A better world is possible

This is the problem with good intentions and radical ideas

Farrukh Khan Pitafi June 01, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Email him at write2fp@gmail.com


Absolutely Anything is a 2015 science fiction fantasy comedy film in which all living members of the Monty Python crew and Robin Williams provided voices of the non-human characters. It stars Simon Pegg, Kate Beckinsale and Sanjeev Bhaskar, among many others. The story goes like this. A bunch of all-powerful but eccentric aliens endow a disillusioned high school teacher called Neil (Pegg) with the powers to do absolutely anything. He is kept ignorant of the fact that it is a test to prove that the earth deserves to be destroyed.

What follows is eighty-five minutes of quirky humour. But at one point, Neil realises that with these powers, he can solve every problem in the world. So he wants global warming to be reversed, everybody to get as much food as they want, and everyone to live in their dream home. But the best one is to let there be no reason for anyone to make war on anyone anymore. What do you think it results in? A utopia? Not quite. Obesity becomes a global problem. As homelessness becomes a thing of the past, the last undeveloped part of the Sahara desert is converted into a gated community. The reversal in global warming results in an ice age. And countries wage wars for no reason whatsoever. What is the moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for.

This is the problem with good intentions and radical ideas. By having unintended consequences, they can often pave the way to hell. While brave new ideas can have issues of their own, humanity’s inability to grasp the comprehensive reality, including the fallout of its actions, has proven to be its Achilles heel. While it makes reality a blind man’s elephant, even the best of ideas, over time, have the ability to first metamorphose into ideologies and then into dogmas. You can see what we have done to the ideas like socialism, communism and libertarianism. Remember this. Even Manusmriti, the book blamed for casteism in India and burnt by Babasaheb Ambedkar, must have its uses in its time. But if you want to comprehend how much it is harming the Hindu society of today, you need to look up the talks of Acharya Prashant or other enlightened religious philosophers on the matter.

Bear in mind any idea that seeks to reconstruct human society in a more rewarding way mainly offers an organising principle. That would be because society is a form of organisation. Even orders or disorders (choose your poison) based on prejudices are organising principles and, when conceived, are supposed to offer at least a modicum of narrow utility. We would be dishonest to ourselves if we pretended that the Nazi trick of blaming it all on the Jews, Huntington’s blaming Muslims and the Chinese for everything or the Hindutva’s impatience with the cultural other did not have immediate benefits for the local elites. They did. But these ideologies betray their masters when they outgrow the realities they were conceived in. Regardless of Nazism’s end, if you want to explore the limits of its global model, you need to read Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and William Pierce’s terrible The Turner Diaries. Reading these, you realise that the racist utopia isn’t even a utopia for the racists.

Hindutva has had its limits tested in the opposite direction. Its rapid expansion and success means it has to allow its core to change. Take, for instance, the RSS. Originally, created as an organisation comprising upper-caste men, it has grown to become the world’s largest voluntary organisation. Could it keep its doors shut to lower castes or women? Or look at the rapid growth of the Hindu community abroad. The UK’s Prime Minister and the CEOs of some of the world’s most powerful multinationals like Google and Microsoft are Brahmins. Of course, they are evolved people with remarkably refreshing outlooks on life. The purpose of bringing up their origins is to highlight the ability of Hinduness to adapt to countries with a long history of struggle for inclusivity and rights. Can Hindutva remain the same in a country created with the battle cry of “no taxation without representation”? Likewise, should minorities in Muslim countries be treated as second-rate citizens when they hope to trade with and seek investment from the predominantly non-Muslim world?

In the changing global economy lie all the indicators you need to build a better world.

The problem with the world that is reluctant to outgrow the Westphalian order is that it cannot think big enough. Remember, behind every prejudice, every war lies either a scarcity mindset or a history of wounds inflicted at some point in time by a shortage of resources. This Malthusian cross is yours to bear if you want to. But should you allow it as an excuse to stop challenging yourself? I hope not.

Look, we are dwellers on the surface of a tiny pebble floating in the uncharted and probably uninhabited vastness of an infinite universe. Can’t we do better? If instead of creating needless wars, the entire world’s military-industrial complex was to rededicate its resources to space exploration and colonisation R&D, couldn’t we develop technology that is faster or closer to light speed and improve the chances of humanity’s survival in the long run? Thanks to the AI revolution, we can finally think big enough and simulate all possible outcomes of a decision. But are we trying?

Some notable books that you can read to challenge yourself in the world of economics alone are: Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World by Rutger Bregman, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition by Charles Eisenstein, Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Christian Wahl, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Green New Deal by Naomi Klein, Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth, The Second Mountain by David Brooks and The Common Wealth by Jeffrey D Sachs.

My personal favourites are the following two books by Dr Raghuram Rajan: Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy and The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind. His critique of export-led growth as a force of inequality in the global economy in the first book and promotion of community as the third pillar of the economy, in addition to the market and the state in the second, make for a fascinating read. We need more of such minds to shape our future.

All of this is just a conversation starter. The point is a better world is possible where suffering has no place and where prosperity is not a zero-sum game. Will you join the conversation?

Published in The Express Tribune, June 1st, 2024.

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