Deepak Lal is the James S. Coleman Professor Emeritus of International Development Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, professor emeritus of political economy at University College London, and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He was a member of the Indian Foreign Service (1963-66) and has served as a consultant to the Indian Planning Commission, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, various UN agencies, South Korea, and Sri Lanka. From 1984 to 1987 he was research administrator at the World Bank.
Lal is the author of a number of books, including The Poverty of Development Economics; The Hindu Equilibrium; Against Dirigisme; The Political Economy of Poverty, Equity and Growth; Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Factor Endowments, Culture, and Politics on Long-Run Economic Performance; and Reviving the Invisible Hand: The Case for Classical Liberalism in the 21st Century.
Grégoire Canlorbe: From Gandhi’s point of view, in substance, Varanashram (caste system) is inherent in human nature and it was solely given a scientific expression through Hinduism. Similarly, can one contend that utility maximization and rational calculus are innate human traits that capitalism turned into a science?
Deepak Lal: As I have shown in The Hindu Equilibrium, the caste system, far from being timeless and “inherent in human nature,” most likely arose as the Aryan response to the problem of securing a stable labor supply for the relatively labor-intensive agriculture they came to practice in the Indo-Gangetic plan. Given the ecological circumstances of this large plain (once the primeval forests had been cleared during the Aryan advance), and the primitive forms of transport then available, a major constraint on achieving a political solution for the provision of a stable labor supply, was the endemic political instability among the numerous feuding monarchies.
This endemic political instability meant that various alternatives methods of tying down the scarce labor (relative to land) needed for the labor-intensive form of plow agriculture on the plains were not available, such as slavery, poll taxation, indenture, or limitations on migration. For these required the power of a centralized state and its attendant bureaucracy for enforcement. The caste system provided a more subtle and enduring answer to the Aryans’ problem of maintaining their rural labor supply. It established a decentralized system of control that did not require any overall (and larger) political community to exist for its survival, and it ensured that any attempt to start new settlements outside its framework would be difficult if not impossible. The division of labor by caste and its enforcement by local social ostracism were central to the schema.
As for capitalism, understood as the natural “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” it is hardly a new thing and must date back to the hunter-gatherer stage of our development in the Pleistocene. Given the time scale of Darwinian processes of “inclusive fitness”—it takes about ten thousand years to produce a new species—much of our current biological nature must have been determined in this distant past. Though, I should mention it was the creation of the whole legal cum administrative structure for enforcing property rights through the Church-State established by Gregory VII over Western Christendom which established capitalism as an institution, thus leading to the dynamic which began the Great Divergence in the economic fortunes of the West and the Rest.
One essential component of the instincts that were determined thought evolutionary processes—during the millennia when we were hunter-gatherers—was to truck and barter. Another one was to behave morally. However, both appear to be underlying trade and “reciprocal altruism,” as our moral instincts were arguably fixed by repeated social interactions with one’s fellows on a “face to face” basis in the hunter-gatherer band. Indeed, the rise of settled agriculture and urban civilization seems to have enlarged the scope for opportunistic behavior, because of the relatively larger number of more anonymous social transactions entailed in civilized ways of living. Then, an internalized moral code must have been needed, as individuals came to deal with a host of anonymous “strangers” on an occasional basis.
The cooperative gains that result from the increasing division of labor in a more complex civilization would not have been available without some mechanism (either inborn or cultural) for dealing with the increased potential for defection when social interactions became anonymous and sporadic. Thus, our moral instincts must have emerged as fruitful strategies to curb, detect, and punish defection in the strategic non-zero sum game of genetic competition with one’s fellows, with whom cooperation in various tasks of fields direct benefits; but even greater benefits accrue if one can cheat and be a free rider. The cosmologies of the ancient civilizations also created internalized moral codes to prevent such defection (through, for example, moral prohibitions against our basic instincts to lie and cheat).
Grégoire Canlorbe: You have extensively written in praise of empires. How do you sum up the own assets and handicaps of the former British Empire—and of the present Commonwealth—to unfetter trade, to enforce order, and to sustain intensive and robust growth over a large economic space?
Deepak Lal: Empires—which for our purposes can be simply defined as multiethnic conglomerates held together by transnational organizational and cultural ties—have historically both maintained peace and promoted prosperity. This is because the imperial pax or order has been associated with globalization—which is not a new phenomenon—and the prosperity it breeds. In the language of institutional economics, transaction costs were reduced by these transnational organizations through their extension of metropolitan property rights to other countries. And in integrating previously loosely linked or even autarkic countries and regions—through free flows of goods, capital, and people—into a common economic space, they promote those gains from trade and specialization emphasized by Adam Smith.
Thus the Graeco-Roman empires linked the areas around the Mediterranean, the Abbasid empire of the Arabs linked the worlds of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, and the Mongol empire linked China with the Near East. Similarly, the various Indian empires created a common economic space in the sub-continent, while the expanding Chinese empire linked the economic spaces of the Yellow River with those of the Yangtze. It was the British who for the first time knit the whole world through their empire. But most of these empires have ultimately declined. Given the existing technology and the inevitable predatoriness of the state, most of them overextended themselves.
As for the colonial impact on Indian polity and society the Mutiny of 1857 provides a convenient dividing line for two distinct phases. These phases in turn can be identified with two distinct lines of thought which emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century. These concerned the means for promoting the welfare of the Indian people which had explicitly been made the Company’s charge by the English Parliament in the late eighteenth century. The Mutiny also roughly marks the transition of the British in India from “nabobs” to “sahibs.” The nabobs sought to assimilate and to become a traditional Indian power; the sahibs set themselves apart and above their subjects.
The notions of racial exclusiveness and the “White Man’s Burden,” so characteristic of the late imperial phase, were alien to India’s early British rulers, who exhibited a more robust delight in both the country’s mores and its women. Like the Moghuls and other past imperial rulers of India, they would have been satisfied to maintain law and order in the countryside in return for the land revenue which had so for long been the loadstone of imperial ambitions. When it comes to evaluating retrospectively the record of the British empire I think the glass is, like for most empires, either half-full or half-empty. One of the best things the rulers did was to implement a series of social reforms which substantially modernized the Indian society. The most important was the suppression of suttee or burning of widows on their husband’s funeral pyre. This was made illegal in 1828.
In the previous fifteen years, recorded suttees alone had varied annually from 500 to 820. The second major measure was the suppression of infanticide, particularly of female children, whilst the most dramatic was the suppression of “thuggee,” which had involved ritual murder and robbery in the name of the goddess Kali. The reform of education is also worth mentioning. From 1835, an elitist system of providing secondary and higher education in English to the Indian upper classes was implemented. And three non-teaching universities (which were primarily examining bodies for the affiliated colleges) were established in 1857 at Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. Given their need for Indians to man the intermediate and lower levels of the bureaucracy, the British encouraged literary and philosophical studies in the new schools and colleges. By contrast, both primary and technical education languished.
