Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
  Balanced on a Billion
The idea of India in the era of globalisation

its contents
  Vol V : issue 4& 5

  Amartya Sen

  Günter Grass
  Joseph E. Stiglitz
  Meghnad Desai
  Jug Suraiya
  Sunil Khilnani
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Sunil Khilnani

Ink and watercolour by RABINDRANATH TAGORE

The form and content of a ‘global society’, even its very possibility, is today in active dispute. Some contend that we are headed more deeply towards global anarchy, an unruly condition where only the strong can hope to and will command; others, more optimistic, see signs of an emergent ‘global civil society’, a world of international entities that can establish and enforce rules of justice and law. What gives this dispute urgency is the presence of a set of palpably real processes, economic, political, cultural — each complicated in itself, and when taken together, of quite mind-boggling intricacy — that have come to be subsumed under the term ‘globalisation’.

This essay considers some aspects of this process, not so much as a project to be advanced or resisted, but as a predicament: one whose defining feature is the spectacular, ever-intensifying adjacency of human experience and belief. It is this aspect of globalisation — the interconnection, collision and mutual revision of belief, brought about through technological, commercial and cultural linkages — which is the most enduring feature of the current era of globalisation, presenting, as it does, both problems and opportunities. I wish to focus upon the case of India: a segment of human experience that has a great deal to tell us about some of the possibilities and limits of this process, and one that will play an important part in shaping the future of any global society. 

There are several reasons why the experience of India is likely to be of great significance. First, one should recall India’s sheer scale: one billion people live within a single political unit, a federal state that governs a society of unparalleled social and cultural diversity. Second, there’s the fact of India’s existence as a democratic state and an open society. India is the most powerful and pointed challenge to those who invoke cultural factors in trying to restrict the global echo of the democratic ideal, who wish to exclude it as culturally alien. Third, and as an extension and deepening of this last point, India is significant because it represents a long-running encounter: between an ancient civilisation designed with the specific purpose of reproducing itself as a society, a community with a shared moral order and a common identity, and set against it, the often antithetical imperatives of modern commercial society. This society claims to link a political order that upholds individual rights and representation to an economic system of private property rights and market exchange; but as a model it is permanently threatened by the failure to reproduce itself, by a basic instability. 

India’s entry into modernity has been primarily not through economics — as it has for many other societies — but rather through the medium of politics. The experience of colonialism deprived Indians of the possibility of economic self-mastery; but colonial rule did bring with it the ideas, and some of the practices, of modern politics: ideas of the state, of representative government, of rights and democracy. Such ideas connected often uneasily to traditional Indian beliefs (for instance, beliefs concerning caste hierarchy or the position of women). But these ideas also incited Indians to self-critique and to criticism of their rulers, and led them to try to rearrange their own social and economic orders, and to secure their own liberty. Indians seized upon the principles of modernity, giving them a distinctively Indian form and content, and thereby establishing a distinction between colonialism and modernity. It was such processes — above all, the encounter between local traditions of thought and practice and Western political ideas — which created the idea that a vast and profoundly diverse society could embark upon the project of trying to live together as a single political community.

The future of the Indian idea will depend on how Indians, individually and collectively, respond to the current, most intensive cycle in the global diffusion of political ideas and economic causalities. On the other hand, the future of Western political theory — that bundle of ideas unashamedly universalist in its ambitions — will be decided outside the West. And in deciding that future, the experience of India will loom large.

The more things change

‘Globalisation’ is a relatively recently coined concept for a process whose elements have been present for a long time. The recognition that an economic system which depended on the free ownership and movement of capital would manifest a tendency to become a global one, one that would ultimately interconnect the fate of all humans, goes back to Adam Smith and the theorists of commercial society.[1] Smith, and also David Hume, saw very clearly that the defining feature of the modern world taking shape around them was its foundation on belief, or ‘opinion’ as they termed it: human belief at once sustained the state and its authority, and also drove the operations of the market. Both state and markets were nothing more than accumulated, interconnected patterns of opinion. For Smith, the forms of human exchange made possible by markets was essentially a form of communication: an act of persuasion between the exchanging parties, and hence one that involved the alteration of belief. Through such small and daily acts, dogmatism and fixity of belief would be gradually eroded. Markets provided a system for a direct and pacific encounter between human beliefs, without the intervening mediation of religious or political authority. 

Many of the themes in current debates about globalisation are in fact direct replays of the debates which animated the theorists of commercial society and their critics in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The crux of their debates, as it is of ours today, was whether the processes of commercial exchange and the expansion of markets would necessarily undermine community: the moral order of a society. For them, the debate centred on the effects of markets and free trade upon notions of Christian community and republican virtue; our debates today turn on the effects of international economic processes, driven by the global penetration of markets, upon the culture and identity of societies caught in the throes of these processes. Smith argued, against the defenders of religious community and a stable moral order, that the internationalisation of markets and free trade would in fact create new solidarities and forms of sociability. The effects of markets, functioning within a system of justice upheld and regulated by political authority, enabled the development of needs and created interdependencies; but it also created a realm of human association not governed by need, the realm of friendship and voluntary association, where individuals associated together freely on the basis of shared interests and sentiments.

Through such means, markets weakened the strong and exclusive ties of community — the confining bonds of kinship or religious authority — and created weaker and more flexible ties. The problem posed by the emergence of a modern world based on an order of commercial production and exchange was, for Smith and his fellow intellectuals, that of ‘how to describe a universe, or a society, in which everybody had opinions and theories and conflicting, changing desires…[how]… to make a ‘system’ out of the innumerable, swerving moleculae of individual reflections and sentiments’.[2] This proliferating interconnection between individual beliefs and opinions, an interconnection that is now both unavoidable and also profoundly unstable, is also the problem that globalisation poses for us today. I want to insist on this point about belief, because to recognise it as perhaps the core feature of what we call ‘globalisation’ helps us to see that authority in the modern world is a precarious human creation, not assured by divine right or inheritance: it relies on the mustering of human allegiance and identification. Beyond a focus on the spread of technology or figures concerning trade flows, globalisation is perhaps best seen as the creation of a vast, interlinked field of human belief and action, whereby each of us becomes consequential in some measure to the fate of every other human being.

One of the basic disagreements in the current debates over globalisation is between those who view it as a homogenising process that effaces cultural diversity — one that pacifies and makes uniform, that undermines distinct cultural identities and values through the corrupting seductions of the ‘baubles and trinkets’ of commercial society — and those who see it as entrenching cultural and civilisational identities, causing them to come into conflict, to clash against one another. In my view globalisation, like modernity itself, does not produce a convergence or uniformity, whether of political institutions, market economies or cultural values; on the contrary, it generates an intensely interconnected differentiation, it leads to ‘the continual reinterpretation of the cultural programme of modernity’ and a ‘growing diversification of the understanding of modernity’.[3] One way of thinking about this growing differentiation and diversification is in terms of a ‘clash of civilisations’; another is in terms of self-isolation, as exponents of the ‘Asian values’ argument urge. But the case of India suggests a third possibility: as an encounter that alters both protagonists, a process of agonistic refinement that produces an ever more abundant diversity, always more inclusive and complex.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 notes

Sunil Khilnani, Professor and Director of South Asian Studies, Johns Hopkins University, is the author of
Idea of India’ (1997). He lives in Baltimore, USA