By Vijay Sanghvi
American economist Martin Friedman shook the world in the last century by his statement “Concept of democracy was born of the economics,” in an article in a reputed American newspaper. This compelled the intelligentsia to turn pages of history to find evidence that could justify such an assertion. They did not succeed but at the same time could not believe that a reputed economist like Friedman would make a stray assertion without evidence.
Economics gained importance in Europe that too after the industrial revolution in the 17th century. It travelled to America but countries like, India, China and the Middle East remained immune to the issues of economic growth. They continued to move on without any grounding of democratic concepts inherent in the early ages when humans settled near rivers or lakes. A single chosen individual guided their lives by virtue of his or her strength and intelligence. He or she always heard opinions and views of others before giving their own command. It was a raw form of democratic functioning.
Almost three centuries before the Christian era, the Roman Republics elected bodies of rich men and women to run the townships. In the Indian subcontinent, small states known as Gan Sangh, meaning ruled by citizens existed. Residents of Gan Sangh regardless of their status in the society had a right to express his or her personal views before the Panchayat. It was democratic functioning while economics was confined to small handicrafts and supplies essentials to non-producers.
Power was an integral part of survival. Power was an essential need and the society needed the exercise of power. The systems of use of power underwent changes over the era from chosen one man as head of kings and emperors of a large area under command. Many kings were benevolent or sadists by nature. In the era of the Christ, Gan Sangh existed along with Empires. Trades flourished in Empires as they were the main source of revenue generation for Empires. Emperor Ashoka in second century BC became most generous to undertake spread of Buddhist teachings not only across India but outside India as well but without any attempt to suppress teachings of other religions.
Political and social changes in Europe in 17th Century — no doubt came up in the wake of the new economics. Man learnt techniques of building the means of production instead of entirely depending on means of production dictated by nature. This brought forward the need for expanding trade. Sea routes offered a challenge for exploitation. By the middle of the 18th century, most major empires of Europe had settlements in distant continents of East. The need for expanding trade beyond a country’s borders motivated men to resist foreign settlers or intruders whose main aim was to make the local population work for them as bonded labors at minimum costs.
There are essential differences in the ways of life prescribed by religions and demanded by practicalities. Faith, hope and charity were considered to be essential ingredients for religious pursuits. However, practicalities demand deference, justice and equality.
These ideas dominated life in the West, particularly after Magna Carta charter was accepted in 1339. Originally the agreement recommended no atrocities against any free man but its area of coverage was later extended to every human, free or slave. For the first time, there was a larger agreement that even slaves were humans even though they were not able to lead a life at their will. Bondage did not allow such freedom.
Perhaps Cromwell who led the rebellion in Britain can be credited with the concept of democracy. His rebellion ensured an end to powers vested in the royalty and its transfer to parliamentarians. King even though accepted as head of the state was divested of all powers including of proposing and imposing new taxes without the endorsement of parliament.
The reform did not change the structure of power though it brought about a change in implementation process. A wider sanction was now necessary for any new legislation. It did not become universal as the right for electing the representation was still confined to men with established financial stability. Even in France, the revolution denuded the royalty of its power but it was established again by Napoleon Bonaparte, a General originally from an island under France but not of French origin. He reestablished a new royalty by becoming the Emperor. He successful crusades to bring other territories under the Empire became a deterrent to raising a voice against his betrayal of the cause of French Revolution. Thus he had stifled the concept of the popular rule even before it was born.
The rapid changes in the economic structures did have their impact on the political structures and social relations. For centuries, courtiers ruled with the pleasure of royalty standing behind them. It made them immune to social legislation. They had their independent empires in their estates. Men and women served them as bonded serfs with an unwritten law that no estate would take in any runaway serf from another state. This ensured bonded serfs with no chance of survival. The rapid economic growth made possible due to man acquiring ability to create means of mass production opened avenues for employment. New commercial class emerged to push the old aristocracy into the background.
Estates collapsed as their serfs ran away to cities where enough opportunities for employment. Old courtiers were replaced with new wealthy representatives as they contributed to the state revenue. The economy moved upward to displace old traditions in new social construction. The decaying aristocracy could not forgive emerging commercial class but it was also helpless as the royalties had turned their ears to another side. The changes brought in the individualism.