However, another positive thing that the British empire achieved was the institution of property rights in the major asset of Indians—land—and that of the rule of law to enforce these rights. By separating the judiciary from the executive, anglicizing the British administration, and separating the commercial from the political interests of the British in India, it sought to erect an impersonal government. The task of enshrining this rule of law in a fully-fledged codification of Indian public law was not completed until 1861. As British law came to cover the most important areas of Indian lives, it was inevitable that there was a vast growth of indigenous lawyers, trained and skilled in operating in the new-style Western courts. They were to provide the backbone of the middle-classes, which were to emerge as a significant factor in India’s nationalist movement and post-Independence politics.
The worst thing that the British empire did was to implement labor laws and protectionist measures in the late nineteenth century. Instead of promoting infant industries much of this protection shielded established ones against technical changes elsewhere (cotton textiles against Japanese imports) or fostered industries (such as sugar) in which India had no long-run comparative advantage. The ensuing waste of resources imposed lower growth in both employment and industrial output than was feasible. The Indian textile industry, which under laissez-faire and free trade had so triumphantly turned the tables against Lancashire in the second half of the nineteenth century, started declining with the introduction in 1881—soon after similar rights had been granted to workers in Britain—of legislation to protect industrial labor from perceived abuses.
The British empire’s abandonment of the twin policies of free trade and laissez faire which had led India to be a pioneer of Third World industrialization, based on domestic capital and entrepreneurship and imported technology, led to a near century of creeping and after Independence galloping dirigisme, which damaged India’s growth prospects and the hopes of alleviating its ancient scourge of mass poverty. The breakdown of the global economy for the half-century from the First World War further eroded the incipient integration of India in the world economy, which had occurred during the British Raj. Beginning with the economic reforms of 1991 India, at last, seems to have turned its back on these near century of “inward looking” policies, so that on a long view it seems to back at where it left off at the end of the nineteenth century.
Grégoire Canlorbe: The refugee crisis and the reluctance of Eastern Europe’s peoples to comply with Brussels’ diktats may be announcing the European Union’s implosion. Which of American imperialism or Russian imperialism seems to you the most qualified to preserve the stability, the prosperity, and the identity of Europe in these troubled times?
Deepak Lal: Apart from the refugee problem, which has led to the virtual end of the Schengen agreement providing free travel in the European Union, I think the trouble of the EU now is that the East Europeans were promised welfare benefits which the Western European countries simply cannot finance anymore. The “virtual empire” that was the European Union is sadly nearing its end. As to Vladimir Putin’s apparent (but, in my view, largely impracticable) imperialist ambitions, they would mean a threat, not a protection, for “the stability, the prosperity, and the identity of Europe.” My hope is that the USA will keep their military presence on the European continent through the NATO.
With the death of Marxism in Russia and China, its leaders are struggling to find a new ideology to justify their authoritarianism. Vladimir Putin’s conservatism, unlike that in the West, which puts the individual first, sees individuals as serving the state. It draws on a long tradition of Russian imperial conservatism and, in particular, Eurasianism. It is authoritarian, traditional, anti-American and anti-European; it values religion and public submission, and it is expansionist. The ideologue of this contemporary Russian conservatism is Alexander Dugin, who has strongly endorsed President Putin’s action in Ukraine, calling on him to go further and take east and south Ukraine. Russians seemed to agree, with Mr. Putin’s ratings climbing. In line with this neo-Eurasianism, Vladimir Putin’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine has also made him turn east to China, to create what some observers have characterized as a “League of Dictators.”
Before envisioning Russia as a member (and therefore a natural ally) of the Western civilization, one should always keep in mind a major difference between the Greek and Latin branches of Christianity. Whereas with the twin revolutions of the two Popes Gregory concerning the family and the law—I will return to this subject in the course of the discussion—the Latin church was seeking to render the things that were both God’s and Caesar’s unto God, its Greek cousin came to accept that both the things that were Caesar’s and God’s should be rendered unto Caesar. The basic ideology of the Byzantine system was formulated by the court prelate Eusebius in the 330s at the court of the first Christian emperor Constantine I. This doctrine, which promoted what many historians have called “Caesorapapism,” was completely different from Augustine’s political theory of the two cities: a city of God that is radically distinct from any human city or society in the world after the Fall.
The Justinian concord between priesthood (sacredotium) and kingship (imperium) proved particularly attractive to Vladimir, who ruled the young Kevian state—the precursor of the future Russian empire—from 980 to 1015, when he was shopping around for a religion. The Byzantine liturgy and faith has underwritten the autocratic Russian state ever since. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Ivan III laid claim to the inheritance of the Kevian state with the assumption of the title of Sovereign of Russia. Having declared its independence from the Mongol’s golden horde, Moscow became the Third Rome. It took over from Byzantium as the center of the Greek Christian civilization. With its divorce from the Roman Catholic Church, Russia was soon relatively isolated from the rest of Europe and left behind in the changes in cosmology and technologies that led to the rise of the West.
Yet, there has been, quoting historian Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, a series of “effort to “catch up” and more or less play a major role in the world, followed by periods of relative decline.” The first period of catch-up was during the reign of Peter the Great in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. The second was during the second half of the nineteenth century following the abolition of serfdom by Alexander II. The third was under Stalin in the 1930s. The first two “pushes” sought to emulate the fruits of the individualism that had led to the growing ascendancy of the West. The third was also based on a Western import: the collectivist body of Marxist thought that had risen during the late nineteenth century. In the 1900s Russia was again turning to the more individualistic and liberal traditions of the West. How the country will evolve following Mr. Putin’s presidency remains to be seen.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Indian spiritualities seem to be particularly prone to condemn consumerist enjoyment and material progress. Let us remember the statements that Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Mahaswamiji, the 68th Jagadguru of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, expressed in 1956, quoted in The Hindu.
“The only idea of raising the standard of living will have the most disastrous effects on society. Raising the standard of living means tempting an individual to encumber himself with more luxury, and ultimately leads to true poverty, despite the increase in production … Aparigraha means that every man should take from nature only what he needs for his life in this world.”
For what religious and cultural reasons did the Western world manage to escape this ascetic view of the world?
Deepak Lal: In any discussion on the Western civilization I find it useful to distinguish between the cosmological beliefs (about in Plato’s words: “How one should live”), and the “material” beliefs (about “how to make a living”) of different cultures. A change in material beliefs leading to intensive growth does not amount necessarily to a change in cosmological beliefs in favor of “consumerist enjoyment.” However, I believe the West’s renunciation of the cosmological beliefs of its classical pagan past has indeed led to various social pathologies, such as religious fanaticism and wars of religion. The change in Western cosmological beliefs also led to individualism, while its Eurasian cousins still maintain a form of “communalism” based on joint families, in which many of life’s risks are pooled within the extended family.
