Monday, March 27, 2017

Churchill Vs Hitler: Rhetoric and Resurrection of the Raj

Shashi Tharoor, Author and Indian Politician, has touched a number of raw nerves when he compared Churchill and Hitler, maintaining “Churchill has as much blood on his hands as Hitler does” (See story) in an interview with UK-Asian, an Asian community interest website in Britain, launching his new book, Inglorious Empire  (a catchy title with a whiff of Quentin Tarantino).

While this has now drawn several angry responses (for example, see this one from Zareer Masani), there is little new here. Churchill did preside over a genocide, intentionally diverting food from India and causing a famine to punish insolent Bengalis in 1943, a forgotten affair in Britain (like all other atrocities of the empire), but subject to detailed exploration in Madhusree Mukherjee's Churchill's Secret War, and even more famously and dispassionately, in Amartya Sen's Poverty and Famine. Churchill, the arch-colonialist, had actively participated in various colonial atrocities, starting with Boer War in 1902 right down to the various British mischiefs in Suez, Kenya and Iran in the mid-fifties. His role in the World Wars, however glorified in Britain, was questioned variously (see this New York Review of Books article), and his hand was all too visible in crafting the Cold War ('Iron Curtain', Churchill's gift to post-war politics, is a piece of rhetoric he stole from Dr Joseph Goebbels, obviously without attribution).  Dr Tharoor made this point several times before writing the book, most popularly in his Oxford Union address in 2015.

The book idea originated from this debate, and maintained much of its polemical flavour. However, Dr Tharoor's broad point is to problematize British Empire, and unfortunately, the rhetoric, such as Churchill versus Hitler comparison, somewhat distracts attention. While this makes great headlines - as it did in the British Press - there is never too much to learn, as Foucault would say, from polemics. What is important is to debate Dr Tharoor's key point - that Britain has chosen to hide its imperial atrocities and never atoned for them - and see his comparisons with other imperial and militarist nations in context. This is, in fact, not necessary to soothe Indian sentiments, but for the sake of sanity in Britain. The supposed glories of British Empires, alongwith the stories of 'civilizing missions', have been kept alive in British textbooks, and has come back to bite as the country, and its elite, hurls itself into a self-destructive path of Brexit and beyond. The good-country-bad-country tone of British history, the over-the-board coverage of Nazi Germany along with obscuration of the cold-blooded massacres of Amritsar and Mau-Mau,  makes the British live in the wonderland of Historical Amnesia. Dr Tharoor sought to challenge this, but the Churchill-vs-Hitler rhetorical device isn't very helpful here.

I shall argue that such rhetoric in fact helps a resurrection of the Raj, as in the tone of argument, in Mr Masani, that Natives don't do History! This has happened before: Pat Buchanan's exploration of Churchill's role in World Wars was met with same derision - that this is not history! History, of a certain authentic variety, seems to be a monopoly of those who wants to project a narrative of progress, a discipline practised by Lord Macaulay to Niall Ferguson and Michael Dobbs! No amount of scrubbing the 'Whig mindset' can get us to asking uncomfortable questions, and all attempts at Colonial History, no matter how lofty and unambiguously political, are by definition 'sub-altern' and to be dutifully excluded from the canon. That Mr Masani can invoke an unashamed apology for the Raj even in the 21st century points to the folly of rhetoric.

One final point: Is this debate important at all? It is, as we seem to be standing at an inflection point of the long arc of History. For all the hysteria of 2016, the politics is changing, and a shift of geopolitical power from the Atlantic world to the Eurasian plan may already be underway. Churchill vs Hitler competition, outside its moral complications, was, at its core, about this geopolitics. Today, the  configurations are different - with America at the pinnacle of its power and Britain, unmoored from its imperial possessions, adrift in its identity and unsure of its friends - but still faced with the challenge of the land empires of Central Eurasia, Russia and China. A sensible reassessment of history, shorn of rhetoric, is an essential tool living in end times such as this, and Britain's historical myth-making, useful in the last half-century, has now outlived its significance.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Stayzilla Case: Should Start-Ups Be Treated Differently?

Stayzilla, an Indian start-up which offered homestays, like AirBnB, is in the news, for wrong reasons. That Stayzilla decided to down shutters would have made it to the trade press, and further, would have signalled to the start-up community that the age of easy investor money is well and truly over. However, the reason why Stayzilla is making national headlines though is because one of its founders has been arrested by the police, for unpaid bills to one of its vendors, and the big ticket start-up entrepreneurs have requested for intervention from the Central Government as this indicates 'India is no place for start-ups'. In the meantime, evidence emerged that the Stayzilla founders threatened the aggrieved vendors with 'dire consequences' if they pursue them and the Court has refused bail to the accused, creating a bigger furore. (See story here)

There are always many sides of stories such as these, and it is best not to hazard guesses about what really happened. However, there are two things which one can comment on, without regard to the different allegations that are flying around (that Stayzilla founders syphoned money out or the vendor in question is using its political muscle). These two questions relate to the wider significance of the story:

1. Some well-known names in Indian start-up community has argued that the non-payment of bills is a 'civil offence' and not a criminal one. The police should not have got involved in the first place. 

2. The Stayzilla episode may indicate India is no place for a start-up.

These are complex questions, but facts about these are rather clear. Stayzilla used an advertising service and ran up a $250,000 bill, which they did not pay. Then, Stayzilla announced that they are closing, but did not go into administration. This is indeed fraud, because, one would suspect that while Stayzilla were using advertising services, the managers and the investors were aware - even if they did not want to accept it - that Stayzilla is not making money. It would have been, one could say, trading insolvently. Now, 'closing the business' means the investors were positioning themselves for tax losses, but without regard to the suppliers' - who in this case is another equally entrepreneurial business, but without the glamour and glitz of VC money - unpaid bills. This could indeed be a criminal offence.

As for the second question, would India be considered a place for start-ups if the big and powerful start-ups - those with financial muscle - can operate with impunity and effectively defraud the entrepreneurial businesses that trade with them? In fact, India is not a place for start-ups precisely for this reason, that big and powerful have all the advantages, and the entrepreneurs have to face all the obstacles. Just imagine what would happen if a small business did not pay Stayzilla: An army of lawyers, police and even perhaps Ministers come knocking at its door. It is shameful that some of the Indian start-up founders are trying to meddle into this case, something that perhaps indicates, as the CEO of the advertising company suing Stayzilla has maintained, that they are afraid that their companies would be next. The Stayzilla case indeed point to growing problems in the space, but these CEOs, through their intervention that made this a headline news, have attracted undue attention to this issue.

