Friday, June 14, 2024

The Dismal Science in India


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By Deepa Majumdar

Every civilization comes up with its share of discursive knowledge … a knowledge that serves as a seismic indicator of the contemplative state of the society in question. Whether it is mature or immature is often revealed by this knowledge. Of all disciplines of western knowledge, perhaps it was always Neoclassical Economics that I found most baffling. Yes it was novel … and clever … and it lent itself to mathematical renditions … and yet, what was it but a mathematical painting of the production, distribution, and trading of mammon … a mechanical account that never questioned the human desires and cravings underlying the pithy demand and supply curves … a deterministic account of the operations of a Godlike Invisible Hand. To me, the Dismal Science seemed like a scientific, rational intellectualization of human cravings that made no distinction between need and greed. The Invisible Hand, I was convinced, would be utterly nonplussed by the ascetic man. Without any malice intended towards the west, I was convinced that this Dismal Science could never have been produced anywhere but in the capitalistic west. It could never have been dreamed up in Antiquity, Late Antiquity, or in Medieval Europe, when Saint Francis of Assisi walked around with ashes smeared on his forehead, to remind him of his utter humility and helplessness as a mere created being. For, notwithstanding the bloody crusades, those were the days of great piety … of the life saving ascetic values that still ruled the western world. Saint Francis, I am sure, would have died of shock, if he had encountered Neoclassical Economic theory.

What on earth did economists talk about when they grew old, I often wondered. Did they still speak of demand and supply? Did they still take pride in data-laden forecasting … or did they understand the gulf that separates mathematical forecasting from the spiritual act of prophecy? Did they still assert as axiomatic, a portrait of human nature as being inherently materialistic? And of all awful theories, did they still maintain the Household Production Model, which in my day, was used to forecast human reproductive “decisions,” based on the “axiomatic premise” that parents made this all important decision … how many children they should have … based on their household income levels! It was upon encountering this theory, in particular, that my disgust peaked and I left the field. Many mothers, I knew of, longed for their children. Financial considerations were perhaps the last criterion in their minds. Their children were gifts to them. Child bearing, for them, was not a “decision,” but an expression of human love. Unlike love, which is guileless, decision making can involve calculation. The Dismal Science, I decided, was no longer merely dismal. It was primitive and vulgar in its assertions about human nature.

Many decades have gone by since I first sat in a Microeconomics class. Years have gone by since I left this field, despite getting a degree in it. The main question that haunted me that first day in class, remains the question I ask today. It is a question that needs to be answered by economists themselves. Capitalism will not cease shaking in its very foundations … its seismic tremors will not halt … until economists themselves answer this vital question … namely, what is the human nature lurking beneath the demand and supply curves that Neoclassical Economics asserts to be axiomatic. And notwithstanding Lord Macaulay’s arrogant assertion that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia,” one must, at this point in India’s history, ask if the Dismal Science helps or hurts India, as she adjusts to a global capitalism. Even if culturally alien in the most extreme, surely it is indeed the Dismal Science, of all sciences, that most enables India to understand the intricacies of modern mammon … its production, distribution, and presentation to the Indian psyche, especially the rural populace.

It was in this context that I read with great interest, the recent interchange between Prof. S. K. Mishra, and Patricia Mukhim, in the Shillong Times … on the fact that NEHU has not produced any book as such on the economy of the northeast. I am too far removed from this scene and in any case, it is not my place to comment one way or the other on this specific issue. But Prof. Mishra’s article caught my interest because he put into words some of the very same things I have long felt about the Dismal Science in the Indian context and otherwise. I applaud and wholeheartedly agree with Prof. Mishra’s points about the nature of “neo-classical ‘establishment economics’” … that it is not the “right type of economics,” that it is no more than an “apologia of a particular type of socio-economic system and, therefore, grossly unsuitable to understand the Indian economic system,” that “subjects like mathematical economics, econometrics, etc are nothing more than ‘chasing the wind’, if not misguiding,” and that “subjects like political economy, institutional economics, evolutionary economics, etc are much more useful, but they are ignored.” Most moving for me was the scholar’s admission, that he felt he had been teaching “useless things” for 27 years. Indeed, it takes a lot of courage to say something like this.

This was exactly the way I felt many decades ago, when I struggled hard against the intellectually airtight, insular, almost incestuous nature of the Dismal Science, in its formulation as Neoclassical Economics. All the econometric models we designed and worked with, I realized, were indeed no more than acrobatics of the mind, utterly alien to natural contemplation, and far removed from empirical reality. The computer, the methods of data collection, the econometric analyses of the data, and indeed, the very values lying covert beneath the facade of a hypocritical “value-free” economics, I realized, were neocolonial weapons with which to rule the “third world.” Often, I saw western graduate students go to a “third world” nation, armed with the knowledge of economics, an econometric model, and the computer … to feed in numbers, spit out numbers, and advise a shaky government … thereby transmitting that peculiarly western statistical gaze, which can do a lot of good … but need not. Economists, I realized, often used obtuse econometric and other models to say something perfectly trite, commonsensical, mundane … The plight of every day neoclassical economics was, to my way of thinking, like a piece of strangled contemplation. All my rebellion, I soon realized, was in vain, for this field did not possess the wherewithal to critique its own, rather trite philosophical grounds.

Given the rich inner ethos of a civilization like India, the Dismal Science, I feel, can, at best, explain, analyze, and predict, only those aspects of material life that cater to the economic needs of the impoverished. It can never help us understand the subtle divine economy running beneath the vulgar surface economy. It can never understand the dispensations of the divine Hand in this subtle inner economy, deep below the overt, crude and cruel dispensations of the mechanical Invisible Hand. It can never “explain,” the insight that when all is said and done, it is the transcendental Law of Karma that dispenses goods and services by the just creed of “to each, her due share, as deserved and as is good for her.” Nor can it explain the workings of Karl Marx’s wonderful creed, “to each according to his need and from each according to his ability.”

How deeply I wish, the field of Neoclassical Economics were taught in India with rich critique … as something to be used judiciously, only in some applied contexts … above all, as something that has nothing to do with man’s higher nature.

(The author is Associate Professor Purdue University, USA)


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