At the start of the Christian era (0 A.D.), the West shared its cosmological beliefs concerning the family with its Eurasian cousins in the Sinic and Hindu civilizations. Most Eurasian civilizations were based on settled agriculture. This required settled families to work the land, and heirs to pass on the land to be worked by the next generation. These civilizations also realized that given its relatively rapid decay, the evolved romantic instinct for mates to stay together for about four years and then move on to new partners would have been dysfunctional. Love is a universal biological emotion, but it is also ephemeral. This led to similar family practices in these civilizations.
The first was curbing this dangerous hominid emotion that is love by relying on “arranged marriages” (based on dynastic considerations), infant betrothal and the like, restricting romantic passion to relationships outside marriage. The second was condoning various practices like concubinage, marriage to close kin, marriage to close affines or widows of close kin, and allowing the transfer of children by adoption, to allow infertile couples to have a male heir to pass on and work the land. Third, were joint or extended families which allowed the old to be cared for and to deal with the conjunctural poverty and even destitution arising from various risks associated with disease, accidents and climatic variations. These cosmological beliefs were inculcated in the young through child rearing practices based on the moral emotion of “shame.”
Two Papal revolutions changed the West’s cosmological and material beliefs from the Rest’s. The first was the Papal family Revolution of Gregory the Great in the 6th century. The second was the Papal legal revolution of Gregory VII in the 11th century—an unintended consequence of the first. Gregory the Great’s 6th century Papal Revolution (in answer to questions by the first Archbishop of Canterbury concerning sex and marriage) overturned the traditional Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern legal and customary practices in the domestic domain which allowed childless families to have male heirs. Thus adoption was banned in England till the 19th century. This meant that the Church, which from its inception had grown rich by bequests from rich widows, now through its prohibitions on traditional methods of dealing with childlessness, became the chief beneficiary of the resulting bequests.
By the end of the 7th century it was immensely rich, owning for instance one third of productive land in France. It was to protect this wealth that Gregory VII instituted his legal revolution in 1076. But the Church’s family revolution also led it to support the independence of the young in choosing marriage partners, setting up their own households, and entering into contractual rather than affective relationships with the old. It promoted love marriages instead of the arranged marriages common throughout Eurasia. Facing the threat to its way of making a living from the primordial passions its promotion of love marriage had unleashed, the Church found a way to prevent this social chaos. First it separated love and sex. Then it created a fierce guilt culture based on Original Sin.
The Church’s pervasive teaching against sex and the associated guilt it engendered provided the necessary check on the “animal passions” that would otherwise have been unleashed by its self-interested overthrow of the traditional Eurasian system of marriage. Thus, the social cement of Western society was provided by its Christian morality enforced through the moral emotion of guilt. This was supplemented since the rise of court society in post Renaissance Europe by the evolution of civilized manners based on an amalgamation of aristocratic and gradually (after the late 18th century) bourgeois behavior. These manners required the personal internalization of various forms of self-restraint on instinctual drives and passions, and their promotion was based on shame.
The death of the Christian God and the rise of Demos—with its attack on social hierarchies and deference—have struck a double blow to both these forms of socialization, eroding the social cement of the West. Once, with the Scientific and Darwinian revolutions, the Christian God died for many in the West, the restraints built on Original Sin were loosened. With the 1960’s sexual and cultural revolutions they were removed. While the family, as most civilizations had known it, became sick in the West, the cultural revolution of the 1960s against the moral restraints of bourgeois society disparaged the behavior and attitudes that traditionally made for economic improvement. In addition, the substitution of public for private familial safety nets to deal with the problems of destitution and conjunctural poverty created welfare programs which provided counterincentives to leaving poverty.
It was claimed by Hayek, amongst others who believe in a form of cultural evolution, that the modernization based on Gregory VII’s legal revolution, which has underwritten the globalization of capitalism, would also lead to Westernization—the adoption of the West’s cosmological beliefs, including those on the family. Yet, recent evidence from China and India suggests that, whilst accepting the change in material views with their embrace of the market, traditional cosmological beliefs concerning the domestic domain are resilient: they are modernizing without Westernizing, as Japan did after the Meiji Revolution. Even in China where, in line with Marxist theory, Mao launched a fierce attack, the family has survived. Largely because it remains central in Chinese cosmological beliefs based on the strategic cultural custom of ancestor worship.
It is clearly the embrace of the Western material values created by Pope Gregory VII’s legal revolution which is responsible for the Asian economic miracles. With rising material prosperity many of the material changes postulated in Becker’s economics of the family are occurring—like greater female labor participation, lower desired family size, and the other economic factors leading to the demographic transition. But traditional cosmological beliefs concerning family matters remain resilient. And by keeping their cosmological beliefs and not embracing those of Gregory the Great’s family revolution, which were so fatally conjoined with the change in material beliefs in the West, Asian societies may be able to escape the social pathologies of the West: materialism, individualism, Welfare States, but also eco-fundamentalism.
Grégoire Canlorbe: You have delivered an abrasive and pointed criticism of dirigisme—and of its Keynesian macroeconomic justifications—in development economics, while acknowledging the unavoidable imperfection of the market prices mechanism. How do you assess the economic policy of Narendra Modi from this point of view?
Deepak Lal: In both China and India the “modern” ideologies under which they sought to foster intensive growth after their “independence”—Communism in China, Fabian socialism in India—did nothing to undermine their traditional attitudes to trade and commerce. Both countries were opened up to the modern world through the force of Western arms in aid of its commerce. The nationalism this provoked has sought to adopt the West’s technology, particularly military, without adopting its soul. Xenophobia and a suspicion of foreigners were endemic in both countries. Both promoted heavy industries through dirigiste means, because of the political imperative to provide the material means for resisting future military threats to their independence rather than any desire to promote economic welfare.
Both, thus, found the Soviet model resonant in their drive for industrialization—though in India, in the softer tones associated with a democracy. The resulting development strategy was also, by and large, similar insofar as both countries followed hothouse industrialization through the promotion of heavy industry under the aegis of state enterprises. Both followed relatively autarkic trade policies accompanied by a battery of trade and exchange controls, which progressively cut any link between domestic and world relative prices. This had well-known deleterious effects on the economy’s efficiency and thence productivity.
Both also systematically discriminated against agriculture by taxing it directly or indirectly. But this policy went much further in China during the Maoist Great Leap Forward and the establishment of communes. This disaster led to one of the worst famines in human history and set back Chinese agricultural productivity for a decade. The policy was completely reversed by the establishment of the “household responsibility system” in the late 1970s. By contrast, India switched in the late 1960s to various policies to promote agriculture, which led—in ecologically suitable parts of the country—to what is termed the Green Revolution. From the late 1970s onward, moreover, both countries have been gradually trying to escape from the dirigiste system of controls of foreign trade and industry that they had previously set up.
