Conversations from JLF 2021, Part 1
This year’s virtual Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) had none of the vibrant hustle and bustle of the previous on-site editions, but, over ten days, there were more than 130 engaging and hugely diverse conversations between writers from around the world. In some cases, those conversations via Zoom were perhaps more intimate than they would have been before a live audience. They were always thought-provoking.
Nothing could ever compare with the atmosphere of the Front Lawn at Diggi Place when the on-site festival is in full swing, but the organisers of JLF 2021 pulled out all the stops to bring this year’s audience an immersive experience with top-class musical performances and visuals that evoked the colour and splendour of the Pink City and the state of Rajasthan.
An advantage of going virtual was that numerous authors who have not previously been able to attend JLF, such as the renowned American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist Noam Chomsky, were there this year.
In a session entitled ‘Who rules the world?’, Chomsky, who is considered to be the founder of modern linguistics, was in conversation with journalist Sreenivasan Jain.
Trumpism, Chomsky told Jain, is still very much around. “And Donald Trump is very much around,” Chomsky said. “The world hasn’t seen the last of him. The large majority of the Republican Party not only supports him, but almost worships him. The Republican Party at the moment is torn.”
Chomsky says that “the people who basically own the society and fund the party, the major corporate sector” have been tolerating Trump, but don’t like him.
“He is too vulgar, too disgraceful in his behaviour, but they were willing to tolerate him as long as he was lining their pockets. All of his legislative programmes were designed to enrich the very rich, empower the corporate sector.
“So as long as that was happening, they could tolerate the way he was behaving, though they didn’t like it. January 6th [the storming of the Capitol Building] was too much and they basically, almost unanimously, gave him his marching orders.”
In Chomsky’s view, what seems likely is that Trump will set up an alternative government.
“Maybe in Mar-a-Lago, or one of his fancy places. That’ll be presented as the real government, supported by the base of the party, ‘as distinct from the fake government in Washington run by the deep state and the fake media and so on’.”
American democracy had serious problems even before Trump, Chomsky says, but now there’s a major constitutional crisis coming. The US, Chomsky says, “is in very serious trouble”.
Trump, Chomsky says, is basically a wrecker. “He has no ideas about what to do, but he can wreck anything in front of him. He’s like a child put in a China shop with a hammer; destroy everything. So, on the international scene, destroy the arms control regime, destroy the efforts to deal with climate change, destroy the World Health Organisation …”
How do you ensure that you do not have a return of a Trump or a Trump-like figure when democracies all over the world are grappling with their own drift into authoritarianism? Jain asked.
Democracy all over the world is in pretty serious trouble, Chomsky says. In Europe, he says, in the case of decisions about major issues that affect people’s lives, “we’re shifting from the national states to Brussels, to an unelected bureaucracy”.
“Forty years of neoliberal assault, forty years since Reagan and Thatcher, have had a very harsh effect on the population everywhere in the world where these programmes have been applied,” Chomsky told Jain.
Over the past forty years in the US, the real wages for male workers have declined, Chomsky says, and for most of the population, there’s been stagnation. There has been economic and productivity growth, he says, but it’s going into very few pockets.
“0.1% of the population … doubled their share of wealth from 10% to 20%.”
Chomsky cited a recent study by the RAND Corporation that estimated the transfer of wealth (Chomsky calls this “robbery”) from 90% of the population to a fraction of 1% to be about US$50 trillion over the past forty years. And that’s a severe underestimate, Chomsky says.
He notes, however, that “the Trump phenomenon” is just one aspect of what’s happening. There has also, he says, been a sharp increase in progressive social forces and activism.
Chomsky says he doesn’t like Biden’s programmes, but they’re more progressive than any of their predecessors.
“On climate, for example, the most important issue we face, his programme is by no means perfect; it’s flawed, but it’s well beyond anything that preceded; much better than Obama’s programme.”
This, Chomsky says, is because popular forces are pressing very hard.
The Green New Deal programme to combat climate change is essential for human survival, Chomsky says. There is still a struggle going on over the nature of the programme, he says, but, a couple of years ago, it would not have won congressional approval.
