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Mr. Shravan Garg (at the podium). Seen on the stage from left to right – Dr. Shirin Mahalati, Dr. Ganesh Kawadia and Dr. P.N.Mishra.

 

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I will be posting links to related topics as and when I find them as this sequence of posts unfolds. Below is an extract from yesterday’s post on the Bahá’í News Website concerning a seminar on development held at Devi Ahilya University in Indore: for the full post see link

INDORE — Approximately 90 academics, development practitioners, and university students gathered for a seminar here on 7 April, to explore the direction of development planning and policies in India.

Organized by the Baha’i Chair for Studies in Development at Devi Ahilya University in Indore, the seminar, titled Applying Spiritual Principles and Scientific Methods to Development Practice, brought together leading thinkers to explore how social and economic development in the country can be approached holistically and its benefits be extended to all sections of society equitably.

In preparation for the seminar, panelists studied a document prepared by the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity on the experiences of an Indian development organization, Seva Mandir, which helped to frame the discussions throughout the day. Titled, May Knowledge Grow in our Hearts: Applying Spiritual Principles to Development Practice, the paper describes Seva Mandir’s efforts to apply spiritual principles and scientific methods to bring about social transformation.

The seminar began with a ceremonial lighting of the lamp, a symbolic act signifying the dispelling of the darkness of ignorance and sorrow. The University’s Vice Chancellor Dr. D.P. Singh, who delivered the inaugural address, set the tone for the discussions to follow by highlighting the need to reorient development plans and policies based on a non-fragmented conception of the human being.

In the panel discussion that followed, Mr. Shravan Garg, a senior journalist, noted that India needed to bring the knowledge systems of science and religion together to forge a path of development that avoided the dangers of materialism and consumerism on the one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other.

Also on the panel, Dr. Ranjana Sehgal, Professor at the Indore School of Social Work, warned that the consequences of pursuing mere economic development untempered by the country’s strong spiritual heritage, could be seen in the rise of “intolerance, corruption, terrorism, and crime, especially those against women.”

In deliberating on those spiritual principles that have particular relevance to development practice, the speakers identified the oneness of humankind and the interconnectedness of human beings with nature as among the foremost.

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Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra

For someone like me, who is trying to grasp as fully as possible all the implications of the distinction made by the Bahá’í World Centre between the West as it sees itself (‘developed’) and the West as it really is (merely industrialised), a recent Guardian article by  provided much food for thought. The Bahá’í document reads (page 5):

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialized. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance — in the final analysis, the very patterns of life — prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

Mishra has much to say that probes these issues and their origins quite deeply. In some ways it took me back to Amy Chua‘s excellent book, World on Fire and also links with John Ehrenfeld’s insightful co-authored bookFlourishingHis analysis covers somewhat different areas than theirs though, especially in terms of the complex history of these problems.  Below is the first section and a bit: for the detailed exposition of his thought as a whole see link.

The Western Model is Broken

“So far, the 21st century has been a rotten one for the western model,” according to a new book, The Fourth Revolution, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. This seems an extraordinary admission from two editors of the Economist, the flag-bearer of English liberalism, which has long insisted that the non-west could only achieve prosperity and stability through western prescriptions. It almost obscures the fact that the 20th century was blighted by the same pathologies that today make the western model seem unworkable, and render its fervent advocates a bit lost. The most violent century in human history, it was hardly the best advertisement for the “bland fanatics of western civilisation”, as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called them at the height of the cold war, “who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence”.

Niebuhr was critiquing a fundamentalist creed that has coloured our view of the world for more than a century: that western institutions of the nation-state and liberal democracy will be gradually generalised around the world, and that the aspiring middle classes created by industrial capitalism will bring about accountable, representative and stable governments – that every society, in short, is destined to evolve just as the west did. Critics of this teleological view, which defines “progress” exclusively as development along western lines, have long perceived its absolutist nature. Secular liberalism, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen cautioned as early as 1862, “is the final religion, though its church is not of the other world but of this”. But it has had many presumptive popes and encyclicals: from the 19th-century dream of a westernised world long championed by the Economist, in which capital, goods, jobs and people freely circulate, to Henry Luce’s proclamation of an “American century” of free trade, and “modernisation theory” – the attempt by American cold warriors to seduce the postcolonial world away from communist-style revolution and into the gradualist alternative of consumer capitalism and democracy.

The collapse of communist regimes in 1989 further emboldened Niebuhr’s bland fanatics. The old Marxist teleology was retrofitted rather than discarded in Francis Fukuyama’s influential end-of-history thesis, and cruder theories about the inevitable march to worldwide prosperity and stability were vended by such Panglosses of globalisation as Thomas Friedman. Arguing that people privileged enough to consume McDonald’s burgers don’t go to war with each other, the New York Times columnist was not alone in mixing old-fangled Eurocentrism with American can-doism, a doctrine that grew from America’s uninterrupted good fortune and unchallenged power in the century before September 2001.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 briefly disrupted celebrations of a world globalised by capital and consumption. But the shock to naive minds only further entrenched in them the intellectual habits of the cold war – thinking through binary oppositions of “free” and “unfree” worlds – and redoubled an old delusion: liberal democracy, conceived by modernisation theorists as the inevitable preference of the beneficiaries of capitalism, could now be implanted by force in recalcitrant societies. Invocations of a new “long struggle” against “Islamofascism” aroused many superannuated cold warriors who missed the ideological certainties of battling communism. Intellectual narcissism survived, and was often deepened by, the realisation that economic power had begun to shift from the west. The Chinese, who had “got capitalism”, were, after all, now “downloading western apps”, according to Niall Ferguson. As late as 2008, Fareed Zakaria declared in his much-cited book, The Post-American World, that “the rise of the rest is a consequence of American ideas and actions” and that “the world is going America’s way”, with countries “becoming more open, market-friendly and democratic”.

A world in flames

One event after another in recent months has cruelly exposed such facile narratives. China, though market-friendly, looks further from democracy than before. The experiment with free-market capitalism in Russia has entrenched a kleptocratic regime with a messianic belief in Russian supremacism. Authoritarian leaders, anti-democratic backlashes and rightwing extremism define the politics of even such ostensibly democratic countries as India, Israel, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Turkey.

The atrocities of this summer in particular have plunged political and media elites in the west into stunned bewilderment and some truly desperate cliches. The extraordinary hegemonic power of their ideas had helped them escape radical examination when the world could still be presented as going America’s way. But their preferred image of the west – the idealised one in which they sought to remake the rest of the world – has been consistently challenged by many critics, left or right, in the west as well as the east.

An empty billboard site in São Paolo, Brazil. Billboard advertising has been banned there since 2007. Photograph: Tony de Marco

An empty billboard site in São Paolo, Brazil. Billboard advertising has been banned there since 2007. Photograph: Tony de Marco

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