Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 21

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

At MIT outside the Economics Department there was one scholar, whose several lectures I have attended was Noam Chomsky. I knew of him as a pioneer in modern linguistic theory, but his fame in the outside world is as America’s topmost dissenter (his position is somewhat like what used to be that of Bertrand Russell in Britain, a towering figure in his own subject philosophy, but his fame outside was that of Britain’s leading dissenter).

Chomsky in his lectures used to tirelessly blast the framework of American imperial policy, the capitalist military-industrial complex, the corporate-controlled media machinery for manufacturing consent, and the near-complete lack of control of common people over economic policy. I often agreed with the main thrust of his lectures, but the question that nagged me, but never could ask him in the surging crowd of his admirers around, was about the feasibility of the socio-political alternatives he might have in mind.

In some of his writings his constructive ideas seem close to old-style left-libertarian or anarcho-syndicalist views; in one place he describes his ideological position as revolving around “nourishing the libertarian and creative character of the human being”. What little I have read of this positive side of his ideological position has left me somewhat unconvinced; I have wondered if he has fully applied his mind to the various problems that arise in the real world beyond the anarchist or left-libertarian utopia.

Of the various social-science writings in this area I have found the work of the semi-anarchist political-scientist James Scott more thoughtful than those of Chomsky. In his book Two Cheers for Anarchism Scott endorses many of the ideas of great anarchist thinkers of the past (like Proudhon or Bakunin) on the independent self-organizing power of individuals and small communities for informal coordination without hierarchy, but he recognizes that the state is not always the enemy of freedom and that the relative equality that is necessary for small-group coordination and mutuality can often only be guaranteed through the state.

My life outside the Department also included my ever-enthusiastic search for different kinds of films. This required keeping track not just of both American and international films in the art cinema halls of Harvard Square and downtown Boston, but also special shows of rare, non-commercial films shown at specialized venues and occasions. At one point I became a member of the Boston Experimental Film Society. Their shows were at a remote place, yet I used to go there, changing buses more than once.

But soon I realized the objective of this Society was different from what I was looking for. Their purpose was to show not necessarily good films, but films that experimentally transgressed the restrictive boundaries and conventional norms of that time. For example, gay rights still being banned in Massachusetts, many of the films there were trying to push the boundary in this respect. With all my sympathy for liberal causes, I was not mainly looking for advocacy or defiance-oriented films. One evening they were showing a film the focus of which turned out to be on motorbike subculture bordering on neo-Nazi style, vivid homosexuality, and the occult. Halfway through I was toying with the idea of leaving, when suddenly the film was stopped, lights came up, and the organizers came in front to announce that we should not be alarmed, but Boston police had surrounded the hall; they said the police might arrest them but not the viewers, so if we quietly walked out without provoking the police then there should not be any problem. That was the last I went to their shows.

At MIT in the next two or three years my research productivity went on at a frenzied speed. I published in all the top five journals, even twice in some of them within a fairly short span of time, and was getting occasional job-exploratory phone-calls from other Departments in the country (including incidentally from Berkeley), but all through a vague dissatisfaction was slowly growing in me. I realized that the pyrotechnics of publishing at the frontier of a very narrowly-specialized subject, however ego-boosting, was not ultimately satisfying to me. I saw all around me, not just at MIT, several young economists who after mastering a fancy technique of analysis were looking for a problem to apply it to and thus get a publishable paper, somewhat like a hammer in search of nails, or to put it more grandly, like in Pirandello’s play, “Six Characters in Search of an Author”.

Also, most of my papers then were theoretical (using low-to-middle-brow mathematics), none dealing with data from lives of real people. My work related to international trade and to economic growth, while my interest started shifting to understanding processes of economic development, where I found out that most of the existing data, at least available then in the US, were reports on aggregative statistics of different countries, which were hardly useful in understanding what was going on at the ground level. I also started having qualms about the preoccupation of Economics with issues that are quantifiable and measurable, leaving out other topics even though the latter could be more important. I was aware that other social sciences, say sociology or anthropology, while generating powerful insights on important topics, sometimes indulged in a lot of grandstanding and a kind of ‘anything-goes’ looseness, without any clear criterion of falsifiability that economists look for. But the cliché about economists often searching for the ‘lost keys’ in an area where there is some pre-fixed light rather than in the dark area where the keys were actually lost, seemed more often true than false. Besides, I thought, with our methods of precise analysis we might be missing on a lot of ambiguity and complexity in the larger picture, particularly at our current state of empirical knowledge. It might sometimes even be the case like what Ansel Adams said about photography: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”.

So I started thinking of going back to India, to observe and analyze the lives of the poor from a closer angle, though I never had the illusion that I’d be anything but an ivory-tower onlooker even there. My homeward thinking was shared by Kalpana, and also somewhat pushed by the severity of Boston winters.

I had a long discussion on my thinking with Amartya-da. He did not discourage me but he wanted to make sure that I was aware of the big academic gamble I was taking—going to India and working with field data was likely to get me branded as an ‘area-studies’ person which those days was like going on exile, away from the frontier of Economics (and a topmost Department like MIT). Unlike today, these were days when field-research in remote places was mostly unheard-of in Economics, and in any case this kind of Development Economics was definitely considered as backwaters, unworthy of smart economists.

I still decided to go back to India, after 3 years of teaching at MIT. When I told the Chairman of my Department, he said with some (not-quite-accurate) pride, “No body leaves MIT voluntarily”. What I told him by way of explanation amounted to what lovers usually say when breaking up, “It’s not you, it’s me”.