The new commercial class made its contribution to the state revenue and asserted its right to be independent in its pursuit of trade. It helped royalties to expand their territories buy undertaking adventurous missions to expand their trade with royal armies attending to their protection. The protections were converted into political domination to ensure trade rights remain exclusive to merchants of the empire. It gave leverage to traders to assert as individuals for they had the key to the state revenue in their hand. The political authority could not bypass or sidetrack them. To an extent, the individualism acted as a restraint.
The growth of individualism was even more ancient but through a different route in India. It was in two religions that emerged as corrective to the existing religion with rampant corruption prevailing among those who pretended to be the agents of divinity. Both religions directly or indirectly suggested there was no god. Only good or bad actions decided the fate. There was no need for mediators or middlemen in seeking final salvation that was in permanent escape from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Both Buddhism and Jainism called it Nirvana. Thus everyone was told to stand as individual and alone as salvation cannot be sought collectively. It was an individual act. Bend with courtesy to every human being but surrender to none. None included royalty or political authority. Every human was told in 5th century BC to be individual.
The arrival of individualism with the advent of the far-reaching changes in the economy was denoted by the fact that artists, particularly painters began to sign their paintings, their creation from the 17th century. Earlier paintings did not bear names of artists. They remained unknown. However, paintings from the 17th century onwards bear their names at the end or at the back. Even musical compositions and dance dramas are identified with names of creators but not earlier creations. Stories of Robin hood and like a hero in every empire denotes the fact that young were willing to risk their lives to seek justice for others. They people for whom they gambled their lives were unknown.
Yet in a new era of economics, owners of means of production were not willing to part with due share to humans who toiled for them. They rejoiced in amassing personal wealth. Why did such non-charitable view prevailed is difficult to explain? It was treated as injustice. Fear of loss among small traders also led to rise in acts of violence known as Luddites. Extension of it was in promoting the idea of converting toilers into owners by means of production so that exploitation of labor can be eliminated. Apparently, Karl Marx had not devoted his attention to the psychological patterns that emerge from ownership. The moment human becomes an owner, even if he may have been a toiler until yesterday he adopts the same attitude that was cause of his mental torture in his earlier role.
It is difficult to make out which kind of democracy Milton Friedman had in his mind when he wrote the controversial statement. The American capitalism had a free run without any encumbrances from the form of democracy that prevailed for two and half centuries since America adopted its constitution. It guaranteed life liberty and pursuit of happiness to all but not voting rights. The franchise was reserved only for economically established men. All others including women were debarred. The elected representatives were under no pressure to think of and work for economically disadvantaged people. It allowed an unrestricted run to capitalism and expansion of business from small to large units. There were no obligations to meet social development demands of working class. Even the strong unions were unable to force their demands.
However, the Supreme Court introduced a new concept of universal franchise in 1963 to bring in crisis the unhindered growth pattern for those who had minted millions. They were forced to share out large parts for their workers. It was the true form of democracy. Cant it be that Friedman commented that the economy as it was run in America for two and half centuries was responsible for bringing in the true and faithful form of democracy for all and not only for economically established men?
The victim of the free run to capitalism was compassion and consciousness for others. The denial of proper returns for labor so that workers could get more comforts and bring up their children better with proper upbringing and education was the law for two hundred fifty years. The sufferers did not protest as they saw no gains in the society that had no history nor its own culture except the drawn firearms. America was inhabited by a wide variety of Europeans who had fled from their homes and their lands leaving behind, their own culture, their literature and history as well as ways of placid life. They had come to new land, vast expanses that were inhabited by few million ancient people who can be tamed, won over and eliminated by modern weapons so their lands can be taken over. The new culture was in the fast draw of firearm and fire before the opponent could pull his trigger. It was game of survival and the fast fingers survived. That speed came to other aspects of life. Thus American became a land totally different from the slow-moving pace of life in their original lands. The new American literature runs on speed and not on realities of life. It tells the story of people.