From this point of view, it is indeed important to assess Modi’s character and what he stands for. Modi is an autodidact, who since he implicitly repudiated his child marriage has had no personal life; he is also a charismatic speaker, who has sought and achieved control of his party as a radical dissident who has in effect marginalized its “old guard.” Besides, he is an OBC (Other Backward Caste). I have always said that a little learning is a dangerous thing: you think you know much more than you know and you are not willing to learn. Yet, Modi is not only an autodidact, he is also surrounded by people who are mostly flatterers. I nevertheless think that he has the right idea.
The essence of his economics, as the independent Indian economist Bibek Debroy emphasizes, lies in supply side reforms and enhancing economic freedom “by freeing up space for private initiative and enterprise and the creation of an enabling environment by the state … It is about targeted public expenditure through specific schemes … It is one of bureaucratic empowerment and improving the efficiency of public expenditure … It is one of delivering public goods (water, roads, electricity, schools, education)” through private provision and public financing.
As a result, Gujarat moved from fifth place in the rankings of an Indian states economic freedom index in 2005 to first place by 2012. India as whole moved from 75th place (out of 144 countries) in the worldwide Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom index in 2005—when the Congress led United Progressive Alliance government came to power—to 111th place in 2012. If Modi can apply the “Gujarat model” to India as a whole, India would see the economic revival which its youthful voters so earnestly seek. If he can get his labor reforms, infrastructure and land policies, then India could be growing at 10 per cent for at least 20 years.
Grégoire Canlorbe: It is sometimes argued that nationalism, one of the leading ideals in the world since the French Revolution, basically constitutes a subversion of the natural order of things. More precisely, in exacerbating national sentiments and in calling for a perfectly unified nation, cleansed of its caste hierarchy and of its intermediary bodies, nationalism allegedly engenders an artificial and dehumanizing system.
On a psychological level, the feeling to belong to a given nation henceforth ignites a stronger pride than the feeling to belong to a (supposedly) natural caste—be it that of Brahmins, that of Kshatriyas, that of Vaishyas, or that of Shudras. One boasts of being “Indian,” “Japanese,” or “French” far more than one does of being born with Kshatriya blood. On a sociological level, the traditional status inequalities are eroded in favor of merely income and professional inequalities, individuals thus approaching the state of mere cogs in the social division of labor—as much in capitalistic nations as in communistic ones.
And as the Viṣṇu Purāṇa predicts: With the rise of collectivism, the final stage of nationalism, “The prevailing caste will be the Shudra … Kshatriyas instead of protecting will plunder their subjects: and under the pretext of levying customs will rob merchants of their property … Then property alone will confer rank; wealth will be the only source of devotion … Earth will be venerated but for its mineral treasures.”
To what extent does the experience of Indian nationalism accredit such association of ideas?
Deepak Lal: This is an intriguing set of arguments which I had never heard of before. To be fair, the idea that the Viṣṇu Purāṇa would have predicted and described the socialist India in the twentieth century is perplexing. What this text describes is the Hindu social system. The three pillars of the system were the relatively autarkic village communities, the caste system, and the joint family. It was not socialism at all, but clearly a decentralized social system that did not require either a centralized political power or a church for its perpetuation. The village communities were not completely autarkic, but their trading links were fairly localized.
As far as I am concerned, your question raises three issues: how the “traditional status inequalities” have been undermined with the rise of the nation-state in the West, and whether a similar process is similar to happen in India; whether “collectivism” and “nationalism” have been necessarily or contingently tied in India; and to what extent the modernization of Western and non-Western economies (such as that of India) consists in an increase in the extent of the “social division of labor.” In addressing the first point I should recall some important differences in the cosmological beliefs of what became the Christian West and the ancient Eurasian civilizations. Christianity has a number of distinctive features which it shares with its Semitic cousin Islam, and in part with its parent Judaism, but which are not found in the other great Eurasian religions. First is universality: neither the Jews nor the Hindu or Sinic civilizations claimed universal religions. This also meant that unlike Christianity and Islam, they did not proselytize.
Secondly, and most important for our discussion, only the Semitic monotheistic religions have been egalitarian. Most other Eurasian religions believe in hierarchical social orders. By contrast, alone among the Eurasian civilizations, the Semitic ones emphasized the equality of men’s souls. The eminent French anthropologist Louis Dumont has characterized the profound divide between the societies of Homo Aequalis, which believe all men are born equal (as the philosophes and the American Constitution proclaim) and those of Homo Hierarchicus, which believe no such thing. Therefore the hierarchical ancient Eurasian societies are plausibly unlikely to be infected by the social egalitarianism (the questioning of all social hierarchies and forms of deference) that has contributed towards dissolving the West’s social cement.
It seems to me that this phenomenon is basically the one you have summed up in your question. The civilizing process associated with the absolute courts of Europe was based on a social hierarchy and the chain of deference it entailed. The “manners” cultivated by the post-Renaissance courts embodied this form of social control as it could also encompass the guilt the Christian morality had embedded in Western minds. The triumph of science that individualism has wrought has led to the death of God in the West, and thus of the guilt that underwrote its personal morality, whereas the democratization promoted by individualism has both undermined the traditional hierarchical bases of these societies and eroded the set of “manners” based on deference, which evinced shame in these societies in their process of socialization.
From all this you may be drawing the conclusion that it was a tragedy that the Semitic religions—Pauline Christianity and later Islam—succeeded in destroying the classical pagan world with its polytheism, hierarchical societies, and traditional Eurasian cosmological values. But not so for then, the world would also not have had the change in material beliefs associated with Pope Gregory VII’s legal revolution and the immense material prosperity that it has brought. Meanwhile the Japanese have precociously and eminently been able to garner the benefits of Western capitalism without the social pathologies of individualism. Their relationships are still ordered hierarchically, with deference based on social distinctions being ubiquitous. But hierarchical status is no longer ascribed or inherited but acquired, largely through the fierce meritocratic contest for educational attainment. Thus the Japanese have been able to adjust to the needs of modernization without westernizing their selves.
Let us now turn to the rise of political nationalism and of the “Demos” (people) in the world. Benedict Anderson has cogently argued that there are four waves of political nationalism which can be distinguished. The first are the “creole” wars of liberation in the Americas, starting with the American War of Independence in 1776 and the liberation movement headed by Simón Bolívar in South America in the early part of the nineteenth century. These revolts were partly prompted by the policy of the European powers of barring the entry of the creole elite to higher official and political office in the metropole, even as “peninsulars” had access to high positions in both the colonies and the metropole. But if independence was to be declared in the name of a “nation” whose inhabitants were distinguished by being born in the New World, it would have to include all the people in the territorial area formerly controlled by the metropolitan power.
The ideas of the Enlightenment, which had spread from the metropole, also meant that these new “nations” were opposed to dynastic rule, and were pervaded by republicanism. The nation-serving Demos, which has been a defining characteristic of the modern age, was born. The French revolution brought these principles into fruition in Europe, carried across it by Napoleon’s armies. This in turn gave rise to a second wave of nationalism—a vernacular nationalism demanding a vernacular language of state. Its origins lay partly in the fact that the expansion of the ruling groups from their original narrow aristocratic base was undermining the feeling of solidarity among Europe’s ruling classes.
