Back to the Future


A Telling Commentary

June 1995. Up and away from the blazing Deccan plateau in the cool heights of Kodaikanal two lines of poetry suddenly quoted by an agricultural scientist in the middle of Planning Commission deliberations shake me out of a pleasant post-lunch stupor:

'Where is the wisdom 
we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge 
we have lost in information?'

Back home, digging out T.S.Eliot's "The Rock",  I am transfixed by the passage.   

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?'
men both deny gods and worship gods, 
professing first Reason, And then Money, and Power, 
and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic'
an age which advances progressively backwards.'

What a telling commentary on India and the world today!

Colonized for centuries, Indians still look to the Occident for role models. And what is the Western scene? A dominant single Super Power; exploitation of man and nature for personal aggrandizement the game-plan; all-pervasive rent-seeking behavior the manifestation; having more the driving force'necessarily at the expense of others (what is the fun in having more unless others have less!)' ruled only by a concern for personal rights, ignoring and even denying the existence of duties owed to others. Former US State Department analyst Fukuyama describes it as: 'this modern 'rights' revolution, in which every individual believes he possesses an ever growing panoply of rights, with few ('ever fewer', we might amend) responsibilities.'[2] More recently, Anthony Lewis writes in The New York Times:

'The United States today is in the grip of free market ideology carried to the extreme: a belief that the society will thrive if nearly all decisions are left for individuals to make on economic grounds'But individual decision-making cannot give a society clean water or safe drugs'Nor can pure commercialism give a country a decent television service. When people in a society care only for themselves'social bonds and social trust decline. In that process, everyone will eventually lose. In a society'that has lost its sense of community, individualism will not bring contentment.'[3]

The world has rapidly shrunk to a global cybernet-village where, ironically, men are more isolated than ever. 25% of American households consist of 1 person today against 8% in 1940. It is this social isolation that turns the individual's dejection into depression. 2 out of every 10 Americans spend part of their life in mental institutions. In Trust Fukuyama documents that in 1993 only 37% Americans felt they could trust most people. In 1960 the figure was 58%. This is but inevitable in a society where leisure time is devoted to electronic amusement in isolation and socializing is practiced for developing professional contacts, not for building friendship.[4] These are what Kurt Vonnegut called granfaloons or false associations.

Robert D. Putnam's study in The American Prospect of average Americans over the last 30 years reveals that they are 'significantly less engaged with their communities than was true a generation ago.'[5] Putnam notes a decline in 'social trust', of belief in one another. He finds that the average American spends 40% of his free time watching TV which discourages 'social trust and group membership'''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''' heavy viewers are more likely to be loners.' Surveys reveal that heavy readers are 76% more likely to belong to civic groups than watchers and that, despite such heavy TV watching, one fourth of the American population is illiterate. Moreover, the negative picture TV gives of society appears to breed skepticism about the goodness of other people and increases pessimism about human nature. The electronic revolution in communications, while expanding opportunities, has a profoundly fragmenting effect socially, as people can sit isolated at their computers and communicate with others only through that medium. Putnam concludes, 'Technology may indeed be undermining our connections with one another and with our communities.' Evolutionary psychologist Timothy Miller writes in How to Want What You Have: 'the instinctive but ultimately fruitless pursuit of More keeps us from indulging in what Darwin called 'the social instincts.' The pursuit of More can keep us from better knowing our neighbors, better loving our kin'in general, from cultivating the warm, affiliative side of human nature.'[6]

The reason for the rapid fragmentation of the core ingredient of society, the family, is, as Lester Thurow points out, that 'The current economic system is no longer congruent with traditional nuclear family values, just as the Industrial Revolution two centuries earlier was not congruent with the then traditional extended family values'Values follow economic realities. Individual fulfillment now ranks higher than family in public opinion polls. 'Competitive individualism' grows at the expense of 'family solidarity'. The ideal is 'choice,' not 'bonds'.[7]

In a finely researched paper on the implications of the severe threat faced by the human family, administrator-scholar Dr. Kalyan Kumar Chakravarty writes,

