A manifesto for India's middle classes and their political awakening
I have been a student and a school teacher of social sciences for nearly three decades. Social sciences as such is a normative discipline where in studying people and cultures we seek to envision and re-imagine society more equitable, democratic and just. Marxism at first seemed to provide the best possibilities to achieve these objectives and transforming our imaginations and political aspirations into concrete realities. But then the variables constituting social change are many and not everything is explained by Marxism and socialistic vision. All state backed socialist experiments failed and indeed the Soviet Union experience and what we see in North Korea has been nothing short of disastrous with neither any semblance of democracy or humanism. China represents another socialist caricature. Indeed the possibilities of a socialist world is ironically becoming slimmer even as capitalism has become more brazen, hurting, egregious and ubiquitous. There are more millionaires and billionaires now even as there is greater inequality if not poverty. Thus an overtly political and societal response a.k.a ‘revolution’ to inequality, alienation, humiliation seems only to be a delusion. Further capitalism itself has changed in ways that no one-size-fits-all approach is possible to counter its hydra headed form. Therefore that social change can only be gradual and incremental should be a learning. Further Marxism inspired social sciences constantly alludes to structural socio-economic changes and mostly post-dated to some time in the future when all power and hierarchy will get leveled and harmony, peace, liberty and justice prevail. This as we see has failed to materialize or sustain itself anywhere in the world. So then the question arises if no structural change is possible and in such a context if socio-economic hierarchies are to remain permanent, constant and God given, why study history or social sciences at all particularly of the type inspired not just by Marxian framework but complemented by Weberian sociology? (Obviously referred here is Francis Fukuyama’s End of History argument) And beyond Marxism and socialism, post Marxist, postmodern sociology also has not provided much promise. In fact the new post modern theories has rendered and implicated every action and utterance within an anarchic discourse of power and relativism. Moreover such strands takes no cognizance of human spirit and the alluring mystique of the sublime, the intangible and the metaphysical. Religion and mysticism has been reduced to one of mere ideology of false consciousness, hegemony and power at the service of caste and patriarchy, not to forget class. All these hardly augurs to redeem the prospects of social sciences as a domain still worth pursuing in quest for knowledge and enlightenment, even if it is not practical ensuring employment prospects.
However I still seek to validate the utility of history or sociology as facilitating praxis. In fact, I imagine that's the way I taught history and politics not in very abstracted forms but as a dialectics between structure and agency, between the normative and the actual and between the theoretical and the practical. While changing the structure that causes most of the pathologies and problems we confront, has been put paid to for the moment and most political collectives seeking structural change suspicious and dubious, agency is still in our hands - with an individual. Knowing the problems we are in the midst of, what can I (an educated, upper caste-class, male, urban btw) as an individual do? Social sciences endows you with not just understanding of society and its problems but it can also help you to come with some response, however ad-hoc, temporary (on the other hand maybe more enduring given the stakes an individual finds within for reflective and socially responsible living?) but nevertheless informed by an ethic of social responsibility. Modern social theories that informs social sciences have their problems and none can be considered complete. Many of these theories also stand in contrast and opposition to the other. However I contend that in social sciences i.e. sociology, economics, historical and political studies, we render a convergence and formation of knowledge that bring about new social and cultural practices and forms of ‘being’. But these can only be enabled subjectively and reflectively for which capacities are required to sift through issues. Thus in the ‘everyday’ as well, an individual can address issues of unequal social relationships and environmental, ecological problems. Even as the collective both at the informal levels of civil societies and formal politics stands fragmented, disarrayed and doubtful, it can be rediscovered and renewed through individual quests, practices and inquiries. In a way I only buttress Emile Durkheim’s arguments for the centrality and sanctity of the collective through the path of individual awakening. So I also contend that sans individual awakening mere collectives, their actions either through formal political movements or even through NGO type activism - which is becoming more of a profession of and for 'development' in very formal terms - such collective interventions too become meaningless. There thus has to be structural changes at levels of political economy, which needs to be rendered through a collective action harmonizing different social segments, cultures and experience and importantly that which makes meaning at both personal and collective levels. So such Utopian visions need not bear itself out in models we are familiar with like socialism. It could be even more encompassing informed by Gandhian, economic trusteeship and ecologically sustainable visions where mysticial and spiritual experiences and endeavours too are seen as vital in ensuring the social change we all seek and attempt. No doubt while abstracted they appear conflicting but both in spirit and in our daily practices via social sciences, the three contemporaries - Marx, Weber and Durkheim can be brought to fruitful coalescing!