The Stayzilla case may be an one-off, or a start of a trend that the private valuation bubble is bursting. However, whatever the consequence, one must not miss the bigger question that this case raises: Can Vc-funded start-ups operate outside the acceptable norms and rules of the society? For example, is it okay not to pay the suppliers, or its employees, as some Indian start-ups have done, when financial trouble hits? Most of these people have no upside - they are basically being arm-twisted in making sacrifices because the 'company is in trouble'. In an earlier age, this would have been the entrepreneur's responsibility. But now, after the shift of focus to 'shareholder value', the other stakeholders don't seem to matter. A company would happily ask everyone else to make sacrifices to keep the company going - which is essentially equivalent to trading insolvently - in order to protect the shareholders (the alternative would have been to issue low-priced shares, equivalent to the interest on delayed payment, to anyone who is being made to sacrifice). Once the Start-ups understand these obligations, and learn to behave responsibly towards others who make them possible, they would earn the right to talk about changing the world for better.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Remote Work: An Idea That Never Was

Remote Work was once the future. With falling costs of communication, cool technologies and devices that are increasingly capable, and a need for specialised talent that may not be geographically concentrated, there was a lot of reason why Remote Work was logical, not to mention traffic congestion, urban pollution and lifestyle. Every company was expected to go remote - sooner or later - and some of the world's largest and most progressive companies took lead.

But that is now past. This week, as IBM seems to be rolling back remote work and wanting to geographically concentrate at least some of its departments, it is no longer an isolated idiosyncrasy! There is a long line of precedences - the Marissa Mayer moment of banning telecommuting at Yahoo, the Atos moment of banning email at office and encouraging people to people conversation instead, the US Patent Office's jaw-dropping moment of realisation on how widespread the abuse of its WFH system was, and indeed, something that small businesses already figured out - working from home is often working for home! Remote work seems to be an idea whose time has come and gone, or actually, never came.

Why should it be so, when there is really so much going for remote work? That some people lack the discipline can not undermine a revolutionary idea, and it is not about people slacking off, as it may seem from stories above. It is more than that, and the failure of remote work points to the limitations of the other tech-utopias and an useful pointer on how not to get ahead of oneself. And, such a reality check would indeed do a world of good, not just in the world of business, but also in other areas, like education, where we imagine that these cool technologies of content and communication would make face-to-face meetings and conversations completely redundant.

It does no such thing. There are two limitations of Working from Home. First, technologies are not yet that good. Most people don't have access to dedicated Internet links and videoconferencing equipments, and is there anyone who wants to claim Skype works perfectly? The collaborative tools have certainly got smarter - I used Slack and Google Docs all the time - but they are not yet at the stage the technology gurus claim them to be. I use the best quality Fibre Optic broadband at home, but the connection falters at times, for whatever reason. I tend to think I need to upgrade my router, but even in that - that the router needs to be upgraded by the users themselves - there is a clue why WFH may not be as efficient as one would claim.

Second, the space and the environment. Even when you have a dedicated space at home to work - and that is not the Kitchen table as it is the case with many people - it may not be the most ideal space to do work. Microsoft's reason to pull back on remote work is just that - people do better work in an environment carefully designed for such work - and not that the employees were slacking. Remote work still remains the poor alternative.

I have worked remote for the last year or so. It was good timing, as the local train services in Southern London were blighted by strikes and disruptions throughout the year. In a way, I escaped the daily struggle that my friends, who had to travel to the city every day for work, had to do. And, yet, I feel so out of sorts now that I spent my own money to get access to one of the co-working spaces in the City and go up to work there at least couple of days a week. It makes no sense - it costs money and time - but I feel I am much more productive when I am in the environment of work. It is not just about my cramped workspace which is overflowing with too many books, or the temptation I feel for spending time with my son and make up for the lost time that I spent travelling over the years, but it is my desire to feel productive and engaged that makes me give up working from home. Indeed, I can't give up Remote Work even when I try - we have no offices in the UK - but as I look for new work, I am indeed looking for a local company where I can work with people.



Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Why Can't Indian Engineers Find A Job And What To Do About It?

We knew this anecdotally: That Engineering graduates can not find a job in India. Now, we have some numbers: AICTE says that 60% of the 800,000 engineering graduates every year remain unemployed. (see story)

The story above gives out some important data points: 

1. That only 15% of the programmes are accredited by the National Board of Accreditation. This means 85% of the Engineering Programmes have no effective quality control.

2. That only 1% of the Engineering Graduates participate in a summer internship. This effectively means that while, in theory, an internship is a part of the programme, in practise most Engineering graduates never participate in one.

Of course, one can read more in this data. The fact that programmes are not accredited means many colleges may be offering a degree without having proper laboratory infrastructure. In a sense, it is some sort of miracle - indicating strong demand - that 40% of the graduates actually find a job, because most would not have touched an equipment or stepped into a workfloor, ever.

In another sense, it is a tragedy. The government may be thinking of a National Entrance Examination for Engineering, but most, if not all, Engineering students go through some sort of entrance examination. Obviously, some of these entrance examinations are not worth anything, but the fact that they come through some sort of screening makes employers prefer Engineering graduates over graduates of other streams. This means two things. First, that tests mean more than the education itself. Second, the Engineering unemployment rate indicates an even worse scenario for about 1.2 million graduates of other streams every year.

Further, we should be expecting a slowdown in job growth rates in IT and IT Services industries in India. The cost competition is one reason, and many Indian IT firms have already started expanding into other lower cost locations, such as the Philippines and Africa. Besides, the visa reforms in United States and other countries may jeopardise the business models of India-based IT firms. But the biggest threat of all is automation, where bots and robots may soon start doing a lot of things that was done by a human agent, sitting in India, so far. This is very real: Some estimates put 70% of Indian jobs at risk; others expect this to stop the job numbers from growing. (See story)

Whether or not this turns out to be correct, one can clearly see that the salaries have already stagnated. TV Mohandas Pai, an Education business leader, acutely aware of the threat of automation, recently claimed that the Indian IT firms are colluding to keep the wages down for engineering graduates. (see story) There may be some truth in collusion, but it also shows that the business models that allowed these IT firms to grow exponentially are now in the need of repair.

And, indeed, there is another problem: Indian Higher Education is out of step with the Indian job market. The engineers got the fancy jobs in the 1990s, and therefore, the whole ecosystem emerged. But since the Great Recession of 2008, Indian economy was powered by its own consumer demand, particularly as successive governments boosted rural demand through fiscal interventions. The jobs that this creates - in Education, Retail, Banking and Insurance, Health and Telecom - are less attractive, and often comes with the prospect of living in small cities rather than in the United States. Consequently, more and more people continues to be drawn to Engineering and Western-style business courses, whereas the growing service sectors get scarce attention and only second-grade talent. 

There is no one solution to this big problem, but more of the same is not the answer. The government stepping in and instituting new tests will solve nothing: Indeed, as AICTE itself is arguing, its oversight for so many years have failed to create a system that works. Half a million unemployed engineers every year is a ticking time bomb, and blaming them for their own failure - coupled with the very Indian propensity to blame the stars - can keep things going for some time, but not forever. However, the sector is anti-innovation, primarily because the owners of Engineering colleges represent a powerful vested interest, and despite their failure, the Government can not take them on and open up the sector. However, a gigantic crisis is around the corner - and hopefully, some people will wake up before the others and do something about it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Kolkata 4.0: Creating A New Conversation

Calcutta needs a new start.

The city which I call home has earned a bad name, but its reputational problems have more to do with the politics of India than economic fundamentals.

