Most countries around the world by now have gone through a process of economic and social transformation, to a greater or lesser extent, thanks to neo-liberal reforms that have pervaded the global landscape over the last several decades. These reforms that have been variously described as economic liberalisation, structural adjustment, free market reforms, etc. facilitated the process of globalisation of economic, social and cultural relations. What is also necessary to point out at the outset is that the ICT revolution has also been an integral part of the process of globalisation. As is well known, ICT also facilitates the processes of global economic, social and cultural exchanges.
One of the key aspects of neo-liberal economic reforms is the declining role of the State in the regulation of economic, social and cultural processes that increasingly unfold across national boundaries.
More and more people earn and spend money beyond their national boundaries. The life trajectories of an increasing proportion of the world population cut across the borders of several countries. This is true for people of all walks of like ranging from big investors to unskilled laborers.
"Can scientists do research without worrying about their intellectual property rights? Can people do innovative businesses without a desire for profit making?"
The mobility of largely unregulated financial capital across the world has created income opportunities to millions of people in countries that are increasingly integrated with the global economy. But, at the same time, unsustainable population mobility has resulted in the rapid expansion of cities at the expense of rural communities.
Declining labour supplies in rural areas has become a major obstacle to the development of the rural economy. In the case of Sri Lanka, this is quite evident from the large tracks of paddy lands that have been abandoned by the farmers in many parts of the country due to shortage of labour, increasing cost of production, etc. The new export –import economy fuelled by rapid monetary expansion has reduced the value of the local currency, compelling more and more people to migrate from rural to urban areas and beyond. The increasing urge and possibilities to earn money and consume a wide range of commodities and services have also encouraged not just the poor but also the members of the middle class to look for greener pastures in different parts of the world. Mass tourism is another form of consumption that has been rapidly increasing in recent years due to grownig incomes of a significant segment of the population in already developed and emerging economies like China and India.
There are already clear signs that the present pattern of global development cannot continue without leading to unprecedented environmental, social and political crises. Firstly, the steady depletion of non-renewable natural resources, global warming, loss of bio-diversity, environmental pollution, spread of environmentally induced diseases, ever more devastating natural disasters, etc. could only get worse over time. Secondly, global disparities in terms of wealth distribution continue to deepen, while nation-states and global institutions cannot do much to arrest the trend. Thirdly, intra-national conflicts and international disputes continue to proliferate and threaten peaceful co-existence of communities and nations. And, finally, global flows of people, commodities and finances are clearly interconnected and create economic and social conditions that undermine sustainable, contended and harmonious living patterns in many parts of the world. This in turn has serious implications for health, quality of life, human security and peace.
"One of the key aspects of neo-liberal economic reforms is the declining role of the State in the regulation of economic, social and cultural processes that increasingly unfold across national boundaries."
In spite of the apparent unsustainability and other critical issues connected with neo-liberal capitalism, there have not yet been many significant attempts to articulate a credible and viable alternative to it. Though traditional Marxists continue to talk about a socialist alternative, liberal and social democratic intellectuals are not keen to turn their back to democratic politics due to their fear of authoritarianism. On the other hand, they are prepared to look for alternative ways of organising economic and social life of people in a society that is not dominated by the market and all types of rent seekers. Yet, it is often not possible to avoid thinking in utopian terms. This becomes clear from the following questions.
Can scientists do research without worrying about their intellectual property rights? Can people do innovative businesses without a desire for profit making? Can people invest their savings in enterprises that benefit the wider public more than the investors? Can money be lent to people who have good project ideas but no investment capital? Can community members share their labour and knowledge to help each other, to look after children, the elderly and the sick? Can productive land be used on a communal basis for producing agricultural goods for personal and community consumption rather than for sale in the market? Can the local councils rely on voluntary labour to clean up the environment, remove weeks from canal banks and road sides and sweep the paths , etc. etc.
It is the primacy of money that has been at the root of economic crises in the recent past. Money supply has expanded enormously over the years and this money is converted into credits and debts owned by individuals, companies, governments and global institutions.
Moreover, almost everything is converted into monetary values and is in turn exchanged in terms of money. Land, water, labour, knowledge, commodities, services, etc. are monetised and, with their increasing monetary values become inaccessible to more and more people. Since money is increasingly the means by which one can have access to the desired goods and services, earning money has become the main life goal of most people. Earning higher incomes is often the main reason for rural-urban as well as international migration. More and more people also engage in immoral as well as criminal and near criminal activities simply to earn money.
As mentioned above, financial wealth is highly unequally distributed across the world. People and commodities usually follow the flows of financial capital. While conspicuous consumption usually depends on thedistribution of wealth, centres of wealth also become the purveyors of irresponsible consumption, both nationally and globally. This pattern is unjust, unhealthy and unsustainable. Yet, globalised production relations tend to reinforce this tendency rather than mitigating it. It is this situation that forces us to explore alternative ways of organising economic and social life of people in order to tap the human potential to resolve existential problems in an equitable, sustainable and harmonious manner. There are already many examples of human endeavours in diverse fields that point to the real possibilities of organising human activities in keeping with an alternative set of values and principles.
These efforts do not follow the exploitative market logic but are aimed at promoting collective well-being. For instance, community management of agricultural land, crowd funding of socially useful projects, pooling of knowledge to create information repositories such as Wikipedia, equitable global production and trade chains that benefit rural producers, open source software, and volunteering networks that bring various groups of people for labour and knowledge exchange are efforts to satisfy human needs without conforming to the dictates of the market.
It is true that, in relative terms, these are still not highly significant interventions in a world dominated by a globalised capitalist system, but point to an alternative path that can only become more and more relevant in the years to come. While governments, private enterprises and profit –oriented professional groups are unlikely to lead the way, civil society groups and socially and environmentally concerned intellectuals can play a catalytic role in mobilising public opinion and facilitating community action to move society along an alternative path of development in keeping with the principles of equity, collective well-being, contentment and sustainability.If diverse initiatives of the kind mentioned above proliferate across the world, their cumulative effect on people and institutions can bring about a shift in the way they deal with the issues of economic and social life.
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