Listed below are some suggestions. Kindly read them with the caveat that I'm not professing to lead such a life myself in its entirety. These may sound patronizing, condescending, self righteous and elite. Possibly. Nevertheless they are based on a critical and reflexive understanding of life, society and ecology and matters that dominate them and how ideally an individual can respond to them. Measures and attempts that can make the world a little better (and my conscience a little lighter). They are not exhaustive and it's an evolving process. Others with their own life experience and understanding can include more. Maybe once a critical mass is attained the elusive revolution may just happen and happen in ways without a fancy leader or a party in more organic, spontaneous and permanent fashion - something that may not look like socialism as we know it but something Utopian.
Grocery and vegetable shopping
1. Buy not just local brands of food and groceries but do check ingredients and make sure no preservatives, colours and additives are used
2. When buying savouries like salted snacks, bread, biscuits, chocolates, pickles make sure they are not made using palmolein... Most palmolein is imported from Indonesia and Malaysia and their rainforests are being denuded for palmolein plantations. Given the warped trading regimes we have, companies trying to maximize profits use cheaper but imported palmolein than locally available edible oils.
3. Those edibles which claim to be sugar free, see what artificial sweeteners are being used in sugars' place. Ideally avoid processed food let it be instant noodles, biscuits, pasta, bread, even branded savouries... They all use refined flour, lots of sugar, salt and artificial flavour enhancers. Ideally let's see if we make the most of it home in your kitchen. They are edibles strictly meant to be made in your kitchen and not in factories.
4. Even so if we are buying these, let's buy them from local bakeries and sweet wallahs. There are also some producers who use more of jaggery, less salt and employ self help groups to make their biscuits, pickles, jam etc. Patronise more of them even if it means paying more.
5. Let's avoid buying imported brands of bread, jams, biscuits, fruit based beverages etc. And even toiletries like soaps, shampoos and toothpastes. They are not technology intensive products which needs to be imported. It is one thing probably to buy fancy mobile phones from China but does not make sense to buy noodles made in China or fruit juices made in South Africa or talcum powders made in Brazil. Further what about patronizing local industries that make these toiletries rather than fancy multinational or even national companies? (And look beyond Patanjali!)
6. How far is it possible to buy our groceries not packaged in plastic covers? It's not so much plastic carry bags that is adding to mounting plastic garbage but that every conceivable product including groceries and veggies in fancy shopping chains comes packaged. At least let's buy these in bottles and tins that are more readily recyclable compared to plastic and pouches packaging.
7. When ordering on food delivery apps we perhaps should look at delivery options that do not use plastic, styrofoam or thermocol cutlery. Ideally let's go out and eat rather than ordering at home. And look at places that can be reached walking instead of using our cars.
8. Bringing in more of millet in our diet and weaning ourselves away from cereals like rice or wheat would be great. They are water guzzlers (along with Sugarcane) and need more of fertilizers for growth. On the other hand millets use less than half water and require no or little fertilizers, insecticides etc.
9. Buy vegetables and fruits that are seasonal and grown not beyond 200-300 km distance. Even if we are not using organic (great if we do), buying vegetables and fruits seasonally by default implies allowing plants to fruit naturally using seasonal rainfall and not forced into by using insecticides, deep freezing, borewell water, GMO etc. These benefit only companies that manufacture pumps, seeds, transport vehicles and not farmers and growers.
10. Buy more from vendors on the streets and let's not bargain unless the rates are totally outrageous. We should remember that fancy FMCG brands markup their prices some 10-20 times more but we wouldn't bargain buying branded bread which are sold at 40 Rs that should actually not cost more than 8-10 Rs at best?
11. Reduce intake of coffee and tea ideally and again if that is tough call, see if your tea and coffee have social certifications like Rainforest Alliance or UTZ which gives us some assurance that workers in plantations and the forests around have not been exploited?
12. Offer our sweat voluntarily with farmers during sowing and harvesting season.
1. Buy as few clothing as possible.
2. As adults over the age of 25 we don't have to buy clothes every Ramzan, Diwali, Pongal or on all our birthdays. Only kids who keep growing need to replenish clothes yearly. Once we are 25 or 30 not just our height but even girth gets cast for good. So what you buy at 30 can easily last till you are 40 and more unless the clothing itself gives away or the sugar and fat you consume makes you even fatter!