The city, the second most populous in India after Mumbai, is the third largest city economy in India, presiding over a mostly prosperous agricultural economy and a strategic state. Yet, people don't tend to see it that way: India's geopolitical obsession with Pakistan and Kashmir keeps minds focused on its Western frontiers, and a succession of opposition party governments in West Bengal (the last time Congress ruled the state was in 1977) ensured that the state did not feature in the Central Government's list of priorities. But this is changing - there is increasing realisation of the geopolitical challenges and opportunities of the Indian East - and one would hope that this would bring about a change, if only gradual change, in Indian policy.

But any conversation about change must be rooted in reality, not the shallow mythology that gets passed on as common sense. A good place to start is the back story: One may indeed notice the closed factories and slums in Kolkata, but an appreciation of Calcutta's, and Bengal's, post-independence history should correct some of the distortions that gets floated about Bengali character and enterprise.
We must remember Kolkata had an industrial base once: This was one of the world's greatest Jute processing centres, which died a premature death when it was forcibly disconnected from its jute producing hinterlands of East Pakistan. East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, is one of the most fertile agricultural economies of the world, and while the country is hardly spoken about in India, it is one of the most populous in the world (just behind the usual suspects), with one of the highest agricultural productivities. One of the economic costs of partition was to yank Kolkata, which had an economy and a port closely linked to this hinterland, from its ecosystem. 

The other impact of partition was on Kolkata's population. Already a city with one of the highest population densities in the world, it was on the receiving end of the refugee crisis : In 1947, when Hindus left East Pakistan but Muslims felt safe and never left West Bengal in large numbers to offset the same. Unlike Delhi and Punjab, where a bloody population transfer actually happened, there was no land and houses left vacant by Muslims to swap with these new Hindu refugees. Partition, therefore, meant the creation of a new underclass in Kolkata: Radicalised and destitute, the new migrants would change the city forever. 

Independence and its economic shocks also meant a flight of the professional class. Kolkata's elite, educated and europeanised, was not land-based, unlike some other parts of the country (and those who were, lost their estates in partition) and a great wave of migration followed through in the 50s and 60s. The new democratic West Bengal, with its radical left - which was there because of the industrial development and whose ranks swelled with the new migrants and jobless workers - scared the Bengali 'gentlemanly capitalists', who promptly sent their sons and daughters away to Europe and America. There was internal migration too: The mobile technocrats moved from Kolkata nearer to the centres of power and commerce in Modern India.

This is old history, but a conversation about Kolkata should start there. It is a convenient myth that West Bengal's, and Kolkata's, decline started in 1977, as the Communists took power and 'work culture collapsed'. This is indeed based on the implausible claim that all was well when Congress, the political party which ruled India most of its first 50 years, was in power. Yet, anyone in Kolkata would remember late 60s and 70s as a period of strife and decline, radical movements and police brutalities, and lawlessness on the street. Besides, it is just the Communist rule that blighted West Bengal and brought about Kolkata's decline does not explain why Communists kept winning elections for next 34 years, and why, when they finally lost power in 2011, nothing really changed. A more realistic assessment of Kolkata's decline, dating it back to the economic shocks of the partition - which Eastern Indian states disproportionately bore - is a good starting point. It allows one to go beyond the myth of the Bengali character (which does not hold up as Bengalis do just as well or as badly as any other communities) and look at the key economic issues - an unredeemed economic shock, a demographic and political transformation, flight of the professional class and destruction of an ecosystem - to understand the issue of Kolkata's decline.

One does not need to stop at the economic and social impacts of the partition, though. The last seventy years have transformed Kolkata from an industrial city to a commodity economy, with the resultant changes in politics, culture and ideas. This is part policy - the city sits near one of the most mineral-rich areas of the world and serves as its main trading point - but partly this happened by default, creating new power structures and political priorities that work against any possibility of change. This is partly the reason Kolkata changed slowly, despite its good education system, young population and successful diaspora, to the growth of the global outsourcing industry in the 1980s and 90s, and missed the bus completely as new clusters emerged in Bangalore, Hyderabad and even in once-sleepy Bhubaneswar (as well as many other Indian cities).

A second wave of refugees, from East Pakistan in 1971, duly arrived, brutalised by the Pakistani Army as it battled to undermine the nascent Bengali nationalism: Kolkata and its Bengalis were naturally sympathetic, but this imposed an economic cost; the Indian Government was delighted about the military opportunity and duly helped dismember Pakistan, but never really assessed the economic costs and provided appropriate economic support to the areas, in Bengal and Northeastern States, which had to take on those who came. This fed to resentment, which became the dominant theme of Bengali politics ever since, justifiably but self-destructively. 

This is what we want to reverse now, and create a new conversation. I talk here of the past, but not to mourn, resent or justify it, but to use it as a perspective - both to understand why the City is where it is today, and how possibly it can reinvent itself. This conversation starts with an acknowledgement: This is Kolkata's 'Ask Not' moment. For far too long, Kolkata's citizens looked to their government, a carefully cultivated colonial era habit, for development: It is important now to change the conversation and build self-sustaining ecosystems of innovation and development. Kolkata should draw its inspiration from all those Western cities, which were reduced to industrial wastelands because of globalisation but since reinvented themselves: Dresden, Eindhoven, Pittsburg and now Manchester come to mind.

These cities offer valuable lessons: Their regeneration was privately led, supported by the government, no doubt, but built around ecosystems of private enterprise. Also, they did not seek to compete with established industrial centres in their geography, but sought to leverage the new developments in technologies and ideas and created new ecosystems. It may be very difficult for Kolkata to compete with a city like, say, Bangalore, because of the latter's track record and ecosystem of IT Service companies; however, focusing on different industries and newer ideas may allow Kolkata to create a different niche for itself.

We are calling the initiative Kolkata 4.0. The 4.0 bit is indeed an allusion to the currently fashionable Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is about new industries and conversations. Exploring these possibilities and enabling these conversations is the objective of the Civil Society organisation that we are setting up now, with HQ in Kolkata (obviously) but networks in different cities. And, perhaps appropriately, Kolkata 4.0 would do four different things: First, it would create an apolitical platform for expatriates to connect with Kolkata's educational institutions and companies; Second, it would work on creating awareness about the strategic importance of Kolkata in particular and Bengal in general; Third, it would work with the government of West Bengal and Kolkata's civic administration and industrial promotion bodies to engage effectively with expats and potential global partners; and finally, it would create networks of positive engagement in different global cities to draw people into a conversation about economic opportunities and realities of the city economy. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Globalization and Anti-Globalization

It is common to hear - Globalization is not working for everyone! The Right says it, and believes that closed societies with open economies is the answer; the Left says it too, though they believe that the solution lies in closed economies with an open society. The Left says that the Right is xenophobic, and the Right says that the Left is living in cuckooland! And, the Right-of-the-Right and the Left-of-the-Left steal the wind from the sails of their clueless moderates, claiming, in consensus, that globalization is the problem, erasing the right-left divide into a new politics of For and Against Globalization.

At least in theory, global trade is good: It should keep the wars away. Stopping trade is the first rumbling of the war, the moment when the possible booty of extraction seems bigger than benefits of exchange. And, this is not just about flows of goods and money: Flow of people too, since when people started to matter in politics, is important in reducing conflicts. Once you have a Muslim friend, Islam stops being a cartoon in Charlie Hebdo; Mormon colleagues dispel the myths that surround that religion. George W Bush's point that democracies don't wage war on one another was empirically weak, but democracies which trade with one another surely have the least incentive to bomb one another.

