Berkeley to Bundelkhand and the Dream of 15 Bananas an Hour

Berkeley protest
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Partial Reflections

Rajesh K. Jha

Sitting in Berkeley and listening to some of the greatest scholars of the world is a rare privilege one gets in life. Alongside the academic experience, one also gets an exposure to the complexity of the American society first hand.  The vast sprawling campus of the UC Berkeley with majestic buildings having  great architectural designs, impeccable history of intellectual accomplishment looks intimidating in the first instance. You visit the public library situated in the middle of the university, admire its grand collection of books running into more than ten million and then come across a homeless person sitting just outside the reading room. You go into the city and find scores of homeless destitute people crowding the pavement around BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) station and the market around the Shattuck road. Go to San Francisco and the scene is repeated in and around railway stations, metros, inside the libraries, on the pavement near the city hall. In all these places, the presence of the poor, homeless people strikes you as incongruous with the image of America as the land of prosperity and opportunity. Looking at these people with rucksacks and tattered bags kept beside them, occasionally with their pet dogs and guitars, sometimes looking doped with eyes wearing a stoned expression under the impact of drugs, you start thinking if all the wealth around here has any meaning for them? Could those shiny cars and wide roads and great infrastructure wipe out the misery of these people? If not, why not? Are they responsible for their own fate or is there something else at play?

In the first lecture at UC Berkeley, the learned professor had explained the distinctiveness of the American society. Outlining the core values of America, he said that Individualism or voluntarism was its fundamental trait. American people, it is said, believe that an individual is responsible for his life through the choices he makes. So, if he is poor, probably he is himself to blame for it. Perhaps he was not willing to work, he lacked initiative and enterprise or may be he did not utilise the opportunities that are aplenty in the US. Clearly, it means if you are poor, you have chosen to be poor. It may appear paradoxical and stupid to believe in this explanation of poverty but apparently the majority of the Americans consider this to be the correct explanation. In a way, individualism and free market are the heart and substance of the American civilisation.

The free market philosophy is indeed the dominant discourse in America. Over the last two centuries and more, this world view that considers market as the most efficient mechanism of social good has ensured prosperity and wealth to the Americans. It is not without reason that people from across the world look at America as their dream land, the land of opportunity and success. However, things appear to be changing in a new direction in the US too. A sense of disenchantment with this model of development is discernible and its  fault-lines are being revealed in the modern day America. Movements such as ‘Black lives matter’ and ‘Occupy Wall street’ are among the many big and small movements and events that point out to this emerging reality and discontent in the US. Most recently, the run up to the Presidential election and debates within and outside the two contending parties viz. the Republican and the Democrats, reveal a lot about this unease with the path chosen by America.

In the primaries for the election of respective candidates for the Presidential election of the two dominant parties of the US viz Democratic and the the republican, two contending extremes are faced against each other. Donald Trump of the Republican Party represnts one end of the spectrum while Bernie Sanders of the Democrats stands at the other extreme. The contrast between these two candidates is as great as the extreme reactions they both evoke among people and the political pundits. The comparison is important as it brings in sharp focus the disenchantment with the mainstream model of American world view. It does not really matter that Bernie Sanders is almost sure to lose the democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is likely to garner the maximum votes a republican candidate has ever got in the primaries. It is the issues that they raise and their ideological orientation that needs to be looked at closely. Irrespective of the outcome, both these candidates are being seen as reactions or responses to what is happening in America. The support that Donal Trump is getting from the Republican voters is said to be the reaction of the ‘identity’ politics which forms an important part of the American politics. Appeal to the women, LGBT, Blacks Hispanics, Immigrant sections of American voters is are all seen as part of the identity politics with which a large section of American white population does not identify. In the face of a difficult economic phase with people’s real income stagnant or growing very slowly, Donald Trump’s utterances  generate a certain traction among people. Many people in the US actually believe in the rhetoric of Trump, howsoever obnoxious and directionless they might seem to others.

However, it is the losing Democratic party contender Bernie Sanders whose utterances is seen to be more dangerous to the American value system so far as its economic system is concerned. He has been talking about providing tuition free education at public colleges and universities, raising of the minimum wages to fifteen dollars an hour, having an assured and unified health system for all Americans and similar issues. He has been making a big noise about mounting inequality in the American society and how it is adversely affecting the economy. The mainstream American media such as Fox News has been extremely uneasy with Bernie Sanders. He has been called a ‘socialist’ which is a slander in America almost as close to being called a ‘fascist’ in India or other parts of the world. Surprisingly, Bernie Sanders has been attracting huge crowds at his meetings in various states during his primary campaign. The energy and enthusiasm generated for his ideas is a cause of worry for those who have always been market fundamentalists, believing that market is the best mechanism for achieving economic prosperity and social good.

