Triumph of humanist reason

Print edition : October 24, 1998

SUCCESS always wins admirers. So the award of the Nobel Prize to Amartya Sen was bound to draw unprecedented encomiums even from the unlikeliest of sources. And it indeed did. Many in the Indian establishment went ga-ga over this "national honour", which proved that "Indians are second to none." Some people convinced themselves that the prize is really an honour bestowed upon their policies.

In reality, it is a resounding slap in the face of much of the elite and a celebration of many values and ideas that it hates, detests and fears - humanism, secularism, rationality, pluralism, equality, and not least, opposition to nuclear weapons. The award also signifies the discrediting of the neo-liberal economic paradigm.

Amartya Sen is not just an economist, nor did he get the Nobel Prize as a practitioner of that "dismal science" alone. He is one of the world's great economic philosophers, that rare breed of thinkers who remind us that economics is about the real world, about choices and transactions which involve or assume values, institutions and patterns of behaviour - themselves historically determined and hence far from immutable, unlike the "iron laws" formulated by dogmatists. Amartya Sen is the economist's economist, the philosopher's philosopher. More, he is a public intellectual who brings morality into public policy discourse. He represents the social scientist's conscience in a highly evolved form.

Amartya Sen's work is a dual enterprise: against obscurantism, and theorising for an enlightened, humane, social order. This is what gives unity to his entire intellectual effort, spanning different fields, from hard-core econometrics to the relationship between deprivation and social structure, from secularism to Indian culture, from understanding social choices to promoting equality. This enterprise constitutes the driving force of the interventions Amartya Sen has made with increasing frequency in recent years, especially after the Babri Masjid demolition.

THE first part of the enterprise is directed against three kinds of obscurantism: market fundamentalism, religious obscurantism, and social conservatism leading to political cynicism and nuclearism. Opposition to market fundamentalism is a major theme in Amartya Sen's work. One of his contributions lies in investigating the limitations of the market, especially in dealing with basic issues of poverty and deprivation. He establishes that market-led growth alone cannot eradicate poverty. Public action, conscious state intervention, is indispensable. Amartya Sen does not dismiss the role of the market as an indicator or transmitter of signals. But he has never endorsed the 'Washington Consensus', the neo-liberal orientation favoured by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. Treasury and right-wing think tanks, which recommend total deregulation, rampant privatisation, unbridled globalisation, trade and exchange control liberalisation, the whole lot. Amartya Sen strongly advocates more, not less, state intervention - in nutrition, health, education and social insurance. This, for him, is intimately linked to the outcomes of economic processes, which must empower people to become authentic economic agents in their own right.

Amartya Sen belongs firmly to the tradition of classical political economy, which deals not with appearances and the "iron laws" of supply and demand, but with actual relations of power among real people and the institutions they shape through their actions. The political economy school regards the "iron law" approach as an article of faith. This variant of "voodoo economics" has brought Russia to its knees, and produced havoc in East Asia. The award of the Nobel Prize to Amartya Sen is an acknowledgement that market dogma, which has dominated the Nobel list for long, has run out of steam, and that a new approach has become necessary.

Amartya Sen's engagement with the issues of secularism and India's identity, and its religious and secular traditions, has become increasingly more intense, especially after the 1992 demolition. He has made repeated public interventions (for example, in his Nehru Lecture at Cambridge and Lionel Trilling Lecture at Columbia) on the theme of communalism and secularism. This reflects his belief that the time has come for scholars and intellectuals "to speak out". He told this writer in an interview in 1993: "December 6... involved two different violations. First, it violated the notion of tolerance in modern political ethics... Secondly, it violated the deeply held traditional Indian notion of co-existence and mutual tolerance."

Amartya Sen regrets that those who could have spoken out against the Ayodhya movement "failed to do so" at the right time. This signified a political and intellectual void. This writer can testify from personal experience that Amartya Sen did not hesitate to speak out. In December 1992, he was the first Indian in the U.S. that we turned to while launching a signature campaign condemning the Babri Masjid demolition. (The second person was another Indian-born Nobel laureate, the astronomer S. Chandrasekhar.)

AMARTYA SEN'S emphasis on secularism in the Indian context arises from his conviction that India has always been a heterogeneous, plural, multi-religious, multi-lingual society. "To see India as just a Hindu country," he says, is "bizarre". Islam in India is older than Christianity is in many parts of Europe. A range of religions, including Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity, have long co-existed here. Plurality "also concerns the diversity within Hinduism itself... Hinduism must also be seen as thoroughly plural in structure. Its divisions are not those only of caste... but of schools of thought... When the fourteenth century Hindu scholar Madhava Acharya... wrote his famous Sanskrit treatise... he devoted each of his sixteen chapters to the different schools of Hindu religious postulates (beginning with the atheism of the Charvaka school)..."

Amartya Sen defends openness and opposes anti-Western swadeshi-style xenophobia. In his recent UNESCO Lecture (August 20), he criticised those who "illogically reject imported ideas" and warned against a paranoid fear of "Westernisation" which is generally used as a "cloak for deep conservatism". He strongly believes that India has enough robustness and plasticity to absorb changes, provided it retains its tolerance and pluralism.

If these uncompromisingly liberal-pluralist-secular views run directly counter to Hindutva-driven elitist shibboleths, then so does Sen's scathing critique of Social Darwinism (survival of the fittest in a fiercely competitive society), nuclearism and militarism. Sen is a staunch defender of human rights. For him, liberty is a basic entitlement. A society without compassion, which does not provide the "greatest benefit to the least advantaged", is undesirable. He argues not just for equality of opportunity, but equal achievement of certain basic functionings such as being well-nourished, being free of disease, and having self-respect and dignity.

This capability-based perspective provides the foundation for affirmative action, positive discrimination and empowerment of the powerless. Elitism is repugnant to this view, as would be the diversion of resources away from urgent social priorities. Amartya Sen's critique of nuclear weapons and of high military budgets derives from this. It rejects militarist notions of security. India's bombs would be incompatible with rational social priorities and with considerations of justice. Weapons of mass destruction cannot produce security.

The qualities that characterise Amartya Sen's work - its breathtaking span, its holism, its analytical rigour, its logical elegance and its humane concerns - derive from multiple traditions. These include a strong grounding in Indian culture and Sanskrit classics - going back to his grandfather, the scholar K.M. Sen - as well as Western liberal-radical thought in its most refined form, as represented by his Cambridge mentors such as Maurice Dobb and Joan Robinson. Amartya Sen, from Santiniketan, is almost literally the inheritor of the liberal, enlightened, modernist, extrovert tradition symbolised by Tagore, its founder. This is a project committed to an open, non-hierarchical, secular, plural, prosperous society where human beings can live with dignity and without fear.

The honouring of Amartya Sen is a vindication of the humanist-radical-secular project. It is a reaffirmation of modern rationality, pluralism and the importance of human agency in the making of the world, including its apparently opaque, impervious economic processes, its state structures and, above all, the structures of the mind.

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