However, this discussion misses one important thing: Globalization is not only about global trade. It has become, at least since the 1970s, a way of generating and recycling global surpluses in a specific way. This is perhaps the greatest innovation of capitalism in the last forty years, an unsung one and quite deliberately so. This is an elaborate conjuring trick - originating in the immediate aftermath of Nixon's abandonment of the gold convertibility - built around an US economy that recycles everyone else's surpluses (as was advised by Pat Volcker to Nixon). 

This system has become omnipresent and all-too-powerful today, with all the big economies in India and China joining the system. This is what globalization really is: Global flow of Capital and surpluses! This is how it works: Each country has its own rich and powerful, who are extracting its surpluses, and putting it into the global flow, into dollar accounts and sterling bonds. All this surplus is flowing into the rich economies of North America and Europe, in the form of a subsidy to its voters' cheap mortgages and high house prices, as its currencies and assets are seen to be secure (until the moments they are not - as crisis wipes away all the surplus from time to time, as it was in 2008). This is why today the inequality between the countries are reducing - the rich is getting richer and having a greater proportion of the wealth in every country - whereas the inequality inside the countries, between those who toil to produce value and those who extract the surplus, are increasing. Globalization, in its current form, is this elaborate system of recycling of global surplus.

What is surprising is that this is now creating a new politics, in the developed nations and in the developing, but the direction of these developments are mutually opposed. 

People in the developing countries, with expanding education and converging ideas of good life, want more of this: They want to willingly sacrifice more of their time, brain and energy to be pliant accomplices of global capital, wanting more of cheap loans, polluted air and longer hours slaved away- more globalization, not less! They want to vote for politicians who promise them these, and laugh at those who talk about outdated concepts such as rights of the poor or environmental protection.

People in the developed countries, on the other hand, standing over the ruins of the welfare state bought about by a muscular financial services sector who wants to replace public handouts with cheaper loans, want less of this: They are revolting against their own bankers and the poodle politicians and bureaucrats beholden to lobbyists, blaming globalization - justifiably but counter-intuitively, for their indebted lives, poorer health and broken families. They are voting for those politicians agitating for a new hot war that would replace the subtleties of surplus recycling with the assertiveness of conflict and conquest, wanting more globalization of a disappearing kind.

All politics around globalization then are based around the politics of inequality. The globalizers want a global poor and a global rich, a smooth system of capital flows where the power resides in those who direct these flows. The anti-globalizers, so called, want more inequality between the countries, and want to pursue the old politics of gunboat diplomacy, an extractive system that leaves enough to bribe their public and yet boost their profit. It is only a disagreement about means, not the end.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Career Indulgences and Getting Real

I am sure 'career indulgences' appears an oxymoron, there can't be such a thing!

But in my quest to do things I love, and also to work with people I like, I have created, at least, the possibility.

At this time, a penny-dropping moment of sorts, I am reflecting when I started indulging in dreams! And, indeed, there are many forkways to look back at, like these:

1. Walking out a secure job and an impending promotion, I jumped on the dotcom boat in 1998: Not many people around me were doing that at the time and I had no idea how to deal with investors and their contracts. 

2. A couple of years later, when the enterprise became boring and investors became bosses, I pursued my dreams of adventure - going to a country in the middle of political turmoil and business decline - and lived through bomb threats, general strikes and all that. 

3. When all that was sorted out and I had won, four years later, I gave up yet another promotion and promises of a predictable life to become adventurer again, landing up in the UK without a job in hand. 

4. Several years on, I got a foothold in the UK, with a decent job, a good boss and relationships and networks in the e-learning industry, and yet, I left to pursue a global network of training and recruitment centres, with an objective of turning English language from one of privilege to that of possibility.

5. Four years of incessant travel, and I wanted to combine the e-learning expertise with my global networks, and build a new kind of competency-based education delivered through learning technology. But instead of starting up, I went and joined a private college in London, large but facing an existential crisis at that time, with a plan to re-engineer the business model.

6. Three years later, I managed to save the college and help them sell to a new owner, but instead of going with it and working for new bosses, I decided to finally start-up, boot-strapping and living precariously, exploring the same dream of creating a global network.

7. Finally, after two years of living on overdrafts and credit cards, I decided to let one of our Chinese partners to take over the students and deliver remote education that we planned. Perhaps I was being too cautious: Perhaps we could have lived on the student money and save the business. But we felt that taking on students for two years is too big a risk, and did not want to gamble on getting future students to continue providing services. So, I took on a job - one with similar objectives, but diminished scope - in which I lived for the last three years.

One could call it stupidity - or, stupidities, if you prefer - or one could it adventure. One could label them career suicide - one can't possibly have multiple suicides - or one could call them enterprises. One could see indulgences, or one could hide all that behind serial something (being something serially has become more respectable: Newspapers talk more about serial entrepreneurs than serial killers these days). But one thing for sure: This is not the usual path of a fixed career that people usually pursue, with variable goals. I chose a fixed goal and had multiple careers trying to achieve the same. 

Yes, my invocation of Edison there may be a little weak, at least till I figured out which are ways of not doing it. I did understand some of my mistakes along the way. Some of these mistakes are shared sins, jumping in to Dotcom bandwagon, reading too much Red Herring magazine etc, far too common at the time. Yet others were very specific to my circumstances - trying to start out in 90s Calcutta, which was no silicon valley, and expecting all investors to be Vinod Khoslas - which I have understood and tried hard to change. But, there are some other mistakes which I have done along the way, appreciation of which, I believe, would help me get real. In particular, I can think of three 'signature mistakes' which I committed more than once, and these are worth mentioning as they may be easily avoidable:
1. Optimism: Optimism is one of those things: Can't live without it, and with it. Any project that I love, I am attached with it: By definition, I believe it can work. That belief is essential to make me commit to it, and without that commitment, it doesn't work. But optimism has lead me down the garden path at times. One of my mentors used to say, 'Hope is not a strategy', and I have failed to follow this sound advice at times.

2. Attachment: This is somewhat like optimism, but these are with people. It may not be obvious from my short stints at work, but I do get attached to people and form long friendships. I often say with pride that most people I have worked with in the past would work with me again. And, often, my descriptions about colleagues at work start with - I like him - which is not what one would usually talk about in work terms. Not that I regret this style or want to abandon this; but this is another thing that has led me down the garden path at times. I stayed when I should have left, and sometimes spent inordinate time in the futile quest of being a responsible leaver. I ignored the sound advice, from the same mentor I quote above, that once you have made your mind up to leave, it is best to focus on the next thing. I often spent time worrying about the relationships.

3. Desirability of Change: A few times, I assumed that since an organisation is in trouble, they would want to change. It seems optimism is my original sin, but this is still slightly different as this may seem like plain business logic. But change is never easy, whatever the management consultants say. And, indeed, change is even harder from inside. People in organisations are always living their past lives in an infinite loop, because if you are not clinging to the past, you would be outside the organisation which is on the wrong path. And, hence, even if the need for change is obvious, no one really wants to change. In fact, as I have now figured out, if an organisation needs changing, by definition the people in that organisation hate changing.

