is also the reason why South Asians have been so often and so easily defeated by foreign invaders and colonised: because the foreigner isn’t an alien usurper; he’s just another and more lucrative source of patronage. A handful of British faced no real challenges to their rule once they discovered how easily Indians could be made to enslave themselves by doling out patronage to certain individuals, princelings and businessmen and the like. If the Americans had invaded India instead of Iraq there would never have been a national resistance movement, just a mad scramble for positions under the new rulers. The system endures today; only now the politician and his ally the bureaucrat have taken the place of the feudal baron or prince. 

This system percolates down to the family level, where the word of the head of the family is law and especially in patriarchal systems such as North India, the various family members compete for the attention of the patriarch, who assumes the position of a petty domestic tyrant. He enforces his power by meting out “punishment” to “offenders” – usually out of all proportion to the perceived “offence” – and because of the patronage-oriented nature of the relationship, no other family member will dare raise a voice for justice.

Essentially, therefore, South Asia has no society in terms the rest of the world would recognise as such; what it has is an agglomeration of individuals living together not co-operatively but competitively, scrambling for each his own self. That is why corruption isn’t an issue either, because someone who pays a bribe is just engaging in promoting his own interests vis-a-vishis competitors; he isn’t concerned about the effect on society as a whole because there isn’t a society of which he feels a part. If paying a bribe means that he can secure patronage, why, he will do it; it’s not much different from his ancestors who brought gifts of jewels or grain to the local ruler in order to secure his favour.

This goes along with contempt for law, which the South Asian has no use for because it limits him in his interactions with his competitors. He’ll obey the law only under the direct gaze of authority, because authority is in a position to mete out punishment (the feudal mindset again) and circumvent it everywhere else and in whatever way possible. He will go out of his way to break a law if he thinks he can get away with it for the same reason.

Historically, there have been other feudal societies, but those have been crushed and mangled and forced to re-invent themselves by various historical processes including defeat in war and overwhelming natural disasters, processes in which commoner and noble found themselves in the same boat and having to do identical things to survive. In the case of South Asia, though, defeat in war simply meant the feudal barons would switch allegiances and begin serving their new masters; and in the case of famine, well, the feudal nature of the society meant that those in a position to dole out food and other benefits would simply strengthen their positions further. 

None of these factors have changed today.

Therefore, in the absence of major war resulting in overwhelming defeat (probably involving the use of nuclear weaponry) and utter destruction of the power elite, there is absolutely no prospect of there ever being a substantial change in the system. People worldwide expect social services like roads, water, schools and electricity as a right in return for taxes paid. However, in the Indian system, these would come as the result of patronage from the politician, who is rewarded/placated by being allowed to siphon off a proportion of the funds used for himself. So long as he’s able to provide patronage, his personal misuse of monies and powers is no issue at all.

While one is on the subject, can we now understand why, in the absence of adequate healthcare, education, public services and so on even on a basic level, the government insists on spending incredible amounts on military purchases that can never be used and are never meant to be used, like nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers? While the actual military dangers the people face are on a small-scale level of terrorist attacks and guerrilla warfare, those affect only the lowest rungs of the patronage ladder and have no scope for the personal benefits of the top elites. Besides, these terrorists or guerrillas do not, under any conceivable circumstances, stand a chance of defeating the elite in such a way as to jeopardise their existence.

But spending billions on huge and impressive military white elephants has a much greater utility. 

First, it limits the funds available for social development and so assures that what’s left over can be doled out only as patronage, because there’s never enough to go around for everyone. 

Second, the elite has taken a lesson from the Mughal emperors who kept their client nobles happy by farming out their armies to them as “mansabs” of troop quotas to be maintained under a government dole, of which the “mansabdars” appropriated a large percentage for themselves. Naturally, the actual value of such troops was low since the emperors were dependent on the “mansabdars” obeying the king when the time came for war, but keeping the patron-client system intact was more important than maintaining an effective standing army. Similarly, keeping the military brass happy with major purchases from which funds can be leaked away, in addition to promoting only politically-reliable officers to top ranks (and giving them positions as state governors and ambassadors after retirement) keeps the army from even thinking of a coup. The government dispenses privilege; the military is happy to accept.

Thirdly, the elite is aware that the only real threat to its status as patron is a really big war, so a huge military, even if utterly useless against guerrillas and terrorists, is essential for its own security; even if useless, an adversary can be deterred by such a military’s potential strength, never mind its actual ineffectualness.

Concurrently, the national elite is attempting to cement its position by forging an alliance with the United States of America, in order to make its position as secure as that of the US-controlled oligarchies that used to rule Latin America until fairly recently.

Therefore, on all levels, from the strictly personal to the national, this is a feudal nation, and no improvement can be expected unless and until a disaster of such magnitude strikes the nation that everyone, rich or poor, is swept away.

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