Given their small size, the traditional aristocracies were linked to each other fairly closely, despite differences in their vernacular languages and cultures, by “the personalization of political relations implied by sexual intercourse and inheritance.” By contrast, the rising middle classes, once incorporated into the polity, knew each other not through such personal relations but as visualized through the medium of print. “Thus” writes Anderson “bourgeoisies were the first classes to achieve solidarity on an essentially imagined basis.” But because by the nineteenth century the vernacular languages had replaced Latin as the print language for more than two centuries, the “imagined community” of the rising bourgeoisie could not extend beyond the vernacular boundaries, as had the political community in the age of aristocracy. Because the demand of a vernacular language of state required a definition of who comprised the relevant group that in turn comprised the nation-state, it was identified with the territorial boundaries containing the speakers of that language.
Aided by the examples of the French and American revolutions, a “model” of the nation-state had appeared by the second decade of the nineteenth century: “republican institutions, common citizenships, popular sovereignty, national flags and anthems … and the liquidation of their conceptual opposites: dynastic empires, monarchical institutions, absolutisms, subjecthoods, inherited nobilities, serfdoms, ghettoes.”
The threat that this vernacular nationalism posed to the dynasts of Europe led to the third wave of nationalism: “official” nationalism, whereby the dynasts sought to identify themselves with the newfound vernacular “nation.” For this new identification “shored up legitimacies which, in an age of capitalism, skepticism, and science, could less and less safely rest on putative sacrality and sheer antiquity.” The russification of Muscovy by the Romanovs represents one spectacular example of this welding together of nation and dynasty, which is of the essence of this phase of nationalism, and which was a reaction to the vernacular nationalisms of the 1820s. The spread of this social nationalism was in turn to lead to the scramble for empire and to World War I. The final phase of nationalism is that evoked in the areas of the world where, directly or indirectly, the spread of Western imperialism had damaged the amour propre of indigenous high-status groups.
The old colonial empires were now threatened by a variant of creole nationalism, which their own policies of “russification” had engendered. With the growing need of local collaborators and interpreters between their new subjects and the metropole, in varying degrees they had adopted the policy of creating a bilingual native elite on the lines set out in Macaulay’s famous “Minute on Education” in British India, whereby he sought to create a completely English educational system which would create a bilingual middle class “who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”
These “brown sahibs”—Gandhi and Nehru being prominent examples—were to be the undoing of the Raj, largely because their Western education provided them with access to the cosmological beliefs of the West and the model of the nation-state that had become its political norm. They could and did use the spiritual weapons forged in the West to challenge the legitimacy of its control over the Rest, by pointing to the contradiction between its ethical beliefs and political practice. With the end of World War II the colonial nationalists had won. The Age of Empire came to an end and the Age of Nationalism was in full flower.
Concerning the contingent connection between “Indian nationalism” and those Western cosmological beliefs that are social equalitarianism and “collectivism,” you need to distinguish between two wings of the nationalist elite who grew as an unintended consequence of Macaulay’s famous nineteenth-century “Minute on Education.” The central problem both wings faced was how to reconcile modernity with tradition. The first one, led by Nehru (for whom English became their first language), sought the reconciliation through the purportedly middle way provided by Fabian socialism. The other Gandhian wing (for whom English was an instrumental second language) saw Westernization as a grave threat to Indian traditions, and wanted no truck with it. They adopted the attitude of the clam. They eschewed modernization to preserve the ancient Hindu equilibrium—the Hindu system of caste you have also described succinctly in your question.
As it was the Nehruvian wing which inherited the new Indian state, it was their attitude and that of their children they succeeded in placing abroad, which determined the Indian attitudes to the Western cosmological beliefs. One of the major outcomes of the 1991 economic liberalization was that these children of the Westernized castes now increasingly find it easier to make a living in India. But they, by and large, still retain the attitudes of their parents. It is the changing attitudes of the Gandhian wing of Macaulay’s children which is crucial in charting the changing course of the Indian view of the West. Till recently they were against globalization and the modernization it implied, seeing it as a threat to their Hindu culture. But as many of their progeny came to prosper in the new liberalized economy (particularly in the new IT and outsourcing industries), without any changes in their mores, this Gandhian wing of Macaulay’s children came to realize that there was a third way out of the old dilemma posed by the Western onslaught on their civilization. A route pioneered by the Japanese in the late nineteenth century: to modernize but not Westernize.
In closing, nationalism is still alive and well in the contemporary India, and far from culminating into collectivism, as the argument you have evoked suggests, it provides some hope for further economic liberalization. One of the important themes of the Lal-Myint comparative study is the role of nation-building in explaining both the rise of dirigisme and its demise. Dirigisme, invoked to foster “order” by nationalism, leads over time to the unintended consequence of breeding disorder, as economic agents seek increasingly to escape the official net. Liberalization is then undertaken by nationalists to restore order in what seem to have become ungovernable economies. Heckscher’s historical work on mercantilism provides an almost exact parallel in this cycle of dirigisme and disorder, namely liberalization in post-Renaissance Europe. The Indian case fits this thesis. Hence, “Indian nationalism” may lead its adherents to see that further liberalization is essential to acquire the economic strength without which the nation will not be safe from disorder from within or without. The media hype about China has helped in this context.
As regards the social division of labor and to what extent it has been truly crucial in enhancing modernization in the West and the Rest, I find it useful to distinguish between two types of intensive growth, as emphasized by the economic historian E.A. Wrigley. He notes that until fairly recently sustained increases in per capita income could not be expected, inasmuch as most economies were agricultural, their growth was ultimately bounded by the productivity of land. In such an economy there is a universal dependence on organic raw materials for food, clothing, housing, and fuel. Their supply in the long run is constrained by the fixed factor of production—land. This also applied to traditional industry and transportation, which depended on animal muscle for mechanical energy and on charcoal (a vegetable substance) for smelting and working crude ores and for providing heat. Thus, in an organic economy, once the land frontier is reached, diminishing returns will take their inexorable toll. With diminishing returns to land, conjoined to the Malthusian principle of population, a long-run stationary state where the mass of people languished at a subsistence standard of living seemed inevitable.
No wonder the classical economists were so gloomy. Until the land frontier was reached there could be some extensive growth with both population and output growing at about the same rate; thereafter, the only remedy to prevent immiserization was some form of population control. But even in an organic economy there was some hope of intensive growth, resulting in a secular increase in per capita incomes. The system of market “capitalism” and free trade outlined and defended by Adam Smith could increase the productivity of an organic economy somewhat over what it was under mercantilism. By lowering the cost of the consumption bundle, it could also provide a rise in per capita income, that is, intensive growth. But if this growth in popular opulence led to excessive breeding, the land constraint would ultimately result in a return to subsistence wages. Technical progress could hold the stationary state at bay, but the land constraint would ultimately prove binding.
