Case for a New Capitalism

They did not pelt stone at the authorities; nor antagonised the Police force. They did not destroy any public property. They did not steal or commit any murder. Their actions cannot attract any section of CPC or CrPC. They are not ultras of any hue. They just pleaded for the basic dignity of life. They were homebound, governed by helplessness and stark emotionalism. As lockdown denied them a public transport, they headed thousands of miles on foot, bicycle and whatever means at their disposal. They delivered babies on the highway, slept on the railway tracks for the elevation they provided and created their own rules to survive, if at all they could. Their courage was indomitable and an ultimate expression of animal instinct. Is it an anathema to a welfare state? A sound economic system with well-defined rules of business is firmly in place. The old debate between merits of communism pitted against capitalism is already passé; the verdict decisively in favour of the latter because of its capacity to create wealth and feed the supply side. Everyone expects that a vibrant open economy will lay the foundation of a welfare state.

We believed that a capitalist state and a welfare state are not just twin sisters but they are a conjoined one. The two words are synonyms and replaceable in a seminar/webinar. Reality proved that capitalism has a long way to catch up with welfarism. Has the dichotomy between capitalism and welfarism ended with provision of Shramik special trains and doling out other goodies? Was it just one off error, which does not reveal a structural lapse? Will everything be fine again when the pandemic is over and life returns to normal? This paper wants to examine these questions conceptually.

What is welfarism needs to be answered first. Wikipedia defines a welfare state as  a form of government in which the state protects and promotes the economic and social well-being of the citizens, based upon the principles of equal opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for citizens unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life. Eminent Sociologist T. H. Marshall described the modern welfare state as a distinctive combination of democracywelfare, and capitalism. This can be taken as a standard definition to avoid conceptual polemics. In a formal sense, Indian polity is in total agreement with such a model of welfarism. Our constitution addresses the questions from its very preamble. They are exhaustively reinforced in Part-III of the constitution, dealing with Fundamental Rights and Part-IV dealing with Directive Principle of State Policy.

Both the communist credo and capitalistic ethics vouched to create a welfare state through their respective systems, which created a bipolar world in the past. Any debate between communism and capitalism is late in the day. While communism failed to create wealth, capitalism did. Even communist countries like China and Russia have taken to capitalistic tools to create wealth. Being the winner in the race, why capitalism threw up the ugly scenario of migrant labour issues making it visible; surely not the sign of a winner. Has the winner been unsuccessful in hiding the indefensible in its underbelly until it took a pandemic to strip it bare? Is the winner a hypocrite propagating a hypocritical order? If so, does it deserve to be called a winner at all? Even if it grabs the medal through foul means, can it survive in the end? What changes are required to ensure its survival? Is there an anarchy hiding behind capitalism?

If the questions are legitimate, it is necessary to throw back a glance on its governing ethics. In his pioneering work, “Protestant ethics and spirit of capitalism,” Max Weber credits protestant ethics to be the wellspring of capitalism. John Calvin, the religious reformer of the early sixteenth century, never accepted capitalism unconditionally. Being the first Christian theologian to embrace the use of interest on money, he upped the ante against the Catholic Church, which was against usury. But, he also qualified its use. He argued that profit should never be used to exploit the poor and that borrowers should profit more from loans than the lenders. This is in the DNA of capitalism, which is being forgotten by the modern day capitalists.

In the more modern context, Adam Smith (1723-1790) is often called the father of modern capitalism. In his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he dealt with natural principles that govern morality and the ways in which human beings come to know them. The Wealth of Nations, which was a book on political economy and not just on economy, was a comprehensive mix of philosophy, political science, history, economics, anthropology and sociology. The role of the free market and the laissez-faire structures that support it are but two components of a larger theory of human interaction and social history. Overly emphasising on profit at the cost of human welfare is an insult to the father.

In the same vein, Gandhi’s advocacy of trusteeship is a fusion of capitalism and welfarism. He tried to spiritualize economics and believed that   the wealthy people could be persuaded to part with their wealth to help the poor. Gandhi was no communist but he was a firm crusader against poverty, exploitation, socio-economic injustice and immorality. Gandhi was an economist of the masses and relied on the entrepreneurial spirit to serve the masses.

With such rich philosophical ancestry providing the beckon light, why Indian brand of capitalism fail to deliver welfarism in the moment of reckoning? It is obvious and apparent to the initiated that the business class here enjoy an influence in the governance system, thanks to the decadent political culture prevailing here. Even if some businesspersons try to stick out to maintain a degree of business ethics, our politicians will not allow it to happen.

If the modern day capitalists in India that not only influence the state apparatus but also seem to control it by virtue of their influence on the political class had borrowed ethics from thinkers like Calvin, Adam Smith and Gandhi even to an infinitesimal degree, the migrant labour issue should not have erupted. This throws up questions about what is wrong and needs to be corrected.

It would be unfair to blame India alone in the game. It is believed that income inequality in the US has reached the highest level in the last 50 years with the top 0.1% owning nearly 20% of the wealth. Comparable statistics prevail in India as the richest 1% of India owns 58.4% of wealth and the top 10% hold 77% of wealth. The finer accuracy of such statistics can be challenged in an academic debate but the exasperating gap in inequality remains beyond doubt. It is time to usher in a new Capitalism where business focus must shift beyond shareholder’s return. The government and business together must work in tandem to fight the catastrophic climate change largely triggered by the increase in emission level. In the specific Indian context, corruption remains the single most important hurdle tacitly approved by a passive citizenry. The task is galling but evolving from the present framework remains the only choice.

Mr Abanikanta Mishra
Retired Banker
VIM-114, Sailashree Vihar