“The Clintonite Democrats, who pretty much run the party, are Wall Street, donor oriented … The popular part of the party is strongly opposed to that,” Chomsky told Jain.
Dealing with the environmental crisis is of overwhelming importance, Chomsky says. “If that isn’t solved, nothing else matters. We have maybe a decade or two to deal with the problem. After that, it will be too late.”
What’s needed, Chomsky says, is a powerful programme to move towards ending the use of fossil fuels, certainly by mid-century.
“Now, that means acting right away. It means cutting back year by year on the usage of fossil fuels, new programmes to develop renewable energy, a national grid for electricity …”
Nuclear war, Chomsky says, is another very serious threat. “Trump destroyed almost the entire arms control regime; very dangerous. Biden got in just in time to sign the new START treaty, which Trump had refused to do.”
You fight what’s going on by developing the popular forces, Chomsky says, and there are no magic keys.
“You fight it, the way you’ve always fought it, with educational programmes, with organisation, with activism. Over time it can work. It takes dedication, commitment; it doesn’t happen by itself. That’s true of every political movement that ever developed.”
The Modi government, Chomsky says “has been successfully dismantling Indian secular democracy, turning India into kind of an ethnocracy, and with not much opposition”. That, Chomsky says, is a very dangerous situation.
“There’s a kind of a struggle going on worldwide, a kind of class struggle on a global scale as to what kind of a world is going to emerge in the post-pandemic period.”
‘The point is to face the challenges’
The goal of the Trump administration, Chomsky says, was to establish a “Reactionary International”, run by the White House, “bringing together all of the most reactionary states in the world”. But there is a counter force, he adds, citing ‘Progressive International’, based on the Sanders movement in the United States, and the ‘Democracy in Europe Movement 2025’ (DiEM25).
“The good news is that for every problem we’ve discussed – climate, nuclear war, social welfare, health care, for every problem there are feasible answers. We can spell them out in detail. It’s been done. There are answers within our reach,” Chomsky said.
“The question is, can we grasp the opportunity and implement the policies that have to be done? There’s no point being optimistic or pessimistic. The point is to face the challenges, take the opportunities, get to work, and overcome the problems. It can be done.”
Asked how, at the age of 92, he remained so engaged, Chomsky replied. “You have two choices: you can decide to give up, and help ensure that the worst will happen, or you can stay engaged, active to the best of your capacities. Maybe it’ll help make a better world. That’s not much of a choice.”
Locking Down the Poor
One of the most engaging sessions at JLF 2021 was the launch of Harsh Mander’s powerful book Locking Down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre, in which Mander examines India’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and tells of the harsh consequences of the lockdown for those who found themselves without an income.
Mander tells stories of migrant workers who walked hundreds of kilometres to their villages or were prevented from doing so and were detained.
One of India’s most trusted and courageous social justice and human rights activists, Mander is the director of the Centre for Equity Studies in New Delhi and is the author of several acclaimed books.
In conversation with former member of India’s Planning Commission Arun Maira, Mander discussed the challenges ahead, and the need to build unwavering, compassionate solidarity.
Mander says his new book took seed in his mind and heart “the evening which changed India, when our prime minister announced with three and a half hours’ notice that the entire country would be locked down”.
Modi, Mander says, was talking about staying at home, working from home, keeping social distance, and washing your hands.
“While I was listening to him, I said he’s our prime minister, has he forgotten that the large majority of Indians in cities to start with don’t have homes … and those who do live in one-room shanties? How are they going to be confined; ten people in a one-room shanty?
“How will they eat, how will they earn, and how will they keep so-called social distance?”
Nine out of ten workers in India are informal workers, Mander pointed out. “They will not get paid if they don’t work for a single day. And if they don’t work, they won’t get food.
“The large majority don’t have any kind of running water. You just have to get up any morning and stand outside a slum and you’ll see how people are falling over each other to buy a plastic pot of water for about one fifth of their earnings.”
Mander said it became completely apparent to him that, if the lockdown was promising safety, it was not promising safety to the large mass of the Indian people.