The Industrial Revolution led to the substitution of this agriculture-based economy by a mineral-based energy economy. This new economic regime substituted mineral raw materials for the organic products dependent on land. Coal began to provide most of the heat energy of industry and, with the development of the steam engine, virtually unlimited supplies of mechanical energy. This radically altered the prospects of raising per capita output. Thus the Industrial Revolution in England was based on two forms of “capitalism,” one institutional, namely that defended by Adam Smith because of its productivity-enhancing effects, even in an organic economy, and the other physical.
The capital stock of stored energy represented by the fossil fuels allowed mankind to create a “world that no longer follows the rhythm of the sun and the seasons; a world in which the fortunes of men depend largely upon how he himself regulates the economy and not upon the vagaries of weather and harvest; a world in which poverty has become an optional state rather than a reflection of the necessary limitations of human productive powers.”
For much of history, until the rolling Industrial Revolution allowed a substitution of a mineral for an organic economy, the only hope of getting intensive growth was through the increasing division of labor associated with the capitalism of Adam Smith. This I label Smithian growth, as contrasted with the “technologically” based, more modern form I call Promethean growth. The most likely engine of Smithian growth was an expansion in the intranational social division of labor—the process you seem to refer to in your question—but also in international trade on the lines outlined in the Wealth of Nations, and rigorously demonstrated by Ohlin and his successors. The ancient Eurasian civilizations, as well as the Japanese under the Tokugawa, saw periods of Smithian growth, largely as a result of the knitting together of areas of diverse resources into a larger common market under Pax Greco-Roman in the ancient world, Pax Islam under the Abbasids, Pax Buddhist under the Mauryas, Pax Hindu under the Guptas, Pax Togugawa in Japan, and during the Pax Sung’s extension to the Yangtze valley in China.
But in none of these civilizations, with the exception of Sung China, was there any likelihood of Promethean growth. That merely technological and scientific developments were insufficient to deliver the Industrial Revolution is borne out by the failure of Sung China to do so, although it has these ingredients. It was a “package” of cosmological beliefs, political decentralization, and the application of the “inquisitive Greek spirit” that uniquely led to Promethean growth and the ascendancy of the West. But, as I have been at pains to show in Unintended consequences: the impact of factor endowments, culture, and politics on long-run economic performance, while the material beliefs and legal institutions of a market economy, and therefore of Promethean growth, first emerged in the West, they have been adopted ever since in non-Western societies as various as Japan, India, and China, that are equally alien to the cosmological beliefs of the West.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Among so-called conservative circles in the West, democracy has been commonly perceived less as a form of government than a means of limiting government—a means of preventing it from interfering in the development of family, faith, and capitalism. The failure of democracy in this regard is patently obvious. Do Western conservatives have something to learn from constitutional monarchies such as that of Thailand?
Deepak Lal: Democracy is to be preferred as a form of government not because of its instrumental value in promoting prosperity—through the development of “capitalism”—or safeguarding “family” and “faith,” for at times it may not do so, but because it promotes the different but equally valuable end of political liberty. However, as the experience of many countries—not all of them in the Third World—attests, democracy is a frail flower. India is unique in having successfully nurtured it in such a vast, diverse, and poor country. The assault on democracy during the Emergency only showed how deeply rooted it had become in the Indian soil.
Whether such success will be achieved depends upon the political habits of different cultures, which have been formed as much by the geography of the territory where the relevant culture was formed as by any ideology. Thus, China, originating in the relatively compact Yellow River valley, constantly threatened by the nomadic barbarians from the steppes to its north, developed a tightly controlled bureaucratic authoritarianism as its distinctive polity which has continued for millennia to our day. By contrast, Hindu civilization developed in the vast Indo-Gangetic plain, protected to a greater extent by the Himalayas from the predation of barbarians to the north. This geographical feature (together with the need to tie the then-scarce labor to the land) accounts for the traditional Indian polity, which was notable for its endemic political instability among numerous feuding monarchies and for its distinctive social system embodied in the institution of caste.
The latter, by making war the work of professionals, saved the mass of the population from induction into the deadly disputes of its changing rulers. The tradition in which a certain customary share of the village output was remitted to the current overlord discouraged any victor from disturbing the daily business of his newly acquired subjects. The democratic practices gradually introduced by the British have fit these ancient habits like a glove. The ballot box has replaced the battlefield for the hurly-burly of continuing “aristocratic” conflict, and the populace accepts with weary resignation that its rulers will through various forms of rent-seeking take a certain share of output to feather their own nests.
I would not speak of Thailand—which I have not studied extensively—as a free democratic country. Though, I believe that the question should be broadened. When it comes to preserving family (against individualism), religion (against secularization), and economic freedom (against dirigisme and the Welfare State), Western conservatives may indeed have a lesson to learn from most Asian societies: namely, the paradoxical nature of what individualism has wrought and its implications for the West and the Rest. Individualism has both eroded the moral basis of society and created the instruments of Promethean growth. But once discovered, these can be, as they have been, diffused worldwide to very different societies that do not have to adopt the cosmological beliefs that led to their creation.
Individualism has created the institutions of the market economy, the most important being the commercial law, including the law of contract and that of incorporation, which (after some kicking and shoving) have been accepted worldwide because of their instrumental efficiency in promoting the material prosperity that is universally desired. This has meant that even in the ancient agrarian civilizations of India and China the workings of the “economic principle” are now gradually undermining their atavistic attitude towards trade and commerce—the lifeblood of a market economy. Meanwhile Western social science has been infected by a particular form of dualism going under the label of “modernization theory.” In this “modernization” and “westernization” were lumped together and contrasted with “backwardness and tradition.” It was believed that to achieve Promethean growth and hence the material fruits of modernization, the Western package of ethical beliefs and political forms—individualism, human rights, and democracy—would have to be accepted.
Yet, the contemporary notion of “rights” is a latecomer even within the Western cosmology, and though it was linked to the individualism that led to the West’s unique trajectory, there is nothing universal about the notion. Nor is there anything universal about equalitarianism, which is confined to the religions born among the southern nomads of ancient civilizations. Nor is democracy essential for development. After all, hereditary monarchy—such as that of Thailand—has been the most common form of government though human history, and it, not democracy, delivered the Industrial Revolution. Nor is the Western family a cause or consequence of the West’s economic progress. These aspects of Westernization, though contingently tied with the West’s modernization, are not necessarily so: it is possible to modernize without Westernizing.