3. It is useful to remember that much of textiles and apparels gets made cheaply but branded expensively. The conditions under which these clothings get made are exploitative... Workers labour under unsafe, dangerous conditions for pittance but we buy them paying some 10 times the cost in fancy, air conditioned shopping malls. Watching documentaries like Blood, Sweat and T shirts, or Machines does give us an idea and feel, mostly unpleasant and shocking of the social, environmental costs of shirts, jeans, tube tops, shorts, skirts or saree to be made.
4. There are few ethical brands emerging and some weavers cooperatives being formed. See if you can source your next shirt, saree etc from them. ( And no...I don't mean Fabindia)
Housing - gadgets, appliances, furnishing and decor
Looking to buy a house or build one...?? Factor these in:
1. Go for a technology which uses the mud from your own plot for making bricks, walls and even ceilings. Minimise use of steel, cement and concrete which again are not just environmentally destructive but the condition of labour in the factories and mines that produce them are horrendous and inhuman. While one probably cannot do away with steel and cement entirely but can we look for an architectural design that minimises them? Contrary to what it may appear, wood is in comparison environmentally more friendly provided the wood is verified and certified to have been grown in regulated environment and responsibly logged. Wood can theoretically and maybe even practically replenished unlike minerals. But here again we should try to minimise carpentry for our in-house storage purposes which is where maximum timber is used. Further sourcing most of building materials as much locally as possible.
2. One should know that using mud with minimal cement and granite makes your house cooler by nearly 6-7 degrees and thus we can rethink on use of air-conditioners. These days lot of solar operated air-conditioners and refrigerators are also available (beyond solar water geysers which are thankfully used in huge numbers already) to ensure your house is more sustainable and minimizes use of power. While initial costs may be high but in the long term they prove to be economical not to speak about the benign effect it has on an otherwise deteriorating environment.
3. Also see if we occasionally can labour on construction of our house along with the workers. This will help in emotionally bonding with our property and help empathize with labour too. Indeed involvement of self in construction of your residential property was one of the keys of Laurie Baker in his discourse of sustainable vernacular architecture.
4. These days given the constraints of space and time buying apartments are easier. Now with apartments one cannot avoid concrete foundations, use of beams, RCC and steel. ( ideally we shouldn't look at apartments that are more than 10 storeys high... Higher and taller, more power intensive these apartments become) However, even here we can check if the apartments have a resilient rain water harvesting system, own STP, provision for organic compositing, and adequate provision for charging e-cars. Further today apartments too can use solar powered back up for lighting common areas and sourcing power for couple of fans and light instead of diesel backed generator.
5. Then there are the more well and long known suggestions of using water and power sparingly in our domestic existence.
Many argue that electronics, gadgets, appliances, furnishings and decor are cheap, affordable and more people are accessing them. Ain't that democratic and therefore desirable? Going back to clothing, fashion thanks to online and seconds shopping too has become affordable and cheap giving even the lower classes access to style and status. The point is not everything that is cheap is laudable and desirable. It is the cheapness and therefore the disposable mindset that comes with it that is depleting resources, mounting garbage, pollution of land, water and air, all leading to global warming that is asphyxiating us. Seen in totality affordability is ensured by giving big corporations subsidized resources - let it be water, land, minerals, power by the state. Therefore these costs are hidden to enable easy affordability on one hand and accumulation of profits for corporations on the other by sheer volume of sold goods. But the state remains impoverished unable then to provide basic access like schools, health, sanitation and housing which are more crucial for the poor than their ability to buy mobiles, t-shirt or junk food.
There are also possibilities of extending our social practices beyond the above, which too have an impact on the environment, society and culture in ways to make society sustainable and equitable. The following, like the above, are merely suggestions and subjective but provide what in sociology we call a phenomenology of life, living, work and experience. In other words it's only with experience, observation and study first hand that we confront the conditions of our benighted existence and then look for solutions. As Marx would have put it - our social and cultural practices are so removed from the actual purposes for which they were intended which have further been abused and mystified to create dubious and unnecessary wants. And we get so far removed and alienated from these production processes that we have little idea of the social and environmental costs involved in products, social and cultural practices. This is what Marx meant as reification.
a. Let us see if we can send our kids to government schools which today are accessed only by the poor and marginalized. Just socialization with these kids from impoverished backgrounds would give your kids more exposure, access and means to a social learning and understanding of Indian society and culture as very divided. While no doubt govt school teachers are known to play truant but with enlightened parents, these teachers can be made more accountable. This may result in better teaching and further benefit even the socially marginalized kids who otherwise are said to learn not much in these govt schools.