Indeed, all the three mistakes I cite above are double-edged problems. How does one do anything worthwhile without optimism? Or without connecting with people, or believing in change? This is indeed my get-real part, as I attempt to look to future with fresh eyes. My get-real strategy is based on three principles, corresponding to the three 'weaknesses' that I describe above:

1. Details As Deliverance: How to guard against this natural optimism that makes my world go around? I have met enough people in life, as you will expect, who would advise me to be cautious, even pessimistic: But those are people who never tried anything themselves and wheeled away their life in doing other people's bidding. To be real, the guard against optimism is not pessimism, but Details: I have learnt along the way to focus on the details. This allows me to go beyond the sentiments - both optimism and pessimism!

2. People are different from Organisations: Personal relationships are not the same as loyalty to doomed enterprises. Say I like someone I work with, and would rather help the person achieve their objective. However, supporting that person when I know it is not sustainable for him or for me is actually about postponing an inevitable rupture, a failure. I know walking away from an organisation is often seen as disloyalty to people involved, but it is not the same. I, in fact, know this, as I count among my dear friends people I have worked with in the past, and people who I have worked for, and that walking away hasn't destroyed the relationship. In fact, the only people I have struggled to maintain relationships with are those who I worked with well past the time I should have, confusing my personal loyalties with organisational ones.

3. A Different Change: I had given up, irreversibly, my earlier ideas - very Indian ones, I admit - that gradual change in organisations is possible. I have now come around to the view - more American, I suppose - that change has to be quick and decisive. While I don't support President Trump's politics, I can see why he attempted to make such a decisive break with earlier administration. I used to be dismissive with the 'First 90 days' kind of thing: I don't do it anymore. There is no comfortable change: All change is painful. As I look to future, I don't want to take on any enterprise where I don't have the mandate to do a fresh start, and build again. Or, even better, build fresh!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The British Ruling Classes and Their 20th Century History

Dr Liam Fox, the smooth talking Tory Secretary of International Trade, apparently tweeted, and then denied he 'tweeted', that "the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history".

To be fair, Dr Fox may not know what a 'tweet' is, and this is the work of an excited, unnamed social media intern. His claim that The Guardian twisted his words from an old speech, where he was talking about UK and EU, in a TV interview while the tweet itself was displayed on the screen.

However, there may be a method in this madness. The Tory politics is decidedly one of inauthenticity. Following some 20th Century masters of propaganda, like Joseph Goebbels (I am avoiding the H word) and Benito Mussolini, the strategy is to state an 'alternative fact' to energise the base, and then make all sorts of confusing noises in clarification, so that the whole discussion soon becomes meaningless. This is somewhat like Donald Trump, but not necessarily so, as Mr Trump and his team are usually blissfully ignorant of the alternative - the facts - and therefore, can stick to their version without confusion.

The Guardian offered to educate Dr Fox -  with a  list from the British 20th Century history - though this only contains the most obviously vile ones, and overlooks, for example, the British complicity in Greek-Turkish War and massacres and counter-massacres in Anatolia, or Munich 1938 and the surrender of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. However, one could expect a Brit to repeat history not through ignorance, but indifference, and apart from its politics, Dr Fox's tweets and subsequent tardiness only illustrate the special relationship between the British ruling classes and their 20th Century history.

I think the distinction I make here - British Ruling Classes as opposed to Dr Fox's 'The British - is an important one. Indeed, the British, a whole nation made of various diverse people, has nothing to apologise for, but that would apply to the Germans, the French, the Russians and every other nation. But the ruling classes, unless a clean break has been made, either through a revolution or atonement, carry the responsibility, because they enjoy the benefits of the past misdeeds.

The son of a thief may not go to jail for his parent's misdeeds, but when he enjoys the inheritance and celebrates his parent's enterprise, it becomes morally reprehensible. Mr Fox may not see it that way, but his tweet does exactly that: It celebrates the British Colonial History, and at the same time, tells that others may need to be apologetic about their history. Yes, indeed, Germans, Russians, Americans and everyone else may have a lot to apologise for, but the British may be in no position to claim the high ground.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why India Needs A New Higher Education

India is in the middle of a great transformation, driven by the aspirations of its young people.

This transformation is apparent to any visitor in India, primarily through its business parks and the towering apartment blocks, its new roads and its omnipresent media, the confidence of its leaders and its street vibe. India, the collective claims, is the country of the future.

And, this focus on the future is playing out in its education system. The country has affected an unprecedented expansion of its education system - unprecedented for India, though following the example of and in a smaller scale than China - particularly in Higher and Vocational education. This is the most exciting part of the transformation:  new education in India is built to create a whole new India, a fresh new future.

This educational transformation, however, needs a new imagination. India's future is unlikely to be like India's past, and even recent past, all those Call Centres and IT Hubs, is unlikely to be the template for this future. The world has changed - since 2008, but even more rapidly off late - and being world's back-office is already an outdated aspiration. But, more crucially, India has moved on - its young people are emboldened to dream new dreams and are not content to accept a second rung role in the world! It may be that the earlier generations, the current generations of parents, are still recovering, from the experience of precarious India of the 80s and 90s; they are still hankering after a little security and a promise, now increasingly illusory, of a stable job and career. But this is not the reality, and the future, for the current generation of students.

India's educational transformation, so far, has been doing more of the same old thing. The expansion came in the form of inflating of two bubbles - that of business school and engineering education - at the cost everything else. It did not matter that only a quarter of the students in these supposedly vocationally focused streams got jobs: The rest had to join the Great Indian Enterprise Show like everyone else from all other streams of life! Regardless of all this, the educational conversations in India, wholly and singularly, revolved around the Engineering and Business school entrance examinations, and the stunted experiences that follow.

But the times are changing: Jobs are changing, Indian economy is changing and aspirations are changing. The process jobs, which the Engineering schools prepared for, are disappearing, giving in to the robots and software bots who are nimbler, cheaper and local. Indian economy, at least those of the cities, are hurtling towards the middle income trap, where its cost advantages disappear and skills differentials start hurting. And, the Internet communication, satellite television and foreign travel and non-resident relatives and friends are opening the horizons for Indian students, wanting to do more than just grunt work for the Western companies. Yes, it is that moment when the wonderful Hindi-English expression 'Yeh Dil Mange More' - this heart wants more - sounds perfectly apt.

There are already some efforts - like the Ashoka University's efforts to create a Liberal Arts educated intelligentsia, or Indian business schools opening campuses in Singapore and Dubai to create more innovative programmes potentially incorporating foreign partnerships (ostensibly to avoid India's misguided regulatory controls on foreign education) - but the innovation has not still reached out to everyman. However, I shall claim, that this paradigm - that it is only the very rich who cares about innovation and new types of educational option - is misguided, and informed by the same-old thinking of an hierarchical India of ideas. The demand for new, innovative, world-class education is much more widespread - it is no longer a luxury but an economic necessity - and its supply is likely to create its own demand.

So, time to go beyond the Engineering and Business School bubbles. Indeed, technical education is not going to go away, and India needs more science education, not less. But it needs to be placed in a different context. In fact, this is the key reason why we need a different kind of Higher Education: Because the context has changed.

Most Higher Education in India today are designed around one of three models of thinking.