It now appears from evolutionary biology that the economic behavior has been part of our makeup just as much as the other instincts and passions. This is Hick’s economic principle: “People would act economically; when an opportunity of an advantage was presented to them they would take it.” With settled agriculture and the need to regulate opportunistic behavior, social mores developed to rein in all these passions. One way of looking at the twin papal revolutions that led to the rise of the West is to see them as removing these traditional restraints and substituting the powerful but ultimately self-destructive mores based on the concept of original sin. The concomitant unleashing of the instinct based on the economic principle has played an important part in promoting intensive growth. The unleashing of the other passions was a contingent and unintended consequence of the development of Western cosmological beliefs that grew from the papal revolutions. They have destroyed both the novel (guilt) and the traditional (shame) cements of Western societies.
By contrast, as Japan has showed, and as India and China are beginning to show, the Rest do not have to make this Faustian compact. It is possible for these non-Western societies to adopt the West’s means to attain prosperity without giving up their souls. Their social cement is unlikely to be undermined by secularization, insofar as it does not depend on a belief in God. In these hierarchically ordered societies, the social cement was provided by ancient processes of socialization based on shame. It is not surprising, therefore, that rather than succumb to the current attempt by the West to legislate its unique value—individualism—these ancient civilizations are instead deriding it by invoking that ancient Biblical injunction: “Physician, heal thyself!”
Grégoire Canlorbe: It is sometimes believed that the civilizational model of the USA unwittingly coincides with that of Phoenicians against Rome, founded on the prominence of merchant values, sea domination, craftsmanship, and law—and on the marginalization of religion and army. Besides, the American model is thought to be a combination of Judaic legalism, Protestant liberalism, and Enlightenment atheism. Do you agree with this portrayal of the values underlying American imperialism?
Deepak Lal: This is another strange set of beliefs which leaves me perplexed. Alone among the states of the contemporary world, the Americans have based their mode of association, as did the ancient Greeks, on citizenship. Most other states are based on ethnicity or the vagaries of conquest and colonialism. Additionally, as de Tocqueville noted, the Americans have taken over the new Enlightenment ideal of the equality of men as entailing their similarity, resulting in an individualist society different in character from the hierarchical aristocratic societies that had arisen in the absolutist states of Europe. Nearly a century later Myrdal also discerned the uniqueness of what he called the American Creed, in which the two basic Enlightenment norms of liberty and equality are represented, but which accepts inequality of economic outcomes based on competition.
This rugged individualism and social equalitarianism was helped by America’s factor endowments. With abundant land there were no land rents for a substantial landowning class to develop. Unlike the tropical parts of the Americas, grains were the most suitable crops for cultivation. These have constant returns to scale in their production, unlike plantation crops such as sugar that have increasing returns to scale. The same is true to a lesser extent of tobacco and coffee. Where climatic conditions in the Americas were suitable for these latter crops, the use of coerced labor had enormous cost advantages over free labor, and more highly socially and economically differentiated society with great inequalities of wealth resulted. By contrast, given its factor endowments (including the climate) in most of the United States (except for the South) the family farm became the backbone of the colonial economy and a society with fairly equalitarian mores could develop.
The basis of socialization in the United States has been lying both in religion and citizenship. Here, as usual, de Tocqueville is prescient. He notes that, “while the law allows the American people to do everything [which allows them to be bold and enterprising], there are things which religion prevents them from imagining and forbids them to dare.” What is more, and this is still by and large the case, “all the sects in the United States belong to the great unity of Christendom, and Christian morality is everywhere the same”—a morality dependent upon the inculcation of guilt. That is was an essential element in promoting the social cement of American society is also emphasized by Tocqueville.
“Religion, which never intervenes directly in the government of American society, should therefore be considered the first of their political institutions, for although it did not give them the taste for liberty, it singularly facilitates their use thereof … I do not know if all Americans have faith in their religion—for who can read the secrets of the heart?—but I am sure that they think it necessary for the maintenance of republican institutions … For the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other.”
The second form of social glue was offered by the law and the Constitution. America alone provides a basis of association on the granting of citizenship. This allows numerous different ethnic groups and nationalities to become Americans despite their past loyalties, while the all-powerful American Creed, through a socialization process of loyalty to civics rather than ethics, has created the American melting pot. The importance of public education in this process of socialization cannot be disputed. This civic society has been held together, as was the ancient Greek one, by shame as much as by the guilt fostered by the Pilgrim fathers. But it is a shame based on civics, and ultimately on a form of patriotism arising from the duties of citizenship.
An essential element in this unique civic society has been, as de Tocqueville noted, the myriad civil associations he found in the country. According to de Tocqueville, once the traditional aristocracy with its sense of noblesse oblige, which usually stood between the rulers and the ruled in the anciens regimes in Europe, had been extinguished with the rise of democracy, these myriad voluntary associations (or NGOs, as they would be called today) provided the bulwark against the tyranny of the central executive in democracies. By providing an intermediary layer between the ruling elites and the masses, they prevent the elites from abusing power and allow ordinary citizens to participate in the political process.
As de Tocqueville foresaw, the American individualism has paradoxically undermined the very cement of the prosperous and patriotic society it has created. The sense of shame that was inculcated as part of a civic culture glorifying citizenship is increasingly being eroded by the secularization and democratization that individualism has bred. Meanwhile the death of God has been particularly deadly for that personal sense of guilt that provided a personal ethic to much of the Western streams of American society, which still remain dominant. But if citizenship is increasingly considered irrelevant and the legitimacy of the Eurocultural melting pot is eroded by multiculturalism, and with personal morals increasingly being based on “anything goes,” the only basis of social cooperation becomes the law. Hence the growth of that particularly American phenomenon I call “rights chatter.”
Ken Minogue calls this new voice “constitutional mania.” It emphasizes substantive social and economic rights in addition to the well-known rights for liberty—freedom of speech, contract, and association—emphasized by classical liberals. It seeks to use the law to enforce these “rights” based partly on “needs” and partly on the “equality of respect” desired by a heterogeneity of self-selected minorities differentiated by ethnicity, gender, and/or sexual orientation. But no less than in the collectivist societies that have failed, this attempt to define and legislate a newly discovered and dense structure of rights (including, for some activists, those of nonhuman plants and animals) requires a vast expansion of the government’s power over people’s lives. The economic costs of this are self-evident.
As the progenitor of the Industrial Revolution, Britain was the dominant economic power from about 1820 to 1870. With the subsequent control of the seas, Britain created the first truly global empire. But with the diffusion of industrialization to Germany—and most importantly, the United States—its predominance slipped. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had overtaken Britain as the world’s major economic and military power. But the Americans remained unwilling to take over the imperial task from Britain. Instead, at Versailles, US President Woodrow Wilson ushered in the “Age of Nations,” in which peace would be maintained through collective security (as enforced by the League of Nations). With the failure of the Versailles treaty to pass the US Senate, the country slipped into isolationism. The League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, have proven abysmal failures in maintaining the peace through sanctions.
