If there has been ever been a single privilege as well as a curse of living the 80s, the 90s and the new millennium, it has been that of witnessing the rise of the Homo economicus in the Indian society. The Homo economicus today just cannot be reduced to a class or a caste or a geography trend – he or she is omnipresent – both in the real world and in the virtual.
The other day, a reader of an earlier blog on Punjab, rudely chastised me on the Linked-In forum for writing on themes and ideas that refer to a socio-political context – and that such belong to a ‘stupid’ and ‘face-bookish’ space. He in his own intensity stated that putting the blog up on Linked In was not being ‘professional’. This got me into exploring how Linked-In today is being cherished for only mutuality of purpose, superficial skills, jobs, or for sharing and reinforcing some insipid pseudo-academic management ideas that are untested and unexplored – by several members.
I think the Homo economicus is reducing networking to the most instrumental base or worse still in trying to immortalise inane transactional perspectives of living into something deeper and precious. I write this blog not to critique content on linked-in but to explore how the Homo economicus in you and me is reducing us to caricatures of being human.
But before I do that – let me share a bit of my personal context.
Manmohan Singh in the early 1990s brought in liberalization. One of the reasons why I chose to support liberalization was to do with an untested and perhaps naïve belief that market capitalism can provide a foundation or container for sustaining fairness and meritocracy. Like many other young adults at that time, I was exhausted and ashamed of – nepotism, favortism, corruption, and cronyism – words that were associated with governance and public sector organizations.
So I kept my fascination with Marx aside, and jumped on the bandwagon that glorified market capitalism – I believed that we were building a scaffolding for ‘fairness’ – in deals, trades, and exchanges, that would be equal and mutually beneficial for all parties involved. I looked at any reciprocity that could not be translated into an equal value exchange as imbued with an evil shadow of the not-too distant past, and that did not live up to the scrutiny of ‘equality’, ‘meritocracy’, or ‘fairness’.
As a young 21 year old, I started believing in, and had immense faith in ‘Homo economicus’ … and here I was – twenty five years ago – an angst ridden, Ayn Rand touting, angry, privileged, fairly westernized in outlook, and reasonably articulate, getting ready for a two year management degree at IIM Ahmedabad, and quite blind to and disdainful of many other possibilities that I was to discover much later.
Who is the Homo economicus?
Anthropologists and Sociologists coined the term, and with a fair bit of disdain – Homo economicus – a notion used for or a model of Homo sapiens – “that acts to obtain the highest possible well-being for himself or herself, given available information about opportunities and other constraints, both natural and institutional, on his or her ability to achieve predetermined goals.” It has impacted not just the powerful elite in the country but all social classes including a burgeoning middle class that is riding on consumerism and liberalization of the economy.
I am sure many readers would identify with Ayn Rand, and would remember her key character – John Galt, in her work Atlas Shrugged. Rand frequently refers to the work of Aristotle (and the notion of Selfishness) and of the economist J S Mill. The Homo economicus in her writing stands for perfection, passion, and rugged individualism.
Rand had me quite convinced for some years that the real pursuit of happiness and substantiveness could only be sustained by the Homo economicus – and who will be playing essentially two roles in modern society:
- that of a discerning Consumer where he or she maximises utility, and
- that of a ambitious Producer, where he or she maximises profits.
Twenty five years later, I look back at my own naivete with a mix of derision, shame, and compassion but also with great intrigue.
The intrigue stems from a growing realization that India for many millenniums has been traditionally what the anthropologists would term as a ‘gift-economy’, built around the notion of reciprocity, and the original avatar has always been the Homo reciprocans. The average Indian was working around kinship principles and engaged with all kinds of reciprocity – gifting without receiving, bartering, and even extracting. However there were principles and rituals.
Most Indians would look back at marriages as extensive social events – there would be aunts and grandmothers, who would anchor reciprocity and the process of gifting – not just within family but with other relationships. Marriages were to be an occasion where resources were shared across community (today these are becoming only spaces for expression and making a statement of how wealthy one is)
For example, the concept of Daana or charity (which incidentally is not an exact translation) is ingrained in most of us. There are rituals and thresholds that celebrate this process. King Harsha was known for bequeathing a large part of wealth every 6 years and sharing it with the subjects.
Most villages were structured around Samudayas or collectives – where reciprocity, and how it played out in social relationships, was around resource-pooling. As per Dharampal (who spent years researching archives and records in England on how the English viewed us and our economies) even in the 18th century, the gap between the poor and the rich, and especially when it comes to consumption, was minimal as compared to modern society. Indian economy, was still flourishing around the principles of reciprocity and community while the Mughal era was disintegrating.
I can continue giving instances of how we were engaging with the process of reciprocity and gifting but I would rather direct your attention towards a nagging question – “How does 25 years of recent socialization of the Homo economicus philosophy compare to our DNA built around Reciprocity?”