First, there is an ecosystem of State universities, state-supported or Church-administered private institutions, a legacy of the British India. These institutions are designed to educate civil servants, evolving from but still loosely based around the colonial ideas and models of education: patriarchal, patronising and aimed at professions. This context is passé, but the institutional form proved durable, propped up by the Indian preference of continuity over disruption.

Second, there is an overlapping ecosystem of Central technical institutions, funded by the federal rather than state governments, built around educating technocrats to occupy the 'commanding heights of the economy': A hangover from India's aspirations to build a planned economy. Indeed, this experiment has failed and the system has become a conduit of taxpayer funded brain-drain. But these institutions remain at the core of India's educational imagination - every kid aspire to get in for an easy access to America - though the Indian state has irretrievably changed.

And, finally, this system is supplemented by more recent additions of a large number of private, state-sanctioned, technical institutions, tied closely with the expansion of global service economy in India, since the 1980s. This is a third layer, still influenced by the previous models but without the aspirations of the second wave, still closely tied to Western ideas of development.

This is indeed an approximation, and admittedly, I have excluded notable examples of private charities, research institutions and institutions set up in reaction to the colonial mind control, such as the Benaras Hindu University, Annamalai University, Jadavpur University or Viswabharati University. These are all important institutions, though they are more exceptions than rules, and indeed, the institutions set up in protest of the colonial paradigm were subsumed by the planned economy paradigm that came after independence. Their existence do not invalidate the point I am trying to make: That for the last two centuries, Indian Higher Education has evolved around a futile quest to shape its mind around the West. In fact, those experiments prove my point: That education reformers since the late nineteenth century tried to contextualise Indian education to India, and tried to break the servile relationships of the colonial mind.

However, my case for reforming Indian Higher Education and making a new start is not based on, as is fashionable in some quarters in India now, a quest for a new Gurukul, a fantastical quest for an 'Indian' system. I do not believe that going back to the past is possible, and profitable. I am rather arguing for an education system grounded to the realities of the present and future time, in alignment with India's economic imperatives and social and political priorities, something that would enable a new generation of Indians think differently about their place in the world, rather than bolt the door in the quest of a misplaced security in disengagement.

In this, my suggestion is to use Asia as a context. This is not about Asia that is seen through the Western eyes, an exotic oriental geography, but about using what some Chinese theorists would call 'Asia as a method': A recognition of India's essential Asianness, and exploring and defining what this means for a way of looking at the world. This is about discovering our past affinities and relationships with neighbourly countries and cultures, and re-imagination of coexistence and cooperation as a framework, rather than the competition and survival-of-the-fittest paradigm that we have come to accept. This would be about studying Asia, and India in it, rather than trying to build around India as an unique, and exceptionalist, entity, European-style. And, indeed, to realise India's economic future within Asia! 

I believe such re-framing is needed at a time when Indian Higher Education is expanding in a rapid pace. Currently, it is spreading the ideas of subservience - those who do not speak English are deemed unsmart, those who do not support an English football club or not seen a Hollywood movie (or its rip-offs in Hindi) are outcast - and creating, just as the Colonial education system once did, a social chasm and an economic dependence. Reconstituting a new context - one that is more in alignment with Indian past, its multicultural tradition of intermingling with Arabs and the Mongolians are deliberately played down - would make education more Indian again.



Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Hinduvta Hegemony

Today's election results in five Indian states may or may not be noticed by the world media, but they are, in a way, no less significant than the Brexit vote or Trump's victory in November. These election results indicate a shift in politics of a major country, which India is, with its huge population, growing economy, large military and preeminence among the G20. And, while the 2014 election win of the Bharatiya Janata Party (hereafter, BJP) and Narendra Modi becoming India's Prime Minister was more momentous and newsworthy than these elections, they still complete and confirm the process of change that was underway since.

Admittedly, the results of these elections are mixed. Of the five states that went into poll, Indian National Congress (INC) and BJP, with their respective allies, controlled two states each, and another, the biggest one, was ruled by a large, caste-based, regional party, the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party, or SP). The BJP has now gained two states and lost two, while Congress has got back to power in Punjab, a surprise and a state won back from BJP and its allies, and emerged as the largest party in two other states but slightly short of majority. It has lost badly in Uttarakhand, which it ruled for many years and where it was crippled by defection. However, all of these almost do not matter as Congress has lost, and lost badly, to BJP in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where it was a minnow and was never going to win, because this is India's most populous state, with lots of seats in the two chambers of Indian parliament. And, this is what matters.

In a way, Congress should even be celebrating, because, after today, they may have got some footing as India's main opposition party. In a sad narrative of decline, even the number two position was in question, with the rise of various local parties. That Congress could win the elections in Punjab, a northern state where most people are Sikhs, in Goa, a Southern state where most people are Christians, and in Manipur, in the far corner of North-eastern India with a large tribal population, gives it a preeminence over the other local parties with a narrow agenda. But, sadly for Congress, this is not the story anyone would notice: It is the UP, a state where it was always going to lose, would dominate the conversation.

And, rightly so. UP,  being the most populous, sends most parliamentarians, and BJP win there would mean an eventual shift of balance in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, where BJP still does not have a majority. This would, eventually, give Mr Modi an unprecedented advantage: No Prime Minister, since the end of Congress Hegemony in Indian politics in 1989, enjoyed majorities in both houses of Parliament. And, these majorities would be big enough even to bring in Constitutional change. In short, the UP victory finally seals a Hinduvta Hegemony in India.

There are some Facebook lamentations about the end of Liberal India. I am not sure how far the INC can be called Liberal, and how far, given their chronic inability to look beyond the predominance of one family, they should be seen even as a normal political party. Whatever it seemed from outside, the UP election was fought along the caste and religious lines. Congress was never going to win: Their only contribution in the result was to enter in an ill-advised alliance that allowed a consolidation of upper caste Hindu vote, making the defeat looks grimmer. Liberalism was not on the ballot, and therefore, its death should not be mourned.

In fact, BJP under Mr Modi is classic neo-Liberal, and should be seen as that. Socially conservative and business friendly, it is a party that represents the interests of big business in India. It has found, in Mr Modi, a figure to rally around, and it has triumphed, with a clear message aimed at Indian middle classes: Development! Despite the mishmash of results, the biggest story is the rise of 'Hindu vote': This was the tactic Mr Modi successfully followed in 2014, and now he has done it again. 

Indeed, BJP has not invented the Caste and Religious voting block idea - that distinction belongs to Congress and regional parties like SP - but it has become its most successful practitioner, particularly by turning the (high) caste Hindus into a voting block. The Caste Hindus are numerous - though they are not the majority of the population - and they are disproportionately represented in education, employment, policy making and professions in India. They have, like professional classes, always had divided loyalties, whereas the other castes, and religious minorities, often voted en bloc. Mr Modi's two-tone politics - a public message of development supplemented by religious zealotry of his followers, which he rarely censors - successfully outflanked the parties dependent on caste or minority voting blocks, by uniting the Educated Hindus interested in 'development at any cost' with their less tolerant coreligionists, interested in a different agenda. The Congress, still out of favour with educated Indians for the corruption and incompetence of their administration (2004 - 2014), is completely out of sorts in a country of young strivers as they stick to dynastic privileges, and it has no answers to this Hinduvta Hegemony.