The impact of this free market, minimal government approach to organising the economic and social life has had telling consequences. When things are left to be decided by the market alone, one of the consequences is the increase in inequality. The issue of inequality and its consequences for the American economy and people have been beautifully explained in the documentary film Inequality for All (2013) (  directed by Jacob Kornbluth, shown to us at UC Berkeley during our programme. Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labour in Bill Clinton administration and currently Professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, is the presenter and narrator of the film. He brings out the impact of social inequality on American middle class and its damaging consequences for the economy brilliantly through this movie. At another place he explains the implications of inequality in this speech –

Professor Robert Reich explains how the wage rate in the American economy has actually declined sharply from 1970s onwards. In the overall ranking on the inequality scale US is surprisingly below even countries like Jamaica. It is reflected in the fact that the wealth of the 400 richest people in the US surpasses that of the lowest 50 percent of the population. Similarly, top one percent of the people in the US earn more than the bottom 23 percent of the people. The financial sector meltdown in 2008 is partly explained by the fact that the income of the middle classes in the US has remained stagnant or fell even while the economy grew. The common people are now working double shifts and taking more than one job to compensate for the fall in their income levels. The sharp decline in the status of the middle class in the US was brought out in the latest survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board of the US which found that 47 percent of the Americans can’t pay $400 in case of emergency- . It is important to recognise that social and economic disparity also undermines democracy as money in the hands of fewer people gives them power to control politics. At a more fundamental level, an unequal society implies that people don’t get equal opportunities in their lives which is based to a great extent on their entitlements. It is a serious blow to the moral authority of democracy which is premised on equal opportunity to all. Once this moral authority of the democratic system is eroded, its legitimacy comes into question. This is the real danger associated with increasing disparity in the society in the long run.

This may explain the growing disappointment among the American people with a system that is faltering in meeting the challenges of poverty, homelessness, inequality, social discrimination against the marginalised sections like blacks, LGBTQ etc.  and inequality despite being the richest and the most powerful country of the world. The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders actually reflect the deep unease of the people with this state of affairs. People seem to be impatient to find a solution to these problems that plague the American society today. While one of them is trying to tell the people that it is high time they recognised the limitations of the market as the sole mechanism to drive social good, the other is appealing to the extreme form of market fundamentalism which often gets associated with sectarianism and other distasteful ideas as articulated by Donald Trump. It is easy to understand why it is touches a chord with the people when Bernie Sanders raises issues like tuition free education at public universities, ensuring health care facilities for every one and raising minimum wages to $15 per hour. A number of people at Berkeley told me that candidates like Bernie Sanders won’t get a chance to be nominated as democratic nominees because they don’t have big money backing them. It is a dangerous portent for the system because it shows people are questioning the legitimacy of the political system. It brings into question the representative nature of democracy in a country like US.

Indeed, it set me thinking about our own country India. With far less resources and far too many serious challenges at various levels, what is the right path it should chose for itself? When UC Berkeley worries about its declining government funding for the $ 3 billion (approx. Rs. 20000 crore) budget, it still has vast resources to tap into in the form of private endowments and donations. But when higher education in India is planned to be left at the mercy of market, one can see difficult times ahead. At a time when one of the two candidates for the post of the most powerful person of the world starts pitching for assured health services for its people, how wise it could be to turn Indian health care system to an insurance based, privately funded arrangement? Do we have some lessons here to learn from America?

Finally, it is quite possible that the primary election campaign tag line of Bernie Sanders  ‘a political revolution is coming’ may be just a hyperbole, but it ignites a hope in the heart of millions of Americans. He may never get nominated as the democratic party candidate for the Presidency, but it has kindled the possibility of a new thinking beyond the beaten path of the non-existent, imaginary fairy tale of a completely free market economy for a future which does recognise the role of human agency in shaping the people’s destiny.

Yes, I am going back from US with the stereotype mould of America broken in my mind. Now I believe and know that Trumps could be powerful but Bernies too exist here and they matter. I now know that for the common man of America, the dream of 15 bananas an hour (we bought banana at $1 per piece here in Berkeley) as wage rate is as important as the struggle for 2 chapatis three times a day for an Indian in a remote village in Bihar or Odisha. I now understand that there is something that connects the homeless person sitting inside the majestic Berkeley library for a few moments of comfort with dignity to the farmer who may be contemplating suicide in a parched village in Bundelkhand.

Thank you Berkeley for keeping my hope alive in humanity, in the possibility of change!

(UC Berkeley)

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