“It was promising safety to people like you and me to the exclusion of the large mass of Indian people.
From the day after the lockdown started, Mander and a group of his young colleagues went out onto the streets every day to provide people with food.
He talked about an area near the old railway station in New Delhi. “On an average morning, you’ll find about 1,000 homeless people looking for any work on any terms. By the third day, when we reached there, it had already swollen to about 5,000.”
Usually, in the riverbank area of Yamuna Pushta, on an average day, there are about 4,000 single homeless men, Mander says. “By the time we reached there, we found that it had already swollen to 10,000 people.
“And it was body packed against body, just waiting that somebody would come and give them food. And just the rumour that somebody is there to provide food, there would be a scramble; they’d fall over each other to reach that little food.”
The migrant workers who wanted to leave Delhi were packed into cramped, crowded schools. One thing Mander kept hearing was: “We will not die of Corona; long before that we’ll die of hunger.”
Mander has written often about what he calls the exile of the poor from the conscience and consciousness of the middle class.
“I think the poor forced their way into our conscience and consciousness during that epic, deeply tragic migrant exodus; the greatest movement of human distress, movement of human populations, greater than even the partition. The only one that is greater than that is the movement of Africans as slaves to the Americas.”
While poor people may be a heartbeat away from hunger in Indian cities, hunger, especially mass hunger, is not what you usually see, Mander says. “Here we saw mass hunger, completely created by the state.
“The anguish that I used to come back with, I felt the only way I could deal with it was to start writing.”
It would be a great mistake Mander says, to say that the people he has written about suffered in millions because of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. “It had to do with public policy choices, now and in the past, which are completely callous, completely shorn of compassion.”
Migrant workers were, in desperation, paying 4,000 to 5,000 rupees to be transported in airless containers while other people in the country were travelling in comfort on buses, Mander says.
Arun Maira spoke about the “virus of indifference” among the minority in India who were protected when, as Mander puts it in his book, “the government drew a cordon around the bodies they wished to protect, pulling up the drawbridges to guard the chosen, those who could afford to stay in”.
Mander relates the story of three members of a family (an elderly couple and their quite elderly son) who were in hospital battling Covid-19. The father died and the mother and son only just survived.
Someone in the family filed a complaint to the police about a security guard, saying he had brought the infection into the family.
The man ran away and became a fugitive. He was found and tested and was SARS-CoV-2 negative.
Nobody apologised to the security guard, Mander said, and it turned out that the couple’s grandson had in fact returned from studying abroad and may have been the source of infection in the family.
Members of the same family brought a young woman, aged 18, in to work as a domestic helper. The young woman was tested and was found to be SARS-CoV-2 positive. It was 10 p.m., and there was a curfew, but she was turned out onto the street.
“She’s wailing away. She’s desperately frightened. And it is only that some security guards, some other residents, took some care of her; they found her brother and got her to safety,” Mander said.
Mander remembers the distress calls he received from domestic helpers. “We used to go to these apartment places all locked up; all the domestic helpers were outside.
“And we quickly realised that the employers of those domestic helpers would contact us to give them food; food packets.”
These were people, Mander says, who would spend about 1,000 rupees for ten days of darshan, but wouldn’t spend the same amount to feed someone who’d been working for years in their home.
Mander quotes the author Arundhati Roy, who wrote in July 2020: “Covid-19 has turned out to be a kind of X-ray that made visible the massive institutionalised injustices – of caste, class, religion and gender – that plague our society.”
He said: “What has been revealed in this X-ray, let us have the courage to look at that X-ray carefully. What does it say about us?”
Mander says he would be telling an incomplete story, however, if he didn’t talk about the levels of kindness the lockdown showed him.
“It was incredible. It was heartening. Not just my own young colleagues. It was not just our people. Every day on the streets I would find just ordinary middle-class people driving up … when the migrants were walking … you’d see one car packed with pouches of water and food and they’d come, they’d stop, they’d distribute it to people, they’d drive on; the next one would come, and the next one would come.”
Mander also speaks about the kindness of poor people to others in the same straits. “Much more than the middle class, it was the poor and the very poor.”