There are further issues here like domains, curriculum, pedagogy, privatization etc which I'm not going into for the moment. While one cannot argue against pursuits of popular courses like engineering, medicine, management and accounting, their curriculum, rendering and access needs to have a greater dose of sociological and historical perspective to enable reflective and thinking citizenship and not merely professional competence.
b. Likewise even for health, let's patronize more of primary health centres and government hospitals who provide healthcare free. The notoriety of private schools and hospitals in extorting the public with exorbitant fees and charges is well known. While government hospitals too are poorly and appallingly run with unspeakable sanitary and hygiene conditions, studies have shown that involvement of local communities bring in better accountability and service conditions in both these public institutions. These can become more so if enlightened folks also are part of these community actions. Further as studies and data too admit, government school teachers are better qualified than private. Likewise govt hospital doctors have better experience and understanding of ailments and diseases and compared to fleecing doctors in private hospitals do not needlessly recommend medicines and tests thus cutting down on medical expenses.
Culture, family and dispositions
c. Similarly as enlightened citizens fully aware how everything about our living has environmental and social impact, even our cultural habits have to be such that does not reinforce consumerism and weakens our personal if not collective resolve. For example most Bollywood films reinforce consumerism where products and brands are so seamlessly brought in. Even problematic outlooks, practices and offensive behaviour gets very normalised in our popular films. They seduce us to certain mindsets which again compel one on failed, environmentally and socially costing trajectories. So what kind of films or arts do we patronize? Likewise the way we holiday - does it make sense to holiday in resorts and five star hotels which are so consumptive or look for stays with locals in clean rooms and bathrooms? Then our marriages and gatherings - do we really need huge halls, mandaps, food arrangements, gathering of people in vulgar display of wealth and status?
d. How do we cut down on our clutter at home - utensils, furniture, decor and of course gadgets? Maybe by buying only the minimum. It does not mean forgoing comforts, certain aesthetic character and not availing the best of what humanity has achieved for itself in technology and science to make our lives comfortable. It does mean being very discerning where we are critically aware of not just the financial cost but the social and environmental as well.
Enterprise and business
e. Then as business folks and entrepreneurs how do we run our set up in ways that are sustainable? Like making sure our factories do not let effluents into neighborhood lakes and rivers or in the air? Making sure we don't pull short in compensating workers justly and ensure risk free workplaces? To have enterprises that make products which are intrinsically valuable and need not depend on advertisements endorsed by overrated film and sports stars who are paid a fortune for doing so? And then we have offices and workplaces that cut down on air-conditioning, lighting, has systematic waste disposal and water use systems?
f. What kind of companies, enterprises and businesses do we work for? For companies making fossil fuel consuming cars, appliances, or chemicals and metals which poison our atmosphere and uses unethical methods to lure us into a culture of mindless buying? Let's think.
Then there is use of transport. Now as evident as gravity, public transport is the way to travel to cut down on traffic and pollution. It also helps bridge the gap between classes and builds a community. Ideally if we live in places where our office, schools, market, hospitals are all within 3-4 km radius we can cut off transport by 90% both public and private.
g. Ultimately all of the above will also need governance support and policies which nudge us to make such changes. And thus even as there is a lot of talk of shuttering ration shops, govt schools and hospitals on account of loses and inefficiencies, these in fact need to be strengthened and made more effective not just for the poor but even the more endowed middle classes.
It is being said that we have actually reached a point of no return environmentally where even if we were to take all these measures it will be a couple of centuries before planet Earth can heal itself - biodiversity renewed, flora-faunal ecology restored and global temperatures be reduced. ( Check these links out for the further calamities that awaits us: Are We Heading Toward Extinction? https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/are-we-heading-toward extinction_in_5d33cbe2e4b0419fd32de538
One should note that the above suggestions to bring in changes to our being, interactions and living are made not just because of environmental concerns and for mere virtues of frugality and adherence to compulsions of faith. It is equally to empathize with those who are living on the margins of society and struggling to make a living with dignity and integrity. It is basically a manifesto against consumerism which has become our credo making us into destructive automatons.
