Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 47

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Even though I have attended most of the meetings of the September group over the last 40 years, my own participation in the group has really been more like that of an interested outsider looking in. This is for mainly two reasons. One is that my research primarily being on developing countries, it had very little overlap with research areas of almost everybody else in the group. I often hesitated presenting my research because I thought the specialized details of my work might bore the rest of the members, even though I knew they’d politely listen to me. So I often participated more actively in the session in each meeting reserved for some topical global issue for general discussion rather than for presentation of original research.

The second reason was a matter of my personal inclination. Even though over the years I have been a lucky beneficiary of the high-quality of the discussion in a diverse array of disciplines (and wished some of the more narrowly-specialized, even tunnel-visioned, economists in my profession were exposed to such richness and diversity of concepts and approaches), I’d sometimes lose patience with the intricacies of ethical-conceptual debates among the high-powered moral philosophers in the group. While they sharpened my understanding of many conceptual issues of social justice in ways which I had not thought about before, I sometimes found that the attention lavished in some of the discussion to ethical purity and depth was out of proportion with the practical political difficulties of even remotely reaching anywhere near the outer, coarser, periphery. As primarily a political economist I am more interested in the political feasibility of many general ideas of justice and egalitarianism and the nature of the concrete obstacles than in the ever-finer conceptual refinement of the desirable normative goals. With the possible exceptions of Adam Przeworski and Robert Brenner, most members in the group at least in the early years, have been more interested in moral-philosophical issues of justice than I have been, after a point.

But independent of the issues discussed, the sharpness of mind and analytical skills displayed in a warm atmosphere of congeniality has made most sessions a very pleasant learning experience for me for about four decades. Having seen since my college days how many of the Indian leftists keep wallowing in bullshit Marxism it was indeed a breath of fresh air for me to participate in this group. And, of course, the friendships forged in the meetings have been a great source of joy.

Thinking of my early days with the group I also remember that once Jon Elster, after a short visit to India, asked me an unexpected question. He said in his visit the Indians were all very nice to him, but he wanted to know, “in their heart of hearts what do Indians really think of us, westerners”. Somewhat flippantly I said to Jon in reply that people in India think westerners are technologically and militarily superior, but definitely inferior in terms of morals and personal hygiene. He said, “Morals I can imagine, but why personal hygiene?” I then told him a story that I had heard from Sheila Dhar in the Dharma Kumar salon in Delhi that I have described before.

Sheila, wife of P.N. Dhar whom I have mentioned earlier, was an accomplished singer and writer of books capturing the bygone ambience of the world of North Indian classical musicians that she used to inhabit. She’d narrate her stories with a great deal of raucous humor mixed with empathy (but rendered in a rather bizarre way, as while narrating them she used to keep on crunching ice cubes with her teeth—I was told this was the way she was coping those days with the after-effects of quitting long years of smoking). The story I told Jon was about Siddheshwari Devi who was a great classical vocal singer from Varanasi. When she was at the peak of her fame she was once invited to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in London. This was her first trip to a western country. The day prior to her performance she arrived at the fancy hotel where she was put up. Going to the bathroom there, she was deeply shocked to realize that westerners didn’t wash their bottom, they wiped it with a piece of paper. Next day when she sat down to perform in the stage, the thought of singing such heavenly compositions in front of an audience with hundreds of unwashed bottoms so agitated her that she wanted to cancel her performance. After a great deal of persuasion by the organizers she barely managed to perform.

In the early 1990’s, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, in a meeting of the September group I remember Jon Elster telling us that as we were going through a historic transition period, we should keep in mind that our grandchildren might ask us one day what we were doing in such an epochal time. Looking back my answer, if my grandchild ever cares to ask me about this, will be somewhat complicated.

The fall of Soviet Union was a landmark geopolitical event but people like me from a developing country may look at it somewhat differently from Europeans and Americans. The welcome by the former may have been ambiguous for a transition from a duopoly of superpowers to a monopoly (at least for the next two decades or so). Nor could they think of it as the triumph of democracy over authoritarianism, as the western support (and worse) over many decades for brutal dictators all over the world (described by ‘realist’ foreign policy bigwigs in the US as ‘our sons of bitches’) and their corrupt oppressive regimes has not been particularly edifying.