He tells of one man he met in the early days of his work with the homeless who was alone and had a little money saved up and started buying food for a family with two small children. “If I ate and they didn’t eat, how could I live with myself?” the man told Mander.
“It is this kindness of the poor that I think will still hold us together, if you don’t lose it,” Mander said.
One of the most compelling conversations at JLF 2021 was the one between the Scottish-American writer and fashion designer Douglas Stuart, who was born in Glasgow, and the Irish author and playwright Paul McVeigh, who was born in Belfast.
The two men have much in common and the conversation had an intimacy that may not have developed if there had been a live audience.
Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain was awarded the 2020 Booker Prize. It has been described as blistering and heartbreaking, a book that “lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride”.
The Booker Prize judges said: “We were bowled over by this first novel, which creates an amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage and love.
“The book gives a vivid glimpse of a marginalised, impoverished community in a bygone era of British history. It’s a desperately sad, almost-hopeful examination of family and the destructive powers of desire.”
Shuggie Bain is a book of fiction, Stuart says (it spans about forty years in the history of Glasgow), but a lot of it was drawn from autobiographical details of his life.
“I grew up as the queer son of a single mother and my mum suffered with addiction her entire life, and eventually succumbed to it when I was a when I was a young boy,” Stuart said.
“As the child of someone who’s suffering with alcoholism, you learn an awful lot of tricks and strategies in order to hold them near you, to keep them safe, to hold them close.”
Stuart says his mother felt incredibly insignificant in her own life. “She wasn’t insignificant to me, but she felt, in the time and the place, very overlooked,” he said.
“And I learned as a kid, in order to hold her attention on me, if I pretended to write her memoirs, then she would focus on me and she wouldn’t drink as heavily.”
McVeigh (pictured left) has written about similar things, also autobiographically, and says he came to the conclusion that alcoholism, and perhaps all addiction, “is the way that someone copes with not being the person they were supposed to be”.
He talked about how children of alcoholics need to be vigilant.
“My father was an alcoholic. and one of the big impacts I noticed was the vigilance; that we knew by just how his key entered the lock, or even by the first foot on the stair, whether we were in danger.”
There is also the isolation that comes from being different, McVeigh says, “whether that difference is sexuality, or your idea of yourself and what you might be capable of”.
McVeigh describes Stuart’s book as very brutal at times, very unsettling, and very visceral, “but there’s just this love there”, he says.
Stuart, who was speaking from New York, said there were always comments on the themes that are covered in Shuggie Bain, but, for him, love was the reason for writing the book.
The love was the was the backbone of the book and everything else was “the ribs that hung off it”; the things that challenge the love.
“I knew when I was writing the book that I wanted to write a very specific type of love, and that’s the unconditional, unquestioning, tenacious love that children have for flawed parents,” Stuart said.
“It’s quite a remarkable type of love that Shuggie has for his mother because he really takes a lot of lickings in the book, and a lot of setbacks, and he keeps getting up, and he adores this woman more than anything else.”
Stuart says that the themes in Shuggie Bain – whether it’s sectarianism, or homophobia, or misogyny – were “the tapestry that sat behind the characters”.
The reason he wrote the book, he says, “was because it’s about these two souls clinging together in this tough time”.
It was “an incredibly narrow time and a narrow place in that time”, growing up in Glasgow in the 1970s and ‘80s, Stuart says.
“I don’t mean in terms of just if you were queer or if you were outside of what the normal things were for society, but men and women had a very strict way of conforming and any form of self-expression or being outside of those norms was seen almost as a threat and something quite risky.
“Agnes and Shaggy are both suffering within this in very different ways.”
Agnes, Stuart says, “is always immaculately done up between her hair and her make-up and the clothes that she chooses, and that is a very thin veneer of pride, because inside she’s disintegrating in many ways”.
Shuggie, Stuart says, is isolated because he’s an effeminate young boy. “He’s too young to have any sense of sexuality or sexual desire for most of the book, but he’s just precocious and effeminate and, in a time when men had to be hard drinking, hard working, hard loving, hard fighting, he doesn’t fit into any of that. And so again, he’s just looking for a sense of belonging.”