I am indeed no admirer of Mr Modi, but I recognise that public memory is fickle and moral objections are quaint. While I feared for the Indian Republic when Mr Modi got elected in 2014, such fears do not resonate with the voting public, who have more urgent, and more material, concerns. Besides, the consistent lack of political sense in Congress, and their slavish devotion to the family, makes them a lost cause, at least at the present moment. In a world where Mr Trump is the President of United States, and Marine Le Pen gets a serious consideration, Mr Modi is no anomaly, and indeed, a politician of merit in comparison. However, the current political setting in India should make people like me reconsider their position in one important way: Our key assumption that India is secular socialist democratic republic facing a challenge from Hindu nationalism is outdated, and it is time to think of Indian politics as one of hegemonic Hindu democracy, and reframe political ideas and conversations around the same.



Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Imagine the Enterprise: The Product Question

Here is a conversation in preparation: What have I learnt about Product Development through my years of hustle in my quest to build Education-to-Employment and Education-to-Enterprise pathways?

Three things, essentially.

1. Most Start-Ups fail because they over-engineer the product. 

It is the quest of perfect product that kills most start-ups. Of course, this is what Steven Gary Blank and the conversation around Lean Start-up is all about. 

However, I think this problem is not just about the cost, but about the culture it implicitly builds. One can argue that if the monies are available, costs of product development should not be a huge problem. 

But, even if product development is well resourced, too much focus on it creates a number of other fatal problems: 

First, it makes product introductions really slow, and makes the company fall behind in fast-moving markets. 

Second, and more crucially, this creates an inward-looking culture, where the feedback from clients and sales team are mostly ignored, and often products are built which no one wants to buy. 

And, finally, this creates a value asymmetry - the company's own estimation of the value of the product psychologically diverges from the value proposition seen by the customers.

2.  There are challenges of going Lean in Education

However, the popular alternative to this - going lean and developing products in iterative steps - is challenging in Education. This is because of regulatory as well as ethical considerations: Offering something which is sub-par will never meet the regulatory approval, and this may be plain unethical depending on what's on offer and how critically it can impact the learner.

In short, lean, minimum viable product and iterative development are alien to the conversations in education. People who work there will never be comfortable with these concepts. Someone told me that there can not be a 'half-cooked' curriculum, and she was surely right. Quality is the buzzword in education - whatever it means - and redundancy is the norm.

3. Who's in charge matters most

The Product Development question therefore needs to be re-framed in Education: It is not about going lean, but developing a model of market-responsive development. It is, as I tried to explain, a culture question.

So, it matters who is in charge. There are two kinds of people in any organisation leading product development, deciding what should be built and for whom. 

In technology organisations, this is always the Engineers' prerogative. The reasons are obvious: Technologies are complex! The market-responsiveness of tech industry somewhat comes through the people who work in user interface, an important but subordinate function. No wonder that over-building is a problem here, and Lean is the new mantra.

In contrast, in banks, too often, it is the sales people. In this world, the risk managers and quants people are crucial, but their important roles serve the sales imperative, rather than the opposite. Indeed, this is why banks drive over the edge, all too often some would say.

This two-cultures divide is seen as an East Coast-West Coast divide in America. But one should not forget the most iconic tech industry leaders were all salesmen extraordinaire: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos...

In Education, the regulatory imperative puts Educators in charge of curriculum development. This culture also rules the world I live in - a world of education innovation led by businesses - and the industry has its own penny-dropping moment and soul-searching about how to create more market responsive products. They can't bring themselves to be like bankers, and yet, over-engineering is killing too many businesses.

So, the answer  

The East Coast-West Coast, Banking vs Technology or Education, is of course a false divide. I used them as they make good illustrative points. Banks are heavily regulated, and technology industry is one working with least constraints, and in both worlds, lawyers call the shot. The point is to strike the balance between dishing out sub-par offerings and building extravagant monstrosities no one wants. In the education innovation context, the task is that much more complex: The customers still do not know what they want, and the regulators do not want to see beyond the rulebook. It is all too busy to build things utterly out of step, and make so with the misplaced confidence that this is going to be the thing which everyone wants to queue up to buy. 

My answer will be to have a marketing leadership of the product development process. The highly regulated environment ensures, in practise, that all products are at least built to a minimal level, and operates with an automatic aversion of risks. A marketing leadership of product development, sufficiently committed to long term health of the organisation and accountable for a broad range of performance goals (and not just revenue), should be ideal to strike the delicate balance that an innovative education company would really need. 

Monday, March 06, 2017

Citizen of the World or Citizen of Nowhere?

If Margaret Thatcher's legacy is sealed as "there is no such thing as society", Theresa May may have already given us something to remember her for: "But if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere."

This is, she may claim later, taking her words of out of context. She said, to be exact:  "But if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don't understand what citizenship means." Justifiably, she could claim, at a later and calmer time, that she was merely defining citizenship. However, she meant this to be a soundbite, and it is a good one: And, therefore, it can be taken in its more provocative sense, as it was meant for that.

We are at a day and age where many people may indeed want to think of themselves as citizens of the world. They want to be footloose, live in different countries, have relationships across national boundaries, learn different languages and work in different places. And, indeed, with the Internet, one may have deeper conversations and closer friends across boundaries rather than next door. This is just for global bankers: For students, junior employees, entrepreneurs, writers and artists, life is very global.

In context, one may not necessarily know whether to be offended or amused by what Ms May said. She is doing what nationalists do, invoking blood, honour and sacrifice, all the mythologies of British greatness. She is the deliverer-in-chief of Brexit, and at her heart, a little Englander: She is bound to say what she said. The offencive thing about this barb is not meant for all those rich Chinese and Indians who park their money in London Real Estate, Ms May is happy for them to be World-loving, but it is meant for those British students and city-dwellers who never fully understood the schism with Europe. Ms May is indeed accusing them for failing to comprehend the incomprehensible, as she is rebuking them for being a Citizen of the World but wanting the country to be Global Britain at the same time.

One could also be amused by her attempt at defining Citizenship. She believes one can be a citizen of Britain - an imagined community - but can not imagine any bigger. But there is something ironic here, because she gives away that citizenship is a top-down thing. So, while she invokes the issue of commitment, she, at the same time, making it an issue of governmental paper which her government can issue or take away. If those lofty and meaningless words give away anything, it is that she was the Home Secretary far too long.

So, is Citizenship of the World possible? We may say that the ancient Greek definition, which was about belonging to a City, is not acceptable to us, as our world is economically and technologically more complex. At the same token though, Ms May's definition of citizenship, bound to nation state bureaucracies, may be equally out of date. As I mentioned above, with work, love, conversations, knowledge and kinship truly spread across the world, it is perfectly possible to be a citizen of the world today.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

On The Reckless Mind: Tyranny and Freedom

I have been reading Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind (New York Review of Books, 2016), which is an insightful portrait of six intellectuals in Politics. Lilla's broad point is that seeking the purity of ideas in the messy practicum of the political world is a hazardous enterprise. This has led - whether inspired by enlightenment reason or by religious passions for a new beginning - to tyranny, or philosophies in the service of tyranny, which Lilla calls 'philotyranny'. In Lilla's vision, the love of ideas, the pure passion, more often than not, turn to ideologies, sacrificing freedom in the quest of a perfection that is both unknowable and unattainable. In this, his ideas are not too far from those of the American pragmatists, John Dewey in particular, for whom ideas turning into ideologies was the cardinal sin of our time.

