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Wealth, Power and Prestige: What do we want in life?

8 November 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The first part of the heading of the present article is the title of a book which I published in 1984. It dealt with struggles among members of a village community in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka for material resources, power and influence and social recognition.

The phenomenon is almost universal. Even in simple societies, some degree of social differentiation based on diverse criteria could be found.

But, modern societies are characterised by varying degrees of inequality in terms of the distribution of economic resources, social influence and political power.  In the early stages of industrial capitalism in Europe, the societies concerned tended to become increasingly polarised between the wealthy owners of capital and the impoverished workers.

It is against this background that the Marxist analysis predicted class conflict and social revolution leading to the overthrow of the capitalist system and the establishment of a socialist society.

But social reforms that became the order of the day in most industrial capitalist societies in the aftermath of the War brought about social and institutional reforms, minimising the need for violent social revolution.

The social reform processes were also aided by technological change that contributed to productivity improvements in all sectors.

So, violent social revolutions became the exception rather than the rule even in industrial capitalist societies. Yet, not all industrial capitalist societies moved in the same direction.

This was due to the fact that the nature and extent of social reforms were determined by social and political ideologies adopted by different regimes in the capitalist world. While many European countries adopted a welfare state model to varying degrees, countries like the United States of America followed a broadly liberal model of capitalism.


"Social and political reforms in capitalist societies had a significant impact not only on the distribution of wealth but also on other forms of social inequality."

On the other hand, the Nordic countries adopted an explicitly social democratic version of the welfare State that allowed the State to play a dominant role in the redistribution of wealth generated by private enterprise.

Social and political reforms in capitalist societies had a significant impact not only on the distribution of wealth but also on other forms of social inequality.
Progressive taxation regimes enabled the State to have control over a large part of the social surplus and invest it in socially important sectors such as education, housing, social protection, health and public transport.

The result was a significant narrowing of the gap between upper and lower classes. On the other hand, in countries where a liberal model of capitalism thrived, inequalities were not contained to the same extent. The resultant social inequalities that were often justified on the basis of their alleged social functions tended to perpetuate social injustices, conflicts and a range of social issues such as poverty and crime.  The present phase of global capitalism is characterised by the dominant role played by the market forces in the distribution of the social surplus both within and across countries.

This is true not only in the production and distribution of goods and services but also in the production and access to knowledge itself. Multinational Corporations, universities and research institutions can attract talent from any part of the world by offering various incentives but the knowledge products that these institutions come up with and offer in the market have to be purchased at commercial rates by everybody irrespective of the level of their purchasing power. Governments are not supposed to meddle with the functioning of the market because the market has to operate freely. So, the poorer sections of society cannot afford commercially viable knowledge products such as computer software.

The consequences of a socially unregulated market for the distribution of wealth, power and social honour in society are clearly evident today.

These range from intermittent economic crises such as the one experienced by the US in 2008-9 to gross inequalities evident in different parts of the world.  The US President was quite explicit in his argument for regulating the financial markets to avoid such crises in the future. The most recent UN initiative on SDG’s also emphasises the need to address issues of acute poverty and inequality as part of the envisaged interventions to bring about the desired transformation of the world.

All these point to the need to enhance the role of public institutions at all levels. But the key question is whether the global and local elites enjoying economic, social and political power will voluntarily come forward to share their resources to create an egalitarian global order.

This could happen only if there was a complete change in their world view, either motivated by their own enlightened self interest or due to internalisation of a philosophy like the one embedded in Buddhism.

"If you are interested in the future of your own children and grand children, let alone those of others, you have to act now. You cannot carry on business as usual and just enjoy life, often at the expense of others."

Progressive values connected with such notions as social justice, human rights, human dignity and right to life do not seem to have much moderating influence on most of those who control wealth and wield power and social influence today.

Climate scientists have given us the final warning.

If you are interested in the future of your own children and grand children, let alone those of others, you have to act now. You cannot carry on business as usual and just enjoy life, often at the expense of others.  Do not waste resources and throw more and more toxic and other waste into the biosphere. Do people listen and adapt to the new imperatives? We have to wait and see. But, there is another way, at least for us in the east.  Hedonism at the end takes you and others with it, often prematurely. Moderation helps strike a balance between pleasure and reality. More importantly, it is likely to help avoid a future environmental catastrophe. This is a good prospect for the entire humanity.

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