It was only after World War II that a bipartisan political elite has, first surreptitiously and since 9/11 openly, created a Pax Americana based on its preponderant economic and asymmetrical military strength. But, given the continuing resonance of the Wilsonian vision of the United States as the only moral nation in the world, US domestic discourse still shuns the “E” word. This leads neither to honesty nor clear thinking on how America should discharge the imperial role that has been thrust on it. For, by denying its imperial role, it has not paired military power with a complementary administrative structure required to run an empire. Its failure to establish order in post-Saddam Iraq demonstrates this shortcoming. Instead, based on the wholly false belief that its values—democracy, individualism, human rights—are universal values, it has sought to evangelize to create a world in its own image.
Today, will the United States be able and willing to maintain its hegemony, allowing globalization to continue? On October 10, 1916, in the middle of a British financial crisis, Keynes wrote a memorandum to the Treasury, noting that financial hegemony had passed across the Atlantic. Is the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008, a similar turning point? For with the three high-savings countries—China, Japan, and possibly India—as the major source of funding for the exploding U.S. public debt, will the United States have to adopt the policy Keynes recommended for Britain: “not only to avoid any form of reprisal or even active irritation but also to conciliate and please?” And which of these countries is likely to replace or help U.S. hegemony? Japan because of its continuing reluctance to match its economic with military power and with its stagnant economy and demographics is an unlikely candidate. This leaves the two emerging Asian giants: China and India.
Grégoire Canlorbe: The great bourgeois revolution of 1789 promised to break with the aristocratic society and its consubstantial social rigidity. Yet it seems that social mobility, far from being unique to the bourgeois and democratic society, was genuinely existing in feudal France.
As wrote French historian Jacques Heers, in his 1992’s The Middle Ages, a Deception, “On the eve of the 1789 Revolution, writers could speak, with a perfect knowledge, of a nobility whose lives, ranks and structures were followed and studied very closely. Nevertheless, the approach consisting of transposing this 18th century picture of the nobility into ancient times, such as the Middle Ages, is fairly adventurous. The books in these days, like the ones published in the 19th century, easily lapse into anachronisms and therefore form a source of serious mistakes. Not least because of this very common habit of forcing the idea of a very closed medieval nobility, a caste already in place and inaccessible to the layman.
This solidary, coherent and rigid social class is only an illusion stemming from a systematic mind refusing to consider the real picture and ignoring actual research in this field. We can now see that the notion of nobility was then a very blurry notion in several Western European countries and particularly in France. This nobility did not benefit from a privileged legal status precisely but, contrary to current beliefs, was submitted to a perpetual renewal through the entry of new families whose social elevation was perfectly recognized as well as through the downfall of unfortunate members who had lost part or all of their wealth, therefore unable to maintain their status.”
Can one say the same of Medieval India?
Deepak Lal: All the ancient Eurasian civilizations depended upon maintaining a particular social order that would deliver the “surplus” to feed the cities (the very definition and emblem of “civilization”) where the wielders of the sword and the book lived. The merchants (also city-dwellers) were tolerated as a necessary evil but were distrusted, their activities being seen as potential threats to the social order. Likewise, despite variations, there was a common problem faced by these relatively labor-scarce civilizations of tying workers to the land. The solution they found, from the Indian caste system to European serfdom and the “cifthane” system of the Ottomans, depended as much on their polities, shaped by geography (and thus material factors), as on any particular set of cosmological beliefs.
The Hindu social system consisted of numerous endogamous hierarchically ranked occupations, and often region-specific subcastes (jatis). These were subsumed under the fourfold varna classification, under which there were four broad varnas (castes): Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishya (merchants), and Shudra (workers and the rural peasantry). Although this schema is usually identified as the caste system, it merely provided the broad theoretical framework for Hindu society. The interweaving of the hierarchically arranged subcastes was the real fabric of the Indian caste system.
These subcastes were based on occupational specialization, but mobility was possible and did occur within the intercaste or intracaste status hierarchy. This vertical mobility was dependent on the whole caste’s moving up the social hierarchy. This was usually done by adopting a different occupation, possibly migrating to a new region and demanding a higher ritual status. The very complicated vertical hierarchy of castes also made it easier to absorb new ethnic groups who arrived in successive waves throughout Indian history. Their place in the social hierarchy was determined partly by their occupation and sometimes by their social origins.
The endogamous specialization of the complementary services required as inputs in the functioning of a viable settlement meant that, any oppressed group planning to leave a particular village to set up on its own would find—if it were confined to a single caste group—that it did not have the necessary complementary skills (specific to other castes) to start a new settlement. They would need to recruit members of other complementary castes to join them in fleeing the Aryan settlement. This would have been unlikely. For some of these other complementary castes would already have a high ritual and economic status, with little incentive to move to the more uncertain environment of a new settlement.
Neither could the oppressed lower castes (or individuals in them) acquire the requisite complementary skills themselves and thereby overcome the difficulty of putting together the required coalition to form a new settlement from within a single oppressed caste. This was unlikely to happen because of the social ostracism embedded in the caste system. It would not be profitable for other groups to impart the knowledge of these complementary skills, inasmuch as the ostracism involved in breaking the caste order, either as a consumer or producer (at each level of the caste hierarchy) would entail higher costs than any gains from performing any profitable arbitrage in the labor market that breaking the castewise of segmentation of labor might entail.
Moreover, through the process of “preference falsification” modeled by Kuran, the system could continue even in the presence of “hidden dissent.” For the system discourages open protests and disagreements; it uses open voting rather than secret ballots at meetings of caste councils to resolve disputes, and it has sanctions against disagreements with the judgment of these councils. Thus a climate of opinion could be maintained that made it virtually impossible for dissenters to reveal themselves and thereby organize caste-breaking coalitions. Though the labor scarcity that led to this decentralized system of social control had disappeared in the Hindu heartland by the time of independence, the caste system was only slowly undermined, largely under the age of democratic elections, but accompanied by much casteist violence.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Thanks for your time. Would you like to add anything else?
Deepak Lal: The West has also been haunted by the Christian cosmology of St. Augustine’s City of God. From the French Enlightenment to Marxism to Freudianism to Eco- fundamentalism, Augustine’s vision of the Heavenly City has had a tenacious hold on the Western mind. The same narrative with a Garden of Eden, a Fall leading to Original Sin and a Day of Judgment for the Elect and Hell for the Damned keeps recurring.
The most bizarre of these secular mutations is the latest: eco-fundamentalism. It carries the Christian message of contemptus mundi to its logical conclusion. Humankind is evil and only by living in harmony with a deified Nature can it be saved. The guilt evinced against sinning against God has been replaced by that of sinning against Nature. Saving Spaceship Earth has replaced the saving of souls. Is it surprising in the context of what I have said that the only countries not affected by this secular religion are China and India—the surviving civilizations of the pagan classical world? Their continuing resistance to cut carbon emissions to prevent global warming might still save the West from its chosen path of committing economic hara-kiri.
That conversation was published (in a slightly abridged version) in the December 2018 issue of Man and the Economy, founded by Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase