By Amar Yumnam
In his own introduction to a collection of his own writings and just published by the Bantam Press (2017) under the title Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, Richard Dawkins answers to the question of whether “is it silly to speak of souls at all” thus: “Not silly if you mean something like an overwhelming sense of subjective, personal identity. Each one of us knows we possess it even if, as many thinkers aver, it is an illusion – an illusion constructed, as Darwinians might speculate, because a coherent agency of singular purpose helps us to survive.” This tunes in well with what Jared Diamond also writes in his celebrated classic – Guns, Germs and Steel – and dwells on in his wonderful talks on the evolution of religion. This month (July 8 -10, 2017) there has just been a conference on ”Markets, Money and the Sacred: New Perspectives on Economic Theology” at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. A prominent contemporary thinker on Public Policy, Robert H Nelson of the University of Maryland, presented a paper here. Nelson starts his paper titled Why Economic Progress Requires Economic Religion by emphasising the societal need of an economic religion and how science has now become a religion: “ In his 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College, the great American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace told the assembled students that: “Everybody worships. The only choice we get iswhat to worship.” Similarly, every political and economic systems has a basis of religious legitimacy. The only question is what religion it will be. Indeed, all societies known to history have had a religion. For a thousand years, the source of religious legitimacy in the western world was Christianity. In the modern age, however, the religious authority of Christianity — especially in political and economic matters — was greatly eroded. Science replaced Christianity as the leading source of authoritative truth in western society. ………..Many modern scientists have thought that science and religion were distinct. But then a surprising thing happened; Science itself became a religion.” Nelson emphasises the historical experience of some economic theology or the other to sustain the progress of any society. If we look back, the inimitable John Maynard Keynes also said: “The world is ruled by little else.”
Nelson also raises some issues which need to be addressed by a New Economic Religion. I reproduce some of the questions having relevance to the context of Manipur: (A) “The loss of community when the market, operating nationally and internationally, renders a negative verdict on the mainstays of the local economy — and, if they want to have a job, most people have no choice but to move away to another place, itself often a costly and painful experience.” (B) “The individual financial and psychic losses when a person loses a job, and has to look for another one, owing to the workings of market forces of competition.” (C) ”The individual sense of anxiety about possible losses of a community or a job, even when such losses never actually occur.” (D) “The sense that a precious social asset is devalued by the very fact of entering it into the market system (occasionally, as in the case of prostitution, government may intervene to limit such costs but there are no restrictions in the great majority of cases).” (E) “The stresses of the loss of personal freedom when economically efficient actions require collective organization by governments — often large governments such as the U.S. national government in Washington, DC — that then must employ powers of coercion to collect income and other taxes to fund these efforts (including even from people opposed to the actions that they are compelled to pay for).” (F) “The sense of personal powerlessness when large private organizations are the efficiency winners in the market, leaving many people to work as small parts in a large and often impersonal bureaucratic enterprise.” (G) “The sense of personal, community, and national disappointment when a person realizes that he or she is a relative loser (or belongs to a group of relative losers) in the competition for greater profits, higher paying and more prestigious jobs, and other indicators of social rank, as established by market and other economic forces.” (H) “The sense of loss when homes, streets, farms, and other historic reminders of the past are swept aside by the workings of the market (or by “efficient” government actions and programs in the name of economic progress).” (I) “The sense of individual and community loss when plant and animal species habitats, wild areas, and other parts of nature are transformed from their earlier condition to become “natural resources,” sources of the energy and other material requirements to power a modern economy.”
Now these are also huge issues needing urgent and effective response in the context of Manipur as well. Look at the community and personal uncertainties and disturbances happening at Henglep in the Churachandpur District consequent upon the outbreak of communicable diseases. Look also at the disastrous consequences of current floods and landslides. Look also at the relative benefits of the Ithai Barrage as compared to the varied and cumulative economic and environmental costs. In all these, the poverty of governance is discernible. Unfortunately, the cumulative governance lapses of the last fifteen years have been such that the sensibility of the public to these failures has been stunted. Luckily for us, the present government has been much more reactive and reflexive in attending to pressing issues. But what requires most and imperative for the people and the land is the evolution of an Economic Religion alive to the contextual realities of Manipur. We hope the quality of the debate in the ongoing Assembly Session should not be an indicator of what might come. Manipur needs sooner than later an Economic Theology of shared and singular purpose of transformation.
(The author is a Professor and Head: Department of Economics, Manipur University)