Leaving aside geopolitics, what about the comparative-economic systemic event? I was never enthusiastic about the Soviet brand of socialism (or for that matter any authoritarian brand of socialism); in many ways the Soviet Union represented an utterly debased form of Marxist or any humane egalitarian idea. But its fall did represent the demise of the idea of purely state-controlled command-economy socialism. I did spend much of the 1990’s in thinking of how to reshape an economy that has socialist/egalitarian goals but makes considerable use of the market mechanism of prices and incentives.

John Roemer and I edited a book on Market Socialism, and also co-authored an article on Market Socialism for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, when Joe Stiglitz was its editor (and I was in the editorial board). There was an old literature on Market Socialism in the 1930’s in which the Polish economist Oskar Lange and the British-American economist Abba Lerner tried to show the feasibility of socialism with market prices. But they did not quite answer the incisive criticisms of Austrian economists like Friedrich Hayek flowing from the fact that state planners will not have access to private information of individual citizens or to local knowledge. Roemer and I tried, in our imperfect and incomplete way, to update that debate for a world where this informational constraint is important.

We in turn were sharply criticized by the Russian-American economist Andrei Shleifer at Harvard who was convinced that socialism was neither feasible nor desirable. Around this time Shleifer was an advisor to Anatoly Chubais, then Russian Vice-Premier and the main architect of privatization in Russia. It is probably unfair to consider Shleifer complicit in the oligarchic loot that the Russian privatization spree subsequently amounted to, but in our academic disputes with him I could see that he was too quick to dismiss our concerns about privatization and why we thought it was important to consider alternative ways of bringing the market in.

In spite of our sharp differences, personally Andrei was quite friendly with me. I found him extremely smart and also witty in a sardonic way. Born in Moscow Andrei migrated to the US in his mid-teens, and claims that he learned English incessantly watching TV series like Charlie’s Angels. In Economics he specialized in the field of corporate finance and is one of the most cited economists. I got to know him a little better when once he and I were invited to the same conference on Law and Economics in Delhi; he hardly knew anybody there, and so we chatted a lot.

To him the Soviet state was hardly different from a body of organized crime, and after its fall, the sooner one could dismantle the remnants of the public sector behemoths and the elaborate machinery of Party control by whatever means, the better (hence ‘shock therapy’), particularly to forestall any restoration of the rule by those crime bosses. I think it was naïve of him not to think of the real possibility of many of those crime bosses and their cronies mutating into kleptocratic oligarchs, fattened by the spoils of the rigged privatization process. Without the necessarily slow build-up of democratic and locally autonomous political and economic institutions and structures of accountability, you may just replace one kind of mafia rule by another (with the composition of mafia often overlapping).

Today with Putin’s murderous mafia state and his revanchist aggressions dominating the headline news the image of Russia in much of the world is in complete tatters. Thousands of talented people, ranging from scientists to ballet dancers are trying to leave Russia, ashamed of the country. In this context, let me go beyond economics and politics and say that it is easy to overlook the inner depths of a society which has a long tradition of great literature, music, dance, art, and culture, arising magically from a deep well of pain, outrage and the ravages of history.

I was reminded of this in a trip I took to Moscow for a conference in 2015. During a lunch break in the conference I decided to take a walk in a nearby park. It was early October and already snow flurries were in the air. Near the gate of the almost desolate park I saw a large statue, which I assumed would be of a military hero or a political leader. But when I looked up I saw the soft features of a woman in a flowing dress. Because of my ignorance of the Russian language I could not decipher the name of the person etched at the bottom. But I did notice a bunch of fresh flowers placed there.

Back at the conference my colleagues informed me that it was the statue of the poet Anna Akhmatova. When I asked about the flowers, I was told that I’d see similar bunches of fresh flowers at the feet of statues of other writers and poets in different parts of the city. Is this arranged by the municipal authorities, I asked. No, I was told, the flowers are regularly put there by the admirers of these writers. I come from a city, Kolkata, where poets are adored and which has probably a larger number of poets per square kilometer than many other cities. But this kind of reverence for poets and writers and high culture even among common people in Russia is impressive by any standard.

Akhmatova happens to be one of my favorite poets. Let me just cite one of her short poems which to me has a haunting quality:

I drink to the wreck of our life together,
And the pain of living alone.
I drink to the loneliness we shared—
My dear, I drink to you.
I drink to the trick of a mouth that betrayed me,
To the eyes and the look that lied.
I drink to the terrible world we inhabit
And to God, who never replied.