Shuggie isn’t rejecting masculinity, Stuart says. “He is trying desperately to access it. He just can’t because it’s not his soul; it’s not his spirit.
“His mother is the biggest thing in his universe. He is a minor moon that orbits her like she’s a sun or a planet.”
McVeigh talked about how, as a gay man, “you are never truly allowed to evolve unbattered and unedited, or unsculpted by others in their expectation”.
He recalls that, at school, the way he walked across a room, ran, or spoke, or even the way he picked something up, or stood, any of these things could get him beaten up, spat at, ridiculed, or degraded.
“That kind of pressure on someone is extraordinary, first of all, and I think that’s why a lot of gay people end up as addicts themselves to cope with things that they have gone through … your life becomes a performance, and you’re looking for a release from that.”
Stuart shared how he didn’t grow up with any books in the house and wasn’t a reader as a child, which wasn’t unusual for the time or the place.
“I don’t think any of my friends, especially male friends, young kids, had books at home … it didn’t make us any less empathetic or creative, or hinder our imaginations; we just didn’t know that literature was a thing.”
Stuart didn’t really start reading until he was about 18. He started writing Shuggie Bain in 2008. “It was really about answering my own furloughed dreams, sort of shutting down my own insecurities and the huge chips on my shoulder …”
He carried on writing the book, and keeping it to himself, for ten years and the only person he allowed to read it was his husband.
Before it was finally published the book was rejected 44 times on both sides of the Atlantic, but primarily in the US.
Shuggie, Stuart says, is the “splinter of hope” that comes off Agnes. “Even when parents can’t transcend the tough times that are around them, whether it’s poverty or addiction, or misogyny, then they still always hope for better for their kids. I think that’s one of the reasons for life.”
One of the things that Shuggie illuminated for him, Stuart says, is the universality of the situation the characters in the book were in.
“There’s a shame and a stigma to addiction where we keep it at home, and so we oftentimes think we’re one of the few people that goes through it and actually it’s much more pervasive than we would think, especially at that time.
“Part of the problem is, as a child, you internalise, or you believe that your parent’s addiction is somehow rooted in you, that you were a cause for it, or I did anyway. Whereas if I could be quieter, or brighter, or funnier, or less of a burden, then maybe it would alter how my mother felt about her alcoholism, or whether she would drink less.
“And so you’re always kind of watching this other person and trying to anticipate what it is they might need and then adjusting yourself for it.”
McVeigh noted the depiction of the Glaswegian women in Stuart’s book and said they reminded him of the women in his street in Belfast: resilient, incredibly fierce warriors. The women themselves were hyenas at each other, but no one else could get into, or threaten, the pack.
Stuart says that, because he was rejected by men, his entire world, as a young queer boy, was women.
“For me, Glasgow, although it’s a masculine city, was a city of women, and it was a city of their strength.”
Women in Glasgow were formed by, or informed or shaped by, everything that was going on around them, Stuart said. “Although they had enormous power in some sense, they had really limited power in other senses.”
Stuart wanted to show that world of women in all its complexity. “Women are some of the worst villains in the book, how they pull at each other and tear each other apart.
“Misogyny, especially when it’s passed through the filter of, in this instance, the Catholic Church, can really affect everybody and can bring sexism down so that women are also perpetrators of sexism and use it against other women.”
One particularly engrossing session at JLF 2021 was the one in which Vincent Brown, who is Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard, talked about his book Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War.
Brown was in conversation with the award-winning writer Maya Jasanoff, who is the XD and Nancy Yang Professor of the Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. Their discussion brought in numerous elements, from military history and guerrilla actions to the geography of Tacky’s revolt.
“I really wanted to tie these different regional histories together through this event, to see Tacky’s revolt, and the revolts that followed it, as kind of eddies in a larger current of transatlantic warfare and a current that was imperial, but a current that was also African,” Brown said.
Brown’s book provides an unflinching view of the brutal methods of oppression employed by the slave traders and the resilience of those who resisted that oppression.
