Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Wealth : August 27, 2000
A thought for the dispossessed
G. N. Devy
The author is engaged in documentation of tribal literature.
In the village school which I attended, one of the teachers had inscribed in matchless calligraphy, "Early to bed, early to rise/ makes man healthy, wealthy and wise." I grew up reading the sentence everyday. It took me several decades to realise that apart from its bad grammar, the sentence was also an untruthful premise. Indeed, health, wealth and wisdom have no logical interconnections, and one who has attained wisdom will hardly care for health and much less for wealth. However, the realisation did not come from my layman's knowledge of the lives of saints and prophets. It dawned slowly and imperceptibly; but this cognition was lit up while I was reading John Ruskin's classic Unto This Last.
In this great book, which had influenced Mahatma Gandhi's economics so profoundly, there is a little anecdote. A certain merchant had collected a lot of gold. While he was sailing aboard a ship to another country, the ship started sinking. He had therefore to dive into the sea, with all his gold. But the burden of the gold took him straight to the bottom of the sea. Ruskin asks, at this point in the narrative, a self-answering question: "Did the man have the gold, or the gold have the man?"
Ruskin's story is of course couched in the historical context of the notorious goldrush in the American continent causing, in its wake, the rise of a trigger-happy generation of picaros. In that world the avarice for gold made human life an insignificant entity. The saint as well as the sinner is invariably certain in his attitude to wealth. But wealth indeed has been a major dilemma for all the rest.
First and foremost, if health and even wisdom are universally desired attributes of the animal world, wealth seems to have been the desire only of the human kind. It is impossible to say as to when and how this desire entered the ecology of human emotions. The instinct to gather may have been inherited by the homo sapiens from bees and ants that gather honey and food. But the stage beyond hunting and gathering, in which the ideas of property and possession become important, belongs peculiarly to the human history.
In the prehistoric era, one important invention was the use of pointed weapons and instruments made out of rock-splinters. These created the possibility of using violence imaginatively, and beyond the animal need for hunting and self-defence. Probably, the earliest form of such use of violence - not directed to other animals but directed to other homo sapiens - was used for minimising one's labour. Those who could display and use violence and could build up the weaponry necessary for being "culturally" violent, managed to live without having to work for hunting, gathering, or producing. Thus they could accumulate wealth without having to do a corresponding amount of physical work. Thus the earliest forms of wealth made a delinking of labour and possession an implicit requirement. It also made the use of violence, in whatever form, an attendant prerequisite for any accumulation of wealth.
For a long time wealth and its actual material representations such as gold, silver, food and cattle were used for the purpose of exchanges between labour and violence, between the dispossessed and the one in possession. But this direct and equal exchange was replaced by the exchange of mere imagery of wealth when the collective human labour had extracted a lot more from Nature than its collective needs. Thus glass-beads, bits of leather, wooden or metal seals, colourful objects and finally printed paper came to represent wealth. As the social relationships grew, complex and economic relations became essentially alienated from the emotional relationships and standardisation of the imagery of wealth became inevitable.
And of course, the State as the most violent of the legal entities in a given society took over this function. It was since then that though individuals and society as a whole produced wealth and consumed it, the regulation of wealth and its circulation and exchange came to be the sole prerogative of the State. And in exchange for exercising the privilege, the State also acquired the authority and power to collect a part of wealth that individuals (or society as a whole) generated.
Given that violence, authority and power lie at the back of generations of excess wealth and its regulation within a social framework, two kinds of profound inequalities seem to have emerged in human history.
The first is the unequal power relation between the State and any single member citizen. The second is the inequality between those who inherit and control wealth and those who may generate it but do not control it.
The classical debates on the concept of wealth - both national and individual - carried out in the west at the beginning of the industrial revolution tried to focus on the nature of the inequality between the individual and the State. The Marxist interpretation of wealth focussed on both the inequalities. The more idealistic versions, such as Ruskin's, pointed to the spiritual content of the human person and imagined that a trusteeship attitude of active non-attachment may be a possibility. It is indeed possible to defend all three positions on the basis of actual behaviour of human beings; and therefore, it is impossible to accept any of the three as exclusively defensible. What may probably be pointed out is that the States that succeed in regulating wealth effectively also tend to acquire a greater ability to be violent. Not surprisingly, in today's world the wealthy person is not known by his display of wealth but by the cordon of armed security that seals him off from the rest of the world.
Thus at the end of a long process of human evolution, the imagery of wealth has returned to where it all began. No longer do the glass-beads, silver bits, gold coins, silks and saffron, cattle and horses, cars and penthouses announce to the world one's being wealthy. In order to be known as really, really wealthy, one must be surrounded by the ultra-modern versions of the primitive rock flints. And even while we are all made to believe that the market is taking over the nation state, the exchange of wealth must be carried out in the secrecy and anonymity of cyber space. Now begins History-II for the notion of wealth, which threatens to leave out the real markets of real things for the dispossessed as it did real labour once long ago. That thought is a cold compensation for the dispossessed.
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