Essentially all the suggestions for rendering change here is individualized but are still political and collective in effect. Like stated earlier, it is more to reinstate the cooperative urges undergirding human consciousness and restore to our historical quest this telos that was forgotten in pursuit of power and property. It is thus important that as citizens we keep tab on politics and see which political parties have these figured out even as we keep organizing ourselves into action as civil society endeavors, notwithstanding its limitations and failures.
Further note that none of these suggestions as such argue against business or private property or indeed is even suggesting extreme Gandhian thinking and practice. Also I'm not going into deeply personal practices and do not completely buy the notion that personal and public are dubious separations like some Gandhians do. Private and personal spaces are needed, are legitimate and sacrosanct - a separation made possible by industrial modernity that I welcome. But for the same reason snooping and stealing of data on the internet which is so dominant and further propels consumerist cultures is a concern. Again I don't per se have much grouse against internet enabled commerce and social media as long as they don't become monopolies in the hands of the few...which unfortunately they are. But let's not throw the baby with the bath water. Publicly funded media like BBC and PBS provide pointers for ways to go forward. But when the public sphere intersects with the personal and what one chooses undermines a social collective and the natural environment, our personal choices have to be mediated. There is the need to render awareness as to how the public and personal are so intertwined. Here is where social media does come in handy. To me social media activism plus personal, social, cultural and professional practices plus involvement in associational endeavours for such causes would be the ideal exercise of citizenship. In any case enabling understanding of such processes which are nuanced and complex and facilitating an equally nuanced, reflexive and dialectical responses form the crucial pedagogic agendas of social science teaching.
I have not gone into matters like social identities, social hierarchies ( i.e. caste and religion) and the effects thereof on one's well being in detail here. Even there ensuring practices that increases social intercourse like inter caste and inter religious marriages would undoubtedly help in harmonizing society. That today's social identities and even national identities have become so important to be loudly and violently asserted and displayed is precisely because of increasing insecurities caused by perpetuation of a vicious culture of irresponsible consumerism we are so caught up with. In the process of being absorbed in a competitive culture of buying and selling, working and consuming like zombies we are mostly being misled into believing and ignoring the limited resources available at our command - water, land, biodiversity, minerals etc and disregarding the complete degeneration of environment in its lopsided and indiscriminate utilisation. Misrecognizing these problems and articulating them as one merely of access based on social and cultural identities we get too caught up in cultural and jingoistic politics. More disconcerting is the complete obsession with politics of identity ignoring everything else and accusing politics of environment, sustainability and issues of psychological and emotional distress as elitist. Here the politics of identity and hurt itself is so competitive that each claim justification - historical or otherwise in which sadly even left-secular intellectuals too are so irresponsibly caught up. While one need not totally undermine identity politics and be disparaging of it (like that of Dalit politics in context of India) but those based on religion, minority or majority (and to interject here and share my view which is subjective and could be problematic to many, I feel Hindutva politics itself is a response to nurturing of a ghettoised vote bank politics, particularly of Muslims practised by Congress and left in the name of secularism) is further taking us away from building a harmonious secular collective to unitedly deal with the problem of consumerist modernity. Let us remind ourselves of the constitution of India - useful in such an liberal-democratic endeavour that can be rendered more accommodative of concerns post globalization.
However I do think certain materialism, commerce and enterprise needs to be accepted to ensure access and comfort. Ever since the dawn of civilization enterprise, risk taking, production and commerce are seen as givens, something ‘natural’ to human societies and one should have the freedom to pursue them. Further pursuit of happiness and maximizing pleasure are indeed liberal and democratic ideals. But in practice we owe both to ourselves, society and environment to be aware about the social and environmental implications of our pursuits and not nurture cultures totally overwhelmed by concerns of growth and profit (with speculation of stock markets and the compulsions it engenders being seriously culpable here) alone that so saturates our discursive spaces.
We need to surcharge ourselves politically at personal levels even if we choose to keep away from active and formal politics. It is also to argue that social change given the failure of collective action - not just formal socialist political movements but even civil society endeavours like India Against Corruption - can also emerge from personal resolves, understanding and practise of what is socially desirable. Here the 'social' encompasses not just a particular class or community but extends to all demographics and the natural environment we live in. Therefore it is not as much by revolutions but informed and enlightened individual practices that probably can pay us social and political dividends that most of us desire. And restore the collective in ways less conscious, overt without much fanfare, claims and posturings.