The focus of the book is Jamaica in the middle of the 18th century. Tacky’s revolt started in April 1760, in the middle of the Seven Years War, and went on into 1761. It was the largest slave revolt in the 18th century British Empire.
“It’s particularly important because Jamaica in the 18th century was Great Britain’s most profitable, most militarily significant, and best politically connected colony in the British Americas, really in the British Atlantic world,” Brown said.
Brown’s is the first book about, and first lengthy account of Tacky’s revolt since Edward Long’s account in 1774.
“Edward Long was a was a Jamaican planter historian who experienced the revolt and wrote the first account that has really kind of shaped all subsequent accounts until this one,” Brown said. The history of Jamaica that Long wrote in 1774, he says was a virulent script not only against the Coromantees and against Africans, but against black people in general.
“I’m trying to revise our understanding about Jamaica’s place in the British Empire, but also the significance of this revolt and its consequences for imperial history.”
Jamaica was the most profitable colony in the British Empire in part because sugar was the most profitable crop that was being traded.
“Sugar was kind of the microchip of the 18th century,” Brown said. “Sugar was a tremendously difficult crop to grow. And it took enormous amounts of labour. And it was labour that had to be drilled and disciplined and subjected to incredibly harsh conditions.
“Sugar was really from the 15th/16th century on through the 19th century one of the primary reasons for the proliferation of the transatlantic slave trade.”
Jamaica, Brown says, was a colony that was about 90% enslaved. Between fifty and 75% of the people enslaved on the island of Jamaica during the 18th century were born in Africa and migrated to Jamaica through the transatlantic slave trade.
Brown explained that many of the people who engaged in Tacky’s revolt were from the African Gold Coast (roughly what is now Ghana in West Africa), which was a particularly war-torn area.
That actually facilitated the slave trade, Brown says. The Europeans would trade firearms for slaves, and this increased the scale of wars in Africa.
Often, the captives who had been involved in African wars regrouped, drawing on the military experience they had had in West Africa, and then staged revolts against plantation society.
Brown took Jasanoff (pictured left) through the detailed chronology of Tacky’s revolt, and its political complexities. “One sees a kind of complex political landscape playing out over the course of the year in which there are black people on many sides of the conflict, pursuing their own interests,” he said.
There were spin-off slave revolts in other places in the Caribbean, for example in what was then British Honduras, and is now Belize, in 1765, Brown explained. Many slaves had been exiled there from Jamaica.
It was a slave revolt in 1791 that became the Haitian Revolution, which resulted in the creation of the second independent post-colonial nation state in the Americas, Haiti, in 1804, Brown says.
Tacky’s revolt stimulated enormous amounts of fear among the British, and the reaction to it was incredibly brutal, Brown says.
He adds, however, that there was, “maybe surprisingly”, an outpouring of sympathy for the rebels on the part of many Britons especially in Great Britain itself, “and some in territories in North America where they weren’t quite as dependent on slavery in those territories as in Massachusetts”.
The revolt did, though, stimulate anti-black militarism and anti-black racism, Brown says. This, he says, became a virulent strain of white nationalism that has still exists today and sees black people “not only as people who could be ranked on some lesser scale of humanity, but as enemies, as dangerous, and potential threats”.
Brown cites another repercussion relating to some of the early efforts to contain, regulate, and reform, the slave trade. Some of these efforts can be attributed to the reaction to Tacky’s revolt as well. Brown says.
“You find people in North America passing new duties on imports directly from Africa because they’re afraid of what they see as this external threat coming from African soldiers who might potentially rebel.
“So, in fact, some of these earliest efforts to police the slave trade are stimulated by a kind of anti-African xenophobia, which finally results, I think, in the campaigns to abolish the slave trade that reach fruition in 1807.”
One of the themes Brown says he’s trying to get across with the book about Tacky’s revolt is to show how warfare migrates, “how in a region and a period, an era of endemic warfare, those wars are not contained and maybe not containable”.
He wanted to show how Tacky’s revolt not only a part of the imperial wars between Britain and its European antagonists but also an extension of wars in Africa.
