By: Hussain H Zaidi
Recently, while arguing against the crass materialism and selfishness that allegedly form the basis of Western culture, the head of a noted religio-political party stated that in the US a man wouldn’t even buy ice cream for his girlfriend. Therefore, Pakistanis – generous and caring as they are towards their friends and relatives – must not emulate the people of the West.
The religious leader echoed a view widely held in our part of the world: that Western societies are creaking under the strain of materialism (read: lack of principles) and individualism (read: every man for himself). Let’s assume to our satisfaction that such a view is consistent with facts. But this is at best a half truth. The amazing economic and technological progress that the West has made over the past two centuries – of which we have been the beneficiaries as well – owes substantially to materialism and individualism, which are properly understood and divested of the negative ethical connotations that they have unfortunately acquired in societies like ours.
Development, like poverty, is above all a cultural problem. Capital formation is a necessary ingredient of development. But no society has made significant strides on the road to economic development by simply building factories or upgrading the infrastructure. In the course of development, the biggest challenge that a society faces is to evolve values that support, rather than discourage, efforts for economic turnaround. Of course, people are free to shun economic development as a goal if they are not well-disposed towards changes of far-reaching significance in the social structure that the pursuit of the goal entails.
As economists Meier and Baldwin put it, some institutional changes that are not merely economic must be part of development efforts. “New wants, new motivations, new ways of production, new institutions need to be created…” The objective of economic development must become part of society’s value structure.
A glance at the history of Western Europe and North America would reveal that economic development was driven by a supportive social structure. On the basis of Western experience, the outlines of that social structure, equally applicable to the present developing countries including Pakistan, may be sketched as follows:
First and foremost, a society aspiring for economic development must have a positive attitude towards life. People by and large must attach high value to life in the herein. They must not dismiss the world of desire as essentially evil. A philosophy of otherworldliness is fatal to development. On a positive note, a society must put a high premium on things material and must be willing to render the necessary sacrifices. It is only in this sense that Western societies may be called materialistic. Let’s not forget ‘To be rich is glorious’ was one of the most powerful watchwords when the Chinese set forth on economic development during the 1980s.
Not only that, individuals ought to believe that by dint of their efforts, they can change the course of their life and make the world a better place. Fatalism is equally fatal to economic progress.
The predominant way of thinking in a society seeking economic development should be rational and empirical. A set of beliefs should not be treated as binding merely because it is rooted in traditions or customs regarded as sacrosanct. One of the most cherished beliefs that the Western society had inherited was that the earth was in the centre of the universe. However, the geocentric view never passed the empirical test. In the late Middle Ages, Galileo was threatened by the all-powerful church to either re-affirm the geocentric view or face death. Although Galileo acted upon the maxim that discretion is the better part of valour, eventually it was the heliocentric view that came to prevail.
A scientist is always prepared to have his theories tested. In case of fresh evidence, which can’t be accounted for by the theory of the day crops up, it is the theory and not the evidence that is set aside. Such has been the prevailing attitude in developed societies. By contrast, in backward societies, it is the belief and not the evidence, which prevails as a matter of principle.
Scientific attitude gives rise to individualism. If long-held traditions can be questioned, the claim of the group – clan, tribe, society – as their repository to be always right can also be. Individualism, contrary to what is popularly believed in our part of the world, does not mean letting everyone do what they want; it means giving individuals the right to think and decide for themselves. In modern states, the individual’s freedom of conscience, expression, association, movement and profession are regarded as fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution viz-a-viz both society and the government. Individualism also forms the basis of democracy, where public offices are open to all and where every vote counts equally.
The right of the individual to economic initiative played an important role in the growth of capitalism and the accompanying technological and economic development. As one economist puts it, “high need achievement, high need autonomy, and high need dominance” are essential features of an industrialised society. The value of the individual is determined by the status he or she acquires by dint of his or her hard work rather than by the status ascribed at birth. Venues of social mobility – both upward and downward – are wide open, resulting in the circulation of the elite.
By contrast, societies which look upon individualism as dangerous and seek to suppress it either through the state machinery or through collective action – such as a mob – find it exceedingly difficult to break the shackles of underdevelopment. One of the changes that economic development entails is displacement of the existing elite – the landed gentry, the clergy, etc. To safeguard their position, the elite use the dominant narrative to silence dissenting voices.
Development necessitates changes in the family structure as well. Since the joint family system stifles individual initiative, nucleus family becomes the dominant form of family organisation. With women increasingly joining the workforce, decision-making in the family becomes more democratic. Family planning gains wide acceptance and birth rate comes down. In many under-developed societies, social norms do not approve of changes in the traditional family organisation, which runs counter to development efforts.
Development is not without its costs. It has winners as well as losers. But a society that regards economic progress as a goal worth pursuing must be willing to pay the necessary costs whether they are in the form of changes in family organisation, circulation of the elite or transvaluation of the most cherished values.
The problem with developing countries like Pakistan is that they are keen to emulate the attractive lifestyle of developed nations – driving in luxury automobiles, flying in jets and living in centrally air-conditioned houses – but are not willing to open their culture to changes that have made that lifestyle possible.
One outcome of this cultural contradiction is that they become a consumption-oriented society, which time and again has to borrow from the developed nations, whose values they otherwise assail.