'The families are no longer able to function as intermediate bodies between individual, state and society, as vehicles for socio-political or economic developments or as dykes against the trouble and stress of the surrounding world. Hailed as the smallest democracy at the heart of the society, the most important welfare institution, the most efficient maximizer of labor in land-abundant regions with extended families, the family is now being replaced in many of the western societies by the state for such functions. The state welfare services, hospitals for the terminally ill, homes for the elderly, schools for the handicapped children are more symptoms of the breakdown of the safety net functions of the family than of the enlightenment of the state or society.'[8]

It is a telling fact, he points out, that in Malawi and Saharan Africa poverty and destitution are synonymous, in terms of language, with lack of family, kin and friends. Is it not tragic that Matthew Arnold's anguished utterance in 'To Marguerite' about the late 19th century should ring so true over a century later when mankind prides itself on having overcome the constraints of space?'

'Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
We mortal millions live alone'
Oh might our marges meet again!'

The findings of Putnam and Miller are not new. They echo the immortal tramp's address to the world at the end of his magnificent film THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940), voicing thoughts that are so foreign to the western way of life. He spoke of living in mutual harmony and joy, not at the expense of others. Let us listen to Charles Chaplin, for these are words that the West has preferred to forget:

'We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery; we don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. The good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful. But we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate'We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity, more than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for universal brotherhood, for the unity of us all'The misery that is upon is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress'these unnatural men, machine men with machine minds and machine hearts. You are not machines. You are men. You have the love of humanity in your hearts'The kingdom of God is within man. Not in one man or in a group of men, but in all men'You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful'Fight to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.'

Half a century later, perhaps quite unconsciously, Fukuyama echoes these sentiments: 'The ability of technology to better human life is critically dependent on a parallel moral progress in man. Without the latter, the power of technology will simply be turned to evil purposes and mankind will be worse off than it was previously.'[9] Is it mere coincidence that in 1995, in so unexpected a forum as National Geographic, the danger of the tyranny of information should be highlighted? 'Wisdom and insight often come not from keeping up-to-date or compiling facts, but from quiet reflection. What we hold most valuable'things like morality and compassion'can be found only within us.' Joel Swerdlow continues, 'Only one-quarter of all Americans know their next door neighbors'The Age of SOFTWARE will offer'a host of services that unplug us from physical contact. The decline of human-to-human contact is apparent around the world. Throughout the Middle East cafe life'where people used to tell stories over a cup of tea'is disappearing. Bistros are going out of business in Paris'patrons'rush off to watch television.'[10] Fifty years after THE GREAT DICTATOR, in the BBC television serial LEGACY, Michael Wood emphatically reiterates that over the last two centuries Western civilization has changed the balance of nature so permanently that now civilization itself'run on western values of individualism, competition, acquisitiveness, constantly pushing outwards'has become a central problem of the earth.

The roots of this economic barbarism seem to lie in the philosophy of Francis Bacon, that if what is the most useful is also what is the most correct, then man becomes a law unto himself and even truth can, then, be defined in utilitarian terms, not in terms of religion or spirituality. This was reinforced by Adam Smith's assertion that man can only be motivated by self-interest and therefore it is to men's self-love that any strategy of social development should be addressed.

Smith's advocacy of selfishness was exaggerated by the German Max Stirner into a celebration of absolute egoism and social nihilism for the European continent, while Herbert Spencer developed the concept into a social Darwinism extrapolating the theory of evolution into a bitterly competitive struggle for getting on in society. This formed the bedrock on which the skyscraper of American entrepreneurial philosophy was founded. The mindset has been well expressed by England's prime minister Margaret Thatcher who said, 'There is no such thing as society. There are just individuals and their families.' This atomistic view of society, fostered by Hobbes and Locke and of the universe propagated by Newton, was imported into psychology by Freud who insisted that each of us is essentially isolated, that we relate to one another only in terms of projections of oneself. It is Freud who scoffed that the commandment 'Love thy neighbor as thyself' is utterly impossible to implement and that the whole world of values only makes individuals' neurotic by making impossible demands on them. Hence, ultimately, every man is for himself, every man is an island.[11]