Speculations on the Rise of Homo economicus
Looking at my own narrative, and that of others who I work with including clients and partners, I think some of the reasons that could explain the rise would include:
- Self Hate, Self Esteem, and Colonization
Both the colonizer and the colonized had to engage with deep self-hate, having co-created a shameful history of centuries across Africa, Asia, and Europe. Most post-colonial writings have stressed on how this self hate has led to unexamined shame and guilt. For example, Masculinity, or lack of it and ensuing self hate, has been reduced by the colonized mind in India into working with conflict through silent sabotage and passive aggression or at best naïve reactivity.
Self-hate propels us to reduce ourselves to mere instruments. It leads us towards managing ‘self-esteem’ as opposed to looking at self-worth. Self esteem can be radically intensified by consumerism – quick transactions can take care of it – at least for some time. Consumerism is the upper and many of us are the mall-rats searching for it.
The Homo economicus is a great friend of ‘self-esteemers’ and does not have many answers for Self-worthies. The markets seduce and delight ‘self esteemers’ – many of us earn our livelihoods in this process.
2. Capitalism, Atomization and Alienation
It would not be an exaggeration that market capitalism has led to significant atomization and alienation. I am not being a Marxist here but many of us see ourselves more as agents and individuals in the urban world as opposed to being a part or a member of a community or collective.
With disenchantment and despair at struggling mechanisms (social as well as political) of maintaining collectivity and citizenship of any nature or degree, atomization of Self is a great coping mechanism – can I just rid myself of my national, community, and caste identity for it triggers impotency, and shame.
The Homo-economicus to this atomized and alienated self can be a soothing balm – to one’s deep hurts and sorrow. It provides the scaffolding towards building instrumental relationships but sans any real intimacy or dialogue.
It manifests when I or anyone sends a great slide on ‘How to improve your leadership skills? – ten steps’ to others on my network and I get numerous likes. And all of us collude by not really exploring what leadership as a process may imply without having a community or collectivity to engage with.
And this is what the Homo economicus says – Leadership is valuable if it creates more wealth for the share-holder – never mind who he or she!
3. Engaging with Roles and Authority
We do live in uncertain times, and role-taking and self-authorizing are processes that have been radically re-defined in the new-age economy. The traditional roles of being a manager are being criticised today as being protective and over-caring in light of increasing individualism. Systems – that of family and organizations, are being transformed before our very eyes and these shifts and churns are threatening our old stances and older values.
In all this confusion, the Homo economicus offers a ‘safe’ space to be in for it legitimizes only two psychological roles – (a) the extractive Customer, and (b) the WIIFM sulking Producer – both these roles relentlessly search for the DEAL (something that Donald Trump loves to talk about)
The Extractive Customer thus exists in families, relationships, friendships, and of course moden organizations, endorsing ‘bang-for-the-buck’ and feeling victimized or resentful if consumption is questioned. I see myself doing it from time to time when I am not aware of what is happening inside me. Thus roles of Father, Husband, Lover, Son, Supervisor, Team member are all imbued ‘who can have the cake and eat it too?’
The Whats-in-it-for-me (WIIFM) producer co-exists and is equally discerning when it comes to looking at my tasks, my responses, my creation, and my problems. Co-herence and Co-creation can only come after the basic economics are worked out.
There are no other relevant roles that are really legitimiate in the eyes of the Homo economicus for these are built on the processes of deep love, sacrifice, duty, obligation, systemic well-being, and collective happiness.
The Shadows that lie behind the Homo economicus
The most siginficant part of being a Homo economicus is that I or the Other, does not really have to engage with other aspects of Self, and that these can be carefully nurtured and indulged in, for these lie in its shadow, unknownest to self and others.
- The Xenophobist part of self can easily lie in the shadow for the Homo economicus does not allow us to engage with values around human existence and society beyond the deal. The xenophobist came across a shock in the recent Brexit poll – no one could have imagined it.
- The Racist in us is in this cosy shadowy corner with the Xenophobist – the nature of racism and bigotry that is rampant in USA today bears a strong testimony to how Homo economicus allows this to co-exist with values around market capitalism.
- The Toxic Masculine is another part of ourselves that lays beneath the greed and extraction linked with Homo economicus. The toxic masculine can raid resources, kill environment and ecology, and destroy communities as it silently works in the shadow of Homo economicus
- Stupidity – I say this because most Homo economicus look at meritocracy and innovation as key merits of this philosophy; however and counter to its dharma, stupidity flourishes in the realm of homo-economicus. Building on fears of obsolescence (mine and yours), and fears of failure, this philosophy nurtures a stupidity in its shadows. Look at how many deals and transactions are made that are later labelled as being greedy, being short-sighted, and being blind to consequences.
Like every archetype within us, the Homo economicus has its pulls, merits, and its shadows. I think the propaganda of market capitalism does not allow us to engage with the shadows and the consequences.
Instead, we create spaces for networking and partnering, which we desperately need today, and yet reduce these to soulless transactions and sharing of superficial inanities. I think Linked-in is experiencing this shift as well.
Perhaps it merits to really share one’s own angst and deep doubts with co-travellers that would make our networks more humanistic and wholesome. I intend to keep writing about my angst and my hope, and which is where I am a hopelessly and incorrigbly romantic about real expression and sharing. I feel good when others join in and bring in their own questions and feelings.