What kind of society do we want?

By TP Saran

This is not a new debate; it has probably been going on ever since human beings started to live in groups. At these beginnings, the groups were likely to be small and the overriding concern must have been sheer survival: finding enough to eat (the hunter-gatherer), looking for shelter (probably a cave), and defending against predators. The latter were most likely animals also looking for food and not other human beings; they must have come into the picture much later, when territories had to be ‘instinctively’ delineated so as to protect the limited resources within a given geographical area.

We will have to go back quite far in human history to find out exactly when human societies as we know them today came about, but even if we cannot arrive at a definitive date, it doesn’t matter very much. Enough is known to suggest that the issues were qualitatively similar, but new dimensions came in that went beyond mere physical survival. Humans started asking questions about their place in the world, and the purpose of life, about the nature and forms of human relationships especially as they applied to man-woman, adult/parent-children, collective living and decision making for the common good, and so on. All these emanated from the forces that impel human beings to act, namely the emotions of love, fear, passion, jealousy and hate, the desire to control and affirm oneself – tempered, alas not often enough, by reason and experience.

Common concerns

We see the same forces at work today, but manifested on a larger scale and forcefully visible right into our living rooms because of all the modern means of communication. Because of the predominance of media groups from the west we tend to see more of their version of happenings around the world, but more and more we are also getting a clearer picture of individual countries and cultures.

And we find that increasingly there are common concerns: economic growth and the appropriate/acceptable methods of creating and distributing wealth, role that governments should play and the limits of state intervention, generation of jobs, level of unemployment, security of food and housing, behaviour of people towards each other, breakdown of societal/family norms and values and the uphill task of a fresh infusion of these to make living better, the generation gap and how to cope with the growing proportion of elderly, the damage that human activity is causing to the environment and containment/salvage measures that are urgently required, amongst many others which are however all intertwined.

These are no longer national or regional, but global matters. Correspondingly we have to ponder and search solutions from global sources but adapt the best practices to our situation, and take account of resources and scale. It certainly is not about blind copying of models from elsewhere, especially the advanced countries which command much vaster facilities and potential, and have the advantage of longer historical timelines which have allowed them to test-try their own solutions.

But an example of the common conundrum can be cited from the British press of a few days ago:

Do we want a society where 50% of young people are kept out of work in order to bring the deficit down from 9% of GDP to 3% in three years? A society in which the rich have to be made richer to work harder (at their supposed jobs of investing and creating wealth) while the poor have to be made poorer in order to work harder? Where a tiny minority (often called the 1% but more like the 0.1% or even 0.01%) control a disproportionate, and increasing, share of everything – not just income and wealth but also political power and influence (through control of the media, think tanks, and even academia)?’

These questions, which surely find an echo locally, have come about following bad economic news reports from the Euro zone, whose ‘leaders seem unwilling or unable to change from their austerity policies, even as Greece and Spain fall apart and the core Euro zone economies contract.’ All economies are facing difficulties; Britain’s ‘is heading for the third consecutive quarter of contraction with an unexpectedly sharp fall in manufacturing.’ Jobs figures in the US are not picking up as expected, and this stuttering is going to be a major plank in the forthcoming Presidential elections. The Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, is already asking whether the US wants to follow the free enterprise model that has made America what it is, or the European ‘socialising’ model which the incumbent President Obama seems to favour. Further, ‘the largest developing economies that have so far provided some support for world demand levels – especially India and Brazil but even China – are slowing down too. Four years after the financial crisis began, many rich capitalist economies have not recovered their pre-crisis output levels.’

Strategic thinking and national development

These are the larger questions applying to all economies, even ours because of our dependence on the Euro and US markets. Given this reality, we have to be cautious in this country about mega-projects that are planned, and the escalating expenditures which seem always to be associated with them, especially when they are nearing completion. There is a sure need for closer monitoring, but even before we come to this stage we have to ask ourselves questions about our strategic thinking – is there any such thinking when it comes to national development, or is this more of an ad hoc process driven not by a robust system but by vested interests? The linkage may be indirect, but it undoubtedly impacts the kind of society we want to be.

Coming to certain issues that have been in the news recently, one can consider the debate about the medical termination of pregnancy (MTP). By whatever counts, and in spite of the assertions of some people, the presentation of the amendments to the Criminal Code Act that will allow MTP in specific cases, under strict medical supervision and in health establishments prescribed by regulations, has been followed by an extensive and transparent debate involving many players: parliamentarians, women’s movements, religious groups, individuals from all age groups, communities and strata of society. This is as it should be, and it is salutary that at the end of the day the focus has been more on the medical rather than on the religious aspects.

On the other hand, the emerging details of several murder cases currently being investigated or under trial in courts are not at all to our honour, whether or not the whole world is presumed to be watching us – as is being asserted in the Michaela Harte case. No, let us shed our illusions: we are not the umbilical centre of the world. And if by the whole world is meant the European and American press – well, the least those who are making these assumptions should do is to verify. They will find that these media have their own quota of sordid affairs to gloat on, and do not need any additional muck from unknown Mauritius!

A great malaise

What is true, though, is that we do not need any more of such sad and unnecessary deaths or disappearances in our country, and there is obviously a great malaise that is affecting our society that knows no boundaries of community, class, or culture. Just think of the unsolved cases that stare us in the face: Nadine Dantier, Vanessa Lagesse, the Bassin Blanc couple, little Ackmez … Reason enough for national shame and the need for community/religious leaders to focus on giving proper guidance to their respective constituencies rather than debating endlessly matters in which they have no special competence or ground-based knowledge of harsh realities, such as MTP referred to above.

The effort to define what kind of society we want must come from all who care for our common, sustainable (and not only from an economic perspective) future – and we have to find local solutions, though they will perforce have to be inspired by universal principles.

* Published in print edition on 8 June 2012

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published.