Adopting this approach to life, the West set out to exploit nature and mankind. Hence, colonization, fresh in our memories Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, and now cultural imperialism through satellite and cable TV, INTERNET and the WORLD WIDE WEB. In LEGACY, Wood voices a growing and profound disquiet that the Western way of life itself is no longer supportable either morally or practically because of pollution, environmental destruction and the continuing exploitation of mankind:

'Usually it is said that the East is hopelessly backward and needs to catch up with the West. But, a consideration of the legacy of these great civilizations suggests that the West has some catching up to do. It needs to learn from the East a way of cultivating its inner space, of accepting limits and desires in an increasingly finite world.'

We shall see how Wood is only reiterating an awareness that was stated in ancient times by Vyasa in the Mahabharata, voiced by an English poet and elaborated by a great Indian in the early years of the 20th century. Vyasa uses the metaphor of the sacrifice, yajna, for making the point that a shift is essential from self-centered existence to sacramental living based on an other-centered outlook on life.[12]

For the present, let us take note of THE EARTH CHARTER, 'Canticle of All Creatures', issued by the Jury of The International Saint Francis Prize for the Environment, presided over by Prof. Olof G. Tandberg, Foreign Secretary, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Charter stresses that we can no longer behave irresponsibly towards the bounty provided by nature. It states, inter alia, 'the cultural, moral and spiritual development of persons and communities must be given greater emphasis so that the Earth may ever more become our common home.' It also points out that the enjoyment of fundamental rights requires the exercise of corresponding fundamental duties and that the primary goal of human efforts is 'to guide and inspire future human development in order to create new lifestyles that will guarantee to the whole human population social justice and harmonious relations among nations and peoples and respect for the life-giving capacities of our Sister, Mother Earth.'[13]

On the other hand, the having more syndrome typifying the greed-driven consumerist society spawns a vicious spiral of exploitative behavior, because more having fails to provide the sense of security and the satisfaction craved for. This is the great contribution of Bentham, identifying pleasure as the mainspring of human action and equating that pleasure with having more, not with being more complete. In other words, 'Good means Happiness means Goods.'[ 4] Thereby, man regards other human beings merely as means to achieve his aim of maximizing personal enjoyment. The reason for this was stated by Rousseau and Hegel long back. They pointed out that by comparing himself with others, man creates ever-new desires that are rooted in his vanity. These artificial needs can never be fundamentally satisfied since consumerism keeps breeding fresh wants. This fuels the frenzied search for possessing yet more, creating further frustration, fatigue and a steep rise in the incidence of stress-related 'top executive' diseases. Simultaneously, the insatiable desire for possession impels our faculties more and more outwards in a faster and faster centrifugal whirl, out of control, away from the stable core of our being, till the danger of flying apart and disintegrating now begins to loom ominously large as an immediate eventuality. By opting TO HAVE instead of TO BE, [5] we necessarily settle for a progressively lower quality of being for the fleeting pleasure of a higher standard of consumption that swiftly leaves in its wake a parched tongue and a fevered brow. Wielded by the formidable duo of Adam Smith's economicism and Bentham's hedonism, the goad of the pleasure principle relentlessly pricks us on, slaving abjectly under the whiplash of ever-new desires for evermore. Chin-Ning Chu, an expert on the Asian business psyche, perceptively notes: 'History has proven that the blind pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain cause the human race to sabotage itself. We blindly pursue individual pleasure at any cost and rob ourselves of our possibility to be great.'[6] What stares us in the face is the arid prospect of a GET NOWHERE Life Position, [7] where neither is the other person OK, nor, we find to our consternation, are we:-

'The desert is not remote in southern tropics,
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother'
What life have you if you have not life together?'
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor'
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together,
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.'
And the wind shall say: 'Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand golf balls.' ' [ 8]


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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