“By tracing out those people as they move around from conflict to conflict, you are not moving between different histories, you’re talking about a kind of single integrated era and process of warfare that needs to be considered together.”
The dark side of meritocracy
The conversation at JLF 2021 between philosopher Michael Sandel and MP and author Shashi Tharoor was a fascinating discussion about meritocracy.
Sandel, who teaches political philosophy at Harvard University, has been described as “the most relevant living philosopher”, a “rock-star moralist”, and “the most famous teacher of philosophy in the world”. His latest book is entitled The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?.
He argues that we need to rethink the attitudes toward success and failure that have accompanied globalisation and rising inequality. Meritocracy may seem like a progressive ideal, Sandel says, but there is a dark side. It is, he says, corrosive of the common good of solidarity.
“If I really believe that my success is my own doing, I must also believe that those left behind are responsible for their troubles and it leads me to forget the luck and good fortune that help all of us on our trip,” Sandel said.
This dark side of meritocracy has become increasingly evident and dangerous today, he says.
“During the past four decades of market-driven globalisation the divide between winners and losers has been deepening, poisoning our politics, driving us apart.
“This has partly to do with the growing inequalities of income and wealth, but it’s not only that; it’s also to do with changing attitudes toward winning and losing, changing attitudes toward success.”
In recent decades, those who have landed on top have come to believe that their success is their own doing, the measure of their merit, and, by implication, that those left behind, those who struggle, have no one to blame but themselves, Sandel says.
Tharoor was somewhat of a devil’s advocate in the discussion. He says that, in the relatively unequal and hierarchical society in India, meritocracy is the one saving grace and has helped people to bust through barriers like caste “to go as far as their talents and efforts would take them”.
Meritocracy, Tharoor says, has helped people to rise above the prejudice and discrimination that has structured society.
He says that not every meritocrat thinks “if you don’t have what I have, you deserve what you’ve got”.
In many ways, Tharoor says, meritocracy is about a person’s achievement, but, he argues, what a person chooses to believe in and what they choose to do with their achievements, will vary from one meritocrat to another.
“You don’t have to justify your success by putting down somebody else,” Tharoor said. “You don’t have to say that I will look down on those who haven’t reached where I am because they haven’t made the same efforts.”
Sandel agreed that many people who have succeeded thanks to meritocracy have a generous and socially committed stance toward creating a truly level playing field for everybody else, but he said that, in many aspects of life and the economy, “we don’t live up to the meritocratic ideals we profess”.
Despite the generous financial aid policies at the American Ivy League universities, there are more students in those universities from the top 1% of the population than from the entire bottom half of the population.
The problem with meritocracy is that there’s not enough of it, Sandel says. “It’s not thoroughgoing enough.”
Sandel suggests that, even if we did live up to the concept of meritocracy, there would be a problem because the ideal is flawed. “What’s flawed is not the idea that people should be well qualified for jobs. That’s merit in a good sense. If I need surgery, I want a very good surgeon to perform it, of course.
“But meritocracy makes a further claim, and that claim is that, insofar as chances are equal, … the winners deserve their winnings. And it’s this that leads to hubris among the winners and to demoralisation, even humiliation, among the losers.
“One of the most potent sources of the populist backlash, the authoritarian, populist backlash against elites is the sense that elites are looking down on large swaths of the population.”
In western countries, this grievance is legitimate, Sandel says. “It’s legitimate because the elites across the political spectrum who fostered the market-driven or neoliberal globalisation of the last four decades are the ones who benefitted and believe that their success is their due because they earned it.
“It’s the hubris among the successful and the humiliation among those left behind that has created, at least in western democracies, the deep polarisation that has opened the way to politicians like Trump.”
More to follow in Part 2:
Irish writers at JLF 2021; Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni talking about her latest novel, The Last Queen; Malala Yousafzai in conversation with Pragya Tiwari; Kevin Kwan in conversation with Shunali Khullar Shroff; Nikesh Shukla in conversation with Nish Kumar; ‘We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast’; and ‘Has the Virtual World Become More Real Than the Physical?’
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