I came away, however, with another thought: That tyranny is somewhat our original condition, basis of our moral thought. Whether we think in terms of Freudian super-ego, or Darwin's ideas of the evolution of human consciousness, at the core of our moral being is our extended childhood, uniquely long for a human, reigned over by parents, loving or cruel, but always tyrannical. In parenting, Carl Schmitt's 'decisionism' is normal: A sovereign sphere where the lines of good and bad is clearly drawn, and arbitrariness is the usual condition. At the centre of our moral experience, therefore, is this overlordship, benign and benevolent in most cases.

And, this moral thinking is codified in the various institutions we have created. They stand both for the power - it is the powerful who design them - and the consent that legitimises that power - our acceptance. Indeed, democracy itself is one such institution, a system of proxies that abrogates people's power into a state or a constitution. The object of such sovereignty is to rule - to create a world of limits within which we must live safely ensconced - and not freedom. Lack of democracy does not automatically mean the gulag - though it sometimes did - and democratic institutions do not automatically guarantee freedom.

Freedom, in this reading, is not a human condition, but an aspiration. Like the desire of the child to steal a little inattention in the middle of parental disciplining, a moment of play, we seek to be free. But freedom is lonely, messy and even dangerous, our frail physique and emotive minds are hardly prepared for it: It is a limit-experience for human existence. We codify this in human institutions too: We endow them with transcendental goals, we seem them as new beginnings and we celebrate progress in them. But what they give, and are designed to give, is safety and not liberty, and this dialectic is at the centre of all our aspiring and failings.

In this book, Plato's observation that Eros, passions, are at the centre of all human ideas - of philosophy as well as the impulse to rule - and so his idea of a philosophical life is an engaged indifference. The philosopher must remain engaged in conversation with the world - academic philosophy and disciplinary language achieved the opposite, at least since the nineteenth century - but indifferent to the passions of the human mind, particularly those of public acclaim. Without the philosopher, the tyranny of morality is unchecked and the aspiration of freedom is a mere rhetoric, as it is in our time. 



Thursday, March 02, 2017

Comrade Corbyn's Crisis

When facts change.. 

I enthused when Labour Party chose Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. It promised an escape from politics as usual, a break from the smooth-talking career politicians who came to dominate the Labour Party. It heralded an age of authenticity, which was missing from the politics of the left. A break, finally, I thought, from the weather-cock politics of the Blair-Cameron era!

Indeed, it was too good to be true, and I did not trust the Labour Party to change. A Blairite revolt was on the card, and it came almost immediately as posh politicians refused to serve in the shadow cabinet. Almost unbelievably, though, it never stopped - resurfaced again and again, whether in eagerness to bomb Syria or to overturn the members' mandate on the pretext of Brexit - and continued to demonstrate how Labour Party has become an apparatus without a purpose. While the career politicians ploughed on with the fantasist argument that someone else, who the Labour members won't vote for, is more electable than Mr Corbyn, I lived through periods of outrage and waited for dawning of authenticity.

But this never came. Rather, it is politics as usual that claimed Corbyn. His stylistic revolutions failed to go beyond the superficial, and the shallowness of the imagination was all too apparent when the big political questions arose. The existential problem of Labour - a party of working class when Working Class is no more - demanded not just authentic leadership, but an imaginative one: someone who could see the challenges of today not through the commitments of the past but in engaging with the future. Without this, the Corbyn moment was hopelessly doomed between the nationalism of the Tory Right and Nationalism of the SNP Left, one that was too bogged down in clarifying old questions to notice the emergent ones.

So, when politics changed, it was clueless. EU is no doubt a 'neo-liberal' institution committed to expansion of financial capitalism, benefiting certain sectors in the UK, such as London and its Financial Services, while wrecking a havoc elsewhere, particularly in local communities in industrial wastelands of the Northern England. However, for a political party like Labour, which is deeply scarred by the superficialism of the Blair era, the alternative - nationalism - was a bigger threat for the future. A politician stuck inside the Marxist cannon may easily miss this, but the debate around Brexit was not just technical, but highly emotional. Labour proved incapable to providing any hope - perhaps it lacked hope in itself - that an alternative future of international solidarity is possible, that Welfare state can be rescued, and it is the Tory government, rather than the EU, which is the biggest stumbling block in the way to Banking reform and unfettered power of a few over the many. Playing Cameron's second fiddle, the Labour under Corbyn lost its way and its identity, reaffirming the Party-without-a-Purpose sobriquet.

However, an even bigger crisis has come now, and Mr Corbyn, sticking to his nineteenth century playbook, has hopelessly walked into it. In his desperation to discover the missing working class, he has now committed to 'deliver Brexit for people' instead of delivering them from it. To prove that he has leadership mojo in him, he is now intent on delivering Brexit for Theresa May's Tories, at any cost. Utterly devoid of a vision, his team offers no ideas, not even a few words to add to the Spartan text of Brexit bill. And, against this pathetic Labour, everyone else seem heroic: The SNP, despite the Nationalist in their name, looks internationalist; Liberal Democrats, despite their history of collusion, contrarians; Ken Clark, despite his age, hopeful; Theresa May, despite her incompetence, in charge; the Eurosceptic Tories, patriotic; even Boris Johnson courageous enough to lie for his cause and George Osborn fair-minded despite his crustiness. And, just as the Labour Party thought it has swatted away the Brexit fly, it has squarely landed back in their lap yet again, with the House of Lords attempting to guarantee the rights of the EU citizens living in Britain.

Indeed, this is the right thing to do. These are people, who are legally living in Britain, and any transition must take into account. The river-of-blood Tories may envision a population transfer of the kind they inflicted on India (and on many other places), but that will destroy lives and destabilise economies. The argument of the Tory government that guaranteeing their rights without corresponding assurances from the EU for British citizens living there would weaken the negotiating position is apparent nonsense: It is Britain who wants to leave EU and therefore, it is incumbent on the British government to make the first move. This threat is also counter-productive, as this allows EU to grab the moral high ground. The only cynical reason behind this could be that the British government wants to use this issue to divide EU countries - citizens of friendly countries get to stay - but, in a true Tory manner, this approach does not take human costs into account.

The House of Lords, the higher chamber not beholden to electoral fortunes, has done the thing they are for: Rejected this utterly cynical stance! But this has accentuated the Brexit crisis for labour: Where does Comrade Corbyn now hide? Indeed, politics has changed him and he has become the same reed-in-the-wind politician, betraying the hope of authentic politics that we once had. But while he was carrying on the pretencion, his pathetic guilelessness is now in the open. That politics of Britain is no longer Tory or Labour, but structured around the fissures of Europe, and now is posed as an existential question to the Labour leadership: Are they in favour of a population transfer, driving out not the rich bankers - bankers always get their way - but poor Polish plumbers, Italian waiters and Spanish students out of Britain? House of Lords may or may not get their way, but they have at least forced  judgement day on Corbyn and his team.


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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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