OB022

Free Market or Market Freedom?

In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi agrees with Napolean that the English are a nation of shopkeepers. If we look at USA, Japan or other Western European nations today, they are all just nations of shopkeepers. The US President has become a self-appointed champion of what he thinks is democracy, and uses bloody violence to install his own version of "peace"; peace that enables his campaign contributors to go and rob these nations through commerce. If a country were to refuse exports and imports, it would be ridiculed as being backward, and if it has riches like oil or diamonds, the champions of democracy may deem it necessary to wage a war on it so the world can "live in peace"! The whole world is becoming a market and all governments are just paid strong-arm men of the businessmen.

On the other side, if we look at consumers, people all over the world are becoming increasingly like each other. Whether we like it or not, America is setting the trend for the rest of the world to follow. The middle class dream today is to own a concrete house or a flat with a 12-15 year housing loan, double pay checks through white collar jobs, 1 or 2 kids and a car (ofcourse on a loan), TV, Washing Machine and all the works that go with a city living. And both the man and wife are willing to toil away the better part of their youth in trying to achieve what is popularly known as a quality life-style or a visible living. This is not only in USA, Germany, Australia or France but India, China, Brazil, Philippines and such countries which already have a stable social fabric proven over thousands of years. Why are we changing? Why do we try to pretend or become what we really are not? Who is actually changing our value system? Most don't ask this question and even if a few dare ask such anarchic questions, they are shot down as being backward or not keeping with the times.

Our children are educated in English schools, watch cable TV from birth and eat pizza, icecream, burgers, drink cola from a very young age. In effect, we are grooming every new generation with conditioned tastes, so that the new generation when it grows, becomes a ready and willing market of consumers for inessential and wholly unhealthy products - consumers who know nothing at all about production, or even if their goods are produced legally, let alone ethically. Basic skills like washing one's own clothes are becoming extinct. It occurs to me that the only choice for the new generation is a Hobson's choice!

We may well ask, "What is wrong with this choice, we are after all comfortable?". True, but comfortable at what price? North America consumes resources at an alarming rate, and the average American consumes 12 times as much as his 3rd world neighbour. ( With 5% of world population, North America consumes roughly the same amount of non-renewable energy as the whole of Asia - which houses 60% of the world. While the world average of urban population is only 49.2%, that of North America is 80.8 % and Asia is 39.9 % - India is below 30%). One can imagine the abysmal calamity if world consumption were to increase twelvefold - we will simply collapse in a huge energy and resource crisis. Yet this is what we are actively promoting as economic and social progress.

Advocates for development extoll a free market economy and talk of trading without boundaries. But the free market creates artificial wants in the consumers, teaching them more and more consumption, and making them less and less responsible for themselves. Cable television has become the prime medium of persuading the public. And our sports, soaps, talk-shows and all similar rubbish are just means of selling products to consumers. We seem to be enslaved by a deeply planned and executed campaign to promote consumption. The more free the market becomes, the more captive we feel! Like Shakespeare's Antony we merely feel

These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,

Or lose myself in dotage

So what is the anti-dote for this dotage?

We should realize that true economic freedom is not freedom to market but freedom from the market. How do we free ourselves from the market? Not all of us can buy a piece of land and grow our food and live off the land. Working in a job, living in a city , do we economic slaves have any chance of freedom? We sure do!

We need not and should not do anything violently revolutionary to quit our existing life-style. The first step is to draw the line where we are and change direction - that is, we should not add to our existing consumption but change direction and try to see what are the things we have now and what can we give up out of that. This change of direction is a major step.

Secondly, we should differentiate between life and livelihood. Trying to simplify our livelihood before simplifying our lifestyle is putting the cart before the horse. When we leave our livelihood as is, and work diligently on our lifestyle, we will soon discover that we dont need a livelihood at all! At that point whatever decision we take is likely to be correct.

Thirdly, being advocates of non-violence, we should not thrust our views or life style (or the lack of it!) on our dependents. We should ourselves be simple and patiently work towards educating our immediate family on the need to simplify.

Fourth, as consumers we should patronize ecologically responsible products.

Finally, most importantly, we should depend on local economies instead of global economies. A very good way to implement this is to use products that are not advertised! Now this sounds like madness - do we have products that are not advertised? Yes we do - atleast in India. The Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan has most of the homeneeds and I haven't seen any of them being advertised. Although they are sometimes distributed with not-too-small an ecological footprint, they are anyday better than products of centralized industry that are pushed down our throat with media ads. Wherever possible, if we use products that are not advertised, then advertisements will become uneconomic and the centralized market will die a natural death!

If more people patronize local economies, there will be many job opportunities created in the small scale and cottage industry sector (like if lot of us used mud pots instead of stainless steel, potters wont come to cities in search of jobs). Local economies will result in de-urbanization, leading to lowered consumption.

Let us consider a hypothetical example. Let us assume that a family of 5 spends 50 rupees a month on a branded toothpaste. If a town with 50,000 people switches to locally made herbal tooth-powder (and if we reasonably suppose that the herbal powder costs Rs. 25 as against Rs. 50 of the paste), then that small town with around 10,000 families, immediately creates local employment and lower ecological footprint; creating a cottage business manufacturing herbal tooth powder and a ready market of 2.5 lakhs (quarter million rupees) every month. If we further assume that it employs unskilled woman labour at a cost of 1200 rupees per person month and assuming 30% of the turnover goes for wages, we are creating a local employment for 62 people. Apart from this there will be jobs in local distribution, local management etc. We will also brush our teeth at half the cost!

So it is very much within our power to save the earth and ourselves, without doing anything revolutionary.

In all this we should always be committed to non-violent change; gradual & peaceful to us as well as others.


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